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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014

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In Music Commentary

Richard LaValliere, at right, and the author in New York City August 2011. (PHOTO: Lisa Janis)

Richard LaValliere, role model: A personal remembrance


That headline may seem a bit tongue-in-cheek. And certainly, while typing the words "Richard LaValliere, role model," I couldn't help but smile and shake my head; this is, after all, the man who wrote and performed both "City of Cleavage" and "Naked-on-the-Internet Polka."

Yet for those of us who were privileged to know both Richard and his work, and who found in him a shining example of how to follow one's own path, the "role model" designation is accurate.

Equal parts Brooklyn bad-ass and Milwaukee mensch, our dear, departed R. La V. lived his 60 years with what I can only call "punk integrity." But think John Doe here, not Johnny Rotten, for Richard deployed the zero-bullsh*t-tolerance punk aesthetic not to destroy people, but to trip up the would-be destroyers – and to lift up everyone else.

Though small in physical stature, he loomed over the early-'80s Milwaukee music scene as its single most distinctive and creative voice: sonically, lyrically and in the energy of his live performances. Take it from me, the skinny, starstruck 18-year-old in the mosh pit: nobody (Violent Femmes included) did it better. Thus, when it came time to pen the punk scene for my coming-of-age novel "Planet of the Dates" (2008, The Permanent Press), which takes place in 1980 Milwaukee, there was no question as to which band I'd conjure back into the late, great Starship Club:

"All ri-i-i-ight," a harsh male voice blasted over the P.A. "Here's what ya f*ckin' mis'rable night creatures been waitin' for. Milwaukee's own ... Oil Tasters!"

As punkers began pouring into the pit, three surly musicians took the stage: a drummer, a sax player, and a bassist/vocalist – but no one on six-string guitar. The saxophonist's squawks and bleats burst in the air like pipe bombs; the drummer attacked his kit, pounding it into submission; the bassist ground away at low E as if tunneling into Hell. And as he strummed, he bellowed out – in a husky baritone – a livid refrain: "What's in your mouth? What's in your mouth? / Keep it to yourself. Keep it to yourself!"

It was a challenge, then as now, to describe the Tasters' music, as their songs had no precedent; nobody sounded like these guys. Their influence on other bands (Morphine leaps to mind) is undeniable. Yet back then, the Tasters' sound – Richard's sound – seemed to have hatched, fully grown, from some ghastly/gorgeous egg, laid on a planet far away.

When he dabbled in other musical genres, from spicy Tex-Mex (with the Zodiac Desperados) to punky polka (check out Polkafinger's "Unattended Bag Polka": "Boom, boom, boom – Whoops!") to the instrumental experimentations of his final group, the guitar duo Jones & Karloff, the music always made you move – and fast; it always made you grin, and it always sounded like Richard.

His musicianship, by the way, was peerless. I know, because I play bass myself – though not in the same ballpark, nor even on the same block. Then again, who could? Richard made the electric bass sound like a whole 'nother instrument. (Not sure how; maybe it was the rubber-facsimile fried egg he'd Superglued to it?)

As for his lyrics, they were funny, irreverent, knowing and often surreal. In "Rip Me," he wrote of awakening one morning to find he "now had the feet and the legs of an orangutan" (Franz Kafka, anyone?); "Slit Chapped Lips" is a paean to punk-rock lust-and-love (a phenomenon he traces back to prehistory); and the Tasters' killer single "Get Out of the Bathroom" is a dark-comic take on a universal domestic annoyance. Frequently (as in "That's When the Brick Goes Through the Window," "Earn While You Learn" and "[I Don't Want to Be An] Encyclopedia Salesman"), Richard took on – and took down – the world of the Normals in a way that equipped the rest of us to do the same. Indeed, when "you say that you can't, but / They say that you must," that surely is "when the brick goes through the window" – and Richard, you knew, would be waiting right there for you, at the wheel of the getaway car.

He went his own way, always, but he did so with an eye toward helping others. A lot of emails have been shooting back and forth in the days since Richard's death, as his loved ones have exchanged their sorrows and their stories. Somebody told of having had a miserable, interminable head cold, in response to which Richard left his pal a bottle of what he swore was the ultimate cold medicine, along with a note: "For best results, exceed Maximum Dosage." That's Richard to a T: the rebel, the trickster and the kind, concerned friend, all rolled into one.

Some of his music fans may not know this, but Richard's restless, eclectic Muse pushed him into other media, too. As a filmmaker, he was an "amateur" in the word's original and best sense: "for the love of it." Taking a "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" approach, he nabbed a handful of old public-domain foreign and stag-film shorts – and ditched the sound. He then wrote and recorded new dialogue – accompanied, always, by his original (and then some!) soundtrack music ... with hilarious results. I consider myself extremely lucky to own DVD copies of (and these are his titles, not the original ones) "Banana Nude Assassin," "Ghost Detective," "The Amoratrons of Dr. LeBidet" and the brilliantly redundant "The Naked Nudes of Bare-Ass Creature Island."

When Richard recently consented to don fake animal skins and a black fright wig in order to assay the role of "Leader of the Cave People" in my own indie film No Budget Theatre #8: "Time Trek" (currently in post-production), I was thrilled to get him, for once, in front of the movie camera, where – believe me – he did not disappoint! (He'd planned to compose the music for this one, too; sadly, that now can never be.)

His literary efforts ranged from humorous haiku ("Boss, I won't be in / Today. Hard to explain, but / It involves starfish") to off-kilter kids' stories ("Princess, Monkey, & Invisible Cow") to the EC Comics-inspired horror tale he and I co-wrote, "Class Reunion" (published in my 2011 story collection "Unforgettable," from Wisconsin's own Walkabout Publishing).

As my partner-in-crime on this piece, Richard took me to a couple of places I certainly wouldn't and couldn't have gone on my own. But look past the scatology (beginning with a beer-guzzling juvenile delinquent's "rich, robust, yeasty fart") and the profanity, and you'll find in "Class Reunion" a powerful anti-bullying message ... not to mention one hell of a gratifying comeuppance. Again: the words and the m.o. may be a bit devilish, but Richard's was the heart of an angel.

In order to pay the rent and pursue his myriad Muses, Richard did whatever he had to do: he worked for many years at New York's Shakespeare & Company Books (where – come to think of it – he probably was, on occasion, an encyclopedia salesman), made pies at a vegan bakery, walked dogs (by his report, up to seven at a time!) – whatever. In this, too, he was a role model, living the anti-status-seeking, pro-creative-expression message that it's not about how you pay the bills; it's about getting them f*ckin' paid already so you can do the stuff that really matters.

For those of us who didn't exactly "fit in" to mainstream culture and – crucially – didn't want to, Richard was proof that we didn't have to. What's more, he never told us, "Do what I do." No; it was more like: "Do what you do – not what they want you to. And pass the beer."

So. Richard. Here I sit, listening to my Zodiac Desperados CD, and your song "Cigarettes and Women" is playing, and it's a little creepy because right now, you're singing, "So I got to thinkin': So far, not so bad / I'd say bein' dead ain't the worst thing I've had." I trust that's right; I hope you wrote those lines with some prescience. And I pray that where you are now, the "cigarettes and women, alcohol and drugs" are flowing fast and free. Because God knows, you've earned 'em.

R.I.P., bro: Rest In Punk.

And thank you.

Talkbacks

Paul.McComas | March 12, 2012 at 8:48 a.m. (report)

Thanks, all, for the kind words. NEWS FLASH: With the help of Richard's "Jones & Karloff" partner Adam Cohen, we're cobbling together a Richard-composed and (largey) Richard-performed musical soundtrack, in the place of the one he intended but didn't have the chance to write, for the film in which he appears (brilliantly) as "Leader of the Cave People." THE GRAVE CANNOT CONTAIN THIS MAN'S CREATIVITY!

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sandstorm | Feb. 17, 2012 at 9:18 a.m. (report)

that haiku is friggin' hilarious!

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Kat | Feb. 16, 2012 at 4:07 p.m. (report)

Oh, I have fond memories of hearing the Oil Tasters at the Starship! As well as the X-Cleavers and other wonderful bands, including the Waitresses! (I still have a 45 of the X-Cleavers.) Great bands and good times. Kids nowadays don't know what they're missing.

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jtop | Feb. 15, 2012 at 1:24 a.m. (report)

Brilliantly written! Thank you.

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