SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The artist who goes by the name Mingering Mike grew up in a tough part of Washington, D.C., just a few miles from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His family did not spend much time there. Mike was entirely self-taught as an artist, and now his work is in that museum permanently. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: There might not be a Mingering Mike story if it wasn't for Dori Hadar. Hadar is an obsessive record collector. One morning in 2003, he showed up early at a flea market in Washington, D.C., and started digging through crates of used LPs.
DORI HADAR: Clearly it was someone's personal collection, and there was all kinds of great stuff in there. And then I came upon this one crate that contained albums like I had never seen before. There were approximately 40 LPs that had hand-painted covers and handwritten liner notes and lyrics. And they were all made by someone named Mingering Mike.
ROSE: At a glance, the albums look like other soul records of the 1960s and '70s - except they're obviously drawn by hand in colored pen and pencil. They feature a young black man with an afro and sideburns, sometimes alone, sometimes with other musicians and dancers. The title seemed to trace the arc of a real career "Grooving With Mike," "Boogie Down To The White House" and "The Mingering Mike Show: Live From The Howard Theatre." Hadar pulled out the LPs to check their condition.
HADAR: And they weren't in very good condition at all because they were made out of cardboard. And someone had painted them with a shiny black paint so that they looked real.
ROSE: Hadar didn't know why anyone would go to these lengths to create an imaginary musical career, but he wanted to find out. It happens that Hadar is a private investigator by trade, and a couple of weeks later, he and a friend were knocking on a door in Southeast D.C.
HADAR: And the door sort of cracked open, and this guy peered out at us. We said Mingering Mike? And he didn't say anything. And we told him, you know, we found some of your things at the flea market. He said my babies?
ROSE: Mingering Mike was glad to know his albums were safe. But initially, he was not happy to see Dori Hadar at his front door.
MINGERING MIKE: Extortionists coming in the ghetto and saying I have your stuff. What would you think?
ROSE: As a young man, Mike was a loner. At first, he didn't want anyone to see the album covers he made either.
MINGERING MIKE: I thought a lot of it, but it was just something private I did. That's the only way I could say things at the time 'cause I was an introvert.
ROSE: He poured his energy into making album covers and songs of his own. Starting in the late '60s, he recorded hundreds of songs on a reel-to-reel recorder with his cousin.
MINGERING MIKE: The best studio would be the bathroom with the acoustics and echoes and things like that. And that's where we did most of our stuff. We just like the human beat boxing (beat boxing).
(SOUNDBITE OF MINGERING MIKE SONG)
MINGERING MIKE: (Beat boxing).
ROSE: Mike says the album cover seemed like a natural way to archive his songs, just in case a real record label ever came calling.
MINGERING MIKE: I was basically building a repertoire of things just in case something like that happened. The dream was always there.
ROSE: At first, Mike's songs were mostly about love and heartbreak, but his concerns started to change around 1970 when Mike was drafted into the military. He made it through basic training, but when it was time to fly to the West Coast and probably on to Vietnam, Mike just went home.
LESLIE UMBERGER: This piece is "The Two Sides of Mingering Mike." And Mike actually calls this probably his most important album.
ROSE: Leslie Umberger curated the exhibition "Mingering Mike's Supersonic Greatest Hits" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which acquired Mike's collection two years ago. We're standing in front of an album cover Mike made shortly after going AWOL.
UMBERGER: He went home and he made this piece, and it kind of shows himself as the civilian on one side, you know, back to back with himself as a soldier. And on the backside, it shows the singer and the artist making people happy and the other Mike, the soldier, going to war and standing in formation.
ROSE: As a deserter, Mike was afraid of getting caught, so he stayed inside a lot. This turned out to be a very prolific period for Mingering Mike.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COFFEE CAKE")
MINGERING MIKE: (Singing) (Coffee cake) go try that carrot there (coffee cake) if there's no poison in the (coffee cake)...
ROSE: Some of Mike's recordings are also part of the collection that was acquired by the Smithsonian, thanks in part to gallery owner George Hemphill. He was the first to show Mike's work and still represents him. Hemphill says this is an important folk art collection.
GEORGE HEMPHILL: It tells a story. There's so much buried history about Washington within each album and altogether it creates almost a time capsule view of a particular kind of musical consciousness and cultural community.
ROSE: Mingering Mike's artistic career wound down after President Carter pardoned the Vietnam draft dodgers in 1977. Mike got a job and put his hand-painted albums in a storage unit. Eventually, he fell behind on the payments. That's how his albums ended up at the flea market. Since being rediscovered, he's made a few public appearances as Mingering Mike, but always in costume. He accepted an award from the D.C. City Council dressed as Spiderman. At a panel discussion about his work at the Smithsonian, Mike showed up dressed in surgical scrubs and mask and made the following offer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MINGERING MIKE: After the interview, to the left, I will be performing colonoscopies if anybody wants.
ROSE: Kidding aside, Mike says he's glad to see his babies on display in one of the nation's premier museums.
MINGERING MIKE: I'm one of the people that's up there. Not too many people get that opportunity while they're still alive.
ROSE: Mingering Mike has finally found an audience, even if it's not the one he imagined. Joel Rose, NPR News.
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