It’s raining, so plans to bike down the lakefront to the new Calatrava designed museum are scuttled, but Lily has a school friend Andi here who has a better idea. A group of us pile into Andi’s car and head for the house of Andi’s friend Paul, who lives in a boat that was built on dry land. Paul, says Andi, is a bit of a historian of the rich local culture, so together they’ll take us on a mini tour.
Paul’s house was originally built by a man who accidentally sank an identical boat in the harbor. Out of remorse or sheer perversity, he decided to rebuild that boat, but on dry land, “where it could never sink again.”
When he applied to the local city board to build this structure, the approval was denied, so he built it off site and surreptitiously dragged it up here one night. Needless to say, it’s since become a local landmark; Paul says it’s not uncommon for couples to consummate their relationship on the lawn. After that, a dentist lived in the boathouse and is the current landlord. Not your ordinary dentist — a wacky dentist/inventor who among other things invented a dog-powered chariot and a dental hovering device, consisting of a series of bungees and pulleys that would allow him to perform dentistry while suspended ABOVE the patient! I wish I could have seen this device. Can you imagine being this dentist's patient? Paul said this dentist also performed a root canal on himself. “Those damn dentists are so expensive!” he was quoted as saying.
Paul said that when he was in 8th grade, he was hitchhiking and he got in a car and the driver was playing the song “Life During Wartime.” Young Paul found the music somewhat disturbing and told the driver he really didn’t like this kind of stuff and could he get out immediately. Of course, a year or so later, he changed his mind.
As in Pittsburgh, some parts of town that were deemed not worth “saving” in the urban renewal schemes in the 60s and 70s are now the neighborhoods that are the most full of life, the ones that are coming back in some fashion. Where Andi lives, there’s a food co-op that only sells organic and local foods, artists studios, and a Polish social club whose traditional mission was to provide gymnasiums for the youth of various cities. This one still has a gymnasium attached. Nearby is a tiny herring factory and downtown there are still big sausage works. The breweries that once dominated this town used to build little taverns on every corner, to feed and lubricate their workers. Some of these remain, but not very many.
We head over to the ghetto, to Satin Doll’s Lounge, run by Doll — Minette D. Wilson — a former dancer with Duke Ellington and others. She wasn’t going to let us in at first, as someone across the street had called her and said, “There’s a white man taking a picture outside.” That was me.
She did let us in, however, and we had a round of drinks while Paul caught up with her. Someone had poisoned her dog, which was not good news. The room was filled with Christmas decorations, faded photos of Doll with Duke and some more recent soul singers, stuffed animals and Milwaukee police patches. One door was labeled “sleeping room” which we guessed must be a place where customers who were too drunk to get home could sleep it off. Paul claimed that I was a gun freak, so Doll pulled a .38 revolver from under the bar and we passed it around. She removed the bullets before handing it to me.
Paul explained that Milwaukee experienced one of the last waves of Black migration from the South. And therefore, those who came only experienced about 20 or so years of the city’s industrial heyday. That’s not long enough for a second generation to get a good foothold. The 1st generation of newcomers are often just surviving and it’s their kids who more easily navigate their way into the workforce and build new neighborhoods. But just before this might have happened, Milwaukee, like a lot of other industrial cities in the US, went into a decline. The folks in this part of town were discriminated against and had little recourse or resources to enable them to rise. It became a welfare zone, which it still is to a large extent.
On the way back, towards the center of town, we passed the home of a Cherokee with a McCain placard in his yard. And what a yard it is:
Around the side there was even more. The planter in the foreground is a coffin!
We continued our Milwaukee tour with an impromptu stop at a Shriners Lodge, the Tripoli Temple. The building is a massive faux Arabic pseudo-Taj Mahal, designated a historical landmark. The side door was open so we went in. A woman, sensing our curiosity, generously offered us a tour.
She said they had recently renovated the place, at considerable cost, as all the walls were discolored from years of cigar smoke. Here’s an ashtray designed to hold multiple cigars.
The décor was, as is typical in these lodges, a hodge-podge — a mash up of what folks in the US must have imagined was oriental. Thus, in the Oriental theater here, Buddhas, camels, and Arabic motifs are all mixed together. Why the fascination with the Middle East? Was it because it was the “holy land?” Was it the birthplace of masonry (the pyramids) and of the weird and ancient mysteries — arcane links to the order of the universe once known only by the wise inscrutable ancients? An order kept hidden and encoded for centuries, not to be told to just anyone, but to be revealed to American businessmen smoking big cigars and doing good works? Needless to say, whatever it emerged from, it’s truly impressive. A grand physical metaphor for something, something we can’t quite put our finger on. A kind of syncretism seems to be at work here as well, a melding of opposing beliefs and a substituting of one set of symbols for another.
I gather that these types of places went into decline with the emergence of television. The rise of mass entertainment meant that these men (and they are mostly men’s organizations) could now zone out in front of the tube and forgo the dues and duties of these social organizations. Something was obviously lost — a community, a network, and the fulfillment of a biological need to be together in a large room. Now they hold weddings here. We were shown the room where brides could select from potential reception décor. And wedding parties don’t have to be dues-paying Shriners to be welcome anymore.
We headed for our last stop, the Calatrava designed wing of the art museum, situated right on the lakeshore. As in other cities, these architectural baubles are, I imagine, built to attract cultural tourism and also to give the city a visible “brand.” Don’t know how well it’s achieved those goals, but his work is certainly spectacular. Here’s the parking garage located under the museum:
The entrance foyer is the most alien biomorphic cathedral-like space in the building, pretty awe-inspiring.
There was one show in this particular “building,” although most of this building more accurately functions as a gateway to the older museum building alongside it (designed by Eero Saarinen).
The current show, of techie interactive art, had one spectacular and creepy piece. It was by Daniel Rozin, whose work more often consists of wall mosaic-like structures that mirror, by tilting their various “tiles,” the person who is looking at them. There was one of those in this show as well and there were a few in the “Machines and Souls” show I participated in over in Madrid.
This one was a little different. In a dark room, a sort of semi-transparent screen had a projection, which mirrored anyone who stood directly in front of it. But the mirroring was weird and disturbing. It saw the edges of our shapes, the outlines, and filled them in only if you stood still; and then if you moved, the pixels projected on the scrim would disperse, fall and disintegrate, as if you were crumbling like a pile of powder. In the way some insects only see things that move, this only sees things that hold still. Here is an image of Andi (Andrea Maio) who got up close…you can see a really creepy smile.
In the older museum building, Paul rushed us up to an upper room that had quite a few pieces by the late Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, the “outsider” artist from around here who worked in a variety of media and styles. He made vaguely, almost abstract, apocalyptic paintings by smearing paint with his fingers, baking tools, and his wife’s hair (!) into contorted plant-like shapes. They’re very colorful and slightly disturbing. He also made sculptures out of chicken bones. I’d previously seen little towers. Here, there were a couple of tiny thrones made of painted chicken bones.
He idolized his wife Marie, and had a unique way of showing it. He took lots of pictures of her, dressed and more often undressed, quasi-classically posed, a little like in girlie magazines sometimes, and sometimes wearing crowns he had fashioned for her.
Oh, to be worshipped, to be the muse and inspiration of a genius who fills the house with chicken bones.
Our show is at the ornate and beautiful Pabst Theater. The metal chairs in the top balcony all say Pabst in metal across their backs. During soundcheck, we started working on a new old song, “Air,” a song I haven’t played live in 30 years, I suspect. In figuring out the tune, I notice that the lyrics have no rhymes and that’s not the only peculiarity. The song moves back and forth from rhythmically stop-start sections in minor keys to lyrical sections in major keys. I can see a link between the approach to the text and the rhythmically abrupt sections and the band who some of us rush over to see after our show.
Deerhoof and a few other bands were playing at what seemed like a former social hall on the 3rd floor of a building downtown. We catch the end of their set. It’s pretty magnificent in a fractured way. Very sophisticated. There’s ultra precision in the drums and guitars — abrupt, perfectly timed short outbursts — while the vocalist, Satomi Matsuzaki, sings in a calm voice. Their lyrics have no relationship whatsoever to typical rock lyrics (though I can see a link to the non-rhyming lyrics of “Air”). The vocal melodies are atypical as well. I’m not claiming to be an influence on Deerhoof, though it would be flattering if I were, but more that songs like “Air” are part of a link in a chain, or drops in a small river, that approach music and lyric writing from a different, slightly mutated angle. As if to emphasize that none of their musical structures are accidental, the band sells sheet music at their merchandise table, as well as the usual t-shirts and CDs. They made the sheet music for one song available to fans before their new record was released.
I’m standing on a chair watching and listening and admiring the physical interplay between the 3 guitarists, and Greg the drummer, who sometimes rises out of his seat and even walks around his drums at times. It’s a kind of dance that’s evolved over the course of many performances, both consciously and unconsciously. I don’t imagine anyone says to the others, “When I do this sound and movement with my guitar, or drums, what if you did that, physically, in response?” but it’s a kind of emergent choreography all the same. Of course, I now think to myself, “What if we did a new thing with the dancers that made that 'guitar dance' more explicit?” I write to Annie-B, who it seems, is thinking almost the exact same thing. There are a few days in the November break when we can try something out.