As I'm being led into Blackie Lawless' hotel suite, just next to the House of Blues venue in Chicago, where WASP is set to play on their "15th Anniversary Tour" later in the evening, I find him distractedly chatting to his publicist, and commenting about how a DJ at a local radio station appearance had been so unprepared he had actually called one of the band members a completely different name. "Don't worry, he'll pay," I hear Blackie say. (Not sure whether he's joking or not, I just feel glad I've done my own homework!)
As I watch him pace around the room as he continues talk on the phone, I pretend to watch the TV, but really what I'm thinking about is what an enigma this man can be, whether it be now or during the first interviews I did with him during the mid-‘80's. On one hand he's wary, aloof, opinionated, and defiant, and on the other hand he's articulate, honest, analytical, and highly sensitive to what's going on around him. But Blackie, who can be as intelligent as he is outrageous, is also a walking contradiction who has never come off as someone who suffers fools gladly. In talking to him, even in an interview, there's no use trying to break through his invisible wall until he's sussed out just what kind of person you are, since it's clear he's not one to cast his pearls before swine.
For my part, it might be easy to make an unflattering, snap judgment about any guy with the kind of strong, uncompromising ego/personality that Blackie has, but to ultimately do so would be an unfair, uninformed mistake. Certain traits that might come off as arrogance, or steely self-righteousness, are really just the fundamental prerequisites to heading a band as controversial as WASP has been. Moreover, it was also just such a "chip-on-the-shoulder" attitude that sustained and motivated Lawless to escape his ‘lower middle class" background on the mean streets of New York, and to do all the other extraordinary things that were required to scratch his -- and WASP's -- way up from the ranks of the have-nots to the haves in the LA/International rock star-making machine.
To illustrate this point, witness some of Blackie's vintage interview statements, back from the days when WASP was first gaining its success (and notoriety):
"You feel great when you're happening, but when you're not…Well, I can remember eating hot dogs on Christmas Day by myself more than once! Talk about feeling shitty!"
Or, as he emphatically observed regarding his early struggles (after he moved to Hollywood from NY) during the late 70's: "In L.A. there's a different way of playing ‘The Game,' and that just screwed my head all up! I'm not knocking LA -- Christ, it's home -- but you're talking about a place . . .that eats people. It's an illusion; it's Disneyland! . . . I mean, it ain't real! You drive down the street there and the first thing you think is, ‘All this money -- I'm gonna get me some!' There ain't no in-between in Hollywood, man. You've either got it or you don't!"
But, perhaps the best insight of all is another adamant statement Blackie made during that same time period: "I was hell bent. I think the greatest thing that anyone can be blessed with is an obsession, and I was f*ckin' obsessed! I couldn't take no for an answer. If you take your eye off the light at the end of the tunnel, then you've lost it. You can't ever turn away."
But now, as I face him from across a coffee table, knowing that no one can survive in the music business for 15 plus years, as Lawless has, without maintaining the initial drive, gumption, and confidence that it took to "make it" it the first place, I still wonder just how much the intervening years -- and experiences -- might have changed him in other ways. As he hangs up the phone and slowly begins to answer some of my questions, it's clear that either he is tired, or that brazen edginess he exhibited in the past has perceptibly smoothed down over time -- or that he's just simply tired of ‘performing' on interviews in the same way he used to when the ink on that first record contract was fresh. He is as direct as ever, and he still has an indefinable coolness about him -- at least at first -- but this time he is downright soft-spoken. In fact, on this day, and at this hour, this Blackie -- unlike the Blackie of yore -- is downright California mellow. Here are some excerpts of the ensuing conversation:
Rough Edge: I've read that your "Helldorado" tour was cut short last year just before the American leg because of problems you were having with some sort of tendonitis in your elbow. What is the story behind that?
Blackie: Well, I've had tendonitis in other areas of my body. But this was a torn tendon in my elbow.
Rough Edge: From playing baseball?
Blackie: Yes, this was from playing baseball. We did the European tour and it was just bothering me so much that I was living on cortisone and it was getting to the point that it wasn't doing any good anymore, and it's dangerous for your liver, to take it twice a week like I was doing. So, it was time to go in and fix it (the torn tendon), and that pushed everything back ---and here we are now.
Rough Edge: Isn't this a little unusual, to be on tour while in the process of also making a new record that is scheduled to be completed this summer, right during the middle of the current tour with the "Best of the Best, Volume One," which is being released today?
Blackie: This is not unusual for bands; I've done it once before, and I don't like doing it, but sometimes that's just the way it is. This is more like a "Helldorado/Best Of" tour.
Rough Edge: I interviewed you a couple of times back in the mid-‘80's. Back then you told me that you were motivated immensely by a "revenge factor." You basically said that a lot of things about your youth and the establishment had pissed you off and made you rebellious, and it also made you want to do things your way, or no way at all. But, of course those things can change over time, so what motivates you now, as opposed to what might have motivated you back then (fifteen years ago)? Do you still have a burning desire to prove something to someone?
Blackie: To yourself. You use other people, you put the onus on them, but really, after the smoke clears and the dust settles, you realize that you're proving it to yourself. I think that probably that's the continuing motivation. It's the drive, it's the fire; you know, I can't put that into words -- I don't know what it is.
Rough Edge: I think part of what you're saying is that what drove you then, and what drives you now, might really be the same things, but now you're just identifying it differently.
Blackie: Correct. Whatever answer I gave you before was probably the best I could give you at the time, but now that I'm older and I better recognize that I can't recognize it . . . I'm just playing umpire, here, just calling it like I see it. I'm just competitive by nature -- I know that. But why, I don't know.
Rough Edge: I know you've always had a big interest in sports, as a player and as a fan, and in collecting sports memorabilia, but is what I've read accurate, that you like to have the memorabilia around as inspiration, or as a motivation to keep going, when, just like anyone else, you might have those moments when you just want to hang it up or quit?
Blackie: No...It's just being in the presence of greatness. We are, a lot of times in life, the products of what we surround ourselves with, be it our friends, family, what have you, so I just try to build my own little team around me.
Rough Edge: Yes, it all rubs off.
Blackie: Sure it does. Winning is a habit -- and losing is a habit.
Rough Edge: I know I often see things differently than I did years ago, too. Along those lines, how do you feel now about what you once called your "Roy Rogers theory" regarding your stage persona? (i.e. "I'm like a little boy who goes to his toy box and throws on his hat and his six guns and goes out and plays shoot ‘em up for an hour. For that hour I'm there, you damn well better believe that I believe that I'm Roy Rogers. But when that hour's over, I throw everything back in the box until I'm ready to use them again.")
Blackie: That was me trying to explain to people what extremes are. Extremes of personality. All humans are complex, but some people are more extreme than others -- they go farther to the left, or farther to the right. And, the outsides of my extremes are probably greater than most people's. So, I've found that to create one thing that is extreme on one hand, you need some sort of extreme in just the opposite direction to create a balance -- and there's little in-between. So. . . I'm just better defining now what I was suspect of then. It wasn't that I was wrong then, but I've. . . humanized it more where people can better understand it.
Rough Edge: Whether it was in the past, or now, this band -- WASP -- more so than most other bands, has been a target for barbs, and attacks of all kinds. You once told me, "When you stick your head above the crowd, you've gotta expect to get a rock or two thrown at it. After awhile your skin gets like alligator hide." Still, I wasn't aware until I did some research for this interview that you've had so many dangerous personal threats. What kinds of things were happening?
Blackie: I've been shot at three times. . . and I've had hundreds of death threats. Literally hundreds -- maybe thousands; I don't know.
Rough Edge: In what time period did all that occur?
Blackie: Right around the time you and I first spoke. But there have been things over the years, too ... But I don't want to make a big deal about all of it. It's just the life that I've chosen, and when you deal with extremes of either personality -- and that personality creating extremes in a show, you're going to agitate some people out there. So, I can't go around trying to analyze every kook and nut that's out there, which is what it is. I'm sure that there's a certain element of society that thinks that if they got rid of me, or those that are like me, the world would be a better place, and that's their purpose for being. I don't know. Maybe they're looking for attention. . .
Rough Edge: But how do you feel about it? I know it's not a new revelation, but it has to have some kind of long- term effect.
Blackie: It changes you. It makes you more of a recluse.
Rough Edge: Yeah, even though that might not necessarily be the way you'd want it to be, it's just the way it is?
Blackie: It acquaints you with a darker side of humanity that maybe you weren't that familiar with before. I guess it's kind of like being a cop. You see that darker side and it does change you. It doesn't change you completely, because you still realize that there's nice people out there, and that the vast majority of people are nice people and mean well, but you're also not as naпve as you once were to think that it's only something you see on TV, because it's there and it's very real. What you do is you open your eyes to it; you assume that it's there constantly until you're proven that it's not. So your guard goes up a little higher.
Rough Edge: It makes you more cynical, I suppose.
Blackie: Well, I don't like to use that word. I'm more aware; little paranoia will keep you alive.
Rough Edge: Do you still live in LA?
Blackie: North of LA.
Rough Edge: When I interviewed you before, you had been living out there for a few years, but you had said what a big adjustment it was to live in that area because the people were so different than in NY, because they're not so direct.
Blackie: True. Well, where I live now, everyone lives on like 10, 20, 40 acre pieces. My closest neighbor is a half-mile away. I know who all my neighbors are, but I've never met any of them. The biggest thing I have to worry about is rattlesnakes, but at least I know how they're going to act!
Rough Edge: Do you think that where you live affects your edginess?
Blackie: It's the extremes of what I was telling you before. When you're extreme on one end, you get extreme on the other end to create a balance. Like I said, I know who my neighbors are -- they're all famous people. Let's put it this way: We are all aware of each other. But it's not like, "Hi, can I borrow a cup of sugar?" Everybody lives where they live for a reason, because they want the solitude.
Rough Edge: The buffer zone.
Blackie: Uh hmm, that's right.
Rough Edge: The current "Best of the Best" album is being released today. Is there anything special going on for the release at the show tonight?
Blackie: Not that I know of. I mean, it's a "Best of" record; it's not like it's a studio release, you know. It's more of a concoction of the record company, than anyone else. I'm not out here touring for that reason if that's what anybody's thinking. (laughs) I'm not going to say that I could care less, but I'm out here basically to finish off the remnants of what the "Helldorado" tour was supposed to be. That's my whole reason for being here.
Rough Edge: Do you still like the road?
Blackie: I love some of the elements, and the people, and the places, and stuff, but there's good and bad that goes with everything. Like I said, by virtue of attrition, your guard goes up higher after you've been doing it for a long time. You've got to understand that one in a million get a record deal, less than 2% of those one in a millions ever have any real success. If you make it five years, you're a phenomenon. If you make it ten years, you're beyond that. Anything beyond ten years—you're a sacred cow.
Rough Edge: That's a direct correlation with athletes.
Blackie: Absolutely. So, you know, by doing that, your guard goes up a little higher, and you insulate yourself a little more. There are certain elements that you just don’t want to deal with. But, other than that, it’s still gratifying. I perform for myself; I don’t perform for the audience. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I perform to be the best that I can be. Somebody says, "How can you do the same songs night after night after night -- it’s always the same." Well, it’s never the same. It’s a question of trying to get your mind and your body in synch. You put on the best performance you can, and sometimes when you’re good, you feel good about yourself, and if you’re not, you feel stinky about yourself, regardless of what anybody may tell you. So, that’s really what it’s all about. So, as long as that fire’s still there, I’ll continue to do it. When people say "How long are you gonna keep doing it," I say I don’t know, ‘cause I don’t have that crystal ball.
Rough Edge: Again that's like an athlete, really, because some want to hang it up before they lose their competitive edge, while others have such an intrinsic love for doing what they do, that they'd play on at any level as long as they are physically able, even though they know their prime is past them. The love of the game trumps pride for them.
Blackie: Michael Jordan retired two years ago because he didn't have the fire. He still had the ability to play, but he didn't have the mental wherewithal to go out and face that thing one more time, to get ready to do another season. I was just looking at that baseball schedule laying over there. When you're looking at 162 games, that's a long road. It's just like looking at the tour schedule before the tour starts up. It's a long way to go! . . . But if you asked a thousand people, you'd get a thousand different reactions.