THE WORK OF IDOL HANDS
by Andy Bradshaw
Metal Hammer - June 1992

 

Blackie Lawless is many people. But there are two principle characters in his psychological cache that the world at large is likely to encounter.

The first is a tall rangy character, to be found dressed in shorts and sweat-top in his natural habitat of Fort Apache studios in Hollywood. The manner is laconic underpinned by supreme self-confidence. He implies more than he says (and he says a lot), intimates a shrewdness that would repulse Shylock and a hint of latent aggression that ticks away like background radiation. As long as you deal your cards straight from the deck, look him in the eye and don't talk crap, you'll get on fine and indeed, enjoy his company. Try and bullshit him... well, best not to really.
Many mistake his confidence for arrogance; outward appearance for the inner being; sense of purpose as dismissive indifference to others. Make any of those cursory judgments and you will have a problem dealing with Blackie Lawless.
Particularly if you only know him through his alter-ego. And so little is needed for it to emerge. When Blackie disappears into the studio washroom to prepare for the photo-session being prepared, the emergent is wholly (unholy?) different. The simple addition of hairspray and eye-liner creates the 'Manimal'. Make-up does nothing to the eyeball itself; nothing that explains the demonic gleam that becomes a factor of possession more than mere cosmetics.
This is the beast that stalks the stage; that howls like the Grim Reaper in a holocaust and courses through 'The Crimson idol' with the fight-or-flight adrenalin surge of a cornered pit-bull. This voracious appetite for theatre combined with a quest for unadulterated perfection, has driven him to complete the work.
"I've looked at it from every angle." he muses. "I've turned it around and around; looked into the messages between the lines; whittled away at the lyrics to make every word count. There are no throw-away lines in this, each has at least one other meaning. The music, the arrangements, individual notes even, have been given the same treatment."

It would be easy to dismiss this as Blackie having delusions of grandeur. But to prove the point, he mentions the opening salvo of 'The Crimson Idol', 'The Titanic Overture'.
"You can take that to mean a number of things, can 't you?" he asks rhetorically. "To some, when they hear the music, they will think immediately of something massive. Well, that's true, but only partly. There was also a ship called the Titanic, you remember. A great adventure that ended in disaster..."
And thus the conversation touches upon the fictitious life of Jonathan Steel. In another discussion, Blackie had said of 'The Crimson Idol' that it is only partly self- confessional/autobiographical. It turns out that there are some key parts that are indeed drawn from his own life. Take Jonathan's meeting with a Gypsy woman who reads his Tarot for example...

"It was just after the New York Dolls had split up. Arthur Kane and I had come to California. I was at this party and met this girl who read the cards. She asked me if I would like her to read for me. said, yeah, okay.

"The detail she went into about things that had happened to me was extraordinary. She told me that I had lust come out of something very traumatic and that I would enter a period like a void in my life. She didn't say how long, but went on to say that I would one day go on to do something that would make what I had just come out of look insignificant.

"Five or six days later I met someone else who also read, who also did a spread for me - who had no prior knowledge of the first reading - and she told me the exact same thing. And sure enough that's happened, and here I am now, with something that is the culmination of everything I've worked towards so far." There is an almost Shakespearian quality to the way Blackie responds to the question of what if it falls flat on its face. Redolent of Lady Macbeth goading her husband into murdering the King Of Scotland, when he rounds on her with the question "But if we should fail?" She replies simply; "We fail." Blackie shares her pragmatism.
The silence after the question is long and dramatic. It is almost as if he's never contemplated it. And then he answers. "If it doesn't sell, it doesn't sell. But that wouldn't stop me continuing on the path which I see before me".
(...the handle toward my hand?)

"I am closer to satisfying myself with this than anything I've ever done. It's not a 100% work - but if it was then I don't
think I'd have a reason to go on. But it's a force to be reckoned with.

"This story came about for the same reasons that 'The Headless Children came about. The object of being an artist is to stir the minds of men. if you don't do that then you are not an artist, just some guy who makes records.

"I find it sobering for example that when I wrote 'The Heretic' - which is a vision of society sliding into gang warfare - little did I know that I would be working in this studio after that record was done. And now look, I'm sitting in the middle of the killing fields of American conurbation."

The Shakespearian allusion made earlier is not entirely unjustified. There are classical parallels in the story of 'The Crimson Idol' which Blackie acknowledges. The themes of the fatally flawed hero and of ghosts haunting the central character are hark-backs to both Macbeth and Hamlet. (Just because a guy once flung raw meat at an audience doesn't mean he's not widely read) Blackie smiles and nods. "Yeah, that's deliberate."

Jonathan Steel's story is complex. On the one hand it is a classic rags to riches fable. This time of a neglected character seeking his fortune through a crimson guitar (hence 'The Crimson Idol'). On the other it is the carefully woven example of the 'Catastrophe Theory' which says that a disaster is not an isolated event going wrong, but a series of smaller incidents going awry which lead to the eventual outcome. So is Jonathan 'fatally flawed' in the tradition of the great tragedies from King Lear to Julius Caesar?

"Oh yes. Jonathan's motivations are stirred by the emotional privations of his childhood. He is constantly seeking to gain approval from his parents after the death of his beloved older brother who was tragically killed.

"At one point in the story there is a big turnaround in his fortunes. Just when he has made it to the top two things happen. The first is after one of the band's parties where, basically anything goes. He says; 'I was intoxicated not just by the drugs and the alcohol but equally by my own fame as well.' (And I've seen that in people in this business.) The second is shortly after this when, blitzed out of his mind, he finally summons up the courage to call his mother, with whom he has not spoken since he ran away from home. Jonathan describes the call like this: 'Less than fifty words were spoken and the last four were 'We have no son."

"He thinks that after all that he has achieved, his parents would accept him. But the rejection he suffers is bigger than that which drove him out in the first place. And that is the beginning of the end. It is what drives him eventually to take his own life. Realising that all he has built has been based upon a premise that could never be realised; that everything including his own fame has been an illusion.

"He goes from saying in the beginning 'I just want to be the Crimson Idol of a million' to 'I don 't want to be...' at the end."
It s at this point that you realise that Blackie's vision of the much denigrated genre 'Rock opera', has been taken far more seriously than many would have given him credit for. Lawless has gone from being 'tongue-in-cheek' in the past to 'fist-in- face' now.

There will be those who take all this for its surface value; who will think that anybody creating something of this nature, at a time when alternative forms of Rock music from Seattle to Thrash are pushing back boundaries, must be on to a loser. But that would be foolhardy, because along with all of the thematic threads woven into 'The Crimson Idol' is some very, very powerful Rock music. There is 'Doctor Rockter', every bit as heavy as the now familiar 'Chainsaw Charlie'. Then of course there are 'The Invisible Boy', 'Arena Of Pleasure' and the climactic 'The Great Misconception Of Me'. Not to mention the poignant power- ballad 'Hold On To My Heart' (another song not to be taken at face value).

Although Blackie has held this together almost single-handedly, taking responsibility for production, vocals, bass and rhythm guitar, other musicians have come in for some quite stunning contributions. There is the hitherto unknown Stet Howland on drums, whose drumming throughout is exceptional, so good in fact that some of the original tracks laid down by Frankie Banali were re-recorded with Stet. But most startling is the lead guitar work from Bob Kulick. "The way he plays on this record," says Blackie, "will enhance his reputation as a top class guitarist. He has excelled himself.

Photographs done, Blackie sits back on the sofa in the studio rest area, its walls bedecked with Red Indian memorabilia, and allows himself a few moments to ponder the future. What can possibly follow 'The Crimson Idol'?
"The next record will be a collection of things that did not make it on to this, which are just as good. I think that half the next album will have a familiar feel to it, but there will be a return to more upbeat material too (only one song, 'Doctor Rockter', on 'The Crimson Idol' is in a major key!). I have a song already along the lines of 'Blind In Texas', which should give you an idea." You might think that is as far as he is looking to the future, but Blackie adds a caveat.
"I know what I'm going to do after that. Another one of these, I have the story and the themes - what I don't have at the moment is the energy!"