mar 23

Frustrated, Incorporated

This Is Not Really A Review Of Soul Asylum's After The Flood. And While We're At It, Please Ignore Any Perceived Attempts To Compare A Natural Disaster To A Music Scene, Because That's Just Silly.

Even though we naturally resist reducing our lives to simple anecdotes, we all have had one momentous event happen to us that comes to completely summarize our life, typify our personality, or recapitulate the rest of our existence. You might try to deny this, but I'll call you a liar, because most of the time you are like me and resent that this event happened against your will.

My event was a flood, and then a fire.

You probably have a fleeting memory of the flood and fire that hit Grand Forks, ND, in 1997. Maybe you remember the famous picture of an apocalyptic downtown, or perhaps the "Come Hell And High Water" headline on the daily paper, or possibly President Bill Clinton coming to town and crying on live television (Monica notwithstanding, the only time that has ever happened).

For you, this is a scrap from the memory dustbin of natural disasters (although maybe a prominent one -- for two nights in a row, it was the lead story on all three networks' nightly news). For me, it completely changed my life in ways that I still feel I have no control of. Even as I type this, I'm resisting the urge to tell you the story -- I've told it so many times that it now seems like taking advantage of a community's tragedy. So let's modernize the story by reducing it to bullet points under the heading "Strange Things that Happened to Me Because of the Flood and Fire of 1997":

  • Near the geographical center of North America, a scary stat. The largest evacuation of an American city in the 20th century -- over 50,000 people -- was foisted upon this little town in the Midwest when a dike broke in the Spring of 1997 and flooded 90 percent of the town.
  • I was rescued from my apartment by the coast guard when a downtown building caught on fire in the middle of a flood. Firemen couldn't put out the fire because they couldn't get to it -- there was six feet of water in the street.
  • I watched my apartment burn down live on CNN. I was positioned about a half-mile away, so I could see the flames in real time, but I could also glance up at the tv that was beaming it to me from a helicopter that could be seen on the horizon.
  • Within hours, I was interviewed by Time, NPR, the New York Times, the Star-Tribune, and many of publications I've long forgotten. My story was resonant because I had stayed behind during the flood despite a city-wide decree of mandatory evacuation. There are now three books in print that contain parts of my narrative.
  • I won a Pulitzer prize. Actually, the Knight-Ridder-owned paper I worked at won the Pulitzer for community service, but I have a very nice certificate because the website that I managed was given "special notation" for using the internet in a unique way. (To this day, no other website has been mentioned in a Pulitzer award.) Even though the press burned down, they never missed an issue of the paper, which was printed out of the Pioneer Press plant.
  • I received $2,000 from the heiress to the McDonald's fortune. Joan Kroc donated money to the city that was divvied up into $2,000 endowments to nearly every resident.
  • I did two different video reenactment shows. Late at night on the Discovery channel, you can still occasionally see me recreating my escape from the fiery inferno -- easily the funniest re-enacted tragedy ever put on television.
  • Soul Asylum played the prom. Of all the strange events that happened, this somehow seemed the most otherworldly.
  • "Hi, welcome to, uh, the prom," were the first words Dave Pirner gave the teenagers that night almost eight years ago. I remember his intonation perfectly -- it was the line that began my live review for the local alt-weekly at the time.


    This is where this story should end, and I should be banned from talking about any of this ever again. But then (you didn't see this coming?), completely by accident, while dumpster diving the used bin at Cheapo Records in Minneapolis, I happened upon After The Flood: Live From The Grand Forks Prom, June 28, 1997, which I instantly assumed was an obscure bootleg. But apparently Capital released the show earlier this year as a live album. It seems no one really noticed -- including me, and probably you.

    There's Pirner again, sounding even more bemused than before: "Hi, welcome to, uh, the prom," just before launching into Alice Cooper's "School's Out," which has never made a group of kids more happy than it did that night at the Grand Forks Air Force Base (the school gymnasium -- and most of the city -- was still in post-flood disrepair). You see, we kids in the hinterlands probably never experienced Soul Asylum quite like you wise city folk. Even though they were beginning their descent from fame by this time, in our minds Soul Asylum was still the band the Village Voice dubbed "the best live band in America." We all knew and repeated this phrase all the time, even though we had nothing to compare this to, other than a guess that they sounded better than the Bad Company show at the Civic Center.

    Soul Asylum plays the prom? It seemed an inconceivable fairy tail -- like a story about losing everything you ever owned in a fire that couldn't be extinguished because of too much water.


    Although people like to say that music is best when it evokes certain memories from your life, it's a completely different scenario when a musician is literally attempting to elicit a specific memory out of you. After The Flood is packed with these moments, which is why it's nearly impossible for me to tell you whether this is a good album or not. It's just too strangely historical and personal, at the same time. When the line about "drama queens" in the hit "Misery" is changed to "prom queens," I'm not sure whether to grin or grimace. And in "Black Gold," the lines "This flat land used to be a town" and "This place just makes me feel sad inside" are intoned with such heart-felt anguish that I want to find somebody to shove.

    But here's what I'll concede: the album perfectly captures that time and place, both in Grand Forks and where alternative culture was at the moment -- coming off a exhilarating and infuriating high that probably never should have been.

    And what would a prom be without covers? There were strange ones: "Tracks Of My Tears" (the Smokey Robinson song about a dealing with a breakup) and "I Know" (the 1995 Dionne Farris hit that you instantly know when you hear it). Throw in Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now," and Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" -- you've got yourself the strangest cover set the prom has ever seen. All of them are on the album.


    Here's the weird thing: this is the only Soul Asylum record I own now. Before the flood, I had all of them. For reasons that seem vaguely unjust, every Replacements record eventually made it back in to the collection after the flood. So did all those little Husker Du's. And you can't live 'round here without the Prince oeuvre.

    But Soul Asylum is left as a sad memory of commercialization gone bad -- a big sparkly burst of popularity followed by dismissal and anonymity. Would it be trite for me to say that last sentence is also a fair description of both the entire '90s alt-rock scene and my little college town? Perhaps. But I know two communities who synchronously lived through a burst of fame, and at least one wasn't so sad to see it go.



    Soul Asylum's After The Flood on Amazon.
    Flood Stage And Rising on Amazon.
    Red River Rising on Amazon.
    Voices from the Flood on Amazon
    Archive of the story on
    Bill Clinton's Speech.


    posted by ohg]kjhtfn at 4:07 PM on June 15, 2005

    Just saw your posting about Grand Forks. We left there in '93, and to tell you the truth, it was the worst place I ever had the misfortune to be forced to live (husband was stationed at GFAFB in the ATC tower). We were sneeringly referred to as "basers" and I was denied employment that had previously been offered, but then revoked after it was discovered I was "military." People were very unfriendly to us in the neighborhood in which we bought a house (1425 Cottonwood, if you remember where that is)we only lived there for a year. We'd smile and wave, and they'd look at us with no response and go back in their houses. We had to buy a small house because there was nothing available on base and no rental property available anywhere in a halfway decent neighborhood. We hated it there, but regardless of that, I felt very badly about the fire and all the displaced people like yourself. It's funny though, GFAFB came through for the town, even though the town took every opportunity to disassociate itself from the base previous to that. The medical providers in town wouldn't even take CHAMPUS (the military insurance) for dependents of active duty military. And in a city of only 50,000, there isn't a lot of choice as to what doctors you can see. I also felt very badly for the young couple starting out who bought our house that was listed for all of a day and a half before someone snapped it up (very little mid-priced housing in that city). Evidently the homes on the three or four blocks behind Cottonwood to the river were all demolished. Cottonwood survived, but had basement flooding. I still believe that if you were to give the country an enema, Grand Forks is where you should stick the nozzle... Thanks!

    posted by Vicki Foley at 11:31 AM on September 1, 2005

    Vicki, I am truly sorry you had such a rotten experience here in Grand Forks. I am a N.D. native and have lived in GF since 1987. I have had a very positive experience with people from the GFAB. A coworker whose husband was stationed here until just this summer enjoyed her stay here and thought we all were very friendly and generous. She even misses the place even though they ended up stationed in a nice community in Florida. I am sure she will change her mind when December rolls around though. I actually live in the 1500 block of a street on the river side of Cottonwood so not all the homes were demolished. But there is about a two block blank space to the north of us. We moved there after the flood and while it is true we don't know all our neighbors the ones we have become acquainted with are very friendly. It's true some people up here may be a bit stand offish until they get to know you. Some people see too much familiarity when you first meet someone as "phony" and don't like it. An example, when Walmart first came to town, people up here did not really feel comfortable with a person standing inside the door waiting to greet you like you were their best friend even though they didn't know you from Adam. It's a different culture although some would say the North Dakota Culture is an oxymoron and I would have to agree to a certain extent. But to not respond to a wave and a smile from a neighbor is just plain rude and inescusable in my book and I feel badly that you were treated that way. I have heard a lot of Base Personnel have bad memories of here and a lot that have good memories. I guess everyone's experience is different and although I am sorry you had a bad one, I have enjoyed living here where we can raise our family in a relatively safe and quiet atmosphere. You weren't happy here and that's okay. Everyone is different. I just hope you have found a place where you are truly happy. Take care and best to you. From at least one decent Grand Forkanite.

    posted by ND Native and GF Transplant at 5:15 PM on September 1, 2005

    North Dakota- you either love it or hate it; there isn't any "middle ground" (except for everywhere you look) on the subject! I am a Bismarck native and had close relatives affected by the Grandforks flood. Imagine 500,000 and counting people displaced compared to 50,000. I know it will take the spirit of hard working Americans to rebuild and restore New Orleans and North Dakotans are some of the hardest workers and caring people out there. It seems we are so far from the tragedy and so close in our hearts and minds. I for one feel ND is a great place to raise children, but I have heard the term "baser" and people sometimes think they arent as viable to a community because they know they are planning to leave the base when it comes time. I don't think that is so much the case anymore. Bismarck is a Boomin'- six large scale businesses are making their debut within the next year and there are going to be some major job opportunities in almost every field. I am a 28 year old graduate from U of Mary the only college in the Biz area that offered a BA and now recently Bismarck State College is choosing to offer BA degrees. Send the displaced victims, families, and their children here for the education safety, and neighborly love they and many others have never imagined! I have room for a family of three people or will care for up to two displaced children for as long as it takes them to rebuild their lives. I think ND residents are probably lucky to have the fast easy access to some of the aid and programs available for temporary assistance- it isn't the nightmare that it is in larger cities. I was at one time a single mother before going to back to school, marrying again, having a second child and becoming a teacher. I think the victims of Katrina and their families could easily rebuild their lives at least temporarily in little state and nooks around the country instead of living in hotels and overcrowded centers. This is a just a suggestion give people a round trip ticket to wherever they choose on to these thousands of available homes and let them normalize their lives and get the children into school- get them to doctors and counselors in a place like ND where really, there much so much non-emergent care happening. Sometimes it is bleakly boring but we roll cars downhill for fun and tie a chain to the sheriffs axel and around a tree as we speed by, so it's not all that bad! It is so comical that you mention the Alice Cooper song for graduation. I live next to and work at a small town school in Wing it is a k-12 school which only has 80 some students. Schools Out for summer is still the favorite it seems. It is sad to so sad to say and I am usually not a big Whitehouse basher, but after the slow reaction to the disaster relief I surely hope our government taking into account the longevity of the situation. They should be taking necessary initiative needed to be seriously planning the next stages of placement for these thousands and thousands of people. They dont have to suffer living with these cramped and unrealistic living situations for the period of time it will take to reestablish the buildings, networks, and jobs in the area. We are all Americans and that is not the way we live! For a week or a month yes but after that, they need a place to call home. Email me at if you or someone you know has been displaced by the disaster and need temporary shelter or care, well find a way for you to get here.

    posted by G.Schill at 7:45 PM on September 4, 2005

    I'm thrilled to have found your posting. Since the tragedy in New Orleans happened I have had so many thoughts about the flood that happened here in Grand Forks. What a monumental event it was, and it pales in comparison to the current disaster on the gulf coast. Being a native to Minnesota I did not experience the events of the GF flood first hand, but my brother did since he was attending college here at the time. I have heard many accounts of the challenges people experienced leaving the city, finding places to stay, losing their homes, rebuilding their lives. I also remember being shocked at the number of people who had arrived in our little Minnesota community to stay with family or friends. The doors to our northern communities opened wide then to help, maybe because we perceived those people to be the same as us. Many people up here on the frozen tundra have an extreme distrust of people from other places. Especially "big" cities. I would think that there would be a gathering of people here ready to offer whatever they can to help the ones who are now wearing that familiar coat of misfortune. What I have heard too many times the last week is that they would love to help someone from New Orleans, but there's just no way of knowing if the people who come to stay will be trustworthy. Apparently they are afraid of being robbed or murdered or possibly it feels to far away for them to do anything substantial. Since I moved to the GFAFB with my military husband I have had similar nagative experiences as those mentioned in a previous post while I've been a resident here. Since I live on the base, I guess I'm officially foreign even though I grew up a few hours away. I believe that it's just a little town where people have a hard time accepting anything new, and people from other walks of life. I think scapegoats are found in most communities around here, and the basers are easy targets. I would love for this community to realize that inspite of our different cultures, appearances, ideas and addresses we are all Americans. Our North Dakota soldiers are fighting side by side with their brothers from the South. They love, trust and depend on eachother. I would love to see people from New Orleans come to stay here for a while since I believe that people who have experienced this type of tragedy will be able to offer so much comfort and support. I would love to offer my own home to someone, but base regulations wouldn't allow that for any significant period of time. Which has had me thinking about base housing in general. This base has sectioned off dozens of housing units to be demolished. Not because they are condemned, I actually live in one of the homes that are next in line to be torn down and I love it here. They are simply older units that the AF doesn't want to pay to maintain. So they are being demolished, and new units are being built. This is happening on other bases throughout the country also. It is such a pity that because of the necessity of tightened security we are not able to offer these homeless people from the gulf coast the many homes that could be available to them. I wonder exactly how much of a national threat these homeless Americans can be. Also to G. Schill who posted above, and anyone else who is interrested, I am providing a web address where people offering housing to the victims of Katrina can post their info.

    posted by GF Baser at 3:45 AM on September 6, 2005

    I would like to say that as a former 'Baser' my time in Grand Forks was one of the best I've ever had. My wife made some great friends in town and met many fine locals working at one of the banks. Since our time in Grand Forks 15 years ago, we have lived in Dayton, Ohio, Atlanta, GA and Tulsa, OK. Let me just say, there was a reason we moved back to the area: we wanted to. I guesss one of my local friends said it best: "If you don't want to be here, you will be miserable. If you want to be here, then there's no limit to how happy you can be." Sure we are definitely outsiders and we've come from the big city but we've never not felt welcome or accepted.

    posted by Skmojoe at 10:22 AM on September 8, 2005

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