By Dave Hoekstra
Mike Sardina is a Vietnam veteran and the retired manager of a body shop. His wife, Claire, is a former welfare mother. But when they're onstage, they're Lightning and Thunder. "Please don't use our real names," says Lightning, who's sitting across a table from Thunder at House of Blues. "Who would want to come out and see Mike and Claire Sardina?"
Maybe it's the name, maybe it's not, but people have been coming out to see the Milwaukee singing duo since 1989, when Lightning conceived the unlikely pairing--he imitates Neil Diamond and she does Patsy Cline. In Chicago they got their start at Danny's in Bucktown, where Lightning would bolt across the downstairs bar singing "America," and they've performed regularly over the years at the Cubby Bear, Hi-Tops, and the Waterloo Tavern. In 1993 they warmed up the crowd for an Urge Overkill record-release party at Metro, and in 1995 they sang Diamond's "Forever in Blue Jeans" with Eddie Vedder at Milwaukee's Summerfest.
That same year, they landed a monthly stint at Lakeview Links that would go on for four years. Lightning says they could count on $1,000 a night, and sometimes made up to $1,700--a big chunk of their bread and butter. But that gig recently ended--and not by their choice.
On the afternoon of May 10, Thunder was planting mums in the front yard of the couple's modest blue-and-white bungalow in south Milwaukee when a car driven by a 74-year-old man jumped the curb. "I heard a screech and looked up," Thunder said. "In slow motion I saw this car coming at me. I don't remember being hit." The vehicle severed her left leg between the knee and ankle and pinned her to the ground.
Cindy Szwalkiewicz, 41, lives around the corner from Lightning and Thunder and witnessed the aftermath. "When I got there her leg was on the opposite side of the car," she says. "One neighbor took off her belt and made it a tourniquet. We all went and got ice to try and save her leg. She was incoherent. I thought she was going to be gone."
The driver was ticketed for suspicion of driving at an unreasonable and imprudent speed, according to Milwaukee police, and the couple says litigation is pending.
Thunder endured five operations and spent 40 days in two Milwaukee hospitals, but doctors were not able to reattach the lower half of her leg. "This was a trauma cut," she explains. "It was not an amputation, where they cut above or below the knee. Four operations were just to save the tissue in the stump alone, below the knee."
Lightning grimaces. "I couldn't look at it," he says. "And I was ten miles south of the DMZ in Vietnam, 12 months, 25 days, and 36 hours. But this is my wife. This is not the enemy."
Yet in less than three months, Lightning and Thunder were performing again. Thunder was so eager to come back that she defied doctor's orders and, two weeks after a July 6 skin graft, went in her wheelchair to meet Lightning at a church festival where he was performing solo. "I cheated. I showed up at Saint Veronica's," she says. "I was not in good shape. I could only spend a half hour there. I was very sick. He had done a full set and I arrived. Everyone stood up and cheered.
"I sang 'Crazy' and 'I Fall to Pieces.' Lots of people in Wisconsin like Patsy Cline. Then we sang [the Neil Diamond-Barbra Streisand duet] 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers.' He started crying. I started crying. And the audience all cried."
But after their first show back at Lakeview Links, later that month, owner Tim Fenner told them they wouldn't be back in August. "They said I made people uncomfortable in my current state," Thunder says. "And that people leave sad and freaked-out by my accident. They also said our revenue was down, and I would agree that it is down. It is summertime. But we've had up to 1,100 people in that club." In February, Fenner had switched their show from the last Saturday of every month to the last Friday, and in March he'd preempted them completely for the NCAA finals, which Thunder says confused people.
Fenner denies that his decision had anything to do with Thunder's misfortune. "We haven't canceled them totally," he says. "We're letting them regroup. I have no ill feelings. They did us well and we did them well. It all has to do with numbers, and the numbers were down before her accident. It's unfortunate that it all occurred at this time. Anyone familiar with the band situation in Chicago knows you can't go forever. Especially being in Neil Diamond impersonation--your limits are Neil Diamond."
Thunder and Lightning both grew up working-class in Milwaukee. Thunder's father, a factory worker, died when she was nine. "My mother raised me and my five brothers and sisters. We had a nice little house on the northwest side. It was a nice neighborhood at the time."
Lightning's father poured molten metal for a living, but he was also a jazz guitarist. "My mother worked for Globe Union. They made car seats and automotive products," he says. She died of a heart attack recently. He doesn't know where his dad is.
Lightning earned his nickname in 1972, when he briefly played lead guitar with the Milwaukee soul group the Esquires. The Esquires had a couple of Top 40 hits, "Get On Up" and "And Get Away," but by the time he joined, they were five years past their heyday.
Though he and his future wife attended classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College in the early 80s (he studied shoe repair; she studied cosmetology), they didn't meet until 1987, when she auditioned for his band Positive Traction, a Jimi Hendrix-Elvis Presley-blues thing that "never worked out," she says. "Two years later he called me up and asked if I would like to be Thunder. I was doing nothing. I was sitting there with a mop and a phone in an empty apartment. I was 27." She was also single: her first husband had left when she was eight months pregnant with their son, Dana, who's now ten years old.
By then Lightning was doing impersonations. He'd play guitar and sing like Elvis, the Big Bopper, George Michael. Thunder had been singing songs by Linda Ronstadt and Belinda Carlisle over karaoke tracks. But in their first few gigs, around Milwaukee, audiences responded best to his Neil Diamond and her Patsy Cline, and pretty much everything else fell away. A decade later, not much more has changed, except that they've added some old disco hits to the repertoire.
Lightning was a natural. He sings with the greasy gruffness of Diamond's early work and he even looks like the man, albeit after a late night on the town. But Thunder had some remedial work to do. "I sang a lot of high songs like Olivia Newton-John," she says. "And now I sing Blondie and Abba, which are more in my range. I had to watch videos of Patsy and listen to her voice over and over again to get the quality of her sound."
They'll never be able to meet Cline in this world, but their dream is to connect with Neil Diamond. "His camp is probably aware of this," Lightning says. "That is a goal. To meet the man--before one of us cooks. Because last year I had a heart attack and angioplasty. I'm 48."
Lightning and Thunder were married in the summer of 1994, before 1,000 friends and fans under a tent in the infield of the racetrack at the Wisconsin State Fair Park. They were whisked away to their reception, at a fairground eatery called Mother's Cajun Cafe, in a golf cart. "It was a fairy-tale story," Thunder says. "Rachel [her daughter, now 15] was in the wedding. My son Dana was in the wedding. We were the wedding band. It's all been a Cinderella story until recently, when we ran into some glitches. His health. His mother died. And now my accident."
She says the most difficult part of her ordeal has been adapting to her dependence on other people. "There's all the things you take for granted. Things like showers and trying to get to the bathroom in a public place.
"But God didn't take away my voice. And the other day I was looking into the mirror. I saw my face and I actually have a better figure now than I had before--with the exception of the loss of the limb."
Thunder says she's to be fitted for a temporary prosthetic by Labor Day, and hopes to be walking on a permanent one by Christmas. So far she's racked up about $300,000 in medical bills, and about 10 percent of that isn't covered by her insurance policy--which in and of itself, she says with a laugh, "costs an arm and a leg. The premiums are over $500 for myself, my daughter, and my son, just to maintain the policy. Lightning is a veteran, so he goes to the VA hospital."
In late May local bands and sound men staged two benefits at clubs in Milwaukee and a fund was established at the Tri City National Bank there. In total the couple has received more than $5,000 in donations. "We're comfortable for the next month and a half," Thunder says. "After that, we're looking at trouble."
You wouldn't know it to see them. At a recent gig at McGee's in Lincoln Park, for a packed house full of fresh-faced collegiate types, Thunder sang Abba's 1975 hit "SOS," and as Lightning fiddled with a strobe light, she directed the refrain to the bandaged stump under her flashy red-and-silver getup: "When you're gone / How can I even try to go on?" When she finished, she stood up for about 20 seconds, propping herself up in her wheelchair as if to say, This is not a song sung blue. This is a moment of triumph. And the bar patrons cheered and ordered more drinks.
Lightning and Thunder perform Friday at Reilly's Daughter, 4010 W. 111th in Oak Lawn, and Saturday at Hog Head McDunna's, 1505 W. Fullerton.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.