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.