What kind of man
If you call him a man
Ain’t never got a dime,
But he’s always dressed to the nines
He can never show respect
With his two-faced intellect
He’s got cream on his jeans
From sucking up at the scene
He will use you all
And then throw you out in the hall
He’s the Great American Tapeworm.
—from “Great American Tapeworm”
Mike Anton is not just another cheesy folksinger. He’s more of a songwriter who takes the piss out of things that need deflating. Lyrics like “rape a pig make it see, make it see, you’re only living peacefully” warrant explanation:
“It’s American culture,” Anton explains. “We rape the environment, raped the American Indians. There’s a huge amount of docile people that don’t think about others and are so removed from their environment and just consuming without thinking.”
This from a guy who repairs transmissions and replaces brakes 50-plus hours a week. When the effusive and articulate acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica man isn’t wielding wrenches, he’s trying to sling his one-man show called Manton — part man, part Anton — around town. His Manton shtick, as he likes to call it, is a literate and guttural song collective that’s rich with lyrical discourse, with social and pop culture protest. His sharp, sometimes bombastic (see: ironic) songs can simultaneously engage and rile the listener. And that’s no mean feat considering that Manton’s aggressive, in-your-face style is an anomaly in the traditionally passive milieu of the coffee shop singer/songwriter.
But for a guy playing coffeehouses, he’s not some mellow, java-swilling, chess-playing dude chirping inward-gazing journal entries. Some, in fact, consider him to be an asshole at his shows. The criticism doesn’t bother him, and well it shouldn’t. He’s simply telling the truth.
“Why would I go anywhere if I was an asshole?” says the 35-year-old Grand Rapids native. “You can pick at me, I can laugh at me … I’m probably being just angry and old.”
Anton’s songs may address upright and uptight ideals, and may be protest-y to some, but they are intensely listenable. And, of course, just unusual enough to not be marketable.
At best, his success has been minor. He sold about 250 copies of his 2002 album Songs From The Parking Lot. This past November he released his fifth album, the hilariously titled Standing in the Shadows of Poseurs on his own RodKnock record label. The latter disc, armed with songs like “Cheesy Folksinger” and “Great American Tapeworm,” was recorded and mixed in his basement on a 1980s Peavey cassette 4-track with a couple pawned effects boxes.
His use of minimal recording gear gives the music a bright and clean tone. He plays all the instruments too, with exception of some of the drum tracks, which were played by his brother-in-law Tony Coppola and 13-year-old nephew Zachary Warman.
“It’s just music to listen to,” Anton says from his multicolored living-room chair in his Hazel Park home. “I’ll say things that will jog ya, but I’m not trying to bitch, I’m trying to get you to think and say, ‘What the fuck?’”
Anton has been asking questions about American popular culture, social excess and political propaganda for 15 years. These are issues that enrage the man.
After the 9-11 tragedy he wrote “No One To Sing.” On it he asks, “Where are the kids in America?” Over a soft acoustic strum he screams, “I can’t believe there’s nobody to sing for the kids of America.” He’s got a point. Where the fuck is the protest music?
“Are Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake saying anything to the kids of America?” he wonders.
He decided to revisit an antiwar song called “Preacher” on the album, which he wrote in protest of Dubya Sr. going into Kuwait. The song was created when Anton would travel from East Lansing to Washington, D.C., as an activist against the Gulf War.
“It’s the religious right, the born-again Bush family,” Anton says. “They’re not going to ram the Christian Coalition down my throat, that’s not America. America is set up for thought and discussion. Unfortunately the song is as relevant today as it was back then.”
Another song called “One Long Overdrive” takes some shots at Dubya Jr., particularly on the chorus: “Just like the president always said, make all the words that are in your head/Squeeze the fish, don’t forget, get the eggs.” Anton says one major inspiration is George Orwell’s 1984, the novel’s vision of horror-show totalitarianism was, he says, “a warning, not a prediction.”
In 1989, Anton did a 21-day stint at a substance abuse treatment center in Grand Rapids for booze. After rehab, Anton purchased a guitar as a gift to himself. Hard living and song became his outlet. He began attending local open-mic nights while taking journalism classes at Michigan State University. Songs developed, as did Anton’s singing voice. The rhyming couplets and vocal phrasing of Dylan became the songwriter’s practicing faith.
“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was my bible for a good two years,” Manton explains. “I wanted to be the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album.”
Besides Dylan, Frank Black, Bowhouse Quintet, Tom Waits and Julian Cope became his musical kin. By 1991, Anton began making cassette tapes. He compiled his early songs on an album titled The Detroit Auto Show. In 1995 he moved from East Lansing to Detroit, where a local bathhouse owner was interested in managing him. The manager-artist union didn’t pan out and Anton soon split. False promises of the experience are expressed in the song “Hard Living On Clay Street.”
“That was my introduction to Detroit, I was thrown right into it,” Anton explains.
A positive from Clay Street was meeting his wife, Tammy Coppola, who is a talented artist herself. Her sweeping watercolor portraits of her husband are on the cover of an Anton lyric book (The Manton Lyric Book — 66 pages of lyrics, poetry, photos and art) and the album Songs From the Parking Lot.
The two connected and decided to travel around the country, with an extended stay in Chicago, where Anton began working his music in the subways. Busking became his full-time job, and he performed during the heavy rush hours. It was there that he learned to charm big crowds.
“It enabled me to cut my teeth,” says Anton. “The key was making eye contact with people and letting them know you’re there. A good week would be between $150 and $300. It turned into a lifestyle. It taught me how get people’s attention.”
People noticed and Anton began booking local gigs. Chicago was good for a few years, but the two moved back to Detroit, and a few years ago purchased their Hazel Park home.
Anton returned to the open-mic nights and ran one at Xhedos Cafe in Ferndale for a year. Today he’s trying to escape the coffeehouse circuit and he’s keen to put a full band together. What’s sad is that here’s a gifted songwriter who has been in the margins for far too long. He doesn’t come off bitter and appears to be digging life.
“I have my regrets, but I’m happy now,” he says. “I have a lovely wife and I’m in a much better place. There’s no end, I just want to make a living at this. I don’t think I’m asking too much.”
In the end, Manton is anything but that which he characterizes in some of his lampooning songs, particularly “Cheesy Folksinger,” on which he sings, “writer of philosophy, spewing artsy-fartsy, generalized theory, speaking clichés.”
Mike Anton will perform Friday, April 2, at Trixie’s Café and Coffee Shop (25925 Gratiot Ave., Roseville) with Dave Martin. Show time is 9 p.m. Call 586-776-9002. Visit www.mantonmusic.com for more on Mike Anton.Scott Harrison is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org