City Paper is not for tourists
True, Mingering Mike seems far more functional than, say, the infamously introverted Henry Darger, who spent every spare moment making giant double-sided pictures of mythological creatures that looked like little girls and writing a colossal, 15,000-page novel. What Mike does share with Darger is the untrained artist’s knack for finding elaborate counter-intuitive solutions to artistic problems—and, more important, some sort of belief in magic and wish fulfillment. How else to explain Mike’s careful measuring of the space that each song on his unplayable records will occupy? The running times on each side of a Mingering Mike album add up correctly; longer songs take up more space, as the hand-painted grooves clearly attest. It’s hard to see how this could matter—since the record won’t, you know, actually produce sound. Yet it was apparently an important ritual.
Mingering Mike was very savvy at emulating the trappings of commercial records, making his own sleeves, lyric sheets—even labeling the spines of his cardboard covers. He often took the shrink wrap from store-bought LPs, complete with price tags, and slipped them over his own homemade products to make them look authentic.
But the music Mingering Mike recorded—there is apparently a pile of reel-to-reel tapes—is not nearly as realized or considered. Neither Mike nor his longtime collaborator, the Big D, could actually play instruments, so their lo-fi home-recorded tracks usually consist of beat boxing, humming, and occasional snippets of mostly improvised lyrics.
As for Mike’s drawing and painting, it’s scratchy, crude, and obviously untrained but packed with delicious eccentricities. His figures tend to float weightlessly against neutral backgrounds. There are no shadows in Mingering Mike’s world. Clothes are rendered in simple saturated colors, often with glossy paint. Faces are reduced to contour lines to suggest features; broken brown hatchings indicate Mike’s skin tone. They look like any high school kid’s attempts at doodling, except for their ideas. On the sleeve for one greatest-hits collection, Mingering Mike and the Big D stand with their backs to the viewer; each looks back over his left shoulder, smiling and pouring showers of gold coins and green currency from what look to be upended top hats. “Money hasn’t gone to our heads,” the caption reads. “Just our hats.”
What’s most striking, though, is Mingering Mike’s social consciousness—how many other pop stars, real or imagined, have devoted an entire album to sickle cell anemia? Inside Getting to the Roots of All Evils, Mike draws little pictographs of the ills of street life in blue and black ink. Some are pretty funny, despite their subjects: A billy club hovers over a small head sporting a shiny, oversize cartoon lump. Needles, guns, and track marks on an outstretched forearm dot the page. The lower half of a disembodied, smiling face sits adjacent to a pile of money; written on the face’s chin are the words watch out.
However contained Mike’s world was during this time, his sense of the evils of the world around him appears undimmed. His hopefulness in the face of all of this seems genuine, unaffected, and appealing. “Peace and power to all man kind—and me too,” Mike writes on this same sleeve. Really, if being an outsider artist means being unable to function in or relate to the broader world, then Mingering Mike can’t be one. His quirky humor and gentle optimism make him and his work appealing—and here, 20 years after his career ended, they’re beginning to make him the star he always knew he would be.