Richard LaValliere: Milwaukee’s finest and 5 bands you should know about

Richard LaValliere with guitar
Richard LaValliere (photo by James Prinz)

More than four years gone, Richard LaValliere makes me angry.

As a kid, I had a brief but intense relationship with Milwaukee (where Richard electrified the underground music scene with bands like In A Hot Coma, the Haskels and Oil Tasters). Years later, we were accidental neighbors again in New York (where he continued his dizzying creative streak with groups like Scorpio Thunderbolt, Polkafinger, and Jones & Karloff). But when he died at 59 on February 8, 2012, I barely knew his name.

Judy Simonds — who actually lived the Milwaukee scene and is working to document it in depth — is helping me learn more about the amazing kaleidoscope of creative projects Richard LaValliere powered over nearly 50 years of his short life. (Check out the Richard LaValliere memorial page she runs on Facebook.) I haven’t asked her about his personal trajectory, or whether he was also frustrated that his work wasn’t heard by more people.

But for my own selfish reasons, I’m angry that I hadn’t heard Richard LaValliere until very recently — and that the audio and video record he left behind is so tantalizingly sparse. You should hear him, too. Here are five of his bands you should know about:

1. In A Hot Coma. Richard LaValliere started his band-building in junior high school in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with the Dirty Shames. After moving to Kiel, Wisconsin, he put together a band named Arthur, then The Radio Boys. By 1975, he became a member of Milwaukee alternative pioneers In A Hot Coma, still a local legend 40 years later despite its lack of studio recordings. (One crude but engaging recording of “Stay up All Night” appeared on a 2001 compilation of the early Milwaukee underground.)

2. The Haskels. In 1977, the majority of In A Hot Coma morphed into the Haskels: Richard LaValliere on lead vocals and bass; his brother Gerard on backup vocals and lead guitar; Jerome Brish (a k a “Presley Haskel”) on lead vocals and guitar; and a new member, Guy Hoffman, on lead and backup vocals and drums. (Absent from the Haskels lineup: IAHC keyboardist and vocalist Jill Kossoris, who would go on to front Milwaukee power-poppers the Shivvers.) In the TV sequence below, Richard is already playing the “egg bass” that would become his trademark: a Fender Precision Bass decorated with two fried eggs. (Vinyl collectors: Be on the lookout for the Haskels’ 7-inch, “Taking the City by Storm.”)

3. Oil Tasters. In the early ’80s, Milwaukee forged a distinct style of post-punk: minimalist groups of two or three musicians with an aggressive, jazz-influenced attack; plaintive vocals; and arch, absurdist lyrics. The most locally celebrated band in the Milwaukee school was Oil Tasters, a trio formed around 1979 that comprised principle songwriter Richard LaValliere on bass and vocals, Guy Hoffman on drums and vocals, and saxophonist and backup vocalist Caleb Alexander. Songs like “My Girlfriend’s Ghost” and “What’s in Your Mouth?” featured on the band’s sole, self-titled 1982 album. (Buy it here on Amazon!)

4. Triple Forbidden Taboo. Upon moving to Brooklyn in 1987, Richard LaValliere kept feverishly organizing bands like the Life & Death Troubadours (a band name he exported from Milwaukee); the Flip Top Five; Triple Forbidden Taboo; and Zodiac Desperados. His recording history over the next three decades would be sporadic (Triple Forbidden Taboo released one single), but occasional footage hints at Richard’s eclecticism. Here’s Triple Forbidden Taboo in 1991:

5. Jones & Karloff. New York inspired new experiments from Richard, including Polkafinger, a trio that saluted his enduring connection to Milwaukee. He also focused on his guitar playing in the vocals-and-guitar combo Scorpio Thunderbolt and in what would prove to be his last project— the instrumental duo Jones & Karloff, featuring fellow guitarist Adam Cohen. Here’s a sequence from a gig at Otto’s Shrunken Head, a scant three months before Richard LaValliere’s passing:

Here are a couple of additional video sequences dedicated to Richard LaValliere’s memory. The first is from a memorial service held at The Arsenal in New York on Feb. 18, 2012.

The second is more intimate: a memorial birthday performance of Richard’s “6 a.m. in the Morning” by his Jones & Karloff partner, Adam Cohen.

To learn more about the Milwaukee scene Richard LaValliere led, pick up a copy of Brick Through the Window: An Oral History of Punk Rock, New Wave, and Noise in Milwaukee 1964-1984.