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Cover Story: 40 Years of W.A.S.P.

| December 1, 2022

 

Blackie Lawless

 

When you’ve been consistently composing rabble-rousing metal anthems for several decades — like brainy W.A.S.P. bandleader Blackie Lawless has, to the point where he’s currently on a prestigious 40th Anniversary Tour — it helps to set your standards impeccably high. Which, for this Staten-Island-bred shock-rocker — who’s not claiming his method would work for every artist — meant tapping into the elevated vibe of a certain longtime corporate mascot. Songwriting, the 66-year-old authoritatively explains, “Is a lot like being the RCA dog, Nipper. You look at him (the famous fox terrier in that later-licensed original 1899 painting, “His Master’s Voice”) with his head cocked sideways, trying to figure out what’s going on, and I constantly do that myself — like, ‘How did this work?’ And I can’t tell you everything, but I’m just trying to convey some human emotions.”

In the mid-‘80s, the powerhouse vocalist’s material — memorable chant-alongs like “Wild Child,” “Blind In Texas,” “I Wanna Be Somebody,” and “Animal (F*** Like a Beast)” (many of which invoked the advisory-sticker wrath of Tipper Gore and her then-new PMRC) — were bolstered by Alice-Cooper gory concert theatrics, which included smudge pots, faux-bondage enactments, raw meat being tossed liberally into crowds, and even a serrated saw blade codpiece that shot flames. You didn’t just hear W.A.S.P. numbers — you felt them like multi-sensory explosions, as well, with the always kinetic, Native American-descended Lawless simultaneously summoning his indigenous heritage, as in the tribal cover shot of the group’s Gold-certified landmark sophomore album, “The Last Command,” which still holds up today. And along the way, Lawless had so many paths not taken — where he could have ended up in Motley Crue, The New York Dolls, and even on-screen playing a cyborg in “Terminator 2” — but. He stayed focused on W.A.S.P., and given that a lot of his old stage exploits would no longer go over in our obsessively PC era, he’s updated his show from the carnal to more cerebral, using many of Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” art directors to create the shadowy aura of a 1930’s carnival, all the way down to popcorn-and-cotton-candy-scented fog. “No one’s ever done this before,” he swears, promising a truly unique spectacle for all ticket holders.

Expanding on what still motivates him, Lawless — who speaks slowly, concisely, in a deep, resonant voice that wouldn’t sound out of place on a late-night NPR broadcast — adds that initially, outsiders often initially dismissed “I Wanna Be Somebody” as a mediocre ditty. He gets that; he really does. “And there are other songs like that, like Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” back in the ‘70s, or Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” which he called a ‘Place where even squares have a ball.’” He sighs contentedly, happy to be a similar Everyman voice. “And all those guys? It’s just magic!”

IE: While watching an old Drive-In Classics film series on cable recently, I stumbled across this vintage ’80s horror film called Ghoulies 2 and this great metal anthem was playing over the closing credits called “Scream Until You Like it.” And Lo and behold, it was W.A.S.P.! A perfectly-timed little reminder of just how great your songwriting was and is. Was it composed exclusively for that movie?

BLACKIE LAWLESS: Oh, you’re far too kind! And it was for the movie — we had worked with those people once before on a thing called Dungeonmaster, so we had known them from a few years earlier.

IE: How does it feel, being in W.A.S.P. after all this time? Has the energy changed?

BL: It’s pretty much the same, really. I mean, we’ve been blessed, you know? And there’s really not much that I can add to that, in the sense that any band that survives….well, most bands, if they’re successful, will go for four or five years. But trying to go ten, twenty years? It’s impossible. So for any band to do what we’ve done? It’s almost non-existent.

IE: Has anything new been recorded since (2015’s) Golgotha?

BL: We’ve got stuff in the oven, cooking right now. So we’re looking, hopefully, for a summer release.

IE: What’s sustained you, musically, over these past four decades, and all these different phases like grunge?

BL: Well, like any creative person, you don’t just stop being creative. Creative people have their filter for what they do, and I don’t think that ever goes away, you know? So my job and your job is basically the same thing — we’re both reporters. I just make mine rhyme. That’s basically the difference, so I just write down what I see. And make it rhyme. I live about an hour north of Los Angeles, and the only kids I have is the band.

IE: You actually did throw raw meat into the crowd on early tours. So I suppose you were never hurting for steak on the tour bus?

BL: That would be the general gist, yeah.

IE: You also used to sport a saw blade codpiece. What mishaps did you have with such stage props back then?

BL: Well, it makes life difficult to sit. So you’ve gotta be careful with that. But I think that any band that does things theatrically if you have a mishap, it’s the kind of thing where people don’t know if it’s part of the show or not. I mean, we had a situation once in Dublin, Ireland, where I used to have a flamethrower that went out from that codpiece that I was wearing, and it would shoot flames twenty feet. And it blew up on me one night. It burnt all the hair off my legs, and, quite honestly, it was **bad. So things like that happen from time to time.

IE: Just to regress you back a bit further, you grew up as a PK, right? A Preacher’s Kid?

BL: No, well, it was my uncle. But close enough.

IE: Did you start singing in church? And is that where your voice first got noticed, when someone pulled you aside and said, “Kid — ya got something here!”?

BL: Yeah, yeah. And for me, it was probably the same as it was for everybody else that was doing it. It’s what you know, and it’s what you did. There was nothing particularly different about it, and like I said when it’s all you know? It’s all you know. And I don’t know if anybody ever told me that, to be honest. I could always carry a tune, but I never heard that from anybody. My whole thing — especially when we started making records — was songwriting. That’s what set me apart. But then again, to get a real honest opinion, you’d have to ask somebody else, because I don’t know if that’s something that the actual person themselves would ever be aware of.

IE: Then we descended into the “American Idol” years, where almost none of the contestants seemed to understand that songwriting was the key.

BL: Actually, I don’t watch any of that. And if they don’t know, they’ll eventually find out. I mean, that’s a game show, and you can’t compare a game show with reality. Not to say that there’s not talented people that come off of those things, because there are, and some of them I’ve seen do other things. So it’s impressive.

IE: Aside from the codpiece misfire, what other memorable shows can you recall?

BL: I mean, go back and look at the history of what we did. I dunno if I could just pull any one rabbit out of the hat there. If we had an idea, we’d figure out a way to make it work.

IE: Then you took a teenage left turn into occultism, like Crowley and such. What fascinated you about that?

BL: It was really looking at organized religion and the hypocrisy of the people. And I’m not saying anything negative about Christianity, you know? But let’s put it this way — it’s kind of like Gandhi said, “Your Christ? I like Him very much. But your Christians I do not like. They are so unlike your Christ.” So if you put it through that lens, then you can understand why myself or the preacher’s kids, like you were saying, there’s a great sense of wanting to rebel against it. When you finally get out from underneath what you think is tyranny at the time, then you go away, as far away as you can go.

IE: Terence Trent D’Arby once told me that in his twenties, he threw away all the dogma his minister father taught him. But in his thirties, everything that was true about it boomeranged back to him.

BL: Hmmm. Yeah, yeah — I can certainly see that, yeah. And there is a boomerang effect because really, at the end of the day, what I think any of us are looking for is truth. So the basic values that I learned early on, you come to recognize them as such, and you basically say, “Well, okay — that’s a pretty good way to live your life.” And you try to do it as such.

IE: Being Grateful is a good way to go through life, I’ve found.

BL: Well, I guess that’s part of what I was saying before. When you come back to the things that you were taught, that would certainly qualify as being part of that because you go through a lot of things early on. But my mother was a Southern girl — she was from Houston, born and raised — and they used to have an expression down there that said, “The truth is gonna stand when the world’s on fire.” And that pretty much encapsulates it.

IE: Are your parents still around? Mine aren’t.

BL: No. I lost my mom 40 years ago, and my dad three years ago.

IE: And it’s kind of weird, becoming an orphan, right?

BL: It is. You wake up one day, and that’s the word that pops into your head. But you know what? That is one way of looking at it. And you can see it as such. But the lessons that you were taught by them will always be with you, and in that sense, no, we’re never gonna be orphans. So I guess it depends on how we see it — as half full or half empty.

IE: But you did actually come back to Christianity, though?

BL: Well, that’s what we were talking about with those early lessons that you learn — if it’s a good way to live your life, then you go back to it.

IE: You were raised Baptist. Do you attend a specific church again now?

BL: Well, I had been for a while, then I just recently left it for, honestly, some of the reasons I was mentioning earlier, things about the…the human aspect that I just didn’t care for.

IE: What part did religion play in your Jonathan Steele character in the Crimson Idol concept album? Is he autobiographical?

BL: Not really. He’s a combination of a lot of guys that I knew in the music business, and I took ten percent of one guy and ten percent of another and rolled ’em all together. And that’s basically who he is. But it’s a common tale, so in that sense there’s really nothing new about it, nor was it intended to be. But what separates **Crimson Idol from other thIngs is, it goes into depth about a boy, and it really is a simple story — it’s a kid looking for love.

IE: Wouldn’t that be a motivation for most aspiring rockstars? They’re just looking for love on an arena-sized scale?

BL: Well, they say when you get that hug from 10,000 fans, there’s nothing like it.

IE: As I recall, to date, there have been no paparazzi shots of you staggering drunk or high out of some trendy nightclub or down some red carpet, and Tom Petty was the same. How did you maintain such a low profile?

BL: Well, you’re talking about people who have made careers out of it. You’re not gonna stagger out of anything. And hey, listen — we’ve all had our moments when we got out of hand! But what are you focused on? Are you focused on that, or are you focused on your career? You know? Everybody’s had a moment or two where they got a little goofy. But that’s not the focus. That’s not the prize. So what are your eyes on? If you’re gonna be focused and you’re gonna do this for a long time, you’ve gotta see that prize.

IE: Was there a point in your career where you lost sight of that? And if so, how did you get yourself back on track?

BL: The short answer is No. You’ve heard the expression “It’s harder to stay there than to get there”? Well, that expression is grossly understated, you know? And it’s like anything else — How bad do you want it? And I’m simplifying it now, but that really is the bottom line. I could go into detail, but for people reading this, unless you’ve experienced it? I could give you an essay on it, and it wouldn’t make a difference because they couldn’t apply it to their lives. It’s like the word ‘realize’ — somebody can’t truly ‘realize’ until it becomes real to them. And it’s the same thing with this — no one would really realize what level of dedication and sacrifice is required to do this. You’ve gotta be focused.

IE: Which brings up the obvious question: When the pandemic hit, how did that jar your focus?

BL: It didn’t affect me one iota. Everything stayed the same. But I’ll go into the studio and stay there for two years at a time, you know? So I was aware of what was going on, but in terms of it changing me? Other than actually getting it myself — we got (Covid) early on, in January of 2020, and we didn’t even know what it was yet. So I felt like crap for a couple of months, but aside from that, the work routine after that was basically the same. And I live a very nomadic existence, and it’s half nomad, half Bohemian, so you’re in your own world on your own schedule, and — like I said — you can be aware of what’s going on in the world around you, but it’s not really your world. So you’re observational, and again, back to being the musical reporter I was talking about earlier.

IE: What hobbies keep you intrigued? And did you pick up any new ones?

BL: Well, I’ve always been a big car guy. I own mostly Fords and Chevys — hot rods, muscle cars, stuff like that. I have seven. But again, building that studio was the best thing I ever did, because it’s a little laboratory where you can go in and experiment and do your things. And it’s not your regular home studio. It’s a commercial studio I built back in 1990, and it just now happens to be in my home. So calling it a home studio would be a little like calling King Kong a monkey.

IE: Looking back at the roads not taken, you were on the cusp of a huge acting career when you almost got the role of the morphing Terminator in Terminator 2.

BL: Yeah, but I kept getting offered axe murderer parts, and I didn’t wanna be an axe murderer. I told my agent, “If you’ve got something serious, let me know.” But it’s funny how this town will typecast you. And as far as the acting thing, I was up for the part early on in 48 hours,’ the part that Sonny Landham played as Billy Bear. But I didn’t think the movie would be anything, so I didn’t really give it any thought. But I am not an actor, and I don’t think like an actor. I’m much more versed now in how the process works than I was early on, so the whole T-2 thing, when they called me up, one of the first things they said was, “Did you see the original Terminator‘? I said yes, and they said, “Did you like it?” And I said, “Not particularly.” And they said, “well, are you interested in doing this? The last one made $100 million.” And I said, “Oh! Okay! We’ll talk about it!” So I don’t think like an actor — it’s not my primary focus. And at the time that was happening, I was building that commercial studio in Hollywood that I was talking about. So my head was in a completely different space. And [director] Walter Hill was one of the first people I met when I moved to Hollywood, and I was aware of his credentials, but I never really thought much about it, even though I’ve got a lot of respect for his work.

IE: If you’re not technically an actor, and you swear you don’t think like one, what do you think onstage when you’re acting out songs?

BL: Well, that’s totally what I do. When I write lyrics, the benefit of what I do — of me being The Writer — is that I get to envision how I’m going to deliver those lines when I get in the studio. And there are a few guys out there who are basically musical actors. Bruce Dickinson is one — when you listen to the words he sings as his lines, and he’s acting out those lines. And I do the same thing. And that’s the benefit of being The Writer — you’re literally seeing it and rehearsing it in your head **as you’re writing it, and most of the time — not always — when you get into the studio, you’ve seen it, like a whole Hitchcock thing, so many times in your head that the actual recording of it is just a formality.

IE: Did you ever meet Tipper Gore or testify?

BL: No. Never. I was supposed to have gone — the day before the senate hearing committee, I was scheduled to leave, and between my publicist and Capitol Records, they determined that it was not gonna be the best thing for me. And so two days after the hearings, I flew to New York and met with Frank Zappa, and he told me that basically, Capitol was right, that it was a dog and pony show, that nothing was gonna come of it, and that it basically was a joke.

IE: It was still weird to see those warning stickers suddenly get slapped on the big unwieldy CD boxes.

BL: Those long twelve-inchers? Yeah — we were the first. It was for our second record that came out in ’85, because when all that was going on in ’84, they were trying to get the stickers going. But our first album was already out, and all the brouhaha happened between the time we made our first record and the second one.

IE: I’ve been saying this a lot lately. But humanity has had two, nearly three years to hit Reset and become a better species. But we’ve learned nothing.

BL: Well, I guess they said that during the Black Plague, too. Or whatever other little snippet of time you want to choose, where people had those opportunities. And did we ever learn anything? Probably not. So why do people do what they do? Because they can. It’s always been that way. But I’m in a good place. And I’m trying to slow this down as much as I can. I mean, you’re only gonna get one 40h Anniversary. So I’m just trying to literally savor every bite.

IE: But — going back to that random Ghoulies 2 track — your songs have really stood the test of time. And crowds still love you.

BL: Uh-huh. And it constantly amazes me, to be honest with you, when I watch the response. But I don’t dwell on it. I think to keep your feet on the ground; you can’t. I was the guy who – well, I’m not the best at anything. But I was able to tap into some human emotions and convey them to other people. And exactly how that’s done, I can’t explain. But when I say I’m not the best at anything or everything, what I’m saying is, I’m average at everything. But that being average, I think, is what allows me to see things the way that other people do. So if there’s one difference between me and the general public, it’s that I somehow found a way of putting it into lyrics. I had a kid come up to me one time and say, “You’re writing exactly what I feel, but I don’t know how to put it in words.” And writers who are able to convey emotion and develop a real core audience? I think that’s probably the one gift that they all have in common.

WASP appears at Arcada Theatre, St. Charles. December 2 & 3rd.

-Tom Lanham

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