I'll admit that my decision to do so was guided largely by the media fanfare that surrounded the its release. This record was, apparently, a landmark collection of music from an obscure mid-century blues hero who had managed to elude recognition from the general public while accruing an esoteric cult following amongst an artistic vanguard who giddily testified to its mindbending wonder: "The innovation and possibility in this music leaves me speechless!" quoth Beck! "A revelation!" exclaimed Leonard Cohen! "Marvin is good! gushed Angelique Kidjo! "In my formative years, as an aspiring bass player, there was nothing I listened to more than Marvin Pontiac!" swore the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea!
But if the Marvin Pontiac fan club had a president, it was undoubtedly New York composer, actor and painter John Lurie, who spoke earnestly about discovering Pontiac's music as a teen in western Massachusetts, learning to play the harmonica by listening to his records and even once meeting his reclusive hero during a trip to Detroit. Having learned that the rights to Pontiac's music were available, Lurie recounted, he wasted no time in acquiring them, personally compiling and releasing the Greatest Hits package on his own Strange and Beautiful Music label.
Magazine features tended to focus on the... quirkier aspects of Pontiac's short life: Born in Detroit in 1932 as Marvin Toure, son of a Jewish mother and a Malian father (who changed the family name to "Pontiac" because he thought it sounded solidly American). When Marvin was four, his psychologically fragile mother was institutionalized and his father took him to live in Bamako for the next several years. Upon returning to the US at age 15, he played guitar and harmonica in Chicago clubs alongside the likes of Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, but his burgeoning musical career hit a bump, though, after a brawl with local harmonica player Little Walter, who accused him of stealing his harp technique. The humiliation of catching an ass-whupping from the diminutive Walter drove Pontiac out of Chicago and to Lubbock, Texas, where he worked as a plumber's assistant, allegedly got involved in a bank robbery and possibly did a bid on a chain gang.
He gave music another go in the early 1950s, recording a series of sides that melded his American and African music influences in a proto-worldbeat fusion that enjoyed some degree of success in various regional markets. But Marvin's career was hamstrung once again, this time due to his increasingly eccentric behavior: He refused to record for record labels unless the label chief came over and mowed his lawn. He was arrested for bicycling in the nude. He maintained that he had been abducted and brutally probed by alien lifeforms. By the early 1970s, he was residing in a mental hospital, where he took to dressing in the Malian garb he recalled from his childhood; the sole existing photos of Marvin Pontiac were taken during this period--they depict a tall black man swathed in a turban and boubou, wielding an acoustic guitar as if on the edge of eternity.
Who wouldn't be intrigued by a story like that? I live in a fragmented, postmodern culture perpetually fascinated with the notion of tormented, doomed geniuses so ahead of their time that they accidentally cross the threshold into the world of insanity. So yeah, I bought Marvin Pontiac's Greatest Hits based on that, aaaaaaaaaaaand...
...It was cool.
I mean, it was an aiiight record. I didn't find it to be as life-changing as the hipster hype had advertised, but I dug it well enough to listen to it repeatedly over the course of the next two or three weeks, talk it up with other music fans and even recommend it to customers at the record store where I worked.
But through all that, there was something about the music that smelled funny... Right from the very first few seconds that I listened to it, certain things just didn't compute.
Take, for instance, "I'm A Doggy," which the liner notes described as having been a minor US hit in 1952:
The first thing that came to my mind when I listened to this song is probably the first thing that came to yours: "Do this shit sound like it was recorded in 1952?"
I flipped through the liner notes, hoping to find a mention of Pontiac arriving at Philadelphia's 24-track Sigma Sound Studios to re-record the song in 1974.
Nope... Pontiac gave up music in 1970 to concentrate on re-establishing contact with the aliens who had abducted him. The liner notes are pretty clear about that. He never recorded another note till the day he was run over by a city bus in 1977.
But I was not a skeptic, so I just let it slide. Let's just keep it moving. This track is "Pancakes," which supposedly was released as a bootleg in Nigeria, of all places, and became a major sensation there:
Now I'm really feeling this song... I like the understated percussion and the insistent melody of the xylophone, and the way the lyrics No seriously--This music is really supposed to have been recorded in the 1950s?
Well, I guess they just did a helluva remastering job on this reissue, huh? Yeah... Yeah, that's the ticket! Great remastering!
Alright. I'm pretty sure that some of the Afropop styles being referenced here didn't even exist yet back then. And yo, I know his moms was Jewish and everything, but frankly, this cat sounds kinda... well, "white" to me. He sounds like a white guy doing a Negro impression, and not doing a bad job of it most of the time, but at other times, he just sounds like--
Wait a circle-jerkin' minute...!!
In a feature in MEAN magazine, the interviewer had asked Lurie:
[MEAN:] So, will you be covering any of Marvin's songs onstage?
Lurie: I don't think so. I can't really sing. I know our voices are similar.
[MEAN:] Yeah, they're very similar.
Of course. So frickin' obvious! The clues were all there, really... Even in the fanfaronnade of ecstatic celebrity blurbs endorsing the album! Take, for instance, this one by David Bowie: "A dazzling collection! It strikes me that Pontiac was so uncontainably prescient that one might think that these tracks had been assembled today."
(Can't you just see Bowie--himself no stranger to alternate identities--grinning slyly and winking as he makes the above statement?)
Of course John Lurie was Marvin Pontiac. This was confirmed a few months later, when he admitted to performing all the Marvin Pontiac recordings himself and even posing in blackface for those blurry artist photos.
Well, I'll be. I'll admit that once I discovered the deception, my first impulse was to return the CD for a refund.
It's not like I was mad that the album turned out not to be what it was sold as, or even that I'd allowed myself to get taken by the hoax. My problem was that I just didn't think the hoax was particularly well played.
I actually love hoaxes. I find them to be excellent entertainment in and of themselves, even if it's just to savor the attention to detail with which the diligent hoaxer constructs a convincing facsimile of reality. When such textural fastidiousness is lacking, though, it becomes kinda embarrassing. Like spotting a visible boom mike in a movie scene, or an actor wearing a wristwatch in a Biblical epic. At first you might try to ignore the discrepenacy in the spirit of willing suspension of disbelief, but the more frequently such gaffes appear, the harder it is to commit to the story or even take it seriously at all.
That's what happened to me with Marvin Pontiac. Dammit, why didn't Lurie work harder to make it sound like it was recorded in the 1950s? I mean, shit, at the very least, I know they've got plug-ins that can simulate the audio grain of analog recordings!
To be fair, it's quite possible (and even likely) that Mr. Lurie didn't necessarily conceive Marvin Pontiac as a full-blown hoax--he just made the music he wanted to make and then thought of a cool way to generate buzz for it and some game journalists played along with him.
Still, my interest in listening to the record had evaporated virtually overnight; I had kept the CD too long to return it, so I just chucked it into a crate and never thought about it again. I had other music demanding my listening.
This was around the time that Universal was reissuing a huge chunk of Fela's catalog, and I was eating it up just as fast as they doled it out. In between releases, I stoked my appetite by devouring just about every vintage afro-funk record I could find. And that's when I found The Daktaris' Soul Explosion in some back-alley vintage vinyl hole in London.
Okay, so what have we got here? We've got a band I've never heard of, we've got a cheap, blah-looking LP cover with the screaming burst "PRODUCED IN LAGOS, NIGERIA" (no date of production or release listed) and we've got exuberant sleeve notes by someone named Peter Franklin of "Abidjan Musique" promising that the record is an explosion of funk.
Sure... Why not?
So I take the record home and give it a spin; sure enough, it is an explosion of funk. But it damn sure don't sound like no Nigerian record to me.
Something about the drums just didn't sound right. I had no way to really explain it but to say they weren't swinging in a way that sounded Nigerian to my ears. They were too rigid and regimented... Too curt and direct in their attack. Even when they were covering a Fela tune
it was more grits and gravy than garri and groundnut.
Their James Brown version was pretty heavy, though
...even though some of the vocals seemed suspect.
Looking at the credits, all the musicians seemed to have Nigerian names like "Alaji Boniface Oluremi," "Gbenro 'Mr Icee' Fakeye," "Alaji Milificent Agbede," "Femi 'Dokita' Doolittle" and "Olu 'Rocksteady' Owudemi." I figured that they must be a band of Nigerian musicians based in Munich or some other place where they hadn't eaten some correct akpu in a long time or something.
Because I was not a skeptic, I took it at face value and went on for a few weeks discussing and sharing the record with other Afrobeat fans. It even took a while before I went "hmmmmm..." about the fact that the album had been "reissued" in the US by Desco Records, a tiny NYC indie that specialized in revivalist "heavy funk." I was actually a fan of a lot of the label's output and the entertaining interviews in which co-owners Phillipe Lehman and Gabriel Roth espoused their purist agenda and fulminated against digital recording technology, jazz chords, Tower of Power, slap bass, the Berklee College of Music, Phil Collins and other maddening, anti-funky abominations of the modern music world. Indeed, one of the tracks on Soul Explosion echoed the label's stance on modern recording techniques:
(come to think of it, this is one of the more authentically Nigerian-sounding cuts)
Desco's involvement made me a little suspicious. Not only did they take pride in the fact that their records sounded like they were made in 1970, they often packaged them to look like they were made in 1970 in order to fool collectors into thinking that they really were rare and priceless vinyl relics. Could this be yet another fast one?
Let's take a closer look at that track, "Eltsuhg Ibal Lasiti": What language is that? How do you even pronounce that title?
How about backwards?
Read from right to left, it spells out "IT IS ALL A BIG HUSTLE."
Turns out Soul Explosion had not been recorded in Lagos, Nigeria at all, but in a tiny basement studio in Brooklyn. The Daktaris were in fact The Soul Providers, Desco's house band, composed of mostly white musicians! (Lead singer/percussionist Duke Amayo was authentically Nigerian, as was one of the "assistants" listed in the credits: Babatunde Adebimpe, erstwhile roommate of Soul Providers saxophonist Martin Perna and current lead singer of TV On The Radio.)
The Desco team soon splintered, with Lehman going on to start Soul Fire Records and Roth Daptone Records. The Soul Providers also split; part of the band formed the core of the well-regarded, Perna-led Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas (left) while Roth re-organized other members as the Dap-Kings (right, with frontwoman Sharon Jones) who recently played on Amy Winehouse's hit single "Rehab" and backed the UK singer on several live engagements before her personal troubles overtook the music a little bit.
Yes, once again I failed to trust my gut instinct, and I ended up getting played. Granted, I didn't mind this time because the hoax was actually pretty well-constructed, but alas... my innocence was by now choked off and grown over by a prickly callus of skepticism.
A few days ater I discovered the Soul Explosion hoax, I received in the mail a promo disc for Soul Ecstasy: Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack, a "found" soundtrack of a "lost" chop-socky Blaxploitation movie from 1972. Even before I listened to it, I read the lurid press copy that accompanied the CD:
Summer, 1972. Soul Ecstasy opened like a naked flame in a powder magazine. It was extinguished fast. Not because it had no audience, but because its audience might have burned the theatre down. At least that's what the Establishment thought... and feared. Black Panthers collaborating with the Red Chinese, young girls kidnapped and sold to Hong Kong bordellos,
Okay... whatever, I think. This shit is fake.
stalwart young men chemically transformed into mincing drag queens--no one wanted to stop and consider the absurdity of the ideas. The safest thing to do was to close the film down before too many people even heard about it. And that's what they did.
No compete print of the film is known to exist today but we still have the script, assorted stills, a few crew photos of the production, some print reviews and most importantly--its entire soundtrack. Since the story takes place in both New York and Hong Kong, its music producer, the late Ricardo Tubbs,
Come the fuck on.
hit on the idea of fusing, rather than contrasting, the two sounds of the locales. The result is the unique music of this record.
The Inner Thumb, whom Tubbs pieced together from bands in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York, existed only as long as it took to record this music. Its members, however, continued on to have successful careers as sidemen or band members--drummer Paul Garcia joined The Medicine Hall, which had a regional hit in the South in 1975 with "That's A No-No," bassist Rich Morel can be heard playing on five other movies scores (including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,) and guitarist Jimi Redcloud toured live with Rod Stewart.
We are lucky to have found this rare gem of a soundtrack from the too often blanched-over history of American Cinema. Enjoy the experience of the always contemporary sound of true spirit, the power that can never be silenced.
Of course it was later revealed that the "soundtrack" was the creation of a production duo known as dj me dj you, but it was actually not half bad, especially the Curtis Mayfieldesque main theme. (It's also out of print, so if you care to, you can download it HERE (Divshare) or from HERE (Megaupload).)
So that's the way I be now. Doubting Thomas like a motherfucker. When presented with some quirky, high-concept artpiece, especially one characterized by peanut butter-and-chocolate mashup of hipster fantasy fulfillment ("Imagine a world in which some obscure artist or artists take all your favorite musical, literary of political concepts and bakes them together into one delicious pie--and it's fucking delicious!!") my default response is to take it with not a grain of salt, but with a big heaping ladle. Everything is fake to me until proven otherwise.
(Hell, not too long ago I was even debating with some friends the odds that champeta is really real--as in an actual street-level mass phenomenon in Colombia, as opposed to some elaborate musical fan fiction engineered by a cabal of hash-smoking, Paris-based Colombian DJs who figured it would be cool to crossbreed cumbia with soukous, highlife, juju and Afrobeat.)
The reason this comes to mind at all is because I have a 40% off coupon to Borders burning a hole in my pocket so I was thinking about finally picking up the Mingering Mike coffee-table book. And frankly, the whole Mingering Mike phenomenon has had my Spidey-sense buzzing like crazy ever since I first heard about it.
The marvelous mythology of Mingering Mike dates back to 2003 when DJ, record collector and private investigator Dori Hadar posted on the Soul Strut boards about stumbling upon a truly bizarre find while digging at a Washington D.C. flea market. As Hadar later described it in the Fall 2004 issue of Wax Poetics:
It was a box seemingly full of records, but as I pulled them out, I saw that they weren't records at all. They were fake albums--a collection of over three dozen. Each was hand painted and intricately designed, some complete with liner notes, lyrics, imaginary labels, and in some cases, cardboard records on which the grooves had been painstakingly painted. Some of the covers were even covered in shrink-wrap, which must have been meticulously removed from real albums and pulled onto these homemade ones. Whoever had made these had also gone so far as to write the album titles and call numbers onto the spines.
Talk about attention to detail! The producer of these "fake albums" had scrupulously crafted an entire fantasy tapestry of up thirty-five imaginary record labels like Nation's Capitol, Hot'n Soulful Cookin', Decision, Spooky and Puppy Dogg that issued albums with titles like Fractured Soul and Otherwise, Tuxedo Styled, You Know Only What They Tell You, Ghetto Prince, Sickle Cell Anemia, Get'tin To The Roots Of All Evils, and From Our Mind To Yours, as well as soundtracks for movies like Bloody Vampire and Brother of the Dragon, featuring musical stars like Joseph War, Rambling Ralph, The Outsiders, Jean Lantree, The Big D, Audio Andre, The United States of America Puppet Force, and the enigmatic star that this entire universe seemed to revolve around: Mingering Mike.
Hadar's posts attracted some interest, and another D.C.-area digger named Frank Beylotte reported finding a similar stash of crudely illustrated fake albums, as well as 8-track tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, videocassettes and personal letters, including official military correspondence. So Hadar and Beylotte teamed up to compare notes and eventually tracked down the owner of the stash, a fiftysomething District resident who explained that as a teen in the 1960s, he had dreamed of soul stardom and wrote up to two thousand songs.
His ambitions never came to fruition, though: Vietnam was in full swing and he got drafted in 1968. Mike duly reported to basic training, but terrified of getting killed in the jungles of Southeast Asia, he went AWOL and hotfooted it back to D.C., spending the next six years laying low, "releasing" his music as imaginary records and becoming a major music star on the glittering stages of his own mind.
Mike's alternate-universe music stardom lasted until the later half of 1970s, when the demands of grownup life necessitated his retirement from professional dreaming. He packed his records up in storage and got a job. When he briefly fell behind in payments on his storage unit, his belongings were auctioned off and ended up in the flea markets where Hadar and Beylotte found them. Now Mingering Mike's naive daydream doodles hang on museum walls and are hailed as exemplars of contemporary American folk art, and even his dream of being a recording artist has materialized in a fashion: a 45 rpm record has been released featuring music he recorded on reel-to-reel back in the 70s.
Now that is a fucking great story. It's a like some surreal fairy tale dreamed up by Philip K. Dick, Michel Gondry and Haruki Murakami as they passed a blunt back and forth in the Dusty Grooves stockroom. And I'm not buying it.
(The story, that is... I'm probably gonna buy the book, which is a handsome volume indeed!)
I dunno... Somehow, it's just too... perfect for me. It's like it was deliberately designed with all the elements to appeal to one such as myself: Unabashed soul music fanaticism? Check. Aesthetic obsession with the physical minutiae of vinyl records? Roger that! A sensitive misfit protagonist who escapes the ugliness of reality by retreating into a rich fantasy world? Yup! Hell, it's even got a private eye in it! Throw in a tortured relationship with Christian piety and I'd think it was some shit I wrote!
Like Hov said: We don't believe you, you need more people. And by "more people," I mean one person. The one individual who seemingly has never been seen by anyone: Mingering Mike himself. It seems that after decades of dreaming of stardom, now that it is upon him, he has developed an acute shyness and wishes to remain in the shadows, revealing neither his face nor his real name (It has been reported that his name is Mike Stevens, but Hadar denies this.) I guess it's understandable that Mike--who has built a normal life for himself over the past 30 years--might desire to maintain his privacy or even that he might be discomfited by the way his private fantasies have suddenly been made public... But I can't help it: his mysterious non-appearance just takes my mind back to those blurry Marvin Pontiac photos.
And it makes my me start questioning other things, too... Like the tracks found on the "Minger Player" on Mingering Mike website. They were supposedly taken from Mike's old tape recordings, but what year are they from? Something about the style of beatboxing he's using sounds more post-hip-hop than hambone to me!
But if Mingering Mike were a hoax, wouldn't journalists with much sharper investigative chops than me have figured it out by now? He's been featured on NPR, in The Washington Post and The New York Times. These aren't some dandy-ass trendspotting zines we're talking about here: this is The Paper of Record! But then again, didn't those esteemed publications let themselves get suckered by fraudsters like JT LeRoy and James Frey?
Aaaaaahhhh... I'm probably just being over-skeptical. I mean, I think Mingering Mike is real... Lord knows, I want him to be real because it's like the coolest story ever and testifies to the fact that there is some genuine wonder left in these cynical times. But shit, can you blame me for being wary about it? None other than our Chief Executive stated sagely: "Fool me once, shame on... shame on you. Fool me... uh, you can't get fooled again!"