Blackie Lawless: bloodied, unbowed, and born again
The W.A.S.P frontman on rediscovering Christianity, why his band inspired fear, and that Chris Holmes interview
In the early 80s, Blackie Lawless was one of the most infamous figures in rock’n’roll. His band W.A.S.P. were the new kings of shock rock. Their title of their debut single, Animal (Fuck Like A Beast), was so controversial that their record company EMI declined to release it in the UK, leaving that to indie label Music For Nations. The band’s stage show was equally outrageous: they threw raw meat at their audience, and had a naked woman tied to a torture rack. The name, it was said, stood for We Are Sexual Perverts. And most alarming of all was what Lawless had between his legs – a codpiece mounted with a circular saw blade.
He’s come a long way since then. Born Stephen Edward Duren on September 4, 1956 in Staten Island, New York, he is still the leader of W.A.S.P. But the man and his band are much changed. The latest W.A.S.P. album, Golgotha, has a heavy rock sound comparable to their early work, but the lyrical content is informed by a major development in the personal life of Blackie Lawless – his rediscovery of Christianity.
It is an unexpected and ironic twist in the story of a man whose band once put the fear of God into Middle America. But as Lawless says, this story now has a happy ending…
You’re the guy in W.A.S.P. You’re also a born again Christian. Is there an inherent conflict in this?
Blackie Lawless: That’s true, but if people really listen to the new album, they might walk away with a different perspective on that.
What is the meaning of the album’s title?
Golgotha is from Hebrew. It means the place of the skull. It’s the name for the hill where Christ was crucified. That actual hill still exists and it looks like a human skull.
What is the message you’re trying to convey in this album?
There is not one message. I just want to make people think. It’s what I’ve tried to do for the past twenty-five years – to get people to think. If you go back to [1989 W.A.S.P. album] The Headless Children, the opening line says: “Father, come save us from this madness we’re under/God of creation, are we blind?” Even then I was talking about this stuff, although not necessarily conscious of it.
How would you describe this change in your life – is it a conversion or a return to Christianity?
Interesting question – one I’ve been asking myself for the last ten years. There will be times when it feels like a new conversion, but then I’ll think back to my teens and think, no, this is an extension. From a Biblical perspective, if we look at stories like the prodigal son, we see a tremendous falling away, and yet someone who was able to return. If that’s the case, then I certainly fit that description.
Was there a defining moment in this?
Not really. It wasn’t like anything bad happened. It’s been a slow gradual process. It didn’t happen overnight.
What happened in your teens?
When I left the church I was eighteen. I left because I became disenfranchised with the concept of religion. What I discovered later was that religion was a concoction of man’s imagination. And the institutionalised thinking that goes along with it, I didn’t want any part of that, so I left the church and came to California and went as far away from that as you could possibly go. I went around for the next twenty years bumping into walls thinking I was mad at God.
And then what?
One day I woke up and realised I’m not mad at God, I’m mad at Man for the institutionalised thinking they put me through. And when I started coming back to my faith, I realised there was nobody on this planet more anti-religious than Jesus Christ himself. When you look at what he said to the religious rulers of his day, he railed on those guys.
So is your faith entirely personal?
Absolutely. My faith centres on Jesus Christ and The Bible and nothing else. I don’t want to know about anybody’s opinion. If people want to talk about it, that’s okay. But don’t start interjecting what you think is your idea. If it cannot be substantiated by what’s written in The Bible, I don’t want to know about it.
There’s an old saying: don’t believe everything you read…
Yeah. People say that with The Bible you’re dealing with a book that was written by men. That may be true, but you’re also dealing with sixty-six books written by forty different authors spread over two thousand years over three different continents, and most of these guys did not know each other, yet you see them finishing each other’s sentences. It’s impossible that any men could have written this without divine inspiration.
You have absolute certainty in all of this?
I had to answer this question for myself once and for all: Is it real? So I started digging deep in The Bible, and one day I realised: I’m reading the living word of the living God.
When exactly did this happen?
Ten years ago.
And that was when you stopped performing Animal (Fuck Like A Beast) at W.A.S.P. shows.
Yes. At the time I came back to my faith I said, ‘That’s it – I can’t stand up on a stage and say this.’ There’s a verse in The Bible that says: ‘Let no corrupt speech come from your mouth.’ Between me and you and the fencepost, that song was put into my life for a reason – for me to create the fervour that it did with the PMRC and make the band a household name, and then for me to announce to the world that I would never play the song again.
You dropped the song to make a statement.
Exactly. I tell people now, the silence of it is deafening. It’s worked like a charm.
If you think back to 1984 and the first time W.A.S.P. played in the UK – you in that codpiece, throwing chunks of meat at the fans and doing the S&M routine with the woman on the rack – how do you feel about it now?
Let me tell you what happened in ’89. We were making The Headless Children and I was in a totally different headspace. We had cut the boat loose from the dock and we were purposely drifting out to sea. So I go into a club one night and there’s a video playing on a big screen – our show from ’84 at the Lyceum in London. I hadn’t seen that video since we did it, and I was stunned at what I saw. It was like I was watching somebody else. It was the first time I could actually see us the way the world saw us. And I don’t just mean the people that liked us – I mean the critics and the people that were afraid of us. And I then understood why they were afraid of us.
What do you think inspired that fear?
When you looked at some other bands that were doing theatrical rock or whatever you want to call it, they seemed contrived. What I saw in us that night, when I watched that video, was guys that were pissed off at the world, and that’s what was coming through. There was an authenticity to it and I went, wow, no wonder all these people were so freaked out.
You say you were pissed off at the world. Why?
Because we couldn’t get where we wanted to go. And for the first couple of albums we were taking it out on everybody. We were certainly taking it out on the audience. We approached every gig like it was a heavyweight fight – we went out there to beat their brains out.
Back then, W.A.S.P. were the ultimate shock rock band. Was there any kind of underlying meaning to it all?
To understand us in the beginning, it may sound kind of silly to you now, but I thought what we were doing was social comment. I never cared about shock rock for the sake of shock rock. I thought it was boring, to be honest. We also went away from that pretty quickly.
The band’s image and stage show were so OTT – did you feel that the band’s music was ignored?
Totally. When we got to the UK on the first tour, the thing that shocked me more than anything is that nobody was talking about the record (the debut album W.A.S.P.). I did interviews with all these journalists and not one of them was talking about the album – it was all about the show. Now, that record is perceived as a classic, but at the time, nobody was talking about it.
There was, though, a lot of talk about that codpiece. Didn’t you once say that you had to put your balls in ice to be able to pack it all in?
Ha ha. No, I’ve never heard that before.
So this is an urban myth?
I guess. But it’s a good one.
That thing never looked comfortable.
It never was. The first time I met Lemmy, he said to me: ‘How do you sit down with that thing?’ I said, ‘You don’t! It’s more of a standing outfit.’ I tell you what did work, and I’m not joking now: if you could find a park bench that had slots in it, you could sit. And if not, you didn’t!
You also had in those early days a real wildman of rock in the band – guitarist and Chewbacca lookalike Chris Holmes. Were you close, or were you just two guys in a band together?
Before W.A.S.P. we had a band called Sister, and we were closer then. But when we signed to EMI, we had Rod Smallwood (Iron Maiden manager) on board. It was like, ‘Hey, this is now a business. You gotta tighten up.’ Chris and I were angry guys, but he was venting his anger in a different way to mine.
He was a self-confessed alcoholic.
Yes. That created a lot of separation between us.
The problem that Chris had was revealed in the 1988 documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization part II: The Metal Years. It is the most famous scene in that movie: Chris sitting on an inflatable chair in his swimming pool, with his elderly mom watching on as he downs a bottle of vodka in one…
I gotta tell you the whole story for it to really make sense (laughs). Penelope Spheeris, the director, was a friend of mine, and she devised this plan to have a face-to-face debate between me and Tipper Gore (co-founder of censorship lobby the PMRC – Parents Music Resource Center). This was going to be the centrepiece of the whole film. But then her husband (Senator Al Gore) decides he’s running for President, so on the day before we were going to film the debate, Tipper Gore pulls out. Penelope calls me in a panic. ‘Have you got another idea?’ I said, ‘No – that was gonna be the absolute firecracker.’ So a couple of says later she calls again and says, ‘Would you mind if I interview Chris?’ I talked about it with Rod Smallwood. He asked me what I thought. And the famous line of all time came out. I said, ‘How bad can it be?’
I told Penelope, ‘Go ahead.’
And when you saw the movie, how did you react?
I got a cut of the film and I flipped. I got on the phone to Penelope immediately. ‘You gotta take this out! The whole thing!’ And she says, ‘I can’t – the prints have already gone out to the theatres.’ So that was that.
Chris Holmes left the band in 1989, returned in 1996 and then left again in 2002. Have you kept in touch with him since then?
I really don’t know a lot about what he’s doing. I heard he made a record, but that’s about all.
When you look back on your career, do you feel that you’ve proved people wrong?
I don’t think about that. As an artist you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other, and whatever happens is what happens.
What’s next for you and the band?
See previous answer. I’m taking it day by day. Literally, as the spirit moves me, that’s where I’m going.
Well, everything works towards creating who you are and where you end up. You couldn’t change anything, even if you had regrets. So if it ends up with a happy ending, I guess that’s really the goal of what we’re all after, I think.
And is it a happy ending for Blackie Lawless?
Well, so far, yeah, it is. I think about the old Sinatra song My Way: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” So as far as that goes, I think I’m right where I need to be. I’m in a really good place.