What The Hell?

An interview with Rob Halford

You know what's gotta be the toughest thing about being Rob Halford? Even though he has been screaming the metal message for nearly 30 years, every time he does something new, he has to go around explaining himself again. Like, he's got this just-released album, Resurrection, on which, in the wake of a recent detour into industrial pop, he returns to the heavy-metal foundry where he forged and reforged Judas Priest over a period of some 18 years before splitting in 1991. The current band (called Halford) and CD: they plain burn. But before we get to that, let's whip the man through some of his headlines. We need the ritual, like a bedtime story. This is Halford, and part of what keeps us coming back to him is the ornately carved barge of contradictions that seems perpetually moored to him. Like:

The gay thing. Halford left the closet several years ago after fronting a generation of unaware and heavily homophobic metal audiences with titles like "Some Heads Are Gonna Roll," "Ram It Down," "Eat Me Alive" and "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" and strutting the stage in full motorcycle-leather-boy regalia. He was snickering the whole time, right?

"I was never into that part of gay culture," Halford says. "But obviously I was aware of it, and the fact that I went out for so many years dressing that way is something that I look back at and half-smile. I'll tell you why it isn't a full smile: it's because the sincerity of the performance, the genuineness of what I was trying to create, was detached from the gayness of it all. All it was about was 'This looks right for the music.' But in reflection, it's the irony of ironies."

Hmm . . . okay! Well, what about the satanic angle? The character Judas Priest, see, was Bob Dylan's personification of Mephistopheles. Priest titles? Uh, "Sin After Sin," "The Hellion," "Hell Patrol" . . . and it's not like Hellford—er, Halford—is repenting. Among other choice forays into Eviltown on Resurrection, "Made in Hell" offers this: "We're all on the road to hell, and that's Route 666." And as a visual aid to those who are a bit slow on the uptake, the disc itself is emblazoned with a skull and the devil's PIN.

"When I'm writing my words, it's very free-flowing, and I don't really know what I'm doing until it's finished," Halford says. "A good example of that is the track 'Silent Screams,' where at the beginning, it's very self-reflective, talking about the friends I've lost, about all these intimate things—I'm still standing, I've survived, I've come through all this crap—and then I go into this part of the song that just explodes and I'm talking about 'I am . . . your disillusioned God. . . . I am black/I am white/I'm the blood upon the knife.' What the hell does that mean? I don't question it because . . . it just feels right? But I often wonder: Where is that from? It's definitely a Jekyll and Hyde scenario, isn't it? What makes somebody live a very simple life and then go ballistic and do something very terrible or evil or crazy? I think we've all got that potential—I really do. And it's not something I want to think too much about.

"I was looking at a concert tape of myself the other day, which I rarely do. And I really feel detached—I can't relate to that person. Especially in songs like 'The Ripper' or 'Night Crawler' or anything where there's that degree of pure metal fantasy, characterization, creation of an X-Men type of person-thing-object. I lose myself in that. It is something completely separate."

One more topic. Lyrics from Resurrection: "I'll do to you/Just what you did to me/I'm gonna shoot it"; "Son of Judas, bring the saints to my revenge." 1982 Priest album title: Screaming for Vengeance.

"I'm not a vengeful person," Halford says. "I'm a real easy guy to get along with, and I don't like confrontation."

Is the Stygian artist the same guy as the one answering the questions? You can hardly imagine a gent more harmless than the latter: the atmosphere of a Rob Halford interview is like tea with Auntie. His voice is wheedling, concerned, as if he's insisting you really should eat more vegetables. Wearing baggy shorts and a tank top, he hunches toward you with his hands clasped over his knees and makes friendly eye contact. One is reminded of the early '90s courtroom documentary footage in which Halford defended Judas Priest against bizarre charges that the band, through "backward masking" of subliminal messages on a record, had influenced the suicide attempts (one successful) of two teenagers. On that occasion, Halford took the witness stand in an elegant suit, his bald pate agleam. Looking like nothing so much as a London art dealer, he made the jury understand in the calmest and most sympathetic of terms that he might as well be accused of having horns and a tail. It may have been his greatest performance.

Or it may have been the real, honest-to-God Halford. And at this point in his life, he seems especially interested in telling you who that is. Resurrection begins with the saga of where he's been lately: he has undergone a stretch of self-examination (he's a recovering alcoholic) and artistic experimentation (having been produced by Trent Reznor in the dark-but-melodic noise band Two). Lest old-time fans fear he's left them behind, he proclaims his rebirth and "resurrection" in the Church of Metal and, in "Made in Hell," proudly recalls the factory towns in which both he and other Birmingham-area Brit music-smelters such as Black Sabbath breathed in the literal fumes of metal. He bares his loves and hates ("Night Fall," "Locked and Loaded," "Twist," "Temptation"); confesses his Internet addiction ("Cyber World"); accepts the "needle in my heart"—the music, he explains—that has been both his salvation and his taskmaster ("Silent Screams"); and follows doctor's orders ("Slow Down").

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