Billy Bob Thornton and his band, The Boxmasters, will hit Shank Hall on Monday, April 24.
Billy Bob Thornton and his band, The Boxmasters, will hit Shank Hall on Monday, April 24. (Photo: WikiCommons/kubacheck)

Talking the old days with Billy Bob Thornton

Anyone that can remember the 1960s remembers that the phone was the main means of communication. No texts, no emails, no Facebook or Instagram. In fact, there weren't even faxes or voicemail. Letters took days to arrive.

I've actually gotten away from using the phone as much as I used to. So when I'm on the phone with the likes of a Billy Bob Thornton, as I was Wednesday before his Monday night show at Shank Hall, I not only think it's cool, but I find myself commiserating about the old days. I asked him about Feb. 9, 1964. He knew immediately the nature of my inference.

"Ed Sullivan show. Beatles," responded Thornton. "I remember it very clearly. Watched it on a black-and-white Zenith laying on the hardwood floor on my stomach. Me and my brother. It was a transforming moment."

Many of Thornton's moments these days are combining '60s British Invasion sounds with his natural Southern roots in his band, The Boxmasters. They were formed in 2007, so their now 10-year run equals that of the Beatles – although my analogy was met with a humble laugh from Billy Bob. But he's serious about the band's sound.

"The foundation can't be fun and THEN you're sincere," Thornton explained. "You have to start with that. First and foremost, you have to be sincere. You have to have something to say. Then once you have that foundation obviously you wouldn't want to do it if it wasn't fun."

The Boxmasters' album "Tea Surfing" has both a fun and dark side with obvious '60s foundations.

I asked Thornton about his Milwaukee memories. I barely got the question out before he lit up. "We love Milwaukee. It's probably the biggest audience we ever played for."

During the Harley 105th anniversary, his band played a private event at Miller Park's bike-filled parking lot. Aerosmith canceled their performance at the event, but the lineup was still solid and the crowd massive.

"That night we played with Sugarland and Kid Rock," Thornton recalled about that Aug. 28, 2008 gig. "I gotta tell yo…

Alice Cooper (seen here performing in Milwaukee in 2013) returns to town tonight for "Spend the Night with Alice Cooper."
Alice Cooper (seen here performing in Milwaukee in 2013) returns to town tonight for "Spend the Night with Alice Cooper." (Photo: David Bernacchi)

Alice Cooper recalls some of his biggest hits and working with Gene Wilder

As a perfect kickoff to the Halloween month, legendary rocker Alice Cooper is bringing his grandly outrageous brand of performance to the Milwaukee (or "Mill-e-wah-que") Theatre stage on Thursday night.

Before then, Steve Palec got to chat with Cooper today on his WKLH radio show. Here is a transcript of their conversation, chatting about Cooper's biggest hits, hitting the links, the friendly and unfriendly competition among rock stars in the early days, working with Gene Wilder and – 'tis the season – politics. 

Steve Palec: I know that you come to Milwaukee often, but the pressing question is: When you’re here, does that mean you head north to Whistling Straits or Blackwolf Run, or are you going west to Erin Hills?

Alice Cooper: I don’t know if we’re gonna have time to do that; I think it’s only one show there in Milwaukee. It might be Bluemound.

Nothing wrong with that!

That’s a good country club, yeah.

One thing I have always wanted to ask you: "Billion Dollar Babies" was an album that I wore out – including the cover; I wore out that wallet. I listened to it over and over. It was my very first concert. It was seminal. There was not a wasted second on that album. I could go on and on and on, but I’d like to know how it fits into your mythology. How do you feel about that album today, decades later?

That was our first No. 1 album. "School’s Out" was No. 1 in England, and "School’s Out" was No. 2 in the United States, but "Billion Dollar Babies" was No. 1.

So would you say it was life-altering?

Yeah, it was, because we never ever thought we would have a No. 1. It was one of those perfect times; it was the right sound, the right band, at the right time. Bob Ezrin, who produced us, would never let us put a filler on an album. In other words, every song that goes on an album, as far as he was concerned, had to be a song that looked like a gem. Every album we’ve ever done with Bob, he’s very, very particular – so are we – about everyth…

A trip Downtown wasn't complete without a stop at The Moon Fun Shop.
A trip Downtown wasn't complete without a stop at The Moon Fun Shop. (Photo: James McCarthy Facebook)

Remembering the Moon Fun Shop and Downtown '68

I just heard U2’s "Pride (In the Name of Love)," the band's 1984 song about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Whenever I hear the lyrics ...

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

… I can’t help but remember that April 4 in 1968.

When I was a kid growing up on the Northwest Side of Milwaukee, whenever I had a little extra spending money beyond my consistent forays to buy candy or baseball cards, I couldn’t wait to get Downtown. And it seemed that aside from unloading my snow shoveling income for a pair of Bucks tickets in the winter, the only time I was flush with cash was right after my birthday on April 3rd. Those trips were also pretty consistent.

With my $10 or $15 secured deep within my off brand jeans, I would – with semi-full knowledge of my parents – take the #64 bus east on Capitol Drive, remaining diligent on the lookout for Fond du Lac Avenue where I knew I would have to transfer. There were probably times I was so nervous about losing my transfer ticket that I ran the risk of rubbing off the ink.

Sometimes with a friend or occasionally with my younger brother (not my neighbor Gino Salomone; his parents wouldn’t let him go with me), we would wait for that next bus in a manner unfathomable to the current existence of a ride within minutes available to today’s adolescents with a phone and Uber app. 

I had very little comprehension of where Downtown started and ended, but I sure knew Wisconsin Avenue was what to look for. I pretty much knew it by seeing statutes of old guys on horses. Same statues I probably drive by a hundred times a week now without even noticing.

First stop was always The Moon Fun Shop, where I risked spending all my money on the necessities that only they had – such as fake cigarettes, tricks, counter-culture items such as political pins and other harmless clutter. I loved that place.

Next, we would usually wander …

Put down that beer and take your hat off, too, punk.
Put down that beer and take your hat off, too, punk.

Stand up, damn it!

Can I run something by you guys?

I am well aware that I have faults, enemies, shortcomings, sins and I get very excited when I eat and forget to chew. As a quasi-media member, the general public has a right to remind me of those issues and I can take it But please do not ever question my patriotism I grew up happily pledging allegiance to the flag.

I’ve traveled the world and have no doubt that the United States of America is the best country on earth. I pay my taxes (although I do usually file an extension). I love the USA. And I always stand and remove my hat for the national anthem. Always. And if I am not holding both a beer and hot dog, I will often put my hand on my heart, as well.

Now, a couple of my other faults include being passive-aggressive, as well as vindictive. So while at a sporting event I will tend to get more frustrated than vocal when I see people oblivious to the disrespect they show by not standing for the anthem. I might glare and imagine tripping them later, but its not my nature to say anything. I can cut a little more slack to those standing but still wearing hats.

Maybe they just don't remember they have it on or I have mistaken their headwear for their actual hair, But again, I am not the guy that will yell out "Hey Rob Ford, what the hell is wrong with you, put the crack pipe down and stand up?" (By the way, Rob Ford gets a pass if it is a Blue Jays game.)

Watching the Brewers on TV the other day I saw a guy standing next to the woman singing "God Bless America" (more on that later) with his hat on while eating french fries. Really?

If it is the national anthem, you SHOULD stand up. You of course live in the USA. In Cuba or some Soviet remnant country like Cubeskestan, you risk being taken away and disappearing for a lot less. Of course, you do have freedom here and you can in fact make the conscious choice to remain seating. And if it is a conscious protest, then I will respect that.

But, you also have the choice to walk around…