15
Nov 04

Ol’ Dirty Bastard and John Balance, RIP

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Ol’ Dirty Bastard and John Balance, RIP

Not that much connects them in an immediate sense. Seemingly the only reason to think of them both off-hand would simply appear to be the accidental timing of their deaths on Saturday. ODB = famous, scored hits, guested on others, a known figure thanks to the events that too easily overshadowed the music. Balance = obscure, known certainly by aficionados. One part of a monumental hip-hop crew and then equally distinct on his own, another part of something generally summed up as ‘industrial,’ thanks to historical connections mostly, and always seen to be part of it rather than a solo figure. One collapses in a record studio lounge suddenly, another falls to his death from a landing to a lower floor. Within minutes both were gone.

So no, there was no lost strange collaboration single or remix tying them together, more just the kind of connections which occur as people listen and consider things — such as how Balance’s friend and occasional collaborator Marc Almond would express his love for the RZA’s work in general in the mid-nineties (at least Almond survived his own brush with death recently). But today on the way into work, having thought quite a bit about ODB over the weekend and then suddenly having learned about Balance’s death this morning, I thought more about them both, wanting to summarize somehow what I felt about both.

ODB was and I still think is my favorite of all the Wu-Tang bunch, setting aside RZA for his production and musical ability as being in his own plane. Though I had Enter the 36 Chambers shortly after it came out, I was impressed rather than totally taken by it, and had set it aside somewhere in the archive. But in 1996 Return to the 36 Chambers came my way as part of a promo mailout — shows you how actively I was paying attention to things, I admit — and something about even the cover, humorous and inventive (the Wu-Tang logo buried in the background of the card, for instance) caught my attention. And man if it wasn’t a great album then and now — what I realized in retrospect were some of the most off-kilter and distinctive moments on Enter got a full showcase here, with ridiculous humor and sheer creepout vibe playing off each other constantly.

It wasn’t a full and sole RZA production, to be sure, but the album as a whole felt like and feels like a true collaboration — what was already established as RZA’s particular metier (bring on the piano lines) became a weird goth playground for ODB to be both capering jester and compelling invoker of demons, even if they’re the ones in your head that are better to laugh at than to fear. His voice was one, is one, that I always respond to like that of so many deep-voiced free-flowing growlers past and present, something that cuts against the music as much as works with it, that calls attention to itself and therefore sets the tone and forces the song forward. Those echoed calls on “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” when he says he likes it RAW! are a perfect example but they’re just one of many.

Nigga Please is less of a favorite of mine but by degrees rather than because I hate it — it’s more giddy and ridiculous but the tears of the clown surface in subtler ways, which make them no less powerful — and of course it has one of those, for me, few — very few — moments where the Neptunes AND Kelis worked perfectly together, “Got Your Money,” proof like any more was needed that humor not only worked for him but for music in general. Giddy, enjoyable, doesn’t age at all for all that it’s from a time and place — Chuck Berry was stuck with “My Dingaling” as his biggest single, ODB’s reputation will never suffer with a killer like this around, with opening lines like this:

Ohhh baby
I dedicate this to all the pretty girls
All the pretty girls
All the pretty girls, in the world
And the ugly girls too
Cause to me you’re pretty anyways baby

You give me your number, I call you up
You act like your pussy don’t interrupt
I don’t have no problem with you fucking me
But I have a little problem wit you not fucking me

There was much more, of course, the various collaborations and one-offs and the like — and then there was everything else in his life, which I’m not going to talk much about, outside of the article I read that described his life in prison as being something utterly miserable, beyond the mere fact of being in prison in the first place. To me that’s the sad thing about it, how the circus in his life and of his life eventually took precedence over the music in some eyes, though thankfully not all. Not a new or surprising thing to say, but still depressing to see it in action.

Balance, on the other hand — I can’t say when exactly I first heard him, or more accurately heard Coil. They just sorta were already, by the time I was working at KLA in the late eighties and a single or two came in from Wax Trax, I think. Over time as I learned more about and began to understand more clearly what the whole tangled family tree of Coil and where it came from meant, my knowledge and appreciation of the band grew accordingly, though albums and songs were only ever acquired in fits and starts. But somewhere through it all came this strange speak-sing voice, equally as compelling as ODB’s but much different sounding, dry, light, but no less immune from invoking demons and dread.

Balance to my mind is always locked in, quite understandably, with figures like Steven Stapleton and especially David Tibet, invoking a Britain that is and isn’t at the same time, a state of mind rather than a place, something to transcend and analyze and see rotting at the edges and at the core. That said Coil wasn’t just that, and wasn’t just either band in a musical sense — arguably it wasn’t even a ‘band’ in ways, more an extended partnership and project, something that just slowly evolved. Peter Christophersen’s already established ethos of separating ‘commercial’ work from the creative, something he was already doing even before Throbbing Gristle, eventually meant Coil could function on its own terms and in its own way as desired — albums, singles, releases would appear as desired, continuing snapshots as Christophersen and Balance worked and lived and loved.

Balance could be tender and careful, quiet and meditative, his seeming remove in his singing voice lending a dreamlike quality to the results. The nightmares, though, they could be equally powerful. The wracked cover of “Tainted Love” is a slow crawl to the grave and Balance’s delivery accentuated that, never losing control, very perfectly balanced (forgive the pun) with the music. But perhaps the song that I’ve been obsessively singing over in my head today, due to the conditions of Balance’s death and the role of alcohol, is “Heartworms,” originally released on a compilation and then featured on the Foxtrot album that was originally compiled and released precisely because of Balance’s long-term struggle with drink. Hearing Balance’s voice singing this — wracked, sad, not declamatory but not shy either — was already chilling and now forever will be:

There’s too much blood in my alcohol
There’s too much blood in my alcohol
There’s too much blood in my alcohol
Demons generally enter in
Demons generally enter in through my ears
I don’t like what I hear
I don’t like what I hear
I don’t like what I see
I don’t like what I see
Ghosts vomit over me
Ghosts vomit over me
Ghosts vomit over me
Liars through my eyes
There’s too much blood in my alcohol
There’s too much blood in my alcohol
Can’t get enough to numb me
Can’t get enough to numb me
Can’t get enough to numb me
Can’t get enough to numb me

Now both ODB and Balance are voices of the dead. May they rest well after lives that were not easy.

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