As promised, here is guest post from Matthew Batt. Being that this is the season for Summerfest (starting June 27), I asked Batt to give me a Summerfest memory, knowing that he had spent time growing up in the Milwaukee area. Note that Batt holds any copyright to this writing, and we are just using it by permission.
Speaking of copyright, cue "Summertime" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. I don't have to write down the lyrics because you know them by heart, don't you?
"We were living in New Berlin, Wisconsin—Waukesha County’s answer to a question Milwaukee hadn’t posed. My mom had, as far as I could tell, the perfect job. She was the owner/operator of Inkadinkadoo (a personalized rubber stamp company—as though you didn’t know that) and she sold her fine, floppy wares from a pushcart in the Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee. This gave me occasion on weekends to go with her and roam the then seedy and just barely not-defunct mall. Usually this amounted to hanging out with the roving gangs of breakdancers in the Speisegarten, competitively eating corn dogs and watching the mechanical vest-wearing bear unicycle back and forth three stories above unsuspecting mall-goers. I was sure I was going see something awesome and tragic there, but I never did.
"That summer, however, like many intrepid Milwaukee business owners, my mother took her pushcart to the shore of Lake Michigan—to Summerfest—where pretty much anybody who would have been at Grand Avenue was anyway. And because I couldn’t entirely be trusted to be alone all day back in New Berlin, she brought me to the festival where I would be, at least theoretically, safe and happy.
"I was not. For starters, neither corn dogs nor break dancers were in as ample supply as they were at the mall. Second, for a child on his own, the fairgrounds were a desolation of drunkards, tchotchke hawkers, and fried eggplant eaters. Not to mention the fact that everybody was a solid foot or more taller than I was. I wandered around, longing to be one of the groping couples above on the Skyglider instead of stuck down below, gawking at other people’s sunburnt backfat, hopeless and sorrowful as only the son of a rubber stamp pushcart owner can be. But then I found myself moving not against but rather with the crowd until they settled collectively on what was, apparently, for many of them, the ultimate goal and raison d’être for both their lives and Summerfest itself.
"It was the Pabst Stage (then an unironic, decidedly un-hipster brand) and in the twilight I could make out roadies preparing the set for, as best I could tell, some kind of medical demonstration. Except for the fact of several guitars, microphones and amps, however, it looked uncannily like a hospital. And then, without fanfare, introduction, or fair warning, a fleet of scrub-wearing, face-masked musi-physicians stormed the stage, picked up their instruments and readied themselves. The keyboard player spread his legs wide as though preparing for some kind of assault or anticipated tackle and, with a nod toward the wings, began a simple, plodding series of instantly recognizable chromatic notes. Dum dum da dum, dum dum dum dum dum da dum—and so it repeated. I knew what it was—something popular from Madonna that my own pseudo edgy skate grommet identity was supposed to shield me, but it was 1985. One could not know Madonna no matter how desperate and ardent his desire.
"Out then came another doctor, this one with large, aviator glasses, scrubs, and an abomination of a hair cut: a Jheri Curl-mullet. He took his position behind a patient on a gurney, and with a flourish of his soggy hair he started singing in a piercing and off-key falsetto —it was something about being last in his class in med school, I think, and I did not like was I was seeing or hearing.
"I was twelve, mind you. I knew what sarcasm was, but parody was still as remote as a French kiss from an eighth-grader—in another country altogether as far as my sixth- going on seventh-grade self was concerned. I knew who Weird Al was, but I also knew what Faces of Death was, and at that moment in time they seemed to be one and the same. The crowd got suddenly drunker than perhaps they were, but it might have just been a kind of self-defense. Regardless, I wanted out of there and to find my mom and to quiet myself by playing with the sheets of rubber letters, arranging my name on stamps with cheery suns or simple rainbows, but there was no escaping this beery, gelatinous mass of people until the song was done.
"A few sexy nurses wearing those doctor’s face masks pranced about like woodland erotic dancer osteopaths, while one waited more attentively behind the surgeon. “Better give me all your gauze, nurse,” the Weird one sang, and, with that, hoisted from under the gurney a chainsaw, which he proceeded to crank to life with Dr. Frankenstein’s zealotry and then, in the midst of the sputtering two-cycle engine smoke, he plunged the saw straight into the apparently insufficiently-etherized patient who lurched up in shock.
"Sometime later I awoke on a picnic table, clinging to an empty container of Venice Club fried clams. The show was over, and it was very dark, and, as I rolled over onto my back, I watched the Skyglider hoist couple after necking-couple above me, and I wished, for once, not to be one of them.
Thanks, Matt! Hope to see you all on Wednesday, June 20, 7 pm, with more stories from Matt, as he fixes up his crack house in Salt Lake City in his new memoir, Sugarhouse.
Oh and I should also note that if you read this blog post because you were searching for Summerfest info, maybe you want to take a break and visit a nice bookstore. We're just a couple miles north of there, up the bluff from Lincoln Memorial and just blocks from Lake Drive. Use the Lafayette Hill or North Avenue exit.
RIP Norman Bridwell
12 minutes ago