Friday, March 14, 2008
LAST CALL AT CIRCLE A
photo by Paul Kjelland
“Circle A is an entity of it’s own. I love what it’s become, and that’s mostly the people.” –Warwick
I remember rocking out the Doctor Who pinball machine while slamming Blatz in the back room of the Stork Club. The space is now Nessun Dorma, and the back room is usually full of people enjoying wine, imports, and antipasta. Onopa “cleaned up its act” and became Stonefly. Quarters is still Quarters, but it went from a sonic boom blasting rock and roll palace to a hip hop palace.
And consider this: The Unicorn was a rock club that used to be housed in the basement of the Sydney Hih building. Some of the acts included pre superstardom groups like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, etc. and a ton of great punk bands. The club closed mid nineties. Gus Hosseini, who ran the club, now owns Club Belize (among other businesses), a Caribbean themed bar with card-carrying members and a dress code. There are other great Milwaukee clubs that closed before I got a chance to experience them.
Circle A, which opened five and a half years ago, has closed for set business hours, although it will be open sporadically for special events, at least until the bar’s license is up for renewal in Fall. Warwick Sealy, the bar’s owner has a “wait and see what happens then” attitude toward that date. Warwick lives upstairs from the bar, which rests at the end of Chambers Street next to the lot occupied by North Side Lumber and Fuel Company.
Inside flyers from 80’s punk shows featuring bands like The Cramps, Bad Brains, UK Subs, TSOL and others decorate the wall. Three Television sets play nothing but static. The beautiful Jukebox, a treasure, has an unusual mix of Hank Williams, The Ventures, Bow Wow Wow, Led Zepplin, and The Buzzcocks, as well as local bands like The Mistreaters (who released a Live At Circle A 7”), Rusty P’s, and Bear Proof Suit. This isn’t just a place of great music, but great thinking. And if you can’t find the right word for your thought, a double box set of the Oxford English Dictionary rests next to the cash register.
Circle A has become famous locally for a couple things, the first being it’s cramped “Alive At 8” series. This music showcase featured dozens and dozens of local bands. It was early enough that it didn’t piss off the neighbors, didn’t conflict with other shows, and was a great alternative to those who wanted to check out a band they liked but didn’t want to stay up until bar close to see them. Many of these performances were taped and Warwick hopes some of these are released in some form.
The other thing that energized Circle A was a solid line up of DJs spinning pop records, which wasn’t common at the time they opened. The bar had DJs almost every night of the week, many of which have developed their own following.
I went to the Circle A to hang out for the last night they were open on a regular basis, Sunday, February 25. It was a dark and snowy night. Just after 9 p.m., photographer Paul Kjelland and I showed up. The “Alive At 8” set is halfway through. Aaron Schleicher of the local band Juniper Tar is playing an acoustic set, and his brother Ryan will play after him.
9:45 p.m. Warwick pops in and greets the patrons. He has the gift of conversation, which makes him a favorite bartender to many.
10 p.m. In the men’s room the writing on the wall is, “Death to the Weird” and, uh-oh, “It Burns When I Pee”.
10:30 p.m. It’s not a place where everyone knows your name, but you’re sure to run into someone you know. Big Terrible Easy, a Brew City Bruiser, recently voted “Best Party Animal” by her league shows up. By now it has cleared out some because the “Alive At 8” set has ended. A DJ has set up and plays straight up 1950’s rock and roll on the ones and twos. Paul and I grab some theater seats against the wall and take it all in.
11 p.m. I’m looking at a giant poster by the window for a Ramones gig in London. As if on cue, the DJ cranks “I Wanna Be Sedated”.
11:10 p.m. The crowd has had enough drinks to start dancing, cutting a rug to Gene “The Duke” Chandler’s Duke-Duke-Duke of Earl-Earl-Earl, followed by “Book of Love” by The Monotones. I tried to write down the lyrics in real time for some reason, and the page is just a scribble of “boop boopy doops”. I see faded, scratched lettering on the window, “The New Wheel”. I ask the bartender about this artifact and she says the bar was “The New Wheel” and then “A Likely Story” in its past lives.
Midnight. I’m having a blast and my handwriting is barely legible, but I can read a note about people dancing to “Short Shorts.” It’s by The Royal Teens, and yes, we like short shorts. I go to the bar to get another beer and knock it over when I hand Warwick the money. Beer spills across the bar. Warwick’s unfazed. He’s seen worse.
Around 1:30 a.m., as best I can tell, I’m in the bag. I’m three sheets to the wind as they say. I say goodbye to everyone, even strangers.
One week later, and I’m again sitting at the bar of the Circle A. It is empty now, except for Warwick and I, and really quiet. The coolers, the neon signs, the static filled Televisions are all shut down. A pile of shredded cardboard covers part of the floor, chewed up by Warwick’s pitbull Hazelnut. I start the conversation by trying to backtrack to why he opened the bar in the first place. He tells me it was largely inspired by his love of music.
I ask him what the first memorable shows he attended were. He started out going to coliseum shows by monsters of metal like Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, and Kiss. He soon came across punk rock when he moved to New York City in the late 1970’s. There he was blown away by The Ramones at a small bar called Zappa’s, and saw The Cramps and Richard Hell and the Voidoids at Max’s Kansas City.
Warwick moved to Milwaukee in 1996 and quickly became part of the local basement scene. At that point there were maybe four or five houses having basement shows on a regular basis. He even played in a band briefly himself as the keyboardist for the short lived but well loved band The Moles, which also featured a bass player and a percussionist playing oil drums.
“Playing a show at Circle A is like playing a basement show, minus the furnace, leaky pipes, and washer and dryer.”
So why close?
“I’ve been edging this way for awhile, I’ve gotten tired of it and the work involved. I’m not whining, I’ve had a great staff. Its just time for something new.” The non stop party has distracted him from other projects he wants to take on, although he’s quick to add that he’s grateful for all the people who have showed up regularly to support Circle A over the last five years.
“For all the things that could go wrong running a bar, thankfully few of those things happened to us.” I asked him if crime was a factor in his decision. Circle A has been held up twice, the last time a year and half ago.
“No it didn’t. It sucks, but it didn’t sway my decision. It’s a concern, but a separate concern.”
Is Circle A the last of the great rock bars in Milwaukee? Where can the masses turn?
This article originally appeared in UnderCurrents