The World is Just Catching Up: Michael Yonkers
Michael Yonkers has been making music for going on half a century now – and none of it has been easy.
In 1968, he recorded Microminiature Love, an extraordinary document of psychedelic garage music, decades ahead of its time. A deal with Sire could have made the Michael Yonkers Band famous, along the lines of Jimi Hendrix or the Doors, but it fell through and the band broke up. Most people didn't hear Microminiature Love until 2003, when Sub Pop reissued it on CD (following De Stilj Records' vinyl reissue in 2002).
Discouraged by his band's break up – and by an increasingly ominous political climate of the late 1960s – Yonkers retreated to his parents' basement, began experimenting with home-made synthesizers and tape loops, and listening to bands like Pentangle and Fairport Convention. He recorded his strange, beautiful Grimwood at home in 1968, anticipating the fragile, inward-looking weirdness of artists like Devendra Banhart, Wooden Wand by decades. Yet this recording, too, remained almost completely unknown, even among collectors, until this year when De Stilj reissued it.
And finally, in 1971, Yonkers was working at a warehouse job when a wall of computer equipment fell on him, breaking his back and beginning a lifetime of pain. Exploratory surgery only made things worse. Yonkers had an allergic reaction to a dye used for x-rays, which caused his spine to deteriorate. Now at 60, despite more surgery, therapy and rehabilitation through dance, he lives in constant, debilitating pain. When I called him, in the early fall of 2007, he told me that he had just played two sets of music at a local show, then jammed with another band on the bill. But to do it, he'd had to take a massive amount of the anti-inflammatory drug Prednisone several days before. And that, he can only do a couple of times a year.
Still, when you talk to Yonkers, there is no self-pity and very little nostalgia. In fact, what he really wants to tell you about is the music he was working on right now, a collaboration with Minneapolis noise band The Blind Shake, which he calls "the thing I'm most proud of now." (He's right, too. The new record, Michael Yonkers and the Blind Shake, out now on Go Johnny Go, is a killer.)
"The main thing we've learned from him is to never look back," says one of Yonkers' most recent collaborators, Mike Blaha of the Blind Shake. "Just keep writing songs and don't take time to pat yourself on the back. By the time Carbohydrates came out, he was already seven homemade albums past it."
Surf rock and home-rigged effects
Yonkers started music early, inspired by the reverb’d tones of garage surfers, the Trashmen. "When I was pretty young, I was saving up my money to buy a motorcycle. And my parents said, 'You will not get a motorcycle as long as you’re living in this house,'" he recalls. "And just by pure chance, I heard the Trashmen, and I thought okay, that’s what I want to do."
He scraped up enough money for an entry-level guitar, but was initially disappointed by the way it sounded. "It was just a guitar and an amp," he says. "I couldn’t make those wonderful sounds." Tapped out from buying the instrument itself, he had nothing to spare for a reverb unit. Then somewhere, he read about echoplexes and decided to make one for himself. “I had a tape recorder and I started experimenting and I purchased an extra head for it and some electronics...and I made an echoplex. And it worked," he says.
That was the first of many experiments for Yonkers. Later, he constructed a theremin for himself, and the home-rigged reverb unit and distortion box that defined Microminiature Love's cavernous echoing sound. "A lot of those early experiments are showing up in the backgrounds of the Grimwood songs," he explains. "Especially 'Tripping through the Rose Gardens,' which also included experimenting with tape loops and backwards tapes."
Bear in mind that this was 1968, when synthesizers, essentially, didn't exist, and tape recording machines tended to be rather large and minimally featured. And bear in mind that all these experiments were being performed by a young man, not yet 20, in an isolated basement in a Midwestern backwater city. To make things even more difficult, Yonkers was laboring under the impression that he might be drafted and sent to Viet Nam at any moment. In fact, he was called up by the draft board twice.
The first time, he says, he was given a pre-induction physical, then the draft board decided they didn't need anyone at the time. The second time, he went through the physical again, and was turned down for medical reasons. "I don’t know what I would have done if I would have gotten past that medical thing," he says. "I think that’s when I went into the basement of my parents’ house and I just kind of retreated down there with the music. The band had broken up after the recording deal had fallen apart. So I was looking inward rather than outward. And inside, I sort of felt this fantasy feeling and put it down musically."
Escaping to Grimwood
Yonkers' fantasy world took shape in the form of drawings and paintings, as well as music, as he began to craft a place that was far removed from late 1960s unrest. That world had a name, Grimwood, which became the name of his self-recorded folk album. "Grimwood was a place where things were nice and pretty. It wasn’t all the images we were starting to see from Vietnam. It wasn’t the Civil Rights unrest. It wasn’t the brutal and violent protests," says Yonkers. "I was trying to escape from that. And this just seemed like the perfect world to go into. There were balloons and flowers and nice placid little ponds and everything was really nice."
It was also a very private place, one that none but Yonkers' closest friends had any inkling existed. “I had was sort of a core group of people that had been my friends for a long time and some of them had been in …I had played music with. I would have these, usually Sunday night kind of parties, and people would just come over and I would usually play them one or two things that I was doing, just to run it by them. But other than those people, no, nobody heard this at all," says Yonkers.
Then in 1971, Yonkers had his accident, breaking his back and setting off a chain of medical errors that left him in pain for the rest of his life. A dancer even before his injury, Yonkers turned to dance again to try to heal. "In 1973, I had really major surgery. And the recovery from that was going so terribly, but I ran into somebody who said, you should look into dance therapy or movement therapy," he recalls. "So I started movement therapy and that lead into more dance. And I couldn’t afford to pay for all this, and some of the groups I was involved with asked me, well, what you can do is maybe kind of a character part in our productions, in a trade for classes. So I started that way, and ultimately became kind of a …pretty active performer and performed many modern dances, a lot of ballets." He adds, "I know it’s hard to feature, a noise rock guy as a ballet dancer, but you’d be absolutely shocked at how many rock musicians I’ve met that were also male dancers. I was in one ballet company one year and I think we had five male dancers in the company and out of the five, four were rock and roll players."
Throughout the recovery process and, indeed, throughout his life, Yonkers was involved in a series of other musical projects, recording two other home-produced records (one of these Goodbye Sunball is slated for reissue on De Stilj as well). He collaborated with ex-Michael Yonkers Band partner Jim Worley on a country-influenced band called Borders of My Mind. He even recorded an album of religious songs, after joining one of his girlfriends' church groups in the early 1970s. Yet the music remained hard-to-find, and Yonkers, who might have been one of the great psych rock figures of the late 1960s and 1970s, became the cultiest of cult obsessions.
Clint Simonson, who heads up De Stilj Records, remembers turning up a copy of Yonkers' Border of My Mindvinyl in a used shop and becoming fascinated with Yonkers' music. In 1997, Get Hip reissued a Dove Records compilation of unreleased recordings, which reignited his interest. Simonson began searching for Yonkers. "When we'd finally meet years later, he had five titles and about a million tapes," says Simonson. "One of the first we went through was the Sire record, and I was just astounded."
Mike Blaha had the same reaction, when his brother Jim, also in the Blind Shake, brought home a copy of Yonkers Kill the Enemy 7" in 1997. “The cover has this guy calling himself Michael Yonkers dressed in a homemade space suit, climbing into a flying saucer. I was like, what the Hell's going on here?" Blaha recalls. "What kind of crazy shit are you into, Jim?"
But it only took one spin to recognize that the craziest stuff was not on the cover but on the disc. "There was a certain sound we were looking for at that time and it turned out that Yonkers had already invented it in 1967," says Blaha. “So that made us feel like quitting. Then I bought the Microminiature Love album, which confirmed the belief that I should just quit and be a full-time listener."
The two Blahas caught a Yonkers show in Minneapolis a little later. "He didn't have the space suit, but he had springs in his shoes, a tank top, a homemade amp, a half-guitar, and the best voice I have ever heard," says Blaha. "We didn't approach him or anything. We just watched him walk around. It wasn't very crowded so we couldn't keep a close tail on him without looking like a couple of stalkers."
A few months later, Blaha saw Yonkers on the street in St. Paul, tipped off primarily by Yonkers spring-loaded shoes. “We started talking and I started spilling my guts about how my brother and I were huge fans," says Blaha. "He asked if I played in a band. I mentioned the Blind Shake. I figured, end of story. That's cool. Can't wait to tell Jim. Then Michael Yonkers walks in at one of our shows. We were so blown away by how down to earth he is."
Then Ryan O'Rourke, the booker for Minneapolis' Turf club, asked Yonkers and the Blind Shake to play together for his birthday. "We did a noise jam and it was such a huge success…everybody kept saying, you guys have gotta record. You’ve gotta record," says Yonkers. "So we did."
In fact, the title track from the new album Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons came out of that jam, according to Blaha. "Yonkers came up with a little riff--the one that later became the song 'Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons', and we jammed it as an instrumental on stage. It was a blast, so Yonkers went home and wrote a whole new batch of songs, which ended up being the full-length album."
That album has recently been released by the Minnesota label Go Johnny Go, following close on the reissue of Grimwood by De Stilj. Another album, titled Unbroken, also on Go Johnny Go documents sessions from a couple of years ago where Yonkers was supported by two Sub Pop employees, Jed Mayhew and Dean Whitmore. And if you ask him, Yonkers will send you a list as long as your arm of home recorded albums, reissues and other projects that are in the process of being issued. Still, sadly, Yonkers won't be touring much, or even playing many shows, to support all this new work. "It's a real shame," says Yonkers. "I'm pretty much done in that respect."
Instead, this fall, Yonkers will enter an intensive therapy for his back, a regime that will force him to spend up to three hours a day in traction. "Once I start this therapy, which is supposed to be the first part of October, I won’t be doing anything for many, many months, possibly longer," he says. "And it’s not going to cure anything, but just try to alleviate some of this awful pain from all this pressure." He adds, "When you're constantly playing guitar and sitting in cars and all the things associated with touring – it’s hard to describe the kind of pain, but I just can’t do it."
By Jennifer Kelly