Amid all the portraits of her son sent to her by fans from all over the world, the painting that hangs most prominently in Kathy Averill’s living room is one he did himself in sixth grade. It won a ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair but looks about as far away from Minnesota as you can get, showing a tropical beach aglow at sunset.
“He mixed crayon, marker and wax to make it, which any art teacher would tell you you can’t do,” Averill proudly noted. “That was Mikey.”
Best known to underground hip-hop fans and Twin Cities music lovers as Eyedea, Micheal Larsen was more than a decade into a music career that boldly blended varying genres when he died suddenly of a drug overdose in 2010.
Only 28, he had already achieved widespread indie fame and toured the world with the duo Eyedea & Abilities. On the side, he pulled off a greater musical cross-pollination than most musicians achieve in a lifetime — improv jazz with freestyle rapping, experimental rock with poetry, hip-hop beats with all that, straight-ahead singer/songwriter songs and who knows what else.
Actually, Averill knows. She has 10 hard drives filled with his unreleased music at her house off W. 7th Street in St. Paul, where Mikey grew up and spent some of his final weeks working hard in his basement studio. She said he had two new recording projects in the works at the time of his death that “were as different as everything else he did.”
“He was as excited as I’d seen him,” she said.
With long, straight hair and a calm demeanor that contrasts her only child’s always-erratic look and bursting personality, Averill talked candidly last week about the circumstances surrounding his death. She did so ahead of a tribute concert Monday at First Avenue on what would have been his 34th birthday.
Monday’s show follows closely on the heels of the fifth anniversary of his passing, Oct. 16. Averill made a point of getting out of town that week this year, a year after spreading Mikey’s ashes in Lake Superior. She is also making a point of saying the First Ave concert will likely be the last such tribute she’s involved with for many years.
“I have done a personal event for family and friends and a public event for fans every year since he died, and that’s a lot,” she said, citing her full-time job at an elementary school in Minneapolis.
“I need to find a little more balance and not feel guilty. Sometimes when I come home between all the [Web] pages, there are a couple hundred messages to go through. I want to read and respond to all of them, but I work a day job.”
Pointing to the fans who go so far as to tattoo his name, lyrics or face on their bodies or even name their children after Mikey, she added, “I love it.”
“He has a lot of fans that are very loyal, and I’m very happy that they continue perpetuating his music. But none of that is going to bring me my son back.”
‘A lot of pressure that year’
Averill figures Mikey didn’t sleep for three days leading up to his death — “I’m a terrible sleeper, too, so it was probably hereditary,” she said — and he probably had many more sleepless nights in the year prior.
“He was also under a lot of pressure that year, juggling three different tours and trying to get the business operation going so all he had to focus on was his art,” she recalled.
The business was Crushkill Records. Larsen launched it with the help of friend Brady O’Rourke to release and promote records and tours of his many recording projects, also including the rock band Carbon Carousel, the solo hip-hop act Oliver Hart and the jazz/freestyle rap improv group Face Candy.
He was trying to free himself up artistically, but it wound up weighing him down.
On the night before he was found dead, Mikey had gone out to see his childhood friend Max Keltgen, aka DJ Abilities, perform in the 7th Street Entry on a tour with Los Angeles rapper Pigeon John.
Keltgen was one of several displaced teens that Averill took into her home over the years. He and Mikey became as close as brothers, then bandmates. But Keltgen had moved to Milwaukee to become a dad, so his homecoming gig that Friday night “was an excuse for a lot of heavy drinking,” Averill recalled.
Come Saturday night, Larsen was due to host an open-mic night but failed to show up. He was also supposed to rendezvous with a rapper friend in town from Seattle, Cory Foster (Sadistik), who — along with local music maker Chris Keller (Kristoff Krane) — called Averill and alerted her that no one had seen her son.
“They told me to meet them at his apartment with a key,” she recalled. “As soon as we opened the door, I knew.”
The toxicology report from that night did not specify which drugs contributed to his overdose. She thinks it was a lethal combination of alcohol and pills he had been taking for anxiety and rheumatoid arthritis.
“He didn’t live with me anymore, so I didn’t see him every day,” she said, addressing rumors he had been shooting heroin. She insists there were no traces of it that night.
“He was found with 12 pills. There was no drug paraphernalia, no needle marks anywhere on his body, no signs of any kinds of abuse or overuse.
“And anyway,” she flatly concluded, “What does it matter now?”
The music spins on
Averill spent the first few weeks after her son’s death listening to his music nonstop. After that, though, she stopped listening to music altogether in her downtime.
“I liked the silence,” she said. “Mikey’s voice was in my head that whole time, and it was really loud.”
Some of the memorial honors in the years since have meant a lot to her, from the alumni wall of fame induction at Highland Park High School to the star on First Avenue’s walls. She heard and appreciated many of the musical tributes, too, which have included songs by Sage Francis, Alpha Consumer and, of course, Atmosphere.
Actually, Atmosphere rapper Slug — who recruited Eyedea and Abilities as his hype man and DJ as well as opening act in the early-’00s — did not perform his 2014 song “Flicker” live until Mikey’s grandmother requested it before a First Avenue show.
“I called him up and asked, and he said they hadn’t been doing it,” Averill recalled. “I said, ‘Well, you’d better.’ ”
“Flicker” sums up the respect Slug and Eyedea’s other, often older peers had for him:
“You poked holes in the magic / You taught jokes to the clowns / That never learned how / To appreciate the lights / Before the bulbs burned out.”
A fixture at all their shows in the ’00s, Averill only takes in Rhymesayers concerts sporadically now in lieu of Mikey, but she maintains a respectful working relationship with the label.
In 2012, they put together a collection of surprisingly masterful early recordings Larsen and Keltgen made in their midteens, issued under the name Grand’s Sixth Sense. She also pored through hundreds of hours of home video and concert footage to make up last year’s DVD, “E&A Then and Now.”
The next big project is one she’s not directly in charge of, a documentary titled “The World Has No Eyedea” by family friend Brandon Crowson, currently being pitched to film festivals, including South by Southwest, to premiere next year.
Averill believes a lot of the unreleased music on those hard drives is also worthy of being issued, but she’s sensitive about anonymous Internet allegations that she does such projects to make money (one can imagine what kind of snark-attack reply her son would have to those cheap shots). She also keeps coming back to the same issues of time constraints and the emotional challenges.
“To me, the music and the career were all secondary, and they’re not what’s most important to me,” she said.
“But I’m grateful the music is important to a lot of people. Obviously, it was most important to him. He lived and breathed it.”
Yep, that was Mikey.