Forty five minutes
Fifty five cents
Sixty five agents sitting on a fence
Singing, hey little brother
Look what we got for you
We’re gonna rope off an area
And put on a show
From the Canadian border
Down to Mexico
It might be the most
Thing that we could possibly do
from “Onomatopoeia” by John Prine, 1973
Such was life in Atlanta during the run-up to the ’96 Summer Olympics. The Centennial Olympic Games would, so thought entrepreneurs, promoters and cheats, provide hundreds, maybe thousands of ways to make money. And there seemed to be tens of thousands who thought they’d make the money. It was a sad sight. John Prine’s song of hucksters came to mind often, as did, quite a few times, the Bob Dylan line from “Tombstone Blues”: “Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
But from time to time, as we watched our city sell its soul and trash its streets, those of us accepting cash and trying not to pass judgement had a good time. In fact, working for the advertising department of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — in the heart of Downtown and in the thick of the action — that summer of ’96 was great fun. When the job was done right, you made money and friends in the same transaction. And some of those friends were in great places.
It was early. I was at the House of Blues — brand new to Atlanta, just in time for the Summer Games — on a morning in late July, honorably representing The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, trying to give HOB a good deal and come away with some of their money. Their accounting department was preparing a check for the ads they’d run with us that week. I was there for the check and to go over design ideas for the upcoming ads. Getting through it all took a lot of time, but that’s because the three of us got on well and would talk about this, that and the other. “We may get Dylan to play here the last two nights of the Olympics,” said one of the guys. “But he wants a lot of money.”
“So does the AJC, ” I said, wondering what was taking so long for the check to appear. I reasoned Dylan was Dylan, not Junior Brown or the Mavericks, who’d also be playing there the last weekend. The booking guy was annoyed over how much Dylan wanted, repeating it was a lot of money. “You guys want a lot of money for a bottle of beer,” I replied, grabbing the newspaper’s check from a runner on my way out. The next day I was back. The marketing guy was all excited, saying, “We have to design a new ad. We got Dylan.”
On August 3 and 4, Bob Dylan gave two great shows at the House of Blues. People numbering in the thousands would tell you Dylan’s concerts were the highlights of Atlanta’s Olympic summer. Forget the Dream Team. Give Dylan a gold medal — along with however much money the House of Blues coughed up.
Tell Me Great Hero, But Please Make It Brief … As Dylan was getting ready to give his second House of Blues concert, nervous Atlantans waited to hear what International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch would say in his closing ceremony address. Always jubilant with the Games under his helm, Samaranch had traditionally declared the Olympics just concluded as “the best Olympics ever.” Atlanta needed to hear him say it again, just as he said it four years earlier in his hometown, Barcelona, Spain. Instead, what Atlantans and the world heard was, “Well done, Atlanta,” and “most exceptional.” We saw it coming: The city with an inferiority complex had more to feel inferior about. Another PR pratfall to finesse; just like the flea market atmosphere close to game venues; just like the drivers of the media buses getting lost; just like the security lapses that allowed Eric Robert Rudolph to place a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park; just like the 30 pick-up trucks in the garish opening ceremony. Most exceptional indeed.
The next morning, Alan Gordon, an editor at the AJC, and I were outside the newspaper building as the downtown streets emptied. The flea marketeers had packed up and headed back home with their tacky trifles, none the richer for taking part in the city’s vending scam. Considering their sad plights made us think of what all our town had experienced — the good and not so good. Many of the day-to-day events leading up to and through the Olympics were great fun. Dylan, Al Green, Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Cash and other greats had performed at the old Baptist Tabernacle sanctuary converted into what we hoped would be the permanent home for an Atlanta House of Blues. And appreciated most was the sense of vitality — quite rare for Atlanta’s downtown — that pervaded the city’s central business district. It was great for one’s hometown to be the center of the world’s attention for a couple of weeks, even with the embarrassments (which our employer added to). Alan and I took some sad looks up and down Marietta Street and sighed. We hated to see everyone go, especially the House of Blues, considering the great press it received. Some of the praise that came its way focused on the glitz while ignoring the substantial, however. One AJC reporter wrote the club “was over-hyped but it was hot … and that it had more than exceeded expectations for drawing the famous and their fans.” Then the praise took a backhanded turn when she wrote that “Owner Issac Tigrett’s magic even managed to make Bob Dylan sound good.” That was typical of the newspaper’s coverage of rock music at the time. Perhaps if Dylan had learned to enunciate like Kenny Loggins, she would’ve enjoyed his shows.
Atlanta’s big party didn’t come off so great after all. Recriminations galore. We were experiencing the Peggy Lee Moment. Didn’t we have more to show the world when it came to our door? Sure we did, but a lousy presentation mixed with garden-variety corruption obscured the view. Thankfully, we felt consolation in that we had Major League Baseball’s World Champions, the Atlanta Braves. They couldn’t take that away from us.
Some Are Building Monuments … For Atlanta’s baseball fans, the biggest payoff from the ’96 Games was that the freshly minted Olympic Stadium would be converted into the new home of the Atlanta Braves. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the home of the Braves for 31 seasons, had aged badly. In fact, by the time Hank Aaron hit home run 715 there (in ’74, the Braves’ 9th season in Atlanta), the stadium already had a neglected look and feel about it. The Braves’ new park, just across the street, and designed in the retro-classic style, would be named Turner Field, in honor of Ted Turner, who kept big league baseball (and also pro basketball when he purchased the Atlanta Hawks in ’77) in Atlanta.
In the ’96 baseball season, the Braves drew nearly 3 million fans. And why not? They were the defending world champions on their way to another World Series. They had a great team of young home-grown players supplemented by veteran free agents. The Braves, so laughable through most of the ’70s and ’80s, had become, in the words of Bob Costas, “the team of the ’90s.”
Still, Atlanta and environs — often distracted by hucksters and a mediocre NFL team — learned quite easily to take the Braves’ success for granted. While their post-season record (only one World Championship in 5 World Series appearances) disappoints, the Braves had only two losing seasons between 1991 and 2013. 2122 wins. 1536 losses. That’s .580 ball. Three of their starting pitchers, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, would establish new standards of excellence.
As teammates from ’93 through ’02, the three starters won 5 Cy Young awards between them (Glavine also won the Cy Young in ’91 and Maddux, then with the Chicago Cubs, won the award in ’92). Glavine and Maddux were elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame earlier this month, and Smoltz will surely be voted in next year. Bobby Cox, the Braves manager, from ’90 through ’10, was elected in December for induction this year, and Chipper Jones, the Braves’ best position player for most of the glory years, should also be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2018. The achievements of the Braves over the last 23 years have been astounding — it’s history making stuff. The Braves compiled a record that Atlantans who knew their baseball could point to with pride — and awe. However, commanding attention in this town of bling and the latest thing can be challenging. As we’ve learned recently, the Braves even failed to keep the Mayor’s attention. And now they’re headed off to be one of the attractions by a strip of malls and fast food joints.
Others, Jotting Down Notes … Two dozen days after the world’s biggest circus left town, day to day life in Atlanta was getting back to normal. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did make millions of dollars from Olympics-related advertising but was scrambling to justify its reporting on Richard Jewell, wrongly suspected of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing the month before. The Braves fortified their Hall of Fame rotation with the acquisition of Denny Neagle, who would be of little help the rest of the ’96 season but win 20 games for them the next year. House of Blues closed up shop, offering vague allusions about making the old Baptist Tabernacle building its permanent Atlanta home, but other promoters eventually took over the property, renaming it “The Tabernacle” and making it among the more popular venues in town. Bob Dylan would grace its stage for two nights in April 2004. He and his band gave performances as fiery as any Baptist preacher in that building’s 93 year history, Billy Sunday included.
But on the agenda for August 28, 1996, was an evening of business and pleasure. Mostly pleasure. A client representing the Atlanta Union Mission joined me for dinner and then we headed to Blind Willie’s, the great club on Highland Avenue named for Atlanta blues man Blind Willie McTell. Appearing that night was Jimmie Dale Gilmore, with songs from his great new album, Braver Newer World (produced by T-Bone Burnett), featured prominently in his extensive set. That one night was a great time in Atlanta — not the least bit glossy and altogether genuine. My friend and I conducted a little business but the main objectives were to enjoy a fine dinner and witness a stellar performance by Gilmore. Mission accomplished. For one evening it was possible to set aside the city’s blustery hype, its ravenous desire to make the big deal and its tendency to ruin lives while moving on to the next big deal — or as Dylan would regard the ongoing scenarios, “guarding fumes and making haste.”
Photo provided by Jeff Cochran. Full Page Ad for House of Blues, Atlanta, Summer '96. Ad designed by Bob Burkhardt and Jeff Cochran.