It's Rob Halford's fault. And Freddie Mercury's. In honor of VH1 Rock Honors, a rock 'n' roll self-portrait
By Skylaire Alfvegren
I was reading Lester Bangs at 12 and forcing my mother to buy me Velvet Underground and Residents albums before I had a training bra. Rush was my favorite band, though, and my first concert was the Presto tour, Irvine Meadows Ampitheatre, at 13. But dorks have a secret sense of superiority; a couple of my pre-grunge white trash schoolmates ambled about in heavy-metal T-shirts, and I laughed 'em off. I started writing about music for the LA Weekly before I turned 19: Swans, Keiji Heino, Negativland, cool shit.
A couple of years later, a friend tipped me off that Rob Halford was fixing to come out of the closet. I chortled, got on the horn and interviewed him the day after he came out, in 1998, on MTV. He was cool. I couldn't be ironic, I couldn't be smarmy. ... I started listening to Judas Priest—and I was surprised to find their music crushed my skull in a thoroughly enjoyable way.
Matters were made worse when a strange person ("Occult" Brian Butler, about whom a whole story could be written) snuck into the Buddhist commune I was living in and dumped a ton of metal onto my iMac ... King Diamond, Accept, Loudness, Scorpions, Dio. Iron Maiden was coming to promote Brave New World. I was intrigued; got assigned the review and dragged Brian out. Halford, solo, kicked ass, and Maiden put on one of the best shows I've ever seen. An obsessive researcher, I discovered their past albums: Not only was their new disc named after a Huxley book, they had borrowed from Robert Heinlein and written a song about the U.K. show The Prisoner. Dude—they were cool. (Not to mention singer Bruce Dickinson is a world-class fencer, as well as an airline pilot in the U.K.)
Iron Maiden is not on the bill for the first annual VH1 Rock Honors extravaganza being held at Mandalay Bay. (Word on the street: It's still not cool to admit a fondness for those codpiece-wearin,' sci-fi-readin' limeys; however, a far lesser entry into the hard-rock fray, Def Leppard, shall be performing and honored at this event.) The lineup is a bit wonky: no Black Sabbath on the bill, no Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Oak Arkansas or Poison.
But Judas Priest, Kiss and Queen are, so VH1 got it more than half right. Something of a free-for-all, this event reinforces the idea that it is again acceptable to admit you listen to music defined by guitars and tight pants (although, sadly, The Darkness never really translated on this side of the Atlantic).
It's been more than 20 years since the mighty Priest was sued by the parents of two stoners in Reno whose suicide pact was allegedly prompted by subliminal messages in the song "Better By You, Better Than Me." There was a time when music with guitars and tight pants was demonized due to satanic overtures and blamed for youthful degeneracy.
In the interim, it has become my contention that music with guitars and tight pants has been responsible for far fewer aesthetic nightmares, far less crime and far more fabulosity than gangster rap, electronica and all those hyphenated art-school subgenres that have sprung up since to compete for the space between your ears.
It was the blackest day when Freddie Mercury announced that he was HIV-positive; he died the next day, November 24, 1991. No one in my ninth-grade class understood why I was so despondent. Aside from Rush (and the Ramones, gimme some credit), Queen had truly saved my young soul. In fact, Freddie had provided the template, at least in my head, for how to be.
At the time, friends would force me to listen to Nirvana; I was having none of it. Rap was rearing its ugly head, both musically and aesthetically. All in all, it was an ugly time.
There will always be flaccidity in popular music; but there will always be power chords to do battle against it. I've never been cool, and frankly, I couldn't care less. I have been teased mercilessly about my taste in music, but, hey, I got the Priest boxed set for Christmas. (And if any readers care to further my education, donations, gladly accepted, can be sent in care of the Weekly.) I will be curled up in the lap of the gods come Thursday. Thankfully, kids today have begun growing their greasy hair long, and I take this as a sign that, yes, it is safe once again to raise your fist and say, "For those about to rock, we salute you."