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Will Rock for Change

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FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly

A sprawling dump occupies what was once Winston Farm in Saugerties, every year taking in over 200,000 tons of solid waste, most of it trucked up from Manhattan, to be turned into on-site landfill or burned up in the facility's two massive incinerators. Topping this public eyesore and health hazard are a pair of 315-foot smokestacks, which spew toxic smog throughout the surrounding landscape and far beyond. Just up Route 9W in the hamlet of Cementon the Greene County Nuclear Power Plant looms like a Death Star. Constructed using reactor equipment manufactured by the very same company that made the components used in Pennsylvania's infamous Three Mile Island plant, it's a meltdown waiting to happen, one that was rubber-stamped into existence in the late 1970s by economically baited county officials.

Of course, thankfully, neither of these scenarios ever came to pass. The historic, 800-acre Winston Farm, which hosted the 1994 Woodstock and 2014 Hudson Project music festivals, remains largely untouched, while the plans for the Cementon nuke plant were scuttled in 1979. And instrumental in blocking the building of these frightening abominations was former New York State Representative John Hall, who led the fight against them and other potential environmental threats over the course of his career in politics, a career that has at times crossed over into his other vocation as a musician/activist. A singer-songwriter and guitarist, Hall is also the leader of Orleans, a band responsible for two of the biggest hits of the 1970s, and the author of the newly published memoir Still the One: A Rock 'n' Roll Journey to Congress and Back (Independent, 2016).

"There are a lot of similarities [between politics and rock 'n' roll]," says Hall, who formerly represented the state's 19th district in the Mid-Hudson Valley from 2007 to 2011. "By the time I'd decided to run for office, I was already used to being up in front of big crowds and I'd dealt with hecklers, people throwing things, getting microphones knocked in my face by dancing drunks. Once you've been through that, dealing with some loud Tea Party offshoot group at a rally is no big deal."

Hall, 68, hails from the Chemung County town of Elmira, where his father, an electrical engineer, worked at the local Westinghouse plant and his devout Catholic mother was the first woman in America to graduate from a Jesuit seminary. "One parent wanted the kids to be scientists and the other wanted them to be priests," recalls Hall, whose older brother, Jim, became an actuary and younger brother, Jerry, entered the clergy. John started piano lessons soon after he'd plinked out the "Marines' Hymn" on the instrument at age four; by high school he'd studied French horn and taught himself guitar. He was also prodigious academically, winning three National Science Foundation summer scholarships and skipping two grades in school before enrolling at the University of Notre Dame to study physics at 16.

At Notre Dame, Hall got his first, tantalizing taste of being a working musician while playing in frat rock bands. During his junior year he transferred to Loyola when his father took a job in the Baltimore area and the family moved to Maryland. Less than a year later, his parents were decidedly unthrilled when he dropped out and with brother Jim formed the Wad, a quartet that worked the thriving clubs of nearby Washington, DC. Next came a stint in the wonderfully named Chocolate Snowflake and his replacing legendary guitarist Roy Buchanan in the British Walkers, a Beatles-styled unit whose manager made them speak with fake English accents. It wasn't long, though, before Hall tired of the forced Beatlemania and walked away from the British Walkers, beating it up to Greenwich Village. There, he put together Kangaroo, a group that opened for the Who and the Doors and became favorites at the Cafe Wha?, where Jimi Hendrix regularly attended their gigs.

For Hall, the move to New York proved pivotal personally as well as professionally. At the Cafe Wha? he met his first wife, the writer Johanna Hall (nee Schier), and with Kangaroo he hopped into composing music theatrical productions. One December night when Janis Joplin dropped by the couple's apartment to be interviewed by Johanna for a Village Voice piece, Hall and the iconic singer got to jamming and, amid the revelry, Joplin suggested he and Johanna write her a song to sing. The result was "Half Moon," which made its way onto Joplin's final album, 1970's Pearl, establishing Hall as a rising songwriter. He made a solo LP for Columbia, Action, and also became an in-demand session guitarist, playing on recordings by Jackie Lomax, Felix Cavaliere, Seals and Crofts, and Bonnie Raitt (in addition to writing songs for Raitt, he produced her 1973 album, Takin' My Time). At the behest of producer-pianist John Simon, he joined Taj Mahal's touring band and began taking trips up to Woodstock to test run the newly constructed Bearsville Studios. The couple liked what they saw upstate, so much so that they bought a humble, saltbox-style house in Saugerties.

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