Remembering John Olson
- Blog Post by: James Lileks
- September 10, 2013 - 6:30 PM
The Washburn water tower in Tangletown has a wikipedia page, and at the bottom there’s a link to a recollection about growing up around it. The author was a Washburn High alum: John Olson. In 2005 he wrote:
If I have to be buried, if it comes to that, bury me under the Washburn Water Tower in Tangletown, Minneapolis. It's as good a landmark and touchstone -- and so, maybe, headstone -- as a body can expect from his hometown.
Years ago, planes used to skim the top of the water tower. We'd throw stones, trying to ding the planes' undersides as they rumbled overhead. We imagined the pilots waved at us on approach. We'd slide down the hill in winter and in summer too -- if the maintenance man had left the hose on. Eventually and predictably, there were Pall Malls and mason jars of Canadian Club.
But the Washburn Water Tower was mostly a destination that made aloneness, time-killing and cloud-watching just a little more exalted. A person might even bring his date there just to see if she would grasp the portentousness of it all.
I went there recently with my 5-year-old. There is now a steel-pronged fence around the hilltop. Was it there to keep terrorists out of the water supply or teens from libeling Southwest High's athletic program with paint from art class Was typhoid back?
My son was unaffected by the fence. We could still walk around the hilltop. From this vantage point, you can imagine that there are still brave and dangerous expeditions to embark on. Not every destination has succumbed to the sameness of subdivisions and malls; not every hill has been leveled to meet a raised valley.
And there are still peculiar landmarks that serve as reservoirs of our common stories. They are thumbtacks in the map of our lives.
The map of John’s life was folded and stowed at noon today at the Basilica on Hennepin. I met him a few years ago and found him a capital fellow. wide, slightly-startled eyes and half-smile of perpetual amazement at life, joy and gratitude at the big wild ride, what he’d learned and done and seen and the family who filled his home and heart. When he fell ill I interviewed him for one of the “My Minnesota” profiles the Strib runs, and kept it in my back pocket for when he got better. This is it.
John Olson, 56. Excelsior.
“I was born in Madison by a fluke - my parents happened to be there. But I define Minneapolis as my home. It was Norman Rockwell, a picturesque childhood - and inexplicably I ran away at the age of 14 to play music on the streets of New Orleans. I had this great life, great parents, but there were nine people my family and they didn’t always know if you were there. Head counts were difficult. (laughs.) So just left, went down to New Orleans, and had a great time until I ended in jail.”
“Vagrancy, pretty much. Can’t tell them they got the wrong guy! But I like to say about my own life.”
So now you’re coming out with an album after a life in advertising. Returning to your first love?
“I grew up playing music. I played in the Jazz Heritage festival, played the Chicago Jazz Festival. I did that until I was 26, and then I stumbled into advertising by a fluke. I got to the point where I liked to get up in the morning and do something, and I’d be driving home (from a performance) when everyone else was going to work. So I hocked my instruments, went back to school, and when I was done I got an internship at Campbell Mithun. I was the only one they interviewed who hadn’t studied advertising, and I tried to turn that to my advantage. They bought it! And I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Oh, come on.
“Really. I spent a year - and this would never happen now, there are thousands of kids studying it, learning how to get a job in advertising - I spent a year as the guy who didn’t know anything about advertising except how to make fun of it. I made 14 grand a year and felt so guilty when the payroll guy came around with the checks. So I started asking what can I really do? I got some work, and within two and a half years I was a Creative Director. A year later I started my own company.”
Well, that escalated quickly, as they say. He says he “wandered in the wilderness for a while, wrote movies, wrote a book,” but by 1997 “the agency started to click. We had Bandana Square, and then we got Burnett Realty; the Mall of America was our big initial client, and that’s how I met Alice Cooper; he loves the Mall, drives his family up there from Arizona. We build it the hard way, brick by brick, and now it’s the biggest agency in Minnesota.”
Then back to the music.
“A number of years ago I had some luck in Nashville - #13 on he Gospel chart with the Imperials, Reba had one of my songs lined up for an album - so I thought hey, I know how to do this, so Iet’s try another run at it.”
Which led to the album “Olsonville, New Americana.” That’s not a real place, is it?
“Olsonville is a reservation in South Dakota. On Google View there’s nothing on the road. It’s a place on the mind, a confluence of a bunch of different styles. The songs of North Europe, mixed with African influences.”
“Literally a month and a half ago I realized I had a medical situation, and I had to cancel the tour. But I still want to play. I’d love to do the Orpheum, but I have to work my way up to do the cafes.”
What’s your dream venue?
“I just went to the water tower with two of the guys I ran away with. I’d love to play up there.”
Here’s a video from just a little while ago. He’s the man with the drum, sometimes leading the parade, sometimes hanging back with a smile, and letting others go on ahead.
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