Roller digs into the spirit of "Milwaukee Garage Bands"
Milwaukee has always had a good rock and roll scene. Sure, there have been ups and downs, but the three-chords-and-the-truth spirit has been fueling Brew City garage bands from the days of The Bonnevilles and The Nomads in the 1950s through today.
If you don't believe me, check out local musician Peter Roller's new book, "Milwaukee Garage Bands: Generations of Grassroots Rock," published in paperback by The History Press.
Roller, who has played with Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans and other bands here, grew up in New Jersey, where he got his musical start.
"I started out years ago playing in basement rock bands," Roller recalls, "First with my older brother on drums, then in a full band of kids my age. The first was named The Roundabouts by the drummer's mother, perfect mid-60s Brit Invasion name. Then The Other Side, based on a Doors song."
Roller, who earned a Master's Degree in Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University and, later, a PhD in Ethnomusicology at UW-Madison, is current an associate professor of music at Alverno College.
It was his connections to both academia and music that led to the book, he says.
"I noticed that everyone was starting to write about popular music topics in ethnomusicology, mostly in faraway countries, but when they wrote about Western pop/rock, it was always about star-level performers or professional in local 'scenes.' No one has written about the true amateur bands that had regenerated this music in local areas continuously since the mid-50s. I had to represent the meaning of starting as a know-nothing in a first band and show that this did not only have value in one time period or only if they recorded."
The result is this book, which across 200 pages traces the changes in garage rock in Milwaukee from the 1950s forward. It is not a catalog of garage bands. That would be nearly impossible.
Instead, Roller explores what ignites the creation of garage bands; what leads Milwaukee kids to set down their baseball mitts and pick up a guitar? He discusses the formative years of the famous – Brian Ritchie, Jon Paris, Junior Brantley – the locally notable – Sam McCue, Jim Liban, Mark Shurilla, Warren Wiegratz – and relative unknowns.
To write the book, Roller spent years interviewing a few dozen local musicians, like Bruce Cole, Jim Eanelli, Scott Finch, Fred Bliffert, Eric Beaumont, Zach Pluer and many others. He also collected responses online to a survey aimed at local musicians.
"My book is making an argument that garage bands are true beginners who largely teach themselves how to play as a band together through many practice sessions. This equates with the British labeling of the same thing: rock rehearsal bands," he says. "Garage bands are a social as much as a musical thing. What teen wouldn't want to hang in a small group of their buddies and joke around, decide band matters – like a name – and play loud music where nobody cares about sounding perfect?
"I wanted to represent a sampling of amateur groups from as close to the mid-50s beginning of rock and roll up to the 1990s time of my research. I used connections from the local musician community, quite a few guitar players, but got some tips from friends and neighbors, since garage bands pop up everywhere in suburban neighborhoods and their wider community."
Despite his connections to other scenes, too, Roller said Milwaukee was as good a place as any to focus his attention on garage bands. He says it's a "perfect Anytown USA," and hundreds of other places in the country experienced similar movements since the evening Elvis shook his hips on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
"I lived and first played in bands in Summit, New Jersey, a suburban town about 40 minutes from Manhattan. It wasn't so different from Milwaukee suburbs where most garage bands have thrived since the mid-60s. You formed first bands with buddies in your same school or classroom or with a relative and you lived close enough that you could easily get together for practices."
The difference, Roller says, is where garage bands found opportunities to show off their skills in public.
"Summit offered performance possibilities at school talent shows or town battle of the bands. I see many of these first gig possibilities also happening around Milwaukee. (But) Milwaukee had more of a concentration of Roman Catholics in the city in the 50s and 60s, so CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) dance performance seems like a more universal gigging opportunity for garage bands here as compared to Summit, which had only one Catholic church."
Roller says local musicians were eager to share their memories and their experiences, glad that someone was interested and had asked. So, as a fellow musician, what in his research surprised him most?
"I was surprised by the way people hung onto memories of their first bands for 40 or 50 years and got as excited talking about these activities as if they were 13 and it was just going on! My ultimate thesis in the book is that actual beginning rock musicians are generally just enjoying the experience of this new thing: making loud musical sounds with others; having control of what they choose to try to play and how they go about acquiring the needed skills to be a band; attendant joking around and discussing band matters, but not a single-minded pointing towards becoming a 'recording artist' or 'rock star.'
"At age 12 or 15 in a place like Glendale, Wisconsin, you're not gonna be all about rock star fantasies, warped by an 'American Idol' culture; there's too much to do to learn to play together and to perhaps find a nearby house party or talent show to unveil your new band to others in an immediate social world."
Roller, who says he has no time in his life to be in a band of any kind right now, will appear at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave., on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 7 p.m., to talk about and sign copies of "Milwaukee Garage Bands." He promises to bring a guitar to demonstrate what he calls, "some beginning garage guitar parts." Admission is free, but, c'mon, buy the book.
This sounds great. I love these niche projects that shed light on small, nearly forgotten histories.
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