In the end, there is no way you can accurately predict when someone who allegedly lives life to the edge, or pushes the envelope, etc., will die. And when someone who is so well known and is actually irreplaceable to a certain community dies, no, we didn’t really expect it, and no, we are definitely not ready for it.
Thelma Lee Ballard, known to many as Bad Penny, was found last weekend in the West Side home where she was house-sitting. While she lived hard and turned some people off with her boisterous honesty, she appreciated what life had to offer, grabbed it with two hands and whatever else she could use, and didn’t waste a moment in this realm.
She was best known for her living in and breathing life into Buffalo’s original music community, her love of conspicuous consumption (food, alcohol, dancing, etc.), and for being herself, even when she herself was known by two names. You never had to wonder where you stood with Penny—usually a couple steps back when you first met her. Strong-willed, strong opinions, strong action; people often recall a slug to the chest, arm, shoulder, or balls as a part of their initiation to Penny, but she was truly a caring person. Caring wasn’t a passive emotion with Penny.
I met her whirling dervish/Tasmanian devil self, as many people first did, through the community of musicians, DJs, promoters, writers, fans, and other ne’er-do-wells who frequented clubs such as the Continental, Nietzsche’s, Club Utica, Essex Street Pub, Mohawk Place, and a few others. She was at the major shows, tons of the shows we’ve all forgotten, and just as many house, yard, and street concerts, loudly showing her approval and appreciation to the bands. It is hard to recall a Jack Lords or Steam Donkeys show at which Penny was not present. I was officially introduced to Penny in the early 1990s at a birthday party on Connecticut Street with her apartment-mate, the late artist Jack Drummer. My lovely wife Val and I drove by that apartment/studio earlier today, at Connecticut and Plymouth, and it still looks incredibly as we remember it from almost 25 years ago.
A couple memories of what some people might consider the softer Penny, which was really just another side of the actual Bad Penny/Thelma Lee Ballad life force. One morning, about 15 years ago, at one of her Allentown apartments, she hosted a crepe breakfast during what might have been one of the days of the Allentown Arts Festival. A large crowd spilled from her apartment onto the balcony, the driveway, and lawn below, having a great, mellow time, and eating some amazing crepes. Penny was often happiest when she was busy and able to channel her energy, and she got the biggest kick that day when she was repeatedly told how good the food was. I realize she had help that day, but the brain cells have taken a bit of a beating, even with the lack of intoxicants for years.
Penny had a couple of interests that kept her calm, busy, and happy: animals/pets and flowers/gardens. While she was a cat lover and shared space and feelings with them, she also liked dogs, and she was always asking about our current dog, Harold, and our previous dog, the late Walker. She also gardened as a job and worked on some nearby gardens, including one at the end of our block at Norwood and Bryant. She obviously enjoyed herself, but took the garden quite seriously and concentrated as if she realized that every act to beautify by working with nature was important and creative, which of course it was. She would ask for my opinion on her work as I walked by with Harold or Walker, but you could see she was continually processing the work and results and figuring out her next move.
Not that everything was peaches and cream. You will note that I referred to drinking and other use and abuse, and the consequences did crop up, as even her best friends readily acknowledge. I won’t repeat in depth a story I’ve written about before, in which Val, Penny, Mikel Doktor, Marty Boratin, and I drove from Buffalo to Austin to attend the 2001 South by Southwest conference. She was a true road warrior and drove her segment without mishap, but after basically being told by one of us that if she didn’t shut up after hours of drunken yelling in our shared room at the Austin Motel the first night, because some people did not want her to accompany them in the state she was in, that they would, well, enforce that sentiment, she took her stuff and stayed with friends the first night. But she joined us for the drive home and again drove her share, as if the first night’s incident had never occurred.
Interesting but not too surprising: For every story we in the Buffalo music community could tell about Penny, there was at least one that members of the Austin community could tell, as we found out at that conference. There were stories from when she lived in Los Angeles, too, which we also heard there.
It is going to be difficult—nay, surrealistic—to realize and acknowledge that Penny will no longer be at shows and events and picnics when you get there, nor will she come through or under the door after you get there. On the other hand, she will always be there, never missing one of them. I hope you find and enjoy your peace, Penny, if that’s what you’re looking for, but I bet it won’t be quiet.