From fashioning the genre’s trademark look of black leather and studs to dramatic live show tactics, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford’s impact on heavy metal is vast.
The story of one of music's most influential figures is chronicled in his new book Confess: The Autobiography. Halford, the trademarked Metal God, takes an in-depth look at his life, from his earliest years to where he is now, in what The Telegraph called “one of the most candid and surprising memoirs of the year.”
For Halford, Confess is the story of how he learned to breathe again. A Paradise Valley resident, Halford has lived in the public eye for decades. One of his most influential moves was coming out as gay in 1998, and in the process, becoming a role model and part of the LGBTQ dialogue for metalheads everywhere.
His memoir recounts the highs and lows of his history in a medley of comical, candid, and heartbreaking stories about obstacles and experiences.
There are the stories behind the music: How 1977’s “Raw Deal” was his coming-out song — “a howl of rage that nobody heard” — but only one fan noticed, bringing it up to him in 1981; and how the British Steel album was written and released in just 30 days.
There are celebrity encounters: Halford loved hanging around Gene Simmons (but not because he was a KISS fan), handcuffed himself to Andy Warhol, was inspired by Korn to start using a teleprompter, and found out that Johnny Depp used to attend his underground shows in the early '80s as a “long-haired skinny punk.”
Halford also digs deep into his trauma: instances of sexual abuse, as well as his struggles with depression, substance abuse, and his fear of performing on stage after the murder of Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott, the suicide of one of his former partners — and how his own suicide attempt led him to the rehab program that saved his life.
In the end, Confess is a fascinating portrait, dripping in Halford’s polite yet brutally honest demeanor and personal slang: equal parts legendary metal icon and every-day humble Walsall lad.
Phoenix New Times spoke to Halford last week. Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
New Times: How are you doing today, with the music world mourning Eddie Van Halen?
Rob Halford: Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse. I was in shock. We’ve been following his battles with his medical condition, then suddenly he’s gone. He’s gone up there to blast some metal. I have wonderful memories of Van Halen and Eddie. I think it was ’79, the very first album by them. My manager came banging on the door and said to come listen and he hadn’t heard anything like it. My jaw dropped when he played the tape — like, what did he do with the guitar there? What we found out was called hammering. Then every guitarist was doing that. A game-changing guitar player and the sweetest guy, always so gracious.
Have you been taking quarantining pretty seriously?
Stand 6 feet away from the Metal God! I went to Lowe’s recently to get my Halloween stuff. I’ve been super careful because it’s deadly. If you really follow the rules, you’ll be okay. I’ve hardly seen a soul. My friend who's a city planner brought Thomas and I some beautiful Italian food. Since the epidemic started, I’ve probably seen three people at the house.
What took so long to release a book?
I know! I found out later that management had been receiving request from various publishers from my mid-30s onwards. Then it continued more in my 40s and 50s, and I knew there was some interest for this type of experience. But I waited until I thought I had something worth sharing.
Your memoir brings a vulnerability that challenges the stereotypical view of the '80s rock star. Forty years later, how do you think that image has changed — or has it?
The only thing that hasn’t changed is the power of the music and the message of metal. The great, potent stuff it still does, is still there. Things have changed a lot for the better, but we have a long way to go in the LGBTQ community, because we’re the minority. But that has changed a lot. When the other pandemic (HIV/AIDS)was going on it was very difficult; in the '80s, there was the whole “don’t touch any gay person” because people thought you would catch it from touching a gay person, and people thought that only gay people had it. The place that I was at with all the booze, alcohol, sex — it was by the grace of God that I didn’t have more happen to me.
Does it surprise you that there are still so many headlines regarding your sexuality and coming out after all this time? It feels like on one hand, it’s great to see that positivity, but on the other, your sexuality is still being seen as a headline over 20 years after coming out.
It still will be until we have the balance right. I’m happy to talk about it from dawn till dusk, because it’s an important issue with so many challenges. My role as a gay man in heavy metal is just that: I will talk about the injustices and horrific things that have happened to us around the world, and will always talk about that until we find some harmony. There are some parts of the world where labels don’t exist; we’re all people and living our lives. The fact that I’m still talking about it after all this time, the misconception that you can’t be a gay metalhead – it’s an interesting, powerful story.
With all its social and political discourse, and force of quarantine and examining our own lives, there’s likely to be lots of incredible art and music that comes out of 2020. What do you think will come of this time, musically?
I think the most profound thing for me with this pandemic has been the level of human consciousness, the way that we’re all connecting in a way that we’re probably never aware about. That someone in Japan or South America is feeling the same way I do – that is a really important analysis. Each of the respective countries are going through the horrible political dissection of what we’re all suffering. And everyone has lost people. It’s one things I’ve learned about human compassion and empathy. As far as making it work through creativity and art, Priest has always done that anyway, as the vast majority of our songs are about lifting up and positivity.
The music we make has always been strong and full of optimism. Priest has been dealing with that as long as I remember. I’m sure it will filter through me as the songwriter for Priest – the emotion of what we’re going through together – into the next Priest song.
Is there another album you guys are currently working on?
Yes! We’re working on the next album and had some great songwriting earlier this year. And then the world stopped, as we said in the book. So far it sounds great and is all about what we love about Priest. From the Fire Power tour we are bringing that energy and bringing it home internally.
Do you have a specific favorite part of the book?
The first few chapters – my early, early childhood. It’s really sweet and full of innocence. As you get older, that starts to dissipate naturally. Being in the school choir and early productions in the plays. I cherish that and am blessed I remember them!
What are the tour plans for 2021? The 50th anniversary tour, right?
We should be out now, shouldn’t we? I was just talking to Chris Jericho, the wrestler and lead singer of Fozzy, and it’s nuts. We thrive on being with our fans and we love to be out there playing and with our fans. All of the bands that I know are going nuts trying to get through this disconnection, mentally as much as anything else. All the musicians I know are writing at home and getting through day to day.
We’re planning on May or June 2021. Please God, let that work out because, if not we’ll have to redo everything again.
If you could hop on a plane tonight and go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
It would be back to the U.K. to see my immediate family — family is first, isn’t it? Straight down to Sky Harbor and go and see my beautiful family. You can’t beat a hug. The virtual hugging doesn’t work for me.
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