Thursday, August 22, 2013

Make a little Warehouse in your soul

When I was 15 the Dead Milkmen played in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the closest city of any size to my parents’ rural homestead. My pal Nathan had gotten me into the Milkmen earlier that year, and we were both incredibly geared up to see the show. Unfortunately I wasn’t yet old enough to drive and Nathan couldn’t get parental permission, so we missed out on what undoubtedly would have been an incredible first concert-going experience. 

Even though I didn’t actually see it, that Dead Milkmen set did turn out to be a show that changed my life. See, the Milkmen had played at a club in downtown La Crosse called The Warehouse. I’d been vaguely aware that the place existed before then, but this was the first time I’d thought of it as somewhere I might actually go. A few months later I did just that. I suppose the stellar ‘90s punk lineup of Hagfish, Swingin’ Utters and Hoarse live at The Warehouse wasn’t technically my first show. I’d seen plenty of Christian acts before, attended some God-rock festivals, and even sampled a bit of the La Crosse alternative scene at the Brew Note coffee house. But going to The Warehouse felt different from all of that. This felt like a real show in a real club, the type of thing kids in New York or Seattle might do. Needless to say, I was stoked.

All I knew about the bands was that Hagfish’s latest CD had gotten a pretty good review in CMJ. In the limited sphere of the greater La Crosse, Wisconsin area, that established them as a must-see. It turned out to be a hell of a show, noisy and raucous and full of life. The music was like nothing I’d heard played live before. The musicians were like no one I’d seen live before. (One of the Swingin’ Utters guys had an honest-to-god giant, spiky mohawk! I’d only ever seen those in music magazines and comic books!) I was amazed to see a real-live mosh pit, just like the ones I’d read about in news stories about Woodstock ’93. It took me a while to work up the nerve, but eventually I dove in and took to thrashing about the dance floor. I couldn’t have been a pretty picture – a gawky, ghost-pale teenager in a sweat-soaked purple flannel and a knit stocking cap that kept falling over my eyes – but I was having a hell of a time.

I had a lot of hells of times at The Warehouse over the next several years, all without realizing what a rare thing I was experiencing. I didn’t realize at the time that an alcohol-free, all-ages club that booked national acts was hard to come by in any city, let alone one the size of La Crosse. For all I knew, it was the norm for misfit teens who lived near college towns to spend their evenings watching noise rock bands make music with power tools in a dusky nightclub. It wasn’t until I got to college that I learned most of my peers didn’t have that opportunity. I might have missed out on the Dead Milkmen, but the bands I did see could make for a hell of a mid ‘90s mix tape: Poster Children, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Possum Dixon, Chemlab, Pegboy, NIL8, Savage Aural Hotbed, Sister Machine Gun, Helva, Puzzle Factory... I could go on for ages.

And it wasn’t just about the bigger name bands. The Warehouse also provided a place for local acts to cut their teeth in a more professional venue than their college buddy’s basement. Although I’m sure I’m looking back through rose-colored glasses, the La Crosse area had itself quite a thriving little scene at the time. The local bands I saw at The Warehouse loom just as large in my memory as their better known counterparts. USV, Spindle, The Baum Squad (formerly Spoon), Norm’s Headache, Space Bike, The Lush Workers – these bands were the first network of artists that I truly felt a part of. Hell, even my high school band Inflatable Grandpa, whose sound could charitably have been called sloppy nerd punk, landed a few Warehouse gigs. I still shiver when I recall the thrill of subjecting a small crowd to the sight of me barking my They Might Be Giants-aping lyrics from the stage of a club I knew and loved.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say The Warehouse played a vital role in making me the man I am today. I have friends who say the place probably saved their lives by giving them a refuge from alcohol and drugs at a very fragile point of their youth. Personally, I was a substance-free teen, mainly because it gave me one more reason to feel superior to my schoolmates (self-righteousness was my anti-drug). For me it was all about access to the music. Not even the bands themselves, necessarily, but the experience of seeing live music and being part of a scene. Even when the bands sucked – and there were plenty that sucked hard – I was still out at show, immersed in a culture that most of my peers wouldn’t have a chance to discover for another half-decade. I can’t even imagine how grim my high school and early college years would have been without it.

As I write this, The Warehouse is in dire straits for the umpteenth time in its 22-year history. Due to factors more detailed than I care to go into here, the place is in danger of being shut down and turned into condos if owner Steve Harm can’t raise a considerable sum to pay off the business’ debts by tomorrow night. There’s a Warehouse Rescue Campaign fundraising page posted at Indiegogo where you can chip in any amount to keep the music going. I’ve pitched in and I hope to hell more folks will too. Right now there’s a kid in West Salem or Bangor or Sparta or Winona or Galesville or Nodine who’s checking out an old SNFU concert video on YouTube and falling in love. I want that kid to have a place to live that dream. I want The Warehouse to be there to give another generation the invaluable education it gave me.

(See the tall guy in the white t-shirt standing by the stage at the 0:22 mark? That’d be me at 18.)