Posted: Jul 19, 2006 3:15 pm
By GRETCHEN PARKER The Tampa Tribune
Published: Jul 19, 2006
TAMPA - Mike O'Neill, well known in the Tampa Bay-area music world as an uncompromising, passionate performer and gifted songwriter, has died. He was 41.
He jumped from the Sunshine Skyway bridge late Monday, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies said.
Until his resignation in April, O'Neill worked for The Tampa Tribune for 18 years, first as a clerk and then as an editor who compiled dozens of events listings each week in the paper's Friday Extra section.
The Tribune was his full-time job, but music was his life's passion, said those who knew him, reviewed his music and performed with him. He founded three Tampa rock bands since the early 1990s, all of which centered on his creative energy and songwriting. He shared the stage with national acts, most recently during the July 4th weekend at a show organized by Steven Van Zandt at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.
"I couldn't imagine a greater loss for the local, original music scene in Tampa," said Robert Mortellaro, a former music critic for The Weekly Planet who more than once named O'Neill "Best of the Bay" for his work. O'Neill's "raw, great talent as a songwriter" made him a star here, Mortellaro said.
If his bands played covers, they were songs in his own stockpile of records, Mortellaro said. O'Neill was a devoted collector of 1960s British invasion rock and of 1960s American garage bands. The fans who came to see O'Neill's bands - The Unrequited Loves, Nailbiters (late 1990s) and Monday Mornings (early 1990s) - came to see original music "played from their heart and soul," Mortellaro said.
O'Neill performed without regard for the reaction from the audience, Mortellaro said. "In Mike's case, it was almost always positive, but he attracted the kind of audience that came to see uncompromised commitment to art," he said.
Mortellaro described him as "walking a tightrope" onstage and remembered performances when he broke into high falsettos that seemed to teeter on the edge of falling apart. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn't. That was what people came to see - genuine, gut-generated art.
It was his songwriting that Bay area music fans will remember, said Curtis Ross, pop music critic for the Tribune. "There were no wasted words, no wasted notes. Everything was there for a purpose," said Ross, who in 1998 called Nailbiters' album "Every Wasted Second Gone" the year's best local release. "He never fell back on the old rock and roll cliches."
O'Neill poured his own cash into the projects, releasing the CDs under a label he called Facefirst Records, Ross said.
Despite his struggle with depression, O'Neill found the energy and time to devote to friends who needed it. Jeff Wood, a well-known local drummer who briefly played with O'Neill in the early 1990s, remembers that his friend pulled him out of a funk and sparked his rehabilitation after he underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor three years ago.
Wood, a lefty, lost movement in his left side and was struggling. O'Neill visited Wood, drove him to his warehouse practice space - and jammed with him. "For him to do that and get me to see forward again, that's something I can't forget."
O'Neill grew up in Auburndale, the youngest of six children, said his oldest sister, Margaret Quilty, of Orlando. He became the "model son" and was the only one of the children to visit his parents weekly. Monday and Thursday nights, he was there, playing canasta with his mother. "He was very quiet and reserved. That was his normal behavior," Quilty said. "Except when he was onstage."
BORN: May 7, 1965, in St. Clair, Mich.
DIED: July 17, 2006, in Tampa
SURVIVORS: Four siblings: Margaret Quilty and Colleen O'Neill, both of Orlando; Maureen Ruff, of St. Clair, Mich.; and James O'Neill, of Ocoee