“Everybody had a nice big smile on their face. It was like they were saying, ‘Hey, y’all, this is it! If you get to have your own album you’ll be smiling and having a wonderful time just like me!’ It was so intriguing to me. In real life you have your ups and downs, but that album cover will always be smiling.” — Mingering Mike
“The best song will never get sung.” – Wilco, “The Late Greats”
Mingering Mike is so perfectly strange it’s possible he was conjured up by a crate digging fantasist.
Growing up shy, hermetic, and obsessed with music, he channeled his frustrated desire to be a performer into creating imaginary albums. He made them entirely by hand on poster board, designing covers, writing song titles, lyrics, and liner notes. There were cardboard discs with painted grooves corresponding to the imagined song length. When finished, the albums were inserted into store-ready cellophane sleeves.
The project grew complex, encompassing multiple labels and soul, funk, blues, R&B, and pop personas. By the time his creative spurt waned in the late ’70s, Mingering Mike had created over 100 LPs and 45s and at least two 8-tracks. He lost them all when he was late on paying his storage unit bill.
In December 2003, Dori Hadar found some of his work at a flea market, while searching for records. He posted a few images to the Soul Strut message board. Online buzz began to build around Mike’s goofy crazy project. The following February, Neil Strauss wrote a feature length story for the New York Times about Hadar’s discovery and attempt to track down Mike.
That fall, Hadar interviewed Mike for a cover story in Wax Poetics; gallery showings were arranged. That article has now been expanded with a cataloging of Mike’s oeuvre in the book Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar.
The Wax Poetics article glorified Mike’s artwork with a glossy paper spread. Princeton Architectural Press uses a matte stock that restores the homemade-ness, the lo-fi reality of his stereophonic fantasy. The drawing has a definite amateur quality. When Hadar first discovered them he says, “I assumed the album was a high school student’s art project.” But Mike has a gift for visual conceptions as seen in the placement and spacing of figures and use of bold colors. Joseph War’s Into It shows the singer in a white trench coat and blue jeans against a bright red background; Mingering Mike’s Slow “N” Easy achieves a similar eye-popping effect with green, yellow, and navy blue.
The amateur qualities and seeming innocence of Mike’s work has led some to label him an “outsider artist”. This condescending exploitative specter is briefly raised in the text, but there is nothing “outsider” about Mike. He was disenfranchised, disconnected, and privately ambitious. Whether he could actually sing and perform is not known. (Though Mike says he recorded hundreds of songs and flirted with various insta-record and song sharking schemes.)
But Mike was actively in dialogue with the pop cultural currents of his time. If anything he is the quotidian, motivated by the same itch as the garage band, street corner singer, and idle dreamer. Mike was great at creating song titles, generic and intriguing in the best pop tradition: “Darlene, Come on Back to Our Side of the Track”, “There’s Nothing Wrong With You Baby (Part 1 and 2)”, “Tell Your Sister She Better Watch Out”, “Sittin’ By The Window”. In the fetishistic attention to detail — he created live albums, best ofs, duets, experimental side projects, holiday cash-ins, comedy and novelty toss-offs, and protest songs — Mike seemed to be channeling an anticipatory nostalgia for his idols of the late ’60s and ’70s.
Hadar’s writing is strongest when detailing the personal and societal events shaping Mike’s life and how it affected his work. The optimism of his youth, when Mike hung out at Howard Theater and recorded music with his cousin The Big “D” gives way to desperation and cynicism in the ‘70s when Mike is drafted into the army, goes AWOL prior to being shipped off to Vietnam, then hides in his family’s apartment while watching drugs wreck the neighborhood. Likewise Mike’s albums shift from Motown showcases (Live at the Howard Theater) to What’s Going On introspection (You Know Only What They Tell You) to Curtis Mayfield soundtracks and ghetto laments (Stake Out, “Jittering Jack”). Unfortunately the confusing order of the images in the book, basically chronological but in two separate chunks, makes it difficult to track the complete trajectory of his project.
The gathering cynicism and unavoidable encroachment of life’s reality seems to have gradually eroded Mike’s enthusiasm for his work. The greatest joy in looking at these albums is the endless optimism, the affectionate satire, and go-for-broke charm. A photograph on an early album, reprinted on the front cover flap, shows a sweet kid with a wide grin. The book is essentially a tribute to his against-the-odds hope. Suitably, the most upsetting image is of a late period album titled Life is Shit.
Who is Mike? We never learn his real name. He prefers to remain unknown. Outside of his albums, we get present-day glimpses through Hadar’s descriptions of first meeting him. It seems that he’s a blue collar worker living what appears to be a fairly anonymous life. He thinks Hadar is a bill collector when he first comes around and is suspicious and guarded when first meeting at a restaurant. All we really have is his Mingering character, the vision he wanted to project before the world.
The gap between the real and imagined makes it easy to project onto his “superstar” persona. Hadar quotes some of the early Soul Strut postings: “’Mingering Mike seems to be a real noble soul,’ wrote one person, ‘and I really hope the best for him wherever he is at this moment.’…Others were so awestruck by the huge body of work that they crowned him ‘the patron saint of crate digging.’” There is a crucial emotional connection that helps explain Mike’s popularity. Like the zealous collector, die hard fan, and perpetual blog commentator Mike was a hermetic collective, self-aware and self-centered, small time and grandiose. He says, “I was content doing my own thing, and I stayed in the house most of the time. I was the shy, sensitive one.”
It now seems that nearly everything has been cataloged online, all insider secrets made known. What is left to unearth in flea markets and basements? How about the record that is only a dream? The unattainable sounds recorded in a separate universe that runs parallel to our own, expanding on ideas, filling in gaps that we’d vaguely grasped and sensed were there. A knockout cover that doesn’t mask mediocrity within, all potential and no disappointment. The ultimate eternal find. Mingering Mike’s records gathered dust waiting as a kind of endgame for the music obsessive.
In the book’s preface Neil Strauss writes, “By neither shedding his youthful dreams nor taking any steps to actualize them, his mock albums stand as a triumph of the imagination over reality, rationality, and responsibility.” He’s describing Mike but it could also apply to the generation that he anticipated, saturated and precariously insulated in a pop culture neverland. (And I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou because I consider myself part of it.)
Mingering Mike is a fitting homage to its subject’s ambition and creativity — he even gets a discography in the back — but there’s a sadder power in the records’ nonexistent existence. These images are bursting but fragile, full of meaning and utterly inconsequential, nothing but promise.