Dave Riley, Bassist of Big Black, Has Died

Versatile musician succumbs to cancer at 59

Dave Riley / photo by Rachel Brown

Dave Riley, who played a thundering bass in confrontational Chicago rock band Big Black for most of its existence, died yesterday. According to a moving tribute by his longtime friend and housemate Rachel Brown, he succumbed to throat cancer.

“In late August he developed a persistent sore throat which wasn’t responsive to antibiotics,” Brown wrote on Facebook. “Initially dismissed as acid-reflux, further testing showed that he had a large squamous cell carcinoma in his throat which had already spread to several places in his lungs. Since treatment wouldn’t have made any difference, Dave chose to come home to die. His doctor predicted that he had about 6 months left, but sadly the cancer was so aggressive that he didn’t even make it an additional two.”

Riley joined Big Black in 1984, just as its third EP Racer-X was being released, replacing Jeff Pezzati, who had been filling the role part time on loan from his primary commitment as singer for Naked Raygun. The band immediately began recording Atomizer, its breakthrough LP. Riley’s huge chunky bass, on full display in the riff on the record’s unforgettable first song, “Jordan, Minnesota,” seemed to weaponize the band’s sound. Prior to joining Big Black, Riley had worked as an audio engineer for George Clinton, and he brought a melodic underpinning to the violently aggressive guitar attack of Steve Albini and Santiago Durango. Forming a rhythm section with “Roland,” the drum machine that served throughout Big Black’s career, Riley managed to squeeze some real feel and even funk into music more belligerent than anything ever heard in recorded sound.

It’s been said of the Velvet Underground that only 10,000 people ever saw them play, but every single one of them started a band. Big Black had a similar effect on a generation of musicians crafting a future in independent rock n roll.

As word of Riley’s demise spread, tributes began to bubble up through the Christmastime good cheer.

Bassist Dave Riley on the right in this Big Black publicity photo

Mike Zelenko, the drummer of Chicago power pop band Material Issue, spoke of Riley’s friendship. “I will always appreciate the encouragement and wisdom he offered to me and our young band early on,” Zelenko told Rock and Roll Globe. “Making me feel welcome, as a very young newcomer, to that late 80’s independent music scene. Our music couldn’t have been more different, but his pioneering aesthetic and self-reliant philosophy inspired our band to follow in their path. I recall telling him once how uneasy I was with Jim Ellison’s desire to do shows however unprepared we were. He shrugged and said, ‘A gig is better than a rehearsal, work it out onstage. Good stuff can come out of imperfection.’”

Chris Bjorklund, the guitarist of seminal Chicago punk band Strike Under, wrote, “Damn, I’m sorry to hear this. I always enjoyed chatting with Dave. He was knowledgeable, sharp witted and dryly funny. I guess my overriding memory is of him operating the black Peavey bass which drove the Big Black juggernaut. Great memories which wouldn’t exist without him.”

The word “operating” is well-chosen here, for anyone who witnessed the furious ball of bellicosity that was a Big Black live performance came away almost physically assaulted. There was no “playing” of instruments here.

Don Hedeker, the founder and guitarist of experimental music-poetry duo Algebra Suicide, recorded with Riley. Hedeker reports, “Very sad to learn of Dave Riley’s passing today. He played on two Algebra Suicide songs in the late 80s and we did a show together at Dreamerz. He was an amazing musician – both massively heavy and lyrical on the bass at the same time. And he was a helluva guy to be with – super smart, observant, and incredibly funny.” Hedeker shared “What Rubs Up To You” and wrote “Here’s one of the songs that he recorded with AS – even on lo-fi computer speakers, his bass is incredible.”

Riley, whose lip had been scarred from youth by an accident, suffered a head injury and stroke in 1993 and had been confined to a wheelchair ever since. A decade later, he moved to rural central Illinois, living on Brown’s farm. According to Brown, “Dave never let his disabilities get in the way of what he wanted to do in life. He created music, wrote, traveled, ran an online store and helped take care of the cats in our rescue-cat sanctuary.”

A few years ago, the whole crew moved to southern Arizona, where, again according to Brown, “Dave enjoyed swimming in the pool and spending time outdoors in the sunshine with our dogs and donkeys.”

When Rolling Stone ran a thoughtful and lengthy story commemorating the 30-year anniversary of Big Black’s final record, Songs About Fucking, Riley didn’t participate. According to the magazine,  “Bassist Dave Riley declined an interview for this article, declaring, as if he were a character in a Big Black song, “Rolling Stone disgusts me.”

 

VIDEO: Big Black at CBGB 7/13/86

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and greenmagazine.com and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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