“Rock ‘n roll is chaos, there’s no order or anything in the live experience, anything can happen when you play.”
These words came down from the Metal God himself — Rob Halford, Judas Priest’s soul-piercing vocalist and leather-bound fashion icon — towards the end of my recent conversation with him on the follies of the road. And whose word is more authoritative than the divine?
As one of metal’s founding fathers, he bore witness to and inspired his fair share of metal mayhem. Not only has he contorted necks worldwide, his own noggin has met some close calls thanks to a few mishap-laden motorcycle entrances. He will never stop coming in on the bike for “Hell Bent for Leather” in spite of it. He is the Metal God.
Like most mortals appointed as a higher power, however, Halford is very much human. For one, he loves Spinal Tap. They came up frequently in our conversation — we touched on Derek Smalls’ temporary pod imprisonment and the giant deflating devil as seen in The Simpsons especially — and he said that if the sequel (reportedly in the works) comes out, he’ll be the first in the line for tickets. He’s too humble–shouldn’t he be in the damn movie? Or be a creative consultant? At the very least, he’ll have no issues getting comped.
The other matter that came up more than once was Halford’s sobriety. He’s giddily loquacious about his “Wild Nights, Hot & Crazy Days” (justice for Turbo!) as a younger Metal God without undermining that his sobriety is the gift that allows him to look back on those times at all. In January, he commemorated 37 years of sobriety in an Instagram clip that gave a lot of heart and got a lot of heart back from the metal world. With all the chaos in his life, he’s entitled to a little peace.
You know he’s got stories, and he’s collected those in his autobiography Confess: The Autobiography (September 2020), and his latest book, Biblical: Rob Halford’s Heavy Metal Scriptures (November 2022), a mixture of memoir, metal history, and a how-to to become your own Metal God. Halford reminisces on a very different blackout that nearly upended Priest’s first American voyage in 1977 (where they were supposed to open for REO Speedwagon, who could never deliver the goods like Priest), as well as an early incident in the band’s career where he unwittingly terrorized guitarist Glenn Tipton, below. Priest will also tour the UK and EU this summer, and you can find those dates here.
Halford: I remember us being obviously so unbelievably [thinking] “this is crazy, we’re actually going to the States,” which is the way it still is for a lot of British bands because America is this big beacon of music, much like the U.K. I remember we landed in JFK and we had to take cabs to Manhattan, and there’s always a rush to first see the skyline of New York. I just remember the skyline and everything being so…“Man, I’m here and I’ve seen this in movies and places that are not in the real world” but now I’m the real world and Priest is actually coming to America for the first time. We get to the hotel…we were staying on Columbus Circle, right near Central Park, and I was sharing a room with K.K. [Downing, former lead guitarist].
We got to our room which is on the 20th floor or something, we got settled in and then suddenly all the power went out. Ken and I looked at each other and were like “what’s going on?” We opened the hotel window, and that window was on the back of like seven other buildings, and everyone was opening their windows going “what the hell’s happening?” As it turns out it was the first of those major New York City blackouts in the summer.
We can’t stay in the room because the room felt like a sauna from Finland, so we decided to walk down the fire escape exit. I remember we had to use a book of matches to find our way down because there was absolutely no light, pitch black darkness. We go down to the lobby and everybody was mingling. This is the great thing about New Yorkers: No matter what the circumstances are, they try and pull things together. Ken and I — we’re typical Brits — we can’t do anything, so let’s go to the bar. Of course, the bar was packed, pretty pitch black. Suddenly the room was lit up, and that was because a couple of people had finagled their cars onto the sidewalk and they were shooting the beams of their headlights into the bar. Out of this gloom and darkness the place was lit up like a Christmas tree.
From there, we riffed a bit on Spinal Tap, and Halford admitted to having his fair share of what he calls “Tap moments…”
Halford: I know I’ve said “Hello, Cleveland!” in Detroit, I just know I’ve done that. It’s just unavoidable because when you’re touring, it becomes just so cyclical. You’re traveling and you’re in a hotel this night and the next night you’re in a different hotel, you’re constantly moving and you do forget–what day is it? What month is it? When did this tour start? All you know is you gotta be on stage somewhere at 9:00 p.m. and that’s it.
A lot of it is connected to the excess that we do. There was one moment back in the UK when we were playing a large club — this is before Priest hit that tipping point — and I was always looking for some kind of thing to do [onstage], something a bit different. When we got to this place, it was like a theater-club venue and I found what looked like pieces of scaffold, like you needed it on a set. I inspected them and they looked like tubes of cardboard spray-painted silver. I said to Glenn, “When you do your lead-break section in blah-blah section, I’m gonna come behind you and hit you with one of these pieces of cardboard that looks like scaffolding, and you can react however, but it won’t hurt because it’s cardboard.” He went “OK, there goes Halford and his theatrics.”
Then we came to that moment in the night, and as it turned out they were not all cardboard, some of them were made of like real thick pieces of round(?) lumber sprayed silver. The moment came and I was always high as a kite in those days when I went on stage, I was just blasted out of my mind. This was on my way to eventually getting sobriety, but those days I was so incoherent in certain parts of the show. So I’m hitting Glenn and he immediately falls to the floor and I’m thinking “Oh, he’s really getting into it!” I’m hitting and hitting him really, really hard, then I suddenly realized this isn’t a piece of flimsy cardboard tubing, this is like a bit of 4×4. He was covered in black-and-blue bruises for the rest of the week. Mixing drugs and alcohol have never really worked together with music in that respect, especially when you’re trying to raise the bar a good deal.
You look back at those times now, and [think] how did I get through a lot of those situations?