Thursday, August 16, 2018

Hank's Cadillac

Constructed of Indiana limestone, New Union Station opened for 
operation in 1919. It was later renamed Broad Street Station. 
The building now serves as the Science Museum of 
Virginia. The image is from the VCU Library’s 
Rarely Seen Richmond postcard collection.

The first train is said to have pulled out of the station at 1:07 p.m. on January 6, 1919. Designed by John Russell Pope, what was originally known as New Union Station was constructed on the site of what had been the Hermitage Country Club. A partnership of two railroad companies, the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and the Atlantic Coast Line, built the station to satisfy the growing city’s needs. Later the station was renamed Broad Street Station and the Norfolk & Western line also came to use it.

Directly across the street, at 2501 West Broad Street, the William Byrd Hotel opened in 1925. The 12-story hotel catered to travelers heading north and south. At the other end of the block the Capitol Theater opened for business a couple of years later. It was the first movie theater in Richmond to be equipped for sound, to screen the new fad -- talkies.

Boasting a first class train station and the new businesses that popped up close by, the area became a cosmopolitan neighborhood. After all, in those days residents of the Fan District lived within easy walking distance of direct access to the entire East Coast.

The William Byrd’s barber shop opened in 1927. Legendary barber Willie Carlton (1926-2013) began looking out of the barber shop’s windows at Davis Avenue in 1948.

Carlton bought the business in the 1950s. Recalling that for many years automobiles parked on the 800 block of Davis at a 45-degree angle facing the barber shop, Carlton chuckled as he described a visit by singer/songwriter Hank Williams (1923-53), who was asleep in a convertible when it was time to open the barber shop.

“Well, he was taking a little nap, out there in his Cadillac,” Carlton the storyteller recalled in a warm tone that seemed to signal that he could still see the picture he was describing.

Apparently, after the hard-living country music great finished sleeping off his road weariness, he got out of his snazzy ride and came inside for his haircut. Carlton says the price of a haircut in those days was 60 cents. Lunch in the hotel’s busy dining room cost about the same.

Although he sold the business in the mid-1990s, until May of 2013 Carlton continued to work at his same barber chair ... when he wasn't playing golf. He died two months later at the age of 87. 

During the station’s peak use, the years of World War II, an average of 57 trains passed through Broad Street Station on a daily basis. During the ensuing decades, rapid outward growth of the city combined with the withering of America’s passenger rail system to gradually change the character of the neighborhood.

In 1975 Broad Street Station was no longer the hub of metropolitan life it had been; the last passenger train left the station at 4:58 a.m., on November 15 of that year.

In 1977 the distinctive building’s second life as the Science Museum of Virginia began.

The photo of the clock on the face of the building is mine 
(circa 2004).

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The Coldest Warrior

Note: Below this note is a piece I wrote for 19 years ago; did the illustration back then, too. So the anniversaries mentioned in the first graf date from 1999.


August 9, 1999: August is usually a slow month for news, so we are spoon-fed anniversaries to contemplate: Hiroshima’s 54th; Woodstock’s 30th; it was 25 years ago that Pres. Richard M. Nixon took the fall. The entire culture shifted gears the day Nixon threw in the towel.

The brilliant strategist, the awkward sleuth, the proud father, and the coldest of warriors had left the building. August 9, 1974 was a day to hoist one for his enemies, many of whom must have enjoyed his twisting in the wind of Watergate’s storm. It was the saddest of days for his staunch supporters, whose numbers were still legion.

Either way, Richard Nixon’s departure from D.C. left a peculiar void that no personality has since filled in anything close to the same way. For the first time since his earliest commie-baiting days, in the late-‘40s, Dick Nixon suddenly had no clout. 

Upon Nixon's departure, concern for social causes went out of style for a lot of young Americans. It was time to party. Soon what remained of the causes and accouterments of the ‘60s was packed into cardboard boxes to be tossed out, or stored in basements.

Watergate revelations killed off the Nixon administration’s chance of instituting national health insurance. On top of that, many people have forgotten that he was also rather liberal on environmental matters, at least compared to the science-doubting Republicans who have followed. Although he was a hawk, Nixon was moderate on some of the social issues.

Nixon's opening to China and efforts toward détente with the Soviets are often cited as evidence of his ability to maneuver deftly in the realm of foreign affairs. No doubt, that was his main focus. Still, at the bottom line, Nixon is remembered chiefly as the president who was driven from office. And for good reason.

Nixon’s nefarious strategy for securing power divided this country like nothing since the Civil War. Due to his fear of hippies and left-wing campus movements, Nixon looked at ex-Beatle John Lennon and instead of a sarcastic musician, in his view Nixon saw a raw power to galvanize a generation’s anti-establishment sentiments. Fearful of that imagined potential, the sneaky Nixon administration did everything it could to hound Lennon out of the country.

Nixon deliberately drove a wedge between fathers and sons. To rally support for his prosecution of the Vietnam War, he sought to expand the division between World War II era parents and their baby boomer offspring. The families that never recovered from that time's bitterness were just more collateral damage.

However, Nixon’s true legacy is that since his paranoia-driven scandal, the best young people have no longer felt drawn into public service. Since Watergate the citizens who’ve gravitated toward politics for a career have not had the intellect, the sense of purpose, or the strength of character of their predecessors. We can thank Tricky Dick for all that and more.

So weep not for the sad, crazy Nixon of August, 1974. He did far more harm to America than whatever good he intended.

Some commentators have suggested that he changed over that period, even mellowed. Don't buy it. The rest of us changed a lot more than he did. On top of that, Nixon had 20 years to come clean and clear the air. But he didn’t do it. He didn't even come close. In the two decades of his so-called “rehabilitation,” before his death in 1994, Nixon just kept on being Nixon.

So, spare me the soft-focus view of the Nixon White House years. Tricky Dick's humiliating downfall should be a lesson to us all -- he surely got what he deserved.

*   *   *

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Sorry, wrong number

My art has been appearing in print for over 50 years. My first caricature (of Hubert Humphrey) was published in 1965. And, I began inflicting my writing on the public in the 1970s. In all that time, most of the people who have bothered to speak to me about my work have been complimentary, or at least they seemed to mean well enough.

The vast majority of the time I've enjoyed their comments, even when they disagreed with me or didn't even get the point. Every now and then, it has gotten too weird. Such was the case when a man called me out of the blue on a Saturday night in the early 1990s. (In those days my phone number and PO Box number always appeared in SLANT.)

The caller said he had just read an issue of SLANT and had to talk with me. Right then.

Naturally, the man was calling from a bar. Don't remember which one, but I think it was in a hotel. As far as I knew we had never met.

Well, I was watching a movie with my then-girlfriend, Gayle. So I didn’t really want to have a long conversation. It was late and the more this character talked, the less comfortable I felt about hearing him out. He kept saying he had a story he had to tell me. It was about a scandal he thought I should write about ... and I was such a good writer and so forth.

Then he started babbling about religion. Uh, oh.

So, I interrupted and told him I would not come to the bar to meet with him that night.Still, experience had taught me to avoid setting this sort of oddball off. So I thanked him for the compliment and told him to call back during business hours, should he want to talk again.

Although I don’t remember his name, now, I did when I told the story of his unsettling phone call to some friends a couple of days later at happy hour at the Cary Street Cafe. One of them promptly recognized his name. “You remember him,” the man said (approximately), “that was the crazy guy they found on the Huguenot Bridge, maybe in February, about a year ago. He was bleeding to death.”

The happy hour  friend said that according to the story in the newspaper, my Saturday night caller had apparently bought into one of those perplexing Biblical sayings. It was something like -- if thy right arm offends thee, cut it off.

My fan, obviously a religious man, went down to the wooded area north of the bridge. The account said he placed his offending arm into the canal water to numb it. Then he chunked his arm into a fork in a small tree’s limbs, took out his hacksaw, and he sawed that bad arm off … just below the elbow.

Those gathered at the bar chucked. But not me.

It wasn’t funny to me, because I was already wondering why in hell such a madman would want to talk to me about anything? What had I written that had set him off? Would he call back?

It was hardly the first time I’d been approached by a creepy reader, but this one -- he sawed his damn arm off! -- was especially disturbing.

Blogging and Facebook open the door to all sorts of possibilities. While I am happy to discuss reactions to my posts, there has to be a limit to what I will put up with. The story above is just one of the reasons I won’t suffer fools of a particular stripe but for so long. And, I won’t put up with bullies at all.

Furthermore, I urge others to be careful how much you engage, on the phone or online, with unreasonable people who don’t really mean well. Most of them are just a waste of time. They will try your patience. But, every now and then, one of them may be out of control in a dark way you don’t even want to know about.

Fortunately, the one-handed man didn't reach out to me again.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Fan District's Goddess of Democracy
In May of 1989 the original Goddess of Democracy was erected in Tiananmen Square. Made of chicken wire, papier mâché and plaster, it was built by art students. It symbolized their call for democratic reforms in China. The protest in Tiananmen Square had begun in mid-April; tension was mounting.

Subsequently, on June 4, 1989, following orders, the People’s Liberation Army put an end to the demonstration. Mayhem ensued. Although reports varied widely, hundreds, if not thousands, were killed.

The Goddess of Democracy was destroyed during the routing of the protesters that had remained to the end, in defiance. As the drama played out on television, via satellite, the events shocked the world.

As their art student counterparts in China had been murdered in the shadow of their 33-foot-tall sculpture, in Richmond a group of VCU-affiliated artists heard the call of inspiration to stand with those who had fallen. They decided to build a replica of the lost Goddess.

The impromptu team of the willing and able worked around the clock for the next couple of days to give form to their tribute to the courage of those who had perished for the sake of freedom of expression. While the project was not sponsored by the school, wisely, VCU did nothing to discourage the gesture.

The Fan District's Goddess of Democracy (pictured above and below) stood the same height and was made of the same basic materials as the one in China had been. Facing Main Street, it stood as a memorial for about a month in front of the student center. CNN had a report on it, as did many other news agencies. Its image was on front pages of newspapers all over the world.

The little placards on sticks that surrounded the sculpture were added a few days after the Goddess was completed. While it was easily one of the coolest things ever to happen in the Fan District, art-wise, but to my knowledge, nobody made a penny out of it. It was constructed and maintained entirely by volunteers.

It was also a wonderful illustration of how traditional right and left, liberal and conservative, characterizations of all things political don’t always do justice to the truth of a situation. Was the stubborn and heavy-handed Chinese government standing to the right, or to the left, of the upstart students calling for reform? When communists are the conservatives clinging to the old way, how does that play out on a spectrum of left-to-right thinking?

In 1990 I published a piece in SLANT to commemorate the first anniversary of the contruction of VCU's Goddess. In the article I inserted the text of a handbill that I had found posted at the site of the memorial the year before:
"On May 13, 1989, Beijing University students began an occupation of Tiananmen Square to call for democratic reforms and an end to official corruption. The ensuing peaceful and often festive protest drew world attention and gained support from the citizens and workers of Beijing. On Sunday, June 4, at 3:30 [a.m.] Chinese time, troops of the 27th Division of the People’s Liberation Army entered the square with orders to disperse the students. At approximately 6 a.m. these same troops attacked the protestors with automatic weapons, tanks, and bayonets. According to government estimates only 300 students were killed, but local medical estimates put the death toll between 500 and 1,000.

"The brutal suppression of unarmed students by a powerful totalitarian government has moved the world’s conscience. Many of the Tiananmen victims were art students who aspired to same basic freedoms which we enjoy daily. As American artists we cannot overlook, and we must never forget, the suffering and sacrifice of our brothers and sisters in Beijing. Their peaceful struggle was a cry for human rights everywhere, and their symbol, the Goddess of Democracy, was the highest artistic tribute they could pay to humanity’s noblest ideal -- freedom."

Also in that week's issue of SLANT were stories of a lighter nature. There was a piece about the then-bubbling NEA/Mapplethorpe controversy that had Sen. Jesse Helms flapping in the breeze. There was coverage of the Fan District Softball League -- the Bamboo Cafe led the Mars Division; Chetti’s led the Jupiter Division. Among that issue's advertisers were: 353-ROCK, Blab Television, the Brass Knocker, Brown Distributing, Bug Haus, Chetti’s, the Fan Market, Paradise Cafe, Price’s Market, Soble’s and South of the James.

The Goddess of Democracy on VCU’s campus in 1989 was the most successful piece of guerilla art I have seen in my travels.

-- My photos.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Finishing on 'Solid Ground'

Ask anybody. Making a living in the music business in Richmond isn't easy. Nonetheless, during the last five decades a good number of noteworthy musicians have called Richmond their home. Some for a while. Some for good.

It's fair to say Robbin Thompson (1949-2015) started out as a natural troubadour who enjoyed performing on the road. Nonetheless, he chose to make his home in Richmond, even though he meant to make his living through music. Thompson was born in Boston and grew up mostly in Melbourne, Florida.

Local live music aficionados are grateful to Robbin and other gifted musicians who've resisted the temptation to move to a city with a larger music scene. The ones who stayed have helped make Richmond's live music scene what it has been since hippie times and the days of Mercy Flight, Robbin's band when he was a VCU student.   

Occasionally, some of the musicians who've moved on to other places come back to town for reunion type shows, or playing as sidemen with national acts. Then there are the rare times a group of pros are prompted to return from all over the map, just to do a one-off show. The Robbin Thompson tribute presented on the National's stage on the afternoon of February 28, 2016, was such an occasion. Every song performed at Robbin Thompson's Real Fine Day was written by Robbin. 

A well-engineered CD – “Final Encore: A Live Tribute to Robbin Thompson.” – produced by Thompson's bandmates, featuring recordings of the live performances, has become available today. Listening to the colorful intros by various performers helps this commemorative CD speak to the good life Robbin and his wife Vicki put together here in central Virginia. 

Every now and then something happens to remind me of what a privilege it has been to have shared so much of my time over the years with friends who've been part of Richmond's music and art scene. Such was the case when I was listening to the last cut on the CD. That song, “Solid Ground,” is the only one on the new CD that wasn't recorded live at the National.

It is listed as a “bonus track.” It was the last song Robbin wrote; he recorded a lean demo of it. At a recent conversation at the Bamboo Cafe two of those who lovingly fleshed out that recording, Velpo Robertson and Bob "Rico" Antonelli, described the process of turning it into a full-fledged Robbin Thompson Band encore – the last encore.

Listening to “Solid Ground” a second time I began to imagine what it must have been like for Robbin's longtime bandmates to craft that recording, using their collective feel for how to fill around his voice and guitar on the demo, I was struck with the thought that I'm glad I know these guys.

As the song ended, for an instant, I was taken back to being at that tribute show at the National, blessed with a pass, to cover the event as a journalist. The all-access badge allowed me to take in what happened from various perspectives. Getting to see such an unusual show being rehearsed and then presented, from the inside out, was a rare treat.

Still, most of the time during the performances I was backstage in the stage-right wing, which was where the musicians waiting to go on and those who had already done their bit watched one another perform ... and take turns telling old stories about life on the road.

It's also fair to say there were some excellent yarn-spinners on hand. All in all, what a show it was! The uplifting vibe in that ancient theater inspired the performers, some of which had traveled a good ways to be there, just to do one song, maybe two.

Stay tuned for a more complete telling of the story about the making of that bonus track. It's in the process of being written. In the meantime, this is a good time to note there's no business like show business. Ask anybody who knows. 


Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Shockers at Rams on Dec. 22

VCU basketball news from Chris Kowalczyk:

VCU has added some shock value to its schedule the next two seasons.  The Rams have agreed to a home-and-home series with Wichita State that will kick off this year at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

VCU will host the Shockers, who reached the Final Four in 2013, on Dec. 22, 2018. The Rams will play a return game at Koch Arena in Wichita, Kan. on Dec. 21, 2019.

The Shockers have played in the last seven NCAA Tournaments and finished 25-8 last season, their first in the American Athletic Conference.  VCU and Wichita State have met four times previously, but this will be the first contest between the programs since the 2012-13 season. The all-time series is tied 2-2.

The Rams and Shockers played three hotly contested games from 2011-12. In 2011, VCU’s Joey Rodriguez hit a pair of free throws with 0.8 seconds remaining to give the Rams a 68-67 win at Koch Arena. That win helped propel VCU to an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, which culminated in the Rams’ unforgettable Final Flour run. The following year, the 12th-seeded Rams toppled the fifth-seeded Shockers 62-59 in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament in Portland, Ore. thanks in large part to a late floater by Darius Theus, now VCU’s director of player development.

VCU’s full non-conference schedule will be released shortly, but previously released games include road contests at Texas and Virginia, as well as a match-ups with Temple and either Cal or St. John’s in the Legends Classic at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.