It should go without saying that few artists to emerge out of industrial music have been as revered in their lifetimes as the two who were taken from their families, friends, and fans far too soon in John Balance and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, if not just for their output as revolutionary musicians, then certainly for their legendary outwardly loving, warm, and eccentric personalities. To this day, I have yet to meet a single individual who earns their creative keep within the many varied corners of post-industrial music who cannot profess to having been influenced by one era of Coil or another, and this applies to even the most monolithic figures among them. The love that was shared from these two artists outwards into the world has been well-documented by the likes of Massimo & Pierce and ThighPaulSandra, but the most immediate example to come to mind can be found on the insert for Current 93‘s Live in Amsterdam, 8 December 1984 / Live in Hamburg, 16 June 1985, in which David Tibet, in an obviously very emotional moment, writes of John Balance specifically:
“When I and Jhonn Balance, then known as Geff Rushton, first conceived of C93 as our personal magickal project–to the first recorded manifestations of which Fritz Haaman brought, very quickly, his own grace and grooviness–we had very ambitious dreams. A lot of them were fuelled by our youth, a lot of them were channelled by our obsessions at that time–obsessions which have for the most part remained with me–and others were driven by the hosts and armies of the many other realities who hurtled in on the back of whatever drugs we were drinking and divining. Jhonn already manifested that beauty, power and fragility which led so many to love him when they first met him. The pain and loss caused by his ascension to those who were his friends, and to those who know him only through his work, is profound. I loved, and love, him more than I can say. What neither Jhonn nor I could have foreseen is how our plans for C93 would be fulfilled so sidereally. We had taken the train from Astral Paddington Station.
On a personal level, C93 allowed me to meet some of the people who have meant the most to me in my life. Many of those friends have remained close friends. Some friendships have drifted peacefully away. A very few have ended less gently. And Death the Stealer has also taken some from us, most noticeably, in regard to the material presented here, Jhonn.”
If Tibet’s words about Balance’s passion, beauty, and fragility seem familiar, it is because virtually anyone whose life was graced or touched by Balance in his four-plus decades on this end of reality can say similar. Indeed, it had been said many times before that even the Heathen Harvest Periodical itself would not exist today without the influence of Coil, and for that, we are thankful for a gift that Balance could never have known he was giving to those who were merely just paying attention with open hearts and minds on fire. Two figures to have been similarly and incontrovertibly influenced by Balance are Jeremy Reed and Karolina Urbaniak, who both exist outside of the spectrum of music in literature and photography respectively. They have come together for this humble project, Altered Balance: a Tribute to Coil, in order to remember John Balance specifically through their own creative means. Both Reed and Urbaniak are represented equally throughout the portion of the book that contains original content as each page of text from Reed is accompanied on its opposite by a photo from Urbaniak, each of which is relevant to the life and death of John Balance. The closing third of the book, following sections of both poetry and prose from Reed, contains images of letters that were sent to him from Balance, effectively painting an intimate portrait of the friendship that the two shared in a way that is perhaps less abstract than the text found before it.
Fittingly, the book opens with two images: the first, a personal photo of John Balance, seemingly relaxed and in his element–eyes wide open and eager with a Mona Lisa smile, welcoming the reader through the only possible means left with warmth, while subtly hinting at the deep depression that haunted him. Following is a desolate yet powerful image of one of Balance’s unique “crocodile” ouroboros rings, which no doubt hints at the concept of rebirth and the cyclical nature of life in its desolation. The end, the beginning, and the in-between, all found in the span of two pages.
Throughout the poetry portion of the book, Urbaniak’s photography focuses on the area by the Bassenthwaite lakeside and St. Bega where a memorial plaque for Balance exists which bears the transcription “Moon’s Milk Spills From My Unquiet Skull And Forms A White Rainbow”. Also pictured is the Hawthorne tree beside the lake where Balance’s ashes were scattered on the Spring Solstice following his death. Buried here are two blackbirds, a male and a female, symbolizing Balance’s freedom from the confines of mortality as well as, perhaps, the one-day-same for Coil affiliate and Balance’s partner at the time of his death, Ian Johnstone, who himself buried the birds. Reed’s poetry is fractured if not difficult to understand at times, and requires a deep amount of focus to unravel. Despite this, upon exploration of the space between Reed’s lines, rests a vision of Balance that is absolutely vivid with color and depth, acting with abstractly painted forms to populate each of Urbaniak’s parallel black and white photographs. Some works, such as “Elegy for John Balance” are much more straight-forward and easily grasped by anyone, but every verbal posthumous portrait, whether simplistic or complex, is fruitfully weighted with an obvious amount of both love and struggle. Not only are we able to witness the reconstructed personal experience of John Balance through the memories of Jeremy Reed, but we also empathetically share in the gutted emotion that comes with the understanding that his physical form is no longer present anywhere but those very memories. In some moments, these painted images are merely painful truths; at others, they evolve beyond emotion into daydream hallucinations.
The prose portion, as it should be, is much less abstract and frames a much more easily understood image of Balance that fans of Coil’s music will instantly be familiar with through portrayals of his eccentric and extremely fragile nature. Despite the firm grasp of realism, Reed’s prose absolutely evokes visions that are just as wondrous and vivid as his poetry, albeit endlessly disheartening.
Because, more than anything, Reed’s prose rather forcefully describes Balance’s beauty in terms of an endless stream of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, a troubled relationship with Sleazy, and dissatisfaction with and paranoia towards virtually everything, including his legacy as a musician, which so many of us understand as a reality as concrete as the ground upon which we stand; Coil’s influence and importance cannot be questioned. Balance’s struggles have by no means been a secret, but the depths of melancholy that he appears to have been lurking within throughout his adult life were not only unfathomable, but likely impossible to find his way back from. Like so many that suffer from the affliction, he seemed to be addicted to self-destruction as is manifest many, many times through every imaginable means, from his seemingly endless arguments with Sleazy to the constant abuse that his body withstood through drugs, an alarming amount of alcohol, and the obvious dangers of random sexual adventurism. Of course, there are lighter moments to be found, from his admiration for Marc Almond and Joy Division to his love of plant-life, nature, the occult (Aleister Crowley and Osman Austin Spare in particular), collecting, and a unique cooking palette. As much as Balance obviously lived through his adventures with Coil, he was overwhelmingly confined by anxiety, though he desperately wanted more in life.
Perhaps the most anticipated section of the book for most readers will be the letters that have kindly been provided by Reed. This is a rare chance to view first-hand Balance’s extraordinary nature, and it is, more than anything, interesting to watch even his handwriting change between postcards as it reminds us just how often he attempted to reinvent himself through his own name. Was it purposeful, or was it a symptom of a fractured mind as it desperately sought identity and those all-too-rare moments of contentment and clarity? As the bookend rightly notes through Balance’s own lyrical scribing, “The Dreamer is still Asleep”, and even now as we near a decade beyond his departure (a time-period which he himself defined as the point when one would be “forgotten”), Balance’s own fluidity impresses upon one the idea that he never actually left–that he simply became something altogether new–still a part of the existence that we all share, but no doubt finally at peace, freed from the crushing weight of individual experience, memory, and fear.