On Snow Days and Rock ‘n’ Roll Reminiscences

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Last week, I was stuck in World’s Fair Park with no legally advisable way to get out.

Downtown construction and infrastructure repair is wreaking havoc on my parallel-parking habit. Until lately, there has always been a cheap metered spot open somewhere, just a matter of finding it. I park all day for seat-cushion change. Lately, though, with so many meters bagged with tow-away warnings, I’ve had to improvise.

On days when I think I can get my downtown work done quickly, I patronize the four-hour free parking at the north end of World’s Fair Park. Despite the previous day’s modest snow, it was wide open and parking was easy.

Part of its charm is that it makes a pleasant walk by a playground and war memorial and fountains. You can even see art through the windows of the art museum. On a sunny day, going to work is a stroll in the park.

But that day, the 41 stairs up to the Clinch Avenue viaduct were “Closed Due to Ice.”

I walked to the long set of doors to the Holiday Inn lobby and escalators. Open to the public for decades, they now require a room key to access. I don’t always carry one of those.

Okay, I thought, have it your way, I’ll just take the big concrete steps by the convention center. They were open, on the bottom level. Judging by the footprints in the snow, a couple of hundred people were ahead of me. There was ice, but there were railings. The main trick is to be partly sober.

But the steps curve between the Sunsphere and the Knoxville Convention Center, and only when I was halfway up could I could see that there was stern yellow tape across the top. No advisory, or suggested alternate route. Just the tape. Perhaps the mere existence of a nickel’s worth of yellow caution tape protects a city from a costly lawsuit.

If ice is a hazard, a tape at the top of a set of icy concrete steps, at waist level, adds to the hazard considerably, especially for a fellow over 50. 

But the important thing to lawyers is its message: “You can’t say we didn’t warn you. You can walk back down the icy steps and back across the park to the parking lot, and drive your car back out. To some other city perhaps.”

I climbed over it without arrest. Finally downtown, my destination, the library, was closed. The History Center was closed, too. They were closed the next day, too, and the next. The snow was conspicuous for one day. The libraries were closed for four.

Newcomers routinely ascribe Knoxville’s skittishness to the fact that it’s in “the South,” and therefore snow is a bizarre and frightening concept. I blame it on the 1970s, when the city and county school and library systems were consolidated, and the threshold for closing lowered. Countywide, there are lots of sharp turns and steep hills, and things can seem treacherous, even while things in town, give or take a few caution tapes, are pretty easy.

I could complain, but I still had a column to write, if maybe not the one I was going to research in the library. Hence I now turn to the Reader Mailbag. As it turns out, a lot of recent reader response is about what folks talk about on bar patios: legendary pop-music performances.

Last fall, I wrote about the barely remembered Knoxville concert of Nina Simone, a brief reference to which startled some who saw the recent documentary about the iconic pianist and vocalist. With the help of a couple of witnesses, we nailed down that it was at the university’s Alumni Hall in November 1964, right after an Ole Miss game. A couple of witnesses agreed that something went wrong with the show—one recollecting that it was woefully underattended, one that it was so short it may have been only two or three songs.

Attorney Greg O’Connor was a UT student then. His memory differs from those who recall a scantly attended show. “What I remember is that there were quite a few people there. She played for a while, and then she got mad.” She stood up and blessed the audience out for not paying attention. He thinks she played one full set—more than a couple of songs—and then, at what would have been intermission, walked off stage and didn’t come back. “She was a tough lady,” he concludes.

Other remarks about shows pertain to last week’s column about the Civic Coliseum, which I think witnessed mostly Anglo-American pop culture of the postwar era.

Correspondent David Myers, who often has an interesting perspective on things, remembers that Rolling Stones show—which, judging by the mention of it in Keith Richards’ memoir, was memorable even for the lads themselves. David added a detail that the opener was 22-year-old Stevie Wonder. Any other contenders for the best rock show in Knoxville history?

But he has another, foggier memory, of seeing Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash in 1967, at the Coliseum, too. He doesn’t remember exactly when. I’ve never run across that, though someone once sent me a surprising account of Redding performing for a radio-station event in a field on the outskirts of town. Anyone remember any of those?

A couple of folks asked me whether David Bowie ever performed here. His riskiest work would have fit in at Big Ears, but I regret Bowie’s Knoxville show probably never happened. A couple of his close collaborators have performed in Knoxville, including punk godfather Iggy Pop and experimental guitarist-composer Brian Eno, sometimes in surprisingly small venues—the former at Hobo’s on the Strip in 1982, the latter at the short-lived Old City phenomenon known as Ella Guru’s. Eno has also played at the Bijou.

Stephen, another reader, recalls that Bob Dylan’s 1965 Coliseum show was half acoustic, half electric. Regarding the recent death of Glenn Frey, I was keeping an eye out for whether the Eagles performed there, but didn’t notice it in the files. However, Stephen recalls seeing the Eagles there at their height, in 1977.

So there. The library’s open now. I’ll finish that column and run it next week.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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