Lost in Yonkers

Michael Yonkers: "I can't imagine living a more interesting life"
Diana Watters

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.  

Like so many of his second-generation rock counterparts, Yonkers found his introduction to rock while watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. Perhaps an indication of things to come, the occasion overwhelmed him with emotion ("I ran away from the TV and ran up to my room and cried," he recalls). Sneaking in to see the Trashmen at age 14 inspired him to save up money to buy his own guitar and play in a band.

In the mid-Sixties there was plenty of musical company in his Morningside neighborhood (which is now part of Edina), including garage-rock mainstays the Novas, Avanties, and Chancellors. "It was not uncommon for a whole bunch of us to rehearse outside on the same Sundays and Saturdays," Yonkers says. "We'd be doing our stuff, and we'd hear the Novas doing 'The Crusher' three houses down."

One feature that set Yonkers's early bands apart was his constant retooling of their equipment for maximum aural effect. He thought the effect pedal Keith Richards used in "Satisfaction" was too buzzy, and figured he could do better. So he designed and sold small runs of his own homemade effects pedal. His speakers didn't sound nasty enough, so the teenager took a razor blade to them. When Yonkers was a student entering the University of Minnesota, an art teacher gave him a book on "Happenings," the mid-Sixties interactive and multimedia performance events. These accounts inspired Yonkers to craft inflatable animals and people out of giant Gabberts furniture bags, which he set aloft at gigs.

Having gigged everywhere from teen dances to VFW halls, Yonkers and his drummer/brother Jim Yunker and bassist Tom Wallfred aspired to record something for posterity. He answered an ad in a local music publication and hooked up with Peter Steinberg, head of Candy Floss Productions and a part owner of Dove Studios. Steinberg envisioned Candy Floss--one part production company, one part artist-management agency, and one part record label--as a Minneapolis-based bubblegum-music factory in the mode of New York City's Kasenetz and Katz (the people who brought you "Yummy Yummy Yummy" by the Ohio Express).

The Yonkers Band may have had an appetite for distortion, but Yonkers also, according to Fogel, had a melodic sensibility that could have fit a hit-making scheme. Fogel remembers hearing Yonkers singing a lilting pop song when he and Longman first walked through the doors of Dove in 1967. Fogel sings a bit of it over the phone: You don't care/Da da da da da, uh ho-ho-ho. "It had a hiccupy, Buddy Holly [quality] to it," Fogel elaborates. "Very Buddy Hollyish. He rather looked like Buddy Holly at the time. Before a year was up, he was quite the hairiest one of us all."

The tracks, recorded one year, and much chin hair, later, have an intensity and freshness that startles even listeners familiar with the mining of musical nuggets. "1492 is now," Yonkers sings on the opening cut "Jasontown"--and, true to that lyric, there's a lot to be discovered on Microminature Love. A droning guitar sound--discovered and perfected when Yonkers knocked his guitar off a stand and kept the unusual open tuning that resulted--makes this album sound more like Sonic Youth than the Sonics. Yonkers's deep vocals hardly seem to come from someone in his late teens and they lend the lyrics a certain urgency. Written while Yonkers was heavily involved in the antiwar movement, the lyrics have a startling, hyperreal quality that resonates with the current spirit of our times. A woman weeps over a letter pronouncing her GI husband dead while holding a toy soldier in her hand. God stands on majesty while wrapped in an American flag, wisecracking, "If you make it home/Then you'll be old enough to vote."

During a time that saw the Fugs and the Mothers of Invention sign major-label deals, Steinberg managed to score the Yonkers band an audition and contract with Sire Records in New York. Fogel characterizes Steinberg as not quite comprehending Yonkers's music, but smart enough to capitalize on it. "He admired Michael and liked him," he says. "I don't know if he understood him." But almost as soon as the contract was inked, their relationship deteriorated in a murky series of misunderstandings--which have grown scantly clearer with the passage of 35 years.  

Yonkers suspects that Steinberg "might have misrepresented the truth a bit," as the intermediary between the band and the record company. Steinberg, claiming he was acting under Sire's direction, told Yonkers to lose his beard and band, and move to New York to write and perform Top 40 pop. Yonkers was having none of it and wriggled out of the deal. Nowadays he thinks he could have worked matters out directly with the label. "I was a stupid idiot kid. Now, I would have called Sire. I probably would have heard another story."


After the contract fell apart, the band followed. Yonkers continued his studies at the University of Minnesota, dropping out after clashing with a registrar who objected to Yonkers's habit of changing his major every term. He started reconfiguring children's toys called Sketch-a-Tunes into low-budget synthesizers. In a low-budget home studio he recorded gentle, slightly off-kilter folksongs that were the stylistic opposite of the Yonkers Band material. (He released four albums' worth of these songs on his own imprint in 1973.) To fund these projects, he went to work at the Acme Electronics warehouse ("heaven on earth," he says wistfully).

During this time, he also started studying dance in earnest, having tried karate in college. ("'You move real good, but you just don't have a killer instinct,'" Yonkers recalls his instructor telling him.) He began dance lessons with Heidi Hauser Jasmin--he still takes her beginner class today--and soon was incorporating his new knowledge into solo electric-guitar shows with backing tapes, special effects, and theatrics at West Bank venues like the Coffeehouse Extempore and the New Riverside Cafe. Fogel remembers these frantic shows as "crazy and beautiful."

Recalling these performances in his apartment, Yonkers pulls out a tape he made in the early Eighties--one of several hundred "tiny dances" that he choreographed, scored, and often videotaped. In it, he wears a white leotard, and he glides and twirls to the music of Debussy. Long purple, teal, and yellow streams of light trail his moves, seemingly burning into the screen.

"How did you do that?" asks Destijl's Simonson, amazed at the spectacle onscreen.

"Beats me, it's been a long time," Yonkers laughs.

Almost as amazing as the volume of this work is the fact that it ever got done at all. Back in 1971, a 2,000-pound pile of computers toppled on Yonkers while he was working in the electronics warehouse, destroying his back. After several years of severe pain, Yonkers submitted to exploratory surgery--which, in pre-MRI days could sometimes be worse than the original injury. Yonkers's first myelogram--a process where dye is injected into the spine so that X-rays may be taken--almost killed him. ("I grabbed the nurse so hard, she said my handprint was on her for weeks.") His allergic reaction to Pantopaque, the oil-based dye used in the procedure, led to arachnoiditis, a degenerative condition of the inner lining of the spinal cord. ("It's not a fear of spiders," Yonkers jokes with a sigh). Yonkers details the inevitable course of the disease rather succinctly: "First you lose [the use of] your legs, your arms, your sight, and then your life".

A chance meeting at a pain clinic in the late Seventies gave Yonkers a shot at slowing the progression of arachnoiditis--dance therapy. It was this treatment that helped Yonkers forgo the use of painkillers. He resumed dancing with gusto, beginning to take on character roles for the Continental Ballet and the Minnesota Dance Theater. He eventually performed with about a dozen companies in all. He also danced with Nancy Hauser's company (he'll appear in the upcoming 40th-anniversary show in May). Studying Middle Eastern dance in the mid-Nineties seemed to help his back--and also introduced him to his current girlfriend, whom he's been seeing for eight years.

Being on disability has forced Yonkers to be "frugal and clever," and to devise his own diet and exercise regimen to augment three to four hours of physical therapy every day. He demonstrates a few homemade traction devices. One is a pair of modified crutches, which he uses to prop himself off the floor while his feet rest on a board balanced atop a half-sphere. There's also a contraption with gravity boots hooked to a slanted board. Some exercises, he figures, he's done nearly a million times. While the diligence has helped Yonkers keep his body from degenerating for the time being, coping with the disease is still grueling. "I don't recommend it to anyone," he says wryly.


Over the years, Yonkers never gave up making music for his own enjoyment; he's got hundreds of tapes--"somewhere"--to prove it. But he stopped performing live in the mid-Nineties when standing and singing started to cause uncontrollable back spasms.  

Around the same time Jordan, Minnesota-based collector and historian Jim Oldsberg started compiling a collection of unreleased Dove tracks and contacted Steve Longman, who still had a box of unclaimed tapes he'd acquired when Dove closed in 1970. The collection, released in 1997 on Pittsburgh's Get Hip label as Free Flight: Unreleased Dove Recording Studio Cuts 1964-69, garnered good reviews, particularly for the two Yonkers cuts at the end, "Microminature Love" and "Kill the Enemy."

Those cuts on Flight sent collector and Destijl Records head Clint Simonson on a four-year hunt to find Yonkers--who conceals his phone number about as carefully as the White House hides Dick Cheney. Combing the bins for the self-released discs and quizzing anyone who would listen, Simonson got a break when local free-jazz pioneer Milo Fine suggested he put in inquiries with local dance studios. A message was eventually relayed to Yonkers--perhaps the most extroverted recluse on the planet--who took a quick liking to Simonson. Yonkers had planned to issue the recordings on CD himself, but Simonson's offer of a vinyl-only release appealed to the musician's love of retro tech, clinching the deal.

In anticipation of a solo show at Treehouse Records to commemorate the LP's release, Yonkers has devised a special brace and a stand for his guitar. He put the equipment through a dry run in a recent KFAI studio broadcast. Still, Yonkers says that it's highly unlikely he'll continue playing out. Instead, more home-recorded music seems to be in the future.

During a telephone chat, Yonkers plays snippets of one such project, a disc with the working title Straight Through, which has him multi-tracking in real time. After sound-checking with a Mystikal CD (Yonkers calls hip hop "the single most important thing to happen to popular culture in the history of the Western world"), some lo-fi, blues-tinged, fuzz-laden rock begins to buzz through the phone. "Hear that noise? YEAHHHHHHHH!" Yonkers howls.

Clicking the player off, he says laughing, " I have so much fun playing anything with distortion. I'm sure there's some psychological profile of wacko-ness that that fits. But I'm not really trying for anything. It's just kind of what I've done for 30 years."

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