R.I.P. Mikey Welsh: Musician, Artist, Friend of Independent Lens

Mikey Welsh

Mikey Welsh in his studio. (He called this image "Light mood.")

I met Mikey Welsh by way of the internet last winter, as we prepared our special project for Artists Month, featuring outsider artists. In my research, I ran across a trove of paintings by an obviously prolific young artist whose style was instantly recognizable as a synthesis of the sensibilities of de Kooning and Basquiat, among others. I had already fired off an email to Mikey before deeper research revealed he also happened to be the former bassist for the breakthrough rock band Weezer, and further that his music career had ended in a chaotic episode of drugs, mental illness, and a failed suicide attempt.

I’m not sure who I expected Mikey to be — arrogant celebrity, angry man-child, cynical drug addict — but he was none of those things. As we worked together, he revealed himself to be an extremely sensitive, kind, generous, and compulsively creative man. He talked passionately about his family, and would become eager and joyous when a new gallery asked him to show his work. And he always asked how I was, what I thought about something, what was happening in my world. He didn’t have to do that — our relationship was strictly business — but I couldn’t help but consider him a genuine friend.

mikey welsh's last painting

The last painting Welsh posted to his Facebook page from Chicago on Friday, Oct. 7, entitled "mama's little pills spilled all over the floor"

We focused the project around films including Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child; The Desert of Forbidden Art; William S. Burroughs: A Man Within; Waste Land, and Marwencol. The idea was to explore art from the margins, including art and artists who had been censored, and art by people with disabilities.

Mikey offered us access to his entire body of work, and then gave us access to his creative process. In our interview with him he delved a bit into the personal, including a revelation about his godfather, monologuist Spalding Gray. Today, it’s eerie to remember discussing that with him, since Spalding famously killed himself by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry in 2004.

When Mikey’s work appeared on PBS.org, he was over the moon. He felt validated, I suppose, although he already was a widely admired artist among people who matter. He painted a special work just for the winner of our Are You a Visionary? art contest. It was that childlike wonder he expressed, and pure gratitude, that made him so magnetic.

The very fact Mikey wore his tender emotions on his sleeve was also his cross to bear. He suffered from bipolar disorder (manic-depression), and he felt things intensely. His joy was JOY. But sadly, his pain was deeper and more devastating than he could ever let people see. In recent months, he had experienced setbacks in his personal life and became the peripatetic artiste, traveling from friend’s house to friend’s house, painting epic skate parks on commission, designing tattoos for friends, and turning out painting after painting that reflected some of the chaos he hid behind his cheerful enthusiasm.

Mustafa/Vain

Mustafa/Vain, 2004

In August he started posting excerpts of his diaries from his Weezer years on Facebook. They were raw and sometimes poetically unintelligible. But the rawness and honesty was also incredibly compelling, and his fans were clamoring for more. Many suggested that he write a book. The more he posted, the darker it got, and I wasn’t alone in worrying that this could be a dangerous path he was heading down. I told him I was worried that excavating the most painful period of his life could unmoor him.

In late August, he wrote to reassure me:

well, try not to worry.. i’m doing fine.. well, better.. let me put it that way.. it’s been difficult, to say the least. but i appreciate yr concern. And i do really want your help with this…. would make me happy.. so don’t worry!!! i’m doing ok……. let me know what you hear, and what you think…… talk soon and take care…… mikey

In September, he seemed more upbeat. He was trying to turn the upheaval in his life into a new beginning. But he was constantly pulled into the past by his notoriety — playing onstage with Weezer at several gigs, recounting on Facebook the story of how he met Rivers Cuomo (lead singer of Weezer) and the development of their fraught friendship. On Facebook, he said he was in Chicago painting furiously, and excited to meet up with his former bandmates for the Chicago RiotFest.

I wish he could go back in time one last time and undo what he did on Saturday. But as a 7-year old friend said recently, “It’s hard to live a whole life.”

In his last email to me in September, he closed with “i’m here. so just give a holler… talk soon, ok?”

Talk soon, Mikey. Peace out, my friend.

Here’s Mikey laying down that epic bass line on the MTV Music Awards in 2001:

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