Remember a visionary

Billy Harrigan was local rock's most dangerous man

Times Union, Albany, New York
Thursday, November 29, 2001
by Greg Haymes, Staff writer

"Billy got a job, decided to leave it.
Ernie got crazy, and he almost lost it.
Richard got sick, and puked all over it.
Russ got mad, and he almost destroyed it.
We are the Dronez, not puppets nor clones.
We are the Dronez. Don't like it?
You got nothing to say!"

Back in the early-'80s heyday of punk, when dozens of born-in-the-garage DIY bands crowded the local rock scene, the Dronez were unquestionably the most unpredictable and genuinely dangerous band in town.

The Schenectady quartet thrived on controversy and confrontation. When the Dronez opened for soon-to-be superstars U2 at the old J.B. Scott's in Albany, vocalist-bandleader Billy Harrigan relentlessly harangued the crowd throughout their set -- with his hands handcuffed behind his back all the while.

Back then, Harrigan seemed utterly indestructible. But last Thursday – on Thanksgiving Day -- Billy Harrigan passed away. He was 43 years old.

Earlier this year, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, which landed him in the hospital for three months. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident; on Thursday, he died of respiratory failure.

The last time I saw Billy was a year and a half ago, when I ran into him briefly at OzzFest at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. We were at the second stage when Disturbed kicked off their mid-afternoon set. Led by a pair of stagehands, singer David Draiman stepped out onto the stage strapped into a straitjacket and howling like a banshee. Quickly, he slipped the straitjacket off and launched into the musical mayhem.

“Hey, Billy, didn't you used to do that?'” I asked, knowing the answer.

“Yeah, but I kept the straitjacket on for the whole show,” he said, poker-faced. “And I didn't need any roadies to help me out, either.”

Harrigan was a true visionary. He knew that image was important in the world of rock 'n' roll, and he was the Capital Region's King of Shock Rock. In his day, Harrigan out-Marilyn-Mansoned Marilyn Manson and out-Reznored Trent Reznor. If a break or two had gone his way, it would have been -- should have been -- Harrigan in that spotlight at OzzFest.

The Dronez live shows are still the stuff of legend -- both in the band's original early-'80s incarnation and in their later '92-'93 reunion shows. But more importantly, the Dronez always had the music and talent to back up their outrageous attitude.

Sadly, their recorded legacy is skimpy: Only one song -- a version of “Red Skies” that was included on “Albany`s Best Rock 'n' Roll,” a '81 PYX-106 compilation album -- was ever officially released. The band recorded a killer album at Arabellum Studio -- including ferocious renditions of live staples such as “Raygunz for Ronnie,” “Media Evangelist,” “You Cannot Deny Us” and, of course, “We Are the Dronez.” Unfortunately, the album has never seen the light of day.

In '93, the reunited Dronez -- featuring original members Harrigan, synth-bassist Richard Fuller and guitar-strangler Ernie Burnell, as well as new drummer Steve Margiotta filling in for Russ Brown – self-released “Welcome to the Pain Amplifier,” a hit-and-miss, six-song, 45-minute VHS video.

The video begins with a semi-dramatic piece called “The Living Dead.” Shot in ultra-slow motion with very low lighting levels, the creepy camera work has much more in common with David Lynch's “Eraserhead” than with anything you're likely to see on MTV.

The next four tunes -- “Ten Years,” “You Don't Love Me,” “Pain Amplifier” and “Black and White” -- were all filmed live at the now-defunct Bogie's in the most minimal fashion possible, using a single, stationary camera with absolutely no zooms or edits. Even the band plays it fairly straight during these tunes.

But then the video closes with a performance of “Black Ju Ju,” captured live at the late, lamented QE2.

You have to see it to believe it. The hand-held camera work is shaky, but the Dronez are at their shining best. While Fuller and Margiotta keep the furious, pulsating rhythm, Harrigan demolishes a jack-o'-lantern with a power saw. From the pumpkin, he extracts a string of raw sausages (which he drapes around his neck like a scarf) and slices of cold cuts (which he plasters on his face and body). Then he builds a 9-foot-tall cross, which he then proceeds to drag through the audience, while altered sound samples from a Bush-Clinton-Perot presidential debate drift over the industrial rhythms. Burnell is busy onstage sledgehammering a television set into tiny pieces.

Now that's rock 'n' roll, eh?

Despite the imposing, sinister role that he played in the spotlight, Harrigan could be a complete sweetheart offstage. “I know some of my stage personnas have been on the violent side,” Harrigan posted on his [now defunct] Web site “But in person, you will find I'm just a regular guy.”

Musically, Harrigan was as restless as he was relentless. In addition to the Dronez, he was the linchpin in such genre-bending bands as Cacauphonous Votive, Glaznost, Destructones, the Spikey and Creep Show, Toyz and Cyberchrist.

“Yes, I've been busy,” Harrigan's Web site declares. “I have always been a punk rocker as long as I can remember, but what else can a poor boy do but join a rock 'n' roll band?”

He also sang with rockabilly nihilists the Outpatients. He was a key cog in Killtech, the industrial combo led by Mark Boyle. He teamed up with dark ambient diva Sara Ayers in the techno duo New Shiny Things, which released the haunting '82 single “Changing Colors/Breadlines and Dissonance.” And he led Operation Pluto -- also featuring guitarist Jack Nemier, currently of Arc -- who recorded the track “Doggie Biscuits” for “Live at 288” compilation album.

Through it all, Harrigan's dramatic, menacing vocals and razor-sharp songwriting were always as thoroughly captivating as his over-the-top theatrical stage presence.

Monday morning at the memorial service near Harrigan's Ballston Spa home, the minister declared, “Billy was a unique character.” And almost all of us in attendance -- family, friends, fans and bandmates -- let loose with audible snickers at the monumental understatement.

We miss you, Billy.

All Times Union materials Copyright © 2007 Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) a division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y