Sunday, September 21, 2014

Billboard Magazine, 1966: Juke Boxes, Vietnam, and Sizzling Summer Hits

I recently spent some time perusing random Billboard issues from 1966. The advertisements alone narrate a dynamic year moving among the financial and cultural value of juke boxes and discotheques, pro-Vietnam patriotism, menacing urban anti-anthems, buoyant pop songs, and Southern soul. Quite a year, quite a trip.

From the January 15, 1966 issue: The Toys "Attacked!"

But the juke box industry was concerned with the state of things regarding twisting teens. Rock-Ola Manufacturing sniffs: "We viewed the juke box discotheque conception—as we do now—as a sort of 'illegitimate' substitute for the live or 'legitimate' discotheque, and unquestionably a feeble attempt to stimulate equipment sales." But Rowe A Go-Go Vice President of Manufacturing Fred Pollak cautions: "The nations's demographic breakdown indicates we should push the concept harder. Persons under 40 years of age now make up 75 percent of the population, and it is the younger age group that demands lively entertainment like discotheque." ATTACK!

I'm fairly confident I know what Johnny Wright—hot on the heels of "Hello Vietnam"—thinks of those long-haired kids at the discotheque. "Are you a boy or as girl?"

From the July 2, 1966 issue. Things are getting colorful. And hopeful:

And things are getting dirty and gritty:

But taking Fred Pollak's heed, Rock-Ola is pushing its gorgeous GP/Imperial juke box hard:

These guys have a new album, but it's more than a new album, it's a way of life. Take It Or Leave It.

July's sizzling!

From the November 26 issue, a remarkably potent line-up of new and fantastic 45s and LPs of the Great Memphis Sound:

And introducing the solo debut of an ex-Byrd, "revealing emphatic, thought-provoking lyrics and vividly expressive music he has written himself."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

How Great Is Silence?

Years ago I had my hearing tested and was astonished to learn that I had virtually perfect hearing. After decades of loud rock and roll shows and punishing music room and earphone/ear bud sessions, my hearing remains relatively unscathed. I'm grateful and perplexed. It's maybe ironic for someone of such robust hearing and who's written book about noisy rock and roll bands to observe how loud culture has gotten, but we're besieged. I like to choose my own decibels. When I work out at the Y my iPod earphones compete, feebly, against the roar of the gym's multiple speakers cranking Top 40; in the locker room there are a dozen televisions broadcasting, loudly, a half dozen different channels, the smart designer of the room's layout having placed pairs of TVs back to back, so in order to listen to one you have to tune out the blare of the the TV directly behind it. It's rare to find a bar, even of the divey sort, without a TV in the corner. At one of my and my friend's favorite watering holes in Rockford, Illinois—the Oasis—a busted TV hung for years n the corner, black and silent, defeated. Imagine our gloom when we went in one day and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island was blaring over our heads. I heard or read once that the average American sees more images in a week than the average Victorian saw in a lifetime. This sounds too good to be true, and anyway I've failed to track down the source, so I might've heard or read it wrong. But it feels right. Baseball ballparks: too loud. Waiting rooms: too loud. Elevators with someone on Bluetooth: too loud.

And I won't pretend that I drive home from ear-splitting shows at the Empty Bottle or Double Door thinking of Seneca, the first century a Roman Stoic philosopher—I'm busy cranking the stereo really loud—but his essay "On Noise" resonates somewhere under my consciousness as I'm zipping along I-88. "You may be sure, then," Seneca writes, "that you are at last 'lulled to rest' when noise never reaches you and when voices never shake you out of yourself, whether they be menacing or inviting or just a meaningless hubbub of empty sound all round you." So deal with it, Seneca says to me, boasting: "For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other."

Of course, Seneca couldn't even cut it, resolving at the end of his essay on noise to move somewhere less noisy. I'll still take beautiful, underrated silence where I can get it:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Liverpool, Where The Tourists Root Like Trees

This is Google Street View of Paul McCartney's family home at 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, where he lived from 1955 to 1963. The house was bought by the National Trust in 1995. If this isn't an image of contemporary celebrity culture, I don't know what is. I imagine that no matter what time of day the ubiquitous, camera-mounted Google car moves past this home there will be fans from all over the world milling about, standing, staring, taking pictures, lining up for a tour. They're like the weather, or indigenous shrubbery—always there, and easy to take for granted.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

That Ain't Easy: the Stones Shake Their Hips

Recorded in July and October 1970, December 1971 and March 1972 among the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit, Mick Jagger's residence in Newbury, England, Olympic Sound Studios in London, and Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles—not at the fabled 1971 sessions at Keith Richards' rented home in Villefranche-sur-mer, in southern France—this deceptively simple cover of Slim Harpo's 1966 Excello single still astonishes. As cool as Jagger's reverb-soaked vocal, Richards and Mick Taylor's rockabilly serpentine playing, and Bill Wyman's funky walking bass are, it's Charlie Watt's deft playing that continues to surprise me. I've listened to this song a thousand times, and those four isolated snare shots seem to land on a slightly different beat each time, an aural illusion. Or voodoo. Or Charlie being Charlie.


Here's some cool "Shake Your Hips" rehearsal footage from 1972.


EDIT: according to James "The Hound" Marshall, the four snare shots were played by producer Jimmy Miller, not Watts, and were overdubbed in Los Angeles. As Marshall said, the Stones were great at sounding spontaneous.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Abandoned Bike, redux

Last March I found an abandoned house and barn off of North First Street in DeKalb. In June I returned, and found a bike that wasn't there before. It appeared to have been left behind in the middle of a field. But who would leave it here? And why? I went back today to see if the bike was still there. It is. I'll keep going back, until the bike's absorbed by the natural world, or until someone comes and rides off with it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Pete Rose, in Memory

In the summer of 1978 my dad, mom, and five siblings scrunched into our Ford Gran Torino station wagon and drove from suburban Washington D.C. to the small town of Coldwater in rural, far western Ohio, a trip we made annually to visit my mom's parents and her hometown. I loved cruising the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes for nine or so hours, leaving suburbia behind, armed with a cache of Richie Rich and Archie comics and candy (and car sickness pills). I have an indelible memory from this particular trip: staring idly out the window as night came on, the radio tuned to the Cincinnati Reds game as Pete Rose tried to keep a hitting streak alive. My mom's dad was born and raised in western Ohio (he was mayor of Coldwater for a time) and was a staunch Reds fan. We'd often arrive after dark, and I remember seeing through the living room window my grandfather's silhouette as he stood up from his chair where he'd been sitting listening to the Reds game. I associate these mid-summer trips and damp, muggy Ohio with baseball, specifically Big Red Machine baseball: Rose's hustle, Johnny Bench's restaurant in Cincinnati with the giant hand-shaped bar chairs, George Foster's herculean homers.

That summer, Rose's 44-game hitting streak—it began on June 14 in Cincinnati and ended on August 1 against Gene Garber and the Atlanta Braves—was epic to me, a striving for something that seemed impossible, mythically so. I didn't have a home team; my family pulled for the Baltimore Orioles' by default, the Washington Senators having decamped for Texas in 1972, and so I mostly watched American League baseball, tuning in to snowy Channel 11 to catch the O's. When I wanted to watch National League ball—when I wanted to see Rose or Foster or Mike Schmidt or Steve Garvey or J.R. Richard—I had to wait for NBC's Saturday Game of the Week, the All-Star Game, or the playoffs. This scarcity made Rose's hitting streak for me all the more distant, other-worldly: I'd follow it in the Washington Post Sports section, mostly, maybe catch a highlight on local news at 10 or 11. And so as my family drove closer to south-western Ohio and my dad was able to tune in the game, Rose's streak became clearer to me, and not only in reception. This is happening now, I remember thinking. The top of my head came off as I gazed out the window at the dusk dark, the shapes of barns and grain silos against enormous corn fields silhouetted against an even bigger dark sky, as Rose took a fastball low, chopped a breaking pitch foul, the smell of gasoline and manure and the rhythmic hum of the two-lane roads in rural Ohio hypnotic, as I wondered where exactly Riverfront Stadium is as Rose looked at a ball low, and then drove the next pitch into center field. I pictured Rose holding his helmet tightly onto his bushy head as he rounded first. This was 1978: there was no Internet, satellite radio, or ESPN. The drama in my head was all I had, and it was everything. Roger Angell calls this "the interior game." I watched a baseball game last night, but my vision of Rose hitting in 1978 is just as vivid. Childhood: Pete Rose, baseball, a streak, farms, and the black Ohio night sky.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Fleshtones, Gibus Club, 1985

I came across this priceless cache of photos taken by MaxWell Max of the Fleshtones at the Gibus Club in Paris in March 1985, a two-week residency during which the band was recorded—by Richard Gottehrer!—and a live album produced and for sale at the club within a week. An Instant Record, indeed. Read all about the epic residency—featuring a bombed-out Johnny Thunders, a bathroom set on fire, piles of heroin, and Super Rock—in Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band.

Below is a taste of the mayhem. The rest of the photos can be found here.
l-r: Peter Zaremba, Gordon Spaeth, Keith Streng
Zaremba, Spaeth
l-r: Spaeth, (Bill Milhizer, hidden), Zaremba, Streng, Marek Pakulski
Zaremba, Streng

A couple tracks from Speed Connection II: The Final Chapter, soundtrack to the nuttiness:

Saturday, August 23, 2014

How To Be A Good Baseball Player (1973)

I found this childhood gem at a take-a-book, leave-a-book shelf at the local food co-op. Published in 1973, the slim volume is chock full of tips aimed at kids, most decent—choking up, running to where you think the fly ball will land in the outfield, striving to hit the ball up the middle while at the plate. From choosing the right bat, to running through first base on a ground-out, to how to correctly grip a fastball, these helpful instructions were duly memorized by kids on the weekends and put into sometimes unhappy practice on ball fields across the country. One of-the-era comment caught my attention, on page 20: "There are very few homers, but plenty of high flies are caught for outs." The authors—Clare and Frank Gault, who wrote several Scholastic Book Club baseball titles—may have been referring to the anemic power of most ten-year-olds, or possibly to the characteristically weak early-70s sluggers, at least relative to our era. In 1972 there were 34, 071 innings pitched and only 2,534 balls hit out of the park, a percentage that would change demonstrably over the next couple decades.

The illustrations by Dick Ericson (1916-1988) are terrific:


It's nice to see girls on the field, too.

This kid's not having a great day.

Even Pete Rose practices, and yes even Pete Rose makes mistakes...

Monday, August 18, 2014

Another Bottle of Inspiraton: Elvis Costello's Drinking Songs

Elvis Costello writes and sings about human weaknesses more acutely and entertainingly than most. Man's inability to stay upright—morally and literally—has long amused him; drink and its comic and tragic excesses are among his favorite subjects. Costello's wrestled with booze privately, and though one never knows how autobiographical he is in his songs, he's always personal. Here's a glassful of his best songs about drinkers, drinking, joy and regret.


Many of Costello's songs are set, nominally at least, in bars. "King Horse" from Get Happy!! (1980) is an incisive character study of men at bars and the thin respect they pay to female bartenders. It's also about how some of those men pine for women but can't reach them, befogged as they are with drink and deceptions. The second verse is a particularly insightful and sympathetic portrait of a woman toiling behind the bar: "When it's someone else's weekend, that's the best you can expect." 

King Horse, Get Happy!! (1980)

Sometimes incidents turn ugly. (See "Riot Act," below.) In this oddly striking and disturbing song from 1994's Brutal Youth, Costello imagines on-base soldiers at a bar with a "damsel,"  and there's drinking and laughter and arguments and...from there, things get murky. There's much debate about this song's meaning: to some, the title and story refer to an unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion; to others, the title and story suggest rape; to still others, murder. The details remain dark and blurry, shadowed by faulty memory and patriarchal menace, but for the origin of that blur: drinking and its often regrettable, pitiable aftermath.

Kinder Murder, Brutal Youth (1994)

Another tavern, another little man "twice as foolish" as he was before. This gentle, rural stroll from 2009's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane was recorded in Nashville, where Costello backed himself with local musicians playing double bass, dobro, fiddle, accordion, and mandolin. The mood is rustic, evoking a dusty honky-tonk somewhere where the larger a man feels on drink the smaller he appears, or as Costello brutally puts it, where "he gets what he merits." That old, old story. A girls sails through his foggy memory and he drinks more to remember less, yet, at last call, "picks himself up from a sawdust floor, clicks his fingers to that swinging door, suddenly he's calling out more, more, more."

Down Among The Wines And Spirits, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009)

I've written before about "Party Party" from the 1982 soundtrack of the same name, one of Costello's funnier songs about drinking. Though the tone is comic and the principals hapless, naive teenagers, the details evoke the meanness and loathsome regrets that absorb so many characters in Costello's songs.

This is a weird one, not altogether one of my favorite songs of Costello's but I include it for its rawness and intensity. Costello's adapted a W.B. Yeats drinking poem to music—although calling it music is stretching things, as here Costello, solo in a studio in late 1992, bangs and howls and screeches his way though the poem, which dramatizes the seductive moments so many fall victim to between too-few and not-enough, the gray area where joy has not yet led to darkness, where a man can still believe that waltzing with his shot glass will keep him sober, since all dead men are drunks and all drunks are dead men. Powerful, gripping stuff. Costello tossed the experiment in irony onto a CD single.

A Drunken Man's Praise Of Sobriety, CD single (1994)

As "Party Party" reminds, not all of Costello's songs about drinking are cramped and unhappy. "The Big Light" from 1986's King Of America, snapped into rockabilly groove by veteran players James Burton, Jerry Scheff, and Ron Tutt, is a funny tune about a hangover "with a personality" and the titular light that will inevitably shine in truth-telling agony. The song rocks, and there's a great pun involving Merle Haggard and the singer's ashen, morning face. The moral? "Well it's fine to go out and have a big night, sooner or later you’ve got to face the big light." (On familiar terms with overdoing things, Johnny Cash recorded a version in 1987.)  

The Big Light, King Of America (1986)


And then there's this. Not strictly speaking a song about bars or drinking, "Riot Act" is by all accounts a song that responds to an incident that took place in a bar. No need to rehash the details of the regrettable 1979 hotel encounter between Costello and Steven Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, during which a drunken Costello made awful comments about James Brown and Ray Charles, except to say that this song, with its lamenting tone, dramatic contrasts, passionate playing, and evocative narrative details, reminds that a blinding drunk can only obscure so much—eventually the Big Light will come, and you won't be spared.

Riot Act, Get Happy!! (1980)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Like Fact and Water: A Conversation with B.J. Hollars

Reading B.J. Hollars's new book Dispatches From The Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction is, much like trying to pluck a fish from a river, a slippery and tantalizing experience. That's precisely how Hollars intends it. After Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, Hollars collects over forty photographs by Charles Van Schaick, who in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created portraits using citizens of the town posed against rural backdrops. Hollars pairs many of the strange, stagey photographs with actual newspaper accounts of contemporaneous drownings in nearby Eau Claire, Wisconsin (where Hollars lives and teaches). The pairings are random—none of the people in Van Schaick's photographs drowned, not least in Eau Claire—yet evocative; as Hollars notes in his Author's Note, it is inevitable that a reader will link the images with the stories. (I certainly did.)

The gap between fact and fiction thus exposed, Hollars, who last year edited Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, intersperses among the seventy-five nonfiction drowning reports twenty-five of his own fictionalized accounts. With an ear to fidelity, Hollars mimics the other-century casual, folkloric tone of the newspaper accounts—but the reader doesn't know which ones are "fakes." Plus: Hollars admits that he rewrote the newspaper accounts after having read and absorbed them, a further muddying of the waters. Hollars's intent here is to shed light on that destabilized place between facts and the imagination by creating a hybrid text, part journalism, part fantasy. Hollars reminds us that a century ago many reporters relied uneasily on their own memory, faulty witnesses, and narrative skills in reporting on drownings. In what ways were their own attempts at objective reporting subverted (or complemented) by subjective factors such as faulty memory, personal temperament, and perhaps—Hollars never raises this; I'm speculating—the reporter's relationship with the victim and/or his or her family?

Hollars locates the gray area where fact and fiction, detail and myth, and objective reporting and subjective dread meet. It's a fascinating, absorbing book. Here's the trailer:

Recently, I virtually sat down with Hollars to discuss Dispatches From The Drownings, memory, and the uneasy blend of fact versus myth.


B.J. Hollars
In the Author's Note, you describe yourself as less an author or writer than as a curator. Could you talk a bit about that?

It probably goes without saying that this was the strangest writing experience of my life. Rather than sit down and create something entirely new—as one does in fiction—or craft a true account—as one does in nonfiction—I attempted to replicate stories previously told. That is, I sat down with one drowning report after another and tried to re-write them from memory. Not word for word, of course, but in terms of factuality. And as I soon found, my memory was terribly faulty. There were simply too many details to keep track of, too many names and circumstances and hypotheses. When doing my own writing, I first returned to the original drowning reports again and again, but no matter how often I returned to them, there was always something omitted. To put it another way: I always omitted something. In short, I found myself unwittingly making the same decisions all writers must make: deciding what stays and what goes and forever altering the stories based on these decisions.

I should probably note that I only performed the aforementioned process for 75 of the 100 total drowning reports. As I note in my introduction, only 75 of the 100 included reports are true. The other 25 are completely fabricated. For reasons related to my own disconcerting feelings toward genre, I make no effort to distinguish. And so, if I am a curator—by which I mean a keeper of artifacts, or, if we go back to the word’s early usage, a “guardian” of sorts—then I am, indeed, a faulty one. I don’t keep or guard these drowning reports all that well. In fact, I intentionally and unintentionally muddy their veracity. The point, I suppose, is that even when we writers attempt to “protect” true stories, all we’re really doing is protecting one version of the story—the one we’ve manufactured, the one we’ve deemed most true.

How long did Dispatches From The Drownings take to complete?

I always struggle to trace the beginning and end points of a book. I suppose my first encounter with drowning took place in July of 2011. The morning after my first night in Eau Claire, I went for an early morning jog and spotted a rescue team searching for a drowning victim in the river directly behind our new home. I spotted a dripping young man lean into a nearby car and whisper of the tragedy to a friend.

I soon learned that drownings were common here; that when you live in a town overflowing with rivers, on occasion, people will drown.

I began consciously working on this project in the summer of 2012. My son had just been born, and since he wasn’t sleeping much, in the night hours when it was my turn to stay up with him, I’d take him upstairs, place him on my lap, and begin researching historical drowning reports. We lived just a stone’s throw from the river, and perhaps my research was my attempt to safeguard him from that future fate. Or maybe my research was driven by my own personal fears. By August I’d moved beyond the drowning reports and began using the nighttime hours to scan the Wisconsin Historical Society’s archives for photos by Charles Van Schaick. I’d first become familiar with Van Schaick’s work in Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, and it soon became clear to me that I, too, was engaged in my own Wisconsin death trip of sorts, only in my book, all the deaths occurred via drowning.

I suppose this is the long way of saying the book probably took two years from start to finish, though the majority of the work occurred during those sleepless nights (though the work itself always left me even more sleepless…).
You rewrote the true drowning reports after having read them. Why not quote verbatim?

First, allow me to clarify: on a few rare occasions I did. Though I rewrote 99% of the original reports, as I note in the introduction, “When I could not—when the linguistic nuances of the time period allowed for a lexicon I simply could not re-create—I employed direct quotations from the original work.” Simply put, sometimes the language of the original reports was so startling and baffling that it was a disservice for me to try to “improve” upon the original design. Though, of course, it was never my intent to “improve” the reports. Rather, I rewrote them to test my own memory. I didn’t want this book to read as a condemnation of journalists of the past. Rather, I wanted to own up to my own shortcomings as a nonfiction writer. I wanted to prove just how hard it is to get the story straight, even when the story seems simple.

And when it came to the subject of drowning, I assumed the stories would always be simple: people entered a body of water, then drowned. But as I soon learned, the stories of drownings are never so simple, and every fact in every report always raises new questions. 

Where do you place Dispatches From The Drownings among Michael Lesy's book and James Marsh's 1999 docudrama? Does Dispatches subvert or complement those works in any way?

That’s a great question. I suppose I’ll leave that up to readers to decide. But in an attempt not to dodge the question entirely, I’ll note that I view my work as an homage to Lesy’s book. Wisconsin Death Trip fundamentally changed the way I thought about narrative. My book, much like his, relies on newspaper reports to craft a narrative. But more than that, it relies on photographs as well. Taken together, the juxtaposition of words and pictures creates an odd dissonance, at least when it comes to subject matters such as Lesy’s and my own. And it’s a productive dissonance, I think; one that demands we study our world a bit more critically. People often think of pictures as “proof” and words as “proof” but they’re both quite vulnerable to manipulation. Wilson Hicks, the former picture editor for LIFE magazine spoke of “the principle of the third effect” which argues that context matters. Simply put, when we interpret in image, we take into account the image we saw before. Thus, we can never fully examine an image—or a text for that matter—without lugging some previous knowledge along with us.

My book is certainly the result of what I saw before—Lesy’s work, and to a lesser extent, Marsh’s docudrama. And I hope it will spur others to consider the interplay between text and image, between fact and fiction, too. 

Charles Van Schaick's photographs are remarkable. You write, "By pairing these drowning reports with Van Schaick's photographs, I hope to illuminate the aesthetical aberrations inherent in both." Can you talk a bit about this?

Both the drowning reports and Van Schaick’s photographs forced me to find beauty in unexpected places. While there is nothing beautiful about the act of drowning (don’t let Shakespeare’s Ophelia fool you), I discovered beauty in the reports. On occasion the language verged on the poetic, and the narratives, too, vacillated on a wondrously wide spectrum between the tragic and the heroic.

Van Schaick’s photographs are—as you noted—indeed remarkable. But aside from the images’ apparent beauty, I also fell in love with the story of Van Schaick’s life-long pursuit to capture these images. Here was a man who spent the majority of his adult life in a small Wisconsin town, walking up the same stairs to his studio day after day. And day after day he would take these photographs, forever memorializing a time, a place, and a people. He posed his subjects, picked his angles, and prepared his own visual narrative of their lives, preserving them in a way nobody else ever bothered to.

I used the phrase “aesthetical aberrations” because there is horror here as well. The drowning reports are horrifying, and many of Van Schaick’s photographs are equally disturbing, particularly when placed alongside the reports. I’m not saying these photos evoke “horror” on their own, but that we viewers bring our disconcerting feelings along with us. The dispatches create the conditions for us to feel fear upon looking into the eyes of people now gone—not necessarily as a result of drowning, but simply due to normal lifespan considerations.

In Wisconsin Death Trip, Lesy showcases many of Van Schaick’s more popular post-mortem photographs—including photos of dead children—but I chose not to include them. My use of Van Schaick’s photographs are meant to provide a spark of life, to remind readers that the people I’m writing about were once as alive as you or me (exempting the fictional dispatches, of course). 

Did you find that Van Schaick images influenced the writing of your fictional drowning reports in any way?

They surely must have, though I’m hesitant to try to decipher specific ways in which these photos influenced the work. More than anything the original drowning reports influenced the work, but I’m sure the photographs added a tint of darkness to the already dark subject. 

In the Afterword you confess to not remembering which of the reports you created. If it's OK with you, I'm a little skeptical of this! Did you not keep notes? Did you purposefully neglect to mark the fictionalized version early on? If so, why?

I appreciate your skepticism! (And you’re right to be skeptical). Allow me to clarify: it’s not that I don’t know which reports are fictional. I do. I have a master list saved as “Fictional Drowning Reports” that serves as my so-called answer key. But when called upon to reveal what’s true and what’s false, I stumble. I truly cannot rattle off what’s what. I think I did this intentionally, metaphorically submerging myself with so many details and so many versions that somewhere along the way I lost track of the truth. And this, too, is troubling. How could I—the guy writing the book—fail to distinguish fact from fiction? My misremembering of the status of the reports is troubling on a macro level, but on a micro level, I’m also troubled by the minor uncertainties even in the reports deemed true. For instance, if an original report mentioned that fear “gripped” the victim, I couldn’t help but wonder how the reporter could have had insight into the victim’s perspective. Surely that seems like a logical conclusion, but how could the reporter know that interior detail for sure? Perhaps it’s a minor quibble, though perhaps it’s emblematic of larger issues of sensationalizing the truth in the media. 

Can you theorize about the spot or the moment when fact become myth?

It’s tough, mainly because everyone has his or her own definition of what constitutes a fact. But I think we all know how a truth begins to unravel. One person observes an event, reports the event to someone else, who then re-reports the event to someone else. Along the way biases intercede, details are added and subtracted, and the final version of the event (that is, if there is ever a “final” version of an event) is far different than how that event was originally observed.

But when we cement that event with words—when we report it in a newspaper, for instance—then the many versions of truth all begin narrowing to a single, unified version, which is then repeated by everyone who reads it. And so, the uncritical reader reinforces the “truth” by assuming the written version is true, thereby muting alternative versions.

This is my way long-winded way of saying no, I don’t think I can properly theorize about the specific moment in which a fact becomes a fiction. But I think as members of the 21st century—an era glutted with “facts”—it’s imperative that we begin to ask ourselves how we test what we deem to be truth. 

What do you think is the cultural value of nostalgia? 

I’ve thought about this quite often. In particular, how I personally utilize nostalgia as a means to finding my way through a project. When I think about nostalgia, I think about home, and when I think about home, I think about why I do anything. We do many things, I think, as a way to clear a path that might lead us home. Nostalgia, for me, is the false remembrance of a time and place we can never go back to. Yet to its credit, it offers us a taste of that return, even if the place we feel nostalgic for only exists in our minds.

As for the value of cultural nostalgia—which is where your true question lies—that’s trickier still. I guess I’ll just say that I didn’t write this book for nostalgia’s sake. If nostalgia is linked to personal connection, then I’ll readily (and thankfully) admit that I have very little personal connection with the subject of drowning. Nevertheless, I think there is great value in remembering these people.

These days, when I walk along the rivers, I have a sense of the people who once died there. I know many of their names. Everyone in town can speak vaguely of the dangers of the rivers, but I can say, “Yes, and their names were Judd Wells and Emery Brown and Rupert Sweet…”

Maybe their lives no longer matter to those of us in the present, but I like to think they do. I like to think that there is always value in remembering the past, even if that value isn’t always apparent. If nothing else, these drowning victims have reminded me to be weary of facts. And to be weary also of the rivers.


How has your relationship to rivers—and for that matter, to death—been affected by writing this book?

I think this is the very question that I’ve tried hard not to face. The short answer is that my relationship with both death and rivers has changed. On the river front, I’ll simply mention that we recently moved farther away from the river. Last year at this time we were within a stone’s throw of the Chippewa River. These days, we live on a hill high above it.

As for death, I’m no more comfortable with it than I was before, that’s for sure. Probably, I’m just as anxious as ever. Recounting these drowning deaths reminded me how quickly death can strike, how one wrong step along a riverbank can change everything. But it also made me realize that one wrong step even far from a riverbank can lead to similar results. And even if we take every step right throughout our lives, still death will always find us.

In short, I wish I could tell you that escaping death—for me— was as simple as moving to the top of a hill. But even from my new height, I’ll never stop knowing that the river flows just below me, and that it cares very little for my life.

Photo of Hollars by Brian Hollars
Charles Van Schaick photos via "Miss Magnolia Thunderpussy's photos with the Charles van Schaick (photographer)" @ ipernity
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