Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Illinois Valley (page 1 of 13)

Hot off the Presses!

Bureau 39 First BatchThe first batch of Bureau 39 arrived in Daejeon today, and in the immortal words of Ed Grimley (Martin Short) what a thrill it was to open the box to see all these copies, if I must say. This is one book that readers are going to love holding in their hands. As much as eBooks have given me the chance to read more books, there’s no better thrill a new book gives you when you hold it in your hands and begin to read it. And not just a new book.

I remember it was the summer of 1975 and I was hanging out with my friend David Walther. After he had broken both of his wrists, thanks to a movie I wanted to do (in the movie he had to jump from a train trestle–a story for another time) there wasn’t a lot we could do. Both of us expressed an interest in joining the Air Force after graduation from La-Salle-Peru Township High School the following year. One hot summer day, we walked to the Air Force Recruiting Station on Fourth Street in Peru, Illinois to get some information about the Air Force with David’s father who had served in the Air Force in the 1940s.

On the way back to David’s house, we walked down Fourth Street and stopped at a used book store in the old Turnhall Building. Although very hot, the inside was cool; the smell of all those old books was sweet and musky, like some exotic perfume. We all bought a couple books, and if my memory serves me correctly, I bought a collection of Rod Serling stories. But it was the first time I understood the thrill of holding a book in my hands and thinking not only about the people who might have read it before me, but the author’s life–the sweat and toil that went into its creation. It was that physical connection to other readers and the author which made me realize then, as it does now, the value of the written word and something that all of us writers strive for when we sit down and write.

I loved that feeling. I want to feel it more.

And the walls came tumbling down…

Friday's SaloonFriday’s Saloon is no more.

Today, I came across a photo on Facebook, courtesy of WLPO, a radio station in the Illinois Valley (an area 90 miles southwest of Chicago) that showed the building where Friday’s had been located with the roof caved in with debris strewn on the sidewalk.

The bar, which for one brief moment in the late 1970s and early 1980s became synonymous with the resurgence of “live music” in the Illinois Valley following the demise of disco. It was there that bands like The Jerks and Longshot, (composed of former members of Buckacre, that darling band of the area) who called the bar home, played before packed crowds every weekend and inspired other musicians to follow in their footsteps. And it just wasn’t Fridays that had everyone jumping, pogoing, slam-dancing, and bopping on the wooden dance floor (which thankfully held up!) either. On the corner was the Delta Queen, part of the Red Door Inn complex, across the street was The Rusty Rail (Originally called The Whistle Stop, it was a rail passenger car converted into a bar) and down the street, Murphy’s Bar where The Jerks, Longshot, and later The Libido Boys played.

It was a happening time.

In October of 1980, the Daily News Tribune (now the News Trib) thought so when the paper published an article, “The Boys Are Back in Town” about the resurgence of live music in the Illinois Valley. The article talked about some of the local bands and the bar scene which had seen more live music following the demise of disco. I just so happened to be home for the weekend from Southern Illinois University and decided to check out one of the bars mentioned in the article.

 

That weekend I went down to Water Street (appropriately named Water Street because when the Illinois River crested whenever there was a lot of rain or flooding, the street was usually under a foot or two of water) in Peru where one of these bars, Friday’s Saloon was located. It was located in a cluster of buildings at the far end of the street, (past a few factories and other industrial complexes) which also included the Delta Queen and The Red Door Inn, a popular Illinois Valley eatery (now since closed). Rumored to have been a “speakeasy” during Prohibition, Friday’s had become a popular hangout for younger crowds (many who could get in without having their ID’s checked) and was the “official home” of The Jerks and Longshot.

I guess that’s what made the place special, located on Water Street along the Illinois River, past all these factories. If you were to stand in the street (which at one time had been a brick street) and look east you could see these factories rising up underneath the Peru Bridge (U.S. Route 51, a major North-South artery—before U.S. 39 was completed—ran across the bridge). At night, and especially when it was raining there was an almost surreal aura to the place. This was a working-class neighborhood and I suppose it was only fitting that the three bars located on Water Street—Friday’s, the Delta Queen, and Murphy’s Bar (which had been a grocery store years before) rocked on the weekends.

Whenever The Jerks or Longshot played Friday’s it was an exciting time to be down on Water Street. During the heyday of this “resurgence of live music” in the Illinois Valley, people would be lined up outside waiting to get in. Inside, it was just wall-to-wall people. You had to fight your way through the crowd gathered around the bar to an adjoining room where the bands played. When it got too crowded inside, many people walked across the street to The Rusty Rail, and waited until the crowds thinned out.

The interior of Friday’s Saloon was long and narrow with a bar that ran the length of the room. Actually, Friday’s was two rooms—part of the wall had been knocked out to make an opening into this adjoining room that was on the right. The bar itself was a throwback to another era with the high embossed tin ceiling and funky retro wallpapered walls (the lower half was paneled with dark stained wood). After pushing and fighting my way through the crowd, I entered this second room that was just as crowded as the first one. The air was heavy with smoke and perfume. A large group of people was standing in the back while others were sitting at tables on either side of the room. The dance floor was packed. One person in particular stood out. He was standing near the entrance to this second room. He wore a leather jacket, with spiked black hair, and a small padlock and chain around his neck who reminded me of Sid Viscious. I didn’t know it at the time, but the man was Bruce Kowalski, a.k.a. Bob Noxious. He had his own radio program Alternative Opposites at a local radio station and was known for doing a wicked rendition of “Gloria” with The Jerks. I was definitely in the right place.

On a small stage at the other end of the room, The Jerks were playing a cover of a new wave hit by the English band The Vapors. The band was good, very good. This was a seasoned band. They were tight. With a pounding, staccato backbeat and driving guitars and booming bass, The Jerks were playing high octane rock and roll that had—judging from the way the speakers were swaying back and forth from the vibration of all the dancers on the crowded dance floor—energized the crowd. This was what rock and roll was all about. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of that dance floor, dancing and sweating and caught up in the excitement and allure that only rock and roll knows.

(Miller, 2008; retrieved from http://jeffreymillerwrites.com/meet-the-jerks-rock-roll-from-americas-heartland/)

Seeing the photo of Friday’s today, opened the floodgates to the memories I have of that time, the music I listened and danced to, and the many people who I met back then who are still my friends today. “Those were the days,” Mary Hopkin lamented in her famous song. “We thought they’d never end.” They did. We all moved on. But for many of us, Friday’s, The Jerks, Longshot…they will always be near and dear to us.

Serious Rock ‘n Rollers

Jerks_1980Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite photos taken of the legendary Illinois Valley band, The Jerks. There’s no gleaming and smiling at the camera. These boys are serious about their rock and roll.

Those were some fun times in the early 1980s when the band was in their nadir and everyone wanted to jump with The Jerks. I remember talking to the band’s soundman, Tom Joliffe, one night after a gig, and he said, “Sparks, you and I came along when the band had reached its height.”

They might have just been another bar band, but these seasoned musicians breathed life into local music scenes like so many other bands around the same time.

They carried the torch for rock and roll like so many other bands who have kept the fires burning.

Don’t be Blinded by Science

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You don’t have to go to great lengths to understand the science behind an ice cream headache.

Really.

It’s all poetry in motion.

Ice Cream Headache.

 

1968: A Year to Remember

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It was no mistake when I started writing my novella Ice Cream Headache what year the story would be set. I have always been fascinated with the year 1968 because it was the year that I really became aware of the world around me. More importantly, the events which took place during this year would shape a generation. Indeed, if one looks at Ice Cream Headache from this perspective, one could argue that the story of these five individuals whose lives intertwine on this fateful day in late spring is in some regards, a microcosm of the year.

I believe that’s one of the reasons why this novella works; the year this story takes place is essential to the story. For one of the characters, Johnny Fitzpatrick, the year is important in regard to the Vietnam War. After the Tet Offensive earlier in the year, America’s involvement in the conflict would drastically change. For the first time since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, there would be an increasing number of Americans who felt that we should get out the the quagmire the war had become.

Ghosts of Christmas Past — 1968: The Year I stopped Believing in Santa Claus

1968 hot wheels 09

An Excerpt from I’ll Be Home For Christmas

It was a historic year on all fronts—that started with the seizure of the USS Pueblo off North Korean coastal waters in January and culminated with the flyby of the moon by Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve.

In between there was the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, riots in Chicago, and the election of Richard M. Nixon in November. It was a tumultuous year in America, to say the least.

Although I was only 10 years old, I knew something was going on that year when I heard and watched the news of these events. I might not have understood completely what each one of these events meant, but I did know—by observing and listening to the adults around me talk about them—that these events rattled and shook our nation to the core.

It was also the year I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

* * *

The holiday season for a kid traditionally began with the arrival of the Christmas catalogs from Aldens, Montgomery Ward, and Sears. As soon as our mailman, Earl Jansen, delivered ours, my brother Robbie and I spent hours perusing the toy section until we knew it by heart. Still too young for a BB gun, but too old for G.I. Joes and Lincoln Logs, I had my sights set on a Hot Wheels Double Dare Drag Set, Battleship, Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, and a Bobby Hull hockey game.

Mom told us that we shouldn’t expect too much this Christmas because our father wouldn’t be with us, which I thought was strange because I didn’t know how his absence had anything to do with what we would or wouldn’t get for Christmas. It was toward the end of our summer vacation when Mom sat me down and told me that she and our father had gotten a divorce. I knew what it meant. There was another kid at school whose parents were divorced and all the other kids made fun of him. They also made fun of him because he still believed in Santa Claus. Of course I still believed in Santa Claus; I mean, who in their right mind wouldn’t believe in him, but after I heard about the ribbing Lester got from those older kids, I feared Santa’s days were numbered.

Robbie, on the other hand, wasn’t worried about Dad not being with us; he was afraid that Santa wouldn’t find us because we moved.

* * *

Halloween came and then Thanksgiving. By then, the pages in the toy section of the Aldens’ catalog were worn, creased, and dog-eared from all our visits. At night, when my brother and I were supposed to be asleep, we pulled the covers up over our heads, and with a flashlight, looked again at the toys we hoped Santa would bring us. When it came time to write our letters to Santa, I made sure to write down the description of the toys exactly the way they were written in the catalog and why I couldn’t live without them. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, before we watched Miracle on 34th Street on WGN’s Family Classics with Frazier Thomas, my brother and I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote those letters. I let my tongue hang outside the corner of my mouth to aid my concentration as I slowly and carefully printed each letter with my pencil, the same way I had been taught up through the third grade. I put those A’s received for penmanship to good use as I composed what I felt was the best letter ever written to Santa Claus.

When I finished one hour later, I couldn’t wait to show our mother the neatly written letter to Santa. I gleamed as I passed it across the table where my mother nursed a Bloody Mary and thumbed through a recent issue of Family Weekly. She took one look at the letter and the color immediately drained from her face.

“Don’t you think this is too much?” she asked, looking up from the letter.

My heart sunk. It wasn’t the answer I expected as I immediately switched gears and pleaded my case. “All the other kids ask Santa for a lot.”

“All those other kids have parents who make more money than I do,” she said, as she got up from the table to make herself another drink. “Go and watch your movie.”

I wasn’t sure how the amount of money that my friends’ parents possessed had anything to do with the stuff I asked Santa to bring, but I knew better than to talk back to Mom when she had been drinking. I picked up the letter, stuffed it inside an envelope and went into the living room.

Read more here.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas — Cover Art

xmasBookPaperBack

My thanks again to Anna Takahashi for her awesome cover design for I’ll Be Home For Christmas. Her creative vision adds another dimension to my books. I think you’ll agree that this cover rocks!

When A Hard Rain Falls — Cover

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover.

What do you think?

JM_BookCover6x9_BW_150

In this case, the answer is YES!

An Excerpt from When a Hard Rain Falls

JM_WAHRF_eBook_final“Halfway across the canal, he lost his footing and fell in. The water, which was cold and filled with debris, came up to his chest. He knew that in some parts of the canal, the water was over ten feet deep, but much higher now as it continued to rise and swell. He was a good swimmer, learning how to swim in the Illinois River and Fox River as a boy, where he had to fight strong currents. This time though, he was fighting more than the strong current and the rushing waters; he was fighting for survival—his and his sons.”

Now available on Amazon.

When A Hard Rain Falls — Published!

JM_WAHRF_eBook_finalTake a deep breath. I’ve just published another book.

When A Hard Rain Falls is now available as an eBook from Amazon and Smashwords (it will soon be available as a paperback from Createspace).

This has become a fall ritual for me. Four of my six books have been published between September and December. It’s only fitting: this is my favorite time of the year and this time of the year always reminds me of growing up in Illinois.

Six books in four years. That’s not too shabby (though one of them, Damaged Goods, was a collection of short fiction which had been published in online literary magazines).

Take a deep breath and then get back to work.

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