After making his mark in music, John turned to activism: he joined his cohorts Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen in the "no nukes" movement, fighting against nuclear power and for renewable energy. In 1989, he was elected to the legislature in Ulster County (he lived in Saugerties, right near Woodstock). He did time on the Board of Education in the '90s, but had no further political ambitions until Bush showed up on CNN playing his song.
You see, everything George W. Bush supported - war in Iraq, drilling for oil, climate change denial - was the polar opposite of what John stood for. So he ran for congress. Jackson Browne teamed up with Dar Williams and Pete Seeger for a series of benefit concerts to raise cash for his campaign, and John won, taking office in 2007. He was re-elected, but lost in 2010 in the Tea Party uprising.
Now out of politics and back in Orleans, he has tales to tell, which he covers in his memoir, Still The One: A Rock 'n' Roll Journey to Congress and Back, an illuminating look at the inner workings of both music and government.
John Hall: Yes, it was. It was the unauthorized use of a song that was copyrighted by me and my cowriters as writers, it was copyrighted by EMI Music Publishing, which is our publisher, and it was copyrighted by the band Orleans and by Warner Brothers, who cut the record. So there are four copyright holders, and none of the four were asked permission. That's the principle behind intellectual property: You don't use it for something, certainly as noticeable as a commercial or a campaign theme song, without first going to the publisher.
Usually the writer gets a request from his or her publisher saying, "We have an offer to use your song for this much money. Do you agree or not?" They didn't offer anything, and even if they had, we would not have agreed to it.
So I was upset. I happened to see it on TV the first time they announced it. I was watching Lou Dobbs, who was on CNN at the time, and he said, "We're going to Columbus, Ohio, for the unveiling of the Bush/Cheney '04 campaign theme song." And there was President George W. Bush with the confetti coming down and hands up and the V salute for Victory. And our song, the Orleans original master, blaring out of the speakers.
My wife Melanie and I, our chins dropped to the floor. When we picked them back up, I started making phone calls and checking with people to see if anyone had given permission. It turned out no one had been asked for permission.
They sent out a spokeswoman - it's always a spokeswoman when they want to soften bad news - to say, "In deference to Mr. Hall's wishes, we'll stop using that song immediately."
And it's kind of interesting, because he was running for reelection on that point. One of his slogans was the Ownership Society, and he was talking about how people should start businesses and own them and they should build houses or buy houses and own them and how they should design software, which is intellectual property, or write plays or whatever, and own that asset. And a song is the same thing: It's an asset of intellectual property. For some reason nobody in that camp thought about the incongruity of that slogan and the reality of taking songs without permission.
Songfacts: It's an interesting song, because it really is the perfect tagline: "Still the One." It's like one of these songs that was waiting to be written. But then on the other hand, there's the sentiment of, "Sometimes I never want to see you again." What are your thoughts on that?
So Johanna wrote the entire lyric on the back of an envelope and handed it to me. I wrote the entire musical part of it and put it together in about 10 minutes. Then Orleans, of course, put its own stamp on it. Larry [Hoppen] sang it great and the band's harmonies and musicianship were perfect for it.
But it's a song that tries to reflect a reality that you can be in love with someone, and they can be in love with you, and you can have mostly really great times together, and still go through troubled times and difficult spots. And it's an opportunity for spiritual growth, or for personal growth. The test is whether you get through them. So I don't see that as an incongruity.
"Deep in the desert, I longed for the snow."
It's really saying, When I was away from you, I really missed you. I look at your face every day. Familiarity breeds contempt kind of thing. But I want you to know that when I was away from you, I really missed you. So it's a love song. It's just a particular version of it.
Songfacts: You talked about that Orleans stamp. And that is something that you really hear on "Dance With Me," which is a fascinating song when you listen to it musically. It's almost like there are no verses and the whole thing is just this giant hook. Can you talk about composing that song?
She couldn't get past that and I couldn't get past that any further, so I played the instrumental version for Larry Hoppen and he said, "Boy, you really need to finish that, that sounds like a hit song."
So coming back from a show in Ithaca, New York, on the western part of the state, through the Woodstock area again, Johanna and I were riding in the car, and suddenly she says, "Pick the beat up and kick your feet up." She starts scribbling on another one of those envelopes, and by the time we got home, we had kicked the ideas back and forth and finished the lyric.
So that song took a couple of months from start to finish, but it's sort of organic the way it happened. Sometimes a song will start with a lyric, sometimes it'll start with the music, which it did in that case. And sometimes it's both being written at the same time. There's no wrong way or right way to write a song.
Hall: I was playing racquetball five days a week at the YMCA in Nashville, just getting my exercise, having some fun beating up on people. I was a pretty good racquetball player at the time. I had this date to go over to Steve's and sit down with him, and usually what that involves is I have a notebook of ideas, the other person has a notebook of ideas, or some taped ideas for a song musically, and we both put everything on the table. Or both people say, "Let's work on this," and one of them will jump out more than others.
But when I was at the Y that morning, I was in the shower, and I had this idea of not being available, of a person who's not available because they're with somebody already. Singing to somebody else who is attracted to them about how "you can dream of me." If you're dreaming of somebody, you can dream of me, but I'm not free.
So I had this [sings]:
If we want someone to fill your waking hours
With a love that is real baby, it's still not me
But if you think you can fall for a telephone call and some flowers
If you're dreaming of someone, you can dream of me
I was singing that in the shower, and the tiles made it sound like an echo chamber. I pretty much had the chorus in my head and I just sang it over and over as I was driving out to Steve Wariner's on the south of town.
I walked in the door and said, "Listen to this." I didn't have a guitar or anything - I just sang the melody. He went, "That's really cool. Let's work on that." And then we wrote the verses and the bridge together and the rest is history.
Songfacts: Why are so many musicians Democrats?
Hall: I don't know. Artists in general tend to have a more liberal or a more tolerant or perhaps a more flexible ethic. It's either who they're exposed to, or the difficulty of working your way up from playing lousy bars that smell of beer and sawdust. Whether it's a ballet dancer who has to struggle through auditions, or an athlete, it's the same thing: You have a road that's difficult and a mountain to climb to get successful in your field. And I think some of that in terms of musicians or songwriters or artists tends to make them softer around the edges and less judgmental.
What you say I think is the truth. There are the Ted Nugents of the world, but most of the musicians I know are pretty liberal or progressive in their thinking. And thank God, because otherwise I never would have gotten elected to Congress.
Songfacts: Well, it seemed like every day at the Republican convention there was another songwriter decrying their use of whatever song they played. It was galvanized there. I've never seen anything like it.
Hall: Yeah. I think Bono had one of his songs used without permission. Springsteen has had "Born in the USA" used. Everybody from Reagan on the Republican side up to the President has tried to use "Born in the USA," and the ironic thing is they don't seem to listen to the verse. They don't read the whole lyric. The chorus is just, "Born in the USA," and it's like this very patriotic, anthemic song. But if you go into the verses about going over to kill the yellow man and coming back and being spat upon and how our veterans are mistreated, it's actually kind of an angry song.
But I guess maybe they are too busy campaigning to read the whole song. Somebody on their staff certainly ought to.
Hall: Well, they sounded a lot like Bruce. Jersey rock and roll.
We played to a lot of young kids at Café Wha?, which had this nonalcoholic underage club that served potato chips and ice cream sodas. With Bruce and his band, we did six sets a night. We started at 2 in the afternoon and we ended at 10 o'clock at night or something like that, alternating us/them/us/them/us/them. And at the end of the night, we got paid $6 per man per night and all the potato chips and ice cream we could eat. So there was nowhere to go but up from there.
Half moon, night time sky
Seven stars, heaven's eyes
Seven songs on seven seas
Just to bring all your sweet love home to me
Hall: Well, Johanna wrote that lyric, or most of it, anyway, and I defer to her. But it was numerological and astrological in nature. And it also had an alliterative repetition that was kind of captivating. It wasn't rhyming, exactly, but it was an internal rhyme, perhaps you could say. It's a device that poets use and that songwriters use to not just have the end of lines rhyme or the end of verses rhyme, but to have sort of a foreshadowing of that and words inside each line.
So my main responsibility with that song was writing the guitar lick, which I'd say was very Hendrix inspired, and then fitting the lyric to the music. Then Janis did her own job on that, fitting it to her singing style and to her band. It was very exciting to teach it to the Full Tilt Boogie Band with Janis in her living room in Marin County, California.
I had met Janis, knew her a little bit. She had come up to our apartment on the Lower East Side and sat around and sang and jammed on Christmas carols. I remember one in particular, we sang a shuffle blues version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem." That was really something I wish I had a recording of.
But she was a very talented person who in this day and age probably would have lived through her younger years. She was the first woman to be such a star, in rock music anyway, that she was employing all the men around her and hiring and firing people and deciding what song was going to go first in the set. It was really unusual at that time. I guess Grace Slick was in a similar position, but she was a member of a band. Janis was the boss on stage. She was the star.
So I think she never knew what people really wanted from her. If someone approached her, was it because she was getting very wealthy very quickly? Or was it because she was famous and notorious? Or was it because they really liked her as a person and wanted to be her friend? It can be too complicated.
In this day and age, you see many artists - and I'll speak for myself here - who go through a period of alcohol and drug use and abuse and survive it through a 12-step program or detox and rehab or whatever. There are quite a few straight musicians who weren't always that way chemically.
Jimi Hendrix, the work he would have done if he had survived, I can only imagine. And Janis and many others. I'm grateful for the music they left us, but they were very short careers.
Songfacts: Is "Time Passes On" about somebody specific?
Hall: Yeah. "Time Passes On" was written about a couple of people that we knew who had died prematurely. It was actually dedicated on the record to Lance's [Lance Hoppen, bass player and brother of Larry] girlfriend, Dru - they had just broken up. And interesting enough, they've gotten back together in the last few years and are now building some kind of a relationship. I hope that they are still the ones.
It's a song about losing somebody who is dear to you. It's been used at funerals. It's been used at graduations when people are going their separate ways. It's been used in many instances as a sort of ceremonial song, and I think it's one of the better things that we've ever done. We still do it live every once in a while and it's just as moving to sing and to play the solo on the end of it. Fly Amero, who's in the band now with me in Larry Hoppen's absence [Larry died in 2012], Fly and I love playing guitar on that song.
Sometimes when the words run out and you can't say anything more and the lyric is over, you can play an instrumental chorus or two and say something emotionally through the instrument that you couldn't say with words.
Songfacts: Something that's really surprising about Orleans was your lack of success in the UK. Is that because you guys never went there?
Hall: Yeah. It's strange that we never went there. And I wrote a #1 record in the UK, a song called "Ms. Grace" that the Tymes recorded - those are the guys that sing "So Much In Love."
[Singing] "As we stroll along together..." they're basically a doo wop group that kind of crossed into the '70s, as well.
So "Ms. Grace" was a #1 record in England and I know that the first Orleans album was very popular in Denmark and Holland, and the Continent in general and continues to be popular in Japan. But our first record didn't have a big hit on it. It had a lot of sort of crowd favorites and album tracks that got played a lot that our hardcore fans think is maybe still the best record we've ever made.
But it wasn't until "Dance With Me" that we had a big crossover hit. So I don't know why we never caught on in the UK. The band has been to Europe without me when I was doing other things, and I've been to Europe as a solo artist. I went to Europe playing guitar with a woman named Karen Dalton, a singer I was backing up with her band, opening for Santana on a big tour of the Continent that was supposed to get to the UK but never did because she basically quit the tour because she never got soundchecks and she thought it was in her contract and that meant it was going to happen. But the reality is that opening acts don't get soundchecks most of the time, especially back then.
But I would love to perform in Europe with Orleans. We basically go wherever we get an offer that we can afford to take. It's not out of the realm of possibility.
Hall: I did, actually, for the best part of two years. And at the time, I heard from the Capitol police that there were 75 or so members of Congress sleeping in their offices. I started out with an apartment that was $1,500 a month in a slummy, dangerous area with a wrought iron gate on the ground floor, which was where my apartment was. That was 15 minutes' walk away, so if I was in my apartment and a vote was called, the first vote in any sequence is always 15 minutes, so I could get up and throw on my clothes and power walk through the capitol in time to make the vote and have my vote count.
But it's interesting, the IRS only allows you to deduct total expenses of $3,000 per year for your expenses in DC, and you still have to maintain a home in your district you're representing. So if you have an apartment that's $1,500, obviously you run through that three grand in two months. And that doesn't even count having a telephone, having having cable, food, transportation around town.
It's virtually impossible for an ordinary person to run for the office. It was hard enough when I did, but now it's even harder thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and multimillionaires and billionaires to donate or funnel unlimited millions of dollars for or against the candidate that they want.
So there are two classes of members of Congress: There are the ones who are millionaires or multimillionaires themselves who can just buy or rent a nice place in DC, and then there's the people who wind up sleeping in their offices. For part of my time there, I slept in an apartment over the garage of my cousin and her husband in Bowie, Maryland. They rented it to me for a lot less than the apartment I was renting, but it was still a longer drive away.
So, yeah, sleeping in the office is a reality for a lot of people. There's a nice health club downstairs with a shower, and that's where I would go. I had a bathroom in the office, but to shower and work out and get my laundry done and so on, I'd go downstairs to the House gym.
Songfacts: It sounds similar to when you're a struggling musician. You're describing those days where you're dealing with derision and you're dealing with very difficult conditions. You get to Congress and you have to deal with the same thing.
Hall: Almost. We do get paid, and the congressional salary is generous. It's the same before I was there and no congress, including the ones that I served in, has voted themselves a pay raise. And I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon. But still, it's $175,000, which is plenty of money. For most people, you're talking about more money than they need.
But for that, I worked 13-hour days, seven days a week. When I was home, it was a heavier schedule than when I was in Washington. My wife and my dogs barely got to see me.
I'm actually happy to be out of Congress now for another reason: I think my health is much better, that I'm happier. And also it's somebody else's turn. I'm not deluded into thinking that I'm the only person that could represent the 650,000 people in my district.
I was defeated in 2010 in an avalanche of out-of-district Super PAC money in the last two weeks. I probably could have done some things better, but I'm very proud of the work I did for veterans. I was the chairman of the Subcommittee for Veterans Disabilities and Disability Assistance. So I helped a lot of vets get the money that the VA really should have been paying them for serious injuries or PTSD or problems that originated with their service overseas that they were being denied unfairly and illegally. My staff and I recovered over $3 million of benefits that had been denied to vets just in my district alone.
But I'm proud of the fact that I could find something that everybody agreed on and make something happen. And I think that's the wave of the future - I hope it is, anyway. If we can agree on helping our veterans, which both of the major parties agree on, then maybe we can agree on having clean water and doing whatever needs to be done with infrastructure to make sure that our drinking water, including municipal water, like Flint, Michigan, or New York City or Washington, DC, or wherever you happen to be, that it's actually clean and healthy for us and our children to drink. Find common ground and compromise where you have to, and move forward and pass it and try to find the next thing.
But for all of our sake, there has to be a movement toward reconciliation and the recognition that there are areas that the vast majority of Americans and the vast majority of politicians can agree on.
Songfacts: What's going to happen in November?
Hall: Well, I don't have a Ouija board or a crystal ball, so I'm not making any predictions. But our country's going to be making a very serious decision, and I just would say that my hope is that everyone makes a serious vote. Not a protest vote, not an angry vote, but seriously looking at the candidates and the issues. Vote for what you think is best for our children and their children.
Songfacts: You are a very analytical-minded person. Math, physics, all that stuff comes naturally to you. How does that affect your songwriting and musicianship?
Hall: Well, if you look at a sheet music page, which is a chart of time versus pitch, and if you look at a piano and you put your one finger on middle C and you consider that to be zero, and an octave up to the right to the treble clef is a power of a power of a power of either 8 or 12 tone scale, and to the left it's a negative power of a power of a power of, and you're dealing with third harmony, fourth harmony, fifth harmony, 32nd notes, whole notes, half notes, it's all math. I had that imbued in me by taking piano lessons before I was told it was math. My parents sent me to take piano lessons, and I was thinking, "Jingle all the way," instead of three-five-one, two, three, and it became unconscious.
So now when I'm thinking, Okay, I got a solo coming up here and it's going to an F sharp minor chord going to a D chord going to an E sus, going to an A, I don't think math, I know already what notes are suspensions, what notes are in the chord, and I try to go for what hasn't been played before. I try to find a melody that fits that's not a series of clams hung together.
Miles Davis said when you play a wrong note, the important thing is the note you play after it, and I think that is really true, that sometimes you can construct a solo or a piece of music where you surprise people. That's one of the things I loved about The Beatles when they first came out: Every song of theirs had a bridge that sounds like it was coming out of nowhere, or a melodic twist, or a lyrical twist. Or the Lovin' Spoonful, John Sebastian's band, they would do "Do You Believe In Magic?," and then they would do, "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind," which is really like a jug band kind of song. And then they would do "What a day for a daydream" with a whistling solo. And then "Summer in the City" with a jackhammer in it.
Striving to constantly do something different is something I've always admired, and I realize that I'll always sound like me, mainly, and that Orleans will probably always sound like Orleans to a great extent, but we still try to come up with new twists that to our audience will sound of interest and new.
I didn't start playing music to be bored. I was working in a paint factory - my parents sent me to the Hanline Paint Company in Baltimore to learn some responsibility and how the world really works. I stirred big vats of paint and I was so good at it that they moved me to the shipping department. I was so good at filling pallets of paint according to the shipping order, that they offered me the job of manager of the shipping department. I saw my future in paint stretching out before me and I said, "Nooooo!!! I want my guitar!!"
If I wanted a boring life, I would have kept on filling pallets of paint. Nothing against people who do that for a living. I'm sorry if it sounds condescending. It's really not intended that way. It's me personally, I've always wanted to do something that was fun and that was adventurous and I'm very grateful and very blessed to have been able to do that.
Songfacts: Have you read Barney Hoskins' book called Small Town Talk?
Hall: I ordered it and it's supposed to be delivered to my house today.
Songfacts: Oh, you're in for a treat.
Hall: That's what I hear.
Songfacts: And you may be in for an influx of visitors to your area, because it makes it look like a wonderful place to go. You might get another wave of lookyloos.
Hall: There's been bad things about Woodstock as there are about any town. And I actually live in Dover Plains across the other side of the river now. It's an hour drive away. Not too far.
Janis Joplin came to Woodstock. Her manager, Albert Grossman, was building Bearsville Studios and the Bear Cafe and Bearsville Records on the sort of west side of Woodstock, and that was when the Paul Butterfield Band was there and Geoff and Maria Muldaur, when they were still a couple. And Amos Garrett, the guitar player from Canada who played with Great Speckled Bird and then played with Maria, did that terrific solo on "Midnight at the Oasis." Dylan lived there for a while, and The Band lived there for a long time up the road from me. The Big Pink house was up Pine Lane from where we lived and then a left on Stoll Road. It's still there, and it's still kind of a shrine that people go by and pay homage to. [You can rent it out.]
So, yeah, it's an interesting town. Janis Joplin when she was there said, "Eh, Woodstock, a bunch of people in the country screwing each other's old ladies" and calling it a hippie town. But that was sarcastic. She was from San Rafael and Marin County, and I guess Woodstock was kind of slumming to her.
But it's a wonderful town and it's too bad the festival wasn't there, because a lot of people are disappointed when they come on summer weekends to Woodstock and say, "Hey, man, where was the festival?" And people point toward Bethel and say, "It was about 60 miles that way."
But it's good to be part of that history, too. I remember being at Geoff and Maria's house for a jam session one time and playing all different kinds of stuff. Butterfield was there and the late Bill Keith, who was a steel guitar and banjo wiz, who I first heard at Newport in 1964 playing with the Kweskin Jug Band, and at one point everybody started singing in the kitchen, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and then Dave Van Ronk's singing, "Will the serpent be housebroken..." Butterfield was in the other room with his bottle of beer and his head down on the table just slamming the bottle and saying, "It's a sacrilege, you shouldn't do that. The song is sacred, it's a sacrilege to do that to it."
These are moments that I look back on and say, "I was there." I'm very lucky. I really am lucky and blessed to have lived through the things I've lived through - good and bad - and to have been witness to and part of some of American musical history. So I'm glad I got a chance to write a book about it.
September 27, 2016.
Get Still The One: A Rock 'n' Roll Journey to Congress and Back, on Amazon.
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