Last year, Milwaukee mourned the death of a true original: Dave Monroe. The ever-present Monroe was a familiar face behind the turntables at decades’ worth of DJ nights and dance parties, spinning everything from Brit pop and northern soul to funk and shoegaze. His encyclopedic knowledge of music, film, literature, politics, and comic books was something he never hesitated to share with friends and colleagues. To see him spinning records at Burnhearts or Blackbird, to spy him riding the bus with a precarious stack of library books in his arms, or to hear him quietly snoring during a screening at the Oriental Theatre or UWM Cinema, was to know you were living in Milwaukee. When Monroe died of colon cancer on November 12, 2015, the city became less cool, less interesting, less Milwaukee.
But, nearly a year after his death, Monroe’s influence lives on. On Saturday, October 8, to celebrate what would have been Monroe’s 50th birthday, more than a dozen local DJs and friends will gather at Sugar Maple for night of music and memories. There will be no cover charge, but all donations (and sales from Good City Brewing’s Revolver beer) will go to the Aurora Zilber Family Hospice. In advance of the party, we reached out to a few of Monroe’s many, many friends and compatriots and asked them to share their memories of the Milwaukee icon.
It’s difficult to say anything “brief” about Dave. He was such a verbose (in a great way) dude. Aside from his response when asked about his favorite restaurant or cuisine (“lunch special”), any question or even vague interest in a subject expressed to Dave would usually end in 15-20 minutes minimum of deeper than expected/desired response. Followed up by links in your inbox related to your interest ad infinitum.
The first time I ever hung out with Dave was at Brenda’s (RIP) on Center Street. He had been lured out of his mid/late-’90s social hibernation (he had been working 60-70 hour weeks as a late night security guard, hilarious to me as he was massively narcoleptic) by the Thursday night record spin my brother Tom and I were doing at Mad Planet focusing on 1960s music from UK/France/Brazil/etc. I came home with 20 cocktail napkins full of furious Monroe scribble: “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her,” “Black Tight Killers,” “Jean Claude Varnier,” “Anna OST – Gainsbourg,” “Murakami and also Murakami.”
At that time Dave was basically a pre-social-media-era living blog of global modernist art, literature, and film. Of course, as many of you know, this continued well into the post-social-media era. He considered it a responsibility to selflessly share and connect people from all walks of life with art and information they may not otherwise be privy to. And he did it without a drop of ego, a very rare and sorely missed characteristic.
Dave Monroe was the ultimate Libra. Two scales held in place by France Gall—seesawing, teetering, but always balanced. We bonded over movies and obscure female pop singers, which eventually led to him inviting me to DJ with him. On one particularly cold night he introduced me to a song I’ll never forget, a lesser-known Bananarama single. That’s the Dave that I remember best, a guy with perhaps the one of the most extensive vinyl collections of anyone I knew playing a Bananarama song that still makes me cry.
Anyone that knew Dave knew how much the man loved to talk. He could go on forever about the things he loved, mostly music and film. He was a walking encyclopedia—a gushing fountain of interesting historical facts about rare European films and music. From arthouse to ’60s French cinema. From rare northern soul sides, ’60s mod/pop, and post punk, to ’80s and ’90s Brit pop and shoegaze. He knew who played on what b-side, which film featured an excerpt from a certain song, etc, etc.
Dave also loved food but he despised “foodie snobs.” He loved the weird buffets at restaurants that were way off the beaten path, most of which I had never heard of before. Whether it was in the lower level of a strip mall or in a bank cafeteria, he knew which days to go for the best deals. And he was always generous when it came to sharing the things he was passionate about. He wanted you to know about it. I can just hear his voice in response to me telling him about a restaurant: “Oh, God, don’t go there! If you want Lamb Shahi Korma, YOU HAVE to check out Indian Buffet out in Franklin, but you have go on Thursdays when they have the Tandoori, it’s fantastic and dirt cheap.”
But, by far one of my favorite thing to do with Dave was when he would invite me to spin records with him. That’s when he was in his element—behind the tables. It was fascinating to watch him work. With a pair of broken headphones hanging around his neck, shuffling through his collection of rare singles barely held together in a loosely taped together box, holding multiple conversations about topics ranging from comic books, which Saint Etienne LP is the best, and the Walker recall, all while cueing up a Boogaloo 7-inch.
For me, there was no question that Flava Dave was the best DJ in the city. Spinning with him was a thrill and an honor. I would always come home at night with a smile on my face and a crumpled list in my pocket of records, movies, shops, and restaurants that I had to check out. I sure miss him.
The thing that I always took away from Dave and I DJing together was his willingness to share music with me. He was never one of those guys who wouldn’t tell you where he got a record. If I was into something he played, he wanted me to be able to find a copy of my own I could play out. He sold me 45s out of his collection multiple times that he had extra copies of and I always appreciated it. He would also remember stuff you were looking for and keep his eye out. Once on a very crowded bus he yelled across the aisle to me about how he had found a 45 I was looking for—a little embarrassing, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Dave. I feel lucky to now own a good handful of 45s that were Dave’s, thanks to Acme Records (where a lot of his collection went when he passed). He had an incredible ear for a killer tune for sure.
Dave was a fixture of Burnhearts from the beginning. He was up to four nights a week DJing at one point. Even once he went into hospice, he would send me apology notes for not being able to make his weekly spin. He was such a lovable guy and we miss him.
When Dave was job hunting, I asked him what kind of work he felt most suited to. His reply was that he could learn anything, but said that someone told him he should have a job where he could smoke cigars all day and yell at people. Executive producer, city editor, sweatshop manager. This paints a wonderful picture if you know him, like a character from an old black and white movie. He ended the conversation with this sentiment: “I honestly don’t think I’m entirely wrong to say that it’s the world’s failure if it doesn’t find some use for me.” And of course, he was right.
To me he’s a Milwaukee legend, with his stack of books under his arm, getting a coffee and bitching about the bus being late, all while interjecting incredible facts about things like he was pulling from a library of internal index cards. I worked at the Student Union and ran the Union Art Gallery, and I could always count on him to swing by on his way to a film (he’d inevitably fall asleep, but you always knew he was there due to his snoring) to share a book he thought I might enjoy. He always came to every opening we had. I’d reserve him a special seat, where he would pull it up and ask pointed questions to artists. Even after I moved away, and Dave got more and more ill, he would send me emails of lists. Sometimes up to seven a day, of articles, books, and albums, with a short quip of his own. To this day in my email I still have my “Dave Folder” in my inbox where I could keep and save his knowledge, especially important since he’s left us. He was a great fella.
Long before Dave even found out that he had “the cancer,” as he’d jokingly call it, he insisted I read the eulogy at his funeral. He’d mentioned it numerous times to me and was very insistent that it be me who read the passage he chose from Spock’s funeral in Wrath Of Khan. I of course told him that I would, but never really thought about it after that, as I figured it’d be when we were both in our 80s or something.
A couple years after he’d first mentioned this idea to me, I got to have a nice couple of hours alone with Dave when he was in hospice. Just he and I talking TV trivia, Trek. He of course brought up the eulogy and he had to make sure that I had every word copied correctly, etc., etc. I told him not to worry, I had it all down and that it was an honor to do it. He grabbed my hand and told me that there was no one else that could read it for him, which really kicked my ass. It was indeed an honor and one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I’ll never know anyone else like Dave and I miss him dearly.
Dave Monroe’s life changed profoundly when the doctors and nurses at St. Luke’s told him he was dying. When they told him his cancer was no longer treatable, he was devastated. He expressed anguish and regret. He grieved for his own life. And then, miraculously, his usual bitterness and defeatism began to dissipate.
When Dave entered Aurora Zilber Family Hospice, he told us that he wanted to see everyone he knew, and that he wanted to make amends with everyone he had alienated. And everyone came. Visitors poured in around the clock. Enemies and estranged ex-girlfriends came bearing gifts, forgiveness, and love.
Dave announced that his job now was to introduce everyone he knew to each other. And so he did. I met Dave’s bandmates, fellow DJs, friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. Now under the influence of heavy-duty painkillers, Dave still spoke at maximum velocity, even while falling asleep, his words fading to a whisper and then silence.
Sometimes Dave’s visitors would come and sit, just listening to him breathe. If he awakened while we were there, he’d ask us, “How long have you been here? Why didn’t you wake me up?”
We’d tell him we just wanted to be with him.
“That’s really nice of you. But you still should have woken me up.”
He was so thin and so fragile—how could you deny him his rest? And his breath was reassuring, calming even.
At the hospice, I helped Dave open his mail, which usually amounted to several U.S. Postal Service plastic bins full of packages—books, records, toys, gifts for his beloved nephews—and watched him type correspondence to friends and colleagues far away. Once, while typing, he told a roomful of friends something that seemed to sum up our culture, for better, worse, or neutral: “Well, while I’m here, I might as well get something accomplished.”
What did Dave accomplish? For one thing, he brought people together, and brightened up their lives with the wildest variety of music, mostly made for dancing. In compiling a list of DJs who’d spun records with Dave over the years, I was struck by how many people from different parts of town—and the United States—he’d brought together. Kid Millions. Andy Noble. Selector Max. Sarah Godwin. Jason Klimas. Spero Lomenzo. Nesh Malinovic. Brent Goodsell. Miss Lafontaine. Damian Strigens. Lemonie Fresh. Tim Cook. DJ A-Ro. DJ K-Ro. C-Rob. Joe and Greg Schoenecker. Signaldrift. Big Squeeze. The Funky Mummy. Lil’ Pow Wow. Chris Schulist. Top Shelf. Straka Khan. Josh Loeb. And that doesn’t include his many colleagues from Chicago or New York.
I think Dave truly felt loved and cared for at the hospice. There’s a beautiful photograph of him with some of his caregivers, all of them young and female, one of them making the bunny ears with two fingers behind Dave’s head. They clearly dug Dave. They treated him with dignity and spared him so much pain. And they had a library. For these reasons I decided that this is where the money collected at this first birthday party without him should go.
The Dave Monroe Birthday Spin will be held Saturday, October 8, 7:30 p.m. – 1:30 a.m. at Sugar Maple. There will be no cover charge at the door, though donations will accepted for the Aurora Zilber Family Hospice.