How Bad Can It Be?: W.A.S.P., “Babylon”

Written by CD Reviews, How Bad Can It Be?, Music

W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless was infamous for raunchy lyrics and an outrageous stage show. Now the onetime shock-rocker has got religion — and a new album. Jack Feerick wonders: How bad can it be?

Some men lead blessed lives. They discover early on where their desires lie, and they’re able to pursue them. Look at me. I’ve been lucky enough to figure out that writing is the thing I love most — the only thing I’m really good at, in fact — and I get to do it all the time.

Blackie Lawless divined from a young age that what he really wanted to do was to rock and roll all nite and party ev-e-ry day. But alas! for Paul Stanley already had that position monopolized, and Blackie, luckless, was left to shift for himself. The career that has led to Babylon, the latest disc from Blackie’s band W.A.S.P., has been a history of drift and dabbling — a fate not uncommon among those cheated of their true calling.

And yet Blackie Lawless, through no fault of his own, has had a greater cultural impact than his more-famous peers. Whilst earning his spurs as a shock-rocker in the mode of his boyhood friend Ace Frehley and his later protégé Nikki Sixx, young Blackie recorded a little ditty entitled “Animal (Fuck Like A Beast).” This tender love ballad was a nine day’s wonder in the mid-80s when it was cited by the PMRC crowd as an exemplar of the coarsening of pop music. In retrospect, they were right — but not in the way they thought they were. Now, Blackie did not testify at the infamous Senate hearings on raunch-pop, but via the industry’s panicked response to the unwanted government attention he helped to midwife a new Golden Age of vulgarity.

The self-regulated labeling and codification of “Explicit Content” that came out of Blackie’s run-in with the PMRC ended up, paradoxically, giving subsequent artists unprecedented license to explore sexual and violent themes without recourse to euphemism. In a stunning example of the law of unintended consequences, the PMRC’s most far-reaching achievement was killing off the double entendre. These days, heaven knows, anything goes — as long as it’s got the sticker on the front. And so W.A.S.P. made possible the likes of Nine Inch Nails, and not just because you can draw a straight line from “Animal” to “Closer” (although you totally can).

So how do you follow up a cultural bang like that? I mean, pissing off religious conservatives is a good start to any career — if you can find a way to capitalize on it. But a funny thing happened on the way to world domination. W.A.S.P. had plenty of street cred, but they couldn’t translate that into mainstream success. As Motley Crüe and Guns ‘n’ Roses rode their sleazed-out turbo boogie to fame and glory, Blackie was messing around with Sabbath style Armageddon-rock (Headless Children) and proggish concept albums (Crimson Idol and the two-part The Neon God), and trying his hand at acting (he was supposedly “considered for” the part of the T-1000 in Terminator 2, which I take to mean that his manager wangled a lunch meeting with a junior casting assistant).

As the long hangover of the 90s faded, Bret Michaels and Tommy Lee got reality shows; Nikki Sixx has a book deal; and Blackie kept playing mid-sized venues, and couldn’t keep a steady band together, and started putting cranky libertarian political messages in the liner notes of W.A.S.P. albums, and never became more than semi-famous in the larger culture.

It probably didn’t help that he wasn’t pretty. He can write and sing, and he can play like a motherfucker, but Blackie’s face has always had a worked-over, vaguely mummified quality. He was never the ugliest in the LA metal contingent — that would be Crüe guitarist Mick Mars, who looks like Darkseid after an allergic reaction to shellfish — but he’s hardly a model frontman. Or a model for anything, full stop.

What he is, though, is a dab hand with a pop hook, and Babylon has great moments of ear candy even for less metallically-inclined audiences. Listen to the clarion guitar riff that kicks off “Crazy” (download) — transpose that lick to a clean electric 12-string, and it could pass for early R.E.M. And in a genre that still favors the Germanic wail, Blackie’s voice has a pleasing hint of Springsteenian heartland gruffness; “soul” is always a relative concept in metal, but Mr. Lawless has definitely got it.

And in the end, soul is what it’s all about. Babylon feels, in some ways, like an inconsequential record — only nine songs, two of them covers, a banal and horrendously-edited political screed in the notes, silly and shopworn apocalyptic lyrics. (Sidebar: Why, oh why is it that so many half-educated rockstars are so drawn to the Book of Revelation? I think it’s be because, like most people who don’t read much, have the bad habit of skipping to the end to see how it all turns out.) For the duration of one song, though, it seems very important indeed. “Godless Run” (download) is the album’s crowning moment — a profession of faith so aching, so truthful, it did the last thing I expected any W.A.S.P. record to do; it moved me.

When I was a kid, my father read to me a poem by Francis Thompson, called The Hound of Heaven. The poem’s central image is of God as a hunting dog, chasing down the lost soul who thinks he has no need for God, pursuing him patiently, relentlessly, no matter how he far he flees. In the end, the soul is caught; grace is inexorable and inevitable, and there is no escape from God’s wondrous love. It’s a weird and beautiful work, the product, obviously, of a complicated relationship with the idea of salvation. “Godless Run,” in its own meatheaded way, captures some of that same strange power; it sidesteps the simplifications and clichés of Christian metal to paint a picture of a religious experience that I recognize, shot through with anger and doubt, where the “aha!” moment comes not with happy-clappy bliss but with a weary resignation.

So while it may seem like cheap irony that Blackie Lawless, who made his name by making religious conservatives nervous, should end up a religious conservative himself; that he should deliver a record with no explicit lyrics warning; and even disavow his earlier work to the point of no longer performing “Animal” live — it’s no stranger than the pervasive and inescapable love that should bring him to this point. Some men lead blessed lives, and follow their pursuits. But all men are pursued themselves in turn, and some — perhaps the most blessed of all — manage to get themselves caught.