Peter Roller’s Milwaukee Garage Bands: Generations of Grassroots Rock (The History Press, 2013) is an intergenerational study of amateur rock musicians from the Milwaukee area. Interviewing dozens of musicians active between the 1950s and 1990s, Roller reclaims the lived experience of garage bands in an average American city and uses that experience to overturn common assumptions about amateur rock music-making. Theorizing the “garage” as a space, Roller follows these bands from formation and rehearsal through to performance in order to better understand the garage band experience and ultimately answer the questions: Why do people continue to form garage bands? What is the value of the garage band for its participants? And, how can we better understand and represent amateurs in academic and critical discourse? Below, Peter and I discuss the book and its implications for the study of amateur rock musicians.
Brian F. Wright: I wanted to start with what I think is sort of a historiographical question: It seems that one of the primary goals of your book is to overturn some of the common assumptions that popular music scholars have concerning garage rock. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you see previous scholarship on garage rock and contrast it with what you are trying to do? What are the stories we are missing? What kind of stories are you trying to tell that aren’t normally told?
Peter Roller: Well, there hasn’t been much written about amateur rock bands compared to all the “star” literature. And so, a goal for me was to represent “anybodies” who were in amateur rock bands of various eras and to find out what it was like and what it meant to them, to hopefully answer the question: Why do people keep forming these bands even though they don’t become stars, they may not care about becoming stars, and they don’t all “get chicks”? (Even though those are the main stereotypes that are out there). So, first, I just wanted to represent their voices. And, second, I wanted to not just represent the mid-‘60s. I wanted to show continuity (if there was continuity) by having stories from the ‘50s through the ‘90s. I wanted to try and document what real participants thought and cared about and felt like when they were amateurs playing in the basement. So, those were my most basic goals.
BW: I think that’s great. I write a lot about amateur musicians myself and one of the most difficult things for me is that we only focus on the people who make it, the people who get out.
BW: And I think that a vast majority… the vast majority of rock music being made since the beginning has been in garages with people we’ve never heard of. It’s only a very very small few that get through.
PR: Or in basements when you’re in the cold climate of the upper Midwest. So you do have to explain to people that it doesn’t have to be a literal garage, but that “garage” is a metaphor for amateur rockers going into average spaces in their own homes.
BW: That actually brings up an interesting point, because in the book you theorize the garage as a space in many different ways. You talk about it as a safe place for amateur musicians across a wide spectrum, and I was wondering if you might talk about how you envision the “garage” as a space in and of itself.
PR: So, when I’m saying the word “garage” as sort of an umbrella term, I’m often thinking of a basement recreation room, because that was my experience when I started out and that’s what the majority of people I talked to in the Milwaukee area would describe to me. And so, one example that comes to mind, just to show that garage bands exist outside the mid-‘60s stereotype of post-Beatles bands, is a guy I talked to named Paul Terrien. He met his bandmates in a private school called Marquette University High School in the early 1980s. One of the kids in the band’s parents were professors at Marquette and they would go down to his basement and that was their safe space. And eventually they put up an inflatable Godzilla down there and they were really into shooting silly string all over the ceiling and all over the walls. To me, that all sort of visually symbolized that it was their space and that it was a safe space for them to let loose and have freedom with their low-level music-making.
BW: Going back to the question about the way garage bands are usually presented, the narratives in your book seem at odds with the standard narrative of garage rock as a kind of ’60s proto-punk, Lenny Kaye Nuggets phenomenon, where it’s often presented as this rebellious, almost dangerous activity. In your book the garage is actually more often described as a space of safety. It’s a space for expression, but one that is eventually sanctioned by parents and schools etc.
PR: True. But I do think there can still be rebellion. I think one of the reasons why people have continually formed these amateur rock bands is that they can have both danger and transgressive action or they can kind of be safe and in a “cocoon,” as I say in the book. For example, some of my favorite stories in the book are the first-person testimonies describing going out for the first time with your garage band and immediately getting static from people, basically for just playing rock music. And I see that as feeling like your music is making you a little bit of a rebel. So, yes they’re safe down in the basement and that’s what a majority of the time I think is spent doing, but there can still be opportunity for feeling like a rebel in first bands.
BW: I love that “cocooning” metaphor. Do you want to give a brief description of it for people who haven’t read the book yet?
PR: So this “cocoon” metaphor that I eventually work with a lot, came out of one of my interviews with these average garage band participants. He [Richard Regner] said that in the upper Midwest during the winter in his suburb of Whitefish Bay, he and his bandmates would “go down in the basement come the cold weather and cocoon together” (p. 85), and after that “cocooning” they would play the end-of-the-year talent show at their school and show what they’ve got. And so that was his own butterfly-like metaphor for a garage band and I ran with it and started to say that, overall, I think there’s something about being in a garage rock band that has to do with valuing being in a cocoon of loud music and social interaction together.
BW: And, because you’ve structured the book as a series of ever expanding circles, the “cocoon” actually becomes the focal point of the book. You move from formation, to the rehearsal, to composition, to performance, and it’s really not until the second-to-last chapter that they actually get out of the “cocoon” and are performing.
PR: I bet that probably drove some people crazy [laughs].
BW: There’s so much time spent talking about the experience of the garage, to the point that performance almost doesn’t matter… Not only are they not doing it to become famous, they’re also not really in it for the “gig” either, that’s not where the joy comes from.
PR: Well, as we all know, there are awkward gigs. But I didn’t want to disparage performing, it’s just that there was so little work that discussed the experience of the rehearsal space that I wanted to do all I could with that and then, as you say, move into the outer circles.
BW: What I guess I’m getting at is that playing in a garage rock band seems to give them a sense of fulfillment, it gives them a sense of rebellion, a place to be transgressive, a place to try on different identities. All of this happens within the garage. It almost seems that even if they never played a gig, they could experience all these things on some level just in their own cocoon.
PR: But they also bring their friends into the “garage” too, and that makes it more comfortable to do transgressive things. For example, there is that picture in my book [on Pg. 155] of this band in a Shorewood basement during the ’90s and the guy’s wearing a woman’s slip, pink bunny slippers, a rainbow wig, and he and his sister have made angel wings that he wears while playing the electric bass. There’s an image of never leaving the cocoon but doing some pretty wild stuff.
BW: And this goes back to the idea of the garage as both a place of safety and of danger, right? They can be rebellious, they can be transgressive, but they can do it in a space where they aren’t going to get too much flack.
PR: Yes. And that’s part of garage bands becoming more mainstream: kids want to be able to be rebellious and parents are happy if they do it within the safety of their home or another parent’s home. And I think that’s worked really well in middle class suburban America since the mid-’60s.
BW: Which again brings up this idea of continuity. You begin the book pre-British Invasion, and your earliest respondents actually began in the mid-’50s or so…
PR: Yeah. I really needed to prove that point because there are people who repeatedly claim that garage bands were just these one-hit wonders or that they only existed for a five-year period from 1964 to 1969 and all this other nonsense. So before I could talk about continuity I had to show that garage bands existed before the ‘60s and they were meaningful and I had to show that they existed after the mid-’60s and they were also meaningful. And this goes back to that notion of rebellion. The first guy in my book, Sam McCue, is kind of a hero for people who grew up in Milwaukee in the late ‘50s. And when he told that very Milwaukee story [in Ch. 5] about going to one of those Catholic youth dances, the CYO dance, and it was one of the very first times they left their basement practice space to perform in public, right away a nun got upset by one of their songs.
BW: Because they were playing a little too “bluesy,” a little too sexual…
PR: To me, that story is priceless because it has that low-level rebellion going on and yet it is so very Milwaukee and so very ‘50s. There’s something he says, “[W]e did a song called ‘Henrietta’ with a real simple, bluesy figure and the nun came running through this crowd of dancers. She’s grabbing the habit [on her head] and yelling, ‘No, no, no!’ She couldn’t handle it. We’re singing, ‘Henrietta, baby what you do to me; Henrietta, it’s only you I wanna see; You got me all shook up, never ever wanna be free” with that bluesy rhythm… she didn’t like that. So we finished the song, and I said, ‘Ok, we won’t do that anymore…’” (pg. 137). So, you see, he’s exploring the possibilities of little bits of rebellion and little bits of getting along with people the very first time he’s going out into public.
BW: I think what is really remarkable about Sam McCue and the other early respondents is that they all cite a distinct lack of models. They didn’t have anyone to model themselves on, there was no template for how to be a garage band in that first generation. And, speaking of the importance of models (or lack thereof), you really emphasize the importance of seeing live music, that these bands—even into the ’90s—were far more moved by going and seeing someone their own age playing in a band than they ever were by simply listening to recordings.
PR: I really wanted to show the neighborhood level in a number of dimensions, so there’s the “cocooning” in the basement that we’ve already mentioned, but there’s also this sense of going out just a little further and seeing that other teen band within your social universe. And this is something Bobby Friedman described: “The songs we picked, a lot of them were from hearing other kids playing them… [T]hat was how I was exposed to those songs… That is as important a point as I can make about this whole thing: hearing those songs live, either played by another band in their rehearsal space or hearing them at a party, was unbelievably inspiring. It’s so much more exciting to hear those songs live” (pg. 104-5). And he goes on to say that he liked that this live music was more mistake-prone, he liked that it was more human and more fallible. He said that was “real rock ‘n’ roll” because they could mess up, they didn’t have to perfectly sound like the record…
BW: And, although you don’t get too much into it, later in the book you do bring up Charles Keil and the concept of “participatory discrepancies,” which I think really aligns with what Friedman is saying.
PR: Yeah and Keil is such a rebel within ethnomusicology as you probably know. But he was one of the first to really examine average jam sessions where people are human and get out of groove and get back into groove as one of the beauties of human music-making. And even with the low-level musicianship of these garage bands, as Bobby Friedman was saying, it’s just so much more real to witness these other teens who don’t exactly know what they’re doing somehow manage to play some of these rockin’ songs.
BW: This might be a good time to discuss your background as an ethnomusicologist and how it informed this project, especially because the people your work is in conversation with tend not to be ethnomusicologists. Can you talk a bit about how your training shaped your interests and the kinds of questions you are asking?
PR: For the record, the book that got published, Milwaukee Garage Bands: Generations of Grassroots Rock, comes out of my PhD dissertation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and that dissertation has a lot more arguing with academic ideas, some with ethnomusicologists and some with pop scholars. So, what does my background have to do with it? Well, I have been studying bits of ethnomusicology ever since my first undergraduate studies in the ‘70s at Grinnell College, which was a very small liberal arts college with just one ethnomusicologist. Back then, the model was basically to learn about every traditional world music instrument, listen to endless reel-to-reel tapes with ragas, etc. And I don’t discount that, but that sent up some antennae for me that never went away, where I wondered if this field is truly open to everybody’s culture and everybody’s experience? And when I came all the way back around to my PhD work many years later, I felt that there was a lot more popular music being written about in ethnomusicology, but that it was still mostly Western, often middle class, academics writing about world music popular music, say from Ghana, or Nigeria, or wherever. And I think that left a blind spot when it came to participant-observation in our own culture. And I didn’t think we should leave anybody out, including white, middle class folks in the American suburbs, because, as I’m hoping that my book shows, there wouldn’t be a large part of rock music if there wasn’t this “continual pathway” (which I get from Ruth Finnegan) of garage bands that has allowed generations and generations to comfortably take up playing rock music. I just wanted that conversation to be part of the whole patchwork of things [in ethnomusicology] and I didn’t feel like the humblest part of middle class suburban American music-making was really part of that patchwork. And it isn’t about Milwaukee being some special center either, really it could have been any city, any urban area (although I did think it was better for it not to be a major recording center like New York or LA or Nashville because that changes the stakes for a lot of people in their early bands). I wanted to focus on just an average city, where kids join garage bands and some carry on and go further and others do it for a while just for the joy of doing it.
BW: Milwaukee is also an interesting choice because unlike some other smaller cities (like Seattle or Minneapolis or Athens, etc.), Milwaukee’s music scene has never really had the same kind of national recognition.
PR: Well, there were the Violent Femmes, and I’m happy that I could have a “star” [Femmes’ bassist Brian Ritchie] give so much testimony in my book, and that is sort of the flipside. We talk about stars too much, but we don’t let stars talk about how they were just average Joes…
BW: …and Ritchie’s testimony is great for that, but what I’m getting at is that part of what makes Milwaukeee, as you say, a nice Anytown, USA is that it never had that same kind national visibility.
PR: Yes. I agree with that. I wouldn’t have been comfortable writing about the Seattle grunge scene or the Minneapolis pop-rock explosion of the 80s.
BW: I think Milwaukee is also an interesting test case because it’s one of those cities that has undergone a lot of change over the years. And I’m specifically thinking about racial diversity here, and I was wondering if you ran into that with your work with respondents, some sense of how the racial divide has shifted over the last 50 years.
PR: If Milwaukee is an average, medium-sized, Anytown, USA, one thing that isn’t universal is that it’s in the top 5 most hyper-segregated cities in America, which means when I say “middle class, suburban,” sadly, I’m pretty much describing white folks in middle class suburban garage bands, and I really hope that is not true in many many other parts of the country. When I was talking with Brian Ritchie he even criticized his hometown by saying, “Sadly, my little interracial garage band that I had in the ‘70s doesn’t even seem like it could exist now.” Currently, Milwaukee is struggling with the same kind of hyper-segregation that Detroit has, that Chicago has, that St. Louis has, but I’m hoping that there’s a lot more racial and cultural diversity in garage bands in other places.
BW: We’re also talking about garage bands now as sort of a “rock” phenomenon, but in a sense you could argue that all bands (regardless of genre) start as garage bands. You could argue that early R&B, funk, any of these bands, many of them get started in a similar way. Why did you decide to specifically home in on a suburban, middle class, white rock aesthetic?
PR: I think that Milwaukee did, for better or worse, put people into a more homogenized kind of racial class category, and I recognize that, but I also really concentrated on the self-training component of know-nothings in a rock band to differentiate them from the kind of virtuosity you’re working on, for instance, as a jazz musician in a jazz combo. And I do think there are things that are distinctively “rock” about it, and I discuss things such as the sound of electric instruments and the rawness of it and how there’s a taste for that. I was trying to make it have, without stretching the truth, genre characteristics even though rock is a fairly diverse thing.
BW: And in Chapter 2 you go through every one of your respondents and talk about how each of them formed their first garage band, and from there extrapolate some of their shared characteristics. And I think that, as a theoretical frame, is really useful.
PR: And that goes back to what we discussed in the beginning, that there is so much written about stars and the bands that were one-hit wonders, that we just need to have a sense of some common characteristics in order to even talk about what amateur rock bands are.
BW: We have to begin the conversation.
PR: Yes. And then theories can be built, hopefully, from those materials.
BW: And I think that many of those more theoretical characteristics would resonate with anyone who has played in a garage rock band. How does your experience as a working guitarist mesh with how you describe amateur music-making?
PR: Well, because I was trying so hard to not be stuck in any one generation, a few times I used fellow musicians of my age who I do gigs with and they had kids who were in the prime of their garage band days. And I remember one time, during a party, I went down and the teens were in the basement and I plugged in a guitar and we tried to cooperate together, musically, and cross the generations. I really don’t want to lose what made me love playing guitar that first or second year, which was that joy of just playing a really simple groove with a couple of other people. And, for me, the first person I played with was my older brother, and that’s a powerful thing to be playing with your sibling and making those loud noises, and I didn’t want to lose the joy and all that juiciness of playing real basic music with others, and that’s what I did with this intergenerational jam session. We weren’t going to play something really complex, I showed them the Rolling Stones’ version of “It’s All Over Now” and they showed me one of their generation’s simple songs.
BW: So, then, could you talk a bit about how you found the respondents for the book? Because they are such an eclectic, intergenerational group of musicians.
PR: Well the multiplicity of garage bands in every city means that you can only do a sampling, and that sampling is going to have its own path to finding those people. So I’ve had people in Milwaukee say to me, “Why didn’t you cover this band? Why didn’t you cover that band?” And I have to say, thankfully, that there have been hundreds and hundreds of garage bands in Milwaukee. And so as a working musician as well as a college professor, I did use a lot of my fellow working-musician guitar player connections to either get their story about their teenage years or get someone they know’s story or get their own kid’s story.
BW: So, a lot of your respondents also happen to be guitarists as well.
PR: Yeah, so I’ve got to admit that, that the network of guitar players in a city is a powerful thing. You being a bass player, though, let’s admit that there is a very thin line between electric bass playing and electric guitar playing, and so a lot of the people I talked to wouldn’t differentiate a whole lot between bass and guitar and would say, “Well I played bass for a while then I wanted to switch to guitar,” or “We didn’t have a bass player, so they ‘encouraged’ me to move to the 4-string area.” There’s a lot of movement back and forth between bass and guitar.
BW: It is a very common story. And you bring this up in the book, that when you first start a band, the instrument you end on is not always the instrument you begin on. And the garage as a safe site of experimentation let’s you switch.
PR: And that’s not true in other forms. I’m not making a value judgment, but you’ve got to work on tenor sax your whole career to be a Sonny Rollins and you have to work on classical violin since you’re a Suzuki student if you’re going to be in that world. But in the garage rock world, it’s basic enough that you can switch and you can try it out. The garage band is a very basic thing that allows any of us to try it out; I really try to honor that. For instance, Jim Eanelli tells this story in the book about being in a garage band and not knowing what you’re doing, but really getting into it “by playing this moody minor key chord progression for hours on end” (Pg. 125). And that’s really an amazing kind of basicness, where this very simple musical thing transformed his whole inner being. And as he said, “[I]t felt like all your little troubles from the day just went away!” (Pg. 125). So it’s “basic” but it’s also profound, especially when you’re thirteen years old.
Peter Roller, PhD in Ethnomusicology from University of Wisconsin-Madison, is Associate Professor and Chair of the Music Department at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Roller earned an M.A. in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, his Thesis analyzed the country blues mandolin style of Yank Rachell—with whom he performed and recorded in the 1980s.
Brian F. Wright is a PhD Student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University and former research assistant at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His research primarily focuses on amateur music-making and the early history of the electric bass in rock, jazz, and rhythm & blues.