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":
"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.
Links: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 CNN.com.
Bill Clinton's Speech.