David Byrne's Milwaukee Diary
Dec. 28, 2008
As far as musician bloggers go, David Byrne is one of the best, writing with both grace and insight about art, architecture and culture. It's kind of embarrassing, then, that I just now discovered the blog entry Byrne wrote about his visit to Milwaukee this fall for his stunning show at the Pabst Theater (hat tip to Ryan Matteson for linking me to it). It's a must-read look at the city that, while written from an outsider's perspective, is more observant, affectionate and historically rich than most of what's written about Milwaukee. Byrne went beyond the city's usual downtown destinations to visit the Tripoli Shrine Center and, in my favorite passage, Satin Doll's Lounge:
We head over to the ghetto, to Satin Doll’s Lounge, run by Doll — Minette D. Wilson — a former dancer with Duke Ellington and others. She wasn’t going to let us in at first, as someone across the street had called her and said, “There’s a white man taking a picture outside.” That was me.
She did let us in, however, and we had a round of drinks while Paul caught up with her. Someone had poisoned her dog, which was not good news. The room was filled with Christmas decorations, faded photos of Doll with Duke and some more recent soul singers, stuffed animals and Milwaukee police patches. One door was labeled “sleeping room” which we guessed must be a place where customers who were too drunk to get home could sleep it off. Paul claimed that I was a gun freak, so Doll pulled a .38 revolver from under the bar and we passed it around. She removed the bullets before handing it to me.
Paul explained that Milwaukee experienced one of the last waves of Black migration from the South. And therefore, those who came only experienced about 20 or so years of the city’s industrial heyday. That’s not long enough for a second generation to get a good foothold. The 1st generation of newcomers are often just surviving and it’s their kids who more easily navigate their way into the workforce and build new neighborhoods. But just before this might have happened, Milwaukee, like a lot of other industrial cities in the US, went into a decline. The folks in this part of town were discriminated against and had little recourse or resources to enable them to rise. It became a welfare zone, which it still is to a large extent.