What W.A.S.P.’s Blackie Lawless Learned from Marvin Gaye
For over 25 years, the movie component to W.A.S.P.'s 1992 album The Crimson Idol, remained unavailable to the public. It wasn't until the 15th anniversary of the album that the film was even shown, projected in conjunction with the band's live shows to celebrate the masterful conceptual piece. Now, the album and movie have been united as one piece, ReIdolized (The Soundtrack to The Crimson Idol).
It's got a vintage look, maintaining a music-first focus with images and scenes to pad the narrative rather than overtake it — in a sense, it's like a metal score to a silent film. The film's story centers around Jonathan Aaron Steele. For years, Jonathan existed in the shadow of his brother Michael, the bane of his parents.
Running away after Michael is killed in a car accident, Jonathan steals a crimson colored guitar, ultimately finding a life as -- you guessed it -- a rock star, complete with fame, fortune, excess and substance abuse. After a failed attempt to repair his relationship with his parents, who denounce him as their son, Jonathan hangs himself from his guitar strings during a concert.
For one fan, it's a story that strikes at the core and brought him to tears in front of W.A.S.P.'s Blackie Lawless at a signing the day of the album's release. For Lawless, it was a career affirming moment. Following the album's success, it also served a testament to his integrity, as the record label initially pushed back on the album, but a life lesson from Marvin Gaye (handed down from an engineer) rang loud in the back of his mind.
The Crimson Idol was originally supposed to be a solo album. How did you initially perceive this music to be different than W.A.S.P.? The irony is that this went on to be heralded as the band’s zenith.
We started in 1990. I started dropping hints in the press and the fan mail started coming in. The general consensus was “Don’t you understand that W.A.S.P. are an idea and that you are a part of that idea, so that’s really what it should be called.” I thought about it and said “They’re probably right.”
The label didn’t want me to make that record. When they heard the original demos to The Headless Children [previous album], they didn’t like it — they wanted the same old, same old. I told them, “This is not who I am now.”
Years earlier, there was an engineer who we were working with; he was usually upbeat, never at a loss for words. One morning I walked in and he wasn’t himself. An hour went by and I asked him what was wrong. He said, “I got word this morning that Marvin Gaye was killed last night. The one thing I learned about working with Marvin was that he always did records that reflected who he was at the moment.” I took that with me from that time on and I gave it thought for the next couple of years and it never left me.
Right out of the gate The Headless Children was a smash. When it came time to do The Crimson Idol, it was the same thing of “You should do what you just did.” Naturally, they were all jumping up and down [with the success of The Crimson Idol].
You have to have conviction in what you’re doing — enough to survive or fail on your own. That’s what you have to do to have a true career. I’ve learned that you have to be willing to open yourself up to the audience, to crack your head open and allow them to walk around in your skull barefooted to find out what’s there — the good and the bad. A lot of artists aren’t willing to do that, but if you’re going to take people on that lifelong journey, you have to. Sometimes that means going against political pressures of the labels.
Where did the vision for the concept originate and where did the idea to shoot a movie in conjunction with it originate?
The germination of the idea happened at a restaurant in London in 1986. We were getting ready to do the European tour for Inside the Electric Circus. I was talking to some of the guys who worked for our video production team and it took a few years to really flesh it out. In the meantime, we did The Headless Children, but we kept putting meat on the idea’s bones and working from there. It wasn’t something that I just thought up and did — it took a long time to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
What aspects of your life went into the story?
It’s often been said that all art is self-reflective, but I really looked at a combination of a lot of the guys I know in the business and I took a little from one guy’s personality, and a little from another, etc. I had to give all the characters a story and a background to really make them come alive — you can’t just throw names on a paper. For every action each person has, it’s going to influence the others, so you have to think “How are they going to react to each one of those reactions?”
[Lawless then paused and defaulted on speaking to which personal traits he drew from in the narrative. Later in the conversation, he had the realization]. "I could easily say that whole conflict that he was having was with whatever he interpreted as religion [is where my traits entered the storyline].
W.A.S.P. got lumped into their hair metal scene at first, regardless of whether or not the band belonged there. But so many of those bands started with runaway kids who were disenfranchised as a youth. Did any friends in the scene come up to you after the album’s release and say that the concept spoke to them on a personal level?
I don’t think anybody would admit that and not that I can recall.
But the one memory that sticks out with me more than anything is the day it was released.
I was in Toronto doing their version of MTV, which was called Much Music. It was all live so if people saw you, they knew you were at the studio and they’d come down sometimes to get you to sign stuff. When the show was over there was about 20 people waiting, so I started signing autographs, just kind of keeping my head down.
I noticed in my peripheral vision there was one guy standing off to the side waiting. This was about 3 PM in the afternoon and the record had come out earlier that morning. He patiently waits and right at the end he slides in a copy of The Crimson Idol. I asked him, “Have you heard this?” He said, “Mmhmm.” I asked, “Do you like it?” and he goes, “Mmhmm,” and when he said it the second time, I heard his voice crack. I looked up and tears were running down his face and he said, “You’ve written my life here.”
That was my first encounter with anybody outside the recording studio that has heard this record and that’s the reaction that I got. As an artist, that’s what makes the hard work worth it.
Grab your copy of 'ReIdolized (The Soundtrack to The Crimson Idol) at the Napalm Records webstore.
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