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‘Brick Through the Window’ Chronicles Milwaukee Punk Rock

Feb. 14, 2017
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The unwritten history of Milwaukee’s unheard music has been updated. The saga of Brick Through the Window: An Oral History of Punk Rock, New Wave and Noise in Milwaukee, 1964-1984 began in 2013 with Steven Nodine’s earlier book, The Cease Is Increase. Brick Through the Window is a drastically expanded version with contributions from musicians Eric Beaumont and Clancy Carroll and Shepherd Express Arts and Entertainment Editor David Luhrssen (full disclosure: I was asked to copy edit the manuscript).

Taking cues from Edie: An American Biography and Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Brick Through the Window is thoughtfully organized as an oral history told by those who were there—not only musicians and club owners, but also scenesters, disc jockeys, doormen, graphic artists, bartenders and ’zine writers. The book generously allows everyone to tell the story. Aside from music history, the book can be read as the coming-of-age story of a generation, and it is quite a story.

From ’60s psychedelic bands such as The Shag and The Baroques to primordial trailblazers like Velvet Whip and Death, Milwaukee’s underground music scene was off to a good start, even if no one knew at the time. When punk rock reset history in 1977, Milwaukee’s loins were girded. The city’s bohemian and artistic instincts combined with a Midwest work ethic for a scene ripe for bands talented, interesting and sometimes both. In hindsight, the scene here was a worthy analog to any other city of note.

Two clubs and three bands appear as lynchpins in the history as told by Brick Through the Window. Zak’s North Avenue and the Starship were clubs on the East Side and Downtown that were forward-thinking in booking bands that played this new music. (Proprietors Damian Zak and the late Kenny Baldwin figure largely in the story.) Jerome Brish (aka Presley Haskel) and Richard LaValliere formed, split and re-formed In a Hot Coma, The Haskels and Oil Tasters. The pebbles they tossed in the pond caused ripples that are still being felt today.

The book also offers inside stories on The Shivvers’ near-miss grab at the power pop brass ring and how Plasticland simply decided to create its own reality and destiny, gaining international acclaim in the process. Pre-cursers Trance and Dance Band get their historical due, as does Couch Flambeau’s humor-laden Dadaist punk. Folk-punk, teen angst-ridden snapshots of the Violent Femmes’ genre-bending sound (later heard the world over) are also told via backstory. 

With no money to speak of, the era’s DIY tour stories are fascinating. The haunting, post-punk Ama-Dots’ ill-fated East Coast/Canada border-crossing experience, as recounted by bassist Lisa Wicklund, comes off like a Marx Brothers scene from hell. Singer Boolah Hayes refused to suffer fools in the audience: “If people were gobbing on me and throwing drinks at you, I would give it right back, like ‘Fuck you!’”

By the time the music was evolving into hardcore punk, Milwaukee had established bands that could go toe-to-toe with touring acts. The Stellas (later Die Kreuzen), the Crusties and Sacred Order shared bills—and often post-gig crash pads—with national bands. While the venues, characters, publications and recording studios may be gone, Brick Through the Window allows readers a window to that magical era.

The authors will speak at a Brick Through the Window launch event at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 17 at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave. 

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