Lost in Yonkers

A tour through the life of musical maven Michael Yonkers makes some strange stops in toy engineering, modern dance, and physical therapy

Michael Yonkers still has the guitar he had in 1968. That he can find it in an instant is no mean feat given the clutter of his St. Paul apartment. Befitting a prodigiously creative 54-year-old who has been toying with sonics for more than three decades, Yonkers's pad is jam-packed to its acoustic ceiling tiles with musical cargo: a couple of CD towers, stacked plastic boxes of unknown contents, and one wall that looks like a mini-mission control, with a couple of PCs lined up next to a TV and the building's security monitor. Yonkers's brother has just moved, and this tiny apartment seems to be reabsorbing what had long been stored elsewhere. (One of Yonkers's most frequent conversational refrains is "I still have it...somewhere.")

Though it wasn't a space-saving move at the time, Yonkers sawed his Fender Telecaster down to a slim rectangle back in 1967. Today, swaddled in duct tape, its neck and fretboard are accented with brightly colored signal dots and its body accessorized with a black and silver "M.Y." sticker. It looks like it's seen a lot of wear, and not just from years of practice. Yonkers remembers his instrument serving a secondary purpose during some wild shows that he played with the Michael Yonkers Band in the mid-Sixties, when the group's decision to dump surf guitar for screaming rock 'n' roll was being poorly received by suburban listeners.

"We'd get run out of town, we'd get thrown out," he says with a grin. "Other times we'd get attacked." He mimes a little half-swing with the instrument, demonstrating another good use for a cut-down guitar. "It used to scare the crap out of those guys!"

Steve Longman, engineer at Richfield's Dove Studios from 1968 until its close in 1970, will never forget the first time he saw Yonkers take his modified guitar out of its case 24 years ago. The rhythm section for the band had just laid down tracks at a session he was recording. "The body was sawed off," Longman says, "and it was silvery, and there were a couple of large knobs on it, and--I swear this is true--some kind of antenna thing sticking out of it. Kind of spronging around, like a prop from a 1950s science-fiction movie. Then he plugged it in and we went for the first take." He imitates the raw, droning six-string sound he heard that day. "Hraww wrahhraw hhharah hhhrahhh!" He exclaims: "It was wah-wah-ing even before I knew what a wah-wah [pedal] was! And I started laughing, it was such a shock!"

"He just doesn't go through life, he's invented his life," says longtime Yonkers friend Arne Fogel, a Twin Cities jazz singer, broadcaster, and writer, and a cohort of Longman and Yonkers during the Dove years. "He's just a regular nice guy that you want to know and hang out with. Very well-rounded, very bright, all of those good things. But when he wants to be totally surprisingly unique, that just spills out of him, too."

While the creativity hasn't brought Yonkers much acclaim outside of a small local circle, a new release of those 1968 tracks, Microminature Love (Destijl) should easily expand his reputation. There's a buzz about this record, a surprise from a decade whose vaults have been ransacked of their musical treasures. But don't mistake Yonkers for one of those early-blooming folks whose lives consist of a few embalmed moments surrounded by arid stretches of inactivity.

"If the angel came along and said, 'We're going to be taking you tomorrow,' I'd say, 'fine,'" Yonkers says. But those words sound too downbeat, so he corrects himself. "I shouldn't say it that way; I've done so much already that everything else is cream. In my own mind, I'm already a success. Not financially, not in status, not anything like that. But I can't imagine living a more interesting life."

When Clint Simonson of Destijl Records takes me to visit Yonkers in mid- January, a wiry man in gray sweatpants and a T-shirt answers the door. He moves a little slowly, conserving his motions, not unlike any middle-aged athlete after too vigorous a workout. But occasional grimaces when he changes positions on the floor and some long pauses between sentences suggest more than ordinary discomfort. Yonkers reveals that he's had several sleepless nights recently. This interesting life, it turns out, included a catastrophic event that nearly killed Yonkers decades ago and still shapes his existence today.

Though Yonkers is a little hazy when talking about the names and dates of his past, a box of photos turns out to be a fine mnemonic device. In one picture, a fresh-faced Yonkers holds a double-necked guitar, which he fitted with an applause button--"just in case," he jokes. In another image, elderly aunts appear to be trying hard to seem excited as he shows off a synthesizer built out of a cannibalized children's toy. The massive cultural shifts of the mid-Sixties are distilled into a pair of snapshots. First there's a picture of Yonkers's surf band, Michael and the Mumbles, all clad in matching vests, neatly trimmed Beatles haircuts, and shined shoes. The next shot dates to the year after Yonkers bought his first Rolling Stones album and sees his crew wearing ponchos, love beads, medallions, and plenty of swagger.

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