All Joe Burton needs is a couple of beers and he’s ready to climb on stage at Mac’s Bar, play some air guitar and — Iggy Pop style — dive head first into a crowd of sweaty punk rockers.
Since Burton, 58, began stage diving and crowd surfing over two years ago, the Mac’s Bar janitor has made a name for himself in the Lansing music scene. He is best known for loving punk music, getting wild at shows and partying hard, all while he is “on the clock.”
“It’s obvious he’s done a lot of partying,” Mac’s Bar show promoter Skotty Bell said. “He is the poster child for what years of hard living will do to you.”
The grey-haired, mohawk-sporting Burton said he started working at Mac’s Bar in 1993, but is known more for diving than dynamic custodial skills.
“He’s a terrible custodian, just look at Mac‘s Bar, it’s a dirty place,” Mac’s Bar owner Chuck Mannino said. “He is a fixture at Mac’s Bar. He has worked there for maybe 13 or 14 years. But those numbers can change at any given comment with Joe. That number fluctuates, so I don’t know how long he’s really been there.”
Conflicting facts seem to be a re-curring theme with Burton, who, to date, claims to have stage dived 239 times.
Burton said that word-of-mouth and the Internet has caused a buzz around him. YouTube and MySpace both feature videos of his notorious stage dives.
“Most of the bands that play Mac’s hear about me and ask me to stage dive,” Burton said. “The promoters will tell me, ‘You can’t stage dive anymore!’ But the bands edge me on and they’ll give me signed t-shirts. They also put what number the stage dive is on it.”
There is a method to Burton’s art, a form he follows each time he launches into the air.
“I make sure I’ve had enough beer and there are enough people to catch me,” Burton said. “When I get up there I jam with the members. I have my back to the audience, I’ll air drum a little, and then I turn around, take three steps or so and jump into the crowd.”
Todd Karinen, of local band MK Ultra Culkin, recalled his experience watching Burton in action.
“I’ve seen him do it three times in one night before: it was insane,” Karinen said. “Everybody was encouraging him because he’s this older guy, who is just annihilated, yelling, ‘I’m going to go jump off the stage!’ It’s funny because the stage isn’t even very high.”
While Burton claims to have never suffered an injury from his dives, there are contradictions to that. Bell, who books many of the early, all-ages shows Burton dives at, recalls a different story.
“He went through a period where he attempted to stage dive no matter how few of people were in the crowd,” Bell said. “He did have an issue where he hit his head once, so he was on probation from diving for awhile.”
Alcohol and antics aside, the old punk rocker has managed to become an eccentric figure in the capital city rock music community.
Similar to how the spirit of punk legend Joey Ramone lives in the building that once housed the New York City rock club CBGB, the essence of “Mohawk Joe” will always live inside Mac’s Bar.
“He’s a part of this bar, just as much as the paint on the walls,” Bell said. “He’s a part of the establishment, there’s no way of getting rid of him. Joe has crowd surfed his way into our hearts.”