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Bob Dylan performed an iconic show at the Oriental 51 years ago this week.
Bob Dylan performed an iconic show at the Oriental 51 years ago this week. (Photo: Milwaukee-Ephemera/Tumblr)

A legendary show that wasn't: Bob Dylan at the Oriental

This Saturday, Nov. 21, marks the 51st anniversary of the ill-fated Bob Dylan performance at the Oriental Theater on Milwaukee’s East Side. The concert (using the term loosely) has become legendary in the city’s history – paraphrasing Dylan himself – not for what it was, but for what it wasn’t.

By way of background, Dylan’s appearance was arranged by a promoter named Nick Topping, himself no small legend in the annals of Milwaukee musicdom. Born Nick Topetzes, he was the son of Greek immigrants who ran a grocery store near 4th & National. Topping and his extended family members became mainstays of the Greek community here, and Nick was a well-known crusader for social justice, having participated with Father James Groppi in the raucous open-housing marches of the early 1960s.

After returning from service in World War II, Topping operated a small produce import shop that was stocked with music and Middle Eastern food from all over the world. He also changed his name, having tired of prejudice shown him for his Greek heritage.

Starting in the late 1950s, Topping also became an impresario of sorts, bringing small-venue concerts by folk musicians – such as Josh White, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary – to Milwaukee. He also became the local contact for the Chicago-based promotion company, Triangle Productions.

Early in 1964, Topping got a call from a Triangle contact in New York who asked him if he wanted to book a new British band called The Beatles. This was really outside of Topping’s usual profile, but since he was really the only concert promoter in town at the time, he accepted, leading to the band’s one and only appearance in Milwaukee in September of that year.

Given Topping’s love of folk music, it should be no surprise that a young folk singer from Minnesota named Bob Dylan came up on his radar screen about the same time. He learned of Dylan’s upcoming fall tour and booked him for the Oriental on Saturday, Nov. 21.  


Wrestler Nick Bockwinkel passed away Saturday evening.
Wrestler Nick Bockwinkel passed away Saturday evening.

Saluting Nick Bockwinkel, a bad guy in the ring and a great guy outside it

One of the last remaining celebrities of my childhood – Nick Bockwinkel – has died this past weekend, and it hurts. I am in mourning.

Growing up in Milwaukee in the 1970s, "All Star Wrestling" was a weekly local TV institution that had ratings higher than any other program with the possible exception of anything related to bowling and/or polka music. It was part of the local culture and the wrestlers were iconic figures.

In Milwaukee, there was a hometown hero known as The Crusher. Legend had it he "trained" for his matches by running up and down Wisconsin Avenue carrying a beer keg on his shoulder and smoking cigars. He’d dance a few polkas to work on his cardio too.

Everybody loved The Crusher in Milwaukee. No wait, that’s not correct. They ADORED him to the point of it bordering on flat out worship. Crusher’s legendary interviews on TV were what I lived for as a kid, as he promised to rid Milwaukee and the world of "bums" and "turkey necks."

The Crusher was revered as highly and probably higher than any other "athlete," and nobody doubted he was able to beat anyone up who crossed his path – including Muhammad Ali himself. Had he chosen to play for the Green Bay Packers, we had no doubt he would stomp on all those nasty Bears, Vikings and Lions, and lay them out with his infamous "Crusher Bolo" super punch.

He was always announced as having "100 Megaton Biceps" even though nobody ever had any idea what exactly that meant. How many megatons are needed in a bicep? Was there a standard requirement from the government on how many were needed to constitute wrestling toughness?

One of The Crusher’s bitterest rivals in the ring was the underhanded dastardly and conniving super villain, the universally despised "Wicked" Nick Bockwinkel. Billed as being from Beverly Hills, along with his oily manager and perpetual shadow Bobby "The Brain" (but constantly referred to by fans as "The Weasel") Heenan, Bockwinkel held the AWA world's championship belt for wh…

If the words were intentional and the artist isn't responsible than who?
If the words were intentional and the artist isn't responsible than who? (Photo: Matt Mueller)

When is a statue just a statue?

When is a statue just a statue? In the Village of Shorewood, not this week. An East Coast blogger visiting his daughter, was looking at Jaume Plensa’s sculpture, "Spillover II," that sits perched in Atwater Park, at the corner of Lake and Capitol Drives. He noticed words that seemed to jump out of the jumble of random letters. They included the phrases "Cheap Jew" and "Fry Bad Jew." Writing about the offensive language in his blog, he wrote that the sculpture was "not art but a piece of scrap."

More than a few heated comments were exchanged in response to the blog, some claiming that the blogger was seeing things that weren’t there and others suspecting the artist’s motives.

So who is right? Paradoxically, both viewpoints may be close to the truth. It seems unlikely that the artist is an anti-Semite. His work has been dedicated to bringing people closer together. He even has submitted designs for Holocaust memorials, not a move many anti-Semites would make.

Yet, the statistical likelihood of such phrases emerging from random letters is very, very small. If the words were intentional and the artist isn’t responsible than who? I have a theory: busy artists of international stature often don’t fabricate what they design. They employ artisans who take their designs and bring them into being. We know the artist told his workers that the letters should be entirely random. If they were intentionally arranged to send an anti-Semitic message, that speaks to the culpability of his underlings.

Did artist Jaume Pensa look his work over when it was done? Assuredly. Did he notice what the New Jersey blogger saw? No, but that, in and of itself, doesn’t establish intent. More likely the fault lies with his workers who fabricated the piece. Artisans working for established artists have been known to monkey around with the boss’s creation. In the software industry, where some programs run on millions of line of code, programmers have been known to insert cute phrases in…

Jackson Browne performed at the Riverside Theater Saturday night.
Jackson Browne performed at the Riverside Theater Saturday night. (Photo: Riverside Theater)

Browne plays the role of low-key legend at Saturday's Riverside show

In a 45-year career, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne has never once been in danger of topping anyone’s Most Charismatic Performer list, and his show at the Riverside Theatre on Saturday evening certainly confirmed that status.

Without any fanfare, dimming of the lights or even an introduction, Browne strolled onstage and greeted the crowd of 2,200 with a wave and a "Happy to see you." With that, he picked up a guitar and led the band into "The Barricades of Heaven," "Just Say Yeah" and "The Long Way Around," songs from 1996, 2008, and 2014 respectively. It was a few more numbers into the set before Browne treated the audience to an old favorite, "These Days."  

Like many other artists with collection of hits, the most enduring songs in Browne’s catalog come from his first five albums. These are the tried and true crowd pleasers, and Browne could have easily filled the 120-minute performance with them. Hell, the Rolling Stones have been getting away with this for years.

But Jackson Browne isn’t Mick Jagger, and he’s shown himself to be fearless when it comes to challenging his audiences with new material as well as new ways to perform the old favorites. In a recent interview, Browne told me that there are many ways to perform his songs, providing the emotion is there. In past years, he’s appeared in concert without a band, opting instead to play with an acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment. 

On Saturday, Browne was backed by a powerful quintet fueled by two electric guitar players who doubled on fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin. Backing vocals were provided by Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, who also opened the show with a 45-minute set of their own. Campbell and Williams – who have worked with Mavis Staples, Levon Helm, Bob Dylan and a host of other musicians – are a testament to Jackson Browne’s willingness to nurture and collaborate with other artists. In the mid-'70s, Browne helped Warren Zevon get a recording contract, and Saturday’s se…