The Labors of Lawless 

Raping nuns with W.A.S.P.

Wednesday, Apr 19 2000

“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.”

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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 Sexual Perverts. Whose first single with that outfit, back in 1983, was “Animal (Fuck 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 Suck.”

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 [Motherfucking] 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 Fuck 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.

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