On Saturday, Aug. 12, at 6:30 p.m., the The Milwaukee Independent Film Society will screen “Taking the City By Storm, The Birth of the Milwaukee Punk Scene,” a documentary directed by Milwaukee ex-pat Doug LaValliere at the Avalon Theater, 2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., in Bay View.
Using interviews and a host of interesting and surely rarely, if ever seen live footage, the documentary traces the story of Brew City punk from early ‘70s pioneers Death, through the halcyon days of The Haskels and into the early 1980s (when even a recently arrived Brooklyn kid even makes a split-second appearance).
In addition to being a member of the scene – as bassist for The Prosecutors, with Kevn Kinney – LaValliere, who now lives in Texas, has worked on “Austin City Limits” and other productions. The producers of the film are fellow Milwaukee transplant Judy Simonds and local musician Clancy Carroll, whose latest band, Combustor, recently debuted.
“Taking the City By Storm” first screened here at Shank Hall last July. The nearly two-hour film has recently been slightly re-cut after screening at a number of film festivals.
In addition to folks who have gone on to wider success – like The Prosecutors’ Kevn Kinney, who later formed Drivin N Cryin, James Chance and the Violent Femmes – the film carves out time for most every band active on the scene from 1977 until 1982, and as any portrait of an era must do, it bleeds over into the years before and after.
Of course, there are the bands that took Milwaukee national and international, like Die Kreuzen and Plasticland, but also The RockADials and Red Ball Jets, The RPMs and The Lubricants, The Shivvers and The Ones, and on and on.
Special attention is given to Jerome Brish, aka Presley Haskel, who in addition to fronting the pioneering In A Hot Coma and The Haskels, was, as some interviewees in the documentary say, a sparking personality that helped ignite the scene here, with his drive and gift of the gab.
Haskel encouraged others to form bands and pushed for gigs at clubs like Zak’s and The Starship, the two Milwaukee scene landmarks, whose owners – Damian Zak and the late Kenny Baldwin – were also interviewed.
Even Tom Petersson and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick – who were Milwaukee regulars in the mid-1970s – can only marvel at Brish’s showmanship half a century later.
As the first wave moved out or moved on, younger bands – like Die Kreuzen, Colour Radio, Tense Experts, Dark Facade, The Crusties and others – slowly arrived, often pulling in members of their predecessor bands, and injecting new life into Milwaukee’s club scene.
But not before The Oil Tasters appeared and laid waste to preconceived notions of what rock and roll should sound like.
This trio of former Haskels bassist Richard LaValliere, future Bodeans and Femmes drummer Guy Hoffman and the mighty saxman Caleb Alexander Lentzner created a monster post-punk sound with LaValliere’s unique lyrics to create what was not only a true original for Milwaukee, but for rock music in general, blazing a path for later bands like Morphine.
Toward the end of the film, a few record collecting experts testify to the fertility of the Milwaukee scene, especially considering its size. “It had no business being as good as it was,” to paraphrase one of them.
While I missed The Haskels and The Prosecutors, I did get to Milwaukee in time to see The Oil Tasters and Richard LaValliere’s briefly-blazing The Barnburners.
Riding on the 20 bus, I was also recruited, on sight alone, into The Laytons, one of the younger batch of bands on The Starship, Niko’s, Zak’s scene. That's when I found myself among a lot of the folks in "Taking the City By Storm" – like Lentzner and Baldwin, who became soundmen at local clubs, and Brish and Jim Eanelli, who worked on guitars at Baldoni on Brady Street – and others, and heard the tales of bands like The Haskels, whose echo was still sounding throughout the scene.
This film helps keep that echo alive.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.