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Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

Remembering Richard LaValliere

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The memorial service for Richard LaValliere on Feb. 16 gave relatives and friends an opportunity to share their thoughts about the wildly creative bassist and songwriter, the engine behind the Oil Tasters, who died recently in his Brooklyn apartment. Everyone had favorite memories but the consistent thread, running from the prepared remarks from the rostrum through many discussions later that night, had to do with Richard's fearless willingness to find his own way.

I think of my first meeting with him, in the spring of 1978, venturing for the first time into Haskel Hotel where he lived with other members of the group that already had begun to define Milwaukee's nascent punk rock scene. It was my first face-face with a punk band: I was interviewing them for a newspaper and had no idea what to expect. Guitarist Jerome Brish (he wasn't calling himself Presley Haskel yet) was charming and disarming, but only Richard would think (or not think?) to emerge from his bedroom for the session wearing a bathrobe. He offered me a cup of coffee prepared by running hot tap water into a mug of instant. We were off and running. Witty and engaging, Richard was scornful of Milwaukee musicians who dreamed of moving to California to pursue their ambitions. “Palm trees on the streets—ridiculous!” he declared. And true to his thoughts, when he left town in the '80s, he would head east to New York, where he lived for the final quarter century of his life in the surrealistically kitschy style he cultivated in Milwaukee, constructing an edifice of humor and insight from the debris of a trashy society.

While punk rock provided Richard with a forum for his creativity in the late '70s, he was always aware that punk could easily become just another excuse for conformity. Shortly after leaving the Haskels to form the Oil Tasters, the groundbreaking guitar-less trio with Guy Hoffman on drums and Caleb Alexander on saxophone, Richard complained to me about the out-of-town musicians he often met at shows. “It's all shop talk,” he said, speaking of players with nothing interesting to say. “Alternative” was already becoming just another business model rather than a way of life—just another bandwagon rolling down hill. As many of the speakers at Richard's memorial pointed out, his life and his character (as well as his music) gave everyone who met him the license—the permission—to pursue their own ideas in a world that supresses anyone who ventures beyond the norm.