Is John Hall “Still Having Fun?”
Meet the hardest working man no longer in show business.
By W. Dyer Halpern
Ring! Beep! Flash! The bells, beepers, and red lights go off in room 1217 in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington D.C., waking up freshman Congressman John Hall from his late-evening slumber. “The Republican minority wants to go off on something,” a sleepy Hall thinks to himself. The six-foot-four-inch 59-year-old began his workday at 8 am, and now, 121/2 hours later, he is racing to the Capitol to vote down what he claims is yet another Republican attempt to adjourn the House of Representatives and keep it from passing legislation sponsored by the Democrats. It will take another two to three hours of work before Hall, a former pop musician (no, not the “Hall” from Hall and Oates as he often has to explain, but the Hall who co-wrote the mega-hit “Still the One,” which he recorded with his former band, Orleans), will return to his basement apartment rental in Southeast Washington, feed his two Schnoodles, which his wife, Pamela, calls “the First Dogs of New York’s Nineteenth District,” and catch what he can of The Daily Show before lights out.
Congressman Hall represents some 650,000-plus citizens of New York’s 19th district, which includes northern Westchester. And it’s his work—only his work—that he wants to talk about. Just try talking to him about anything else. Say, his hobbies. “I was a level-two ski instructor,” says the father of one when asked about his life before Washington. But then he adds, “And it’s the ski-resort owners in Killington and Aspen that should care the most about global warming. It’s bad economically because the seasons there are getting shorter.” An attempt to talk about his favorite hobby, sailing, quickly devolves into a discussion about his work on the Transportation Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.
Hall can’t help it. He is consumed by his job. Since January 4th, when he was sworn in, he’s voted on every bill except four (that’s a 99.5 percent record of all votes held, more than any congressman in the Hudson Valley region). He also has accomplished something rather remarkable for a freshman: a committee chairmanship. He has been named chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. Apparently, he was a natural for it. “They would have meetings of the Veterans’ Affairs’ Committee,” Pamela, says, “and week after week he was one of a few who would always show up.”
John Hall, the accomplished guitarist, singer, and songwriter who, in the past few decades, has been fighting zoning regulations in Ulster County and protesting Indian Point in Westchester, is today writing and supporting bills that turn his causes into laws in Washington.
Hall, by all accounts, is smart. Born in Elmira, New York, and raised outside Baltimore, Hall was a three-time National Science Foundation Scholar in high school. He left home to study physics at Notre Dame at age 16, but he lasted less than a year. Instead, he hung out in Washington playing guitar. Eventually, he made his way to New York, playing in such legendary places as CafÃ© Wha? in Greenwich Village. There he met Johanna, his first wife, who was working as a writer for Woman’s Day magazine and would later write music reviews for the Village Voice. She introduced Hall to Janis Joplin. John and Johanna wrote “Half Moon,” which appeared on Joplin’s last and most famous album, Pearl.
In his mid-twenties, Hall bought a house in Saugerties, New York, near Woodstock, built a recording studio in the basement, and, in 1972, formed the band Orleans with singer/guitarist Larry Hoppen, drummer Wells Kelly, and Larry’s brother, bass player Lance. Three years later, Orleans released its first hit, the soft-rock tune “Dance with Me,” followed by the mega-hit, “Still the One,” both written by John and Johanna Hall. The band toured with the likes of Melissa Manchester and Jackson Browne, though Hall began to use the stage for more than singing. “There were times on stage when he was so vocal about his politics that it became an issue within the band,” Lance admits.
There were other problems. “The seventies were filled with crazy rock-and-roll lifestyles and John did not participate,” Lance says. “We were all going, â€˜Why won’t John loosen up?’ His idea of recreation was playing basketball.” Orleans broke up in 1977—and Hall began in earnest to pursue his political passions, vociferously fighting the building of nuclear power plants. “Plutonium is forever” was a favorite catchphrase. “He believed that nuclear energy was a very dangerous way to boil water,” Johanna says. Hall organized Musicians United for Safe Energy, which friends Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash joined. The group graced the cover of Rolling Stone, and spent two years putting on concerts. Their No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden, which featured Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and James Taylor, raised more than $1 million. His daughter, Sofi, was born in 1979, during the time of the No Nukes bashes and, Hall remembers, “I was at a No Nukes rally with my daughter strapped onto me in a Snugli.”
Hall’s political passion grew. Back in Ulster County, he was so incensed with the idea of a smokestack being built near his home that he flew a balloon 515 feet in the air to make clear just how much of the landscape the new 515-foot-tall tower would infringe. “People came from thirty miles away to tell me that they saw my balloon.” His frustration with the county legislature in his hometown led him to run for the Ulster County Legislature in 1990. He won, joining a then predominantly Republican group of politicians. Says State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, who worked with Hall in the Ulster County legislature, “He made the Democrats a force to be reckoned with. Because of him, the Democrats raised tens of thousand of dollars.” In 1996, he ran for the Saugerties School Board, which had failed to pass a budget for years. He won, was elected president, and immediately got the budget passed. “He was just tireless,” Johanna recalls. He also befriended Maurice Hinchey, a politician from Ulster County who was running for the New York State Legislature and who later, as a U.S. Congressman, would help get Hall elected.
In 2000, he and Johanna divorced. “I got tired of being married,” she says. Shortly after, he met Pamela, a lawyer from New York. “I played rhythm and lead guitar for twelve years before I went to law school,” Pamela says, “and when I first saw John in a club, I wondered if it could be the same John Hall that was with Orleans a long, long time ago.” They married in 2001.
Hall spent the next years recording music, touring to promote a new set of songs he had written about his love of sailing, and helping to develop his record label, Siren Songs. He also bought a new 39-foot sailboat named Athena, and found a new hobby—riding horses. “We made an agreement with each other that he would learn to ride if I learned to sail,” Pamela says.
It was the 2004 Republican National Convention that impelled him to return to politics. Hall heard his song “Still the One” being used as President Bush’s theme music at the convention. He was infuriated. “Turn the channel or do something about it,” Pamela recalls telling her husband. Hall chose the latter: he ran for the congressional seat held by Sue Kelly—without the support of his party. “I was scratching for dollars,” he says. But he knew where he could get some. He called upon his friends in the music industry. “Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, and Jackson Browne sent out e-mails on my behalf.”
He went on to win the Democratic primary, and in November 2006, he defeated Kelly by two percentage points, winning Westchester County, Kelly’s home district. Still, he notes, it took Kelly three weeks to give up. “The only time I heard from her was when she called to concede,” Hall says, not masking his dislike for his predecessor. “Sue Kelly didn’t leave me even a single piece of paper, and left no information on case work.” (In her defense, Kelly maintains she took care of almost everything on her plate before leaving office. “We cleaned up all outstanding cases,” she says.)
“The first few days after I got elected,” Hall recalls, “were like drinking from a fire hose. There was so much to do. I was so concerned with how to vote.” And apparently how to find his way to vote. “I got lost in the tunnels underneath the building twice and I think it cost me two votes.”
Thus far, Hall is proudest of helping an American soldier who, he says, suffers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “This man was holding an Iraqi girl in his hands when she was shot in the head. I got him psychiatric help, and I got him twenty-four hundred dollars a month in back benefits to put towards his medical bills.”
Hall says his new job leaves little time for anything other than work. He used to play ping-pong and tennis but no more. “My doctor is mad that I haven’t played in two years.” But he’s not complaining; he is already gearing up for his next election in 2008. “The energy crisis is a big deal, and the healthcare system is not working. And the war, one we should not have been involved in in the first place, has caused a loss of U.S. prestige throughout the world.” Still, he concedes, he would like to do something other than work.
“I haven’t had a chance to go to the House gym yet, and I hear it’s nice.”