He don’t need to spray no meat. He don’t need to saw no babes. He don’t need no stage bombs, pyro codpiece, skull bloodgoblet or hellbiker mike stand. All WASP’s Blackie Lawless needs is dirty balls; he said so. That means his rock, his stones. But of course he’s gonna give you more. He can’t help it.
On this tour, the hook is a full-length performance of “The Crimson Idol,” WASP’s 1992 rock opera. It had never been done till now, partly because back then it nearly killed Lawless. When I interviewed him eight years ago, he said he’d talked to Pete Townshend about the process of making a Who-style epic before going ahead with the project. Then, when he was almost finished making the album, he got in Townshend’s face again.
“I said, ‘You didn’t tell me everything.’ Because it wasn’t till right at the end that I found out he had a nervous breakdown doing 'Quadrophenia.' I was watching the movie 'Eight Ball' the other night, the one with Nicolas Cage, and this guy’s telling him, ‘You dance with the devil and you’re gonna see things you can’t unsee anymore.’ And I thought, how true. There were a couple of times I really thought I was losing it. The doctor wanted to put me in the hospital because I was suffering physical exhaustion. You press and press and press and press, because you want it to be perfect. And I got frighteningly close -- it’s like you’re going out there and you don’t know if you’re gonna come back.”
The writing and recording weren’t the only challenges he set himself in ‘92; he also researched the current conditions facing the kind of hungry young musician represented by his opera’s hero, Jonathan Aaron Steel -- stuff he’d experienced firsthand 15 years previous on his arrival in L.A., but he wanted an update. “I went down for about a week, and just hung around down on Hollywood Boulevard -- wore a sweatshirt and sunglasses so nobody would notice me, and I just watched what went on down there. The police let me go on some ride-alongs, to listen to the calls that would come in down in that area, and oh man, it’s unbelievable.”
After all that work, you can see how Lawless wouldn’t want to let his dream lie fallow. He’d also commissioned film to accompany the stage production, and that had never been shown. Now he’d get it done.
WASP had already been Crimsoning in Europe and America for some months before touching down here in L.A., where Lawless lives, and moving on to Australia and the European festival circuit. The Key Club was full, of course. And you could feel Blackie before you could see him -- the presence of a tall, hulking figure on the darkened stage made a subliminal impact.
When the lights came up, the flashback nature of the night popped into relief. Though Lawless is the only remaining member of the original early-‘80s WASP, his music has rocked steady with no essential stylistic change for the duration. We were seeing the band on the same rectangle of Sunset Strip soil that once supported Gazzarri’s, Metal Central in the ‘80s before being demolished to make room for the much swanker Billboard Live, which opened in 1996 and became the Key Club in a few years. Along with fringed pale boots, Blackie sported black jersey number 84 -- maybe a tribute to the Orwellian year when WASP injected its first album into the cultural bloodstream.
WASP’s presentation of “The Crimson Idol” had a flow to it. As with a Townshend opera or Lawless’ own “The Neon God” from the current millennium, you had an overture, rockers such as the hooky perennial “Chainsaw Charlie (Murders in the New Morgue”), agony ballads such as “The Idol” (“I don’t wanna be . . .”), recapitulations of themes, the dynamics rising and falling with, dare one say it, a certain elegance. The lofty melodies and simple chord structures linked nicely, giving an impression of wholeness that a greatest-hits set never delivers. It was satisfying in a different way from a normal WASP set, which leaves you feeling clubbed and defiled (in, uh, a good way). This Crimson bath imparted a mood of spent exhilaration.
After an intermission of entertaining Elvis clips, the band pounded through a short rundown of classics including “LOVE Machine,” “Wild Child” and “Blind in Texas” -- the lexicon of melodic hard rock, straight and torrid. The crowd roared throughout; roadies kept having to heave one stage climber back into the pit. A rush for sure.
And it was all done by just four black-clad motherhumpers. Check your St. Peter’s Bank statement: To keep his wide-ranging, throat-shredding howl in such tiptop condition after all these years, Blackie must’ve taken out a loan on your soul in addition to selling his own; his proficient rhythm-guitar slashifications, balladic arpeggiations and lead accents save him the expense of a fifth musician. Mike Duda, a virtually irreplaceable asset on harmony vocals and bass, is into his second decade of making the WASP locomotive run on time. And the guitar-drums team from 2007’s hard-charging “Dominator” album has really locked in. Without seeming like an ax geek, Doug Blair showed all the facility you could want while pushing the energy edge, rocking his ass off and even chipping in a third harmony voice on some songs. If Mike Dupke doesn’t own quite the chops to roll Moon-thunder across the toms the way Frankie Banali did on the “Idol” record (few do), he’s progressed from slightly tight-assed precisionist to full-on driving wheel.
With these madmen bulling around in every direction, although they were backed with minimal stage props (just a flashing “WASP” on both kick-drum heads), it was easy to overlook the big screen above, where the promised series of grainy black-and-white vignettes gave faces to the “Idol” story. A sensitive young man simmered; tarot cards played out; a sleazy promoter (modeled on Starwood club impresario Eddie Nash, I think) corrupted Hollywood maidenhood. The visuals were artistic and welcome without distracting from the bloodsweat sounds. Which was exactly as it should’ve been.
Whether this kind of circus gits you depends on whether you’re willing to dive in and plunge over the waterfall. You can always think later.
A few words on the supporting bands, each a different timbre of metal. Simi Valley’s Intentional Rage, a woofing Latino-dominated crew, sloshed a very original groove thanks to a family feel and the loose-rolling drums of Patricia. Fatal Smile mocked up a stick-figure Swedish version of Motley Crue, neglecting to devote as much energy to their songwriting as to their admittedly eye-catching sartorial adornments. The main revelation was the opener, San Clemente’s Blaksmith, which pushed an unusual variety from thrash to gallop to Megadethy chug, lit up by the neck-tapping antics of two rather spectacular guitarists. “This song is about Satan,” informed semituneful vocalist-axman David Lee. He did not seem to be joking.