24 years of rock for Atomic. In one day.
In Miramar’s tight lobby, the tension, fervor and anticipation mounts for the upcoming six (plus) hours of current and reunited local music acts playing for Atomic Records owner Rich Menning, store clerks, and the store’s legion of devoted fans. At this early hour, Eric Blowtorch is about to hit the stage and Menning is all sheepish grins.
“It was a surprise. It was,” he says. “The more I heard about the [concert] the more I thought, ‘You know, this could be awesome.’”
In December, Menning announced that he would be shuttering the venerable 24-year-old music store (before it was Atomic, it was Ludwig Van Ear) located near Oakland Ave. at 1813 E. Locust St.. Differences over rent and the current economic climate made the 2009 financial forecast look bleak, even after success becoming an online broker.
During a time when Tower, Virgin, and other mall record stores are closing, it’s often astounding that smaller independents in town (Rush-Mor, Bullseye, Lotus Land, Exclusive Co.) can still operate. The key with some may be the low overhead of having few employees or purchases.
This was a selling point for shopping there, not a criticism.
The place is small yet stacked to the rafters and sub-levels with posters, t-shirts, vinyl, cassettes, and CDs of stuff you may have only heard on college radio – or, better yet, at a local show. Atomic was also the place where local bands could premiere their recordings on 7” EPs before they ever had a MySpace page.
It was this devotion and gratitude that brought erstwhile music acts to reunite for this one night. Musician and longtime Atomic employee Damien Strigens came up with the idea and made a few phone calls. One was to his former bandmates from The Lovelies: Liv Mueller and Barb Endes.
Once they agreed to play a concert, calls went out to mostly defunct but well-loved Wisconsin acts such as Couch Flambeau, Sometimes Sweet Susan, a non-billed and incomplete yet devastating Die Krauzen (calling themselves Bob and Joe out of decorum), Liquid Pink, Boy Dirt Car, Mighty Deerlick, the Squares and Cherry Cake. If Atomic Valentine was a compilation album covering the last 30 years of rock in Milwaukee, it would have been a ‘Best Of.’ Many bands sounded better than ever.
Everybody with a story to tell about Atomic showed up. The flowing crowd reached the 327 persons capacity at Miramar Theater several times throughout the night. Most of this audience didn’t fit into a definitive age demographic. There were grayhairs with leather pants and moptops with ironic Van Halen t-shirts. Free flowing Pabst beer – with its retro-hip status – also defied defining the age of the crowd. When current rock act The Etiquette blew away the audience in a short and punchy set, most remained placid and smiling, soaking up the noise.
Before Atomic employee and rock troubadour Mark Waldoch took the stage for a sparse but gorgeous set with violinist Caitlin Guszkowski as The Good Grief, I asked Rich Menning what his plans for the near future contained.
“I’m probably going to be hunkered in my basement selling stuff on eBay for a year or two. That’s the immediate plans. I’ll continue the Amazon.com selling but put the rare stuff on eBay. If there’s anything left at the end, we might have an ‘everything’s a dollar’ type thing. But I won’t be crazy about it.”
Menning recently announced online that they would have leftovers at WMSE’s Music Rummage Sale Blowout on March 29. He’d like to stay in music – just not the business end of it.
“I’m just so sick of the business end. I’m running. Screaming. Just – away from it.”