A trio of Metro Pulse writers take
a trip down the memory lane that is the TVA&I Fair's
The smell. (The pungent aroma of Polish sausages mingles with the ripe odor
of the petting zoo, not to mention the cloyingly sweet top note of funnel
cakes and powdered sugar, making for a stink that is, quite literally,
breathtaking.) The sights. (A people watcher's paradise, it is one of the
few places in town where you can encounter East Tennesseans from all walks
of life, spending dollars in the attempt to pop a wilting balloon with a
dart and go home with a prize that seems to have been borne of an oversized
Cracker Jack box.) The noises. ("Step right up...If you wanna be my lover...Get
your cotton candy here...Lost child at the first aid station...C'mon, buddy,
win her a stuffed satin heart...Hey, Macarena... Whoooooo.") The sensory
overload. Of course, we're talking about a state fair, the annual spectacle
of flashing lights, booming Top 40 hits, and one-of-a-kind stink; more
specifically, we're talking about the Tennessee Valley Agricultural &
Industrial Fair, the lovable beast that invades Chilhowee Park in East Knoxville
for 10 days each year. Step right up, and take a trip in time with us,
remembering some of our favorite--or, maybe just most pervasive--memories
of the TVA&I Fair.
My fondest memory of the Tennessee Valley Fair was the fall of 1980.
Every year Rock 104 (the station that would become 103.5 WIMZ with the advent
of the digital age) would host a local Battle of the Bands at the Fair. So
in the fall of '80 I got together with a few of my chums and we decided we'd
"punk out" (that's dress punk in '80s Doyle High School lingo) to go to Rock
Wars. I spiked my hair, wore a skinny tie, wrap-around shades, and a trusty
pair of torn Levis. I thought I looked just like Johnny Rotten.
We arrived at the Fair around 5:00 p.m. and took a walk through the Midway
area to check out the rides. Patrons of the Midway have never been the most
tolerant lot, and my little clique was met with stares and giggles from all
angles. I remember one carny yelling at me, "Hey space case, let me guess
By 8:00 p.m. we'd consumed our hot dogs, rode a couple of rides, and made
our way to the tent behind the Jacob Building where Rock Wars was held. The
rumor circulating around town was that a real punk band was going to be playing.
The first two bands in the competition were Fantasy and Spellbound, competent
if mediocre bands who would bring the crowds to their feet with covers of
songs like "Boom Boom Out Goes The Lights" and "Freebird." My friends and
I were too sophisticated to succumb to the charms of the first bands. After
all, we had been listening to Devo, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones for
all of six months, and we were just too hip, baby.
Finally the band we had come to see mounted the stage. We were a little
disappointed to see that they weren't wearing skinny ties or safety pins,
but as soon as the music started we decided we loved 'em.
The band was Balboa, featuring Hector Qirko and Terry Hill, who would become
a figurehead in the first wave of Knoxville's punk scene. Balboa played a
mix of slightly experimental rock similar to Television or King Crimson and
some faster songs that were similar to the Ramones. We were all floored.
This was the first time I'd ever pogoed in public. I'd had plenty of practice
in front of the mirror in my bedroom, so I was ready to pull out all the
stops. I remember about 20 people pogoing in the aisles while the rest of
the crowd looked on, aghast.
What was most amazing about Balboa was their stage delivery, which was totally
devoid of the rock 'n' roll bullshit that was common in those days. Balboa
just played hard with passion and precision. They didn't do any covers and
didn't end the set with a sermon about, "If you believe in rock 'n' roll,
PUT YO' HANDS TOGETHA!!!" They had one song that summed up this delivery
perfectly, called "Image Free."
That night at Rock Wars was a pivotal event for what would become Knoxville's
first punk scene. All of the future movers and shakers were there: Todd Steed
(later of Smokin' Dave, the Opposable Thumbs, and various other combos),
Brian Waldschlegger (soon to be singer of the 5 Twins, later of the Dirtclods,
and now in Shinola), Shannon Stanfield (a.k.a. Clint Clinton), Trey McReynolds
(a.k.a. Colonel Bacchus), Cathy Freeman (a.k.a. Cat Peacent), Carl Snow (later
of KoRo and Whitey), Dale Ashe (of the Imposters and later Teenage Love),
and a handful of others I've probably forgotten.
It was that night in a tent behind the Jacob Building that a new generation
of rock musicians were moved to start their own bands and move Knoxville
into a new era. The most amazing thing about that night is that almost everybody
who was pogoing in the aisles is still involved in music to this day, even
Terry. Rock Wars of 1980 was definitely a seminal event.
Later that night I kissed a girl on the roller coaster, but that's another
I was a child of privilege when it came to the Fair. My beloved
grandfather worked security at the Fair every year for more than a decade,
actually saving up his vacation days from his regular job to spend 10 days
in September wearing a pith helmet and strolling around the grounds of Chilhowee
Park. (Really, there were few security threats.) So, I grew up not realizing
other people had to pay for parking blocks away from the Fair site, that
they didn't get to stay on rides two turns in a row. The one time I knew
I was privileged, though, was during the concerts at the Homer Hamilton Theatre.
My family had cordoned-off, specially-reserved, front-row seats for any and
every show we wanted to attend--Chubby Checker, Charlie Daniels. One of my
first (admittedly unfortunate) concert experiences was watching Molly Hatchet
from my catbird seat; even as a 9-year-old, though, I remember being bored.
I tend to remember various fairs by the soundtrack that spilled out of the
underground tunnel that connected the "normal" side to Billings Million Dollar
Midway, that garish wonderland of flashing neon, loud-mouthed barkers touting
ring tosses and hoop shoots, stuffed pink teddy bears, goldfish destined
to live about as long as it takes you to get home, blue cotton candy and
pungent Polish sausages, and creepy "See, With Your Very Own Eyes, The World's
Smallest Woman!" signs for freak shows that were invariably "closed for lunch."
"I Love The Night Life" by Alicia Bridges marked 1977; Cheap Trick's "Surrender"
was the call of the wild for '79, followed by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts'
"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" in '81 and "Too Young Too Fall In Love," by Motley
Crüe, in '83. AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" was evergreen and
never seemed to go away.
As I got older and my self-consciousness swelled in high school, I proclaimed
the Fair sweaty, stinky, and (gasp) bourgeois and refused to go. No more
funnel cakes or corn dogs or free water from John Duncan for me. No more
Himalaya or Spider or tram rides across the Chilhowee Park pond. I was suddenly
struck by the skeptical idea that most of the wiry teenage guys carrying
oversized stuffed animals on their shoulders were paid to do so, to sucker
poor saps into thinking they too could go home with a sad-eyed, sawdust-stuffed
unicorn. I had even realized that making fuzzy baby ducks precariously stick
their necks out for a nibble of food, only to inevitably careen down a slippery
slide at the petting zoo, wasn't cute, it was just plain cruel.
But, then, a few years later, I relented and returned to the Fair. And you
know what? It was exactly as I remembered it. Charlie Daniels was still playing
at the Homer Hamilton Theatre. The air still reeked of Polish sausages and
funnel cakes. The barkers still wanted to guess my weight. The petting zoo
ducks hadn't gotten any smarter. And AC/DC was still singing about being
knocked about "with those American thighs." Who says you can't go home again?
The circus was sometimes fun. All those ice shows at the Coliseum
had their moments. But what we anticipated every year, like Christmas, was
the Fair. There was a wild freedom to the Fair, a freedom to move around
and make your own choices that a kid rarely found anywhere else.
It was a miniature nation, a weird civilization compressed into this one
plot of land, where you had goats and pigs and souped-up tractors over here,
oils and watercolors over there, aging rock'n'roll stars and gospel singers
in there--and interspersed throughout, on the banks of this minature lake,
along these streets without cars, hawkers of T-shirts and all manner of things
We respected all this as part of the ritual--but when I was a kid, it was
only a dramatic spell before we'd go underneath Magnolia in the tunnel to
see the main thing, which was the Midway.
I only went into a sideshow once. My parents didn't approve of them, and
wouldn't buy me a ticket. But in 1970, I had my own money from mowing grass
all summer, and there was a "tribute" to Martin Luther King and the dead
Kennedys. Expecting to be inspired by their heroic example--and, probably
more importantly to me at age 12, horrified by gruesome relics of their violent
deaths--I paid 50 cents and walked through the door.
Inside were two white department-store mannequins and one black one, and
the door out.
I always liked the rides best, especially the roller coasters. The Haunted
House, if you can call that a ride, was always my favorite because it was
hidden, with stuff you couldn't see from the outside, except for the witch
that moved out of the upper window with a lurch and jolted to a stop. It's
funny that I can hardly remember anything I ever saw inside, except the very
last time I ever went into the Haunted House.
There, behind bars, lit by a purple light, was a gorilla in a plush coffin,
half-open so we could view the head and shoulders, like at a Baptist funeral.
I didn't know for sure whether dead gorillas were usually buried in coffins,
or whether this dead gorilla was somehow special, or Baptist, but there he
was. But why not bury gorillas in coffins?, I thought. Surely rotting gorillas
pose more of a health risk than most rotting people. I stood there reverently.
Suddenly this particular dead gorilla sat bolt upright and said, "Har!"
I watched, expecting something more.
"Dang," the gorilla in the coffin said. "I need a break."
After a few more turns of dim bulbs on dim subjects, I realized I was near
the end and hadn't nearly gotten what I expected from a Haunted House. I
turned back just before I had irretrievably exited, and ducked behind a curtain,
through a door. Inside was a plain white fluroescent light, a metal sink,
some folding chairs, and a few wooden crates of Coca-Cola bottles. I realized
it wasn't part of the Haunted House I was supposed to see, that I wasn't
supposed to be in there at all. I was, for a moment, scared.
I told everybody at Sunday School the next morning that I sat down in there
and opened one of those Cokes and enjoyed a refreshing break on my tour of
the Haunted House, but I think what I really did was get out fast. I didn't
want to be the next one in that gorilla suit.
There's a time when you start thinking you're too big for the Fair, that
the important thing is to be cool, and it's very hard to be cool when you've
got a bar across your lap and some other teenager in a polyester shirt is
holding a lever and deciding how fast and how far you'll be hurled.
Fortunately, there also comes a time after that.
-- Jack Neely