FARGO — In my 18 years at The Forum in Fargo, I’ve received my share of angry letters from readers. Sometimes I didn’t like their favorite washed-up band as much as they did, or I didn’t appreciate their child’s play as much as their family did.
Fair enough. I haven’t got used to little Chauncey’s pitchy singing, and you apparently have grown numb to it.
Sometimes readers threatened to share their displeasure with my editor and I gave them his direct number. Some threatened to share their grievances with my publisher. Be my guest.
Occasionally, I’ve been told I would be hearing from their lawyer. I politely tell them that on advice from my counsel, I won’t joke about that.
And then there was a letter sent to the Grand Forks Herald in response to an album review I wrote in June. The Herald and other North Dakota papers ran the story.
Since the coronavirus outbreak put a stop to most live entertainment, there hasn’t been a lot to review. (For a third straight decade, I was denied seeing Cher’s farewell tour!)
I could have driven across North Dakota last week to see Great White play a Dickinson show without any coronavirus safety precautions, but just writing that sentence left me short of breath and with a loss of taste.
In late May, my editor suggested I check out an album written about North Dakota spoofing indie singer Sufjan Stevens’ one-time plan to release an album per state with all original material.
The project was led by comedian Joey Clift, who recruited writers across the country, and I thought "North Dakota" showed only a passing interest in the state.
“Listening to the album, it doesn’t seem like many of the writers are from North Dakota, or even know much about the state, other than it can get cold, there was an oil boom and it borders on South Dakota,” I wrote.
The laughs were on me. Shortly after my piece was published in early June, the Grand Forks Herald received a letter from one of the artists on the album.
“As the songwriter of ‘Oil Boom,’ ‘One Dakota: a Tale of Unrequited Love,’ and ‘The Search for 'The Middle of Nowhere,'' the newspaper is clearly challenging the validity of my North Dakotan identity. I demand a retraction, correction, or apology … My lawyers have verified the authenticity of my birth certificate and assured my existence through meticulous cross-examination.”
The writer, Brian Alexander Cheney-Peters, went on to throw down an “authenticity” challenge:
- Make a North Dakota mural out of 10,000 Red Pepper Grinders.
- Eat Marilyn Hagerty’s “History of American Dining in 128 Reviews.”
- Bench-press the Chester Fritz Auditorium.
- Win a Pulitzer Prize covering another flood.
- Go ice-fishing in July.
- Spend an upcoming weekend in Winnipeg between the ages of 18 and 20.
- Rename all of your children “The Ralph.”
- Learn to fly at UND and give North Dakota a flyover salute.
- Find much more than low prices, much more than great stuff, when you go to Hugo’s.
- Steal East Grand Forks from Minnesota.
By the ghosts of the Westward Ho, authenticity verified.
I called Cheney-Peters, who goes by Brian Alexander and still has a 701 number, to talk about what he referred to as a “birther conspiracy,” and that seemed to quiet his lust for litigation.
“As soon as I can clear my name that I’m a naturalized North Dakotan, I can come back,” he jokes.
The 2004 graduate of Red River High School in Grand Forks is a comic writer quarantining in Washington, D.C., when he spotted Clift’s callout for state songs.
“I just wanted to make some silly songs for goofs on the internet,” he says. “There’s humor to be mined from our legendary state.”
Alexander did include some North Dakota details in his songs, like this spooky reference: “A little box in a little room with the little last pieces of Sen. Kevin Cramer’s ... heart.”
“I was trying to up the absurdity of the accents they give us in the movies,” Alexander says.
Myself and my lawyers were relieved to be assured his objection to my review was all in good fun.
“I had to defend my North Dakotaness,” he says.
Marilyn Hagerty would expect nothing less.