Monday, February 09, 2009

Ronald Koal

Todd Novak and Ed Shuttlesworth, both of whom played guitar in bands fronted by the inimitable Ronald Koal, have started a MySpace page dedicated to the memory of Columbus' finest rocker. Check it out, listen to the music, watch the videos, and understand why a few of us who remember still miss the man.

Here's a piece I wrote about Ronald a couple years ago in Paste Magazine.


Ronald Koal wanted to make rock ‘n roll. But more than that, he wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star; lounge in the back of limousines, cavort with groupies, and acquire an expensive drug habit. He ended up with two out of three; just another addicted musician with his fifteen minutes of local fame, a handful of sycophantic hangers-on, and a broken-down van for his band’s gear. The limousine never materialized. But during those fifteen minutes he made brutally powerful, transcendent rock ‘n roll. His story is mirrored in a thousand towns and cities across America. He was the charismatic kid with great talent who never quite got his act together, who never caught that one big break, who was one step away from the big-label contract and the big-money tour. And in this case, it killed him.

In 1980, when Ronald Koal formed his band The Trillionaires in Columbus, Ohio, anything was possible. The New Wave movement was in full flower, and in the glorious, heady days between the rise of punk and the ascendancy of MTV, all the old rules were tossed aside, A&R shills at the big record labels were befuddled, and anybody and everybody tried their hand at rock ‘n roll. Art school dweebs, computer programmers, and Playboy bunnies all rushed to fill the breach, and eventually ended up in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. And so it seemed like a reasonable gambit for a brash, precocious, gender-conflicted kid from the suburbs of a Midwestern cowtown.

The early gigs were legendary. Sporting a Mohawk, heavy eyeliner, and a half dozen costume changes every hour, Koal was part Bowie androgynous pinup and part Jim Morrison shaman, howling his poetic confessions, offering up angst-ridden psychic dramas that were frequently disquieting in their intensity and ferocity. The Trillionaires camped it up behind him, mixing homages to surf instrumentals and lurid Grade B sci-fi soundtracks with furious Clash-inspired punk. But this was Ronald’s show, and Ronald played the rock star to the hilt, a new Ziggy Stardust for the Buckeye Nation. “Get up and shout/Get up and sing/Destination Zero,” he sang, casting his arms wide, a nihilistic evangelist, and his audience, crammed shoulder to shoulder, often standing outside in the rain, looking in to a packed bar, did exactly that. “He’s the most magnetic, electrifying rock ‘n roll singer I’ve ever seen,” a friend marveled at the time. I didn’t disagree. There were rumors of a move to New York, tours with The Ramones or The Talking Heads, an impending multi-album deal with Sire or Stiff Records. “Catch him now before he ends up playing the big arenas,” everyone said, and I did – forty, fifty times over the course of a couple years. And he was almost always great, although there were the occasional lapses of interest, evidence of boredom, and moments of cynical malaise that surrounded the rock ‘n roll circus.

His first album, Ronald Koal and the Trillionaires, came out on the Columbus-based No Other Records in 1982. The label name came close to being prophetic. Who knows what all the factors were, really? A peripatetic career far removed from the rock ‘n roll movers and shakers, a lack of distribution, and mediocre production probably all played a part. But aside from a few positive reviews in indie magazines, the album sank without a trace.

And something broke at that time. Koal, who always alternated between bouts of supreme arrogance and debilitating self-doubt, fired and hired band members willy nilly, stopped writing new material, and showed up wasted at gigs or missed them altogether. He continued to play to local crowds, but his moment had passed, and the numbers dwindled. He moved to New York City in the late 1980s, quite belatedly, and tried to connect with a new audience, but the New Wave that he tried to crest in on was long played out. A solo album, White Light, with its obvious Velvet Underground influences, emerged in 1990. It was another great album that no one heard.

No one really knows what happened after that. Koal moved to Germany in the early 1990s, met and married a local fraulein, and set up shop in Berlin, where he played a few gigs. The marriage didn’t last, the gigs dwindled, a new album failed to materialize, and Ronald Koal put a bullet in his brain sometime during the early morning hours of May 8th, 1993. He was 33 years old.

There are probably hundreds of musicians like Ronald Koal, human detritus washed ashore by bad choices or just plain hard luck, and unless you lived in or around Columbus, Ohio, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of him. Some would argue that he doesn’t merit the attention, that he was just another has-been, a loser who couldn’t adjust to the sometimes harsh realities of life. I remember instead his early gigs, the promise of greatness, the delicious, breathless anticipation of seeing unbridled creativity and passion spark and ignite. What is left are memories, ephemeral and fading, too few songs, the unanswerable questions that always seem to reside in the sobering gap between what was and what might have been.


Rathna said...

Good read!!your way of presenting the blog is very good and I agree like the life of Ronald Koal there are hundreds of musicians,with human detritus washed ashore by bad choices or just by plain hard luck.

Grant Wentzel said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm still enjoying the mp3s I ripped off of your old vinyl a few years ago. Good stuff.

Glad to see you've already snagged some nibbles on the job front! I think you're worth a million dollars. You can quote me on that in your next interview.

Diya said...

Musicians with human detritus washed ashore by bad choices or just by plain hard luck is really sad. I really feel bad for Ronald Koal and many more musicians like him and I wish them all sucess in future.

Elaine said...

Ronald was a friend between the years of 1986 until his death. His life was a tragedy of depression and cocaine abuse; the love of his life and wife(Anna, a PhD student at OSU from Germany) ended their marriage and he remarried briefly.

It was difficult to understand the Ronald Koal leading to his death, but that is, indeed, sometimes the way life is. Human ditritus is a really harsh description for any person, any life, hard lived or not.


What a condemnation.

Andy Whitman said...

Elaine, I hope it's clear from the context of the rest of the article that I value Ronald Koal. I think it would be a tragedy, albeit a much smaller one than that suffered by Ronald, if you missed the whole point.

Mark Eitzel said...

Yeah - Ron was the best. I remember him very well - truly no one was cooler in Columbus in those days. I used to go to all of his shows when I lived there. He was such a goddamn rock star. Thanks for writing such a true and generous piece about him.

Andy Whitman said...

Thanks, Mark. And right back at you. Thanks for making such creative, uncompromising music yourself.

Stephen said...

On a good night (and I don't remember a bad one) RK and the T's were as good as anyone I ever saw.

dwt said...

Ron was GREAT and I know personally wrestled with his own 'monsters' but he was a true ARTIST and I'm sad he wasn't around for this 'digital decade' where he could usurped what was then 'the traditional' distribution chain of music. God Bless him and all the artists in CBUS who where stiffled by corporate 'radio/records' back then... RC Mob/The Toll and a few others are missed truly.. DTH (dirk dark)

dwt said...

ron was the best of cbus at a time when a lot of talent was about to break out... toll... rc mob

Anonymous said...

As Ronald would say "Ron is my father's name. You can call me Ronald".

Trillionaires Groupie said...

I attendend many of the early Trillionaires shows, as well as the after parties.

I thought Ronald was a major pain in the ass at the parties, but when he was on stage, I was madly in love with him.

That guy had the "IT" factor for sure, but his manager was lame and didn't know how to guide him. Biggest waste I've ever seen.

mark said...

Remembering Ronald Koal & the Trillionaires

Anonymous said...

Being on the inside track as I was then, I can honestly say Ronald was a genius who should have made it. But try to lay the blame at his Manager's feet is dead wrong. Sadly, every time his manager got agents to a show, Ronald would sabotage himself by changing his set list at the last minute or not playing to the top as we all saw here or various other things (many) that would make those of us who knew, wring our hands. I, too, still enjoy and introduce his music to others.

Robyn said...

Ronald lived at my house for 2 years in Cleveland, Ohio in the early 80's..he was a loving man who was kind especially with children..he was meant to be cared for and have a home where he could feel safe, that job usually fell to the hands of intelligent compassionate women. His drug use became severe toward the end of his life. Ronald was a party boy, he loved life frankly but just never grew up.
We spent marathon talks about his life, yes he wanted to be a rock star however his use of his fellow musicans was not as loyal. Sucide was the final result of his abuse of drugs and alcohol, if he had cleaned up his life long enough he would have made it. He had charisma and sex appeal and knew it.
I will always miss him..he touched people like star dust and made them happy.

Gabor Klein said...

Hi Andy,

I've resisted writing all these years but it's time someone cleared up your semi-fictional account of Ronald's career. Some of it is true but what you left out leads one to misinterpret who Ronald was and what he did.

His first wife was Ava not Anna. He never moved to New York or Germany. Every A&R person in New York and LA knew who Ronald was. The regional record label reps in Chicago, Cleveland and Cinti were all helping us to get signed, as were the agents at ITG and the FBI agencies in New York who were putting us on their touring shows and he was playing in New York every six weeks for months before and during the release of White Light. At the time we parted company, the album had been added to 44 CMJ reporting stations all over the country.

What you don't mention is that Ronald and both of his bands were incredibly hard working and professional. Thy were prolific songwriters who rehearsed 3-4 times a week and rarely missed a show. We drove through blizzards and juggled jobs to build the following of loyal fans.

Unfortunately, the timing in the industry was horrible. The initial Trillionaires came out at a time when labels were not signing American bands at all. They were bringing over all the bands that they had already signed in England, the second British Invasion. The White Light album came out just as the indie scene was starting to grow but many of the labels were still art a rudimentary stage.

Both The Trillionaires and the Ronald Koal Band were unique and a bit out of synch with the industry. They should have been signed.

geri cunningham said...

Thank you for helping me to remember this time in my life. The 80's were filler with the best music. Shame we lost him. Is it possible to find his music on cd?

nancysan said...

I was living in Columbus, briefly, when Ronald was first breaking out to the local scene. I remember him pretty well, and it is great that people are keeping his memory alive. Get him on Wikipedia, as the search brings up nothing.

Interesting reading the comments and viewing the videos on youtube. One more sad story.