Monday, January 30, 2012

Mortality? Family? Milwaukee Music: A Love Letter

Larry Kennedy died last week. I'm not sure what this post is about, because while it is nudged by Larry Kennedy's death, it's not about him. I met Larry Kennedy once in my life. And judging by the fact that his death spurred an entire Facebook group that is celebrating the 80s Milwaukee music scene, with everybody digging through their boxes of memorabilia, one chance encounter is all one needed in their life, but there were people who knew him well and miss him terribly. As Rob McCuen said, "Everybody has a Larry Kennedy story. Every encounter with Larry was like a film short." Mine involved a party at my apartment, a bunch of half drunk beers, waking up the next day and making breakfast and having coffee with Stoney Rivera before realizing that Larry was still in the exact same position on our couch with the half drunk beers perfectly balanced on his limbs. But that's not what this blog post is about.


Maybe it's about mortality. I went out Saturday night not to the Pablove show (which by all accounts was wonderful, uplifting, fun, inspiring, all those things an excellent fundraiser could and should be), but just to see my husband play with Dr Chow and to get a much needed Floor Model fix. Paul "The Fly" Lawson was there, of course (he was sitting in guesting with Dr Chow) and the topic of Larry Kennedy came up. Of course it did -- somebody had posted a picture of a very young Fly in that thread earlier in the day ("I wasn't even playing lead guitar in that band!" he laughed at himself) and we were all giving him a hard time about it. (something about the longer, actually curly hair might have been it...). I told Fly my Larry Kennedy story and mentioned that I didn't know him well, but that he seemed to be Milwaukee's own Keith Richards.

"Yeah, I really wasn't a part of this scene," I told Fly. "My 80's rock and roll scene was rooted in Champaign-Urbana, and I've already had my reconnection with it and we're just starting to bury our dead. What is it about Larry Kennedy that woke everybody up?"

I think Fly hit it on the head, confirming my Keith Richards analogy: "He was supposed to be invincible. All those guys -- Andy Owens, Tess, Larry Kennedy, you never thought they would really die."

But maybe it's really about family. I've often told my kids (especially around holidays) that we have two families -- the one we're born into and the one we chose. And like any family, we mourn the passing of one of us as though they were our big or little brother or sister, or in some cases our parents or distant cousins. Since these are the people in the family we chose, these are people we weren't arbitrarily supposed to love. They drew us in, they made us love them, not because we were linked by blood, but because we simply found a connection that was just as strong -- maybe even stronger -- than blood. Like a family, we had our loves, we had our fights, we had our function and our dysfunction, our saints and our black sheep. Here we are, finding our "baby pictures" and posting them. I'm seeing pictures of people who have come to be some of my dearest friends, some of the most influential people in my life, as bright-eyed twentysometings -- for all intents and purposes these are baby pictures. And like baby pictures, we see the beginnings (and in some cases, the blossoming) of the parts of these people that will always last, into their old age and even after they die, in our hearts. Oh, there were giants in those days!

I'm looking at these pictures and reading the stories, and in some cases I feel like the girl who married into this gigantic (Kennedy-esque, if you will!) family and listening to the childhood stories of my new in-laws. Kennedy was some distant third cousin twice removed to me. People I've known for years: Stoney Rivera, Andy Pagel, The Fly, Rob McCuen, Steve Schrank, Washday, Bob DuBlon and Miles, the whole Voot/Plasticland/Frankovic crowd, the hardcore crowd, the Die Kreuzen posse, the Atomic Records (formerly Ludwig Van Ear) bunch, Mark GE and the Joy Farm clan, -- the names are washing over me like a tsunami. And people I encountered just in time before they were taken from us -- I only caught a little bit of Presley Haskel's flame as he repaired/tuned/setup my Rickenbaker at the old Baldoni store (and was lucky enough to catch the Haskels/Oil Tasters reunion at Bastille Days to see what the fuss was all about) before I heard the godawful news of his death. There's an entire thread devoted to that moment when we all heard, especially horrified that he was murdered while putting up posters for his band's upcoming show. (I mourned him, at the time, by grabbing that Rickenbaker he'd just fixed, going into my band's practice space in the basement of the old ESHAC building, plugging in and playing that motherfucker as loud and long as I could.) Oh, that wasn't his real name? Or more recently, only catching a glimmer of Lane Klosier's light before he shockingly, heartbreakingly, was taken from us. Damn, doesn't anybody in this town use their birth name?

We found things in common, and in the case of this musical family, it was how happy we were to have found people who shared this obsession with the music that we have. How many times have I said on this blog that I separate the world into two camps, the ones for whom music is simply wallpaper and the ones for whom music is a visceral lifeblood? The need to go see a band. To stand in the audience and watch somebody pour out their soul -- whether in anger, love, joy, bewilderment, satire, heartbreak, beauty or truth -- and unite us all as human beings. To pick up an instrument (and voice is an instrument) and wail out your own blues. I simply do not understand people who are not moved by this. And so, like many of us, I chose a family that is moved, and isn't afraid to say it.

I could go on and on at this point, but somebody else already has and done it better than I ever could, namely Blaine Schultz in his recent memorial of Dave Raeck -- another guy I didn't know so well. But in some respect, maybe I did know him because as I wrote Blaine, he was so obviously One Of Us. I'll leave it at that because, as I write this, I'm still not quite sure what this blog post is about, or maybe I'm not just ready to admit mortality yet. Blaine has very kindly given me permission to reproduce his beautiful eulogy here. Take it away, Blaine (bold emphasis mine):
On behalf of Tammy, Olga and Deb - thanks everyone for coming here today to remember Dave Raeck. Dave was one of the kindest people I ever met. And to be kind and generous is enough to make a mark in people’s memories. But Dave had something more. 
See, Dave knew the all about the ancient rituals and the unwritten codes. Dave knew Radio Birdman and the Velvet Underground and the Stooges and Captain Beefheart. He knew that the 45 of “Land of a Thousand Dances” was the best way to hear it and the white label promo mix of “The Red and the Black” made Blue Oyster Cult sound like the MC5. Dave knew Mott the Hoople, the Gun Club and John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. … and a whole lot more. 
Dave’s passion was music. And he was happy to share it with anyone who asked. 
A band can be as cool as a gang or as dysfunctional as a reality show. Each band has it’s own personality. There is an apocryphal story about a band meeting, asking what each member brought to the band besides their musical talent. 
Tough question, but simple answer -- easy -- Dave had SOUL. It is not something you can measure or even see – It is something so important yet almost impossible to explain. But if it is there, you know it. And Dave had it. 
In the 1980s I lived up north and would make trips to Madison and Milwaukee to see these bands I read about but never got to see or hear. Keep in mind -- those pre-internet days you really had to work to find records or magazines. It was a challenge. Word of mouth, mail order catalogs, used book stores, rummage sales. Certain types of knowledge was worth more. It was a challenge to make a record and sell it. Today anyone can form a crappy band and put a song on a computer. 
Life has lost some of its grit. 
So-- I noticed a guy at these shows, who -- not unlike myself -- resembled a lost cousin of the Ramones. Black jeans, leather jacket Converse All Stars – the rock and roll uniform. That is how I met Dave. 
A few years later when I moved to Milwaukee, Dave and I formed a band. We practiced in a place called The Sausage Factory, just down the hill from Zak’s Rock and Roll Palace appropriately. I worked 10 hr shifts in a factory back then so I REALLY looked forward to any time playing music. Dave played his Thunderbird bass. I think Dwayne Flowers was drumming with us at the time. 
We’d worked up a few songs in our living rooms -- and when we finally plugged in with a decent PA it --- sounded - like an airplane taking off . … And the airplane was inside our head. 
(Sometimes I think we are still chasing that moment.)
The reason I tell this story is because Dave came up with most of that first set list. Making sure we were all on the same page. And while he was easily the best gtr player in the band, he knew that by moving over to bass we had a better chance of making the band work. That is the kind of guy he was. 
That group never played out though we did record some songs at Dave’s folks house – We went on to form other bands that shared gigs. … some us never quit. Back in the olden days of record stores, people who never even knew Dave’s name benefitted from his generous spirit and his musical knowledge. When Dave Szolwinski moved Earwaves a few blocks north to a bigger location Dave could be found working the counter with Pat Cummings. 
Like Clancy Carroll said, “when you hear your music -- you will know.” 
I wonder if most people know what it is like to get in car and drive 2 hours on a Sunday night in February to see Sylvain Sylvain play at an all ages show in Green Bay? Or the Cynics in Appleton? … and then we’d lament on the way home about how great the show was but only a few dozen fans were there. 
… but lamenting helps no one. And driving into the night listening to great music is something no one can put a price on.
Later I worked part time at Record Head with Dave – and I remember one Sunday, Dave’s Mom & Dad stopped in to say hi and drop off some cookies as a snack for us. When they left Dave hugged and kissed his folks. That is the kind of guy he was. 
I hope you all have memories as great.
I do, Blaine. And I will do my best to help document them. I think this is another one of those reminders to tell those we love just how much we do indeed love them. As such, this blog has been and will continue to be, among other things, my love letter to the music community and Milwaukee in general.

4 comments:

Mike L said...

very nice v.

dany chandra said...

Very nice description provide in this blog...
Streaming Music Stations

truejules said...

nice article, Vron

the sandwich life said...

Really, really wonderful post V'ron. Those families we choose are so very important....