Some musicians claim to be the most popular. Others claim to be the most prolific. A singer who calls himself Michael on Fire claims a singular distinction.
"I'm proud to say," he boasted of his dealings with record companies, "that I've probably been turned down more than any other performer in the history of the world."
Or, as CBS Records Vice President Jamie Cohen put it: "Michael on Fire? Just a minute. . . . I get him confused with Flies on Fire," the name of a local rock band.
Though Michael has been shunned by record company executives, he has become a star in places far from the din of industry hangouts such as the Rainbow Bar & Grill. He and his band--also called Michael on Fire--have built a loyal following by playing suburban clubs.
"They draw a very intellectual-type crowd, a more mature audience," said Dennis Mancini of Mancini's in Canoga Park. "All their songs have a meaning."
According to Michael's manager, Ron Colone, the singer-composer, who is in his 30s, has a mailing list of 2,400 names. His fans buy "Michael on Fire" T-shirts and cassette tapes of 11 greatest hits, all of which have been rejected by record executives. Fans have purchased, at $5 apiece, more than 1,000 copies of a book of his lyrics.
And Michael is starting to catch fire in Colorado, where he'll spend the better part of this month playing clubs. His songs are even being played on a Telluride radio station.
Locally, Michael will play at the Breakaway in Venice on Wednesday and at Charlie's, in Ventura, on Thursday.
He describes his music as "rock and blues, with a couple of things that are . . . country music, some rhythm and blues, some that are my kind of rap music, some Latin, and some straight rock 'n' roll. If you're a real musician, you absorb as much as you can and throw it down."
The odd name--the "on Fire" part--is another story. After moving to Southern California in 1984, the musician was making a living by playing New Age events--festivals for psychics and healers and the like.
"I ran into an American Indian holy man who was impressed with my inner drive and gave me my spiritual name," Michael says. "The name was given to me with great warmth and great love. Still, my bass player, who's one of my oldest friends, refuses to acknowledge my stage name."
Michael on Fire has played more than 700 local shows--about 20 to 25 a month--over the last three years.
He started by soliciting clubs, such as Harvelle's in Santa Monica, that weren't regularly booking talent and would accept acts that performed only original material. Playing for little money at first, Michael increased his price as word of mouth spread and crowds grew.
"He certainly puts in the hard work," said Robert Raino, who aired several of Michael's songs recently during his Friday night program of new music at KWNK-AM (670). "Michael's a strong writer and a real good performer. He certainly has the talent and the material, but there are dozens of bands at his caliber that aren't signed."
Even if he hasn't had a major release yet, Michael boasts that he has "never stopped making my living by making music."
"I would probably do this whether I got paid for it or not," he said. "It keeps me young, and it keeps me healthy, and it keeps me real tuned in to what's happening."
The Breakaway is at 11970 Venice Blvd. in Venice. Live music starts at 8:30 p.m. There is no cover charge. For information, call (213) 391-3435.
Charlie's is at 362 S. California St. in Ventura. First set starts at 9:30 p.m. There is a $2 cover charge. For information, call (805) 648-6688.