“I come from a very religious background. My father was a Sunday-school superintendent, my uncle was a preacher, my grandfather was head deacon at a church. Chris Holmes was raised a very devout, strict Mormon. Marilyn Manson — similar background. It seems that guys that do what we do all have that common thread, there’s something about the way they grow up. It does give you an interesting foundation, and you have a different slant.”
A different slant — yessir, Blackie Lawless has that. He’s the gentleman who used to say his excesso-rock band’s acronym, W.A.S.P., stood for We Are S*xual P*rverts. Whose first single with that outfit, back in 1983, was “Animal (F*ck Like a Beast).” Who likes to wear a chain-saw codpiece, and on his last European tour simulated the knife-rape of a pregnant nun. Whose most recent collection of new tunes includes “Helldorado,” “Damnation Angels” and “High on the Flames.” And: The above-referenced Holmes is the W.A.S.P. guitarist most famous for bragging about his alcoholism while swilling vodka in front of his mother in the film The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, and whose tour-bus exhortation to a whining groupie was immortalized by Lawless in the heartfelt ode “Don’t Cry, Just S*ck.”
Want your kids to grow up religious? Play them plenty of W.A.S.P. Only problem is, in striving to contradict W.A.S.P., the nippers might aspire to be lazy or amoral — the opposite, that is, of Lawless. Who is a complicated individual.
On the occasion of releasing The Best of the Best Volume One, 1984–2000 and embarking on a new tour, Lawless (born Steve Duren in 1956) shags queries in his Topanga Canyon mountaintop home. He’s candid, casual, practiced in the art. His long legs (he’s 6-foot-4) stretch out of gym shorts; his big, round head, draped with black hair, sprouts from a football jersey. Though he’s from New York, he slurs like a rancher, which, out here in the sticks in this Southwestern-appointed dwelling, he sort of is. He designed the place himself, and this lifelong authority basher still gets along well enough with his old man that Dad, a retired contractor, supervised the building and even lives out back. They go see the Dodgers together.
“I learned my ethic of work from sports and working with him,” says Lawless, who feels the grind-nose aspect of the rock business is little appreciated. A pro-baseball prospect when in high school, he still reinforces the sports paradigm through friendships with professional athletes — among them Muhammad Ali, with whom Lawless watches TV now and again. “The first time I met Muhammad, I had my dad with me, and I told him, ‘This is a treat few people will ever get, to have the two greatest influences of my life in the same room at the same time.’”
Work might not be the first concept that floats into your brain when you’re down at the teahouse rapping about W.A.S.P. But consider the diligence of your own fave performers, and you will be forced to admit that their releases tend to be littered with tossables. Not so with W.A.S.P. Through shifting personnel and flip-flopping music-world trends, over 11 albums Lawless has kept conjuring new ways to raise the hair. And that takes total commitment.
W.A.S.P., from 1984, laid the foundation with a pack of songs that still rock the live set, such as the rumble-rocker “L.O.V.E. Machine” and the agonized ballad “Sleeping (In the Fire).” The biggest worldwide shipper has been The Headless Children, from 1988, with its unrepentant tribute to Holmes, the bust-down-the-doors “Mean [Motherf*cking] Man.” Lawless believes the closest he’s come to perfection has been 1993’s The Crimson Idol, a heavily Who-influenced concept album about a tortured rock star, which drove him to near physical and mental collapse. And amid the broken dishes of his and Holmes’ relationships with their longtime lovers, in 1997 he drilled into Tartarus’ deepest pit with the howling noise of K.F.D. (Kill F*ck Die). The new Best of showcases pavement burners like “Blind in Texas” and the previously unreleased “Unreal,” with a second volume of more heterogeneous hits coming at ya in a year or two.
Okay. Enough information for the moment. Let’s pause for a sec and meditate. Some of this sounds like it could be about practically any rock group instead of maybe the most radical band on Earth. Let there be no mistake: When Lawless shriek-sings his tales of horror and passion, he is pushing, wringing, burning to the very limit. The music has plenty of melody and instrumental skill, but it will rock you to pieces if you let it. And W.A.S.P.’s onstage display of butchery, pornography and flying hamburger may inspire chuckles at first, but that reaction is only a defense — the cumulative impact can shake some essential stuff loose in your head. For purposes of entertainment, a few W.A.S.P. numbers administer a healthy boot in the posterior. Beyond that, it’s Theater of Cruelty, the way Antonin Artaud, in his wildest fantasies, might have imagined it.
After the reaction to W.A.S.P.’s 1997 European tour, on which Lawless performed a late-term abortion on a life-size nun doll, we in the USA may never get the full show.
“I was looking for a way to push rock theater to a place that it had never been before,” says Lawless. “Europe is actually more conservative than America when it comes to certain ideals. They have far more religious indoctrination ingrained in them than they want to believe they do. When we started doing some of that stuff, they flipped. I watched some film of that a week or two ago, and it’ll make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It’s the best rock & roll show I ever saw.”
What were audiences reacting to? “In Spain and Italy, it was the nun, the baby and the knife blade, and the way it was done — I don’t know if you’ve ever fooled with magic, but when you’re doing it with your own hands and it looks good to you, you know it looks good to everybody else out there. The Italian record label didn’t even want to release the record after they had seen it. I likened it to the Indy 500 or something: A lot of people go there secretly thinking they want to see the car crash, but if the crash actually happens, if it’s really bad, they can’t watch it. That’s what was happening over there. It was like somebody hit ’em in the face with a ball bat.”
Except catharsis, Lawless never states precisely what he wants his drama to achieve. Artaud hoped to shock his audiences into an awareness of society’s corruption, and in fact, Lawless has often heaved fistfuls of opprobrium upon the music industry’s deceit and exploitation, and castigated moral dictators’ readiness to blind, bind and lobotomize youth. In return, he has been threatened with death, shot at and, at the hands of Tipper Gore and her pals, censored. A series of football-style injuries have added a certain edge to his screams, and his collapse after The Crimson Idol, when he couldn’t make himself get on a plane or even pick up a guitar, sent him to counseling.
“It revealed itself pretty quickly what all these phobias were,” says Lawless. “Fear of failure. It’s all related to the work. Work represents success or failure.”
But what is success?
“Ten years, 15 years ago, I looked at it as longevity. The test was, could you be the Mickey Mantle of rock & roll? That’s judging it through the world’s eyes. I remember Gene Simmons telling me something a long time ago — I always looked up to him. We’re opening for Kiss, I think it’s ’84 or ’85, at the Meadowlands, doing a sound check. He sits down next to me. Somehow we get on the subject of success. And he’s just sitting there, staring off into space. And he says, ‘I don’t know what works and what doesn’t. I don’t know who I am and how I got here.’ I’m getting mad now, listening to him. There was a point in my life when I was seriously contemplating giving up music — at 17, 18 — and he was, ‘Stick with it.’ So now I’m listening to this guy telling me he’s lost his ability. I’m getting mad, because I had become what he was. I was a laser beam. I knew exactly what I was doing, where I was going, how I was going to get there. It was like reading a road map, it was easy. But 10 years goes by in my life, and I remember getting to a point where I too didn’t know left from right.”
Having seen his profession from every side now, Lawless has a lot of sympathy for the kids who hit Hollywood thinking they’re going to be Axl Rose (if Rose’s own example isn’t warning enough).
“I came to Hollywood when I was 19 years old, and there were three years when I lived on about 5 bucks a week. Didn’t have gas or electricity. I lived in hell. I’m not the only one, but I put in my time. And that scars you.”
Lawless played with the New York Dolls in their fading days, joined Dolls bassist Arthur Kane’s band in L.A., played the Strip with Sister, was pals with Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue, all before he started W.A.S.P. So he knows the odds, and he thinks he knows what it takes.
“At every label, they chew ’em up and they spit ’em out,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking to watch it. Show business is not looking for people who want to do it, it’s looking for people who must do it. And there’s a huge, huge difference. If the greatest thing you can be blessed with is an obsession, then that’s great, because your body is just a vessel for the objective.” But when he’s approached by would-be rock stars, “I ask, ‘Do you think you can live without it?’ I’d rather try to save them the heartache.”
Lawless says he almost takes offense at being introduced as a musician. “It’s the stigma that goes along with it: ‘Oh, here’s another dumbshit they’re taking advantage of.’ I’ve adopted almost a women’s-lib theory, where you have to be militant. You demand respect. They stick out their hand in the wrong place, you gotta chop it off. It’s like going to a new school. You let yourself get bullied, you’re gonna wear that for a long time, boy.”
So. Lawless knows how to pace his career these days. Whatever the pressures, he doesn’t do anything till he’s ready. After considerable corporate fencing, he controls his entire back catalog, which is nearly all in print in powerful remastered versions, with bonus tracks, new liner notes and the whole schmeer. He plans a video-DVD release for later in the year. He’s overseeing the W.A.S.P. Web site. And there’s the current tour. When asked if the band still raises hell offstage, Lawless requests a definition of terms.
“What’s extreme to me and what’s extreme to other people are just two different things. I don’t know what normal is now. I’ll give you an example. You’re walking down the hall, going to sound check, and one of the guys in the band has some girl pinned up against the wall, screwin’ her right there in the hallway, and there’s crew and everybody walking by. You think to yourself, that’s not that big of a deal. But when he’s wearin’ her dress while he’s doin’ it, you go, ‘Well, that’s different!’ You know?”
Don’t expect W.A.S.P.’s inkiest darkness onstage this year. “There’s not a lot of social comment involved,” says Lawless. “This one’s gonna be pure fun. The exploding codpiece, and all that stuff. Big and loud and nasty and noisy and in your face. Hope you don’t get anything on ya if you get too close to the stage.”
Previous concert activity such as the nun bit, routines involving women and saws, and titles like “On Your Knees” and “Kill Your Pretty Face,” as well as lyrics like “I wanna ride ya like the animal you are,” have raised suspicions that Lawless may not be a card-carrying feminist. A question regarding the best traits of womanhood elicits one of the longest stretches of blank tape in Lawless interview history. But then he speaks softly.
“The best thing is when you have somebody you can share something with — I know it sounds probably corny coming out of me, but . . . somebody you can relate to, somebody you can count on.”
It’s just as surprising, to those who’ve absorbed lines like “Pitchfork in my hands/Horns in my head/ . . . I sold my soul a long time ago,” to hear Lawless talk about how he (like Jesus, though he doesn’t make the comparison) seeks inspiration in the desert, and how he feels when he beholds a great natural landscape.
“I don’t know how an atheist could stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon and say there’s no God,” he says. “Something greater than us made this. It’s definitely humbling. It puts everything in perspective.”
He paraphrases Solomon, and a flip through a concordance afterward reveals these words from Proverbs 5:21-22 as the probable context: “For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, and he pondereth all his goings. His own iniquities shall take the wicked himself, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sins.”
“I still can’t figure it all out,” says Lawless.
From the windows of his mountain aerie, Lawless points below him to the past and current homes of hotelier Howard Johnson, musician Stanley Clarke, and actresses Mariel Hemingway and Teri Hatcher.
“Most of the time when it rains up here, it either rains sideways, or it rains up. We’re right in the middle of this corridor, and everything is more extreme — the wind, the rain and everything.” He pauses. “Kind of goes along with my personality, now, doesn’t it?”