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Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011

A Farewell to Voot Warnings

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"When I started, I could barely play," Voot Warnings recalls, "so I based my act more on theatrics and shock value. I would come out with a toy rifle, aim it at the audience and tell them, a la Western movies, that when I say, 'Dance,' they best dance, motherfucker."

And so began the rocker's lengthy career in the Milwaukee music scene. For a long while in the '80s, it seemed there weren't many bands in the city that weren't somehow connected to Warnings.

Back in the earliest days of his career, when Warnings toured with his buddies the Violent Femmes, Gordon Gano was too young to play clubs, so Warnings was legally signed on as his guardian.

"Besides the Femmes and Plasticland, I really liked Buck Byron & the Little Seizures, In a Hot Coma/The Haskels, Ama-Dots and Oil Tasters—I'm sure I'm forgetting some," he recalls.  "There was a lot of creativity back in the early '80s."

Songwriting collaborations with Carter Kuehn and Plasticland's Glenn Rehse and John Frankovic spilled into bands Dog Style Dandies, The Gothics, The Fresh Sounds and The Wild Bores. The number of musicians who played with Warnings over the years might top 100.

"I had great free-floating bands," he says. "In the mid- to late '80s there was a group of maybe 25 people who knew five or more of my songs."

Warnings' penchant for switching bands and nice-guy personality meant never being without fellow musicians. "They would just guest on whatever songs they knew, and I was always pretty good at letting them come up with parts," he says.

Conceptually it might be easy to write off a performer in drag and a crooked wig, but anyone with an ear knew from first listen that Warnings was the real deal; he could be Milwaukee's answer to Richard Hell. His songs covered a wide range of topics, including an ode to Samson the gorilla, an examination of mental illness, the cost of riding the city bus, and the love of his mother. He wrote crazed noise-rockers and sensitive acoustic ballads.

In 1996 Warnings found himself at a low ebb. He was fired from his job and separated from both his wife and his band, and he had endured a car wreck. To top it off, his musical gear was stolen.

"There was a benefit at the Uptowner, and Riverwest showed the love," he says. "It was a turning point for me."

After that he recorded his second album, You Owe Me Ten Bucks, released, like his 1995 debut, Platinum, on Charm School Records, the label's name a nod to a neon sign hanging at The Uptowner.

Pressed to recall bands that stand out, Warnings cites The Wild Bores, a group at the height of punk that "wanted to be off the wall—different and boring at the same time. We ended up being slow. Tim Taylor's slide guitar made it sound surreal, and our drummer played one drum; that kept it simple."

The Fresh Sounds played schmaltzy, corny non-British Invasion/non-Motown songs, without irony. Another group, the Gothics, was a trio that included Plasticland's John Frankovic and Victor Demechei.

"It was nice to be part of a band and not the center," he says. At times reminiscent of the Pink Fairies, The Gothics were fully capable of roar, but also excelled in jagged harmonies.

There is a lot of history between this city and this musician. But for now, Warnings is saying goodbye to Milwaukee. His wife is a professor at Towson University in Maryland, and the family has moved to a new home, an overgrown farm outside of Baltimore. All of this means that Warnings' Saturday performance at Center Street Daze will be his going-away party.

When the home front gets settled, Warnings says he plans to start playing again, possibly with the help of ex-Milwaukee folks in the area. He will also most likely continue on bass instead of guitar. "It feels more intuitive," he says.

However it plays out, Warnings says, he definitely is not done.

Voot Warnings performs 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, on the Uptowner RockHaus Stage at the Center Street Daze Festival.


Photo by Michael S. Dober
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