I was just about to sit down and get all caught up with wonderful Milwaukee culture when I saw the FB posting from Lars -- James "Tess" Tessier, AKA the Walrus, died today. We've lost another Milwaukee music legend to cancer, dammit.
This obit is a bit hard to write for me. Tess and i were roomies in the early 90s (we weren't in a "relationship" -- we just shared the rent in a two-bedroom place in Riverwest over this 100-year old landlady). Let's just say we're not the kind of people who should have been roommates with each other and leave it at that. We didn't part amicably, but we since became civil to each other and even evolved back into friendliness. I'd pretty much lost touch with him in recent years, only hearing about his status every now and then from a mutual acquaintance or friend.
One thing I never lost however, was my respect for his musicianship and admiration for his deep knowledge of my favorite ever genre of rock: garage rock (and all its sub genres -- surf, cycle, psychedelia, etc). His old job in the record department at the old Radio Doctors gave him access to all the Nuggets and Pebbles compiliations and he'd pretty much memorized them all. As such, if a garage band needed a drummer or a guitarist or a singer who knew the most obscure of one-hit wonders by some band out of Akron or Timbuktu or East Troy, he was at the ready.
I first came across him when he was looking to fill out an incarnation of his band, the Silverbeats. He'd recruited my friend Dan Mullen to play lead guitar, and Mullen had rounded up a terrific, metal-rock drummer (who understood the power of garage) named Mike Hughes. (and I sometimes wonder if Tess resented the fact that I pretty much stole his rhythm section -- Mullen and Hughes -- to form the first incarnation of my first "real" band, Loblolly -- but it's not like they stopped being Silverbeats to do so.) I think Tim Kern might have sat in on bass for a while with them. Together, the Silverbeats cranked out sets of great garage rock -- brilliant covers coupled with Tess' own compositions that ranged from angst filled teen anthems to almost folky trippy wonders that would have been Donovan-worthy. (His tribute of Frank The Pepperoni Man remains one of my favorites -- a folky psychedelic paean to that Brady Street denizen hollering "Pepperoni! Cannoli!" over a guitar filtered so many times it sounded like a harpsichord.)
Oh, God, as all Milwaukee "characters" went, he was ripe for parody. We all called him the Salad Tosser when it came to describing how he played the drums. Everybody I know can whip out their impression of Tess, usually sounding like an aging James Stewart on quaaludes. There was even some major skits and sketches devoted to him: the phony radio spots for The Walritis Foundation, the Trash Fest video: The Tess Files (in a very X-Files way, detailing how Walritis had infiltrated the United States). God bless him, he sometimes laughed it off, sometimes he just observed them in that "hmmmm, curious" way. Still, if a person's life can be measured by how many great (and fun) stories he generated, Tess' spirit -- for better or for worse -- will be with us for a long, long time.
I can't for the life of me find the pictures I shot of the Silverbeats, but I'll keep looking, because those represent how I want to remember Tess. At his best, he was a musician ready to pick up and play, especially gifted with the steel guitar and the straight up guitar, but he could get behind a drumkit and toss the salad with a controlled fury. Those Silverbeats days were as a time when I knew him as a gentle soul (who never really stopped being gentle,despite our differences). He'd later gone on to be in a number of equally great bands: Laurie Kern's Petals, or with one of the best overlooked surf bands in town, the Alewives (with Paul "the Fly" Lawson, Tim Kern, and the late, great Davy Jones). He sat in with Nicole and the Educators for some of the most memorable sets you ever saw in Riverwest. This is the Tess I remember, this is the Tess I'm sad to see pass.