by JIM KNIPFEL
June 12, 2011
The Emperor’s Retarded Clothes
A few weeks ago, I received a note from my old friend Dave Williams in Philadelphia informing me that Mikey Wild had been admitted to a hospice unit. Then I began receiving other notes from people in Philly, telling me the same thing. I’d never met most of these other people (not that I recall, anyway). Even if I had met them, I certainly hadn’t been in contact with them in twenty years. Still, they all figured I’d be interested in the Mikey Wild news. I was, in a way.
The next morning, Dave wrote again to tell me that Mr. Wild had died of lung cancer.
If you weren’t part of Philly’s underground music scene from oh, the late seventies through the nineties, then the name might not be familiar to you. If, however, you were even tangentially familiar with the scene, then you knew Mikey. He was an inescapable fixture of South Street and the clubs. A punk rocker’s punk rocker. And I was one of the very few people in town at the time who didn’t adore him. Perhaps I should have, but he always annoyed me a little bit. The feeling was mutual, I guess. Mutual enough for Mr. Wild to write a song called “Jim Knipfel is a jerk.” As a result, for me to turn around and write a glowing obituary now that he’s out of the picture would be more than a little hypocritical on my part. What I will do in lieu of an obituary is try to explain what happened.
There’s no denying that Wild was a beloved presence in the Philly punk scene. He was like a faithful pet. He hung out at the record shops, he was at every show, he was always very enthusiastic about everything. The scene certainly wouldn’t have been the same without him. Mr. Wild was also, in the parlance of the politically correct, developmentally disabled. I’m not sure of the exact nature of his condition—I was fed any number of explanations over the years—but when you get right down to it, Mikey Wild was retarded.
If you spend enough time investigating the music scenes of enough cities, you come to realize that every town had one: a regular local performer who’s just a little bit off somehow. Whether it’s the result of schizophrenia, Down’s Syndrome, drug-inflicted brain damage, or some other genetic defect, there was always that one guy who had a guitar or a keyboard and shambled up on stage to sing his little songs. There were enough examples from around the country (Daniel Johnston, Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, Art, even Roky Erikson) that it became a musical sub-sub-genre all its own known as “tardcore.” In most cases there was more than a little exploitation involved, but like the old freak shows they so closely resembled, if it gave the performer something to do and allowed him to earn a little money, what’s the big deal?
Well now, one night in Philly Grinch and I went to see some band or another playing at a punk bar called The Khyber Pass. I was at the Khyber a couple of nights a week back then, just to see what was what.
I forget who the headliner was that night, but the opening act was Mikey Wild. I certainly knew who he was by that point, but had never seen his act before. Simply as a personality, Wild was everything I wasn’t—happy, gregarious, enthusiastic. That right there was something to grate on the nerves. His act was something else.
He got up on the small stage with a little Casio, hit a few buttons until it began spitting out a simple electronic tune, and over it he sang his songs, like “Chicks With Dicks,” “I am the Crucifier,” and his big local hit, “I Hate New York.” Most of the songs consisted of two lines, repeated until he got tired or distracted.
I think my personal favorite from his set that evening was “Vincent Price,” which went as follows (sing along if you like).
Wasn’t very nice.
Wasn’t very nice
Wasn’t very nice, etc.
It was after Mikey finished that song that Grinch turned to me and proclaimed, “This guy is brilliant!”
“Uh, no, Grinch,” I replied. “No, he’s not.”
What bugged me, I gotta say, was not Mr. Wild’s performance. I’d seen worse. In fact Grinch and I had done worse ourselves in our old band. What bugged me was the patronizing audience. They were applauding wildly and cheering at the same time they were sniggering and elbowing each other.
Well, after the show I went home and wrote a column about the experience. As I recall, I didn’t say anything particularly awful about Mr. Wild, but did point an accusatory finger at the smug, patronizing crowd, while placing Wild in the larger context of the tardcore scene.
It seems it was that last bit that was verboten. I guess no one was allowed to say aloud that Mikey was retarded. (What, didn’t he know?). I had apparently broken some unspoken but collectively understood cardinal rule of the Philly punk scene.
Shortly after the story came out, in flowed the hate mail and the death threats. Letters and calls as savage as anything I’d seen since badmouthing a local diner. I had apparently dared to speak aloud what everyone knew, and so was now expected to pay for it.
It didn’t stop with the calls and letters. I began finding there were a few places I was no longer welcome (bars, record stores, clubs)—but fortunately few people knew what I looked like, so it wasn’t much of a hindrance. But then of course there was Mr. Wild’s new song.
I really hadn’t started with much of a beef against Wild—I found him kind of annoying, so I stayed away from him is all. I’d tried to write an honest account of the show, and saw the kind of vicious hypocrisy I was getting in return. That was the turning point, I guess. I had people pushing me for reasons I didn’t think I particularly deserved and so my first and only impulse, being young and drunk and ornery, was to wage a little war against Mr. Wild and his followers.
It pretty much ended after I left Philly. In fact I’d hardly thought of Wild in years until these notes started arriving.
There is no denying the impact he had, the mark he made on the scene back in the day. My intention is not to piss on his grave, nor to apologize for anything that happened. Seeing these notes, it’s clear that our little set-to twenty-some years ago made for an interesting chapter in the Mikey Wild saga. So there, you see? Despite everything I may have said about him in public or private all those years ago, in the end I gave him something (even if I don’t care).
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