by Ellen C. Warren, photograph by Peter DiAntoni

Jim Linneman & Marty Hacker

“The answer my friend…” is Music. Music with a capital M. The questions are many: What motivated Jim to open Linneman’s Riverwest Inn? What brought Jim and Marty together? What keeps them going? What inspired their major building project? What is the passion that fires their endless hard work? The answer is: Music. A consummate love of it.

Even activism, for Jim Linneman and Marty Hacker, takes the form of music. This month they will present the sixth annual Peace Through Music Benefit to be held at Linneman’s. The event had its beginning in May of 2001. Marty was turning fifty that year and because it was a special birthday she wanted to commemorate it in a significant way. She’d always been active in the cause against gun violence, and it had been a rough year with the street-shooting of a young Riverwest man they’d known. She decided to hold a music benefit to support the effort to enact “responsible and sensible laws” regarding use of handguns. As in that first year, each following year the proceeds have been equally distributed to a local and a national organization, at present the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (an offshoot of Peace Action Coalition) and the Brady Campaign.

The evening’s performance is made up exclusively of songs written by John Lennon. Lennon’s music was chosen because his was a death by handgun. This year’s Peace Through Music Benefit will be on Sunday, May 28 and features about 20 acts, including Sammy Llanas of the Bodeans, The Lackloves (known for their Beatles “sound”), The Bugs, and members of Southbound. Look for the VW Bug with the “non-violence” license plates to know you’re in the right place.

Marty’s title at Linneman’s is manager but, she says, “I do just about everything except book the music.” That’s Jim’s job, as well as doing the sound and lights. Considering that the stage hosts musical acts five nights a week his time is pretty well filled. With their residence above the bar you’re more likely to find them in the building than anywhere else. Marty, a self-described “sort of shy” person, enjoys her minimal downtime hand-making quilts in her sewing room. Jim illustrates how little he goes out with the comment, “I’ve only put 11,000 miles on my car in four years, and that includes a yearly trip up north.”

When the music and the people come to you, there don’t seem to be a whole lot of reasons to leave. Especially when your surroundings are so beautiful, comfortable and spacious. When Jim bought the building on the corner of Weil and Locust, it was nothing like it is today. Back when he was studying broadcasting at UWM and working as a DJ at WTMJ radio station (it was still music and nonpolitical talk then), he lived in Riverwest across the street from the present day Linneman’s. One day he found out that the bar that had been there was closing. With a little investigation he learned that the owners wanted to sell the building. “Without getting too complicated,” he says, “I bought it and spent nine months remodeling and rehabbing the building, which was in terrible shape.” With the intent of keeping as close as he could to the original 1902 look of the place, he salvaged many of the materials and constructed the interior with a loving touch. The tin ceiling in the bar is original, but almost everything else had to be made.

Linneman’s Riverwest Inn will be 13 years old this summer. Nearly from its inception it has hosted a Wednesday night Acoustic Open Stage and, according to Jim, “Quite a few of Milwaukee’s most popular bands grew up on Linneman’s stage.” He proudly boasts “It’s Milwaukee’s longest running continuous open stage.” (Marty interjects that the word “continuous” is necessary in the description because the Coffeehouse, which she booked for eight years, has had an open stage for 30 years, but closes during the summer.)

About nine years ago the Open Stage gave rise to another annual benefit, this one focused on the work of Bob Dylan, “the world’s greatest songwriter” in Jim’s opinion. It is held on the Wednesday preceding Thanksgiving and, appropriate to the timing, the proceeds go to the Hunger Task Force. Last year they donated $2,500 and 600 pounds of food which makes them one of Hunger Task Force’s big donors. They’ve received a few anxious calls this year, due to all the catastrophes that are pulling on people’s pockets, to be sure that the benefit would still take place. It will, and as the need is even greater, hopefully it will be even more successful.

Marty played in a few bands in her younger days. Now, your only chance to see her making music is once a year at the Dylan show. She and Jim take the stage together. He plays guitar and sings. She pulls out her 45-year-old drum set (bought new for her by her grandparents) and fills out the sound.

It was partially in response to a packed house at the 2003 Dylan show that Jim and Marty really started brainstorming ideas of how to have more room for patrons. Their business was increasing, which meant they needed to either get a new building or expand. They went with the expansion, and, when all was said and done they’d built a four-story addition onto the back of the building. Jim started things off by mastering a computer architecture program that, according to the Riverwest-based architect who came in on the project, saved him $2,000. The walls were built to an extraordinary thickness in order to eliminate sound outside the building and provide phenomenal acoustics inside. On this $180,000 project, “We used as many Riverwest people as possible,” says Jim, “to keep the money in the neighborhood.”

“Our whole focus at Linneman’s is the music,” says Marty. They both feel that what was achieved with the addition of more professional light, sound and space is “good for the musicians” and “good for the audience.”

Musically, that is.

Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2006