John Hall is an upstate New York - based musician who was a founding member of the band Orleans. With classic hits such as "Still the One" and "Dance with Me", John and Orleans had major radio air play and achieved popularity throughout the United States and the world. Eventually John started his own group called "The John Hall Band", which also pumped out hits on radio and MTV. John always showed concern for the environment and other civic issues, so he began to get involved with local politics in the upstate New York region. This led him to get elected to the Ulster County Legislature in 1989. He also served as trustee and President of the Saugerties Board of Education. With this experience behind him, John was eventually elected to the United States Congress in the 19th District of New York. That wasn't an easy task for him, as the incumbent was well entrenched with major big business backing, but John had help from musical friends such as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, Graham Nash and many others. They helped him garner enough campaign money to get him elected. As a United States Congressman, John was very proud to work as Chairman of the Veterans sub-committee and was instrumental in passing "The Veterans Claims Modernization Act". This bill was passed unanimously by Republicans and Democrats and proved that it was possible for Congress to work together in a bi-partisan way. John has just released a memoir of his life in music and politics called "Still the One - A Rock 'n' Roll Journey to Congress and Back". I recently spoke with him about his career and his new book.
R.V.B. - Hello John... this is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island New York, how are you today?
J.H. - I'm good Rob, how are you doing?
R.V.B. - It's a little hot down here. Is it hot up by you in upstate New York?
J.H. - It is. According to NASA and NOAA. It's been the hottest year so far, starting from January, since they started taking records in 1880. August has been pretty toasty also.
R.V.B. - We have issues with what us humans are doing to this planet. I appreciate all the good work that you've done for the environment.
J.H. - Thanks
R.V.B. - You had a passion and you went with it... which includes your music. You're a real go-getter.
J.H. - My parents raised me and my brothers to be as high achievers as we could be. When I was in school, I was on a physics track. I skipped two grades in school and went to Notre Dame University in South Bend Indiana at the age of 16. I had already been to 3 National Science Foundation summer programs in Worcester Massachusetts. I had also been on a track playing music. I've been playing piano since I was 5. I had 11 years of classical piano lessons. 6 years of French horn. I taught myself how to play the guitar. I played in every band I could find in high school and college. In Notre Dame, I was in a bluegrass band... an a cappella group... a rock and roll band. I played at frat parties. I played drum in a marching band.
R.V.B. - That's quite a variety.
J.H. - I loved trying new things, especially in music.
R.V.B. - Who did you like when you started playing the guitar?
J.H. - I started out with folk music. It was Pete Seeger and the Weavers... when I was like 5. My grandmother had their records. Then it was The Kingston Trio... Peter Paul and Mary... The Ventures... as I was moving to electric guitar rock and roll, it was The Beach Boys... The Beatles... The Kinks... and The Rolling Stones... etc. Then it was Jimi Hendrix.
R.V.B. - That seems like a natural progression.
J.H. - Yes... I think it was. My parents tried to talk me out of being a musician. After 1 year at Notre Dame and 1 semester at Loyola in Baltimore, I announced that I was going to drop out at school and play in a band in Georgetown on M Street. They brought an organist and trumpet player from a church in Baltimore to talk to me in Ellicott City, where my parents were living at the time and talked me out of being a musician. I think my parents were in the kitchen eve's dropping while this guy Matt Fraley and I sat in the living room and talked. He said "You know John... it's really a tough life. When you're a musician, you never get to stay home. You have to keep weird hours and there's a lot of traveling. You don't get to be around your family that much." I was thinking "When can I start? Sign me up!".
R.V.B. - I'm sure that didn't go over well with your P.H.D. father!
J.H. - I know. They were happy once they heard my music on the radio. They were really just afraid that I was throwing my life away. I'm a parent and I'm a grandparent now so I understand that fear for your kids wellbeing. My dad wanted his 3 sons to be scientists like himself. My mom was a devout Catholic and wound up with a Masters in Divinity and she taught at a Jesuit seminary. She wanted her sons to be priests. My younger brother was a priest and my older brother Jim, was an actuary... which is a probability specialist. I fell somewhere in between. The apple fell between the two trees. I wound up playing music. If you look at a sheet music page... it's a graph of pitch verses time. You're dealing with 3rd, 4th, 5th harmony... 32nd notes... 64th notes... whole notes... etc. It's a way of getting kids to learn math without knowing that, that's what's going on. My parents wanted me to be one of those things but they thought, as long as he's happy and he can make a living, then it's alright. They wound up being very proud of me. There's a picture of them with my wife and my daughter... when I got sworn into Congress... standing with the Speaker... with my hand on the bible. It came full circle.
R.V.B. - I know that you're from upstate New York, and a lot of great music came from up there. How did you enjoy the music scene at Georgetown and Greenwich Village? That was a happening time.
J.H. - It was amazing. I took a Greyhound bus from DC... after playing there with a couple of bands... up to Greenwich Village, because I heard that "Cafe Wha?" was holding auditions. This guitar player Teddy Spelies who played a serial number 5 Fender Broadcaster... which was before the Telecaster. It's really an valuable - old instrument. It's also a great sounding instrument. I got into a band with Teddy and we auditioned a couple of people and wound up with Norman Smart who went on to play in the band Mountain with Leslie West. Barbara Keith wrote the song "Free the People" for Delaney and Bonnie. She was a singer/songwriter and an acoustic guitar player. That made up the band we called Kangaroo. We were alternating sets at the "Cafe Wha?" with Bruce Springsteen and his band The Castiles. The Lovin' Spoonful were playing just around the corner at The Night Owl. When they went on the road supporting Do You Believe In Magic, The Flying Machine with James Taylor and Danny Kortchmar came in. Danny went on to play with Carole King. It was a very productive time and a historical time. None of us realized how legendary that time period would be. I'm proud to say I was a part of it.
R.V.B. - That was a very cool scene to be a part of. I know that you mentioned graphs, notes, and time signatures, but when you came out with "Still the One"... it had such a nice flow to it. I don't hear anything mathematical about it. I hear a wonderful, flowing analog sine wave song.
J.H. - Unless it's intended to be techno music, music shouldn't sound too mathematical. The idea is to write a song that sounds like it flows and sticks to you. If you had to write it out for someone to play it, you'd write a graph for sheet music or a chart. Then you might be able to identify that there's math involved. I never wanted people to listen to my songs and go "Wow, that's an interesting interval. It jumps an 11." It should just sound really good. My x-wife Johanna was co-writing with me at the time and she was talking with a friend of hers who was going through a divorce. Her friend said "Why don't you write a song about people who are staying together? It seems like so many people are breaking up". Johanna wrote the lyrics on the back of an envelope and handed it to me and said "Can you do something with this?". I said "Let me take a shot at it", and I wrote the music in 10 minutes. It was like falling off a log. It just cried out to have a rock intro. The chord changes and the harmonies all came from there. It can't always be this way, but it's the most successful song I've ever been involved with... or Orleans has ever recorded. For it to be a 10 minute write, it's really kind of amazing. "Dance with me" took much longer to write. Other songs like "You Can Dream of Me", which was a number one country hit for Steve Warner... that Steve and I wrote together... I started the chorus in the shower at the YMCA in Nashville after playing racquetball. Then I drove over to Steve's house... we had a date to get together to try and write something. I walked in humming the song and already had the chorus worked out. I finished the two verses and the bridge to it in a couple of hours... that's pretty quick. Sometimes I work on a song for years. It's like a puzzle, you work on it for a long time and the last piece finally falls in.
R.V.B. - I guess if there was a method and a book on this, everybody would be doing it.
J.H. - Haha. There is a million ways of writing a song... and they're all valid... and they all work at times.
R.V.B. - So you traveled around with Orleans in the upstate region and the northeast... How did you enjoy this time period?
J.H. - Well I love it. In the beginning we were a trio... Wells, Larry and me, and we'd be riding in a van with all the equipment packed behind us... in a blizzard... going from Ithaca to Rochester... and there was always the hazard that if you hit the car in front of you because you couldn't see... or if you drove off the road because the lines on the road were completely obscured by snow... if we ever had to stop suddenly or hit something... a Shure Vocal Master (Vocal Masher) column would take our heads off right through the front windshield. Fortunately, we survived and nothing like that ever happened, but it was dangerous and uncomfortable. We were on a mission. We were young and loved music... loved being a band and loved playing in front of people. We took some risks... during the more clement months it wasn't that bad driving from one show to another. We were fortunate to get to a point where we had a bus and a driver, and a truck for our equipment. Things got cushier there for a while.
J.H. - When I was campaigning, the first thing that happened was that I was having a hard time raising money. Imagine getting on a phone and calling your family, friends, and relatives, and asking them to contribute money to your campaign. The reason you start with them is because if you can't convince them that you're the right person for the office, you'll never convince anybody else. Then I went through all of my phone lists, and other peoples phone lists, and I was running out of people to call. I was not raising nearly enough money to run a campaign. Jackson Browne offered to come in and help. There were these renovated barns in the lower Hudson valley and he offered to do 4 barn concerts in a weekend... 2 on Saturday and 2 on Sunday. The 1st one we did was in Warwick, in Orange county New York, had Jon Pousette Dart Band, Dar Williams, Jackson Browne and myself. We did kind of a round robin where everyone would take turns playing a song and we all would back each other up and harmonize with each other. When we were finished, someone yelled from the back of the room "How much for "Take it Easy"? Jackson said "How much do you have?". Then someone on my staff said "What's the legal FEC limit?". Someone said "$2,000". That was the most any individual could contribute to a campaign at the time. The guy that asked said "I'm passing up a check". A check for $2,000 for John Hall for congress gets handed up to the front of the room. Jackson starts singing the song and we're all strumming along and singing... and the crowd is singing along. There was about 200 people in a barn. When we finished that someone else yelled how much for The Pretender? It was another 2 grand. We started auctioning songs off. Some of them went for a little less. It was one of many magical moments. Jackson had a lot of things to do, and he could be playing concerts to make money for himself, and he flew across the country at his own expense to come in and do these fundraisers to help me to get elected to congress. It was not the biggest crowd but it was one of the magic moments. Playing with Bonnie Raitt and Nancy Griffith... and her playing with Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal at a house party. Playing "Teach Your Children" with David Crosby and Graham Nash at a house party in Westchester was really fabulous. I've been a fan of theirs since they started out. I was a fan before that, when The Hollies were big. It was a thrill for me to get to play with them all. I had already worked with them in the No-Nukes projects but to have them campaigning for me... I joked about that I didn't have Exxon and Mobil but I have Jackson and Bonnie. It was the only way I could raise enough money to have a competitive campaign. In 2006 it was approximately $1,500,000, which I never dreamed I'd be able to raise. By the time the 2008 campaign came around, it was up to 2 million. The 2010 campaign I had raised 2.6 million... which I wound up losing... was the 1st election after the Supreme Court's United decision. I got outspent by 5 million dollars of dark Super PAC money that came from outside the districts... outside the State... un-disclosed sources. Unless something happens to change the ruling of the Supreme Court, that will continue. It's unbelievable that it even allows foreign corporations to contribute to US political campaigns against certain candidates that they want to defeat. That means that other countries can try to run our military policy... our foreign policy... our energy policy... you name it. This should absolutely be illegal. The American people have not woken up yet but we're starting to. Citizens United was a coup against our democracy that was executed by the Supreme Court. We need a different Supreme Court majority, to be able to turn things around.
R.V.B. - I know that you did a lot of things from your heart and change things for the better for people. Did it bother you in the fact that in the life of a musician is kind of a happy go lucky life where you may run into an occasional bad club owner but then you go into politics which can tend to get nasty?
J.H. - Politics can be nasty and honestly the music business can be also. I answered this question when I was running for office... how do you make the transition? I apprenticed in a business that's cleaner than a driven snow and has nothing to do with money. Payola was a term invented... referring to rock and roll records being paid for by the promoter or record company to get their songs played on the radio. It began with Allan Freed in Cleveland. There were congressional hearings on payola. Nobody is pure here. (Haha) I can take being down and dirty. Look, if you can't play hard ball and grow a thick skin, you probably shouldn't run for office. You also need a sense of humor. It's one of the best ways of ending an argument or changing a subject. I'm glad I'm back in music now. I'm a lucky guy. I got to play and do something that I love and make a living at it... basically all my life. The 4 years I served in Congress was the hardest work I ever did... 13 hour days... 7 days a week for 4 years. Not to mention the time I was campaigning before that to get there. It's easily the hardest I ever worked. I also got to go to Afghanistan to have lunch with our soldiers in Kandahar. I got to drive an icebreaker ship on the Hudson river that the Coast Guard was using to break up the ice in the shipping channel. I got to fly the C-5 transport simulator at Stewart Air Base. I got to meet heads of state and members of the cabinet in Israel... in Germany... in Iraq. I served under President George W. Bush for 2 years and then under President Obama for 2 years. I got to work with 2 guys... I don't agree with everything they did but they both treated me with respect. I was brought up to treat the office with respect. I went to the White House when George W. Bush was hosting a reception for the class of 2006 for newly elected members of congress. I had my picture taken with him and Laura Bush. I shook their hands and said "Thank you very much for your hospitality Mr. President. It's an honor to meet you both". He said "It's an honor to have you here". I sat through two of his State of the Unions and through two of Barack Obama's State of the Unions. I would never have dreamed of yelling "You lie!"... in the middle of a quiet spot. A Republican representative named Joe Wilson from South Carolina did that to President Obama. It was clearly disrespectful and accusational. I was just not brought up that way. I must be too old fashioned. We'd be better off as a country if we went back to remembering that everybody's human. We should argue against a policy, if we disagree with it, but not make it personal. I know it's a big step back to the abyss but it would probably be a good one for us to take.
R.V.B. - You did a lot of good things during your tenure in Congress. You should be proud of yourself of your civic duty. I thank you for it. I know you had mentioned Pete Seeger earlier. You got to meet him a few times?
J.H. - I organized a benefit to stop the MX missile from being built. (Multiple Independent Re-entry vehicles) where one ICBM can carry 10 different warheads, so it can hit 10 targets. I thought it would ramp up the arms race and make for a shorter hair trigger on both sides... with us and the Russians. I organized a protest and rally on the steps of the Capitol. Senator Ted Kennedy was there and Senator Ed Markey was there. John Sebastian came down and performed. Run DMC was there... Pete Seeger was there. I got a pretty good group of musical artist's and political notables... and my mother. After the event was over, Congressman Ed Markey (at the time) said to me, Pete, and my mom, "Do you guys have lunch plans? Why don't you join me for lunch in the Capitol dining room?". We all said "Yes, We'd love to". We were sitting at a table for 4. My mom was very social able and never met anyone that she couldn't have a conversation with. Pete was kind of the same way. We were sitting there and talking as we were surrounded by other members of Congress and their guests and I mentioned to Pete that after the No-Nukes concerts... I had already served in lower office at the County level and the school board in Saugerties New York, where I lived... People had already started talking to me about running for Congress. Congressman Markey said "Don't do it! We need you where you are. You're reaching many more people by writing songs... getting the political points across in the lyrics of the songs". Jokingly he said "Sometimes I think I should be a newscaster like Dan Rather... to present the news the way I think it should be presented". I said "Don't do it! We need you where you are". (Haha) As time went on, Pete and I did play together numerous times during campaigns. He played banjo without any amplification at the opening party for my first campaign office. When I won the race for the 19th congressional district in New York, I became his Congressman. I had a lot of connections with Pete and I'm very proud of that... rest his soul. He was a statesman of the Hudson Valley. He went from being somebody who was controversial with being on the banned list during the McCarthy era. When he was banned from being on radio and television it really put a crimp in his career. By the time he reached old age and was the elder statesman of folk music. Everybody in this area loved him. He had done a lot of important work to clean up the Hudson river. People were very grateful for that. My musical contacts were interesting and wider then I could of imagined. At the No-Nukes concerts I remember David Bowie came back stage. He was hanging out and sitting on a road case. Graham Nash and I went up to him and introduced ourselves and tried to talk him into doing a song... any song. We had all the best musicians from New York and LA there. We had Russ Kunkel, Jim Keltner, my drummer, Steve Gadd, and many other great musicians on any instrument you can name. David could just call out a key. We knew a lot of his songs. He didn't have to have makeup or any costume on. We didn't quite talk him into it. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith came out and sang a chorus of "Power" with us. Carly Simon was helping me teach the song to Steve Tyler backstage. I realized watching them, that they had the same smile. The widest smiles in pop music.
R.V.B. - I could picture that.
J.H. - I conspired to get them to sing on the same microphone so the camera would catch them smiling and singing. (Haha) Paul Simon showed up unannounced and played a version of "Me and Julio" with just him on the guitar. It was great and the crowd went crazy. There were bands there like Bruce Springsteen and the East Street Band, The Doobie Brothers... with Mike McDonald at that time... and on and on. It was just an amazing experience. The relationships that I had with those artists continued and most of them supported my campaign. I'm very grateful for that.
R.V.B. - I saw a picture of you in a magazine with a Daryl Oates tee shirt. Did you have to explain yourself a lot? (Haha)
J.H. - (Haha) It's a joke. Hall and Oates and Orleans actually played together a lot back when we both were starting out. They took of a little quicker than we did and we opened for them a couple of times. When I was on the road with Little Feat... while I had the John Hall Band... their crew was getting a lot of questions about this. "Is this the John Hall from Hall and Oates?". They would have to explain "No. That's Daryl Hall and John Oates". They got so tired of explaining it, they made tee shirts that said "Daryl Oates is no longer with us". I got one and I wore it in that picture.
R.V.B. - (Haha) It's a classic picture.
J.H. - I live pretty close to Daryl in Duchess County in upstate New York. When I order pizza, sometimes the pizza guy goes "Is that Daryl Hall or John Hall?". I guess he orders from the same pizza place.
R.V.B. - What accomplishments are you proud of during your time in Congress?
J.H. - I'm proud of the work that I did for our Veterans. I was appointed in 2007 to be the chairman of subcommittee on disabilities for Veterans. The backlog of disability payments to cover for injuries to service men during their service to our country. There's a different kind of war going on now because there's no front and back lines. When I went to the green zone in Iraq and slept there, they told us we had to sleep with our helmets and body armor on because the previous week they had lost 2 soldiers to incoming mortar fire. The green zone was only a couple of miles across and a mortar could easily reach that far. Although I didn't serve myself... I was called for the draft and I went for my physical and I was turned away for physical reasons. 40 years later I wound up being appointed to chair this subcommittee on disabilities. One case in particular that I'm especially proud of is... a World War 2 vet was on 2 ships that were sunk from under him out in the pacific... one by a kamikaze pilot and one by a torpedo. He found himself floating in the dark twice. He was out of site of land and tried to rescue his shipmates from the big ship and drag them on to the lifeboat. His buddies had to hold him back so they could row away and not be caught in the current of the sinking ship. It's like a bad Twilight Zone episode. He had gone to the VA in the 70's and they told him that he was a schizophrenic with a preexisting condition, therefore the VA did not owe him anything. He had PTSD. When I talked to him to ask him questions on what happened, he couldn't stop shaking and crying. He had never been able to hold a job or maintain a relationship. He was sleeping in his best friends guest room. It was a really a sad case of a guy whose government had failed him. We got that reversed. Because I was chairman I could hold hearings up in the Hudson Valley and gearings in Washington DC and bring this to light... and have it covered by the media. Leaders of organizations like the VFW, The American Legion, IAVA, Vietnam Veterans of America, all came to testify before the subcommittee I was chairing. We got Ken Macdonald (the serviceman I'm talking about) fully covered and $98,000 back pay disability and $2400 a month for the rest of his life. At that point it was all worth it... just for this one thing. We did a lot of other things also. I passed a bill to speed up the claims process for veterans. It was called the Veterans Claims Modernization Act... in 2008. It was passed in both the Senate and the House with a yes vote by every Democrat and every Republican in Congress. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush, who called it good government in his signing document. I was like "Miracles can happen". I wasn't the biggest fan of President Bush but we all got together on a bill that this Democrat started because there was common ground and it was something we could all agree on. I think we need to work back toward that as a country... like clean water. After Flint... after Charleston West Virginia... after Bennington Vermont... where there is either lead in the water or PFOA in the water... and various other poisons that we are now finding out about. Members of both parties should both be able to agree that we should have clean drinking water. Whatever steps we have to take, the government should take them. That means we should all have to pay for them through taxes. I'm not saying we have to raise a huge amount of taxes but maybe we can shift money from somewhere else. It's basically our children's health. In the case of lead, it causes retardation... especially in the young brain. We started with the vets and go into clean water and then go into something else... like infrastructure. Everybody agrees that we should rebuild our roads and bridges, and our failing 50 year old sewerage treatment plants. Let's do it and we'll create jobs in the process, and make the country more productive and safer to live in. These are the kind of things I think we should be doing. I know it's not going to happen until after the election but try and put partisanship aside, find common ground, and build on it. That's my speech and I'm sticking to it.
R.V.B. - How did you get involved with sailing? Did anything ever go wrong during one of your sailing adventures?
J.H. - I had some things go wrong. When I was young, things went wrong and I felt like I was getting shipwrecked. It was never as bad as it seemed when you were a kid. I sailed to Atlantic City via the ocean one time with my younger brother Gerry on a 37 footer, that my parents and I owned at the time. The big genoa got wound around the headstay. They call it an hourglass sail because it looks like a balloon at the top, middle, and bottom. When you're running an inlet on a fowling sea it can be very dangerous if the boat were to be turned. The stern could be lifted up on every wave and it tries to turn the boat sideways, and once your sideways, those big waves can roll you. We had to sail in with the help of the engine and get out of the wind and into the harbor by the marina there. Then we could gradually get the knots out in the channel. That was a minor mishap. I sailed with my wife Melanie north from Key West to Martha's Vineyard. On the way off shore from Cape May to Block Island we took a straight shot south off Long Island, and the rudder came loose when we were almost to Block Island. Fortunately the wind was very mild and the sea was mild. I had to go down below while somebody steered very gently. The steering quadrant was going to break off completely and we would of had an emergency tiller put in.
There are always backup systems but I had to go down below with a flashlight and a screwdriver and a wrench and put these nuts and bolts back into the steering quadrant. I was calling up through the hatch "Wait for a quiet spot. Wait until the waves die down and take your hand off the steering wheel so there's no torque on it at all". The guy at the helm would do that and as soon as things held still for 5 seconds, I'd put one more bolt in it and quick throw the nut on the other side. We managed to get it temporarily tight enough to get us into the new Harbor on Block Island. A mechanic came out and fixed it there while we were tied up at a dock. All kinds of things can happen while you're sailing. In sailing, stuff happens and in life, stuff happens. You learn to deal with it and make lemonade out of lemons.
R.V.B. - It's all part of life's experiences - right?
J.H. - That's right.
R.V.B. - Thank you for this opportunity of chatting about your career and your accomplishments
J.H. - Your welcome.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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Thank you to Anne Leighton
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