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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, July 28, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

The former home of the Avant Garde on Prospect Avenue and Windsor Place, in a photo from that era.

In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

John Stropes and Dan Ball at the opening of "The Avant Garde Coffee House Project" on April 5.

Meet me at the Garde


April 5 – which marked the opening of "The Avant Garde Coffee House Project" at UWM's Inova Gallery, 2155 N. Prospect Ave. – was a day of anticipation and a night of boredom and spark, mixed in with sore knees and crutches.

Who would have thought, after 45-plus years, there would be a retrospective of the old Avant Garde Coffee House, located just a block south of Inova, and the shadows that passed through. If I had known better back in the day, I would have dressed better or at least bought a camera.

This was a culmination of a project presented by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts, and it runs through May 12. I get a little fatigued even writing that title. UWM was a constant theme running through our years at the Garde and was the official disapproving parent at that time to our machinations.

No way would the university condone our actions and development. We tried to get around this staid institution to various degrees of success. Now, this same hindrance is our benefactor, enshrining our folly and wildness in photographs behind plastic on bare walls. Ironic in that they actually let me in after having kicked me out oh so many years ago.

I didn't know what to expect from this six-week show. I had been by, with former bandmate Henry Steinfort, a month before to get an informal tour of the gallery in the Kenilworth Building from an original cast member of those days, McKim Stropes, a well-spoken and intensely interesting character whose vast repertoire of subjects obscure and fascinating made for a memorable visit. McKim was helping his brother John with assembling photos, recordings and other memorabilia for this exhibit.

My wife Ellen was along for support and her amusement at this part of my life. As I approached the gallery I saw a few people entering. I wasn't moving very fast and as I entered and walked up the ramp to the main floor, I was greeted by McKim, looking like the master of ceremonies to the freak show that was (my band) The Velvet Whip and the Garde.

In the '60s, we referred to ourselves as "Freaks," from the Zappa song "Hungry Freaks, Daddy." The sobriquet "Hippies" came from the mainstream Time magazine, which had to find a label for this generation. As lame as the title was, it stuck, even though I reject that name Hippies, with the same disdain in which I hold something I accidentally stepped in.

It was bizarre to see photos of my life and times mounted on a gallery wall. The atmosphere was so unlike the organic life of before; the excitement and seemingly normalness of that time in the late '60s. As I stumbled around, taking pictures of pictures, I wished I had taken candids back then. We were so broke, so poor that we couldn't afford a camera or even proper band equipment. I thought, "how could you convey the feelings and actions and aura of the Garde times through images on a wall?"

I ran into Gordie Simons, 1/2 of the Gordie Simons-James Barker duo who owned the Garde during the time I played there. He's 74 now and was pleasant and gracious, as was everyone else I encountered this night. Some of these people were ones that I had hardly spoken to back then, but now it was old home week.

John Stropes, the Professor of Guitar at UWM, is one of the driving forces behind this exhibit. He stopped and told me about this project and all the work UWM students put into it. I had taken a few finger-style guitar lessons from him 30 years ago but he didn't remember that. I know that I wouldn't be writing about this show if it weren't for him, so congratulations and thanks John and McKim.

The UWM Theater Department presented a snippet of its play "Meet Me at the Garde." It was impossible to hear the dialogue through the din cascading from the gallery, and the idea of having a table with a hip flask of alcohol on it was so not the atmosphere of the Garde. It was a folksy theme with folk guitars and that was the earlier Garde, but not my part of it, which came later.

I had heard there was a bit of controversy with this display, this history, this representation of an era. Some of the contributors didn't want much, if anything, said of the "rock" bands that played at the Garde in 1967 and '68. The Garde's purity was supposedly in the folk artists, blues musicians and poets who performed in the earlier years.

We were brought in, to quote the writing accompanying one picture of the Whip, "With the emphasis shifting to rock and roll, the Avant Garde began booking local bands like the Velvet Whip and the Baroques to increase business."

It sounded like they were lowering their standards and "booking bands" they regarded as the scrapings from the bottom of their shoe. We were there to make them money and they were missing the point. We weren't a rock band as much as a collection of disparate individuals creating our own art form with roots more in "serious" experimental art music with a mocking insight against convention.

We had four lines of people, two blocks long, waiting to get into our first Garde performance and became the house band, along with a few others. The Garde had evolved and some didn't and still don't like it. It reminded me of the scene from the movie "Animal House" where John Belushi is coming down a crowded staircase and a guy is strumming a guitar, singing some inane folk song. Belushi stops, grabs and smashes the guitar. I guess we were the change, though I prefer the solution.

The photos of the Whip, therefore, were appropriately displayed in the back rooms of the gallery, so we wouldn't contaminate the purity of the "true" mission of the Garde. These were professional photos by Jim Middleton, and I hadn't seen them before. What fun, what a rush of memories and what clarity in this artist's hands. Jim was there and I sought him out to see if I could buy some shots. How he talked us into posing artfully nude, I'll never know. Peer pressure or just another challenge, the results were superb.

As much as I could, I spoke with old friends, some I hadn't seen in 45 years and some who I had barely spoken to back then, Bob Reitman was there, that poet, that radio star, that sensitive guy who got mixed up with the denizens of the Whip; a guy who always had that welcoming formality and brightness and engaging personality. Glad he remembered me. Our conversation was too short because of the soreness of my legs, I had to sit down.

I spoke to George Lottermoser, one of the founders of the Negative Movement, an experimental film and photographic entity that gave Henry and I our first performance break playing in an experimental film showing with our string quartet. Later, they used a photo of my head on top of George's wife Joyce's body for the cover of the first alternative Milwaukee newspaper "Kaleidoscope."

George looked so different, beside the aging process, with his flowing white beard, beret and hip attire. Back then, he was short-haired, clean-shaven and all the persona of an earnest grad student with an awareness of experimental art. He was one of the people who helped in the creation of the Whip, a really important person and interesting, to boot.

Geoff Grohowski, the photographer, Henry's longest buddy and good friend to the band, had donated a number of photos for the exhibit. Geoff was instrumental in taking excellent photos of the band that have now permanently memorialized our essence. Without Geoff's help and contribution we would have been so much less.

I couldn't stand up much more, so I found a chair near the performance stage. Ellen brought me a few snacks and a drink. A number of old friends stopped by to say hello. Frankie (Frances) Ullenberg was there with her life-long energy and enthusiasm. I've known her 50-plus years and she was instrumental in getting the Whip together. She re-introduced Oona to me and it was nice to see her again.

Wah was there with Frankie. The formally known Warren Wernicke, Wah was one of the gang who was a good friend of the band and helped us with equipment moving and support at concerts. He was one of or crowd, one of us.

Mark Goff stopped by. I hadn't spoken to him since the Barker Memorial in 2008. He had recently posted a few color photos of the band at the Garde on a Facebook page. He had a great photo of me that I had never seen. That was a great treat to see myself at 21. Mark had originally helped me with a loan of his electric Wurlitzer piano to use in the band. I really didn't have anything but my violin when we started the Whip and he came to the rescue.

Henry and Linda Steinfort arrived a bit later and I really didn't have much time to speak to him. As we were leaving, I spoke to Linda. She was staring at the Garde's food and drink menu and remembered that she couldn't afford the sub sandwiches that were sold there at what now seems like a bargain price of $1.40.

She was broke back then, a common thread that ran among our crowd. We performed at the Garde but even we could not afford the sandwiches and exotic drinks. I don't remember what we were paid, but it was not enough to eat there. We did it for the fun, the scene, the experience, the creativity, the camaraderie, the girls, the hipness and a place where we were accepted and the friendship, above all, the friendship.

My sister-in-law Linda Hanig, her friend John Thieleman stopped in briefly to tour the exhibit. When she was 15, she used to sneak out of her parent's house to go to the Garde and listen to the Whip. She kept a newspaper clipping of me, Ken and Tom waiting for a musical instrument auction on her dresser where her 12-year-old sister would look at it and not realize she would be marrying one of those hairy freaks. Linda's ex-husband Dave Hanig came by a few minutes later and made a few humorous asides. He's a good friend and a decent wingman.

At the end, as I was leaving and looking at a display, John Sahli stopped me, introduced himself and said hello. John was an original member of the Shag, an East Side band a few years older that the Whip, and a founding member of the Underground Lift, a multimedia experiment with Reitman combining poetry, music and film. I had never spoken to John at any length but now he was here and what a nice guy! I had missed the chance to get to know him but here he was, another bright and verbal man with a cornucopia of knowledge and stories.

Ellen and I decided to end the evening with a visit to an old favorite restaurant, Pitch's, where I would go on dates starting in 1965. Tucked away on the crowded East Side streets, this place has been renowned for its BBQ ribs and terrific hash browns. Though the decor is dated, the place was full. We were quickly seated and the owner, Jimmy, came by and greeted me by name. It was just like the bar on the television series, "Cheers" where everybody knows your name.

The hostess overheard my conversation about the Garde show and she said she had gone to the Garde in the '60s and heard the Whip. She was Jane Middleton, ex-wife of Jim. I showed her some of the photos I took. I was happy to be there.

Was it all I expected? No. Was it a great night? No, but it was worth the trip and I wanted more photos and recordings and the ability to stand up longer. It was not to be, it was not a culmination of my life and it was a memory enhanced. It was a slice of my life that has been condensed and stirred with the delight of new memories, old events forgotten and retold and old friends surviving age and experience. It was a chance and I took it.


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