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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cranky Stereo Repair

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Ralph Larsen was in the thick of all things countercultural in Milwaukee in the ’60s and has been active in interesting endeavors in the years since, usually under the radar, as befits a man of his humility and integrity. Larsen’s day job has long been social work, but he operates a part-time business, Cranky Uncle Trotsky’s Vintage Stereo Repair, one of the last places in town for fixing old radios and phonographs. His slogan: “Don’t bring me any of that modern crap!”

You grew up in Bay View during the 1950s. What was it like then?

At that time it was rather provincial. I remember at Bay View High School there was one homeroom where everyone’s name began with K—all Kramers and Kowalskis, Germans and Poles. This doesn’t exist anymore.

You went on to UW-Milwaukee.

I had two majors: economics and philosophy. Philosophy was engaging and fun, but I had to find some way of making a living. So I chose economics. I had maybe one sociology class, but the county had a job open in social work. I took the test and passed it.

How did you get into repairing radios and phonographs?

It started late in grade school. I’d pick up old radios and hi-fis at the Goodwill, take them home and work on them. I had a friend whose father had a repair shop. I always enjoyed fixing things that were broken.

Does that also apply to social work?

I suppose you could say that.

You also had a side career in journalism.

I wrote classical music reviews for the UWM Post—I was the only one who knew for the Bugle American [weekly alternative newspaper]. I did classical music and wrote a couple of rock reviews. I was influenced by The New York Review of Books—articles in which the writers had an agenda and used their reviews as a way of getting that message across.

I once challenged myself to writing a review in which I mentioned the actual event I was reviewing only in the last sentence. One time I wrote a review with a sentence that was over 50 words long.

From 1980-1984 you published a monthly alternative paper called the Milwaukee Review.

After the Bugle American died I thought it was important to form another paper. I was trying to get someone from their staff to run it, but it fell to me.

I remember it was loosely run.

I didn’t keep anyone on a leash and, besides, I had a full-time job as a social worker. I didn’t have time for barking orders. I wanted the paper to do political stuff, but with a light touch. I was always a little ambivalent. I’d tell people on the UWM campus that I was a Marxist. I was a Socialist on Brady Street. In the voting booth I was usually a pragmatic Democrat. The politics of the Milwaukee Reviewencompassed all of that.

Why did it stop?

It wasn’t fun anymore. And the Shepherd was around by the time it ended and pulled ahead of us.

Is Milwaukee better or worse today than when you were coming up?

In some ways Milwaukee has moved in a good direction. We used to have Harold Breier as police chief and Henry Maier as mayor. It’s mellowed out quite a bit, but I miss the old Socialist Milwaukee, which has disappeared, and the ethnic diversity, which has dissolved.

Tell me about starting Cranky Uncle Trotsky.

I started it in 2003 at a time when almost everybody supported George Bush and the war in Iraq. If anyone said anything bad about Bush, I gave them a 10% discount.

Contact Cranky Uncle Trotsky’s Vintage Stereo Repair at 278-7981.