By Lee Gutowski, photo by Alice Waraxa
The brain of Bob Buss moves at lightning speed. His encyclopedic knowledge of the Riverwest punk scene of yore tumbles out during an interview, and proves too quick and copious to capture fully in this piece.
It’s a good thing he’s working on a book about those days of crazy basement shows and DIY recording spaces in the neighborhood. Otherwise the lore could go the way of the old band house/practice space/recording studio on the 800 block of east Clarke Street (known as the “Clarke Compound”) – up in smoke.
Buss grew up in the farthest south-side neighborhood in Milwaukee, which his crowd referred to as “the appendix,” since its outline hangs below the rest of the city’s straight-line southern border. He points out that Fuel Café on Center Street opened in 1993, the year he graduated from high school.
“One could argue that’s when punk broke open in Riverwest. But, I don’t know … every generation thinks they’re the best,” he laughs.
“We were all these might-as-well-have been suburban kids – skate punks and the like – who started to come downtown for these all-ages shows. First it was the Odd Rock in Bayview, then north to the Unicorn downtown. The scene moved further north and over the river to the East Side, and finally it settled in Riverwest,” Buss reminisces.
After heading to Minnesota to go to a Lutheran teaching college, he taught for a while in a three-room schoolhouse in a village outside of Fond du Lac. He played drums in the band Good Mustard (“world’s worst band name,” he chortles) during this time, too. In the summer of 1999, he officially took up residence in Riverwest, moving into an apartment above the biker/coffee hang Fuel (818 E. Center St). “Needless to say, I really got to know the neighborhood well from that vantage point,” Buss muses with a grin. “We spent Y2K on the roof of the Fuel Café with a full liquor cabinet.”
Awesome party times aside, Bob immediately got a job as a long-term substitute teacher for Milwaukee Public Schools. His first assignment was at Malcolm X, which morphed into a nine-month teaching stint. Buss has been working in education ever since, although now he’s an administrator at St. Marcus. In typical fashion, he’s also still playing drums in “an all gospel band. Six singers, a pianist, bass player and me. It’s hyped-up, modern, funky hip-hop sort of gospel.” They’re called Forgiven, and they play at St. Marcus at 2pm every Sunday.
But I digress. As does Bob, which is why it’s a good thing he’s writing that book. “It’s about the incline of Riverwest civilization,” Buss says, “how everyone’s always done their own thing musically and always will. I think that if the authorities hadn’t shut down the underground basement scene, the neighborhood would have stabilized.” In gathering information for the book, Buss posts poll questions to his Facebook page. Once he asked folks to name all the basement show places they could remember in the neighborhood. “Every basement had its own name. Pierce and Booth was called the Barely Legal House … Anyway, within a couple of days there were over 100 different basement names posted to answer that question,” Buss laughs.
The bands came fast and furious. Buss and his cronies were into “the noisy aspects of early no-wave bands raised in households that were oozing rock n roll,” as he puts it. Good Mustard, (with Benj Lawrenz on guitar, Pete Reese on bass and Buss on drums), Easy Listening Revolution, The Plankton Brothers. Buss rattles off ways to describe the music: “math-core, crust, metal, noise, punk … adventurous, noisy, complicated … artfully distasteful at times.” Let’s just say, you know it when you hear it.
One of the bands evolved into an art making band called White Box Painters. They made a mile-long hopscotch grid through the streets of Riverwest. Human chessboards.
Riverwest was declared at this time (by some in the neighborhood) a Temporary Autonomous Zone. They were broadcasting wireless internet for a few blocks. There was a pirate radio station. Attempts were made to start a local currency.
By 2003, Buss and his friend Josh Bouzard were playing in a project called Seeing Through the Sun. Bouzard was living in the “Clarke Compound” house, where there was also a DIY recording studio called Bottle Rocket. “Josh and I said we’d play music together until the day one of us died,” Bob says, shaking his head. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
On December 28, 2003, Josh Bouzard died in a fire at the Clarke Compound.
Buss found out soon after that his girlfriend (now wife, Susan) was pregnant. Now they’ve got four kids and Bob’s still playing music, albeit in a church band.
He’s been painstakingly recovering things from that fire and storing them in his basement. He’s got tons of stuff for his book. He wants to keep the memory of that kind of music alive in Riverwest.
“I couldn’t breathe without playing music.”