Tunesday: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Tornado ’87”

It’s Tuesday so that means at ilisteniwatch.com, it’s Tunesday! Every Tuesday, we will share a song with you that we love and hope you will too. Today, Jeremy picks The Rural Alberta Advantage.

I’ve never lived through a tornado. Wait. Does that sound like I died in a tornado, and am pecking out these words with my zombie hands? Okay, I’ve never experienced a tornado first-hand. Although I now live in West Virginia, whose wild and wonderful mountains keep tornadoes a rarity, I grew up in Minnesota, at the northernmost reaches of Tornado Alley. So while one never passed over my head, the threat was a prominent cloud over my summers.

My earliest memory of a tornado was the 1986 tornado that ripped through Springbrook Nature Center, only a few miles from my house. I wasn’t old enough then that I actually remember the tornado itself now, but the Nature Center, with its walking trails and duck pond, was a frequent summertime destination for my family, and I do remember visiting the Center in the years afterward and seeing the violent mess of trees and debris that the tornado had left behind.

The nature of a tornado’s unpredictability is curious, compared to other natural disasters. Tornado forecasting is still mostly limited to warning people when a particular thunderstorm system has the potential to form a tornado. Of course, when a severe thunderstorm is chugging across the plains toward your home, you’re going to stay inside whether a tornado is possible or not. The final warning comes when an actual tornado is spotted in your area. That’s still no guarantee that the tornado will reach you (unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, tornadoes typically only hit a relatively small area along an unpredictable path), but the sirens will blare and that will send you to the basement.

So my memories of the few tornadoes in the summers of my youth are not of tornadoes, but of dealing with the potential for tornadoes. Of watching meteorologists interrupt TV programs, of listening to citizen reports on the battery-powered radio after the storm had taken the electricity, of listening for tornado sirens, of sitting under the stairs, of waiting with suspicious dread. As a kid, getting in the basement during a storm was a bit like wearing a bicycle helmet (keep in mind, I grew up before those were the norm). The grownups were adamant that the situation was dangerous and that you had to do it, but it felt a bit silly and unnecessary, because the odds seemed so astronomically small. You read about people on bikes getting hit by cars, and you read about towns being obliterated by tornadoes, but nothing THAT bad could ever happen to me, right? Can’t I bike without my helmet, please? Can’t we stay upstairs and watch the storm out the windows, pleeeease?

The closest tornado encounter I recall was when I was in college in St. Paul, MN. It was storming hard, and hailing, and when we looked out the windows in the dorm, we saw the sky was turning green, supposedly a telltale sign of a coming tornado (the other telltale sign is a sound like a freight train). Nobody knew if we should get in the dorm’s basement, or just stay in the hallway away from windows. In the end, I don’t remember if there actually was a tornado in the area; I just remember going outside immediately after and playing with the golf ball-sized hail. (Ah, to be green and carefree, famous among the quads.)

When I listen to “Tornado ‘87” by The Rural Alberta Advantage, my mind darkens a bit, and these are the memories that gather and rotate. Like many of RAA’s songs, this one uses repetitive lyrics to describe a natural event and geographic location, with moody, drum-driven music, and plenty of room for metaphoric interpretation. In this case the natural event is the devastating Edmonton tornado of 1987; lead singer Nils Edenloff has said he was a kid living in Edmonton at the time, which perhaps explains why his lyrics are so evocative for me.

The most vivid line for me is “Let’s lie down in the basement tonight,” which shows up four times in the song. Immediately after the first instance (0:32) is when Paul Banwatt’s drums first show up, booming in like thunder. After the second instance (1:11), Amy Cole’s backing vocals first arrive. It’s hard not to think of them as the tornado siren. Even though they’re a beautiful layer to the song, they’re also haunting, especially on top of Nils singing of the “Black sky comes to take you from me.” By the way, if you’ve never heard a tornado siren, have a listen.

That wind-up sound has always given me chills. In Minnesota, the sirens were tested on the first Wednesday of every month at 1:00 p.m., year-round. In the summer months, they always give a quick heart-jump until you realized that not only was it 1:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, but the skies were solid blue.

Even though relatively few people live in tornado-ridden areas, that feeling of hunkering down and waiting for some potential but unpredictable horror and hoping you’re safe enough but knowing you’re at the mercy of what’s coming and just trying to get hurt as little as possible — I think that feeling hits everyone at some point in their lives whether it is a physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual storm you are weathering. So on this first Tunesday of July, fall into the feeling for a bit, enjoy the skill of the musicians, and if you’re still listening to me now, listen to my recommendation to listen to this song with headphones on and volume up:

If you’re really in the mood, try this version next, in which someone has spliced actual footage of the ‘87 tornado with audio:

Read more from Jeremy here and on Twitter: @jereminate.