Meet Dr. Doom: Pentagram's Bobby Liebling Returns

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Bobby Liebling, shot for SPIN in Ridley Park, PA on March 4, 2011 / Photo by Steven Brahms
WRITTEN BY
David Marchese

Forty years ago, with his band Pentagram, Bobby Liebling invented a style of fiendishly heavy metal that hardly anyone heard. He spent the ensuing decades in a haze of hard drugs and big trouble. Now, with the genre he spawned on the rise and a young wife and baby boy in tow, Liebling is feeling the first rumblings of success. Here's where things start to get weird.

I'm staring, so Bobby Liebling slides closer to me on the couch and shows me his right arm. It's abnormally thin, the result of a third of the flesh being surgically planed off to minimize the damage caused by more than 20 years of shooting heroin. It's also covered in small divotlike scars, some incurred during crack-induced fits when he believed parasites were eating his skin.

Liebling is 57, about 5'6", and slightly built, with a trim mustache and eerily blue eyes. We're sitting in the living room in a multi-unit house he rents near the train station in tree-lined Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, 15 miles west of downtown Philadelphia. It's just after 1 P.M. on a gray January afternoon. The shades are drawn and the bludgeoning music on the stereo -- by the '70s Welsh proto-metal band Budgie -- is loud. Peaches, Liebling's small black mutt, barks from her crate in another room. "Never thought I'd have a house and a dog," he says in his chirpy Virginia twang. I can taste the air, thick with the smoke of Maverick cigarettes and the chemical sweetness of flavored coffee. Liebling consumes both products constantly. The small room is dominated by large speakers and a modest TV against the wall facing the couch. A tall storage shelf is filled with CDs, many of them in unopened duplicate and triplicate. "My OCD collection," is what he calls it cheerily, and he knows from compulsion.

He asks if he can play me his band Pentagram's new album, Last Rites. It's their first studio recording in seven years and first ever that Liebling has sung on sober. "This is the one," he boasts. "It is a muthalode." Wearing a black Pentagram T-shirt and tight black jeans, he bounces giddily. He pumps his ravaged arms, air-guitaring along to the music, the latest addition to a catalog that many metalheads esteem as highly influential and some believe is brilliant. His wife, Hallie, 25, lovely, blonde, and disconcertingly sleepy-eyed, sits in an easy chair holding five-month-old Bobby Jr. in her arms. She's wearing a long Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and not much else.

"Your voice sounds better than ever, Bobby," she mumbles in a thick Philly accent. When she was a child, she says, her father left his law firm to sell flowers on the street for Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. She's always loved Steven Tyler, Captain Hook, and older men. ("My cousin came with me the first time I met Bobby," says Hallie. "When we left, she was like, 'Dude, you're gonna marry that man.'?")

Liebling cackles. "My voice sounds good 'cause I'm not smoking crack."

A death-march guitar riff staggers from the speakers. It's the new album's "Walk in the Blue Light," one of 450 songs he claims to have written between 1969 and 1974. He says he hasn't written one since. "These chords are one of my signatures," explains Liebling, whose gaunt, birdlike face is framed by two long gray tufts of otherwise dyed-brown hair. "Suspended second chords. Hear that? It gives the nobility," he says, beaming. Still seated, he puckers his lips and shimmies his shoulders to the beat.

"What you see right now is how Bobby is," says Hallie. "He's a rock'n'roll dinosaur."

"Peter Pan," he says, correcting her. "Now I'm growing up." He lights another smoke. "I gotta be clean for my wife and son. I'm the only one taking care of 'em. People wanna hear my music. I gotta capitalize on that while I've got a chance." He nods at the speakers. "Think people'll like it?" he asks softly. "It's a million-seller!" he blurts. Then he turns serious. "You've never heard music like this."

1970: "Black Sabbath" by Black Sabbath on Black Sabbath. First riff, first song, first album -- doom metal's Big Bang. Guitarist Tony Iommi, who would tune his guitar down a minor third to ease the tension on his fingertips -- lopped off in a factory accident at 17 -- draws out thickly distorted notes emphasizing the tritone interval, known since at least the 18th century as the diabolus in musica due to its sinister cast. ("It's sicko," says Liebling of the sound. "We use it all the time." It's also the basis of the hook on Metallica's "Enter Sandman.") Ozzy Osbourne comes in, singing about damnation over bassist Geezer Butler's and drummer Bill Ward's trudging rhythm. "[The music is] dark, heavy stuff," says Ward. "It isn't fast or fancy. The lyrics aren't about boys and girls. It's music for the end of the world. Doom is really the best word for it, and it sounds lethal."

No one has done doom better, for longer, than Bobby Liebling. "Pentagram laid the ground-work," says High on Fire singer-guitarist Matt Pike, himself a doom star for his work in the band Sleep. "They got to the heart of the music in a way that no one else did. When you hear a band playing devil blues, you're hearing a band that's listened to Pentagram."

For Tom Lyle, whose D.C. hardcore punk outfit Government Issue shared a bill in the '80s with Liebling's band, "Pentagram sounds like someone took only the best licks of Iommi and made every song a combination of his best licks and a cool vocal melody."

Being best, though, barely covers the rent in Ridley Park. For the overwhelming majority of their five-decade existence, Pentagram, of which Liebling has been the only constant member, have struggled to exist. This is due to bad luck, worse timing, and Liebling's being a world-class fuckup. But 40 years after forming, Pentagram find themselves at a career peak. In addition to Last Rites, which contains songs from Liebling's untapped inventory as well as new ones written by his current bandmates (nearly 30 musicians have moved through the ranks), there's Last Days Here, a harrowing documentary about Liebling's addiction struggles that premiered at South by Southwest in March. April brought the compilation If the Winds Would Change. Also in the spring, Liebling, guitarist Victor Griffin, back after a 14-year absence, and relative newcomers bassist Greg Turley (Griffin's nephew) and drummer Albert Born are touring Europe. A live DVD, When the Screams Come, is due this summer, concurrent with an American tour. A lot of activity for a band that had never gigged beyond the East Coast till 2009 and played only two shows (the frontman collapsed and could not continue at a third) in the 12 years before that. After a lifetime spent slithering through the underground, Bobby Liebling is adapting, uneasily, to something approaching success.

"He was an unusual child," says Liebling's father, Joseph, looking like a weary Walter Cronkite, sitting and kicking his leg nervously in the cluttered living room of the Germantown, Maryland house he shares with his wife, Diane. With few breaks, their son always lived at home, until 2008. The elder Liebling, 91, worked as deputy assistant to the secretary of defense under Richard Nixon, putting in long hours at the Pentagon. "I don't go for that crazy music," he says. "But I saw Bobby play once, in 2009." He raises a bony finger. "My boy was sensational."

"Bobby tested at a genius-level IQ," Diane, 81, chimes in. She was a nightclub singer, but quit after getting pregnant. Bobby is the Lieblings' only child. Says Diane, "I told him he needed to have something to fall back on. One in ten thousand makes it in the music business."

"I wanted him to be a corporate lawyer," says Joseph.

"We ended up having some very hellish years because of the addiction," says Diane, "but there's a part of me that's happy he followed his dream."

Liebling started his first band, Shades of Darkness, when he was 11, playing school dances in the D.C. area. He formed Pentagram on Christmas Day in 1971 with buddies Geof O'Keefe on drums, Vincent McAllister on guitar, and Greg Mayne on bass. "Groundhogs, Sir Lord Baltimore, Stray -- unorthodox flops no one remembers, that's my music," says Liebling, drinking deeply from a quart-size mug of pumpkin-pie-flavored coffee. "They didn't write verse-chorus-verse. I don't go for that commercial shit. Instead they went Bam! Bam! Bam! One new section after another." The teenaged Liebling would go to his room with his $12 Silvertone guitar, get drunk on Boone's Farm apple wine, and write his own version of black magic music, stranger and harder than his influences. As for why he doesn't write anymore, he says matter-of-factly, "Shot my wad. Doesn't have anything to do with drugs. Drugs might've made my songs weirder than normal, but that's it."

His late teens are also when Liebling started snorting junk -- he says it was 98 percent pure Cambodian heroin brought back from Vietnam by returning soldiers. "My guidance counselor told my parents that after I graduated high school, I should take a year to sow my wild oats," he recalls. "That was the end."

"People said kick Bobby out," Diane says, frowning. "How could I do that? There were times he said people were going to kill him." There were 25 arrests, 35 detoxes, more than 200 hospital visits. "At least if he was home, I knew where he was," she says. So did the hookers, users, and dealers chasing oblivion with Liebling behind the bolted door of his bedroom.

In the early days, when he wasn't at home, Liebling spent much of his time in Alexandria, Virginia, practicing in the warehouse of the mailing company where O'Keefe's father worked. "We recorded a lot there," says O'Keefe, 55, a semiretired music journalist, speaking from his ranch in San Luis Obispo, California. "Those nights are some of my favorite memories. We'd invite friends to watch us rehearse and played big games of hide-and-seek."

Liebling remembers things differently: "The vibe was paganistic. Everyone fucking and sucking, running around getting high."

Badass, base, and intoxicating, the music made in the warehouse is more than a match for that reckless ambience. "Forever My Queen," which was covered by Jack White's band the Dead Weather on a 2009 single, is fiercer and grittier than other metal bands of the time, free of boogie or bluster. The brutal "Last Days Here" rises majestically on McAllister's maniacal soloing. (The guitarist died of cancer in 2006.) Liebling's shifting structures play a kind of rope-a-dope with the listener, offering up brief, tense melodies before exploding into single note guitar. In his bluesy middle register he sings cryptic lyrics about power and pain, his vocals more measured -- and more chilling -- than those of the good-time shriekers of the '70s and guttural growlers who followed.

In 1975 then-manager Gordon Fletcher had the band audition for Murray Krugman, who produced Blue Oyster Cult. Krugman promptly invited Pentagram to record a demo at the Columbia studios in Manhattan. "I was intrigued," he remembers. "They were metal combined with a fuck-you-and-the-horse-you-rode-in-on attitude."

During the sessions, Krugman told Liebling to forge ahead rather than fix a flubbed vocal. Liebling flipped. "I was trying to get something right that would've made him a millionaire," says Liebling. Krugman left the studio and never contacted the band again. "They weren't ready to be produced," he says now.

A few months later, Fletcher got Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss to sit in on a rehearsal. McAllister and Mayne arrived late, and filthy, from their jobs as janitors. "We blew it," says Liebling. "God bless Gene and Paul, but I got word from my manager they wanted to buy my songs. I wouldn't sell 'em." (Kiss would not respond to requests for comment.)

Though Pentagram's early recordings have gone for as much as $2,000 on eBay, the band's first four singles, all released in small batches between 1972 and 1979, went nowhere. The group struggled to get club bookings because they didn't play covers. With the exception of the singles, the music made in the warehouse had been relegated to bootlegs until Relapse Records released First Daze Here in 2001. Liebling failed to secure a record deal until Tom Lyle recommended Pentagram to Government Issue's label, Dutch East India Trading, which agreed to release a new studio album. The resulting self-titled effort came out in 1985, 14 years after the band formed. ("We would've put more stuff out if we could've made clean recordings," says O'Keefe. "My life might be different if GarageBand had existed 35 years ago.")

By the mid-'80s Liebling had swapped denim for studded leather, dog collars, and makeup more becoming of a zombie streetwalker.

"I wanted to put the fear of God in people back then," says Liebling, a bar mitzvahed Jew who became a Christian in 2001 and who used to warm up for shows by staring into a mirror. "I thought it was cool to drive the crowd out."

For those who stayed, the experience was unforgettable. "You felt Victor's guitar in your chest," says Scott "Wino" Weinrich, of St. Vitus and the Obsessed, whose bands were also flaying listeners with heavy music at the time. "Bobby would just lock into you with those eyes and sing into your soul. See that shit on acid and it'd change your life."

So why wasn't the band successful? "Thrash was the metal that mattered in the '80s and Pentagram was too slow," says Weinrich. "Too slow for metal and too metal for punk. Wrong place, wrong time."

This band of subcultural orphans also had no safety net. "There was no scene for doom back then like there is now," says Lyle. "Government Issue could show up at a basement and there'd be a crowd. Those suckers didn't have a community."

Now, having endured, they do. Today there is a regular circuit of more than 50 annual large-scale metal festivals, many drawing upwards of 50 bands, from Deathfest in Maryland to Roadburn in the Netherlands to Hole in the Sky in Norway (all of which Pentagram have played since 2009). There are at least 30 doom-centric labels representing nearly 400 artists, and an ever-deepening pool of influential blogs. "A nonmainstream metal band now has a means to get heard," says Greg Anderson, founder of Southern Lord Records, which distributed Pentagram's Sub-Basement, another collection Frankensteined out of Liebling's dusty songbook and contributions from other band members, in 2001. "For the majority of Pentagram's career, if you wanted to hear them, you had to know someone who had a bootleg."

As far as Victor Griffin is concerned, "Pentagram being alive now is directly related to the Internet. We do more publicity in a month than we used to do in a year. Fans can find us."

The mercurial Liebling takes little comfort in that. "Am I glad the way things have turned out? I'm not glad I had to work as a janitor picking up cigarettes with a poke-stick or phoning people from a boiler room trying to sell fake ad space in magazines that didn't exist. Music is a job. If I had to do it all over again, I'd be a forensic psychologist. The thing I'm gladdest about is having a family."

Even drug-addled late bloomers get lucky sometimes. In 2006, Hallie Miller bought First Daze Here at a Philly record store, loved it, and soon found a Robert H. Liebling in the Maryland phone book. She called, he answered. They made small talk. He asked for money. ("I needed a fix," he says with a shrug.) "I knew he was a crackhead," says Hallie. "I just thought he was a really cool, sweet, rock'n'roll survivor."

Despite her mother's misgivings, Hallie eventually visited Liebling in Germantown. Not long after, Bobby moved to a small apartment in Philadelphia. Following some, let's say, aggressive courting -- briefly involving a restraining order against Liebling -- the two married in November 2009, much to Joseph and Diane's pleasure.

"Hallie's a real good-looker," says Dad.
"She's very sweet. I tell Bobby to put aside money for his son's education," says Mom.
Before I leave his parents' home, Diane grabs my arm. "May I ask you a question?"
"Of course."
"Do you think Bobby has a chance to really make it?" she says, her voice trembling. "Tell me the truth."
I'm not sure what to say. So I say he has a chance, and Diane hugs me goodbye.

It's near midnight and I'm sitting with Bobby Liebling in the dressing room at Europa Club, a Polish disco in Brooklyn, on an icy January evening. Pentagram are playing a show to celebrate their 40th anniversary. Griffin, 49, a practicing Christian, tunes his guitar. Liebling fills the conversational lulls with stories. These stories can be divided into three categories: plausible, feasible, and near-impossible. Tales of snorting coke in a limo with Mick and Keith and having unprotected sex with 1,500 women fit, respectively, into the first two categories. Running drugs between Virginia and Bogota, Colombia, in a single-engine Cessna belongs to the third. (He has never been arrested or investigated by federal drug agents, law enforcement sources say. According to one, "Frankly, if he is asserting he flew a single-engine Cessna on that route, you should check his pulse. Because he should be dead unless he is a very strong swimmer.")

But even Liebling has limits. "Tell Dave about the black potato, Bobby," prods Pentagram's owlish long-haired manager, Sean "Pellet" Pelletier.

"I gotta save my voice," says Liebling mischievously. "All these people coming to see me? Me. I should be dead."(Later, sworn to secrecy, I learn what the black potato is, and how it got that way, and I gag.)

The band takes the stage to chants of "Pen-ta-gram! Pen-ta-gram!" Griffin's amp won't work. Liebling shakes his head; 25 restless minutes pass. The sold-out crowd of 500 murmurs impatiently. Finally there's a shriek of feedback and Pentagram is alive. The rock'n'roll dinosaur stalks the stage, lewdly flicking his tongue and bugging out his eyes, a sordid, utterly magnetic presence.

When the night is done, Pellet, who paid for the band's lodging and travel, does some grim accounting. The guest list got out of control. People stole T-shirts. He's lost $500 for his troubles, a considerable sum for someone who works in an office without heat.

Asking Liebling about money is the easiest way to make him mad. "I've been screwed by everyone," he says angrily back at home a few weeks after the show. He's particularly pissed about his treatment by the tiny Italian label Black Widow, which released four Pentagram albums between 1999 and 2004. "I have never received -- may God strike me down -- one cent of royalties from them."

In increasingly aggrieved, disjointed e-mails sent from the Black Widow record store in Genoa, Italy, cofounder Massimo Gasperini responds, "You cannot imagine how much money we will have sent for recordings, for royalties, for his needs...but it is not hard to imagine where a lot of this money has gone."

Yet Liebling's feelings regarding Black Widow are convivial compared to the ones he has for a man named Marshall Levy, who happens to be his biggest fan. If there was Pentagram music to be heard, Levy heard it. If there was a show, Levy saw it. If there was a blurb in a Belgian fanzine, Levy clipped it. "There's no one who cares more about Pentagram," says Omid, a longtime supporter of the band who runs Pentafans.com. "When finding Pentagram music was like looking for a needle in a haystack, Marshall would be at record shows selling their records from the trunk of his car. He kept the music alive."

Levy makes his living dealing rare records online from Rockville, Maryland. Initially he would visit Liebling just to look at his LPs and geek out about music. Over time he began buying live, rehearsal, and demo tapes from his idol. Levy's Audible Deafenings website currently offers 63 different Pentagram-related recordings, including music by Shades of Darkness. The official Pentagram discography numbers 17 albums (many of them consisting of repackaged material). "I've paid [Liebling] for the deals we had," Levy says. "If he has a problem, he needs to contact me."

Liebling paces the floor in his living room. "I was sick and sold [Levy] tapes to pay for my habit," he says bitterly. "I never thought he'd sell'em to other people. I remember when he was a 14-year-old coming to visit me, and his knees were shaking because he was so excited. I figure he owes me millions of dollars." He yells into my tape recorder: "Go out and have fun and become a bajillionaire off my name!"

According to SoundScan, which tracks sales going back to 1991, Pentagram have sold 28,000 albums. It is safe to assume the band did not do much better during the preceding 20 years.

This winter, Liebling launched a website, Buyfrombobbyliebling.blogspot.com, where he sells his own rarities and memorabilia. Similarly, Pellet started the RamFam imprint to organize and release Pentagram's archival material. "Because things are going better," explains Pellet, "Bobby feels pressure to do things he never had to do before: think long-term, compromise with the guys in the band. It can be tough."

Though Liebling says the only drugs he takes now are prescription, some people around the singer still worry he'll backslide, recalling incidents such as the time in 2009 he got kicked off a plane headed to France, where the band was booked at a festival. Liebling had refused to be quiet during the preflight safety instructions. "He's the human hurricane," says Gary Isom, Pentagram's drummer at the time.

Pellet has learned to live in the eye of this singular storm, having managed the band for most of the last decade. He quit for a year after Liebling falsely accused him of embezzlement. He returned because he felt a need to repay an emotional debt. He was raised in a foster home. A close family member was turned a stranger by drug addiction. Discovering Pentagram's music made him feel "like maybe I had found my purpose," he says. "I want to give back to Bobby what his music has given to me. That involves helping him get what he's owed."

It's february. the lights are low at Liebling's home. Hallie is on the laptop in the bedroom. Her mother has Bobby Jr. for the day. A green candle flickers on the coffee table. I ask Bobby about the future. "The only responsibility I used to have was to sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll," he says quietly. "Now I give a fuck about life." He looks tired, but only briefly. "D'ya mind hearing some of the new songs again?" he says eagerly. He puts on Last Rites. Loud.

The relentless, haunted music fills the room, soaring on suspended seconds, slamming on the tritone. Bobby listens with his eyes closed, nodding. Then he looks at me and says, "I think we finally got it."

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