Dave Riley — the bassist for the fiercely independent, influential noise-rock group Big Black — died Tuesday after a short battle with cancer. His housemate, Rachel Brown, reported the news on Facebook. He was 59.
“In late August, [Riley] developed a persistent sore throat that wasn’t responsive to antibiotics,” Brown wrote. “Initially dismissed as acid reflux, further testing showed that he had a large squamous cell carcinoma in his throat that 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 six months left, but sadly the cancer was so aggressive that he didn’t even make it an additional two.”
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In Big Black, Riley played fat, muscular, sometimes funky bass lines that complemented singer-guitarist Steve Albini’s and guitarist Santiago Durango’s brittle riffs and the band’s defiantly aggressive and altogether uncommercial lyrics.
On the song “Kerosene,” he gave the track a low, propulsive rumble while the guitarists played stuttering, high-pitched lines, and his bass served as the basis for the verses.
Similarly, on “L Dopa,” he kicks off the track with a steamrolling bass line that sets up Albini and Durango perfectly for noisy, six-string experiments. Considering the band used a drum machine named “Roland,” Riley’s playing gave the group some soul in the rhythm section.
“Dave was a fantastic musician and a critical part of the Chicago music scene,” Albini tells Rolling Stone. “He bridged the gap between raw enthusiasm and outstanding musicianship better than anybody else in our peer group and I always admired him for it.”
“Dave’s passing fills me with sadness,” Durango tells Rolling Stone. “Many of my favorite Big Black memories involve Dave, including the riot he single-handedly started by taunting the audience at one of our shows in Australia. A wicked prankster. Funny, charming, smart and talented. I would glue myself to Dave on our tours. Dave was a positive force in my life and I will miss him dearly.”
Riley met the other members of Big Black in 1982, when he moved to Chicago from Detroit; there, he worked at a studio where both George Clinton and Sly Stone recorded. He has engineering credits on Parliament’s 1980 LP Trombipulation and Funkadelic’s 1981 record, The Electric Spanking of War Babies (which featured Stone as a guest).
According to Michael Azerrad’s 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Riley grew up a misfit. When he was a teen, he was in a car accident that disfigured his face, which impeded the way he spoke. Albini initially spotted Riley playing with a band called Savage Beliefs and gave him a copy of Big Black’s first EP.
Albini recently recalled how he and Durango recruited Riley into the band in a statement on his recording studio’s forum. “As the story goes, Dave went into the toilet at one night at a punk show while Santiago was on his knees barfing into a toilet,” Albini wrote. “Sant noticed him and said something to the effect of, ‘You’re the guy from Savage Beliefs right? You have style.’ They exchanged numbers when both had tidied up and a few weeks later, Dave was in the studio with Big Black recording the first of the songs we would compile into the album Atomizer, and beginning an amazing run of music that was one of the defining episodes of my life.”
Riley played on Savage Beliefs’ 1983 EP, The Moral Efficiency of Savage Beliefs, but left the group to join Big Black the following year when he replaced the trio’s founding bassist, Jeff Pezzati. Riley played on the band’s 1985 single, “Il Duce,” as well as several other EPs and singles by the band, as well as their LPs Atomizer (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987). Big Black disbanded in 1987 so Durango could attend law school.
In 1987, when Big Black called it quits, Riley felt the time was right, even though the band never achieved any great monetary success. In Our Band Could Be Your Life, he said, “Oh yeah, we could have [had commercial success], had we pursued it. But see, Big Black was never about that. For Big Black to make money, it wouldn’t have been Big Black anymore.”
After Big Black, Riley recorded tracks with the groups Algebra Suicide, Bull, Miasma of Funk and Flour.
Riley suffered a stroke in 1993 and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The doctors who looked after him thought he had either attempted suicide or taken drugs, which he later said wasn’t the case. He was forced to live in a “convalescent home” for close to 10 years, spending time with what he described as “lowlifes, criminals, psychopaths, and token seniors with whom nobody wanted to bother.”
As chronicled on his now deleted blog, Worthless Goddamned Cripple, he was able to get out of the government system in 2001 and moved into a basement apartment somewhere south of Chicago. “Yeah, I use a wheelchair and talk funny, but require much less maintenance than people suspect,” he wrote. “I’m doing quite well thank you, and yes my plumbing still works.”
In 2006, he published the book, Blurry and Disconnected: Tales of Sink-or-Swim Nihilism, which contained five satirical short stories and a novella. When Big Black reunited later that year for the 25th anniversary party for their label, Touch and Go, they chose to do it with Pezzati. “We haven’t kept close contact post–Big Black, but it’s been close enough to know that he wasn’t in a condition to play,” Albini told Rolling Stone. “I didn’t want to put him in an awkward position of trying to play, but not being able to do it.”
In his later years, Riley rarely did interviews or discussed his time in Big Black. Although he reflected on the group in Our Band Could Be Your Life, he turned down a request for an interview from Rolling Stone in 2017 to discuss the 30th anniversary of Songs About Fucking. “Thanks, I’m not interested,” he wrote the magazine. “Rolling Stone disgusts me.”
In her Facebook post, Brown wrote that Riley came to live with her on her Illinois farm in the early 2000s. “Dave never let his disabilities get in the way of what he wanted to do in life,” she wrote. “He created music, wrote, traveled, ran an online store and helped take care of the cats in our rescue-cat sanctuary. In 2015, we retired to a small ranch in the hills near Arivaca, Arizona, where Dave enjoyed swimming in the pool and spending time outdoors in the sunshine with our dogs and donkeys.”
“When I think about Dave, I think of him onstage, sweating, rolling on his heels, his bass making a rhythmic shrapnel cloud, the densest object in a very heavy construction,” Albini wrote in his statement. “Then I think of him after the show, still sweaty but relaxed, easy with his humor and in possession of an impeccably sharp wit, comfortable with himself, comfortable being the hinge-pin of the evening. I miss playing with Dave, and I miss hanging out with him. He was a handful, but like most people we describe that way, he was worth it. Rest easy.”
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