To see a video of Mickey Clean's band on an old episode of the cable access show TV Party click here.
A wiry man with tufts of gray hair hanging over his glasses shuffles into the Pirate Republic Bar late one warm Thursday night carrying a cigar box full of worn-down crayons and a stack of ruffled papers. A few of the newer bar patrons wonder aloud if he is yet another Fort Lauderdale vagrant looking for change. But the regulars light up.
Mickey Clean's leather shoes are worn out, his khaki shorts are dirty, and his wrinkled white button-up shirt hangs loosely off his narrow shoulders. He wears a faint cologne of stale beer and cigarette smoke. He has a gentle, Bojangles smile. Some people say he's the happiest man at the beach. Mickey is something of a local legend, a threadbare gypsy soul who's a fixture in the barrooms and drinkeries in this area.
"He's the crayon man," says Chrys, the chatty Brazilian woman behind the bar. "The guy who drew all these." She points to the walls, to the dozens of colorful drawings taped up in every direction.
The Pirate Bar is tucked into the side of an alley just off of A1A, Fort Lauderdale's beachfront strip. It's a cramped, open-air, sand-on-the-floor tavern, a throwback to the old spring break era, when this area earned the nickname "Fort Liquordale." There's a flow of heavy metal in the speakers, dirty limericks scribbled in the bathroom, and pirate skulls painted on the walls. The locals sport tattoos, the tourists sunburns.
Mickey sways as he walks — he's rather drunk by this time of night — but he never drops his box of crayons or his sunny disposition. He approaches three vacationers from New Jersey. They're in their 20s, drinking a bucket of domestics by the dartboards. "Caricature?" he says to air in front of them. "You guys want a crayon caricature? Only a buck a person. And you get a free story."
"A story?" one of the women asks.
"Yeah, yeah, a story," Mickey says. "I've got hundreds of 'em." There's a pause. "And they're all true!" he adds through a grin that's shy a few teeth.
Mickey sets down his box and his papers and gets to work. With a black marker, he outlines three faces. With the nub of a fat brown crayon, he colors in the brunet's hair.
His eyes still fixed on the paper, he begins, "So, uh, here's my story," he says. "I was a rock star once."
The tourists laugh politely. "Oh yeah?"
"Oh yeah," he says. "I'm just doing this to pay my property taxes and feed my cats."
As Mickey tells his tales, his hands work at lightning speed: shading, coloring, switching crayons. By the time he's done, every inch of the paper is covered with bursts of color: the shaded peach sunburns, the green and brown palm trees, a flicker of blue sky, and splashes of at least a dozen other colors.
"Voilà," he says, as he adds his final touches.
"Holy shit," says the man with the Jersey accent, sincerely impressed. "How fucking cool is this? We should frame that shit!" They'll tip him a few bucks.
One of the women looks at other drawings taped up on every wall. "Did you do all of these?"
"Yeah, I'm Mickey Clean," he says, slurring slightly through his smile. "You never heard of me? I'm famous."
There have been Mickey Clean sightings all along Fort Lauderdale beach, from as far north as Commercial Boulevard to as far south as the 17th Street Causeway, but he spends most of his time in the mile-long stretch between Las Olas and Sunrise Boulevards, in the old bars made famous in spring break movies like Where the Boys Are. Here, college kids drink in flip-flops alongside old souls trying to forget about life's troubles. Here, sand and grime, spilled beer and cocaine residue all collect around the bathroom sinks, the way people collect around the places they know.
Nowadays, these time-honored dive bars, populated predominantly by locals, brush up against shiny new ultraluxurious hotels and resorts that have been built over the past decade and attract wealthy, discriminating tourists. The result: a humid, neon-tinged socioeconomic melting pot at the edge of the ocean.
The setting is home to a kaleidoscope of colorful characters. There's the self-monikered "Coatman," who runs up and down the beach in a full-length coat, training for marathons and explaining to anyone who'll listen that he is, in fact, an extraterrestrial who doesn't age. There's the chubby, bearded man who wears a thong bikini and dances along the sidewalk in roller skates. There's a hairy guy who sleeps in a van and preaches that he is the "Living Martyr." There's the 400-pound black guy who passes his days sitting across the street from Beach Place, periodically stops traffic on A1A, and has been known to throw feces at police officers.
Perhaps more than anybody, though, Mickey Clean personifies this part of Fort Lauderdale: He's a bit dirty and vulgar but also a special kind of charming, and he's as reliable as the morning tide. He offers his artistic services and a moment of companionship to the happy and the sad alike, to the tourists and the locals, to the drunk and the sober, to the lost and the wayward.
"He just makes everyone happy," says Jeff Rudd, owner of the Treasure Trove, an open-air bar and predominantly local hangout on AlA two blocks south of Las Olas Boulevard. "He's here every day, like a fixture on the beach." Rudd estimates that he's poured Mickey well over 1,000 beers in the past decade (all gratis) and says that Mickey will be welcome as long as he owns the bar.
"Mickey is the first on the scene and the last to get mean," says Ryan Bloom, the night manager at the Beach Package Store, the liquor store at the corner of Las Olas and A1A.
Chrys, the bartender at the Pirate Republic Bar, says at least three people ask about him every night. "Mickey is everybody's favorite Fort Lauderdale character," she says. "A lot of people think he's homeless or some crackhead, but you know he's not, right?"
"That guy is a landmark around here," says Blake Wareham, a bouncer at quintessential pool hall/pinball mecca Dirty Blonde's.
"When he's not at the beach, it's like the beach is missing something," says Smoky, who for six years has sold hats he makes out of palm fronds in the alley next to Dirty Blonde's. "No matter what mood you're in, when you see Mickey, he puts you in good spirits."
Marie Correa, a promoter and hostess at nightclub Exit 66, says it's hard to imagine a day at work without seeing Mickey walk by, his cigar box, papers, and beer in tow. "Even if you think you're not going to see him one day, he pops up right around the corner."
As Dave Cassel, a regular at the Elbo Room, the area's oldest watering hole, says, "It's like he walks from bar to bar all day, sprinkling his good charm on all the drunk people. He's like the patron saint of Fort Liquordale."
But not everybody adores Mickey. Some bouncers tire of his drunken antics and hearing the same bad jokes day after day. The nighttime door guys at the Elbo Room sometimes won't let him in. One bouncer calls him "an annoying crackhead." A doorman at the swanky Ritz-Carlton says of Mickey, "We'd certainly like to discourage that element here."
At the Treasure Trove one night, Mickey approaches a blond and asks if she's a mail-order bride from Russia.
"I've been to Russia," he says, "when it was still behind the Iron Curtain." He brags about having fronted one of the first punk bands in the United States: "Before the Sex Pistols, before the Ramones, before any of them," he said. He said he'd played at CBGB in New York, that he'd been on some big TV show in the early '80s. That he graduated from a great art school in Boston and even taught for a little while at Harvard.
They're stories the regulars have all heard. Few of them probably thought there was a chance the stories were true.
Each day, Mickey wakes up around 9:30 a.m. and eats either eggs or lox for breakfast. Around noon, he packs his cigar box and his papers into a canvas satchel and bikes to the beach.
One of his first stops is the liquor store, where he buys a bottle of Beck's and makes a phone call to his wife. If his cigar box is beer-drenched or beaten up, the guys at the liquor store give him a new one. As a matter of fact, Mickey gets all his materials from people in the neighborhood. Chrys, the bartender at the Pirate Bar, buys his crayons. "Every time, he opens the box like a little kid opening a Christmas present," she says. Jeff Rudd, owner of the Trove, gave him a new bicycle for Christmas last year. He says it goes back to the tradition of saloonkeepers taking care of their drunks.
On the hunt for his next caricature subject, Mickey ducks in and out of every bar and drops by every bit of outdoor seating. "When one group wants one, everybody wants one," he says. "And when nobody wants one, it's the same way."
He works his way from the Treasure Trove up the beach to the Elbo Room, to the people drinking outside touristy restaurant Spazio's, to the alley in front of the Pirate Republic, to the tables in front of Dirty Blonde's, to the patio of Exit 66, to the gallery in the Beach Place shopping center — where people call down to him from the third floor, "Hey Mickey!" He waves back, hops on his bike, and pedals away — to people sipping cocktails out in front of Cantina, to the upscale, Mediterranean-styled Casablanca Café, up to Sunrise Boulevard, to McSorley's Irish Pub and the Caribbean-flavored Parrot Bar, then all the way back again.
He draws a group of teachers having frozen margaritas outside Rock Bar. Then four college students in bathing suits and backward hats. Then a biker and his wife. An older couple from Plantation. A group of port workers sharing beers after a long shift. A lonely-looking man with a bartender. A personal trainer and a waitress showing some out-of-town friends a good time by the water. Hour after hour, day after day, he tells the same jokes and the same stories about his past.
By 6:30 p.m., he's usually done ten or 12 portraits and bikes home for supper, picking up vegetables at the grocery store on the way. By 8, he's back down at the beach, making his same loop over and over. By 11 p.m., he's swaying and slurring and has beer stains on his shorts, but he still keeps most of the drunken bar patrons amused. By midnight, he looks something akin to a cartoon mouse that's fallen into a beer. On a slow night, Mickey might collect other people's half-finished, left-behind draft beers into a single cup, then down it in one swig.
One night at the Pirate Bar, Chrys the bartender and a pair of yacht salesmen try to estimate how much he earns. "He works from 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. sometimes," Chrys says. "You figure three or four dollars per picture. Sometimes double on weekends. He does at least 20 or 30 a day."
One of the salesmen does the math in his head. "I wish I made that kind of money."
Mickey, however, won't discuss numbers. He says he doesn't consider himself a caricature artist. "I'm more of a comedian or a philosopher," he says.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of Mickey's crayon drawings dot the walls of bars up and down the beach. On a windy day, his sketches blow around sidewalks and onto the floors of beachfront stores.
But Mickey has ambitions well beyond this place. He has ideas. He has a CD he recorded nine years ago. He wants to play music again. He wants to sell a comic strip character he created — named Rodney the Rodent, it's a vulgar, crudely drawn, standup comedian version of Mickey Mouse.
"It's not too late for me to make it big," he declares, stopping to add the word "again."
Fort Lauderdale's Victoria Park is a quaint, picturesque neighborhood just a mile or two west of the beach. Its blend of unique and historic architecture attracts young professionals, well-heeled families, doctors, and lawyers. The home next door to Mickey Clean's is a massive, multimillion-dollar mansion. Comparatively, Mickey's house is modest: a single-story turquoise structure with white trim and a lush yard. The paint on the picket fence is chipping, and the ornate tiles in the front yard are faded and dirty.
He lives with his wife, Cathy, a former model and actress. They've been together for four years, but she's known him for decades. "I'm his biggest fan," she says one afternoon at their house.
In the living room, a ray of sunlight shines over a flickering black-and-white TV, old Christmas lights, a ruffled sofa, and dusty photos on the mantel. The house smells a little like cats.
If Mickey Clean is to be believed, 40 years ago, he was an art prodigy in Boston. Then he fronted one of the first punk bands, rocking audiences, owning the stage like nobody had before, inspiring the likes of Steven Tyler and Iggy Pop. "They know who I am," he says. (Neither musician's representatives could confirm this.) To hear him tell it, he was a pioneer of punk.
"I was big," he says. "I was huge. We were headlining at the Rat in Boston — that's the birthplace of punk in America." His words come out in a swaying, manic procession as he leans over a dirty canvas with a broken frame sprawled out in the backyard near five empty beer cans and a blooming tomato plant.
Born 60 years ago in the Bronx, Michael Cleanthes was the youngest of four siblings, eight years younger than the next oldest. His father, a Greek real estate magnate who had a lot of government contracts in New York, and his mother, the daughter of Greek immigrants, divorced when he was young. Mickey could barely read or write, but he could draw and paint better than any kid in school.
As a teenager, he fell into the drug scene in New York, doing more acid than pot, he says. At 15, he ran away to live in an ashram in Greenwich Village. When Mickey was 16, his father sent him to live with his mother in Greece. He says he took a school trip into the Soviet Union, where he was nearly detained by Soviet soldiers with machine guns. He says he even handed out American rock 'n' roll albums to some of the Russian kids when the guards weren't watching. The entire story sounds like a typical bullshitter's yarn — but then Mickey produces a few old photos of his teenaged self with friends and a teacher, standing next to murals of Soviet propaganda and young soldiers holding Kalashnikovs.
After high school, he says, he studied art at the prestigious School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and graduated the five-year program in less than three years. (The school confirmed his attendance in the late '60s.) Then he says he taught at Harvard University. (A university representative confirmed he was once an adjunct instructor.) He was offered an artist's grant to tour Europe, but instead, he used the money to buy instruments.
"I had just got back from Europe," he says. "So I started a band with my friends."
Though they barely knew how to play, Mickey put his guitar in an open-E tuning so he could slap some notes into the amplifier as he danced around the stage and sang. This was around the time the Rathskellar, a smoky subterranean dive bar known better as "The Rat," opened in the basement of a restaurant in downtown Boston. Appealing to the burgeoning punk movement, the iconic venue would come to be known for hosting everyone from the Talking Heads to Thin Lizzy to Tom Petty. But before them all, he says, there was Mickey Clean and the Mezz.
Asa Brebner, now a promoter and producer in Boston, was in the band with Mickey. "He would take hold of the microphone and just gyrate and totally let go of everything onstage," he remembers. "And he was doing it before anyone."
Sure enough, a Spin magazine story about the formation of punk music in Boston names Mickey as one of the first influences on the genre. Brett Milano, author of the book Sounds of Our Town, a history of rock 'n' roll in Boston, says Mickey is thought of "as one of the formative names on the Boston scene." He says that several of the musicians he spoke to for his book cited Mickey as one of the main reasons they started a band. Mickey's band is even listed on the Wikipedia page for "punk music" — and Mickey certainly doesn't know how to update Wiki pages.
In the late '70s, he moved back to New York, where the band booked a few gigs at CBGB, the punk venue made famous by the Ramones, the Misfits, and Patti Smith.
He also tells stories about the time he was on TV Party, the quirky late-'70s/early-'80s cable access show in New York. The show is adored by retro-crazed scenesters and is known for introducing the world to new-wave icons like Mick Jones (the Clash), David Byrne (Talking Heads), and Debbie Harry (Blondie). It's recently been made available on DVD. And indeed, in an episode that aired February 17, 1981, Mickey Clean was the musical guest. With a backup band — a man dressed as a monk playing the accordion and an albino man playing guitar — a young, lanky Mickey sang deeply into the microphone while writhing all over the set.
Not long after that, Mickey says, the band broke up, and he floated around New York, Toronto, Montreal, and Boston. "Heroin was getting real big back then," he says ominously. He says he hitchhiked across the country and got a ride (and a joint) from Robert Redford. (Redford's representatives did not reply to requests for comment.)
His life took a fateful turn when he met Christine McConnell, an heiress to the Avon fortune. She wanted Mickey to move to Florida with her. There, near the beach, they could get any kind of drink or drug they could imagine.
A little more than ten years ago, though, she was committed to a mental institution in New York. Not long after, she died, but she left him the house. All he has to pay are the property taxes — $6,000 to $10,000 a year. And so, to satisfy Uncle Sam and to feed the cats around the neighborhood, Mickey started drawing tourists by the beach for dollars. Once he started, he never stopped.
If only he could get a song on the radio for a few weeks, he says. If only people could see Rodney the Rodent. "It's Lenny Bruce meets fucking Mickey Mouse," he says. "Who wouldn't love that?"
He takes a drink. "I'm my own worst enemy," he laments. In the battle of man versus himself, he fears he's already lost. All the drinking. The drugs. The missed opportunities. Looking back, it seems like such a short road from artistic pioneer to here. "I'm self-sabotaging," he says. "I just hope it's not too late."
Asked about all of the thousands of people who have probably framed his drawings, he brushes the question aside.
"I can't really get big until I get my teeth fixed anyway," he says.
One subdued Fort Lauderdale evening, the wind is blowing in hard off the water, and Mickey's almost ready to call it a night. He parks his bike outside Treasure Trove and strolls into the bar, receiving nary a glance from the room full of downcast eyes. The twangy, bawdy voice of country singer David Allan Coe booms from the speakers, and the patrons are atypically gloomy. He looks around for an unattended beer, but there are none. Then he tries to drum up some business. "Caricatures?" he says to no one in particular. Nobody looks up. He tries again: "Caricatures? A buck a person?" No response.
He approaches a group of three near the end of the bar. He pulls out his marker. "You guys want a crayon caricature? A Mickey Clean original."
"No thanks," says a man in a windbreaker.
"C'mon, you guys'll love it," Mickey says, already outlining their silhouettes. "I did all of these on the walls."
They try not to look in his direction, but he's already filling the page with color. Instead of their frowns, Mickey draws them each with a bright, happy grin. Instead of the dark night behind them, Mickey draws a warm, sunny day.
The man looks grimly at Mickey. "Sorry, man," he says. "We said we didn't want it."
"All right, all right," Mickey mumbles, and he stops coloring. As if in one motion, he loads up his crayons and marker, hops on his bike, and pedals off into the darkness. He leaves the drawing on the bar.
A few minutes later, the group of three decides to leave too. As they exit, one of the women unwittingly knocks over a beer with her oversized purse. She doesn't look back.
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The beer creeps toward the drawing, soaking its edges. But before it gets too far, a bartender rescues the paper, waving it dry. He holds it up and examines it: the green and yellow trees blurred into the background, the bright-blue jacket, the colorful dresses, the happy drinkers.
He takes a piece of clear tape from under the bar and finds a clean spot on the wall.
"This one's a keeper."