STING CITY: BLACKIE LAWLESS SHARES THE BUZZ ON W.A.S.P.’S LATEST
By Alex S. Johnson
"Off the reservation" is an expression current in military and political circles. It designates someone who doesn’t conform to the limits and boundaries of official, is unpredictable and thus uncontrollable…those [Native people] who crossed the set borders were deemed renegades. They were usually hunted down, and most often, summarily shot."
Paula Gunn Allen, Off The Reservation
Part One: Reverence and Revengeance
W.A.S.P. ringleader Blackie Lawless pops taboos.
Think of it as a communal service.
Paving the way for Rob Zombie's horrorshow antics, going where even Alice Cooper feared to tread, Blackie's forged a career out of amplified id, an E-ticket trip across his cerebellar universe: Down and across glistening pink whorls to the yowls of a demon chorus.
From slicing up pretty girls onstage to penning "an album to kill people by," the Staten Island native has targeted PC sensibilities with uncanny accuracy, drawing fire from liberals and right wingers alike.
But outrage alone doesn't explain W.A.S.P.'s enduring presence. Plenty of rockers who came to the fore in glam-metal 80s L.A. still make a living from Lawless' cast-off moves (viva Danger Kitty!).
What makes Blackie's music just as meaningful -- possibly more so --now than it was then, can be summed up with one word: passion, a word he defined in a recent interview: "You know, things I believe in, that mean something."
Passion: Eating that big, fuzzy peach till the juice flows down your neck; making a million bad choices till that one good-but-crazy choice changes the world as we know it; living recklessly, perhaps, past the risk of later regret, afterburners blazing.
Cynical adverts and pre-abstract thinking delight in such fare, but what the hey; welcome to a key ingredient for success, and a quality Lawless has in spades.
Dying For the Worldsings, roars, zaps and blazes with such stuff; but the album's far more than some outsized foam rubber football finger, jabbing the air to cheer on 'our boys.' Fueled by rage at the events of September 11, thundering with death anthems like "Revengeance," it's also chock-a-block with haunted, tender and quiet moments: the poignant "Hallowed Ground," an homage to the fallen Twin Towers, comes in two versions; anybody for an unplugged closer?
But fear not, gentle reader, that Blackie's gone hawkish or mawkish: "There's an expression I used on an album a few years ago, and it says "I love my country, but I'm scared to death of its government" -- and I think that sums it up."
Well, kind of. There's more to this story than meets the eye. Blackie?
"We got some email from them [troops in Afghanistan] and it was funny; it was like, 'Write us some songs! I kid you not -- it was right when we were in the middle of the record, and I thought, just you wait! 'Cause you have no idea what I'm in the kitchen cookin' up right now. You're gonna get more than you ever dreamed! I mean, I would giggle when I would look at the emails; you have no clue!"
Lawless visited September 11th's Ground Zero in October. "We flew into Newark; you fly right past downtown, right over Staten Island, going into Newark. I knew they were going to be gone, but it wasn't until I looked out the window when it hit: The hurt and the anger…you just wanna bite nails in half, and all that; your eyes well up and all that stuff.
"Then I went down the next day, and that's when -- the first thing that hit me was the smell of those electrical wires. In the liner notes about 'Hallowed Ground,' I talked about the smell, and a few hours later I could smell that in the back of my throat; that just freaked me out; I had never experienced that before."
So what would Blackie propose as a fit memorial for the Twin Towers? "I have such mixed emotions over that. I don't even know where to begin. If there was a suggestion box, I wouldn't even know what to write. I don't have the foggiest notion where to start. My first reaction was to build them again, put 'em right back up to where they were, but I think that too is being reactive in a belligerent sense. But you know what? The originals are gone, and they ain't comin' back. I don't know. At this point, I'd probably just go along with whatever anybody else suggested, 'cause anyway you look at it, it's all gonna hold some sort of reverence."***
Part Two: Back to the Blackie
The engine of rock stardom runs on rumor and outsized gestures, charges itself on viable memes. The legend of Blackie Lawless stirs such a cocktail: "a construct of fact and fantasy," to quote Chicano playwright Luis Valdez. The man who taught America how to slurp blood from a skull, "f**k like a beast" and stave off the odd "ballcrusher" still travels fleetly through fire, but anyone who still thinks W.A.S.P. is all about hellraising party anthems has been living in a bomb shelter since the Reagan years.
The fact is, Lawless actually does loom larger than life, as much as he pleads "average tastel; as he says, "If there's something I like, probably a lot of other people like it too. The music usually ends up being pretty good because of it, and I end up being my own best salesman; if I believe it, I'll talk birds out of trees, and if I don't believe it, I'm not a very good liar."
Like [pre-divorce] Howard Stern [when he was relevant], Blackie's the guy who makes our communal fantasies flesh -- gore, guts and flaming pentagrams, oh my. A savvy showman, he's also one of the more thoughtful of metal screamers --trying to slot him into a category, like nailing Jello to the wall, is recommended only for those with a high frustration tolerance; that, and plenty of Jello.
Yet some will probably never get over the Grand Guignol psychodrama that characterized the band's Sunset Strip years: Blackie with his circle saw codpiece, throwing out sparks like some demented Pieter Bruegel figure gone post-industrial: Shredding rodents in a meat grinder, simulating on-stage snuff; squeezing 100 pints of blood from fans for the Red Cross (a publicity stunt that paid off big when W.A.S.P. scored a contract with Capitol Records). It's a period chronicled in a recent VHI-1 movie, Warning: Parent Advisory, which deals with the arch-right's attempt to censor artists like Twisted Sister and W.A.S.P. through the PMRC's "Filthy 15" list. They're still trying to convert the virus initiated by Armored Saint and Metallica, two co-conspirators of early W.A.S.P. tours. They have failed. So here we go…again."
"I think a lot of people are still stricken by the first impression of what we were 20 years ago," Lawless says. "When we did Headless Children back in '89, that changed things forever. Not to liken myself to them, but when you think of the Beatles, do you think of the Mop Tops or do you think of Sgt. Pepper? Without Sgt. Pepper, they would never have been remembered."
Revolver was a big-time influence on Dying For The World. The psychedelia, the backwards tapes and all that; that record opened the door for me when I thought of combining the psychedelia with heavy rock. It really fired my imagination and opened the door to my creativity. I'm just scratching the surface -- in the future I'm going to get deeper and deeper."
"I'm a huge fan, obviously, and I go back from time to time and revisit my roots. I think probably a lot of it had to do with the Mobile Fidelity sound lab stuff. I don't know if you're familiar with this, but it's vinyl that's been recut from the original half-inch masters, and it's as close to being in the studio that you're ever going to be. Well, I got ahold of some; in CD form, there's only a thousand copies that were ever made, and I got a mint copy; I mean, the labels aren't even put on them.
"There's things on there that I'd never heard before! I mean, I knew those records inside and out, I thought, but there's some things sonically -- I mean, there's whole groups of instruments I never heard before! It's better than hearing the songs for the first time, because you have the familiarity, but it's almost like hearing the band do a different version of it that's even better than what the original stuff was. It's a real treat. I was getting heavy into that. Like the song, 'Tomorrow Never Knows' -- there were things on there I'd never heard before, and it just blew me away.
"I've been reading this book by George Martin, With A Little Help From My Friends . It's a diary/journal-slash-whatever you want to call it of the making of Sgt. Pepper. He talked a lot about that song, and I didn't know this -- that was the first song recorded for Revolver. Even know it ends up being the last song on the album, he said, that song set the tone for everything that that record was going to be after that."
While mid-60s Beatles may set the musical tone for DFTW, and the tragic events of September 11 give the album a thematic core, songs like "My Wicked Heart" foreground Blackie's own inner demons as they vie for dominance in an ongoing intrapsychic battle.
While his upbringing in a fundamentalist Baptist environment has been well-chronicled, Blackie's still working out some of the knots: "I heard or saw something the other day, they believe that the vast majority of people that are stricken with anxiety, it all stems from their religious upbringing. At the time when it was happening to me, I'm thinking, I'm flipping out, I didn't know what it was, I carried that thing for a long time, years. And then, because of that, it's a natural progression I think, because if you look at, you know what they say about the girls in parochial school: they're the nastiest girls in town, you know, because they're all held down."
[What would a good heavy metal story be without at least one semi-gratuitous nod to naughty Catholic school girls?]Needless to say, Blackie has invested some quality time with the dark forces, mucking around in the black arts. "When I got out [of the church], I did a 360. Within just a few years, I was studying and practicing the occult. So I went as far away as I could, and then after a few years of that I realized, you know, I'd swapped one organized religion for another organized religion. And then I thought, I'm just a product of everything that I had originally been brought up to think, which was to follow, and not to think for myself. That's really when I think the journey really started to begin. 'Cause everything up until then was mind control.
Oddly enough, Blackie's turn-around didn't spring from a subscription to 'the Devil's music'": Believe me, I heard all that. But it was more like, there's a part of me that's listening to what they're saying, but then there's another part of me saying 'I don't get it, why are you saying this? This isn't that bad.'
"I'm okay with it now. There's a huge part of my life that I lost because of it. You know, and quite frankly it aggravates me, I wish I would never had to go through with it. But who knows. The classic question you get in this interviews is, if you able to change anything in your life, what would you change? Well, who knows, because, the total that creates the sum of everything that you are now, how do you know what you would be? It's an impossible question to answer. The reactive side of me is to say, 'yeah, I wish I never would never had to go through that, because it was pretty painful.'"
Another key to understanding Lawless lies in his dual heritage: "As I say on the liner notes, I was born of two fathers -- I'm a New Yorker, but I'm also a native American." Blackie explains how he rediscovered his cultural roots, as detailed in the song 'Trail of Tears,' (about the forced migration of the Cherokee nation in the 19th Century)."We were doing a video for 'Blind in Texas' -- this is '85 -- and we went to a little movie ranch outside of Tucson called 'Old Tucson'; they used to shoot all those old John Wayne movies out there.
"We were there for three years, I mean, intensely out in the desert, and it was just like some sort of apparition slash epiphany -- whatever you want to call it; and in the years that have followed I've looked into things that I was taught not to believe in the Church, like reincarnation and things like that; I don't know if it reincarnation -- a lot of people will tell you it is; déjà vu or it's genetic memory, I don't know what any of it is.
"All I know is that from where I grew up, if somebody had told me that I would be taking this journey later on in life, I would say, you're off your rocker! Because that culture out there is radically different from what we're we're talking about now. But I went out there, and like I said, it was like being born again. It changed me at that moment, and the more I got into it the more I understood why I was identifying with it.
"There's one fundamental belief between traditional white folk and American indians. "White people historically believe that the Earth belongs to us, and native American indians believe we belong to the Earth. And the whole difference between that basic philosophy changes everything that we all are and every aspect of our lives. Once I came to that realization, the change was compounded even greater. It all comes back to that one thought: Are you going to pollute the Earth, are you going to pollute the Earth, or are you going to love it? Do you believe in the circle, that we all are part of that circle, the shaman's circle, if you like? Either you subscribe to that theory or the other. It's only one or the another. There's no in-between. And I'm not saying that we're all going to go live like nomads out in the desert, but we could be a little nicer in the process.