Call For the Priest, Or Heavy Metal in the Age of Irony
by Brian DeLeeuw
Outfitted head-to-toe in metal-studded black leather, his head shaved and tattooed, Rob Halford rises phoenix-like out of a disguised shaft placed at the raised center of the stage. Trailing whip-like tassels from his arms, he hunches over his microphone and snarls the first lines of set opener “Electric Eye” before disappearing back down the shaft. He reappears a few seconds later at the top of another riser on the left side of the stage, just in time to spit out the next few bars: “You think you’ve private lives / Think nothing of the kind / There is no true escape / I’m watching all the time.”
Halford disappears and reappears many more times before the end of the song, flexing his trademark upper-register howl, the veins on his forehead bulging with each syllable. By the end of the second verse, sweat coats his bald head; his body, encased in multiple layers of leather, appears bulky, maybe even fat. At times, he seems to be leaning on the railings that ring the stage as if for support, as if quick movements are a great strain. The lead singer of the archetypal British heavy metal band Judas Priest, he is fifty-four years old and has been on stages like this for over three decades.
Since the release of Judas Priest’s first album in 1974, Halford has been put on trial for inspiring a teen suicide in Nevada; he has become the first heavy metal star to openly declare his homosexuality; he has taken a baffling twelve-year hiatus from Judas Priest, the group with which he will, nonetheless, be forever identified. He has suffered occasional critical incredulity, inevitable commercial decline, and mounting cultural irrelevancy. And yet through it all, the voice, that legendary piercing, sneering, soaring scream – the voice has remained undeniable. There is no doubt: the Arena at Harbor Yards, Bridgeport, Connecticut has been visited by the man known as the Metal God.
But now, over twenty years after the heyday of classic heavy metal, does anyone care?
There is nothing more incongruous in today’s American pop-music landscape than the kind of balls-to-the-wall, traditional heavy metal that Judas Priest plays. It is a musical style at first glance so totally bereft of either self-awareness or sex appeal, so impervious to all of the musical trends of the past two decades, that its continued existence is something of a mystery. Many of the other giants of old-school metal have adapted to their fate in different ways. Metallica cut their hair and softened their sound; Slayer continued to push their music into increasingly extreme corners of the current underground scene; Ozzy Osbourne (mostly) relinquished playing metal altogether, preferring his latter-day status as a befuddled reality-TV star. Many more – Accept, the Scorpions, W.A.S.P. – have simply faded into virtual anonymity or outright retirement. (Here and throughout this piece, I’m writing about heavy metal as it existed in the late ’70s and most of the ’80s. New metal is of course still being made today, and new bands often enjoy a devoted following, especially in Europe and South America. However, the music is now fractured into countless underground subgenres, and it retains little of the mainstream visibility and record sales it enjoyed in previous decades.)
But there are also those bands – such as Judas Priest – who continue to release new albums every few years that sound more or less exactly like their previous ones, who continue to embark upon epic global tours to often far-flung or unlikely places (Slovakia, Finland, Atlantic City). With every virtuosic guitar solo and two-fingered devil-horn salute, these middle-aged bands continue to strut and scowl like the Rolling Stones’ evil head-banging twins. (Metal bands acting half their age isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. The stereotype of the over-the-hill metal combo – pompous, deluded, more than a little absurd – was satirized as early as 1984, when Rob Reiner released the classic mock-documentary “This Is Spinal Tap.” That bumbling fictional band quickly became shorthand for every metal act desperately clinging to their fading cultural relevance.)
Traditional heavy metal, always so dependent upon its power to provoke and shock, is now more quaint than terrifying. So what is the contemporary currency of old themes and tropes like cartoonish violence, the occult, and ball-hugging leather trousers? What happens to a rebellion so far past its sell-by date?
It’s in an effort to figure all this out that I find myself on the 6:04 MetroNorth train from Grand Central Station to Bridgeport on an unseasonably warm Wednesday evening in October 2005. Surrounded by suit-clad and mostly napping commuters – almost all of whom are long gone before we reach Bridgeport – I’m accompanied by my heavy metal-illiterate friend Eva, a writer and journalist who has very little idea of what she’s getting into.
We’re on this train because bands like Judas Priest don’t generally play in cities like New York anymore. Instead, when visiting the States, they end up in Poughkeepsie, NY; Kalamazoo, MI; Salt Lake City, UT – places not quite in the middle of nowhere, but still not quite in the center of anything either. Bridgeport, the closest the Priest are coming to Manhattan in 2005, is the kind of city where only a lonely cluster of fast food restaurants – Dunkin’ Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken – is open at the late hour of 7:15 PM. The manager of a Quizno’s sells us steak sandwiches, gives us directions to the Arena, and tells us – twice – to “be safe.” I don’t know why he’s saying that, but, as I read later, the only thing Bridgeport is at the center of is Connecticut’s drug trade. Eva and I don’t exactly fit in.
It’s a fair bet that most of the people attending tonight’s concert won’t actually be from inner-city Bridgeport anyway, but from the surrounding suburbs and towns. Metal in America has never been a particularly urban movement; its environment is mostly suburban or rural, and its stronghold is traditionally the Midwest. The image of the stereotypical metal fan – young, white, lower or middle class – has been firmly entrenched in American pop-culture since the late ’70s and, at least in this case, the stereotypes don’t always lie. Just take a look at John Heyn and Jeff Krulik’s classic fifteen-minute film “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.”
Camera in hand, Heyn and Krulik troll the tailgate scene outside a suburban Maryland Judas Priest show in 1986, at the height of the band’s American popularity, capturing a fantastic assortment of often shirtless, mostly young, and uniformly drunk fans. The film is a true time capsule: the hair, the skin-tight jeans, the bad teeth. Scrawny pale chests, bandanas, Jack Daniels drunk straight from the bottle. Air guitar, head-banging, a mild threat of casual criminality: this was heavy metal circa 1986.
As we wait outside the Arena on the evening of the Bridgeport concert, the average concert-going age seems to be somewhere around forty-five. However, that’s only if you don’t include the kids of the several complete families docilely making their way into the concert as if visiting a museum or maybe even a church. We spot a particularly coordinated family of six dressed in identical Iron Maiden t-shirts, from the father straight down to the sleepy-looking youngest son, who can’t be any older than seven. Many of the kids look bored; we’re guessing that Judas Priest is too old to mean anything to them. Dressed in baggy cords or jeans, long-sleeved Quiksilver t-shirts and skater sneakers, they’ve just been dragged to see “Dad’s favorite band,” and at this point there doesn’t seem to be much they can do to get out of it.
The adult uniform for the evening is a t-shirt, featuring the logo of either an old-school heavy metal band or a motorcycle company, snug against a paunch and tucked into tapered jeans. Eva, who’s having an ethnographic field day, ogles the edgier portion of the crowd, the guys who accessorize with biker boots and studded leather belts. Everybody stands around in little circles, checking out each other’s t-shirts, slapping each other on the back, finishing off their last cans of Bud Light. It’s just a bunch of dudes going to a metal show, but I can’t help but wonder how many Judas Priest concerts all these guys have been to together – if these shows are like reunions, subdued reenactments of the glory days of the mid-’80s.
Three cops on horseback wait outside the Arena’s entrance and a few more stroll around the parking area on foot, but there’s probably a greater chance of rioting at a Little League playoff game. In “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” the police officers, grim behind mirrored sunglasses, are not only a different generation than the fans, but almost a different species. Tonight in Bridgeport, the only visible difference between the cops and the fans is a uniform.
The little kids, the graying hair, the overall civility: it makes you forget how utterly dangerous Judas Priest used to be considered. This is a band who named their 1978 album Killing Machine (retitled “Hell Bent for Leather” for its American release by nervous CBS Records execs), who counted the ultra-violent tracks “Genocide” and “Tyrant” as ’70s-era concert favorites, who attracted so much attention from censorship-hungry American politicians that they released the 1986 song “Parental Guidance” as a retort. In the context of the Bridgeport concert where so many of the fans are now parents themselves, the lyrics to this last song are a perfect example of the inescapable ironies of an aging rebellion: “You say I waste my life away / But I live it to the full / How would you know anyway / You’re just mister dull / Why don’t you get into the things we do today / You could lose twenty years right away.” And: “Is this message getting through? / You went through the same thing too / Don’t you remember what it’s like to lose control / Put on my jacket before you get too old / Let’s rock and roll.”
From their early Birmingham origins onwards, Judas Priest’s lyrical themes were always menacing in a baroque and gothic way. Early tracks like “Saints in Hell” and “Beyond the Realms of Death” are representative of the apocalyptic, vaguely anti-Christian imagery of which the’70s incarnation of the Priest was fond. The lyrics from this period were grandiose and surreal – sadism with a touch of intellectualism.
In the ’80s, both the music and the lyrics grew simpler. The often sprawling song-structures of the first few albums were now condensed into four minute blasts of precise guitar riffs and catchy choruses, adeptly straddling the line between poppier melodies and raw metallic distortion. The earlier preoccupation with violence and mayhem continued in a more direct, less stylized manner. Tracks like 1984’s “Eat Me Alive” (sample lyrics: “I’m gonna force you at gun-point / To eat me alive” and “Spread eagled to the wall / You’re well equipped to take it all”) and “The Sentinel” (“Screams of pain and agony / Rend the silent air / Amidst the dying bodies / Blood runs everywhere”) continued to attract the negative attention of politicians looking for an easy target.
Tipper Gore in her PMRC days
Judas Priest’s American notoriety peaked in 1990, when they were accused in a civil action lawsuit of inspiring the 1985 suicide attempts (one successful, one not) of two Nevada teenagers, James Vance and Ray Belknap. Their parents argued that the band intentionally encoded a subliminal message in the song “Better By You, Better Than Me” from the 1978 album “Stained Class,” and that the message, which supposedly said “Do it” when played backwards, inspired their kids to shoot themselves in the face with a shotgun. (Because the alleged message was subliminal – in other words, unable to be consciously perceived by the listener and therefore unable to perform any of the positive functions of free speech – it was not protected by First Amendment Laws, and was fair game for the trial.)
The case was eventually dismissed on the grounds that, with enough effort and imagination, records played backwards can sound like they’re saying pretty much anything you want them to say, but it did link Judas Priest and teen suicide together in the public’s imagination. (This wasn’t the first time heavy metal acts had gotten into this sort of trouble; Ozzy Osbourne touched off a minor snafu with his 1980 solo track “Suicide Solution,” which he says is about a friend’s slow death from alcoholism, but which was often cited as yet another example of metal’s irresponsible glorification of death.) And, although the charges against Judas Priest were patently absurd (why would they want their own fans to kill themselves?), the particulars of the teenagers’ lives can tell us a good deal about the social circumstances of a large portion of metal’s most fervent mid-’80s American fans.
Vance and Belknap both grew up in fractured families in a lower-middle-class area of suburban Reno; had histories of depression, substance abuse, and violence; and used their obsession with heavy metal as a way to define themselves as part of an oppositional subculture. The violent imagery in the lyrics of bands like Judas Priest resonated with the pain and anger already present in their lives. In lyrical violence and its tales of murder, vengeance, and Armageddon – whether metaphorical or not – they discovered both the power of fantasy and the comfort of being “understood.” For hardcore metal fans, the more serious underpinning of the hedonism seen in “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” is a sense of place and belonging, a subculture to call their own.
Cases like Vance vs. Judas Priest provide some context for the prevailing hysteria surrounding heavy metal in the ’80s. This attitude is perhaps best summed up in an excerpt from the testimony of Dr. Joe Steussy, a music professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, to a United States Senate Committee: “Today’s heavy metal music is categorically different from previous forms of popular music. It contains the element of hatred, a meanness of spirit. Its principal themes are extreme violence, extreme rebellion, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and perversion and Satanism. I personally know of no form of popular music before which has had as one of its central elements the element of hatred.”
(The mere fact that this music was considered dangerous enough to inspire the convention of a Senate Committee is itself revealing of the cultural climate of the time. It’s also worth pointing out that sometime in the early ’90s, hip hop officially replaced heavy metal as the music that is going to cause the collapse of American culture as we know it, and has been bearing the more recent brunt of the anti-profanity and violence crusade. Steussy’s quote is taken from Deena Weinstein’s Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture, Da Capo Press: New York, 2000.)
Twenty years later, the Bridgeport crowd – aging rockers, mellowed bikers, grown-up frat boys, weekend warriors, parents – doesn’t seem all that hateful of anything. And while the songs and lyrics themselves haven’t changed, their context and their reception certainly have. So I have to wonder: If the passage of less than two decades can transform something that once seemed so threatening and dangerous into a kitschy anachronism, a golden oldie, then was it ever actually all that dangerous in the first place?
Halford in 1978
All I know is that when I first discovered heavy metal, it scared the shit out of me. Granted, I was only twelve years old at the time. I had already been listening to unavoidable pop metal bands like Def Leppard, Poison, and Whitesnake for four years, but by 1992 or so this kind of metal had run its course, both for me and in the wider pop-music world. The anti-glam aesthetic of a new musical movement in Seattle was starting to spread across the country like some sort of flannel-shirted epidemic, and well before 1995 the sludgy punk-inflected dirge of bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and, of course, Nirvana had pretty much killed off hair metal.
I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom listening to my dad’s radio Walkman, scanning the airwaves for something, anything. New York City radio was (and still is) absurdly dull and conservative, so I was shocked when, at the very far end of the dial, through a faint haze of light static, I came across something completely unexpected. I heard guitars shredding away at warp-speed, their sound distorted yet still somehow perfectly precise. I heard thunderous, machine-gunning drums, and histrionic, almost operatic vocals. It was like Poison and Def Leppard had been locked away in a dirty, dank dungeon for five years with only their instruments, a mountain of methamphetamines, and a copy of Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, and, upon their release, had unleashed this onto the world.
The next song was even more extreme, the tempo cranked up to an absurd clip, the double kick-drum practically a blur underneath buzz-saw guitars, the vocals an angry wail. I sat there on the floor, blown away and more than a little scared. I kept looking up to see if my parents had come into my room, feeling like I was doing something I shouldn’t. The song thundered to a close, and some laconic college kid came on the airwaves to announce that I was listening to 89.5 FM, Seton Hall University’s Pirate Radio, and I had just been treated to Metal Church’s “Beyond the Black” and Slayer’s “Angel of Death.” (The latter of these is a charming song about Josef Mengel, a notorious Nazi scientist at Auschwitz, and the former describes the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. It’s also worth pointing out that the original vinyl version of the eponymous 1985 Metal Church album included a touch-in-cheek insert for the easy ordering of a promotional neck brace so you wouldn’t injure yourself with all the frenetic head-banging.)
I listened all afternoon, and by the end of the day I’d heard for the first time both Iron Maiden, which ended up being my favorite band for the next five years, and Judas Priest, which remained a perennial close second. For some reason – I still don’t understand why – Seton Hall, a central New Jersey Catholic college, housed a radio station that exclusively played heavy metal. The station’s range just barely extended north into New York City, and on rainy days I often had to wave my Walkman around near the window to get reception. You could rely on at least a few gems per hour from what I quickly considered to be traditional metal’s golden age of 1979 to 1986. Every night as I did my homework, I would tune in on my headphones and jot down lists of the best songs played that evening so that I knew which cassettes to buy with my allowance the following weekend.
Within a few months, I was more or less obsessed. I spent the entirety of my disposable income, which was admittedly tiny, on metal cassettes; I bought the British metal magazines Kerrang! and Metal Hammer from international news shops; I composed songs in my head for an imaginary roster of bands that covered the entire spectrum of metal subgenres.
But this obsession was in some ways entirely abstract. I still wore the same preppy clothes I always had. I never adopted any of the trappings – long hair, skin-tight jeans, band logo-ed t-shirts, gun-belts – of the heavy metal fan. I didn’t keep my musical tastes secret from my friends – on the contrary, I actively pushed mid-’80s classics like Manowar’s “Fighting the World” onto anybody who’d listen, including my mildly appalled parents – but I made no effort to find other people who actually already liked this kind of music.
In their early days, Manowar liked to dress up as Vikings. They are also the band that, at a semi-legendary 1984 press conference, signed a major label contract in their own blood.
In fact, I wanted nothing to do with real metal fans. To me, the heavy metal scene was – like so many of the lyrics themselves – a fantasy, an illusion. I listened to ’80s live albums like Iron Maiden’s “Live After Death” and imagined the concert to be an awe-inspiring, mind-blowing, quasi-mystical spectacle, at once utterly savage and totally transcendent. I think I knew that if I actually attended a concert, it would never compare to the ones I’d gone to inside my own head.
In order to further insulate myself from any metal bands that actually engaged with anything topical or socially relevant, I sought out increasingly obscure, sometimes long defunct acts from Scandinavia and Germany and Japan, bands with names like Running Wild and Stormwitch and Hellhammer. These were bands whose often limited grasp of English tended to restrict their lyrical content to a sort of abstract Dungeons & Dragons-esque medieval fantasy world, complemented by a healthy dose of rudimentary Satanism and general misanthropy.
(Running Wild, incidentally, indulged in their own odd pirate-fixated mythology on albums like “Port Royal” and “Under Jolly Roger.” The original vinyl version of the latter features a back-cover painting of the entire band – in full pirate regalia – standing around a chest of gold on some tropical beach. Rock’n’Rolf, which is what their lead singer/guitarist/songwriter called himself, actually played some concerts in a very pirate-like ruffled shirt and eye-patch.)
To me, the more fantastical and irrelevant the lyrical themes, the more “pure” the band. Without ever fully articulating this to myself, I think I intuitively understood that traditional metal is not about rebellion or violence or hatred but about escape. Born in the post-industrial wasteland of central England, nurtured in the factory towns of West Germany, and embraced in the shabbier suburbs of America, heavy metal was a way out, if only for a forty minute album or ninety minute concert. Its fantasies of apocalypse, demons, witches, and Satanism were only just that: fantasies, which in many ways reflected the ugliness of the fan’s own life. Metal’s gift was the transformation of that private ugliness into a shared experience, something both collective and cathartic.
As I grew older my appreciation of the violently baroque lyrics and over-the-top presentation of heavy metal passed from fascination into a sort of indulgent irony. For me, the ridiculousness of the whole genre had finally caught up with itself. I think I could afford this ironic distance since I was living a fairly comfortable life and my own experience and world-view were probably more accurately reflected in the lyrics of the Talking Heads and the Beastie Boys than, say, Savatage or Exodus. By the time I was old enough to go out and listen to live music whenever I felt like it, I was more interested in attending techno and house raves than in seeing any of my old metal favorites. Only the tiniest fraction of my metal collection – which consisted at that point of over four hundred tapes, records, and CDs – made the trip with me to college.
So for me, the Bridgeport Judas Priest concert was more than just an exercise in ethnographic voyeurism. It was also my first metal show ever, and an opportunity to put my old fantasies of what a heavy metal concert must be like to the test. Of course, real life never really had a chance.
Manowar again. Sorry, is this undermining my point?
I know why I’m here in Bridgeport, and I know that Eva came out of pure curiosity. But what about everybody else? It’s clear that very few fans have come for opening acts Hatebreed (no clue) and Anthrax (a veteran Brooklyn thrash metal act that enjoyed a somewhat ambivalent popular resurgence in the fall of 2001 when traces of their toxic namesake were shutting down post offices all over the East Coast). By the time Eva and I get inside the Arena, Anthrax are already half-way through their set, and there are almost as many people milling about in the circular corridor ringing the arena proper as there are inside.
The Arena at Harbor Yard is the official home of Fairfield University’s basketball team and the Sound (as in “Long Island”) Tigers of minor league hockey, as well as events like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas program and Disney on Ice. The overall venue vibe is not exactly rock’n’roll. Eva and I peek inside the concert hall, a basketball stadium cut in half with the stage at one end and floor seating extending outwards from there. The floor seating, which can’t be more than a few hundred plastic chairs arranged in neat little rows, like at a town hall meeting or school play, is more or less full, but the permanent stadium seating is virtually empty. Anthrax, newly reunited with their “classic” late-’80s to mid-’90s lineup, is gamely giving it a go, but the audience reaction is mostly lukewarm.
Back out in the corridor, the teenager working the Carvel Ice Cream vending stand looks totally bored while I get at least the sixth compliment of the night on my Iron Maiden t-shirt. It’s a long-sleeved jersey-style memento of their 1986 world tour that I bought for £40 at a trendy vintage clothing store in London. (The shirt features Eddie, Iron Maiden’s perennial skeletal mascot – yes, heavy metal is the kind of music in which bands have mascots – tricked out like a cyborg with all kinds of metal wires and mechanical appendages and so on, but also kitted out in a cowboy hat and jacket, looking like some sort of cross between Robocop, John Wayne, and an extra from “Night of the Living Dead.” The text underneath the drawing reads “Make My Day,” while the back of the shirt features a drawing of a table adorned with playing cards, a glass of whisky, a laser pistol, and the slogan “Stranger in a Strange Land.” There is, I think, no better t-shirt on the face of the planet.)
1980s metal t-shirts, with their cartoonishly violent graphics and iconic band logos, are currently hot ironic property – a lá leggings and moustaches – among hipster sets on both sides of the Atlantic. But this concert is one of the last unironic venues for such attire, and so my shirt proves to be a great conversation starter with people like the fan who introduces himself as Tom, a thirty-something who took a ferry across the Long Island Sound with his wife and a like-minded crew of friends to see “the only band in the world that’s better than Iron Maiden.” We overhear one of Tom’s gang mention that their friend Joe couldn’t make it due to a company softball game. Eva finds this to be very un-rock’n’roll.
We finally head towards our spots near the front of the arena. An enormous banner emblazoned with the cover art of Judas Priest’s new album, “Angel of Retribution,” hangs behind the stage. The image is a menacing metal-clad figure with wings and outstretched arms rising out of the flames. Eva – who has never heard a Judas Priest song in her life – nervously asks me if the music is going to sound as fierce as that metal angel looks. We push our way up to the front and spend the entirety of the twenty-song concert about fifteen feet from stage right, the territory of fifty-three year old guitarist K.K. Downing. Downing, who shares lead guitar duties with the fifty-five year old Glenn Tipton, is dressed in bright red leather pants and a t-shirt emblazoned with the cover art from 1982’s “Screaming for Vengeance” album. He’s impossibly slim and elfin, and Eva immediately declares him to be the cutest little man she’s ever seen, which, after two fairly ferocious opening songs, sets her at ease a bit.
Judas Priest is touring in support of their “Angel of Retribution” release from March 2005, the first studio album the band has recorded with Rob Halford since 1990’s “Painkiller.” In the intervening years, the band hired Tim “Ripper” Owens to pick up the vocal duties, and released two mostly ignored studio albums along with two live albums and a live DVD of a 2001 London concert, which suggests that they were leaning on their old material just a little too hard. Owens had been poached from the Judas Priest tribute act British Steel, named after the band’s classic 1980 album, and, in a bizarre case of wish-fulfillment, was therefore replacing the very singer he had been imitating for over a decade.
Wahlberg knows the feeling
Rob Halford started two bands in the ’90s, Fight and Two, both of which pursued a punkier, grungier, younger sound, and were only reluctantly tolerated by Priest’s aging fan base. In 2000 and 2002 he released new albums in the traditional Judas Priest style under the simple name of Halford, along with a live disc that was comprised of approximately one-third old Priest material. Four years earlier, he had made his most significant – and, as he has later said, entirely unplanned – post-Priest move by coming out of the closet during an MTV interview.
While Halford’s homosexuality had been one of the worst-kept secrets of the music world, it did mark the first time a prominent heavy metal singer explicitly declared himself to be gay. What is to my mind most fascinating about the whole thing is that Halford, while technically closeted, never tried very hard to keep it that much of a secret. Every Priest love song was totally gender-neutral (the sexual object was always a “you” and never a “she”), and not-so-thinly veiled homoerotic imagery is littered throughout the band’s back catalog.
(There are literally dozens of examples of this. Some of the most obvious songs include “All the Way” (“Ya never do things by half / You’re a man with a reputation / You never shy when the problems fly / You can cope with any situation / You take the wheel and crack the whip / You never slip.”), “Troubleshooter” (“You can take me / You can shake me / You can break me down / You’re givin’, I’m gettin’ / I’m gettin’ satisfaction / You’re makin’, I’m takin’ / I want some heavy action”), and “Raw Deal” (“I made a spike around nine o’clock on Saturday / All eyes hit me as I walked in the door / The leather and steel guys were foolin’ with the denim dudes / A couple cards playing rough stuff, New York, Fire Island”).)
And while leather was not an uncommon heavy metal accessory, Halford’s biker cap, jack-boots, and riding crop were taken directly from the lexicon of gay S&M style.
(In a post-coming out 1998 interview in The Advocate magazine, Halford explains the genesis of his motorcycle and leather persona: “Halford: So I said ‘OK, I’m a gay man, and I’m into leather and that sexual side of the leather world – and I’m gonna bring that onto the stage.’ So I came onstage, wearing the leather stuff and the motorcycle, and for the first time I felt like, God this feels so good. This feels so right. How can I make this even more extravagant, because this music is so loud. It is so larger than life. So the first place I went to was a leather shop in London.” The Advocate: “You never thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m doing this gay-man leather fantasy in the middle of a hetero heavy metal rock show?’” H: “Oh, yes, I did! I thought to myself, ‘Do you realize what you’re doing here? I mean you’ve got the whole thing going – the body harness, the handcuffs. You’ve got the whip, you’ve got the chains. This is like some total S&M fetish thing going on!’ But nobody seemed to have a problem with it, and everybody was crazy for it, so we kept doing it.”)
That’s why I’m confused when I spot a fan sporting a t-shirt with the slogan, “If you don’t like metal, you’re gay.” Is it a meta-joke or just pure ignorance? Given the irony-free atmosphere, I’m inclined to think the latter, but then again the reception Halford has received from the metal community in the decade since his coming out has been almost uniformly positive. As he himself has said in the same Advocate interview, “It’s like, ‘Well, look at the great music, look at the great shows – does it really matter?’” Soon enough, the potential homophobe is head-banging away just like everybody else – including Eva, who is Judas Priest’s newest fan, living and breathing proof that maybe this isn’t all just about nostalgia.
Halford, just kicking it
The concert thrashes on. The band’s technical skill is impeccable, faultless. The crowd’s response is appreciative, if a little rote. That crucial sense of surprise is absent – everything feels scripted, pre-arranged. What’s less clear is whether this is necessarily a bad thing, as if this somehow betrays the spirit of metal. Wasn’t metal always just a show, a pure performance? Did it ever offer anything more than an escape? And is that so awful? Punk and reggae promise social rebellions that never occur. Most hip hop is more concerned with making money than affecting social change. (Of course, it is entirely valid to debate whether the fact that black hip hop artists are making mountains of money and aggressively repopulating the record executive ranks (a lá Jay-Z, Diddy, and Dr. Dre) is itself a form of social subversion, but that’s an argument for another time.) Traditional heavy metal’s theatricality, its air of dark fantasy, may be its greatest asset – a promise of posturing escapism it can’t fail to fulfill.
None of this changes the fact that Judas Priest, for all their excesses, still sound phenomenal, even if they look slightly worse for the wear. Halford lumbers around the stage in slow motion, his movements stiff and labored, like those of the fifty-four year-old man he is. You can’t blame him if he’s a little tired; the band has played eighty-seven shows in twenty-three countries in the past eight months. But his voice is untouched by all the touring: it still soars and howls and rides up and down the scales, furious and operatic, impressive and utterly distinctive. As the band moves through twenty-nine years’ worth of songs, he sounds, in fact, just like he does on every classic Priest album, just as all the fans remember him – which is, of course, exactly the point.
Halford on stage then…
Tonight’s true showpiece of Halford’s voice is the epic “Victim of Changes,” a song originally released on 1976’s “Sad Wings of Destiny” album. In the song’s furious opening section, Halford sings “Take another look around, you’re not going anywhere / You’ve realized you’re getting old and no one seems to care.” The twenty-five year-old Halford – lithe, sexual, dangerous – wrote and first performed these lyrics twenty-nine years ago. Now he stands at the center of the stage in Bridgeport, the aged Metal God, hunched over as if in pain, his eyes fixed on the stage-floor beneath his feet.
The song slows down, giving his voice space, and he murmurs: “Changes, changes, changes.” The crowd sways, rustling expectantly. And then Tipton and Downing’s guitars growl back to life, and Halford reaches for a piercing falsetto, singing: “Victim of changes!” The crowd roars with the song’s crescendo, and even though I know it’s unfair, I can’t help thinking that these lyrics are about them – the crowd, the band, the people who have come here for one night to pretend that nothing’s changed, that they’re still young and free and that heavy metal still matters.
But I can’t hold on to these thoughts for too long, because Eva’s grabbing onto my arm, and she’s head-banging without irony, and now I am too, caught up in a song the words of which I know by heart just like everybody else. Four songs later, when the concert is over and we’ve all gone home, when the band has packed up their gear and headed on to their next stop in Lowell, Massachusetts, maybe then I’ll recover my sense of irony and my more refined judgment. But for now, as Halford rumbles back onto the stage astride his customized Harley Davidson and Downing picks out the opening riff of the encore “Desert Plains,” I can close my eyes and pretend I’m thirteen years old and imagining what it would be like to be at a Judas Priest concert. I guess the answer is as good as reality can ever hope to be.
Brian DeLeeuw is the senior contributor to This Recording. His first novel, In This Way I Was Saved, is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster in August 2009, and he is an editor at Tin House magazine. He lives in Manhattan.
“Eat Me Alive” – Judas Priest (mp3)
“Desert Plains (live)” – Judas Priest (mp3)
“The Sentinel” – Judas Priest (mp3)
“Thunder Road” – Judas Priest (mp3)
“On the Run” – Judas Priest (mp3
“Stained Class” – Judas Priest (mp3)
“Beyond the Realms of Death” – Judas Priest (mp3)
“Troubleshooter” – Judas Priest (mp3)
“Turning Circles ” – Judas Priest (mp3)
“Better By You, Better Than Me” – Judas Priest (mp3)
“All the Way” – Judas Priest (mp3)
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Mary-Louise Parker and her booty.
Molly talks ALL THE TIME.
George and George Saunders.