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Why Rockabilly Thrives on Milwaukee's South Side

Mar. 6, 2009
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The Bay View neighborhood on Milwaukee’s south side is a living time capsule, much of it untouched by the past half-century. from the bungalow-lined side streets to the timeworn corner bars and the tiny, old-fashioned storefronts on Kinnickinnic Avenue, the area could easily double as a set from a film about the 1950s, and it’s not just the buildings that mirror the aesthetic of that decade, either. The neighborhood is home to a subculture that’s transfixed by Eisenhower-era America and dresses the part.

The most dedicated participants adopt the look of a 1950s biker, sporting greased-back pompadours, leather jackets and cuffed blue jeans, while the women alternate between similarly retro casual wear and the more glamorous fashions of classic Hollywood (albeit often while displaying brazen tattoos you never would have found on Grace Kelly). This subculture is united by a shared interest in rockabilly and other music from the decade, but its fascination extends to all things ’50s, from sleek motorcycles and oversized cars to Formica tables, tiki culture and James Dean films.

Many major cities have similar and often larger rockabilly scenes, but Milwaukee’s is uniquely centralized: Bay View is a self-contained rockabilly community. Venues like club garibaldi and Vnuk’s in nearby cudahy host rockabilly concerts. DJs at Frank’s Power Plant spin rockabilly and its edgier, modern offshoot, psychobilly, on Wednesday nights. Cafe LuLu welcomes vintage motorcycle enthusiasts on Tuesdays. Rush-Mor Records sells imported rockabilly CDs. Faust Music and Top Shelf Guitar set musicians up with equipment, Solid State likewise with tattoos and local barber Jose Ortiz with pompadours and ducktail cuts. And for most anything else, there’s the Tip Top Atomic Shop, a vintage boutique stocked with clothing, furniture, music and knickknacks from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

“Things were just simpler and easier back then,” Jim Dutcher, who co-owns the Tip Top Atomic Shop with his wife, Lisa, says of the period. “The movies were simple and had no fancy special effects. You could tell the difference between a Ford, a Chevy and an Edsel from four blocks away. Not to tell a cliche, but you really could go to sleep with your doors unlocked back in that time, and that’s not a bad place to be.”

A similar nostalgia attracted Natalie Horrom to the scene. “I adore that it’s so old-fashioned,” she says. “And I love that being a rebel back then didn’t mean being terribly bad. You could grease up your hair and drive a real loud car, and that’s what was considered bad.”

Horrom was practically born into the rockabilly scene. Named for Natalie Wood, since childhood she’s had a fondness for Rebel Without a Cause and the fashions of the ’50s. She parlayed that interest into a career as a hairdresser at Hairys Hair Bar, where she specializes in pompadours for men and victory rolls and elegant, elaborate ’40s styles for women.

Perhaps the most ardent proponent of the local rockabilly scene is Matt Davis, a 39-year-old known to most as Matt the Ratt, a figure so ubiquitous in Bay View he often seems to be in multiple bars simultaneously. Between the tightly cropped, blond pompadour, the topless Hawaiian dancer inked on his arm and his disarmingly friendly British accent, he’s impossible to miss.

He moved to the city 13 years ago from London’s colossal rockabilly scene—though somewhat counter-intuitive, traditional American music has a bigger following overseas than it does at home—and he quickly set about beefing up Milwaukee’s modest one.

Davis is the bassist for the Uptown Savages, and he’s always looking for other musicians to play with. He spreads the word about most every rockabilly show, whether he’s promoting the concert or not, and he’s usually among the first to welcome any fresh blood that appears at these events. In a scene where regulars come and go, or sometimes moonlight on the weekends, Matt the Ratt is a constant. “Rockabilly was the original form of punk,” he explains, “Teenagers with an angst, driving fast and playing loud music to piss off their parents—that’s exactly what punk was.”

The History

So why is the South Side such a hotbed of rockabilly culture? The answer is the same as it is to most questions about why things in Milwaukee are the way they are: Because they’ve always been that way.

“The East Side has historically been a home for hippie culture, but the South Side always had more of a greaser attitude: black leather, blue jeans, turned-up collars,” explains Mike Muskovitz, an original rockabilly fan who has sold its music and memorabilia since the ’70s, first with his shop Mean Mountain Music and now through an eBay store. “Much like you’d have your Polish neighborhood and your German neighborhood, you had your hippie neighborhood and your greaser neighborhood.”

From its very beginnings in the mid-’50s, rockabilly spoke to the working-class South Side because it was, “to put it bluntly, trailer-trash music,” explains Martin Jack Rosenblum, Ph.D., a music professor at UW-Milwaukee and another lifelong rockabilly aficionado.

“It was a low-culture movement that came roaring out of these rural country traditions, and so it really spoke to this socioeconomic segment of Milwaukee,” Rosenblum says. “Really, this remains its appeal. Where rock ’n’ roll would eventually become highculture, rockabilly remained low-culture. Today there’s this cult of authenticity, and they’re looking back toward a period of rock ’n’ roll before it was corrupted by pop—that’s rockabilly.”

Rosenblum notes that Bay View has always had “a closer, immediate knowledge of that past, and I think a lot of that is familial. That culture has always been in the neighborhood, in its closets, in its attics and in its basements, and now it’s coming out in droves in the area’s second-hand shops, where it’s being passed on to a new generation.”

That the neighborhood’s rockabilly culture has survived in the face of Bay View’s newfound trendiness and subsequent rising property values is remarkable, given that gentrification typically strips a neighborhood of its countercultural identity. The head shops that baby boomers once frequented on Brady Street, for instance, were long ago replaced by upscale restaurants and mass-appeal bars. But in Bay View, gentrification has actually helped preserve the culture.

Young homeowners and entrepreneurs are moving to the area in part because they’re attracted to its idiosyncrasies. Business owners seem to understand that the old-fashioned aura is key to the neighborhood’s charm, and so the antique aesthetic found in grandfathered establishments like At Random lives on in the neighborhood’s newer bars, from the fake fireplace at the Palomino to the vintage pinup photos lining the walls of Burnhearts or the wood-paneled kitsch of Lee’s Luxury Lounge.

Working-Class Values

It’s easy enough to see why a lifestyle that embraces cheap beer and motorcycles would speak to Milwaukeeans, but there’s also a blue-collar pragmatism inherent in rockabilly not often found in other countercultures. It is a lifestyle that between drinks allows participants to hold down a job, raise a kid and maybe even pay down a mortgage.

“It’s a culture that really embraces Milwaukee’s working-class values,” notes Dan DuChaine, an outsider who’s observed the neighborhood’s rockabilly scene from his record shop, Rush-Mor. “These are guys that value working hard, and fix up their bikes or their old cars themselves. There’s a social element to it, of course, but when they get together, they’re also sharing tips and resources so they can afford these hobbies.

“These guys aren’t just playing Happy Days; they’re genuine,” DuChaine continues. “I don’t think any of them are going without DVD players or microwave ovens or smoke detectors, but they really are committed to a time when things were simpler and maybe a little more fun.”

Matt the Ratt is the first to admit that there’s a certain degree of fantasy involved, but “it’s a lifestyle you can get old in,” he says. “Really, there’s not a lot of difference between us and the guys who get dressed up and go to the Renaissance Faire,” he says with a chuckle, “except that we can get away with dressing like this every day.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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