By Ian Dean
With the rising popularity and constant shifting of this tiny beach side community, countless faces drift in and out. Many are forgettable, few are truly memorable, some are people who you know by face but lose track of the moment they leave eye shot. A grimy little oasis, ever morphing and changing to the trends and flow of time. The pulse of the town is captured in countless movies and TV shows, mentioned in songs and reported through countless art communities. It is where the wealthy and cool come to play, eat and live, where the poor come to create and bargain and where the world comes to see the ever going freak show that is Ocean Front Walk.
Though times have changed and many people have come and gone, there was one man who through it all grew up and saw all these changes, and yet somehow remained unchanged and unaffected by the trappings of local fame.
In an era before Venice was the “hip” place to be, but rather a place many avoided, when surfing was considered the pass time of the lazy and worthless, when punk rock was in its adolescence, and you could see 5 bands for 2 dollars at a vomit soaked venue, there was a young man who did it all, lived it all and loved it all.
This man was Michael Lee Samuelson.
Born on March 8 1963, the details of Mikey’s early years are not the focal point of this story, mainly because with the exception of his adoring mother, and to a degree his over demanding-father, Mikey did not have what one would call the “loving family.”
Mikey was adopted and had very little connection to his extended family. As he got older and his parents passed away, that extended family showed very little interest involving him in their lives.
That is where this story drifts off to Mikey’s true family…. Venice Beach itself. The random assortment of eclectic people that called Venice Beach home were his family, and there were many of them.
The bums, the junkies, the snow birds, the bikers, the punks, the skaters, the gang bangers, the small shop owners, all were his brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. The limitless young homeless kids that came in and out who were runaways and orphans were his children who he was incredibly protective of, and always made sure that they had eaten or that no one was taking advantage of them. The beach itself was his mother, lover, best friend and Achilles heel all in one.
Venice was more than just a place to hang out for Mikey, it was a beacon of comfort even in adverse times of alcoholism and drug addiction, severe loneliness and depression. It was a place of safety and where the saying “where everybody knows your name” could not apply any more so than if Mikey were Abbot Kinney himself. To meet Mikey was an experience all on its own and to KNOW him was always an adventure, seeing how his penchant for trouble making and overall patriotic anarchism (yes, there IS such a thing) took hold of any event in which he was involved.
From The Sidewalk Cafe to SxT Tattoo, The Trading Post Liquor, to the first Streets of Venice skate shop and even the now non-existent Hi Dee Ho Comics and the Westminster Pagodas … EVERYONE, one way or another knew Mikey.
Countless young men and women and even small children in town know him as “Uncle Mikey”, others know him as “Punk Rock Mikey” when he sang with punk rock Karaoke band “ToneDeaf”, and close friends and acquaintances know him as “Wrecking Ball”. All of them accurate, all of them meaningful, all of them given with love and respect. But how does one properly define in such a short column a man who was so many things to so many people? The reality is I can’t… nothing I write will ever truly do the man justice, nor properly convey just how unique of a person Mikey was… but I can damn well try.
One would not think through his gruff exterior that there was a very lonely man despite being loved by so many people, and due to this loneliness he constantly put himself out there as an emotional anchor for anyone else. He became the person he wished to know, he became the person he wanted to look after him, but to everyone else.
He was a father to the fatherless, a friend to the friendless, a protector to the defenseless, a voice to the voiceless and was always willing to hear the shit on your plate even though he had loads on his.
Mikey battled alcoholism and drug use for years, but managed to go for years at a time not drinking or using anything… but even when he was, he still went to meetings and supported others, even if he could not stay clean. Recovery for him seemed less about not using but rather making sure others were not alone or had to face it by themselves.
In late March of 2012, just a few weeks after his 49th birthday, Mikey was raced to Harbor UCLA Medical where he would spend the next month in intensive care for the battle of his life.
Years of drinking and drug abuse, mixed with his punk rock lifestyle, had caught up with him. His body was shutting down. While in intensive care, the countless doctors that treated him mentioned multiple times that chances of Mikey living or leaving that hospital were close to none. This, however, had no effect on him, and slowly but surely, he became more and more stable, bashing through every medical obstacle like the wrecking ball he was named for.
While in the Hospital, there was a benefit held for him at Danny’s Deli put together by Mikey’s close friend and band member of Tone Deaf, Masao Miyashiro, in an amazingly short 12 hour time frame. In one night over 1500 dollars was generated for Mikey’s expenses, and many old and new friends got together to support and honor their friend. Emotions were high, but morale and love for Mikey was at an all time high.
Day by day, he got better, they took him off the breathing machines and he soon was taking liquids and then solid foods. He was talking and walking before anyone could even believe it.
But the truth was the long term damage had been already been done and it seemed Mikey pulled through all that because he wanted to die on his own terms, and not in a hospital bed.
He had always been a fighter and refused to leave this life unless it was his choice in the matter. As one friend, Dan Clements, stated “coming out of that hospital was his final victory lap”.
While in the hospital, Mikey, had a slew of visitors coming from all over to possibly say their last goodbyes. The nursing staff actually became frustrated at the hordes coming to visit because no one wanted to “wait their turn” when it was so uncertain what the outcome would be. People started completely disregarding the rules and walked past security without even a forethought.
Mikey was eventually released and taken home, a miracle in his own right, but tired, as the experience had clearly aged him in just a few weeks. He went along with his daily life, but now everything seemed slower, quieter, and he still did not feel well. He could be seen walking around accompanied by various friends, and having lunch or a Shirley Temple at Danny’s Deli or Sidewalk Cafe. It was very clear though that the way Mikey had lived for the past 48 years was over.. it had been a good run but now it was only a matter of time. Mikey lost his battle on May 29.
On June 23 at 9 am there was a paddle out service for him at the Pier at the end of Washington Blvd and, then another service at 7 pm at the Skate Park, followed by a memorial party at the Gas Station just off Pacific. At both services, stories and memories of Mikey were shared and the reminder voiced that everyone was connected because of one man.
People who knew each other for decades and people who did not know each other at all mingled together to celebrate a person who in this small blink of an eye we call life, managed to bind so many people to one another simply because they loved him.
The aftershock and the lack of accepting of his death is still there and probably always will be. Some people are angry… some just can’t believe he’s gone. As one of his many nephews, Tripple Jenkins stated recently while at Danny’s Deli, “I keep expecting for him to walk in that door and say, ‘Hey Maaaaan, whats goin on?’. Others, such as Damion Palmer, who has known Mikey for 30 years, comments on how it is a reminder that “we’re all gettin old, and watching your friends drop makes you put things in perspective”. Whatever the emotion may be outright, the reality that everyone is already missing him is showing as people shuffle along Ocean Front Walk and realize never again will they see him sitting on a bar stool at Sidewalk Cafe, or riding that ugly orange beach cruiser with the bent frame and ringing the stupid cheeseburger shaped bell that he got such a kick out of.
On a more personal note, I myself last spoke to him on the afternoon of May 28th at around 2pm. I called him to wish him a happy Memorial Day, and asked if he wanted me to come pick him up so he could spend it at the beach. He replied with a soft spoken “No, I think I’m going to take a nap.” How little then did I realize how foreshadowing that statement was. I then told him if he changed his mind to give me a call and I’d call him tomorrow. I wished him well, told him I loved him. He replied with “Talk to ya later, little brother.” That was the last time I spoke to him.
Michael Samuelson is survived by his family… us, Venice Beach. His brothers, aunts and uncles, his sisters, his nieces and nephews, and children. The little boy who was adopted that ended up adopting a whole beach side community.
To end this, I want to quote Mikey on something he said in his hospital bed a few days before he was discharged: “Despite everything that’s going on, if I had to do it all again, I would. I lived my life my way and did it how I wanted to do it.”
How many of us can truly say that?
And will we be able to when it’s our turn?
I want to give a special thanks and recognize all the people who helped, donated their time, energy or were just there every single day Mikey was in that hospital, including, Katie Sullivan, Theresa Viselli, Jessica Hawkins, Toni Giuliano, Masao Miyashiro, Daryl Lee, Damion Palmer, Big Seven, Palar Brown
To all who helped with the charity items for the auction: ToneDeaf, Danny’s Deli, SxTx Tattoo, Streets of Venice, DogTown Skates, Maui and sons, Venice Originals, Sidewalk cafe, and countless others
And most importantly, Thank you to the Harbor UCLA medical center Nurses and Doctors for putting up with all of us and bringing Mikey back to us for a little bit longer.