By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
After the reaction to W.A.S.P.’s 1997 European tour, on which Lawless performed a late-term abortion on a life-size nun doll, we in the USA may never get the full show.
“I was looking for a way to push rock theater to a place that it had never been before,” says Lawless. “Europe is actually more conservative than America when it comes to certain ideals. They have far more religious indoctrination ingrained in them than they want to believe they do. When we started doing some of that stuff, they flipped. I watched some film of that a week or two ago, and it’ll make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It’s the best rock & roll show I ever saw.”
What were audiences reacting to? “In Spain and Italy, it was the nun, the baby and the knife blade, and the way it was done — I don’t know if you’ve ever fooled with magic, but when you’re doing it with your own hands and it looks good to you, you know it looks good to everybody else out there. The Italian record label didn’t even want to release the record after they had seen it. I likened it to the Indy 500 or something: A lot of people go there secretly thinking they want to see the car crash, but if the crash actually happens, if it’s really bad, they can’t watch it. That’s what was happening over there. It was like somebody hit ’em in the face with a ball bat.”
Except catharsis, Lawless never states precisely what he wants his drama to achieve. Artaud hoped to shock his audiences into an awareness of society’s corruption, and in fact, Lawless has often heaved fistfuls of opprobrium upon the music industry’s deceit and exploitation, and castigated moral dictators’ readiness to blind, bind and lobotomize youth. In return, he has been threatened with death, shot at and, at the hands of Tipper Gore and her pals, censored. A series of football-style injuries have added a certain edge to his screams, and his collapse after The Crimson Idol, when he couldn’t make himself get on a plane or even pick up a guitar, sent him to counseling.
“It revealed itself pretty quickly what all these phobias were,” says Lawless. “Fear of failure. It’s all related to the work. Work represents success or failure.”
But what is success?
“Ten years, 15 years ago, I looked at it as longevity. The test was, could you be the Mickey Mantle of rock & roll? That’s judging it through the world’s eyes. I remember Gene Simmons telling me something a long time ago — I always looked up to him. We’re opening for Kiss, I think it’s ’84 or ’85, at the Meadowlands, doing a sound check. He sits down next to me. Somehow we get on the subject of success. And he’s just sitting there, staring off into space. And he says, ‘I don’t know what works and what doesn’t. I don’t know who I am and how I got here.’ I’m getting mad now, listening to him. There was a point in my life when I was seriously contemplating giving up music — at 17, 18 — and he was, ‘Stick with it.’ So now I’m listening to this guy telling me he’s lost his ability. I’m getting mad, because I had become what he was. I was a laser beam. I knew exactly what I was doing, where I was going, how I was going to get there. It was like reading a road map, it was easy. But 10 years goes by in my life, and I remember getting to a point where I too didn’t know left from right.”
“I came to Hollywood when I was 19 years old, and there were three years when I lived on about 5 bucks a week. Didn’t have gas or electricity. I lived in hell. I’m not the only one, but I put in my time. And that scars you.”
Lawless played with the New York Dolls in their fading days, joined Dolls bassist Arthur Kane’s band in L.A., played the Strip with Sister, was pals with Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue, all before he started W.A.S.P. So he knows the odds, and he thinks he knows what it takes.
“At every label, they chew ’em up and they spit ’em out,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking to watch it. Show business is not looking for people who want to do it, it’s looking for people who must do it. And there’s a huge, huge difference. If the greatest thing you can be blessed with is an obsession, then that’s great, because your body is just a vessel for the objective.” But when he’s approached by would-be rock stars, “I ask, ‘Do you think you can live without it?’ I’d rather try to save them the heartache.”