washingtonpost.com
The Honorable Gentleman From Orleans And New York
After a 30-Year Warm-Up, John Hall Is Ready for His Gig on the National Stage

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

PEEKSKILL, N.Y. -- With any luck, the most embarrassing photograph taken of you in the 1970s is stashed away in a box that nobody will ever find. John Hall, the newly elected Democratic congressman from the 19th District of New York, is not that lucky.

There he is, standing shirtless and smushed against his equally shirtless band, Orleans, for the cover of their fourth album, "Waking and Dreaming." In the pre-gay-awareness days of 1976, the fellas just sort of seemed, you know, chummy -- perhaps on the way to a group sauna or something like that. But even then, at age 28, Hall found the image a little cheesy.

"The photographer had us take off our shirts for about two minutes during that shoot," Hall recalls, sitting at a cafe here last week. "And the record company said, 'This is a really striking image.' "

Fortunately for Hall, "Waking and Dreaming" featured not just several cubic feet of frisky man-flesh, but also "Still the One," a hit that sparked more anniversary-party conga lines than any other song in history. It even turned up as an ABC promotional jingle for a couple of years, and it -- along with Orleans's other wussy-rock classic, "Dance With Me" -- has ka-chinged in Hall's bank account for some three decades now. He wrote both tunes with his former wife, Johanna, and the pair get paid every time the songs are played on the radio.

Once we forgive Hall for penning such excruciatingly unshakable couplets as "You're still the one who can scratch my itch / You're still the one and I wouldn't switch," let us acknowledge his singular place in American history: He is the first professional rock musician elected to Congress.

No, we're not counting Sonny Bono, because he didn't play an instrument, at least not onstage. And before you start complaining that "Dance With Me" isn't "rock" enough to count, note that before Orleans was founded in 1972, Hall was a sought-after session guitarist who played with Taj Mahal and Little Feat and was once summoned to Bob Dylan's SoHo loft for two weeks of improvised jamming.

"I was in awe of him," says Hall, who was barely out of his teens at the time. "I'd been listening to 'Just Like a Woman' for years -- there I was, playing my guitar over it."

It's hard to believe that the bearded and topless Hall of 1976 and the Hall wearing a suit and tie today are the same man. It's not just that he would blend in at a board meeting of any Fortune 500 company -- he is tall and serious and pretty formal. He actually sounds like a politician, too: He can speechify in that earnest and somewhat tedious way that only politicians can.

No offense, but you've never met anyone who toggles so quickly between gripping anecdote and soporific spiel. With little prodding, Hall will talk about the time in 1974 that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band opened for Orleans at a high school in Maine. ("He was supposed to play for 45 minutes. He played for 2 hours and 45 minutes.") And he is happy to describe the time he rode in a limo with Janis Joplin to her last show at Madison Square Garden. ("There was no way she could walk down a street and not be recognized.")

But frankly, he'd rather talk up his slate of left-leaning goals, such as raising the minimum wage, weaning the nation off fossil fuels or pushing for universal health care.

The surprising thing is that he has always been this way. His Orleans band mates say that in the '70s, Hall would launch into a politically charged monologue in the middle of a concert, grinding the festivities to a temporary halt.

"It was one of the hallmarks of our shows," says Larry Hoppen, who sang both of Orleans's hits. "We'd be playing, and inevitably John would start going off on the issue of the day. It's one thing to make a passing comment. It's another to do a five-minute, detail-oriented diatribe about nuclear power."

The progressive-minded geek and the virtuoso musician have coexisted in Hall for as long as he can remember. He was raised in Upstate New York, the son of a Westinghouse engineer, and started playing piano at the age of 4. A stellar student, he entered Notre Dame at 16, though he quit after a year, deciding that music was his calling. He wound up in New York, where he and Springsteen -- then leading his first band, the Castiles -- took turns onstage at Cafe Wha? in the West Village.

"We'd play six sets per night," Hall remembers. "It was $6 per guy in the band, plus all the potato chips and ice cream we could eat."

After a few years of session and solo work, he helped start Orleans, naming after the New Orleans rhythms the band members loved. But not long after the group's hits slid off the charts, Hall split for a solo career, which never quite took off. Along with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Graham Nash, he formed Musicians United for Safe Energy to fight nuclear power, and he helped organize a series of benefit concerts, eventually packaged in a film and a rather extravagant triple album, "No Nukes/The MUSE Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future."

Hall returned to Orleans in 1984 and he has recorded and toured with the band off and on ever since. (The group released the widely ignored "Dancin' in the Moonlight" earlier this year.) His only experience with elective politics was a two-year stint as an Ulster County legislator, and the noisy protests he made when the Bush entourage used "Still the One" at campaign stops in 2004. (The song was quickly dropped.)

Nobody took his campaign very seriously, even he after he won the primary. The 19th District is largely made of New York City suburbs that tilt Republican, and for six terms the congressional seat there belonged to Sue Kelly, who in 2004 won 60 percent of the vote. She had $900,000 on hand for the general election; Hall had $57,000.

As with nearly every campaign this year, things got ugly. A few weeks before Election Day, the Kelly campaign jump-started a direct-mail attack, accusing Hall of radical left-wing views and charging that he wanted to raise taxes and socialize medicine. For an added measure of humiliation, one mailing included a reprint of the cover of "Waking and Dreaming."

"The point," says Jay Townsend, Kelly's campaign spokesman, "was basically to say, this guy isn't serious enough to send to Washington."

Hall kept harping on Iraq, and when the Mark Foley page scandal broke, Kelly was sideswiped by questions from Hall and the media about her tenure several years ago on the House Page Board. Meanwhile, late-night satirist Stephen Colbert showed up in the district to interview Hall, and the pair performed an impromptu a cappella duet of "Dance With Me."

Hall won by 4,300 votes.

"I don't quote George Bush very often, but I think I will here," says Hall. "They misunderestimated me."

In a way, Hall's new job has simply broadened the audience for his lectures, from the Orleans crowd to the C-SPAN crowd. Not that this will change his message. Asked if he will keep sticking it to the Man now that he is the Man, Hall responds with a quick story.

"I already met a couple lobbyists from Raytheon during orientation in Washington, and I just told them what I think is wrong with their missile system. Maybe they'll write checks to my next opponent. I don't care. I got into this race because my wife told me to stop yelling at the TV."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company