The history of the Unicorn, Sydney Hih’s famous basement club, is storied and well-documented for people that had an ear to the underground in Milwaukee. Between the artists, musicians, and bevy of other dreamers and drifters, many have experienced a concert in the hallowed, black walls of the Unicorn. Many have tales to tell. This is just one of mine.
My Sidney Hih Unicorn story begins in typical best of times, worst of times fashion. After a dark, strained and confusing phase of my life, I was standing at the proverbial crossroads and it was time for a change of scenery. I was recently accepted at a Milwaukee art school, looking toward a new future. Music had always been nourishment for my soul, so I really just wanted to get back into some good live bands at a local venue. As a frequenter of the now defunct Atomic Records, during one of my visits I was turned on to local band, The Lovelies. The kid who sold me on them mentioned they would be playing Unicorn later in the evening with national touring act Catherine (who billed D’Arcy of Smashing Pumpkins as their bassist, tho she was merely married to the drummer). I threw The Lovelies CD into my car stereo and after the first track I knew I had to go see them that night. Likewise, I witnessed the birth of the early ’90s monsters Smashing Pumpkins at the Unicorn years prior, why not check out Catherine too?
That evening I parked right on Juneau Street, walked around Sydney Hih to the backside door of the club. I couldn’t have handed the guy working the door more than ten bucks. With a powerful sense of freedom and excitement for what the night held, I ventured down the looming, dark stairwell. I was surprised and relieved that nothing had changed since my last visit. The walls were still jet black, adult movies played on the sporadically placed TVs and the stage was crammed into the back hall with only two door passes in and out. The stage whisked me back to my early days in the upstairs hallowed hallways of Sydney Hih, where I used to practice with a metal band in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Like the remnants of the long hair I had abandoned mere weeks before tonight’s concert, I mused to myself as I recalled the remnants of memories from that time period of my life.
I quickly surveyed the various dimly lit rooms in the Unicorn and realized that I was way early for the 10pm show – more time to enjoy some libations! When I bellied up to the bar, I noticed the Old Style tap and ordered an entire pitcher. The guys behind me ordered the same so I guess I wasn’t alone in my poor man’s poor beer selection. I noticed The Lovelies band members milling around – sorting cords, beginning to set up. I briefly struck up a conversation with the drummer Damian Strigens (currently a member of Field Report). I had recognized him from the hallways of my art school when I had been there visiting friends earlier in that year.
Show time finally arrived, libations were flowing, people filled the back room, sound checks were done and The Lovelies hit the stage. Their indie pop style was very well received by the good-sized crowd. I sensed bigger things to come for them after this performance. Before Catherine hit the stage, I talked with a friend about The Lovelies show. Out of nowhere, I felt something cold and wet splash all over my back. Something that smelled distinctly of a Old Style. I turned around to lash out only to make direct eye-contact with an attractive and very sympathetic girl. She quickly explained that it was a total accident. While I was walking to the bathroom to change into a concert t-shirt I conveniently purchased earlier, Miss Clumsy stopped me, apologized profusely and proceeded to buy me a beer. Sure she stuck to the Old Style, but I couldn’t help smiling at the fact that a girl bought ME a beer. We ended up talking about music and I missed a healthy portion of the national touring band Catherine. Ce la vie.
. . .
Fifteen years later, I returned to the dark and damp Unicorn – now just an empty, abandoned dungeon that kept decades of old memories hostage, never to resurface as Sydney Hih demolition was scheduled for mere weeks away. I knew my secret entrance would never be detected, thanks to the homeless dude who inadvertently showed me how to get inside. Having periodically traversed Sydney Hih’s interior landscape in the years 2008-12, while the building sat abandoned, I knew my way around well.
With just a camera, tripod, flashlights, and flashes covered in colored stage gels, I quickly made my way to the basement where the old club rests. The nostalgic smell of stale beer and cigarettes had been replaced by the stench of mold. The raucous crowd I had once heard inside these walls now echoed chaotically outside as young passers by stumbled to the next bar on Old World Third St. They had no idea I was inside. They had no idea this place once held vibrant energy and youth.
My girlfriend (now wife) and I looked through the bar for any sort of relics that could be unearthed for all to see. The search turned up nothing but an empty can of High Life and thick layers of dust and cobwebs.
We sat on the dusty stage where all the bands once thrashed about. In a few weeks, this entire space would be filled to the brim with concrete. Most people would park their cars above, never knowing the history that lies beneath. After some hesitation and stories of old, I finally set the tripod down. We danced around, lighting up the nooks and dark corners with bright, neon colors – once last concert performance.
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To see more photos and read more about historic Sydney Hih, head over to my post The Life & Death of Sydney Hih