The 23rd of Always – Jhonn Balance’s last performance

‘Death, he is my friend – he’s promised me a quick end…’

Some of my most poignant memories of Jhonn Balance are of our nocturnal phone calls in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was in one or other of his recurrent bouts of depression, at a time when he was still prepared to pick up the phone, once sufficiently elated by vodka. On one occasion we were both in deep malaise and were discussing the practicality of suicide; I told him that as a national treasure of avant-garde music he was far too precious to lose, while I on the other hand was fairly expendable – Balance of course argued to the contrary. A bit of mutual gallows-humour ribbing cheered us up no end and I promised him, ‘When you go we’ll have you lying in state, like the Queen’ – ‘A queen lying in a state more like’ he shot back with his lovely sharp, foxy chuckle. This conversation replayed itself in my mind along with the memory of his laugh as I looked down at the body of Jhonn Balance, nine days after the drunken fall from the staircase that had killed him. He lay in a white wickerwork coffin draped around with pale satin, in the library of Coil’s home, naked under a white goatskin that covered him from breast to ankles, his bare feet exposed and his arms bared, displaying his tattoos and the myriad scars of cutting, both ritual and misery-driven. In his right hand was placed a sprig of mistletoe, while his left grasped his wooden magical athamé. His head rested on a satin pillow, hair cut short; a large dark bruise on his temple visible beneath the embalmer’s make-up was the only visible sign of the fatal trauma – his face seemed quite placid beneath a full and remarkably ruddy beard. Here and there you could see microscopic beads of moisture that had exuded from his pores, glittering like elf-carved diadems in the dim light. Seeing him here as if for the first time it struck me that, in death, Balance had finally and fully incarnated his archetype – like a pagan seer-king of antiquity he lay, in full regalia, readied to enter eternity. He was at once the most exquisitely beautiful and the most shockingly tragic sight. At this solemn moment Sleazy suddenly popped his head round the door: ‘Would you like to try the spotlit view?’ he asked, flicking on the overhead lights and disappearing again. ‘Well, Geff…’ I said half-aloud to the body, now revealed by the lights in even greater clarity, ‘…you’ve really fucking well gone and done it this time…’

 

pilgrimOn the night Balance died I had dreamed of entering a cavernous, twilit chamber, like a hangar, white-walled and with ambiguous, vaguely repellent-looking piles of blackened rags strewn here and there around the floor. Some loop of music was playing over and over in the background, tantalisingly familiar though I couldn’t make out what it was. I thought I must have wandered into somebody’s piece of installation art, but the atmosphere was heavy with a morbid gravitas and I remembered Austin Spare’s query in The Focus of Life: ‘Is this some religious hereafter?’ At the centre of this vaulted space an immense dark pyramid revolved slowly; as I gazed up it seemed to be composed entirely of bones, portions of animals, human limbs – uncertain anatomies constantly morphing, a concateny of atavisms, dead, lost and forgotten things – although through the shadows and the dream flux it was difficult to make out any details. Squinting up through the gloom I saw that at the top of this heap a human figure was seated, enthroned somehow, and unmoving. As I focussed on the music that was playing I realised what it was: Balance’s voice intoning over and over the line from Scatology‘See the Black Sun rise…in the Solar Lodge…’

 

Back at work on the Monday I opened an email from a friend responding to a message I had sent before the weekend. I’d made some wisecrack about my cycle helmet constituting ‘data protection’ and as I read the email’s enigmatic post-script panic mounted: ‘It’s a pity Balance didn’t know about “data protection”…’ I went straight over to the Threshold House site and read the devastating news. Still very affected by the death a few months earlier of another friend, Andrew Chumbley, I read the Coil webpage and my whole mentality reduced to a humming white dot – like the television screen used to do at midnight in the 1970s. ‘Are you alright?’ asked my colleague across the desk, acupuncturist James Thirlwall, to which I could only mumble, ‘No…another friend of mine has just died – I think I need to go outside…’ Over the preceding few years Balance had acquired a dangerous habit of getting literally falling-down drunk; now he had taken his last drunken dive – and the Black Sun had risen. That evening my partner Astrid Bauer and I sat and listened to the first Musick to Play in the Dark album from end to end, weeping throughout. For several years afterwards I was emotionally incapable of listening to any Coil tracks that had Balance singing on them.

I went up to Weston for the funeral on November 22nd with Astrid – it was her birthday, though that year it was no birthday for her – and my old friend David Mearns who, sadly, was to die in summer 2010, also from the effects of a long dependence on alcohol. Checking into the Beechfield Hotel, which Sleazy had suggested, we headed upstairs to dump our bags, negotiating the empty corridors and sudden, sharp turns and stairways. We seemed to be the only guests and the place had the classic desolate presence of an out-of-season hotel – it was like auditioning for The Shining. We regrouped in David’s room for a couple of fortifying vodka and cokes served in b & b teacups before driving up to Coil’s house.

The Coil family home was a massive Victorian mansion standing on the hill at Weston-super-Mare. It had twenty-nine rooms according to Balance, six more than Elvis Presley’s ‘Graceland’, though in its labyrinthine architecture it’s possible a few more might have evaded the count. The enormous living-room window had originally boasted a view over the Severn estuary, until the brother of the house’s builder and first owner had erected his own mansion across the street out of spite. The fatal staircase stretched up in two elevations through the centre of the main house; the sides which formed the rails and overlooked the hallway were of broad, polished stone, but they seemed worryingly low, hardly more than waist-high; I wondered how the former occupants coped, when the place served for a time as a home for the elderly – but they probably used the lift that had been installed. If only Balance had done the same. The sense of vertigo induced by the low sides urged you to ascend or descend on the other side of the steps keeping close to the wall, but that meant passing an additional hazard – a distinct and palpable ‘presence’ that brooded in one corner of the landing. I felt this during a visit in 2002 and asked Balance, ‘What’s with the “Thing on the Stairs” then?’ – ‘Oh, that’ he said, then related that on one occasion when he was tripping with some friends he had had to arm them with ritual daggers, urging ‘Cut it away! Hack it away!’ so they could get past. ‘It was like – meshes’ he said. Whether the ‘thing’ played any part in his final tragedy I would not venture to say – I simply record the fact. Balance also said that he’d come across an old man standing at the window of one of the upstairs rooms, a man who patently wasn’t there – it was clearly a house with a history, a place where you would never feel, or be, quite alone.

geffinlibraryIt was late evening by the time we arrived; Sleazy welcomed us at the door and took us through to the living room, which was very dimly lit. I could see that there was a group of people dispersed around the various chairs and sofas, but it was difficult to make out who they were. There was a little quiet, sporadic talk between them but nothing much. We sat down next to a figure in the shadows who turned out to be Ossian Brown so we greeted each other and chatted awhile. As my eyes adjusted to the low light I could make out Pierce and Massimo (the Plastic Spider Things) and David Tibet and his wife; a woman in the corner I guessed must be Rose MacDowall because of her Glasgow accent. Tibet slumped in the sofa speaking hardly a word – I’d never seen him so utterly deflated. A little later we talked with Sleazy in the kitchen while he poured drinks – I made some comment about ‘an accident that was waiting to happen’ and he said that every time he’d returned from working abroad he would spend the flight in a state of anxiety about what he might find waiting for him at home. Sleazy ushered us through to the library where Geff’s body was laid out for viewing. It was the first time I was face to face with the body of a friend, and I struggled to fully comprehend the reality of the scene, that Geff really wasn’t going to suddenly sit up and shout, ‘Fooled you!’ Arranged and dressed with care and love by Ian Johnstone and Ossian Brown, the corpse of Jhonn Balance was an incredible work of art. We spent a long time beside the coffin, saying our goodbyes, as you do – Astrid said she felt that Geff was flitting around the edges of the room, laughing, perhaps as much at his own predicament as ours, and I’m certain he was – before joining the others in the courtyard at the back of the house. Part of the yard was cut directly out of the rock of the hill and a small gate led into the steeply-rising woodland where Balance had loved to roam, absorbed in the greenness and the secret languages of birdsong. Late in the evening the guests dispersed to their rooms; as we hugged Sleazy on our way to the door we heard Rose weeping in the library – her exquisite voice become a high, keening sob over the body of her friend.

The morning of November 23rd began with a gathering of a few of Jhonn’s friends over drinks in a seafront bar. After about twenty minutes a hearse was seen speeding past along the front carrying the white coffin, so we leapt to the cars and shot after it. The venue for the service was the modern chapel of a large ‘funeral resort’ set in large grounds with facilities for services, wakes, and woodland burials. On the walls of the chapel were two large psychedelic photos of Balance, and the air was heavy with incense; Sleazy stood waiting as master of ceremonies at the head of the chapel, wearing his fluffy white polar bear suit – the open coffin was positioned in the middle of the aisle, surrounded by a huge display of vegetables including broccoli and gigantic cabbages. We realised we were about to witness Coil’s final performance. Seated near the back I scanned the room and recognised a number of Jhonn’s friends and fellow-artists and musicians; on the right of the aisle sat a group of middle-aged to elderly people wearing suits who were obviously relatives. Alison from World Serpent was seated in front of us – the only member of the company who had retained a friendship with Coil after the label’s collapse. Her small son sat on the floor in the aisle playing with a toy car and narrating his game to himself; sometimes his little voice rose into a quiet moment in the service, the sort of behaviour that would normally earn a rebuke, but that day the sound of a child’s innocent pleasure in the midst of death just seemed so right, no-one could begrudge it.

Sleazy opened the service with a blessing from Crowley’s Gnostic Mass: ‘Unto Geff, from whose eyes the veil of life hath fallen, may there be granted the accomplishment of his True Will…’, after which Coil’s ‘The Dreamer Is Still Asleep’ played and the congregation were invited to light a candle at the front of the chapel, which almost everyone did. To do this meant passing the coffin, and as the queue moved forward you could watch people’s reactions to their first sight of the body; some gazed, some spoke their final words to Balance, a few looked then quickly looked away. That song was the one that had leapt to many peoples’ minds when they heard of the death and was frequently referred to in the tributes that were received by the Threshold House website, and truly, it sounded as if it had been composed for that very moment. Geff’s partner Ian Johnstone gave a eulogy, Jeremy Reed read a poem and more music was played. Francois Testory sang the theme song from the camp 1970s TV series Are You Being Served? – it was the last piece that Balance had sung live, as a duet with Francois at Dublin City Hall a few weeks previously. Balance’s mother stood and spoke a few words to thank everyone for attending, fighting back tears; we were all willing her on. Cliff Stapleton and Mike York on pipes and hurdy-gurdy played a song they had written for the occasion while the congregation rose and took their turns to place notes, messages and small gifts in the coffin. David Cabaret, who had designed costumes for the early Coil shows, gave a beautifully hand-made miniature Balance doll dressed in full Time Machines costume. Sleazy brandished two thick comb-bound volumes, printouts of all the messages of condolence that had been sent to their website – then placed them in the coffin remarking, ‘He always liked to have something to read on a journey…’

The service ended with a masterstroke of programming: the assembly stood and sang heartily along to the choruses of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ as Johnny Cash’s version from American IV played. Balance’s artist friends and middle-aged relatives – the young and old, weirdos and straights – united in a song which, on that day, appeared a mystical truism concealed within a sentimental tearjerker, while Balance’s coffin was carried out of the chapel. It was at this point that a sublime moment of Coilian surrealism was created, though it was only fully appreciated by those of us at the back of the chapel. A woven willow coffin is a very flexible thing and the coffin bearers lifting it up – Ian, Ossian, Pierce and Massimo – were of widely-differing heights, and probably had no opportunity to rehearse; blinded by tears, they also had to tread around, over and upon the enormous vegetables around the catafalque. All of which meant that the coffin twisted and bent in their hands, and continued to jerk about alarmingly once the party got it shouldered, causing them to lurch under its weight towards the door at a canter. It looked for a moment as if Balance was going to make his final exit skating down the aisle and we would be picking the five of them up; we listened for the crash but none came so I assumed they had reached the hearse without mishap. Everyone assembled outside to bid a last farewell to Balance as his body went off to the crematorium in a Victorian-style glass-sided black coach, drawn by ostrich-plumed black horses – a bit of a gothic monstrosity, I thought, just like Balance. Sleazy, in his fluffy white suit, watched until it was out of sight and then, finally, he began to sob. (Who would have imagined that a mere six years later Sleazy would die on almost the very same date?) Ian turned abruptly and stalked away across the lawn, puffing furiously on a roll-up while his dogs jumped around his feet.

balance-boothThe wake was held in a grand converted barn on the site. In the foyer a table of Balance memorabilia had been set out with photos from various times and places. Astrid and I contributed a framed print of photo-booth pictures of Balance looking ‘dirty Irish’ as he said, which he sent me when I wanted to paint his portrait (‘Paint me as a dead soul!’ he had decreed with faux dramatic flourish, and I did), and a small black meteorite, a present from one of their Thailand trips that Balance dubbed ‘a turd from outer space’, which of course it is. We talked with Balance’s mother and offered our sympathy, then walked with her through to the reception room. Inside, the buffet table was crowned by an enormous pyramid of broccoli florets piled up in a bowl (‘Remember to eat your greens…’); we went to fill our plates – the natural divertive activity when finding yourself in a room full of people that you mostly don’t know – and I found myself entering a bit of a scrum. I turned to see whom I was shoulder to shoulder with and it was Cosey Fanni Tutti – ‘This is intolerable,’ I joked, ‘being jostled for the cheese-sticks by one of the greatest guitarists of all time!’ Cosey peered at me slightly non-plussed – perhaps no-one had accused her of being ‘a guitarist’ before, let alone one of the greatest, but given her influence (along with two or three others) on the more experimentally-minded guitarists of the Punk and post-Punk generations, it was a true word though spoken in jest. The party was convivial and noisy with plenty of drink flowing and punctuated by frequent laughter as people reminisced about Balance. It’s always the best part of any funeral and suspends the grief for a little while – an all-too brief respite between the shock of the death and the ordeal of going through the effects of the deceased. So for the next few hours we circulated, catching up with old friends and meeting some of the main characters in Balance’s latter life including Coil’s housekeeper Marilyn, a lovely old girl to whom we expressed our condolences: ‘He was my baby…’ she sighed with a teary but effusively proud smile. Balance had previously told me ‘Marilyn’s our Mrs. E.’ – referring to the dotty housekeeper of Rawlinson End – adding, ‘She’s great – she’s cleaned up my vomit and poo loads of times…’ Sleazy sat in a corner of the side-benches, as warm and affectionate as ever although he was obviously exhausted, and no doubt emotionally shattered.

The room began to empty as the event wound down and we decided to make a move for home. Walking towards the car park we saw Chris and Cosey ahead of us, hands stuffed in jacket pockets and heads down against the grey autumn skies; suddenly they straightened, put their arms round each others’ shoulders, and began to skip off down the path like children. Remembering Balance’s delight in the amount of mischief, laughter and creative folly that is there to be extracted from the tragic pantomimes of both life and death, it was the best possible finale to the day.

One morning a few weeks after the funeral, a package appeared on my doormat with the mail; I picked it up, read the address, and nearly dropped it again – it was in Balance’s spidery-calligraphic felt-tip handwriting. He had often sent copies of Coil CDs and vinyls – what was he sending me now from beyond the grave? On closer inspection I realised that the writing wasn’t Balance’s at all but Ossian Brown’s; the gruelling process of sorting out Jhonn’s possessions was in progress up at the Threshold House, and Ossian had found a copy of the Coil compilation The Golden Hare that Balance had inscribed to Astrid and myself but not got around to posting. He had dated it ‘The 23rd of Always’, which I will forever think of as ‘Balance’s Day’. I don’t know quite when it is, but when it comes around I expect, and hope, that we will indeed meet again.

Shivering

Many, many thanks to Ossian Brown for additional details that escaped my memory! Originally published in Furfur which accompanied copies of David Keenan’s revised England’s Hidden Reverse (Strange Attractor, 2015). Photgraph of Balance in his coffin by Sleazy Christopherson; ‘Pilgrim’ portrait of Balance by the present author; Balance photo booth photos by Balance, 2001.

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