Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Illinois Valley (page 1 of 12)

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.

A Boxful of Books

BooksOne of my fondest memories of elementary school was the day the books from the Scholastic Book Services arrived in my classroom. Back in the 1960s/70s when I was in elementary school, there would be a Scholastic Book Services book fair at school or our teachers would hand out a two-four page flyer-like catalog with books that we could order such as The Trolley Car Family, Homer Price, and 100 Pounds of Popcorn. We would take the flyer home, which also included an order form that we would fill out and then bring it back to school with our money. After our teacher collected the money, she would send it off to the Scholastic.

And then we would wait.

And wait.

And wait.

One week would pass; then another week.

Every day we would come to school we would look toward the front of the class to see if the “box of books” had arrived.

Another week passed.

And then one day it was there! Yes, right there on the teacher’s desk! It was like Christmas, the Fourth of July, and our birthdays all wrapped up into one and inside the box. We couldn’t wait for our teacher to arrive and distribute the books. One by the one, our teacher would call our names, and we would march to the front of the class, grinning from ear to ear as our teacher handed us our books. And then we would be back at our desks ooh-ing and aah-ing as we thumbed through our new books.

That’s kind of how I felt today when I received a box of my books. It’s one thing to see your book posted on Amazon or someone’s Facebook page; it’s entirely something else when you see your books that you ordered inside the box. This was the first time that I had a multiple title book order, so there was a lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing when I saw all these titles together in one box.

I’ve come a long way since Washington Grade School in Oglesby, Illinois but one thing remains the same: the thrill I get when I look inside a box and see “my” books.

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.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas — 2014

It’s that wonderful, magical time of the year again.I'll Be Home For Christmas 1

An Awesome Review of When A Hard Rain Falls

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A rave review of When A Hard Rain Falls:

This wasn’t quite what I expected from the blurb on the front advertising it as a “fast-paced gripping ride” – to describe it in such a way is to do it something of an injustice; When A Hard Rain Falls is much more than that.

The pace of the novel begins quite slowly, giving the reader plenty of time to get to know the character’s two protagonists: Keith, the struggling, divorced father of two who finds himself in a situation this will be all-too-familiar to those who have done no wrong except make a few bad choices; and Nicky, a young man fresh out of prison, rough and happy that way.

Miller does a fantastic job of making these characters fully-developed and relatable. It would be easy for the young ex-con and the single father to be clichés or caricatures, the type seen often on any number of police-related TV shows. Instead, we are given full backgrounds on the two men; what happened to them and how they ended up where they are now. There is a fascinating contrast between the two in that Keith is a good man but questions the choices he has made and makes, while Nicky is cruel and remorseless but never doubts what he does.

The exposition of these two is what makes the climax of the novel, when they finally meet, so interesting. However, they do not meet until the very end of the story, so it would be wrong to expect a story of constant conflict. Instead, Miller slowly builds up the suspense as the two men move closer and closer to the moment they will meet. The reader knows it is going to happen and as each action brings them nearer, the suspense builds until it bursts, much like the banks of the canal in the final scenes.

The storm which causes this is described in wonderful detail, bursting into the story as unexpectedly as it would be to the characters and having a huge influence on what happens. The story ends with some nice intrigue as well, leaving the reader to wonder what will happen to Keith, his sons and everyone else.

All in all, this is an excellently written thriller, full of suspense and bursts of action that never fail to draw you in and keep you entertained. Beneath that, though, is a deeper story of family love, attempted redemption and the tale of how a man can easy fall through the system into deeper darkness. Just don’t expect an episode of 24 with non-stop action; this is more akin to the quality of a show like The Wire, but all the better for being a book!

Thanks, Steve Justice! You just persuaded me to buy my own book!

When A Hard Rain Falls: You CAN judge a book by its cover

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Believe it or not, When A Hard Rain Falls has quickly become one of my best selling books.

Although it does not have the kind of reviews that War Remains and Ice Cream Headache have, it is one of my best selling books on a day-to-day basis.

Inasmuch as it is a good story about a father fighting evil to protect his sons while they are on a camping trip, the cover work by the very multi-talent artist and designer Anna Takahashi proves that you CAN judge a book by its cover.

I just love the cover design and how Anna was able to capture the intensity and the suspense of Keith Mitchell’s story and how an ordinary camping trip becomes one of survival.

This is the second book cover Anna designed for me and it also shows how much we both learned about cover design. First of all the Title font is very strong capturing the story’s suspense. Also the placement of the book blurb is crucial. Your eyes move from the lightning to the title, downward with the rain to the blurb. Finally, the cover is a wrap around design: the back mirrors the front. It is a most appropriate design for the book cover.

Leonard’s Bicycle Shop

c9-56  d22 Img25 Leonard's Mower & Bicycle Shop

 

 

Although I don’t directly mention Leonard’s Bicycle Shop directly in Ice Cream Headache, the bicycle shop plays an important role in the novella. Looking at this photo, it was probably taken right around the time that the story takes place.

Set in a small, industrial town in Illinois in 1968, the lives of five people intertwine on one fateful spring day. Under the low-lying dark cloud of the Vietnam war, these five people act out their personal dramas within a milieu of sadness, regret, guilt, envy, cowardice and bitterness: Ray Jackson, isolated and strong in the face of losing his business and wife; Johnny Fitzpatrick, who has decided to run off to Canada to avoid the draft; Jimmy Smith, who overcomes physical and mental limitations and willing to believe the best about people; Nancy Smith, who has devoted her entire life to raising her only child in the face of great odds; and Earl Jansen who carries the guilt of an accidental shooting two years earlier that forced him off the police force. However there is also in equal measure all-consuming love, courage, loyalty, kindness, mercy, gentleness and the enduring strength of the human spirit. Linked together in conflict, articulate friendship and understanding, their plight as human beings is one we all share.

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.

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