Times Are Changin’… Give a little thought to this conjured scenario. Bob Dylan and Bernie Taupin are both private, reclusive types who have managed to share many of their thoughts, visions and talents with the world. Such endeavors require the proper introspection. Therefore a logical spot to take in and digress on the world is the window booth at Manuel’s Tavern, located at the corner of North and North Highland Avenues in Atlanta, Georgia. Dylan, having played Atlanta the first time some fifty years ago at near-by Emory University, may recall the legendary watering hole which has long attracted journalists, politicians, poets, cops and other thirsty types. Taupin, whose songwriting partner, Elton John, has a penthouse apartment in the Buckhead community, a half dozen miles north of the tavern, would enjoy the earthy charm of Manuel’s. The place is genuine and time-tested, unlike the spacious shopping palaces and pricey restaurants found in Elton’s corner of town. The tavern’s window booth, where Manuel Maloof himself used to host friends while pontificating, complaining and looking after customers is the ideal place to consider all things global and local. It’s quite easy to visualize Messrs Dylan and Taupin there.
Near the window booth is a large photo of the revered Atlanta Constitution Editor Ralph McGill, whose courageous opinions implored the South and the nation as a whole to fully embrace its ideas of liberty and justice for all. McGill, Dylan would inform Taupin, was a close friend of the poet and historian Carl Sandberg. Visits to Sandberg’s home in Flat Rock, North Carolina provided McGill with great reassurance. According to Leonard Ray Teel, in his book, Ralph Emerson McGill, Voice Of The Southern Conscience, McGill “felt a healing power in the ancient poet.” Teel also noted that In McGill, Sandberg “recognized a kindred spirit trying to lead a later generation into social change.” McGill and Sandberg, admired and heralded the world over, stood in awe of one another. Dylan could understand that. On the same concert tour that brought him to Atlanta in 1964, he stopped by Flat Rock to talk with Sandberg and present him with a copy of his new album, The Times They Are A-Changin’.
Taupin, a native of Sleaford, Lincolnshire, England, but now a full-time resident of Santa Ynez, California, has a deep devotion to the stories of America, be they documented or apocryphal. The novels and the films on the silver screen vie with the history books when telling a great nation’s story and Taupin is hip to the legends, the lies and what’s fact. In a recent entry on his blog, rather than hawking The Diving Board, his latest collaboration with Elton John, he takes politicos from both sides of the aisle to task, feeling sad and disgusted with the lying that goes with leadership. Taupin is a keen observer with an admitted “curmudgeonly nature,” which has to make him feel at home in Manuel’s booth.
Separate The Good From The Bad… Manuel Maloof was on the right side of history as the change that McGill, Sandberg and Dylan championed began to take place. Not only was he a bartender-philosopher personified, he was also among the most influential Democrats in the state of Georgia. His tavern has photographs of those who stopped by while seeking the Presidency of the United States: McGovern, Carter, Clinton and Gore. Maloof died in 2004, four years before Barack Obama signaled another change. It would’ve been fascinating to hear him speak on the election and performance of President Obama. He’d offer praise, but he wouldn’t mince his words if the president disappointed him either. One afternoon in the late ’80s, he and I were discussing civil rights leader and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. Nearing the end of his second term as Mayor, Young was a visionary but often negligent with his mayoral duties. “I love Andy Young,” Maloof said one afternoon, “but it would be great if he’d could just travel around the world as Mayor and let me run the city.” Maloof was angry over the pervasive crime in Atlanta. He talked of how one young man tried to steal the ring off his finger at a downtown transit (MARTA) station. Maloof, nearing 60 at the time, stood his ground and walked away with his ring, but that didn’t make him any happier with what was happening in his hometown.
A regular walking by Dylan and Taupin’s booth could stop and explain a little about Manuel’s Tavern and the role it played in the city’s history. Dylan and Taupin, both quick studies, wouldn’t need too much briefing, but they might ask about the Atlanta sports scene. They’d likely find it puzzling that Atlanta for so long has paid more attention to the professional and collegiate football teams, even in mediocre years, than to the Atlanta Braves, who since 1991 have won 600 more games than they’ve lost, accumulating 15 division titles and sending new members to Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Maloof was sure proud of the Braves and he might have made Braves fans of Dylan and Taupin too.
It would be a tougher sell with the Atlanta Falcons, the National Football League team that began play in 1966. Much of their history has been similar to tragic car wrecks people recall when passing dangerous intersections. In the same 23 year period of the Braves’ excellence, the Falcons are three games under .500 (182-185) with 36 of those wins coming between 2010 and 2012. In the season just completed, the Falcons went 4-12, a record that ranks among the worst in their tragicomic history.
Twenty Pounds Of Headlines… Give the Falcons credit: they’ve provided Atlanta sportswriters with reams of fascinating copy. Local playwrights wish they had such material to work with. While compiling a 134-229 record in their first quarter century of play, the Falcons, naturally, filled its rosters with, ahem, colorful players. In ’88, they lost their Special Teams Captain, David Croudip, when a “cocaine cocktail” killed him. That was tragic but somewhat predictable, given the lack of control management had over the team. Two years later, Aundray Bruce, the NFL’s top draft choice* from ’88, pulled a pellet gun on a pizza delivery guy. Neither Bruce nor teammate Marcus Cotton had money to pay for the pizza, so what can poor NFL players who’ve squandered their riches do? It’s simple: scare the hell out of the guy delivering the pizza. Charges were filed. Bruce was arrested on misdemeanor charges and released on a $1,050.00 bond. The delivery guy said Bruce “seemed to think it was pretty funny… pretty much laughing all through it.” Bruce may have thought it was funny like the two paternity suits pending against him or his failure to make payments on two mortgages totaling $912,000. When your life is such a mess, you laugh at all the wrong things.
Nearly a decade later, on January 17, 1999, the Falcons defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game and found themselves Super Bowl-bound for the first time in their 33 seasons. This was a very well-balanced and exciting Atlanta Falcons team. It appeared they had a good chance of beating the Denver Broncos in Miami to become NFL Champions. Things began happily enough on the morning of January 30, 1999, the day before the Super Bowl. Falcons safety Eugene Robinson was honored by Athletes in Action, the sports ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Robinson was presented with the Bart Starr Award for “high moral character.” For one who takes his football and faith seriously, what else could go wrong? Plenty. Less than twelve hours later, Robinson was arrested on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami. The charge: soliciting an undercover police officer for oral sex. Robinson’s to-do list for the day had to be a hoot: Go to Christian group meeting. Win award for high moral character. Have lunch. Spend time with the missus by the pool. Have dinner. Go to Biscayne Boulevard for some pregame fellatio.
By the way, the Falcons lost 34-19. Robinson played as if he had been serviced multiple times on Biscayne Boulevard, getting beat by Rod Smith on an 80-yard touchdown reception.
Now I’ve Seen This Chain Gang… The NFL is often referred to as the National Felons League. Some believe the appellation is unfair; others believe it’s acknowledgement of reality. Between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, at least 31 NFL players were arrested. Some of the charges were the standard DUIs, “criminal mischief,” and assault, with the two worst offenses being “attempted murder” and “first degree murder.” No Atlanta Falcon in memory has been charged with murder, at least not murdering a human being, but Michael Vick, the team’s star quarterback did serve most of two years (’07-’09) in Federal Prison for promoting and financing an interstate dog-fighting operation. Canine executions were part of the event.
Not long before the dog stories broke, Vick’s behavior was viewed as erratic and offensive. Struggling through a tough season, Vick gave fans the “bird,” in fact a “double-bird,” as he walked off the field (Two middle fingers up…. way up).
Bob Dylan wrote of dogs running free. Robert Louis Stevenson once observed that dogs “will be in heaven long before any of us.” All this was lost on Michael Vick. In The New York Times, Juliet Macur reported on Jim Gorant’s book, The Lost Dogs, a collection of sordid and true stories of Vick and his “Bad Newz Kennels.”
Once he (Vick) and a friend grabbed the paws of a little red dog and held it over their heads, like a jump rope, slamming the animal on the ground again and again until it was lifeless.
The most disappointed of Vick’s supporters was Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He had gleaned an entirely different impression of his star quarterback. Vick had even come to the owner’s home for dinner and played video games with Blank’s children. One could feel bad for Blank, a nice man dealing with an embarrassing story. One felt worse for the dogs, but there was still support in Atlanta for Michael Vick. After all, he was an exciting quarterback capable of engineering the most spectacular plays. He didn’t play the game by the book; on the field, he wrote his own book. Thus, once a free man, he’d write additional chapters. Many NFL teams with no shame would hustle to sign him up.
During the 2009 season, Vick was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, but they used him sparingly as a back-up to Donovan McNabb, a great player and a fine gentleman. Yet McNabb was past his prime and by the next season, Vick was named the Eagles’ starting quarterback. And there were others besides PETA members unhappy with Vick’s return to glory. Bernie Taupin, in his blog, questioned how Vick, “a guy who has racked up some of the most heinous cruelties you could possibly inflict on an innocent creature be idolized, lionized and treated like the second coming of Christ?” Taupin, an avowed football fan, had difficulty fathoming the lack of values in the NFL, noting, “When it comes to football, the agonizing deaths and stifled whimpers of the dogs he tortured, electrocuted, hung and drowned are swept conveniently under the rug.”
When Vick and the Eagles came to play the Falcons in the Georgia Dome on December 7, 2009, the response of Vick supporters would have disgusted Taupin all the more. Of course, Vick was relishing the moment, according to the Associated Press:
“It was as loud as it gets in the Dome,” said Vick, who teared up on the bus ride over to the stadium. “I heard the chants all through the stadium and it sent chills down my spine. They were just letting me know that people still appreciate what I’ve done.”
OK, whatever, but Vick was right in assuming thousands of Atlanta fans had his back. A couple of years before, a local minister used his pulpit to reprove an Atlanta sportswriter, a member of the church, for being critical of Vick in his columns. He saw no good in a black sportswriter bringing down an accomplished black athlete, a hero to many in our town. Making this more amazing is that the sportswriter was the one often condemned by hothead whites on the sports talk shows whenever the subject of race was raised. It’s little wonder some topics go wanting for civil discussion in this town.
The Band Is Playing “Dixie,” A Man Got His Hand Outstretched… But football trumps all down South. Consider the ongoing matter with the Atlanta Falcons and their owner, Arthur Blank. The poor Falcons have had to play in the Georgia Dome, opened in ’92 and built by Georgia taxpayers at a cost of $214 million. The Georgia Dome is hardly a classic structure, but 70,000 fans often pack the place for NFL games. Concerts by Paul McCartney, U2 and the Rolling Stones were held there in the ’90s, and major college football games are also played in the Dome, with few expressing irritation over the ambiance. Still, Blank has been talking for years about needing a new stadium so his Falcons could be more competitive — a word in this caffeinated society that’s used to make taxpayers man-up. In doing so, more plush suites will be available to the swells attending the game, likely at a cost to taxpayers somewhere. Given all that, in the way Atlanta’s power elite view things, the Georgia Dome, just 21 years old, is worthy of the wrecking ball. Arthur Blank, Falcons owner and respected philanthropist, will get his way.
Give Arthur Blank credit. He, with some help from the NFL, agreed to pay for most of the new Falcons’ nest, which will go up in the same vicinity as the Georgia Dome. It will be part of the Georgia World Congress Center and host the same annual events — and more — as held at the Dome. So what’s not to like? For one, Blank’s plea for funds — some $200 million — from the tax collected by Atlanta hotels and motels, kept clean and comfy by employees eking out a living in a metro area that has been slow to rebound from the Great Recession. Yet new Falcons stadium boosters point out, as Blank did in the December 22 AJC, that “84% of the tax is being paid by people who don’t live in this state.” Talk about Southern hospitality; Welcome to Atlanta, now bend over.
By state law, revenues from the hotel-motel tax cannot be used by the City of Atlanta for basic infrastructure, public safety, libraries, schools, etc.; you know, frou-frou stuff. The revenues can only be “used for a variety of projects that will help promote the city as a tourist destination for meetings or conventions, historic and cultural travel and other types of attractions,” according to an Atlanta Falcons website. While it is fair to say that such tax allocations can help create jobs and enhance the city’s quality of life, the claim falls on deaf ears among tens of thousands of city taxpayers. Here we go again, they think, another subsidy for a professional sports team owner - in this case, Blank, who’s listed by Forbes as being worth $1.7 billion. Forbes also reported that the expected revenues at the Falcons’ new nest raised the team valuation to $933 million, not bad for a team that has for most of its history been an embarrassment to its hometown. In addition to that, Forbes noted Blank’s own net worth climbed by half a billion dollars from September 2010 to September 2013.
He’s A Great Humanitarian, He’s A Great Philanthropist… There’s little sense in begrudging the wealth Blank has attained through his co-founding of Home Depot and the investments he’s made. It isn’t a day at the beach to visit Home Depot, but the stores have served a need in the marketplace. Blank worked hard and worked smart in developing that big box chain. In his field, he did a lot of things better than others, so more power to him. Blank has also contributed money — and his own time — to charities and good causes. When you meet him, he comes across as a good guy. He has concerns on the humanitarian side that compels the philanthropist in him to sign the “Giving Pledge.” According to the “Giving Pledge” rules, a signatory promises to donate at least half of his wealth to charitable concerns, either during his lifetime or afterward.
Already Blank has made sizeable donations to education, environmental and arts organizations. He’s shown his heart to be in the right place — and his wallet tags along. That makes his determination in getting taxpayers to kick in for the new Falcons stadium more disturbing. NFL teams, with their tax exemptions, tax abatements, television contracts and revenue sharing plans, are immensely profitable. Any owner claiming to be in the red is lying or is among the world’s worst business people. But we know Blank to be a very savvy businessman — and he’s smooth. In the December 22 interview with the AJC, he was asked why he needed a hotel-motel tax to help build his new stadium. The savvy and smooth answer follows:
“The success of the franchise shouldn’t be dependent on one individual or their estate, but it should be a sustainable organization. A public-private partnership is very important. In this case, 84% of the tax is being paid by people who don’t live in the state. The stadium will impact tourism in a positive way. We think the tax is a fair level of public support.”
Oh, that explains it. Blank assumes and commands “a fair level of public support.” Never mind that said support wasn’t approved via referendum by the impacted public which has little interest in subsidizing a billionaire whose shiniest toy is a team of millionaires. But in Atlanta and the state of Georgia, that hardly matters. The political mix here is a strange hybrid that hardly serves the citizenry, so of course the Falcons get their stadium –partially paid for with the $200 million from the hotel-motel tax, which, according to the billionaire, is mostly collected from people who don’t live in Atlanta. But could the people who live here use revenue from such a tax to fund programs that would help them and their children have a cleaner, safer and more informed community? The answer is absolutely not, because we’re dealt the short hand by community leaders similar to individuals at the marketplace in Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guard”: Merchants and thieves, hungry for power.
Entertain By Picking Brains… Both the famous and the average Joe are rewarded by walking through the rooms of Manuel’s Tavern. Old black and white photographs, most of them taken before 1980, adorn the walls. The pictures capture a time in Atlanta when progress was measured by ways other than how much richer millionaires become. Not far from Manuel’s old window booth hangs a large picture of Falcons running back Jim “Cannonball” Butler evading defenders in a ’68 game versus the Detroit Lions. Despite Cannonball’s 60-yard touchdown run, the Falcons lost that day, looking bad against a mediocre team. Ailing NFL clubs loved to see the Falcons on the schedule.
What the folks who gathered at Manuel’s in those days wanted was a competitive team. Winning more than three games a year would be a good start. And there was little concern for the owner’s definition of “competitive,” especially if that meant leather chairs in suites where the well-healed could watch the owner’s team. An owner of a professional football club had already competed rather well in the marketplace, thank you, and wouldn’t seek tax dollars as defined in a “public and private partnership,” or so we thought. Another guy, gifted at turning a phrase, could join Dylan and Taupin, and enjoy the company at Manuel’s Tavern. Taking in the view from Manuel’s window booth and knowing how it’s been all the way back to the days of Genesis, when Cain slew Abel, he’d note what’s always driven the good and the bad. He’d sum it up like this:
Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied,
Till he rules everything.
*Bruce was named by Sports Illustrated as the second biggest draft bust in modern NFL history.
From the forthcoming book, Drop Me Off on Peachtree, A History of Atlanta