PRINT May 2012

Michael Smith

Snapshot taken by Mike Kelley on the set of The Gong Show, ca. 1976.


A JOKE THAT MIKE KELLEY TOLD on many an occasion:

So, this drunk is sitting on a bus. A brunette gets on and pays her fare, and as she’s about to head to her seat the bus driver turns to her and says, “Tickle your ass with a feather?”

“WHAT?!” cries the young woman.

“I said, typical Michigan weather,” replies the driver.

“Oh,” says the brunette. “Yes, it is.”

Ten minutes later, a blonde gets on, and as she’s paying her fare, the bus driver turns, smiles, and says, “Tickle your ass with a feather?”

“Pardon me?!”

“I said, typical Michigan weather.”

At this point, the drunk is beside himself with laughter. He leans toward the driver and says in a loud, slurring voice, “That’s hilarious, I gotta try that!”

To which the bus driver responds, “Be my guest.”

Ten minutes later, a redhead gets on and pays her fare, and as she passes the drunk, he screams at her, “SHOVE A FEATHER UP YOUR ASS!”

The woman turns around and says, “What did you say?!”

To which the drunk replies, “LOOKS LIKE FUCKING RAIN!”

Mike was a great performer who loved to put on a show. He was a spinner of tales who understood better than anyone when to drain the color from a yarn and turn it into a black-and-white us-versus-them story; a master of caricature who knew when volume served the story better than accuracy. Mike was rarely happier than when holding forth in public, and when he was fueled with drink it was hard to get a word in edgewise; his impromptu performances were pee-your-pants funny and completely unpredictable. Mike was brilliant, hilarious, opinionated, complicated, and full of contradictions; steely and precise in his assessments of art and artists, yet totally sensitive to criticism directed at him; incredibly loyal and supportive to friends he respected and loved, and a generous employer to numerous artists, yet never the best tipper (for years he could be counted on to slow down payment of the check by searching through his wallet for a dog-eared tip calculator). Mike was an artist who went against the grain and spoke his mind whether it was appropriate or not, complained constantly about deadlines, having too many shows, curators always getting it wrong, and not wanting to be an employer, and yet who was unable to step back, say no, and slow down his production, until it literally killed him.

On my way to Mike’s wake in Los Angeles I thought about the ’80s film The Big Chill, in which seven friends come together for the funeral of a charismatic college friend who has unexpectedly committed suicide. A weekend sleepover leads to bonding and reminiscing, not only about the loss of their friend, but also about the loss of idealism that seems to come with getting older. I can imagine Mike responding to my comparison of his wake to the one in the movie, in his inimitable Detroit accent: “OH, PLEEEASE, Mike, don’t do that to ME! That movie was HORRIBLE!” To make him squirm even more, I’d follow it up with, “You know, Mike, the director, Lawrence Kasdan, went to U of M, your alma mater. The Big Chill was based on his experiences as an idealistic, politicized student living in the Eugene Debs House, not so different from your experience.” I can hear Mike screaming, “LIBERAL MAINSTREAM BULLSHIT!” And he’d head straight down memory lane and launch into a story about Detroiter John Sinclair, poet, revolutionary, and onetime MC5 manager, and about Sinclair’s militant, antiracist, socialist White Panther Party and the huge influence it had on him, etc., etc., etc. I myself missed out on that minor/major history, but through Mike’s many retellings I relived it anyway.

I met Mike back in 1975, when he was an undergraduate art student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and I was visiting the school to put on a performance. I was older and a man of the world, having been out of art school for two years. I remember him being very respectful, kind of shy and nervous around me. I think he helped with the technical arrangements for the performance, but my first memorable encounter with him was at God’s Oasis, the house he lived in with Jim Shaw and others. If I had to reconstruct the place, I could access it directly through sense memory: The stink of cat piss combined with the noise of the resident band (most likely Destroy All Monsters) almost sent me fleeing out the door. Somehow I ended up accompanying Mike downstairs, either to get away or to see his art. I remember thinking during the descent, “What am I doing, going into the basement of this house, into another ring of hell?” It was a pleasant surprise to find Mike’s space orderly, spotless, and odorless. We commiserated about the cat problem and briefly compared notes about art. More important, however, we must have exchanged addresses, because the next time I recall talking with Mike was at my loft in Chicago, looking through the portfolio he was to present to the MFA graduate committee at the Art Institute. It was filled with paintings on paper of dinosaurs floating around on Abstract Expressionist grounds. Coming from a formalist painting background, I could see what was going on spatially and appreciate the color and the brushwork, but the figures totally baffled me, leaving me with little to say. We ended up talking about Jim Nutt, the Hairy Who, performance art, and music. We shared an interest in jazz, even though I eventually moved on to Muzak, looking to increase my productivity, while he went deeper and deeper into noise and experimental music. Eventually our talking points expanded to our personal lives and comedy. Mike was intrigued by the challenge of situating performance art outside the confines of the art context and was always interested and encouraging when I would venture out.

Card from Mike Kelley to Michael Smith (inside), ca. 1979.

MY RECALL IS FAULTY AT BEST, but fortunately during the memorial weekend many stories were brought up that I had forgotten, like the time we were kicked out of a restaurant in New York because Mike would not lower his voice while he demonstrated the differences between various regional accents, using the phrase fuck you as his example. Some of the stories I’d never heard, like one about an incident at a transvestite club he visited with some other friends. He started doing the cancan on the table, kicking over many patrons’ drinks and prompting one guy to grab him and say, “You either buy us beers or I’ll kill you.” Without missing a beat, Mike replied, “KILL ME!” Luckily, one of his buddies coughed up twenty bucks for drinks while Mike headed to the stage to continue his cancan.

Whenever I’d visit Mike in LA, we’d make a point of heading over to Colombo’s, Mike’s favorite watering hole, to get a good stiff drink and a mediocre meal and, if we were lucky, to listen to the song stylings of Eric, the piano-playing singer Mike loved to hate. Mike claimed the antipathy was mutual—which, if true, was surely due to the fact that Eric could hear Mr. Kelley imitating him, as he invariably did, in his schmaltzy crooner voice. The importance of Colombo’s for Mike did not escape his friends, and the day after the wake a group gathered for dinner and one last toast. Eric happened to be playing, very loudly as usual, making table conversation extremely difficult. During a brief pause between songs, Mike’s brother, George, hurriedly stood up and gave a quick toast to Mike. Without missing a beat, Eric, riffing on the toast, started singing, in his unctuous, jazzy style, George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch over Me”—a beautiful song, yet not quite appropriate for Mike Kelley. If only Mike were there, I can imagine his spit take, howling with laughter as soon as Eric started tickling the ivories.

Hopefully I can take something away from this tragedy besides a crash course on the condolence note. As I write, a month has passed since Mike died, yet he is more present in my mind than ever. Because of our recent large-scale collaboration (the 2009 video installation A Voyage of Growth and Discovery), many people became aware of our long friendship and reached out to me to express their sympathy and love after the public announcement of his death. Although I’m touched by the outpouring, I am also constantly reminded of his passing. Talking with old friends of Mike’s and piecing together parts of the puzzle may have given me a clearer picture of how he ended up where he did, but it hardly explains his inability to escape a deepening depression and the exhaustion he complained about for a long time. Mike worked too hard and drank too much, and the question of why someone so in control of his day-to-day operation could not rein in either is troubling. The more we all went over the events leading to his demise, the sadder and more frustrating it became—that someone so smart and so disciplined in his practice could not pull himself out of the dark hole he had dug for himself.

When asked to write about Mike for Artforum, I did not know where or how to begin. After talking with many friends, I realized that each of us provided different things for Mike. I have a good idea of what he got from me, but I am still figuring out what I got from him. Not too long ago, when I mentioned to him that I felt our collaboration had brought us closer together, he summarily dismissed this idea as ridiculous. Maybe this was true for him, but as for me, I became more aware of his day-to-day routine, his unrelenting work schedule on and off the clock, and the people he allowed into his life. Mike did not waste a lot of time or do anything halfway; you can be sure if he did anything half-assed, he’d purposely drop trou with his butt on view for all to see. If only I had his incredible memory I could better assess the friendship and immediately recall more choice anecdotes for this piece, but unfortunately they’re buried way deep in my own uneducated complex. To help reconstruct some of our past together I did the next best thing, culling from letters, photographs, and postcards I’d saved over the years (see pp. 246–47). Although there are only a few, they give an occasional glimpse of struggles that led to his eventual suicide, but they are also reminders of a younger, ambitious, and hopeful Mike Kelley.

Mike was a control freak in life, and he continued to be one even after his death. He stipulated that there be no funeral, no public memorial, and that his ashes be spread over a national park. He didn’t want much hoopla, but he did let it be known that friends and family should toast him with Vernors ginger ale while listening to the MC5’s “Starship”:

Starship, starship take me
Take me where I wanna go
Out there among the planets
Let a billion suns cast my shadow

Starship, starship take me
Stretch your legs in time and space

It was a bittersweet good-bye from Mike, who was reminding us one last time that he hailed from Detroit—but this time doing it with a wink delivered through the man on the Vernors can, as we toasted Mike’s memory and reconciled our complicated feelings about someone we loved, respected, and will miss terribly for a long time.

Michael Smith is an artist based in New York and Austin.