Interview: Blackie Lawless (W.A.S.P.)
Blackie Lawless is apologizing to me for something that happened lifetimes ago. I once hung a poster of W.A.S.P. on my bedroom wall along with a Venom poster. To my father, the images represented everything that was wrong with my teenage life. So, Blackie made an express visit to the trashcan. “I’ve heard that story before to be honest,” Lawless says, laughing. “There was a girl I knew and she said ‘I had a poster of you on my bedroom wall and every time my Dad walked by it he went ugh.’ So, I understand.”
Lawless (born Steven Duren) wasn’t just a rock star in the '80s; he was one of the musicians that galvanized the censorship movement known as the PMRC (the Parents Music Resource Center), a cause championed by Tipper Gore (the PMRC hearings were held 30 years ago this month – read a good primer on them here). W.A.S.P.’ s song “Animal/Fuck Like A Beast“ was named one of the Filthy Fifteen along with Judas Priest, Born Again-era Black Sabbath and, strangely, Sheena Easton. Lawless and Dee Snider were mentioned during policy discussions in terms usually used for dictators and serial killers. W.A.S.P.’s theatrical performances were greeted with rancor.
It turns out that none of the folks who went after Blackie knew much about him. Neither did I or his many fans. While Blackie continued his successful run with W.A.S P. throughout the '80s, he eventually surrendered the codpieces to focus on the music. In the '90s W.A.S.P. continued to tour even as interest in metal waned. Lawless never stopped making music but still felt angry and lost well into his adult life. Faith beckoned, but it wasn’t the faith of his childhood as much as a faith based in the Bible.
The now Born Again Lawless still writes and performs as W.A.S.P and recently released his new album Golgotha, which shows his ample songwriting chops are still in fighting form – with a Biblical bent. The metal icon talked to us about how someone once viewed as a pariah was engaged in a lifelong struggle for purpose – and his thoughts on the most controversial period of his life. And no: W.A.S.P. never meant “We Are Sexual Perverts.”
You were such a divisive figure and one of the faces of the PMRC campaign in the '80s. I’m wondering what Blackie in 2015 thinks about that time of your life.
More than anything else I remember where I was in 1988. I went into a club and we were just starting to work on The Headless Children. That was the real line in the sand. I went into this club and they are playing the live video we did at the Lyceum. I looked at that band and it hit me for the first time what people were so afraid of. I’d never been able to see it before. The first couple of years we did this every town we went into—we were front-page news. I remember sitting in the hotel with (guitarist Chris) Holmes and they were talking about us on television. And he looked at me and said: “What’s the big deal all about?” I told him I didn’t know.
The reason I tell you those two scenarios back to back is because when we started what made us frightening is that we weren’t putting on pretenses. We were a bunch of angry guys. We played rock but our attitude came from punk. We were just mad at the world. The band you saw on stage was really us. It wasn’t like a lot of bands that were trying to put on a show. We were just being us. But when I looked at that video I could finally see what had scared people. At that point I had moved on and was focusing more on the music. After four years as a band your vantage point changes. But that was the first time I could see what the fuss was about.
Were you ever surprised you made it out of the decade intact?
I was never the party guy people might have thought. When we did Inside The Electric Circus we went on a big world tour with Iron Maiden. We had the same arrangement. There were a lot of times we went on their bus. Both of us felt we had sort of put out tired records by tired bands. When you have this gargantuan label like Capitol you think they are looking out for your best interest. They say: “You need to get out on the road and make a new record or fans will forget about you.” And it’s true that fans will forget about you – if you keep making bad records. That record and that tour was the line in the sand. Quite honestly, when they heard the demos they said, this isn’t the record you should make. The wanted us to make The Last Commandment part 3. I told them I couldn’t do that – that it’s not who I am anymore.
What you do for a living and what I do are the same. We’re both reporters. Our mediums might be a little different but essentially we do the same thing. We write what we see and try to tell the truth the best we can. That record ended up being the biggest seller of our career because we didn’t listen to them (label executives).
The interesting thing I always thought about W.A.S.P. is that you didn’t seem like a product of the '80s like a lot of bands you are lumped in with.
We were in our own world. We came out of Hollywood. I came from the East Coast and I brought that attitude to California and that’s part of it.
A lot of people seem surprised by your religious beliefs but if you do a little digging it’s easy to find that you had a religious upbringing. In some ways, it was like coming full circle.
A lot of those early lyrics were laced with religion. I had this same conversation with Alice Cooper a while ago. He said the same thing: You write from a subconscious perspective. Look at “The Headless Children” and the lyrics: “Father come save us from this madness we’re under/God of creation are we blind?” I hadn’t even returned to my faith at that point. But it’s there; the apple won’t fall far from the tree. Both Alice and I think our early lyrics are laced with it (faith).
Some of the lyrics on the new record like “Eyes Of My Maker” talk about pride, about being cursed, there’s a lot of regret.
I took a lot of these songs and designated ideas for them. “Eyes Of My Maker” is written from Satan’s point of view. He’s looking at things saying “where did I go wrong?” The title track “Golgotha” — we know it’s the place where Jesus was crucified. We also know there were two guys crucified with him. One believes and one doesn’t. I thought it would be interesting to tell the perspective of the believing thief. This is a guy who knows he’s going to die. He’s getting real and he cries out: “Jesus, I need you now.”
When I write lyrics I try to write from a multi-layered perspective. Whether an individual is hanging from a cross or not they have to go through something catastrophic that makes you examine who you are and what you’re thinking. If you want to look deeper at some of the lyrics you can look at something in the light and tilt it and see a whole new facet of colors.
When you’re writing something like “Golgotha” do you study the Bible or do you go from your own perspective?
It’s a byproduct of believing. “The Last Runaway” is a pretty good example. That’s about me coming to Hollywood 40 years ago as a teenager. I got here scared to death and didn’t know what was waiting. The reality is worse than the stories you hear. There’s a Hollywood Chamber of Commerce statistic that a teenage girl comes to Hollywood once every 13 seconds. You don’t hear the footnote: the life expectancy in Hollywood is six months. It’s an interesting perspective. I’m writing about a me that’s no longer here. The lyrics in the beginning of the song are pretty fear-based. In the end you hear: “Give me back the life I can’t wait to live.” When I wrote that I thought about survival. But I also thought about redemption. It’s looking back. I lived through it. You asked me a while ago about looking back on my life; well, I lived it. From a success perspective forget about that – that’s a different perspective. This is just about surviving it. Whether someone has gone to Los Angeles to try to succeed or just tried to get out of their comfort zone I thought there were a lot of people who could relate.
The lead playing on the record is excellent.
(Guitarist) Doug Blair and I work very closely to craft songs and then lead guitar is another voice. But I think like a singer. My buddy Kevin DuBrow (Quiet Riot vocalist, RIP) had all these inside jokes about guitar players because we come from a perspective of no extra notes. There has to be a reason to take you somewhere. Every riff has ever been played, ever. The only thing that will make it different is how you bring your own personality. Unless you do that it means less than nothing.
You’ve been around since the birth of metal. It’s always trafficked in blasphemy and Satanism. Nowadays, having a pentagram or Satanic lyrics isn’t even controversial. What you think about this being the new normal?
It surely makes a statement about where we are as people. It’s interesting – if you think about this genre of music there is no other genre that is absolutely inundated and obsessed with religious symbolism and ideas. I feel like I’m bilingual. I can speak their language but they can’t speak mine. I can speak both. I understand where they are coming from. When you are bilingual you understand their vantage point. But I’ve crossed over and I see things with different eyes.
I remember what I used to think. I’ll give you a little crash course. I went to church in my teens and I went because I wanted to. I left in my late teens and came to California and studied the occult for three years. I went as far away as you could possibly go. I realized there was no truth and then I wandered around bumping into walls for the next 20 years, thinking I was mad at God. I realized that I wasn’t mad at God but I was mad at man for the indoctrination I received.
I needed to settle things so I picked up the Bible. I came from the perspective where I was going to disprove this thing so I can go on living my life. I discover that it’s 66 books written by 40 different authors spread out over 2,000 years in three continents. Most of these people don’t know each other. I’m also aware that people think that Bible is written by man even if the Bible is inspired by God. I thought I would prove it isn’t true reading from an attitude of extreme prejudice. The more I read I realized that people weren’t just answering each other’s questions—they were finishing each other’s sentences. When I realized that I recognized I was looking at the supernatural. I finally realized I was reading the living world of living God. And I was coming from a perspective of extreme prejudice, trying to disprove it. I’ll say this in short: it’s beyond impossible that men could have written this.
Metal fans are notoriously fickle. Stryper could have put out the best album ever and just because of their faith people wouldn’t accept it. Since your personal changes have your fans stuck with you?
I don’t think it’s made any difference to be honest. And I’d disagree about them putting out the best thing ever. Great songs are great songs no matter where they are coming from. If people want to tune out where an artist is coming from they can. I’d also say that a lot of times music should be listened to casually. Trying to pick apart everything picks away the beauty of the simplicity. With songs you want maximum bang for the buck – way deep meaning. The intent is to try to write something so when people change or grow they will see lyrics totally different. You’re also trying to write flat out poetry. You want to stimulate thought. That’s what all art is; trying to get people to think. In the pop world people just make records and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you are hoping to try to create art you are trying to make people think. Even if people don’t subscribe to what I’m saying I hope it makes them think. Try it on, see if it fits. If it doesn’t, ok.
I have never come at things from the perspective of preaching. One thing I’ve learned as a believer is that people will believe on their own accord. I can’t beat you over the head and get you to believe. I simply share my experiences; that this is where I am now and what do you think?
It’s interesting you bring up these changes because growing up I had a fixed view of who you are as a person. Here I am talking to you years later and it’s completely different than what I could have ever expected.
I might have been different even then. When most people talked to me they realized there was something far different than the image. The thing with the me was the anger and hostility. I was angry at the world. But there was still thought behind it. When we were doing our original show my objective was social comment. We did it so well people weren’t getting it. One of things that’s hard to learn is that when you put sight and sound together sight will win every time. People will start listening with their eyes. When we did our first album people didn’t ask about the record it was just the show. Now that record is heralded as a classic. I was there when no one talked about the record.
Your old band mate Chris Holmes was going through some hard times and was trying to sell his car online recently. The story ended up all over metal blogs. I thought the response to that was incredibly mean-spirited.
To be honest I don’t know a lot about it. But you don’t spend 10 year of your life with someone without there being good things. I’ll just say that whatever he may be going through I hope he finds peace. I wish him the best at whatever he does.
Do you ever meet people in church or in religious communities who know about your past?
You get that from time to time. I look at it like this: Everyone knows about the woman accused of adultery; they bring her to Jesus and he says let you without sin cast the first stone. What’s more interesting what happens after that (everyone walks out). He’s doodling in the dirt and doesn’t even look up. The biggest problem I had as a kid is the totality of what I believe is Jesus Christ in the Bible. When you have guys interpreting what they want to believe that’s when it goes to hell in a handbasket. It’s because men are interjecting stuff and screwing up the pursuit of faith. So if people look at me through the lens of what they think – what any of us think means nothing. If you get 10 believers in a room they won’t vary a lot. Where it falls apart is when denominations interject their own ideas. So if someone comes at me, I just turn it off (laughs).