(Normally I’d be recapping old stuff in order, but I noticed, on doing a search of Inside Pulse, that it’s damn near impossible to find a link to this article, which may or may not be because it appears the site no longer has a music section. I eventually DID find it, but the formatting’s fucked all to hell, which is… depressing. As such, I’m reposting this now, because it’s one of my favorite pieces of work, and because it plays into something else I wanted to post later.)
“The Life of Riley”.
It’s a term that has many different origins attributed to it (including the Irish Riley clan and the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley), and most likely is one you’ve heard somewhere before. Maybe you know the term from its original Irish roots. Perhaps you recall the 1940’s radio drama, or its 1950’s televised counterpart (right, Eric?). (This is a reference to one Eric Szulczewski, former writer for Inside Pulse for a number of years, and one of my favorites all in all. These days I just keep seeing him pop up as someone I might know on Linkedin, which is technically true, but not in a way that is specifically helpful to either of us, professionally speaking.) You could know it from one of the multiple musical acts which have taken on the name, or from one of the two webcomics that have held the title (Both of which are now, I do believe, defunct.), or maybe even from the various articles about the Scarlet Spider/Clone Saga mess in the Spider-Man comics. (Oh man, I’d totally forgotten about that in the years following this piece, but if you’ve never read it, you really should if you read comics at all. It’s essentially a massive discussion on just how fucked up the Clone Saga was behind the scenes and I love it to pieces. Here’s the link, to save you the effort of looking it up.)
Or maybe I’m a giant dork. (YOU DON’T SAY.) Whatever.
The term itself is meant to convey the idea of living the good life, through whatever means that entails. It’s meant to be a positive observation, make no mistake of that: the image conveyed is that the person in question is privileged, given everything they could ever want, and living a life of contentment where they want for nothing. In short, “The Life of Riley” is a life of happiness and prosperity.
So you can perhaps understand why the term is used ironically by so many people. (I had a huge hard-on for single sentence, emphasis-based paragraphs for a couple of years. I think I had this idea in mind that they really conveyed a specific and powerful ending point to the concept I was trying to get across, but it never really registered to me that doing this thing six times in one article lost a lot of the emphasis. I’ve mostly grown out of that, thank God.)
The radio drama/television show was the story of a man whose life was, to put it mildly, the pits (to give you an idea, this show birthed the phrase, “What a revolting development this is”). Both webcomics dealt with hardships associated by the characters to differing degrees (and both were retired without any sort of conclusion, go figure). (At least one of them saw a brief resurgence before falling by the wayside again after this was written, but I don’t remember, or care, which it was.) And Ben Riley, the Scarlet Spider, spent his entire life under hardship and duress before being killed.
But none of those really compare to the life of David Reilly. (Well technically the part about having a hard life, then dying, kind of compares, but since he wasn’t an actual real person…)
David Reilly, for those who are unaware, was the lead singer of semi-popular musical act God Lives Underwater. The band was mostly underground, though their third album Life In the So-Called Space Age and a cover of David Bowie’s “Fame” for the film 15 Minutes brought them small measures of success above their mostly cult status. GLU was never at a point where they were going to become huge breakout stars, but they made many fans along the way, among them Gloomchen and myself. (There was originally a link here to a review of Up Off the Floor by Summer, AKA Gloomchen, but the link doesn’t work and all of her stuff is now credited to an Aaron Coats, for some reason, so I’m not relinking it.)
Part of that was due to a solid understanding of musical composition in general; you might be able to disparage many elements of GLU, but the music isn’t a part of that. Each song sounded distinct and unique to GLU, and the passion in that music came through along with it. Part of the love also, I imagine, has a lot to do with the time the band came together; “industrial” music was really starting to catch fire, and GLU certainly had enough of that sound to build a fanbase from during that period. But I think most of the love for the band comes from the fact that Reilly, as a songwriter and a vocalist, was genuine and sincere in his music and message.
Now, I know a lot of people look at someone like Trent Reznor and say that he’s a man who can truly convey misery through his music, but all things considered, Trent’s not exactly a truly miserable guy. (Though I’ve never seen anything that confirms this fact, at this point I kind of feel like Reznor suffered from clinical depression, and may still, which certainly explains his miserable subject matter, overwrought writing style and four year breaks between records. This was not a concept I was terribly well acquainted with seven years ago, though.) I mean, I like him and all, but most of his problems come down to the fact that A.) he’s lonely, (Was; he’s married now, and apparently quite happy about it.) B.) he wasn’t ready for fame and all of its downsides, (Probably still true, though I don’t think anyone’s ready to have Courtney Love break into their hotel room looking for dick.) C.) he’s not big on the music scene in general, (Though it’s really funny that both of the immediate bands he’s associated with, Filter and Marilyn Manson, took their acts to higher “highs” than he did, and I kind of wonder if that fucked with him a bit.) and D.) he’s a giant dork who likes to sit around in his boxers playing Doom (or so the local radio stations claim). (This comes from a reference point where, immediately before playing “The Day the Whole World Went Away,” as a first promo for what would eventually become The Fragile, the radio DJ told this elaborate story about how he had a friend who knew Reznor, and would be told some days that Reznor was in the studio working, and others he’d be told, “Nah he’s sitting around in his boxers, eating Cheetos and playing DOOM,” and I don’t know why I remember that.) I mean, he’s rich, has a fairly large fanbase, and can sell albums based on his band name alone. (This is still mostly true today.) If Trent started dating Morgan Webb, (Does anyone know who Morgan Webb is anymore?) bought himself a copy of Half-Life 2 (Well, Doom 3 nowadays, just to stick to theme.) and went to a therapist, (Okay so maybe I knew a little bit about depression.) he’d probably be writing happy tunes for the rest of his natural life, so it’s difficult for me to buy into his misery. (No, these days he just writes weird, experimental shit and lets his wife sing on his records, so he’s basically become John Lennon in leather pants.) I like his music, don’t get me wrong, (Well less so now.) but it’s hard to believe that he’s really as depressed and miserable as he’d like everyone to believe.
Reilly, on the other hand, was the litmus test by which all other misery should be judged. God Lives Underwater published four albums; of those, one was published by a company that went bankrupt (which also killed the chances of publishing a follow-up), and one didn’t see publication until after the band itself had broken up (and in some cases, was published flawed and unlistenable due to manufacturing issues). (Which would be the aforementioned Up Off the Floor, unfortunately.) Around 2000, Reilly’s fiancé, Seven, (Her actual name was Monica Young, but her nickname was apparently Seven; no reason why is really given, so I assume she was either his seventh girlfriend or looked a whole lot like Jenna von Oy.) died in a train accident. (I completely missed mentioning here that he paid tribute to her twice, once with a project called Robot Teen America, which saw a 77 CD release of its only record, and again with a project called Fluzee, which released one record, 7. This, apparently, cut him extremely deep.) In May of 2005, his then girlfriend Amy also died of unspecified causes. He spent over a decade addicted to heroin and alcohol, only to finally overcome that addiction in 2003, with the intention of turning his entire life around. Sadly, those good intentions went unfulfilled; he died in October of 2005, drowned in his own blood due to an abscessed tooth. (That’s seriously how he died, by the way; the details are here for reference. Speaking as someone who’s had his own abscesses, take care of your teeth, folks.) Aside from a brief mention on MTV and various notations on GLU-based fansites and appropriate Wikipedia entries, his death went virtually unrecognized and undocumented.
In other words, death notwithstanding, you could pretty much believe the emotion behind his more miserable works, because Reilly WAS a pretty miserable guy. And to someone like me, that was easy to identify with. (Not to undercut twenty-something-year-old me’s pity party here, but this was about a year before I went back to college and completely turned my life around; I still have my hardships, but it could be a lot worse.)
To put it in simple terms, “23” was the first song that ever made me cry. (This, on reflection, is not technically true; I used to cry a little when Kathy Mattea’s “Where’ve You Been?” came on during long car rides, because it’s one of the prototypical “song about two people being in love forever until one or both of them are about to die” songs that country music does so well. This is, however, the first song that ever made me cry that did so because of its own emotion rather than because it was designed to, no offense to Ms. Mattea, of course.
The circumstances, while relevant, aren’t terribly interesting to anyone but me and maybe one or two people who know me personally. (I broke up with a girl, basically.) But that one song was cathartic to me at that instance, and through that, I found a sort of common ground with a man I had never met. Music is, in many cases, about expression of emotions, and when you can connect with a song on that emotional level, it’s a wonderful thing. (Though technically the GLU song was also about drugs, which was… not a problem I’ve really had to deal with, so the connection isn’t exact.)
And through that one simple sincere piece of music, I became a fan. I bought Empty and Life In the So-Called Space Age immediately after that, and when Up Off the Floor became available through retail channels, I snapped that up in a heartbeat. (Still sounds like shit, even after a rerelease.) GLU’s breakup was, for me, a terrible thing, but the knowledge that Reilly was going to keep making music made it better, and I was looking forward to his first full-length album, How Humans R(x). Sadly he never completed it, and it’s been in tentative release hell for over a year, where it may never see the light of day. (They did eventually release it back in 2009, with plans to release it digitally, though that never came to fruition as far as I can tell; you can listen to it here if you’re so inclined. Oddly, almost all of his other solo efforts are available on iTunes if you’re interested, including the aforementioned tracks dedicated to his girlfriend, which I assume goes to his estate, such as it is.)
It seems kind of fitting that Reilly’s death should match his life in its general obscurity, but by no means does it seem right. Reilly deserved better than to be a five second foot-note in history, but he was never given the chance to be anything else. His life was giant splashes of pain and suffering surrounded by small pieces of success that never ultimately panned out into anything substantial. If any one person has seen rock bottom, it was David Reilly, and the fact that he died trying to claw his way out of that proves the statement “life isn’t fair”. I mean, I didn’t write the first five or six paragraphs because I enjoy explaining things; I wrote them because I suspect a large amount of you out there HAVE NO IDEA WHO HE IS. (That’s still a pretty accurate sentiment, honestly. I love GLU but they were never anything notable so to say, and the vast majority of the people I’ve met have no idea about the band, let alone Reilly.)
Is this justice?
Possibly. Reilly got to do something many people don’t or can’t do: he got to make music that touched people. He toured the country and played in front of fans, as well as people who had come to see the main act of whatever tour GLU was on that ended up buying a CD or two afterward. He managed to attain a small amount of success by doing what he loved, and instead of so many musicians who end up retiring and working at jobs they’re not happy with because their time has passed, he left us while he still had some great music in him. Maybe I’m just being over thinking it, but it seems to me that Reilly would have preferred to be remembered as someone who loved what he was doing and gave whatever he could to his fans in his music than to be remembered as a depressed failure who died trying to claw his way out of his misery.
I know I’d rather remember him that way. (I should probably clean this up a bit, but honestly it’s still one of my better pieces, emotionally anyway.)