Catherine O’Leary wasn’t found guilty of committing any crime, but the story spread by a dishonest journalist incriminated her for life. The next 24 years of her time on Earth were spent denying fault and dodging criticism. And while the reporter for The Chicago Republican admitted 2 years before her death that he’d made her and her milk cow the stuff of fiction for a buck, it was way too late. She died in 1895 of pneumonia, her spirit spent, her heart broken.
It didn’t help that her house had been spared from the fire while many, many others had burned. There had been a hydrant nearby and her husband threw buckets of water on it all night long. The barn was turned to ashes, though. And everything in it was gone—which in the 1800s was your personal wealth. The O’Learys lost all their livestock, all their livery items, tools, hay, and the coal they’d stocked for the coming winter. Except for the clothes on their backs and a few sticks of furniture, they were left with nothing. And they certainly didn’t have the money to replace their loss. And they had no insurance.
The couple to whom they rented the downstairs rooms disappeared. They fled the house that night and never returned. Is this an admission of guilt? Fleeing a crime scene often is. Who’s to say? Only they and a milk cow know for sure.
The cow couldn’t be located for questioning either. Not among the ashes, Patrick O’Leary went looking for it the next day, but could find no sign of it. Did it break free from the burning barn only to die elsewhere in the neighborhood? Was it corralled by someone and hidden away for their own use? Did it jump in the lake like many humans did to avoid being burned alive? Again, who’s to say? The truth was never discovered.
The facts are equally murky and the truth equally elusive in the matter of the fire that consumed the mind of Brian Wilson. Detailing the years that followed the shelving of SMiLE is like looking for the O’Leary cow the morning after the fire. The creative pop genius disappeared into the destruction of his hopes for the album, his hopes for the band, his hopes for himself.
It’s said when Paul McCartney paid him a visit at his home and excitedly played the tapes of The Beatles’ upcoming release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Wilson was devastated by its superior creativity. The Beatles were making The Beach Boys look like… well, beach boys. Handsome bimbos with a nice tan. In particular, the song “A Day in the Life” is said to have rocked Wilson’s world. Its lyrical finesse, its artistic daring, its literary style, and its musical mastery was exactly what Wilson had dreamed of making but couldn’t for lack of band unity, and perhaps most all, plain old talent.
On that day The British Invasion became thorough and complete. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, the leader of the American pop music defense, pulled the plug on SMiLE, and in doing so, went down the drain with it. In the years, then the decades to come, he lost himself to a dream world of drugs, quack doctors, depression, and a good deal of delirium.
The “Milk Cow Blues” became the sad anthem of the lives of Brian Wilson and Catherine O’Leary following The Great Fire that consumed both of their worlds. Everything they’d hoped for went up in flames; and once you lose hope you lose everything. Sure, you still have your life, but without spirit it isn’t much of a life. Yea, though separated by 95 years and 2000 miles, history made bedfellows of ol’ Bri and Kate, with a crazy cow hiding in the shadows of their melancholic bedroom flipping burning matches on them as they slept.
DTG could end this bluesy blazing bovine blog here, and could do so with a hell of a lot more credibility than that clown Ahern did with that lying rag The Chicago Republican. Everything I’ve listed is a matter of record. I’ve made nothing up. I did my research fair and square, pulling info from credible sources. No, I’ve not noted them. I’ll let the critic do the footwork, because I haven’t the word count to spare. Besides, it isn’t very hard anymore to track people’s facts. Google has transformed footwork into fingerwork in ways The Yellow Pages could never have dreamed.
And I’m certainly not writing for a buck. I’m not financially rewarded by ChicagoNow, so I haven’t a profit motive in framing my story as I have. I write and I paint because I write and I paint. I really don’t have any choice. There’s a force inside me—that seems to be feminine, I might add—that demands I do. My muse is one hard woman. So I abide. If I didn’t I’d probably burn up like ol’ Bri and Kate. My mind and my spirit would go up in a conflagration of my imagination and I’d be a sad mess of a man. I’m fortunate for this blogging phenomenon thing. Really fortunate. As a creative outlet available to me at any hour, I am truly thankful. It keeps me sane.
And it’s precisely why I must conclude my Great Fire anniversary post on the upbeat. I’m going to wrap up this 3-part blog wearing a SMiLE with the hope I’ll spread Good Vibrations to my readership. And how can I do that with over 2000 words of dour destruction behind me? It’s easy, actually. It’s even easier than Googling.
Look at the positive. Yep. See the sunny side. It’s right here in front of us.
After the fire, Chicago reinvented itself. A city constructed of wood and 19th-century technology rebuilt looking toward the 20th-century and created an architectural stage for the very best performers, a cultural legacy from which we in the 21st century continue to benefit.
And after the fire, Brian Wilson rebuilt as well. A man constructed of the combustible combination of a pushy exacting father and the commercial pressure of being the brains of the The Beach Boys, cut loose from his past, deconstructed, then rebuilt and went on his own. Remarkably, in 2005, 38 years after the original recording of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” the track won him a Grammy Award following its 2004 remastering and release from purgatory. He won Best Rock Instrumental. It was Wilson’s first Grammy.
I’m now minutes from clicking the Publish button on this WordPress dashboard, and when I do it’ll be with a sense of history and a sense of hope, because I know 140 years ago, at approximately this very hour, the skies over Chicago quenched the seeds of rebirth by dousing a hellish city with a heavenly rain.
There’s a lesson to be learned and a wisdom to be appreciated here, and for it we must thank an arsonist cow, be she real or imagined or a piece of journalistic fiction. For without her we wouldn’t be who we are.