Aug 2016 17

James Woolley (1966-2016)
On August 16, 2016, Kate Van Buren announced that her ex-husband, James Woolley had passed away over the prior weekend. If that name sounds familiar, it is rightly so – he was perhaps most widely known as the keyboardist for Nine Inch Nails, having served in the band from 1991 to 1994. If you’ve seen the music videos for “Wish” and “March of the Pigs” or perhaps glanced at some live clips of the band from Lollapalooza, then you’ve seen him in action… but his contributions to music don’t end there. He was a major collaborator with fellow industrial bands Die Warzau and Sister Machine Gun, and even toured with the short-lived band 2wo (y’know… that time Rob Halford of Judas Priest went industrial with John 5). To say that he was a key player in the development of the industrial music scene during one of its most productive and creative periods would be an understatement, but as is usually the case with any artist, revered or unsung, it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story… but even I won’t attempt to tell that story here; for that, and to know what a loving human being he was, you should read the Facebook post from Kate Van Buren. And if that’s not enough (and it never really is when we remember the kind of impact any person makes on us), Jim Marcus has shared with ReGen his thoughts and memories of the man James Woolley was…


The first thing I noticed about James was that he was handsome. Not normally handsome, like people are sometimes, from one side, at the right angle, with a selfie shot just perfectly that day. He was boisterously handsome. He was handsome the way you are when you suck up all the sunshine around you because god just likes you better. He was handsome enough to be a dick.

But he wasn’t.

He joined our band in time to help figure out what the hell we were going to sound like, anyway. He loved hitting giant metal objects with his shirt off. When it came time to shoot a video for ‘Welcome to America,’ it was decided. We would hit giant metal objects with our shirts off. And he brought joy to that video shoot. On a day when I had to jump around for 16 hours with giant metal dangly things hanging off my nipple rings, shirtless, covered in tar, in the 30 degree weather, James made it okay. He was funny.

‘Hey, let’s light a truck on fire.’ So we did. It was James who sweet-talked the fire department so that they stood by and helped. And he laughed, not because we were diverting a good portion of the Chicago first responders to some remote video location but because this was music and this was fun. This was what you got to do with your life when it went the way you wanted it to.

On tour, it was James’ laughing in the bus that made the trip better. It was he and Van shooting Roman candles at each other and hooting when we stopped to pee. It was his charisma that found driver after driver for us, people who wanted to help just because they wanted to be a satellite to the big, brilliant planet that he was.
James Woolley (1966-2016)
And he never took it for granted. People loved him and he let them, but he loved back as hard as he could. In the ’80s, when men walked a safe distance apart, he hugged me when I was sad, when things worked out differently than I had hoped. He made me laugh when he had every right to walk away and laugh with the 30 girls that followed him, every step he took. He was joy and he deserved the adoration.

And for all the times he drove me crazy, leaving after a show in San Francisco to fly to L.A. for the next one with a rich girl who took him home, showing up two hours late, he never failed to walk on that stage and give everything he had, to do everything he could. Music was what you got to do with your life when it went the way you wanted it to.

Rehearsing at one of his dad’s old buildings, sitting in clubs next to him, realizing why they were fun in the first place, getting lost in a new city with him, he wasn’t from the same place as we all were. But it didn’t matter.

He left and played with other bands. And he was amazing. After a particularly harrowing show in Germany, with NIN playing with Guns n’ Roses, he somberly told me that the audience threw sausages at him. I started to laugh along before I realized that he wasn’t laughing- for once. This was what James looked like when someone didn’t like him. This was the unexpected event that he wasn’t prepared for. They didn’t like him…

And it was because they didn’t know him.

He won awards and did what he loved. The people that knew him, even for a minute, wanted him to win. I wanted him to win. Everyone did.

James Woolley (1966-2016)He had kids. And in his voice it was clear. This is was what you got to do with your life when it went the way you wanted it to. He was the sun this time, so they never had to know what it felt like to not be the center of the world. He had beautiful children and, if you listened to them, you could hear him.

I hear him everywhere today. For anyone who is reading this, I appreciate it. If you’re still reading, I want to let you know that I don’t really know why I’m writing it. I guess I don’t know what else to do. I want the world to know the James Woolley that I knew, because that person is remarkable and beautiful and brilliant and worth knowing.

I want the world to see him, for a few minutes, the way I did. He was a brother when he didn’t have to be, a friend always, the most loyal one you could have. He was handsome, yes. But not regular handsome. Not even a little. That smile in the video, that would have been for you if he met you on the street, without a doubt. That twist of his head that meant that he was paying attention to you, that would have been what he did if he stepped out of that video and you started talking to him. But that growl, the angry face in this video, that was for show. That was an in-joke with you, a perfomance. He was likable, not because of the way he looked, not because of the chances he had.

It was because he earned it. The right to be loved. And if we all get to take pleasure in the fact, today, that he was one of us, maybe that softens the blow that he’s gone.

So you will probably read a number of stories about how a keyboardist for Nine Inch Nails passed away. About how many shows he played and that he won a Grammy for best metal performance. Please read them. But if you can, in your head, just put the word ‘Beloved’ in that headline somewhere.

Because it may have been accidentally left out.

-Jim Marcus, August 17, 2016…


For James Joseph Woolley (1966-2016).


  1. FiDRaT says:

    Well written Jim.

  2. Dearest Jim Marcus: God bless you for expressing yourself so well, that it made me weep. I am going to have this printed and framed for each of our son’s three children. Our son, spoke so highly of you Jim, that the day he brought you into our home, he met me outside coming from work. He said, “Mom I want you before going into the house know that you are going to meet one of the most incredible musician’s and friend I ever met. Jim Marcus. I said that’s great, let’s go in. Well, before we do, just to prepare you, Jim has many piercings. So what I replied. Well mom some are in some very unusual places but underneath those piercings, you taught me to see the real person.” Well he was right in all areas. Yes, a little taken back but within a moment after getting one of the warmest smiles, greeting and hugs from any of our son James’ many friends, you have this charisma and smile that lit up the room too. Heard beyond your many talents, you too are a great family man loving children as deeply as our Jim did also. Then to see you Friday and Saturday at James’ funeral services, there you were again with this fantastic beautiful grin and hug that told me, yes, I lost a special creative son, however there are so many friends of James’ that I want them to know Jack my husband and I are a call, text or Facebook away.Please leave us a message for any of you to stop by and tell us how YOU are doing. Then to hear after the luncheon as you so sweetly had to say you had to leave earlier was because your son is starting college, just floored me. God, I love how you just lit up looking like you won a Grammy talking about being a father. In fact, when we tracked down James’ Grammy, it looked like he had used it for a door stop, paper weight or it dropped out a window with chips and scratches. My husband wanted to have it cleaned up before we passed it on to his children. However this morning I said, please let the children take it as is to remind them, material things are not important, the hard work it took was important however, the love, devotion and joy he gave his children, family and friends as you so well expressed above, meant more to him. Cannot express how your compassion of expressing yourself on the “real” Jim that those who really took the time to know, not judge as a performer, had so many layers of personality, charisma especially with children. I saw yesterday with his 18 year old son and how when he approached a table of small children and immediately focused on making them happy. Brendan told me this morning those children, brought such joy to him when he was feeling shocked and numb from losing his father. God bless and watch over you Jim and your family. Remember your dear guardian friend from above that whenever you feel a gust of wind go through you, he is there making himself known in his humble quiet way. Our love and best wishes dear friend of James. When you ever need someone to be a friend, we are here.

    • Jim Marcus says:

      That was the most wonderful thing i ever read. Thank you so much. It was great spending time with you and especially with Brendan, talking with Ann and Mary and everyone. I know that his family was Jim’s greatest treasure and it’s clear why. It was also fun for a few of us old rockers to get together and tell stories about him, about how he could talk anyone into anything, about how he just made everything fun, about how he convinced people that he wasn’t just on stage because he was pretty, but because he was good at what he did, a powerful musician.

      You raised one of the most remarkably good people I ever met, someone with no meanness in him, someone I will always be really proud to call my friend. And one of the most deeply lovable people anyone ever met.

      He knew what success looked like, and it wasn’t necessarily shaped like a grammy. That came from you. I hope you know, as well, that your extended musical family is there for you, just as James would want it.

      I love you very much,

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