So here’s a weird thing that happens when you get a whole bunch of strangers who loved a very complicated and multi-faceted person into a room together: Even though everyone’s desperate to grab on to a moment of connection and bond over the fact that they knew that person, there’s a possibility that everyone might leave with the distinct feeling that we all knew a different side of them, and that we can never truly know anyone.
When Micheal Larsen died, I asked the immensely empathetic and intuitive radio journalist and writer Tommy Mischke to pen a eulogy for the publication I worked for, City Pages. This excerpt from his memorial has stuck with me ever since: “It has been said we each own four faces: the one we show strangers, the one we show friends, the one we reveal to family, and the one we keep to ourselves. To say we knew Mikey ‘Eyedea’ Larsen would be to say we knew them all. No one but Mikey could know all four.”
At First Avenue on Monday night, a full house of fans and an overflowing green room of artistic peers attempted to cut to the core of who, exactly, Micheal Larsen was as an artist and person. For this night he was a screamo band from Austin, Texas; a DJ looping Mikey’s voice over and over again, trying to learn from it and make sense of it; a guitarist levitating us with a time-bending improvisation; and a parade of personalities attempting to chip away at the truth, force us to examine reality from another angle, and convince us to upend our lives just to see what all the pieces look like when they’re falling away from the puzzle. He was all of these things. He was none of these things. And he is so, so gone.
That’s the only thing we all know for certain, right? Eyedea is dead, even though a new spin on his infamous “EYEDEA IS DEAD” t-shirt begs us to believe that he is still alive. And we all handle the pain of losing him in our own way.
If there’s anything I learned while watching the tribute to Eyedea on Monday, it’s that the closer we attempt to get to a person who has left us, the harder it is to capture who that person really was when they were alive. We are left with a broken bread crumb trail of memories and melodies, and it starts to coalesce into something resembling a person we knew but never quite narrowing in on their essence. We end up with a jagged pastiche, like the framed collection of dice that were on display at First Avenue, which some insanely brilliant artist had arranged into a mosaic portrait that resembled the outlines of the features of the man that we all loved.
I didn’t make it all the way to the end of the six-and-a-half-plus hours of tribute performances that unfolded on Monday night. There were transcendent moments, to be sure: Carnage beatboxing and doubletiming; Jeremy Yvisaker droning us up into the heavens, bathed in purple light; DJ Abilities whipping up a poignant remix of one of Eyedea and Abilities’ most beloved songs, “Smile”; Sadistik and Blueprint each performing songs they’ve written about Eyedea since losing him five years ago. But at a certain point it became exhausting to hear so many artists who were so obviously influenced by Micheal Larsen attempt to burrow down into the depths of their relationship with his art and honor the deep footprint he’s clearly impressed across so many of their chests.
Grief is like a gash that never quite heals right. It’s impossible to predict when it’s going to split open again.
I still remember the day Micheal died like it was yesterday. I wish that wasn’t the case. I was getting back into my car after a baby shower for one of my oldest friends; a friend who was standing beside me the first time I saw Mikey perform on my college campus all those years ago. As soon I as found out, I knew that I would have to go home, open up my laptop, and somehow break the news to the world. I had a 10-minute drive home, and I gave myself those 10 minutes to experience the news as a human being before I would have to switch over and cover his death as a journalist. It started to rain and I cried hard as hell, then didn’t cry again until the memorial concert three weeks later, on his 29th birthday.
I guess it’s only natural to turn inward in a time of loss, and to attempt to remember all the ways the deceased left their smudgy fingerprints around the edges of your worldview. For me, I think that my interactions with Mikey taught me that it’s ok to be a lot of things, all at once: broken and ugly and honest and funny and devastating. It’s ok to go to a rap show and rhyme over the Beatles, or go to a jazz show and start freestyling, or pick up a guitar and start singing just for the hell of it.
I went to the show last night to write a review. I ended up in the corner, alone and in the dark, wondering if Eyedea would have stood for one second for a
100% 95% male lineup of artists performing in his honor, and wishing he was here to experience the scene how it is now, with the genre lines busted completely apart and the quest for new and exciting sounds dominating the landscape. I wondered if he would have been across town, watching his friends Casey O’Brien and JT Bates host an improvisational jazz jam instead, and what it means that the worlds he once wandered between can still feel so fractured sometimes. I think he would have really dug Icehouse. I think he would feel energized about the increasingly weird sounds emanating from this city. But what do I know? I can’t say I really knew him. None of us can.
Photos by Nate Ryan: