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Juke Box Hero
Jeff Castelaz sits among the music industry's top echelon as the president of Elektra Records in L.A. But the road to success for the one-time Milwaukee band manager has been riddled with setbacks and personal heartache. A survivor's tale.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Saturday night at Waukesha’s River Fest, July 1995. One of the hottest nights of the year. And Citizen King, Milwaukee’s ska-punk/hip-hop/roof-raising rock band, was causing a bit of a riot.

The band’s twitchy frat-boy funk had stirred the mosh pit to a proper boil, and then singer Matt Sims cranked the crazy by encouraging some good ol’ stage diving and body passing. The cops at the Rotary-sponsored festival were unprepared for such full-body-contact partying (the main-stage acts that weekend had been ’70s holdovers Eddie Money and Cheap Trick), so they abruptly shut down the show and sent in the horses when the angry crowd refused to leave.

At the heart of the scrum was the band’s 23-year-old manager, Jeff Castelaz, a pugnacious presence on the local music scene who found himself fighting for his band’s right to rock, while no doubt reveling in the outlaw cred this naughty behavior had dealt Citizen King as it honed its alternative rock swagger.

“I had 10 cops yelling at me for an hour,” he groused to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, insisting that it was his decision – not the law’s – to pull the plug. “We’re professionals. We drew 8,000 people at the Koss Pavilion at Summerfest. We don’t need the hassle. I said, ‘We’re going home.’”

A year later, Castelaz would be having the same fight over the same behavior at Maritime Days. This time, Sims ended up in jail after he revved up the crowd by diving in and bodysurfing his way back to the stage.

“We were here to entertain,” Castelaz protested again to the Journal Sentinel. “Cab Calloway jumped into the crowd before. Why couldn’t we? Give me a break!”

By this point, local law-breaking was just a minor annoyance for the manager and his band: Castelaz had recently gotten Citizen King signed to MCA Records, an industry powerhouse. He had pulled it off through raw tenacity, and a storehouse of musical knowledge that allowed an uppity 23-year-old to cite ’30s-era jazz cat Cab Calloway as precedent in the area of crowd stoking.

Music was taking Jeff Castelaz to where he needed to be. But first, music was his escape from the place he was forced to be.

He was born in 1972 into cultural upheaval.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the divorce rate in America nearly doubled between 1965 and 1975. The Summer of Love of the ’60s had devolved into I’m Kicking You Out and Taking the Kids in the ’70s, and the Castelaz clan of South Milwaukee was not immune. Castelaz was 3 when his parents broke up, and then his father – who had been stably employed as the general manager of the Hertz rental office at Mitchell Airport – “started slipping down the chain of normalcy into this weird zone,” the son says, recalling family lore he was too young to know at the time. 

The old man began an explosively dysfunctional relationship with a new girlfriend, and together, they bought Our Place, a working-class bar near 15th and Becher on the near South Side. 

As a reflection of a society unprepared to responsibly determine custody in the face of a tidal wave of divorces, Castelaz’s father easily won possession of his three sons through what Jeff presumes was the male-biased legal system of the time. “I was 4 years old,” he remembers, “and I was sat down by my dad’s lawyer and the court commissioner at my dad’s apartment, and I was told what to say.

“I think this was a true story for a lot of people of my generation, when the divorce rate started to spike,” Castelaz says of the embittered zeal with which his father took his sons from their mother. “I think there were a lot of dads fucking over a lot of moms and being complete jerkoffs, just out of spite.”

Donna (not her real name), his father’s girlfriend and business partner, had a brood of her own, and a total of 10 kids were wedged into her three-bedroom ranch house near 27th and Layton. The living conditions were not quite “The Brady Bunch.”

“They had a toxic relationship,” Castelaz says of his father and Donna. “They owned a bar together, so it was a perfect arena for that [kind of relationship]: getting hammered, coming home at all hours, getting in giant verbal fights, shit flying around, lamps getting smashed into TV screens… 

“It was a small house, so all the children heard everything. It was a regular occurrence.”

Castelaz’s father, a heavy drinker, spent all his time at the bar or on the family couch sleeping off the work he brought home. Left primarily in the care of the girlfriend, Castelaz alleges physical and verbal abuse that she unleashed on Jeff and his younger brother, Dean, for years. 

“I was getting my ass beat at home. I wasn’t being fed,” Castelaz says. “I was being humiliated, told I was stupid, that I was a piece of shit.” 

Fred Gillich met Castelaz on their first day of high school at what was then Milwaukee Tech and became one of his closest friends. He spent time in the home. “It was an ugly place,” he recalls. “It was a smoker’s house. It was kind of nasty. There was always booze in the air.”

On several occasions, Donna locked the Castelaz brothers out of the house – sometimes with their belongings left in trash bags at the end of the driveway – and for long periods, Jeff was taken in by the parents of a neighborhood friend who could barely afford to provide for their own children.

For Jeff and Dean Castelaz and a couple of Donna’s sons, childhood also included menial labor that sounds nearly Dickensian: “When I was in third grade, we would go from school to Dad’s bar to do work for him,” says Castelaz, who attended St. Adalbert’s, a few blocks from the bar.

“We’d also be there before school. We’d get up around 5, stock the coolers, empty the bottle chute, clean the bathrooms and the glasses. Get the bar ready to open.

“Then we’d go off to school, smelling like stale beer and cigarettes.” 

Living a long, 4-mile bus trip from his grade school and self-conscious about his home life (“It wasn’t the kind of place that we’d invite friends over after school for cookies and milk,” he says dryly), Castelaz had a largely friendless early childhood. His bedroom in the cramped ranch house was a cold, windowless basement room, where he spent countless hours finding salvation in books and, especially, rock ’n’ roll. 

“Music was my refuge and best friend when I was growing up in a household that was not safe, where there were no boundaries, and I was not nurtured,” he says. “I had to develop an inner life, or I would have cracked. I would have been a runaway, or a suicide, or someone who acted out through violent crime and been incarcerated.”

His first favorite bands were entirely awesome to a boy not even 10 years old: Ozzy Osbourne, Rush, Queen. Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero,” all big guitars and blustery vocals, struck a particular chord with him. The saga of one rock star’s rise to fame was cinematic to a kid so young, and it would provide a road map for a boy who would one day find his escape and his fortune in rock clubs and concert halls:

Heard the roar of the crowd, he could picture the scene
Put his ear to the wall, then like a distant scream
He heard one guitar, just blew him away
He saw stars in his eyes, and the very next day…

Discovering music at the tail end of the vinyl era, Castelaz would spend hour upon hour gazing into the cover art and studying every last word of the liner notes. He would dive deeper than just the band members and began acquainting himself with the credited crew who played a role in making music possible: the producer, the engineer, the manager, the label executive. He began to understand that a rock ’n’ roll career could mean something other than standing on stage. 

By the time he was in fourth grade, Castelaz had read No One Here Gets Out Alive, the lurid but highly detailed account of the rise and fall of Jim Morrison and the Doors. The posse that surrounded the musicians, each with a critical job to do, intrigued him. 

“I began to understand the architecture and the structure of the team that surrounds a band.”

The basement years would grind on for over a decade, until Castelaz finally made his escape. In a family reality that Castelaz struggles to explain to someone learning of his childhood, his mother lived just blocks away, knew of the abuse going on in her ex-husband’s home, but did not fight to take custody of her two youngest sons. (Scott Castelaz, seven years older than Jeff, struck out on his own shortly after his family fell apart. He became a Mensa member and an innovator in the field of energy production before dying of cancer in 2004 at age 39.)

His mother had remarried, Castelaz explains, and her new husband had already raised his own children to adulthood; he wasn’t willing to open his home to another pair of adolescents. It was only when Jeff was well into high school, after years of enduring her sons’ tears or hearing that they spent another night locked out of the house or living on a neighbor’s floor, that their mother and stepfather let the two teenagers move in. 

Jeff Castelaz wants to make clear that any bitterness about the hurt his parents exposed him to as a child has been resolved.

“I love both of my parents. I haven’t always been clear on that; I’ve been very angry with them in the past,” he admits. “But I’ve done a lot of work around the abuse and neglect of my upbringing, and I have forgiven both of my parents for allowing that to happen. I truly have.”

(Cecile Narlock, Castelaz’s mother, died during the writing of this article. Like eldest son Scott, she lost her life to cancer.)

Coming up from the basement and into the light marked an astonishing change for the 16-year-old Castelaz. By the time he was a junior at Milwaukee Tech, the friendless loner had been voted student body president. He attributes his people skills – an intense garrulousness and focus that demands engagement – to watching his father navigate the often seedy and blunt transactions required to keep a corner bar solvent.

“I can talk to anybody about anything because of what I learned from my dad, who was the ultimate salesman, the ultimate conversationalist, the ultimate salt-of-the-earth hustler,” he says with a fond laugh. “I can talk to a homeless person at Starbucks, like I did this morning, I can talk to someone on a private jet, and everyone in between.”

Barely out of high school, Castelaz set a course for his music career. Already driven to work hard – he had a Milwaukee Journal route from an early age, a boom box strapped to his handlebars and blasting Van Halen II as he tossed his papers – he learned of the deejay training program at WMSE. The station was already a bastion of free-form programming and eclectic musical tastes, and it quickly recognized the passion in young Castelaz. In no time, he was awarded an unpaid on-air shift: Sundays from midnight until 2:30 a.m. 

“It was probably the second-crappiest shift you could imagine, the first being the guy who took over after me,” he laughs. “But I loved it! I didn’t care what time I had to go in or how few people were listening. It was like I had the keys to the space shuttle. For two and a half hours, I could paint this picture that I wanted to put out into the world.”

The kid who had felt voiceless in the despair he had inherited from his parents suddenly had the city’s ear – or at least the sleep-deprived few tuning in. Every Sunday night around 10 p.m., he would load up his bag with the coolest vinyl and CDs – PJ Harvey, Jesus Jones, The Wonder Stuff – and he’d bike the 10 miles from his mother’s house to the studio, no matter the weather. By 3 a.m., he’d be huffing his way back home.

In time, Milwaukee Magazine, the weekly Downtown Edition and the national music rag Ray Gun started hiring Castelaz to write about local and national bands. His timing was perfect: The kid who cut his teeth on early ’80s schlock like Ozzy and Foreigner came of age just as mainstream rock got good again. Soon, he was spinning Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins on his radio show, reviewing their concerts and meeting them over interviews. He had a long face-to-face with a young and eager Eddie Vedder just before the explosive success of Pearl Jam’s first album turned the frontman into a media-shunning grouch; by the next time Pearl Jam came to town, Vedder was taking Castelaz’s head off for seeming to imply that the band had sold out by producing videos for MTV. 

Castelaz also wrote about local Milwaukee artists burning up the clubs at the outset of the ’90s: Paul Cebar & the Milwaukeeans, Blackfish, Pet Engine, The Gufs, and the ska-punk monsters Wild Kingdom. Castelaz had taken some shots at Wild Kingdom in the pages of Downtown Edition, accusing the band of failing to write new material, so when co-leader Dave Schneider sought out Castelaz in the spring of 1992, Castelaz thought it might have been for a beat down. Instead, Schneider, who was impressed by Castelaz’s radio work and insightful music writing, invited Castelaz down to the band’s rehearsal space in the Sydney Hih building. If the vibe was good, Schneider said, maybe Castelaz would agree to manage them.

“The whole time I’m thinking, ‘I have no idea how to manage a band!’” Castelaz recalls. 

But it turned out he did. From his close reading of the Doors book and the notorious Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, in which tyrannical Zeppelin manager Peter Grant is alleged to have literally broken legs to avenge any ill-treatment of his band, Castelaz recognized that his tenacity and thick skin could supply the business muscle that the band needed if it was going to break free of Milwaukee with a record deal. 

Wild Kingdom would ultimately fall apart over the usual creative and personality difficulties, but when most of its members came back together as Citizen King in 1993, Castelaz had earned his manager stripes and was ready to shepherd them to the Big Time. Including the time he invested in Wild Kingdom, it would be an eight-year commitment that featured a brief time at the mountaintop before it all abruptly came undone.

“We cracked the floor at the Lakefront Pavilion!” Castelaz boasts of Citizen King, referring to crowds drawn to the venue where Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro now sits. The band’s party-friendly mix of turntable funk and slacker affability was knocked by detractors for ripping off its sound from Sublime, the stoner-ska hitmakers from Southern California. But in Milwaukee and the Midwest, where trends tend to run two or three years behind New York and Los Angeles, Citizen King was hot. Dave Schneider (re-christened Cooley) shaped the musical direction, while Matt Sims – a 17-year-old at Shorewood High School when discovered by the band – was the songwriting prodigy and frontman. 

For Jeff Castelaz, the cast of characters he fell in with filled in the holes he was still trying to heal from his childhood.

“I can’t describe for you the brotherhood and friendship of that relationship,” Castelaz says. “Managing that band was like the family I never had. I was able to get out as much as I put in, and vice versa. I was able to have a peer group, to be part of something that was self-propelled and was going somewhere. With Citizen King, we had it all. We were all going in the same direction.”

Holed up in a series of cold and desolate rehearsal spaces, the band would write and refine its sound obsessively while Castelaz shut himself up in the soundproof vocal booth and worked the phones: booking gigs, pestering record companies about the demos he sent them, and scrapping for cash from friends and family to get the band back into the studio. To outsiders, it could’ve looked like a thankless job, certainly free of the creative thrill and ego gratification that comes from being in the band, but it meshed perfectly with Castelaz’s business savvy.

“I feel that sense of satisfaction and satiation of ego when I see the band onstage and people are going fucking mental,” he says of his continuing role of off-stage player. “To me, standing in the wings of the stage and seeing that, or sitting down at 8 in the morning and seeing all the numbers coming in from all over the world for an album launch, and seeing that nine months of planning has come together – that’s where I get that sense of euphoria and satisfaction.”

The 1994 deal with MCA Records fizzled, but Castelaz would not be deterred. By aggressively shopping the recordings that MCA had paid for and rejected, he was able to engineer what he says was a bidding war between seven different labels. Warner Bros. Records came out on top, the company shelling out “an ungodly amount of money” (in Castelaz’s words) to build Bionic Studios on North Milwaukee Street in which the band would record its major-label debut.

In March 1999, Mobile Estates hit the record stores. The standout track was the album’s one and only hit, “Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out).” A whimsical, scratch-mad tune distinguished by Matt Sims’ laconic rhymes, the single earned significant airplay and also broke through in the weirdly wonderful ancillary markets in which musicians can make a buck these days, including appearing in a Hallmark card and on the finale of the TV series “Malcolm in the Middle.” Mobile Estates did “millions of dollars in film, television, trailers and commercial licensing,” Castelaz told OnMilwaukee.com in 2006.

The band, Castelaz and the record label were bummed when Mobile Estates stalled at barely 100,000 units (a windfall for an independent label, but a solid miss for a major one like Warner Bros.). Nevertheless, writing and recording proceeded for a second album, and Castelaz says that Warner offered a “massive” publishing advance in the hopes that the next album would be Citizen King’s breakthrough.

And then the bottom dropped out.

Long-simmering personal issues between key members of the band went thermonuclear, and without warning, Citizen King broke up. Just like that, Castelaz’s gang was no more.

“It was absolutely devastating,” he says of the loss of his band. “[The situation] brewed up very quickly and then it blew up in our faces. There was confusion and anger that … masked the sadness and loss we were feeling.”

Still, the ever-resilient Castelaz was primed to move on, this time to the big stage of Los Angeles in 2000. First as a manager and ultimately as co-owner of the independent record label Dangerbird, Castelaz spent the 2000s working with critically admired acts like Dropkick Murphys, Silversun Pickups, and Fitz and the Tantrums. Castelaz’s musical taste and commitment to his artists began to attract attention in what is arguably the most important music town in the world.

Butch Vig, the producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind and bands including Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters and Green Day, met Castelaz in the mid-’90s when he booked Citizen King into Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison. He is not surprised how far Castelaz has risen.

“Jeff is the real deal,” says Vig, who moved to Los Angeles shortly after Castelaz and now is a close friend living just a few blocks away. “No matter how bleak a situation is, he looks at it in the most positive way, and that’s somebody you want on your side fighting for you. When he takes on an artist, he has to fall in love with them and really believe in them.” 

The move to Los Angeles had come after Castelaz, with the prompting of his growing number of industry friends, realized that the Milwaukee music scene was too insular to achieve the level of success he sought. But to reach it, he would first have to get himself well. Having spent a full decade in the city’s knockabout, liquor-fueled bar scene, Castelaz had acquired a serious drinking problem that had its roots in his fractured childhood. 

He had taken his first drink at age 11, when his inner turmoil and lax parenting made such behavior too easy (on July 13, 1985, when the world tuned in to see the era’s top musicians perform at Live Aid, 13-year-old Castelaz was hosting a massive, alcohol-fueled party when he and the other kids in the house were left alone for the weekend). 

Castelaz had seen the ravages of alcohol while slaving at his father’s bar. As he showed up for his before-school bar-cleaning duties, he remembers seeing people lined up in the dark at 6 a.m., waiting to get lit up at Our Place before heading off to work. But like his father, eventually Castelaz’s job would place him within ready reach of booze. Throughout his time overseeing his bands in the bars and clubs of Milwaukee and beyond, Castelaz was drinking to excess, resulting in what high school friend Fred Gillich cryptically refers to as “shenanigans”: petty vandalism and frequent fistfights, all inflamed by what Castelaz now recognizes as a burning anger. Having been caught up in one too many brawls that Castelaz had instigated, or been forced to make excuses for his hurtful behavior, Gillich had severed his friendship with Castelaz before his move to the West Coast. 

The fresh start in L.A. quickly turned Castelaz around. In 2001, when a music industry colleague confronted Castelaz about his abusive treatment of a mutual friend, he reached out to the music industry’s leading addiction specialist. Castelaz found the resolve to kick the habit with relative ease, and he has remained sober ever since.

“What I learned in getting sober was how to become an adult, not just in terms of [my age] but how to actually conduct myself as an adult,” he says. “I learned how to be an accountable, functioning member of society.” 

During this period, he also married Jo Ann Thrailkill, a New Orleans-born music video producer. Living in L.A.’s trendy but unpretentious Silver Lake area, Castelaz welcomed Thrailkill’s son Grady into his life, and in June 2003, the family welcomed the birth of Pablo. Shortly before his son was born, in a seeming attempt to make amends for his bad-boy past, Castelaz called Gillich out of the blue and apologized for the crap he put him through. They have remained the closest of friends ever since.

For Jeff Castelaz, the opportunity to shower his newborn son with the lightness and joy that his parents denied him promised to give his life a beautiful new purpose. 

But before Pablo would turn 5, Castelaz would experience a level of pain no parent should ever endure.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

It began during a simple, almost primal 
intimacy the likes of which would have been unimaginable in Castelaz’s harsh boyhood: father and son splashing together in the bathtub, washing up for Dad’s birthday party at the son’s favorite restaurant.

Castelaz noticed a lump protruding from Pablo’s side, beneath his ribcage. A day later, 4-year-old Pablo was diagnosed with Wilms’ Tumor, an extremely rare form of cancer that strikes the kidneys, typically in children age 2 to 5. 

With a cure rate of over 90 percent, the family embarked on a year of violent highs and lows, all of it documented by Castelaz in PABLOg!, his unbearably candid blog. Each step of the family’s journey is chronicled, demonstrating remarkable resiliency as tests and positive benchmarks tease a hopeful recovery, only to have the cancer reassert its will. The unrelenting hopefulness of the family and their determination to weave Pablo’s playful spirit into the saga when spirits were high are the definition of bittersweet when one knows how the story ends.

Finally, a blog titled "No More Fighting" went up on June 25, 2009:

“The truth is, Pablo is dying,” Castelaz wrote. “There are no medical options left. Nothing can be done to better Pablo’s condition without either causing further harm or simply putting us back at the same dim crossroads. Pablo’s doctors never claim omniscience. When I asked them how much life Pablo may have left, the answers ranged from a couple days to a week.” 

Vig still becomes emotional recalling the end. “I remember there was a party for Pablo on his sixth birthday at a park in our neighborhood,” he says. “Pablo was running around, throwing a ball with a bunch of kids, and I remember thinking that he was going to make it. But Jeff had already told me that there was nothing the doctors could do at that point. 

“About a week later, Pablo passed away.”

The grief endured by Jeff Castelaz and his family was, and is, profound. Castelaz continued to maintain the blog in great detail in the months and years after Pablo’s death. And while it became an important conduit of information and fundraising for the foundation that Castelaz and Thrailkill founded to help families struggling with childhood cancer, it’s a record of suffering that will never disappear. 

Worse, as Castelaz views it now, he realizes that each word typed during Pablo’s struggle represents a moment he could have instead spent with his dying son.

“What was Pablo doing while I was writing that?” he wonders. “Would I have rather been hanging out with him, or Jo Ann, or Grady, rather than writing that darned thing?” 

During Pablo’s illness and after his death, Castelaz’s character – a Midwesterner’s bluntness combined with a great open vein of vulnerability, undercut by a recovering addict’s almost assaultive need for soul-bearing honesty – was put to its harshest test as he tried to find a way forward. But not once during Pablo’s struggle did Castelaz break his sobriety, despite temptation.

“My son never saw me drunk, never saw me with a drop of liquor in me,” he says proudly.

In a pitiless case of bad timing, the nation’s economy tanked half way through the year that Castelaz and his wife fought to keep their son alive. This leveled a pummeling blow on a record business already fighting for solvency in the wake of the digital decimation that had crippled it. For an indie label like Dangerbird, it was particularly harsh.

“We were working twice as hard to sell half the amount of records and making half of the money, while our overhead was doubling,” Castelaz recalls, bemoaning how small-business concerns like managing staff – at its peak, Dangerbird employed 16 – and wrestling with contracts and lawyers had drawn him away from what he loved: discovering and nurturing artists. “I was tired. Cosmically, spiritually tired.”

In the summer of 2012, conversations began with Warner Music Group (WMG) about the industry giant absorbing Dangerbird. With ties to WMG going back to the late ’90s and his run with Citizen King, Castelaz was nevertheless stunned when talk of a deal with Dangerbird instead resulted in an offer for Castelaz to run Elektra Records – the label that is still best remembered for releasing the entire Doors catalog, and which produced Queen’s biggest hits in the ’70s. The kid who schooled himself in the music industry by obsessively studying these bands in his Milwaukee basement was soon named Elektra’s president.

“[Elektra] is known for the same thing that Dangerbird held true: We stand for vital artistry,” says Castelaz. “We take people from the left and bring them to the center, which is the great commercial deep waters. We bring in [artists] who will be quite unexpected to the commercial masses.”

Elektra has a small but eclectic roster that includes rapper and reality-show star Cee Lo Green, and critic favorites Ed Sheeran and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Castelaz has spent the past year traveling the world in search of the label’s Next Big Thing, and has signed a handful of bands he thinks will connect with the marketplace. His biggest accomplishment: bringing his Dangerbird clients Fitz and the Tantrums into the WMG fold and overseeing the band’s change from a modestly successful retro soul act to mass appeal chart-toppers. In September of this year, the band’s single “Out of My League” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative chart after a 33-week climb, the longest road to the top ever recorded by the powerful industry trade magazine.

The manager who chased major-label deals for his band throughout his 20s is now the label chief who can make an artist’s dreams come true overnight. It’s a weighty responsibility that Castelaz doesn’t take lightly.

“It’s never far from my mind that, not too long ago, I was sitting on the other side of the desk. I’m still that kid in Milwaukee sending packages to labels in the mail. That spirit is still with me,” he says. “I still want to solve that common problem: How can I take the unexpected and bring it to the masses?”

And could that next unexpected act be in his hometown? First with the indie label Dangerbird and now with well-financed Elektra, is Castelaz regularly besieged by Milwaukee musicians hoping their shared roots will earn them a listen and maybe a deal?

 “A lot of local bands and managers are trying to get my ear,” he admits, saying that he tries to be responsive to anyone who approaches him. But it’s not just courtesy; the frustration of a player in his position is that the industry’s next hitmaker could pop up anywhere. And if he doesn’t find them, some other label might.

“You never know who’s standing in front of you,” he says when asked if he’s willing to check out local acts during his infrequent trips home. “If you’re in Milwaukee and the next Bon Iver is standing in front of you, all you’ve got to do is talk to him and check out what he’s doing. You’ll be surprised what you might find.”

As this article was being completed, Jeff Castelaz was not in a club scouting bands, but leading a team of 40 on a 500-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It was the fifth-annual Pablove Across America campaign to raise money for the Pablove Foundation, which Castelaz and his wife created to fund pediatric cancer research, and to improve the quality of life for children living with cancer. 

With bicycling roots stretching back to his Milwaukee Journal paper route and late-night rides to WMSE, Castelaz had become a hardcore endurance cyclist by the time Pablo got sick. “I continued biking to burn off steam during Pablo’s treatment,” he says. “I really valued that; it kept me sane in a very pure sense.”

When hope still remained for his son, Castelaz had announced an intention to bike across the country as a show of strength for the boy; when Pablo was lost, the ride became a celebration of his life. Four months after Pablo’s death, Castelaz and a band of road warriors embarked from St. Augustine, Fla., and spent the next 42 days pedaling to Southern California, raising funds for Pablove along the way.

Less arduous bike rides, golf outings, concerts and other fundraisers have been held every year since throughout the country, including in Milwaukee. Fred Gillich, who developed a close bond with Pablo Castelaz during his short life and who was among the friends who rallied around Jeff Castelaz and his family throughout the ordeal, helped organize Pedaling for Pablove, a 2011 event that raised $18,000 through kids seeking pledges for bike races around the Milwaukee Mile. Annual fundraising concerts featuring a roster of local bands have earned more than $30,000. 

In all, the Pablove Foundation has awarded $600,000 in childhood cancer research grants in just three years. The foundation’s annual symposium provides families with access to in-depth information about childhood cancer and its treatment, and Pablove Shutterbugs – its signature photography program for pediatric cancer patients and survivors – has served more than 300 children living with cancer in Los Angeles and New York, and via partnerships throughout the U.S.

“Jeff has dealt with his demons,” says Vig. “He initially channeled them into bike riding, and then he turned that same energy into the relentless pursuit of Pablove, so that Pablo’s name means something.

“Rather than just collapse into a black hole, [Jeff and Jo Ann] have turned Pablo into Pablove. Pablo’s memory has raised millions of dollars in an unbelievably positive way, and saved the lives of countless children.”

A juke box hero, indeed. 

Tom Matthews is a Milwaukee-area freelancer. Write to him at 

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