In the early 20th century, Milwaukee was culturally vibrant and politically progressive. Closer in many ways to Central Europe than the American Midwest, it was a city of breweries and machine shops governed for many years by socialists. By the time Jim Spencer arrived in Milwaukee in 1968, that vibrancy had faded, and politics had turned repressive. The city was tightly segregated by race. The police ruled the streets with a heavy hand. The Special Assignment Squad, posing as Bell Telephone employees, tapped the phones of suspected subversives. But the shell of the old city stood, with its skyline of church spires and domes and solid Teutonic architecture, an impressive park system and neighborhoods of modest but attractive bungalows.
Although born in rural Kentucky, Jim Spencer adjusted easily to the idiosyncratic metropolis and navigated with uncommon skill between Milwaukee’s counterculture and old money. He played many roles with grace; he was a musician, songwriter, poet, magus, and congenial salesman of ideas. He was a dealer in rare books, antiquities, and fantasies. He was a D.I.Y. publisher and indie recording artist at a time when circulating self-produced poetry and music beyond one’s hometown was a challenge on par with swimming the English Channel. He was Milwaukee famous—at least to anyone who cared about music and poetry. He was not much known elsewhere.
Spencer’s love of music and his heart condition were the legacies of Kentucky ancestors. He was seldom far removed from his guitar and seemed aware, especially near the end, of racing against the hands of a fast-moving clock. “Death is just a paper tiger if you don’t let it get too near,” he wrote. The tiger claimed him in his sleep—heart failure at 39.
He came to Milwaukee for love. His wife Judy was a native. He stayed for the love of their young daughters Heidi and Llysa, both of whom would become musicians. Judy recalls him as a playful father who dressed up like the Easter Bunny for the girls. “My memories are more like flashes of dreams,” Heidi said.
Spencer found his center of gravity in the counterculture that clustered on the city’s East Side near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—but gravity never held him down for long. He found his place in the city’s bustling folk music scene—but would not stay in place. He was amused by most anyone and everything he encountered and, as was his wont, found his adopted hometown both stimulating and silly. “Today the world, tomorrow Milwaukee,” he always said. And yet, compared to Indianapolis, where his teenage years were spent, Milwaukee simmered with possibility. The palimpsest of its old Central European high culture was still apparent in its symphony orchestra, its opera company and Equity theaters. Even avant-garde performance groups found enough patronage to survive.
There was money in town and some of it trickled down into Spencer’s hands for the rare books and artifacts he somehow acquired. He was unafraid to tweak his patrons—calling out one wealthy young collector of occult manuscripts for smoking “Dunghills”—yet he delivered his ego-puncturing jabs in a voice as smooth as fine whiskey and with a disarmingly mischievous twinkle. “Jim had a devilish glint in his eye and an impish grin as he emitted absurd turns of phrase, puns, poems, and anagrams,” recalled Violent Femmes’ bassist Brian Ritchie. “Frequently his cigarette ash gained improbable length, which caused me anxiety: ‘Jim—your cigarette!’ His response: ‘I like to make an ash of myself.’”
Milwaukee’s 1960s counterculture was anchored in part by the Bugle American, a free weekly with a cheeky sensibility. The Bugle’s essayist Rich Mangelsdorff wrote that Spencer was “downright amazing in his ability to yoke the ethereal with the apparent” in lyrics and poems that nudged easily between the mystical and the scatological. Milwaukee also retained the crumbling remnants of the Beat literary scene. Spencer published his own short-lived underground newspaper called Soft Times and co-edited several local poetry anthologies. He printed chapbooks of his verse whose delightfully wacky titles spoofed pop-culture currents—My Little Read Book, Hide This Book, I’m Okay-You’re Fucked Up.
He was a metaphysical comedian-poet who took his humor seriously. “You lead me beyond the superstition of reality,” he wrote in a love poem, adding:
“chances of a lifetime/come along like streetcars/that we miss/as we chose our critics/like artists/seeking approval/from their own personal devils.”
Spencer’s prominence in the city’s “small press” movement, a facet of the countercultural urge to democratize access to the creative means of production, set the stage for his work as a recording artist. In his mind, it was just a small step from self-publishing broadsides and chapbooks to releasing his own LPs.
Although Milwaukee was still known as America’s brewery, it was also a center for commercial printing. In ’70s America good-paying work was bountiful and bohemians could count on temporary jobs in the “real world” like the print shop gigs Spencer took on. In general though, Spencer had no visible means of support but was always supported. He often didn’t have a car, but always had a ride. Material possessions passed easily through his fingers; money was scarce but popped up—one time a $20 bill appeared at his feet blown on the wind. He paid people in books and objects that delighted them. He paid a nascent Milwaukee trucking company, Hernia Movers, who hauled a load of goods for him, with a slogan. “The Potentate of Totin’ Freight” is still seen around Milwaukee, emblazoned on the sides of Hernia’s trucks.
He juggled musicians and mistresses and saw many angles from multiple perspectives. He was always encountering remarkable people. “Coincidence is God’s fingerprints,” he wrote. He held court during noontime breakfasts and 2 a.m. sessions at the city’s most cosmopolitan cocktail bar. He drew people to him. He seldom slept.
The gift of finding common ground, of measuring people, served him well in business, in person and on stage. “Dad knew all the homeless people in Juneau Park by name,” recalled his daughter Llysa, referring to the downtown park near several of her father’s addresses. Sometimes accompanist and songwriting partner Barry Patton remembers Spencer winning over improbable audiences for their acoustic folk duo, at a biker bar on Milwaukee’s tough blue-collar South Side, and opening for Queen on their first American tour. “He could take all kinds of egos and make them coexist,” Patton said.
Despite the flurry of energy spiraling from him in all directions, music was the through-line of Spencer’s life in Milwaukee. He released three albums under his own name and one as Major Arcana, a band-persona that enabled him to escape his singer-songwriter image.
Spencer produced his own recordings and released them under the imprimatur of cryptically-monikered labels: Landscapes (1973) came out on Thoth Records, named for the Egyptian god of writing and learning; 2nd Look (1974) on Akashic Records, named after the theosophical concept of an astral compendium of all human thoughts and emotions; and The Most Beautiful Song in the Forest (1977) on Castalia Records, named for the initiates in Herman Hesse’s novel Magister Ludi. “He had forbidden books in his basement,” said frequent collaborator Sigmund Snopek, a classically trained progressive rock keyboardist. “He was fascinated by other cultures and religions and incorporated some of that into his music.”
By contrast, Major Arcana was psychedelic folk-rock, a loose-limbed campfire jam recorded over a period of months. The diverse cast of musicians was often summoned with little notice, when money to pay for the sessions materialized. Milwaukee underground comix legend Denis Kitchen (whose Kitchen Sink Press published work by Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtz and others) drew his only album cover for Spencer’s album, a benign Hieronymus Bosch profusion of impossible entities and occurrences.
If at first you don’t succeed, succumb.
With The Most Beautiful Song in the Forest, Spencer wove a lovely and sincere cycle of children’s songs whose roots can be heard in the lullabies and folklore of centuries past. He was inspired to make the album for his young daughters, who recall being present at the recording session, but he also believed an international market existed for his children’s music. Spencer was always looking for a stairway to success beyond, but Milwaukee was a Mobius loop Spencer could not escape. Mangelsdorff called him “A man of great integrity locked into the city of the blind.”
The four-album discography documented no more than half the songs Spencer would write. “It was always fun to visit him. He’d always have new songs, new stories, limericks. He was a real wordsmith,” Snopek said. Patton agrees. “He’d call me at 2-3-4 in the morning with a new song,” he recalled. “I remember he once played me a recording of Hall and Oates’ ‘Sara Smile.’ He said, ‘Don’t listen to the arrangement. Listen to the song!’ He was all about the craft of writing.”
Although he appeared to be seldom alone, many of Spencer’s most moving lyrics were about loneliness or explored the distance between people and their aspirations. He could write in the cadences of the 17th and 20th centuries with no affectation in either case.
Had he lived in a city with a more developed recording industry, he might have had a prolific career in production. In 1976 he produced Inside the Shadow by the Indianapolis band Anonymous led by an old friend, Ron Matelic. Released on Spencer’s A Major Label and produced in the laboratories of the International League of Idlers & Eccentrics, Inside the Shadow hearkened back to ’60s electric folk-rock and is now regarded as one of the crown jewels of 1970s American psychedelia. Spencer’s idea of production had little to do with polish or technical prowess, but sought to catch a moment in aspic, energy in a bottle. “Anonymous was never really a playing band. We started jamming on Sunday afternoons and eventually I wrote most of what would become the Anonymous album. I owe that to Jim Spencer—a true artist,” said Matelic in an interview with Patrick Lundborg in 2005.
As the ’70s progressed, Spencer collaborated with a Milwaukee funk band, Son Rize, and in 1979 released a 45, “The Blues are Out to Get Me.” 7" and 12" versions exist for another single that same year, “Wrap Myself Up.” “I remember conversations we had about disco,” Patton said. “He saw that it might be a way in [to the music industry]. His thought process was: ‘You have to work within this vehicle that reaches people.’” Unlike most of his musical peers, “He didn’t put a value judgment on it.” Or as Spencer once said, “The best way to become a leader is to find out which way the herd is heading and then run up to the front.”
Spencer was working with a Milwaukee African-American label, New World Records, on a host of R&B and gospel recordings in the months before his death. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t try in music. He even performed once at Milwaukee’s punk rock club, The Starship. “He was a punk personality with a folksinger persona,” Ritchie said. “The only time I actually did a gig with him, he summoned me to the Murray Tap about an hour before the gig. We performed with an illustrious ad-hoc band also featuring [Milwaukee bluesmen] Jim Liban and McKinley Perkins. No rehearsal. It was gloriously shambolic.”
In the midst of all this, Spencer found time to be a shopkeeper, even if the hours at his book-antique stores were unreliable.
Some of his closest associates caught a sense of frustration near the end of his life. Cracks were seen in his usual good humor with every aspect of a life, given his literary interests, possibly described as a Borgesian labyrinth. In light of a family history of heart troubles, he was not taking necessary precautions. He smoked cigarettes and pot but had no interest in narcotics. He drank a little and slept less, leading some to suspect his life was amphetamine driven. Burning the candle at both ends? “He just took a blowtorch to that candle,” Patton said. “He operated at a different level than the rest of us.”