Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mingering Mike, Superstar

Mingering Mike: the Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar
Art by Mingering Mike, Text by Dori Hadar, Preface by Neil “The Game” Strauss
Princeton Architectural Press

If you have ever experienced the joy of collecting the entire output of an obscure record label, or can recite LP catalog numbers from memory, you are one of us. Known as vinyl hunters, crate diggers, or (more prosaically) record collectors, lovers of analog platters are true music aficionados, but some of us are a wee bit prone to obsessive behavior. The love and obsession are clearly evident in the work of Mingering Mike, a so-called “outsider artist” who created hand-drawn records for his fantastical alter-ego, superstar soul singer Mingering Mike, in an extensive body of work, much of which is collected in Mingering Mike, an illustrated volume from Princeton Architectural Press.

Mingering Mike’s art reached the public consciousness through nearly tragic circumstances. He kept his art and much of his LP collection in a storage locker, but one month when his payment came a few days late, he found his contents had been auctioned out from under him. However, that led to crate digger Dori Hadar’s discovery of the mysterious Mingering pseudo LPs at a flea market and his resulting quest to find the man behind the art.

When immersed into the art of Mingering Mike, one gets a sense of the depth of his love of soul music. Through record after record, LPs and 45’s, he created an extensive discography for his fictional doppelganger, as well as creating avatars for family and friends, like “Joseph War’ and “The Big ‘D.’” Mingering describes War on Introducing Joseph War “and What He Stands For” in very soulful terms:

"War Stand for peas and hominy
Mash potatos and beef
Chicken and string beans
And “ah” lot of other stuff
But really he stands for peace and tranquility
I hope we all do" (p.33)

What emerges is a soul music mythology that mirrors contemporary musical developments, sort of Henry Darger covering James Brown. It’s a world that actually makes sense to a crate digger like Hadar. Based on my own love for Blaxploitation soundtracks, I can look at Mingering Mike’s Brother of the Dragon and think how righteous it would sound if it were a real LP. Readers sort of get a sense of what their favorite Mingering songs would be by following which are released as singles, collected on “best of’s” and performed on “live” releases. Even the names of the labels, like “Ramit,” “Sex,” and “Ming/War” sound perfectly suited to their time.

During the early 1970’s, when the outside world intruded into the Mingering universe, it usually reflected societal ills troubling the artist. The scourge of drugs is a frequent theme, as on the song “Jittering Jack,” with lyrics like:

“‘Ah,’ say Junkie, ‘Ha’ you want some dope?
You want the needle or the kind you sniff or smoke?
Now listen here junkie
The pusher don’t care a heck about you
‘Cause he meets hundreds a day just like you” (p. 120)

There is indeed a dark side to Mingering Mike, reflecting a great deal of loneliness. The artist behind Mingering Mike is now enjoying his unlikely recognition, but is maintaining his anonymity behind the Mingering moniker. From the biography Hadar reveals, it is clear he spent a good period of time largely cut-off from society, relying on his art for solace.

Although the Mingering catalog began in conjunction with the artist’s ambitions for a singing career, one wonders if he could have really handled superstardom (you can enjoy some rare audio of Mingering at his website here). Family who talked to Hadar described Mingering as shy, and the implication of the frequent spelling and grammatical errors on the Mingering records is difficult to ignore. Yet that makes Mingering Mike, the book, particularly compelling, as it opens a door into someone’s very private universe.