I heard the tragic news yesterday that Mikey Welsh was found dead, at age 40, in a Chicago hotel room. It still feels like a slap in the face. Such a cliché, rock-star way to go. Oh, Mikey, why? It shouldn't have ended this way, or this soon.
Online fan and news sites were abuzz with words like narcotics and overdose. But the toxicology reports apparently take weeks, and at this writing I don't know the actual cause of his death. When I first met and interviewed him, in 2004, the only drugs Mikey took were psychtropic — treatments for bipolar syndrome and post-traumatic stress, he told me. In fact, he said apologetically at our meeting, "I'm afraid you've caught me in the middle of a nervous breakdown."
Mikey had been the bassist for Weezer from 1998 to 2001, and famously crashed out of that band by mentally falling apart. He told me his bandmates had deserted him after that. But he had put all of it behind him, moved to Burlington, and was throwing his considerable frenzy into painting instead. His mother was an artist, he said, and he had made artwork in his youth. His grandmother had brought him paints in the mental hospital where he recuperated the first time.
In 2004 Mikey was still fighting demons, but mostly by slashing paint at canvases. And sometimes cutting his forearms. His paintings were in the Art Brut tradition — he told me he liked that the movement honored the artwork of children and mental patients. Figuratively, it was crude. But Mikey's inherent color sense was superlative, and it was impossible not to be moved by the raw, emotional vigor with which he attacked his work. Despite his personal, flat demeanor at the time — and large, formidable, tattooed presence — his artistic passion was authentic and exciting. His funny/acerbic titles for his work revealed a sly sense of humor underneath the angst.
Mikey was a sweetheart, a fragile giant. At least he always was to me. After my initial story about him, I guess I passed whatever test he had and we remained friendly. He stayed in touch as his art career blossomed, when there were new shows and new work. I even bought a few pieces.
In Burlington it seemed like Mikey was thriving. His work shifted to more abstraction; his self-taught art-history education showed in the work. His palette became, occasionally, a bit softer. He painted a wall at former snowboard shop Maven; his work was used on Burton Snowboards (see right). He got more shows both locally and in urban galleries.
Not least, Mikey and his wife, Danielle, had a son, Jack. I witnessed the tenderness Mikey had for his beautiful little boy, the patience.
I hadn't seen Mikey in recent months. I don't know what happened with him. But eerily, his own death came to him in a dream two weeks prior. He tweeted, on September 26, "Dreamt I died in Chicago next weekend (heart attack in my sleep)." He noted that he needed to write his will.
His last tweet reported a new painting, titled: "Mama's little pills spilled all over the floor."
R.I.P., Mikey. I miss you already.
Upper photo: file photo of Mikey Welsh from 2004, by Matthew Thorsen. Lower photo: one of the snowboards Welsh designed for Burton.