Malinowski, 21, has been a licensed street performer for more than three years—in which time he’s become a guitar hero to many a Red Line commuter.
Interview by Jake Malooley
Photographs by Jeffrey Marini
I’m trying to bring back the guitar slinger. A lot of guys play guitar, but there aren’t a lot of guys that know how to wield an ax. It’s kind of a lost art. How many guitarists can play behind their heads? Or behind their backs? I’m not the kind of guy who just stands and plays. I’m a showman.
My guitar heroes? Zakk Wylde, Dimebag Darrell, Randy Rhoads. Oh man, metal is just not what it used to be. You don’t hear huge, epic solos as much. Someone’s gotta bring it back.
I write long guitar pieces—speed-metal symphonies. I used to just play solos. But that got redundant. You get sick of your own sound after a while. Now I have backing tracks I’ve composed.
The nickname I originally had in the street musicians’ scene was Mildew Mike, because I was a stankin’-ass motherfucker. Machete Mike is sharper. Plus my last name in Polish means “raspberry.” Michael Raspberry just doesn’t sound very metal.
As a kid, I was very athletic. I played football, soccer, Hacky Sack—shit like that. I wanted to be a baseball player, actually. But one day I turned on the TV and caught Headbangers Ball on MTV, and I heard this guitar solo and, man, this guy looked so badass with his Les Paul. And I realized in my heart: Dude, that’s what I want to do.
When I saw the movie The Dark Knight, I learned an important rule from the Joker. He said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” So guitar—this is my job, this is how I pay my bills.
Before this I used to work demolition. The way I’d get those jobs was I’d sit at a gas station with a group of Hispanic guys waiting to be picked up for work every morning. It was like I was undocumented. But I’m actually the first one in my family that is a natural-born U.S. citizen.
My family came from Poland. My mother is from Białystok. She grew up milking cows. My dad was from Olsztyn. They both came to the States as teenagers seeking freedom; communism was leaving, but it had taken its toll, and separately they were like, “Let’s get the hell outta here!”
They met in Chicago and had me. But I didn’t grow up with my parents. They started using [drugs], and I got taken away. So I grew up in group homes—they don’t call ’em orphanages anymore. I was a smart-ass, one of the kids who never got adopted. Prospective parents would come in, and I would pull this gag, like, “Trust me, ma’am, I’m house-trained. I won’t shit on your carpet, I won’t chew up your shoes.”
When I turned 18, I was on my own, man. I do talk to my mother here and there. I got one brother, one sister. I’ve never been much of a role model, but I’m doing pretty good. I think of myself as the richest bum you’ll ever meet. Something I’ve learned: There’s a big difference between being homeless and being a bum. Big difference! I bounce around from friend’s place to friend’s place. I’m not the usual buddy that just comes over and sleeps on your couch. I clean, help fill the fridge—shit like that. I could be staying in a $15 SRO, but I don’t want bedbugs.
Believe it or not, I’m managed by a label now, Str8Razor, which is mainly a hip-hop label. They recently booked me to play a black Republican event on the southwest side. I saw so many stereotypes falling like dominoes that day: Here I am, this long-haired dude playing a conservative function for a roomful of black Republicans. A lot of people look at me and think I’m a liberal. But Ted Nugent and I have similar views on some things.
Piano was my first instrument. I started playing at age five. I still go to Harold Washington Library’s piano rooms. I’m a whiz on scales. Leads have always been my passion. In high school I played the cello.
The way I started doing guitar tricks—it was like playing H-O-R-S-E with friends. I was always playing guitar with older guys, and I realized I had to do something to distinguish myself. I saw a video of Stevie Ray Vaughan soloing behind his back while playing “Texas Flood,” and it blew my damn mind. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out how he got the guitar behind his back. Then I realized: he hangs the strap around only his left shoulder, which is how I wear it to this day.
Once you memorize the fretboard, playing guitar behind your head looks a lot harder than it really is.
The CTA performers, we’re a big happy family. But like any family, there’s that black sheep, that guy who just doesn’t get along with everyone. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of us down here get high, but I just smoke pot and drink. A lot of the guys down here—man, they’ve got some problems. I’m just glad I’ve never walked down that road.
Usually you can find me playing the Jackson Red Line platform. But I really got my start at the Jackson Blue. I was doing the demolition jobs, and one day my boss told me to meet him at the job site. So I hopped on the train, passed through Clark and Lake, and there was a guy down there strumming an acoustic. I looked in his guitar case and there was more money than I’d have in my pocket from bustin’ my balls all week. I thought, Somethin’ ain’t right. I can play better than that!
I wouldn’t play the subway unless I was making $100 a day. A bad day is $20 to $50, and the only time I see those days is in the dead of winter. Last winter was brutal. Try playing lead guitar with three fuckin’ gloves on! My record take was Lollapalooza 2013—just under $300 in eight hours.
The worst reaction I’ve ever gotten was when an old man unplugged me. Walked up, cane and all, and pulled the plug. All I could do was stand in awe, like, This old motherfucker!
At least once a day some guy asks, “Hey, man, can I play your guitar?” You know what I tell them? “If you let me come over and touch your wife, I’ll let you touch my wife.” Usually I get a good laugh. It’s even better when my girlfriend is there. She’s like, “So that’s your fuckin’ wife, huh?”
I go to work now and smile. Don’t get me wrong—some days I hate it. But usually I fuckin’ love it.
I’ve been in a lot of weird bands. I was in a jazz band once called the Source—just a bunch of old guys gettin’ high. I was like, “Fuck this!” I’ve tried to put a couple of metal bands together; it’s hard to get people together, especially talented individuals who aren’t otherwise totally flawed. I’ve got my flaws too, but I can usually look like I’m trying to put effort in. And I’ve got bigger plans. One thing I heard Zakk Wylde say: “There’s no reason to pull over and ask for directions if you know where you’re going.”