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It was 1980 when Craig Calvert noticed a guitarist-wanted ad stuck to the wall of a Lansing laundromat. An unusual place to recruit musicians, this was the nexus point of the Fix, one of Lansing’s most storied punk-rock groups.
After arranging a meet-up via the phone number he snagged from the flier, Calvert was greeted by a large, soft spoken man with a seemingly infinite knowledge of music. This was Michael J. Achtenberg.
“I remember meeting this big, wide shouldered dude and you don’t really know what people are gonna be like at first,” Calvert said. “But Mike was super kind and a total music connoisseur. He could tell you who played bass for the Stranglers back in 1978.”
Achtenberg, bassist of the Fix, Blight, the Meatmen and Just Say No, died on Dec. 14 after a battle with heart disease. He was 60.
Achtenberg devoted much of his life toward his passion for music, playing out of love and never for reward, of which there was often none.
“We called him the gentle giant, he was a very peaceful guy,” said former Fix drummer Jeff Wellman. “He played a great bass and he played it fast.”
The Fix, co-founded by Achtenberg and vocalist friend Steve Miller at the dawn of the ‘80s, was different from other local bands. Their punishing sound was more akin to wartime machinery than conventional music. The Fix’s emphasis on precision put them a cut above and saved their razor-wire sound from the sloppiness that often dogs punk-rock musicians.
“We got together to play music sometimes in our little apartment,” Miller said. “We’d seen the Stranglers and the Ramones and were inspired to pick up a cheap guitar from Sears.”
Achtenberg’s musical knowledge gave the band a strong palette of influences the Fix would soon draw from.
“Mike knew everything about music,” old friend Doug Wood remembered. “He taught me about the good stuff.”
Pals throughout the ’70s, Achtenberg and Miller got serious about forming a band and upgraded their apartment to a house on 1435 Roosevelt Street in 1980. The space gave them freedom to rehearse without worry of the police knocking down their door, no matter how much the neighbors groaned.
The two were eventually joined by Craig Calvert on guitar and Jeff Wellman on drums.
Together the group honed their sound into an aural whiplash assault, a style that had caught on in Europe, Los Angeles and the East Coast, but was still completely alien to mid-Michigan.
“You weren’t doing this to make friends, you weren’t doing this to make money,” Miller said. “You were doing this because it was something you felt.”
The Fix made its concert debut in April of 1980. By that fall, the band was able to attract a crowd of curiosity seekers blended with fellow punk enthusiasts.
“That music was just starting to get recognized and the Fix were at the forefront of that,” Wood said. “You had Black Flag on the West Coast, Bad Brains on the East Coast, and at the same time Lansing had our own band called the Fix.”
Miller and Wellman travelled down to Chicago in December 1980 and scored big when Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag shared his famous stash of promoters’ phone-numbers.
Black Flag was well known for touring endlessly across the United States and the Fix joined in on the action.
“We wanted to spread the gospel,” Miller said. “If they could inflict this damage on people, why couldn’t we?” From there, the Fix dared to hit the road for the West Coast, something most Midwest hardcore bands never bothered with.
The tour saw them sharing bills with legendary bands like Flipper and the Dead Kennedys, carving Achtenberg into a lineage of immeasurably influential bands.
The band endured tough conditions, travelled with zero cash, dined in soup kitchens and slept on grimy floors. But for a crew of music-obsessed outsiders, to be out on the road playing was a dream come true, poverty be damned.
Achtenberg and Miller returned to Lansing and moved the Fix’s headquarters into a house at 2204 Stirling Avenue. There, the Fix crew hosted fellow hardcore bands such as D.O.A. and Bad Brains, spending several days together listening to music and swapping stories about their travels.
The band that Achtenberg helped form was now making a considerable impact in Lansing. By mid-1981, there was an emerging batch of bands experimenting with the sound. The most notorious of these was the Crucifucks, routine public menaces to the East Lansing Police Department.
The Fix shared a local bill with the Necros and Black Flag, who headlined their infamous March 22, 1981 gig at a packed Club DooBee in Haslett. A scene was brewing.
Despite all the hard work, the Fix dissolved unceremoniously in 1982, leaving behind a single and an EP recorded for Touch and Go Records.
“The Fix was a volatile thing,” Calvert said. “We were an odd mixture of guys and the times were crazy musically and socially.”
But it didn’t prove to be the end of Achtenberg’s musical ventures. Achtenberg stuck tight with his friends and played in a series of other bands, including Just Say No.
Achtenberg would also hop back on the road as a volunteer roadie for Miller’s post-Fix band Strange Fruit, simply out of his love for music and riding across America.
Achtenberg managed to play on one record with Touch and Go co-founder Tesco Vee’s band, the Meatmen, before rejoining Miller in a more experimental project known as Blight.
Blight’s sonic landscapes were cold, harsh and could hardly be described as rock music. But this abrasiveness didn’t come to define Achtenberg’s personality.
“You hear that old cliché, he’d give you the shirt off his back,” Wood said. “Well with Mike that was true. He did that for me and many others.”
After a few years in Just Say No, Achtenberg moved on from playing in bands as the ’80s came to an end. He proudly worked for decades as a team member of Michigan State University’s Culinary Services, right up until his death.
Miller said Achtenberg was both happy and proud to see his band’s legacy widely celebrated, though he couldn’t help but laugh when he discovered the original Fix 7-inch record was fetching prices as high as $4,000.
He continued to travel with Miller, even though there was no longer a band to tour with. The pair visited Death Valley and the desert Southwest on a yearly basis for a decade straight.
“He was a true original,” Miller said. “It’s often missed that he was real creative. He loved to play and he loved that music.”