The Unicorn of Sydney Hih | Fading Nostalgia

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Aug 19, 2013 Exploration Stories, Light-painting , , 31 Comments

 

 

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.

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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 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.

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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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PURCHASE 3 PACK
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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


Comments

  • Deano
    Aug 20, 2013 at 4:55 pm Reply

    I’ve viewed and admired your work before, this series has left me breathless. Place was jam- packed when the Reverend Horton Heat had pieces falling from the ceiling with ‘Nurture My Pig’ in 1994. Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland kicked me in the head for the crime of laying on her guitar monitor, located in the exact spot you 2 are seated on the stage. You bring a tear to this old punks eye. Thanks.

  • Tammy
    Aug 20, 2013 at 5:07 pm Reply

    Thanks for the memories – I too am now vividly remembering many a nights spent drinking beer with friends, watching some great (and sometimes not so great) bands play the hallowed basement of the Unicorn. To Izzy & Gus – I’ll always be grateful.

  • Fading Nostalgia
    Aug 20, 2013 at 5:07 pm Reply

    no, thank you! The Babes in Toyland story throws me back! I was almost in attendance, but my crappy car broke down! If only I could of seen the Rev in 94 too!

  • Alter
    Aug 20, 2013 at 9:42 pm Reply

    I wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t for the Unicorn. I could write a book about all the experiences I had there. From seeing the Pumpkins before anyone but the guys from Arion Black even knew who they were, to enjoying the pyrotechnics of Johnny & The Losers (a can of WD-40 and a lighter), to seeing Nirvana on a Sunday afternoon, to falling in love with the scruffy Magnolias, to shooting pool with the drunkest human being I ever saw (David Yow of The Jesus Lizard) and still getting our asses handed to us. The club had a great run and a great time with a great music scene with a lot of great people….nostalgia is nice but time and people left it behind…it died an honorable death.

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Aug 20, 2013 at 10:08 pm Reply

      “it died an honorable death” couldn’t have put it better myself. Those are some killer memories…those are what will keep the legacy alive.

  • CarolV
    Aug 20, 2013 at 10:01 pm Reply

    I has many amazing memories there as well. Stole my first kiss with a drummer there at a show who ended up becoming my husband. Named our rock’n roll daughter Sydney, many years later. Lots of love for the place, time, bands (I saw Smashing Pumpkins there too!), and people. Thx for sharing!

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Aug 20, 2013 at 10:11 pm Reply

      Oh wow, that’s incredible, thanks for commenting! Sydney, perfect name. Ahh, those were the days indeed…..

    2. Erik
      Aug 22, 2013 at 10:21 pm Reply

      CarolV, I would love to talk to you! Please get in touch with me, I too am working on a project to document the history of Sydney HiH
      https://www.facebook.com/SydneyHih
      erik@erikljungphoto.com

  • Steve Tomczyk
    Aug 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm Reply

    Great article! Thank you. I had a dream/nightmare about The Unicorn a few weeks back. I still see the place in my mind. Not there often, but remember those nights.

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Aug 21, 2013 at 4:21 pm Reply

      Wow, what a coincidence about the dream! From all the comments people have shared since we’ve posted this blog, the Unicorn is definitely a vivid memory for lots of people!

  • jason
    Aug 21, 2013 at 8:43 pm Reply

    I have never been to the Unicorn, but heard about it — especially that Smashing Pumpkins show. Wish I could have experienced it. Nice job on a well-written and well-photographed story.

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Aug 22, 2013 at 8:22 am Reply

      Thanks Jason, I appreciate the kind comment!

    2. Alter
      Aug 23, 2013 at 1:45 am Reply

      Just so you know…”that show” was easily their worst at The Unicorn. Billy Corgan was all whiny and the band was playing a bit off and he got pissed. The place was dangerously overcrowded and the vibe that was normally “The Unicorn” wasn’t there that night. I often see people reminiscing about “that show” and have a hard time believing they were even there.

  • DianeD
    Aug 22, 2013 at 11:22 pm Reply

    The pictures took me back like it was just yesterday that I was in the DJ booth checking out Gus’s record collection… That bar changed my life forever. I’ll never forget seeing Nirvana and NOFX like a billion times.. In my adult years, coming home from Arizona just to see Tommy Stinson play with his band “Perfect” and walking up the stairs to find daylight more times than I could count. Some of the best days of my life.

  • Michelle Renee krehl
    Sep 4, 2014 at 12:57 am Reply

    The unicorn was my growing up/coming of age backdrop. I fell in and out of love there, in lust there, and in and out of a lot of shit there! I loved the bands (literally, figuratively, and any way you could love them!) and I ended up marrying Kevin krehl, singer and bartender/bar manager at the unicorn. I have much love for Gus and am so happy I got to see him at his new restaurant with friends last year. The bands I saw?’ I couldn’t even begin to say them all. Since I pretty much lived there, there were not many I didn’t. They were good years for me, carefree and just loving life. Wouldn’t change them for a minute. I had to go visit it right before they took it down when I was visiting from Los Angeles, so now I have some pics of me by the infamous yellow back door to the club. I am glad I had one more time to say good bye and get that cool feeling you’d get right before you went down the staircase going in. That anticipatory feeling that something amazing was going to happen. And it always did.

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Sep 4, 2014 at 11:55 am Reply

      Michelle, Thank you! I love your recollections. It was certainly a place one walked into and made memories to last a lifetime. I think your last sentence sums it up best “That anticipatory feeling that something amazing was going to happen. And it always did”….again thank you for sharing!

  • Thomass
    Sep 4, 2014 at 9:58 am Reply

    I wish I could buy those pics! Sitting here looking at the photos brought back tons of great memories! Wish it was still around…

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Sep 4, 2014 at 11:46 am Reply

      Thomas, the feeling is mutual. I know walking around that place even in pitch dark conditions was amazing. If you happen to read this again…I will put those images up in our store for purchase. Or email us for further details…Thank you.

  • Thomass
    Sep 4, 2014 at 11:51 am Reply

    Very Cool! Please put the images up for sale. I will check back…

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Sep 4, 2014 at 12:01 pm Reply

      Will do and thanks again…

    2. Fading Nostalgia
      Sep 4, 2014 at 12:06 pm Reply

      The link to the images here: http://fadingnostalgia.com/night-gallery/ There are (3)

  • Chris Fuller
    Sep 4, 2014 at 12:29 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for doing this. You went to a great effort and it meant a lot when I saw those pictures.

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Sep 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm Reply

      Chris, thank you! It was remarkable to sit on the stage in complete darkness one last time to absorb all the memories. It’s almost surreal to think I was the last to do so…

  • Toddzilla
    Sep 4, 2014 at 1:47 pm Reply

    This place started out AND ended as a gay leather bar. First, THE MINE SHAFT, then THE UNICORN, third THE MILWAUKEE EAGLE. I frequented this club in both punk and queer circles. The happy debauchery and bacchanalia go far beyond what is mentioned here!!! Human spirit at it’s most wild and uninhibited.

  • Fading Nostalgia
    Sep 4, 2014 at 2:06 pm Reply

    Todd, I do wish there was a way to collect all the stories from all the people & all three incarnations that took place behind that door and down those stairs. For now, I can only imagine the “happy debauchery and bacchanalia”…

  • J-Rod
    Sep 5, 2014 at 12:05 pm Reply

    Great pictures and great memories. I was lucky enough to play the Unicorn quite a few times, and it was always an adventure. From the show that was sponsored by Jagermeister and puking on stage, (I believe this was the show that out rythm guitarist smashed his green Jackson, which from then on held a place of honor hanging behind the bar) to the very sparsely attended Sunday night “industry” show where Gus felt bad for me, handed me a handful of quarters and said “play some video games, cheer up!”
    If there’s one thing I wish, it’s that we had taken more pics during our time there. Thank you for the jog down memory lane.

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Sep 5, 2014 at 12:49 pm Reply

      Awesome story…I wonder who has that Jackson now? I too wish there were more photos captured inside during the heydays. The black walls might have made for sparse imagery, but none the less a time capsule worth revisiting over and over again. I assume there is someone out there sitting on a pile of old images.

  • Casey Strange1334
    Feb 20, 2015 at 9:23 am Reply

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3dGY9TFX9c

    Many good bands are said to have played here. Christian Death on the 23rd of December of 1989.

    Nirvana on the 8th of April 1990, and of course Shadow Project on the 22n of February 1992.

  • JeffW
    Mar 3, 2015 at 7:12 pm Reply

    Before my wife (who’s writing this because she’s the better/faster writer) gets too wordy, I have to say THANK YOU Fading Nostalgia for the excellent pictures you sent me! I just got them in the mail today and they and your words are AWESOME! I also couldn’t be happier to have stumbled onto your website. This random, happy surprise was the result of a strong urge to reminisce about my less responsible days. Before this fortunate discovery and earlier in the day, I was lucky enough to have had lunch with Gus at his relocated restaurant Gus’s Mexican Cantina. It was weird because he actually had recognized ME from the old days and even HUGGED ME! H.U.G.G.E.D. ME!! We spent the next 10 minutes strolling down memory lane and there you have it…I had to come home, go a-googlin’ and YAY! you popped up!

    I could list a ton of memories and bands that I have been lucky enough to witness there, but I won’t. I will sum my experiences up to this: throughout my young adult life of finding friends, surviving perceived life crisis, living through my various passions (MUSIC! GIRLS!), dating and eventually falling to the dark-side of marriage, the Unicorn has always been somewhere lurking in the background. Its existence a constant staple in my life that guaranteed my brain some semblance of sanity by way of insanity. Crazy punker? Yeah, that was me. Spoof Fest? Yup, was there with my girlfriend-now-wife.

    Jeff’s commentary (slightly modified by wife): As I stand in my garage/clubhouse, drinking Busch Lite on an 18 degree night, listening to a cassette recording of Mother’s Room (a band that frequently played at the Unicorn), I remember opening up the door to go into the Unicorn and feeling the wall of heat that blasted you part of the way down the stairs as the warning before you entered the actual swamp. On even the coldest of nights, it was swampy enough to make a cold bottle of Pabst taste like heaven! Thank you Izzy!

    And thank you Gus for creating a place that gave us great memories!

    Finally, thank you Fading Nostalgia for creating this website AND for making your amazing photos available to us old melancholy farts that refuse to forget our origins!

    P.S. Gus mentioned that he’s looking to retire soon. Please go and have a burrito at the Cantina and, more importantly, make sure you thank him for the memories. He would LOVE that! Always remember the guy who made it happen!

  • woj
    Sep 20, 2018 at 10:00 pm Reply

    Besides hanging out once in a while, I was lucky enough to play on this stage twice. Once with a band from Kohler, WI known as Red Orchestra, then later as the fill-in bassist for an amazing band called Jeff’s Cat Bob.

    Gus was at the bottom of the stairs as we loaded our gear in saying to each of us “are you a Jeff Cat Bob? Are you a Jeff Cat Bob?” making sure nobody snuck in with us w/o paying the cover.

    Before coming on stage we played a cassette of KC & the Sunshine Band, ran the signal through a guitar amp and the sound guy pumped it through the club as between band music.

    Heading down those steep stairs meant drunken adventure at the bottom – every time.

    1. Fading Nostalgia
      Sep 24, 2018 at 7:05 pm Reply

      What a rad story! I love this quote “Heading down those steep stairs meant drunken adventure at the bottom – every time.” I think that is applicable to life in general, haha!!

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