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The Illinois-Wisconsin Border

Johnsburg
St. John's church, Christmas Day 2000
Johnsburg, Illinois


Tom Waits doesn't release songs like Day After Tomorrow, which is one reason people listened so closely when it appeared on his 2004 album, Real Gone.

The song's narrator is a 21-year-old combat soldier on a battlefield where he sees himself like "the gravel on the road," like an expendable resource in someone else's project.

It's what we might call a protest song, which is not Tom Waits' style. When the morning newspaper appears in a Tom Waits song, it's usually to complete a still life with eggs and weak coffee. But Day After Tomorrow is a beautiful anit-war song — politically disheartening, spiritually uplifting, and about as moving as anything Waits has ever done.

Like me, the narrator-soldier of Day After Tomorrow is from northern Illinois:

I got your letter today
And I miss you all so much here
I can't wait to see you all
And I'm counting the days, dear
I still believe that there's gold
At the end of the world
And I'll come home to Illinois
On the day after tomorrow

It is so hard
And it's cold here
And I'm tired of taking orders
And I miss old Rockford town
Up by the Wisconsin border
What I miss you won't believe
Shoveling snow and raking leaves
And my plane will touch down
On the day after tomorrow

On my first listening, the "Wisconsin border" passage clunked in my ears. For one thing, "Rockford-town" isn't an expression I'd ever heard, and the song doesn't tell us anything about Rockford beyond what can be guessed from Google Maps.

So, the soldier's hometown seemed to lack credibility, a little as if a blues song had referred to Avalon, Mississippi as "an unincorporated community in the extreme northwest corner of Carroll County, part of the Greenwood Mississippi Micropolitan Statistical Area." The soldier seemed to have a wikipedic knowledge of his own hometown.

Of course, on my second listening, I remembered that Waits' wife, Kathleen Brennan, grew up in Johnsburg, Illinois, which is close to Rockford and even closer to my own home town. Since the early 1980's — and increasingly, as time goes on — Waits and Brennan have worked as a team under the name "Tom Waits," much as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have said that they are a band called "Gillian Welch."

Thinking of the lines as having been written by an Illinoisan subtly changes the meaning of the words. If I and my family are any measure, referring to a town "up by the Wisconsin border" carries a meaning and significance you can't read off a map.

When I was a college boy in Tucson, Arizona, I went to at least a hundred poetry readings, including perhaps a half-dozen readings by a poet named Alberto Álvaro Ríos. Each time, he would tell the same old story about growing up in Nogales and playing a childish game of walking in two countries at once — literally, one foot in the USA, one foot in Mexico.

I quickly grew tired of the story. So what? So you grew up in a town that straddled the border! Today, of course, I'm able to see a significance I'd mostly missed as a callow youth. The border really does matter, even if it hadn't mattered much to me at the time.

Kathleen Brennan is from just this side of a border, a place where someplace else is always just over the horizon. Maybe such people know exactly where to locate their mythological worlds — over on the other side. Maybe they also tend to know exactly where myths are sorely lacking — here on this side.

In Day after Tomorrow, Waits and Brennan's soldier suddenly finds himself thinking of his hometown, old Rockford town, as if it were that mythical world on the other side of the border. He's displaced alright. His folks back home wouldn't believe how shoveling snow and raking leaves now seem to him like that gold at the end of the world.

It might seem funny that anyone would think of Wisconsin as a default location for some kind of Valhalla. I can't speak for Kathleen Brennan, rather obviously, but when I was growing up in Illinois, my family always had Wisconsin on its mind in a way. Not Indiana or Iowa, but Wisconsin.

For one thing, my parents were from there — they met during WWII while bowling in downtown Milwaukee. They still had siblings in Wisconsin towns both very large and very small. Even for those of us born in Illinois, going to Wisconsin was driving "back" as much as driving "up."

Mostly, we went back for holidays, weddings, and funerals. As a result, my parents' respective home towns seemed like bizarro worlds where people spent every day of their entire lives wearing clip-on ties, going to lengthy Catholic services, and then getting ecstatically drunk. In my mind's eye, John Prine's Wedding Day in Funeralville is always obviously about those places.

It's wedding day in Funeralville
Your soup spoon's on your right
The King and Queen will alternate
With the refrigerator light
There'll be boxing on the TV show
The colored kid will sing
Hooray for you
And midnight's oil
Lets burn the whole damn thing

Wisconsinites know about Illinoisans crossing the border to party. They were called FIBs (F**king Illinois Bastards). FIBs were known for driving drunk, littering, and being loud and disorderly — even more so on all counts than native Wisconsinites.

Once, a relative was bitterly complaining about FIBs, so I pointed out that the airwaves in Illinois were fully saturated with appeals to Escape to Wisconsin — constantly. Every Illinoisan who crossed the border was awarded an Escape to Wisconsin bumpersticker and encouraged to hurry back. He should, I said, contact his own state government about their success in attracting us FIBs ... his face took on a vivd expression of disillusionment.

I felt very uncomfortable about being seen as an outsider when my veins flowed with so much German-Catholic Wisconsin beer ... I mean, blood ... and when my mind was so invested in my Wisconsin roots. Like Alberto Rios, my family and I never quite got beyond straddling that border, growing up in two places at once.

John Prine's song "Lake Marie" is about a character like that — his body on the border, his mind so swimming with that border's past and present that it orders his world. It's a very weird song, almost a nonsense song, that makes sense on a level no other song makes sense.

The song has a mysterious power to make you hit the repeat button over and over and over again, endlessly. I suspect that power might derive from the song's evocation of place — it conjures the experience of occupying that particular borderland in a way you never thought possible.

For one thing, it confuses its facts as only someone thus conflicted can confuse them. Its inaccuracy is authentic.

Many years ago along the Illinois-Wisconsin Border
There was this Indian tribe
They found two babies in the woods
— white babies
One of them was named Elizabeth
She was the fairer of the two
While the smaller and more fragile one was named Marie
Having never seen white girls before
— and living on the two lakes known as the Twin Lakes —
They named the larger and more beautiful lake Lake Elizabeth
And thus the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway
Became known forever as Lake Marie

I see now that the song is apparently about Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, which was founded by a family that did indeed have twins — Elizabeth and Mary. But the twins were never abandoned to the Indians.

But two white sisters were held by a group of Potawatomi Indians in 1832 — one of the most famous and influential incidents in the nasty, confused series of massacres and skirmishes known today as the Black Hawk War. Both pairs of sisters lived within about a 10-mile radius of Johnsburg, Illinois.

It's troubling how little the schools I attended taught me about the pre-European history of this place so full of Native-American-derived place names, as well as cigar-store-Indian kitsch. But those place names and that kitsch and the beauty of the Wisconsin landscape swam around in my head my entire life.

John Prine's "this Indian tribe," who named lakes according to how well they could be seen from the highway, gets it exactly right. There was no telling how long ago any of this history happened, or whether it really happened at all, or whether it ever even stopped happening.

Later in the song, the Black Hawk War is somehow seen, if not quite recognized, on the evening news in the work of European settlers like Illinoisan John Wayne Gacy and Wisconsinite Jeffry Dahmer.

The dogs were barking as the cars were parking
The loan sharks were sharking, the narcs were narcing
Practically everyone was there
In the parking lot by the forest preserve
The police had found two bodies
Nay! Naked bodies!
Their faces had been horribly disfigured by some sssssharp object
Saw it on the news
In the TV news
In a black and white video —
You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows. SHADOWS!
That's what it looks like

It's already been a quarter century since Tom Waits wrote the song "Johnsburg, Illinois". Back then, Brennan and Johnsburg were new to Waits, comparatively, and Brennan didn't yet have the kind of intimate involvement in the writing that she does today. Well, that's what I gather anyway.

Waits seems to have deliberately painted Johnsburg as a place that exists mostly in his imagination — the kind of Midwestern farming community any Californian might imagine. He plays a character who can't tell the woman from the photo, the community from the Rockwell painting.

She's my only true love
She's all that I think of
Look here, in my wallet — that's her

She grew up on a farm there
There's a place on my arm where
I've written her name next to mine

It's almost a joke, inviting us to say "No, that's not her — that's a PICTURE of her." The song, just like the photo in his wallet, is how he shows us the image of her that he carries around with him.

Of course, it could very well be that this confusion between the person, or town, and their image is what romance is all about. Who the hell wouldn't want such a song written for them? And what chamber of commerce wouldn't thank a writer for naming such a song after its town?

At that stage in Tom Waits' career, Johnsburg is not yet really recognizable. It's not Brennan's Johnsburg — the sleepy little grid of streets, the town here on this commonplace side of the border. After all, she didn't write the song. For that matter, she hasn't tattooed HER OWN name into his body. He has marked himself with his own understanding of her.

In a sense, the soldier in that oversees war in Day After Tomorrow has gone from thinking of his hometown as a resident would to thinking of it as an outsider might. The war experience has transformed him from a resident of the border town, like Brennan, to a dreamer of a mythical place, like the Waits of 25 years ago.