Breaking the Law

Confess, by Rob Halford

Rob Halford is from Walsall, situated in the UK’s Black Country. Of that, there can be no doubt.

Homo Metallus. Rob Halford, 2015.

Confess, the Judas Priest frontman’s autobiography, starts off in Walsall and, emotionally, rarely leaves it for long. Although now partially de-industrialised, during Halford’s youth in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a place of heavy industry (Halford’s father was an engineer); a place whose harsh sights, sounds and smells shaped him irrevocably:

Metalworks like G. & R. Thomas Ltd. shaped and dominated where I lived—and how I lived. At home, my mom would hang our white bedsheets out on the line on washing day, and bring them in streaked with gray and black soot. At school, I would sit and try to write at a desk that was vibrating to the rhythm of the giant steam press in the factory over the road: THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! Sometimes, on my way to school, I would see the silhouettes of the G. & R. Thomas workers tipping up the giant furnace’s cauldron over the sandpit. The molten metal would flow down like lava and instantly solidify into huge slabs of pig iron. Pig iron. The name seemed to sum up the ugliness.

Such stories are also told by other West Midlands metal patriarchs, such as Ozzy Osbourne. Although perhaps embellished in the constant retelling, they ground the history of heavy metal in the brutality of heavy industry, the harshly physical shaping of base metal. What Halford adds to this myth is a sense of the costs of being hammered into place. As he says of his walk to school, past the G. & R. Thomas Ltd foundry:

I’m suffocating! I never did suffocate, somehow, and I always got to the other side, even if I was coughing and spluttering. Then I would do the whole thing again when I came home that afternoon. I was used to it. That was life in the Black Country. There have been plenty of other times in my life when I have thought I’m suffocating. There were the claustrophobic, desperate years—so many of them!—when I felt trapped: the lead singer of one of the biggest heavy metal bands on the planet, and yet too frightened to tell the world that I was a gay man. I used to lie awake at night, worrying and wondering: What would happen if I came out? Would we lose all our fans? Would it kill Judas Priest?

Confess isn’t a simple narrative of escape from the chains of industralised upbringing into the liberated zone of music and stardom, but a story of escape into both liberation and another imprisonment. Only since his publicly coming out as gay, in 1998, (and his rejoining Judas Priest in 2003 following some confused years after ‘accidentally’ quitting in 1992) could he be truly, gloriously liberated:

Today, I am clean, sober, in love, happy… and fearless. I am living an honest life and that means that nothing, and nobody, can hurt me anymore. I am a rock version of an early, very secret, hero of mine: Quentin Crisp (who appears later in this tale). I am the stately homo of heavy metal.

Yet Walsall remains in Halford’s blood. He knew he was gay long before he left and his first sexual experiences were in his home town: mutual masturbation at school, finding a dildo in a youth club toilet, furtive gropes in toilets, as well as occasional sexual abuse from older men.  And when he became a successful musician, he never entirely left the place. He always rented and then owned property in the city, he remained close to his family and even today he spends part of the year in his house in Walsall.

Before reading Confess I had always assumed that the lyrics to the 1977 Judas Priest track ‘Raw Deal’ were a story about a Walsall boy’s liberation into the gay scene:

I made a spike about nine o’clock on a Saturday
All eyes hit me as I walked into the door
And seeing other guys were fooling in the denim dudes
A couple cards played rough stuff, New York, Fire Island

Not a bit of it. At the time Halford wrote the lyric, he hadn’t even been to Fire Island. His forays into the gay scene were tentative and often naïve. One of the saddest aspects of Confess is reading about the sheer difficulty that Halford had to go through to relieve his loneliness and sexual frustration: On tour in the US, he would rush to the toilets at highway rest stops and wait in hope for a possible partner to give the secret signal (3 taps on the cubicle apparently). More often than not, no one appeared.

Halford wasn’t Freddy Mercury; a star who was never ‘officially’ out but lived much of his life semi-publicly in gay milieux. In the 1980s he did start moving in gay circles but never had the gay entourage that Mercury had (which Halford glimpses once on holiday in Greece, with no little awe). Until the 1990s, most of his boyfriends were straight or bi, and his relationships were tempestuous, full of ambiguity, anxiety and pain.

In fact, while I had previously assumed that Halford was at the very least out within the band, that appears not to be the case. Rather, if Confess is to be believed his bandmates simply never discussed it with him. Of course, they knew, but the subject was permanently avoided.

It’s ironic that the Black Country identity that Halford still affirms and constructs for himself, is one of earthy plain-speaking. He proudly claims the ‘yam yam’ accent and delights in transliterating his and his fellow Walsallian’s dialogue into its rounded tones. He extolls what he calls the ‘downbeat, matter-of-fact Black Country nature’, the refusal to make a fuss or be unduly impressed:

Even today I get stopped and asked for selfies in America, but it never happens in Walsall. People clock me, but think: Ah, don’t bother the bloke! He’s off duty—let’s leave him alone! It’s a beautiful thing, and I’m grateful for it.

Halford claims that his Black Country roots keep him grounded and in possession of a sense of humour. That’s the case even when he does something very far from ordinary, such as trademarking the term ‘Metal God’ (which is how metal fans often refer to him):

I’d never taken it remotely seriously. Nobody from the Black Country is ever going to keep a straight face while claiming to be a Metal God! But I didn’t want any companies to be able to describe their goods or products as “metal gods” if they weren’t heavy metal. Trademarking the term prevented that. So, now it was finally official! I was the only Metal God! Bow down and worship!

Yet if Walsall is what roots Halford amidst the madness of the life of a Metal God, it is also what constrains and limits him. There’s a thin line between an earthy matter-of-factness and a stubborn denial of anything that is difficult and abnormal. In the end, gruff self-effacement can become little more than effacement of reality.

Before he eventually came out publicly you can read Halford’s career as a series of ever-more outrageous attempts to make the unspoken speak: The invocations of gay subculture on ‘Raw Deal’, the invocation of brutish oral sex on ‘Jawbreaker’, the leather and whips, the onstage motorbikes, the arrest for cottaging in LA in 1998 (but before his self-outing), the occasional appearances in gay clubs and even gay pride marches, the long-term (if unhappy) same-sex relationships. 

And yet however much Halford’s friends, colleagues and families all knew, however much his sexuality was an open secret in the industry, however much there was little surprise (and, mostly, a lot of support) when he finally did come out – nothing seemed to break the pregnant silence before 1998.

Of course, that silence tells us a lot about metal culture, at least up until the 1990s (things may be changing now, in part thanks to Halford himself). But I also think it tells us something about how far denial can go and how far it can resist even the most self-subverting attempts to break it.

Halford may feel great fondness for Walsall, yet it’s hard not to see his pre-1998 career as a continuous provocation of the unspeaking Black Country. Because however much Halford is right that this refusal to be impressed meant that he was always accepted at home, this refusal to acknowledge the exceptional also denies anyone recognition of difference.

Yes, Rob Halford clearly has a great desire to be treated as normal, but he also wanted to be recognised as different, as having particular needs and wants. However much denial can provide an odd kind of acceptance, it also prevents caring and nurturing.

In his own way though, Rob Halford is also perfectly capable of the silence of denial. If Confess is to be believed, Judas Priest was a band that simply didn’t talk much about anything consequential beyond the music.

It’s not just that they didn’t talk about Rob being gay or make much of an effort to step in when his alcoholism and substance abuse went out of control in the 1980s. Only in a band with a serious inability to talk about anything serious could someone quit ‘by mistake’, as Halford claimed he did in 1992.

The story Halford tells is that he needed to legally ‘quit’ temporarily to regularise his affairs for a solo project, and the band took it seriously – yet that could only happen in the first place if no one thinks to pick up a phone. When KK Downing quit in 2011 it was a similar bolt from the blue. And while they noticed something was wrong with Glen Tipton’s guitar playing for some time, it took years before he finally told the rest of the band he had Parkinson’s Disease.

By titling his biography Confess, Halford implies that he is – finally – out of the closet and able to speak of his experiences. He is who he is. But while we can and should be happy for his happiness, it is striking how far the autobiography is not free from some fairly major silences.

The first – and most forgivable – is any mention of AIDS. Halford lived through the horror of the 1980s and 1990s when the virus decimated gay culture (out or otherwise). Those who lived through those years often bear the scars. Elton John, for example, has talked openly and often about his good fortune in being spared the sickness and death that took so many of his friends.

Perhaps Halford’s not mentioning the subject reflects his distance from gay culture at the time. Certainly, his attraction to straight men probably bought him a degree of safety. But it’s not as though he never went to bathhouses, bars and pickup spots.

To be clear, it is not the place of every gay man who lived through the 1980s to talk about AIDS, any more than it is every Jew’s responsibility to talk about the Holocaust. Nor am I saying that Halford is necessarily ‘hiding’ something. Yet to be so graphic and honest about so much and to ‘miss’ this darkness seems…odd, somehow. It might be part of Halford’s unabashed disinterest in politics.

We don’t get much sense of wider socio-political changes in Confess. While I wouldn’t accuse him of solipsism, at the very least the lack of mention of AIDS does suggest that Halford’s ability to deny the elephant in the room (or the elephant as it was in the 1980s) is undimmed.

More seriously, the other glaring omission in the book is any mention of one of the darker characters in Judas Priest history. The departure of Dave Holland, drummer for the band from 1979 to 1989, is discussed straightforwardly enough. There’s another example of the band’s failure to talk in their employment of a drum machine on 1988’s Ram It Down – effectively Holland’s constructive dismissal.

But once he finally takes the hint and leaves, Dave Holland disappears from the narrative. Musically, that’s fair enough: His replacement with Scott Travis, a far superior player, made Priest’s double-bass-drumming-propelled masterpiece Painkiller possible. Yet this wasn’t the end of the Dave Holland story.

In 2004 Holland was found guilty of attempted rape and indecent assault against a 17-year-old male and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

During the trial, Holland acknowledged his bisexuality for the first time. Holland died in 2018. The story never had a particularly high profile at the time and it doesn’t appear in Confess. It’s unlikely that many readers of Confess will find this omission particularly significant, assuming they know anything about it in the first place. Yet there are implications for how we view Rob Halford’s life and Judas Priest’s history….

Because it wasn’t just one partially closeted musician who rode on the tour bus from megashow to megashow in the 1980s; it was two. If Holland was bisexual then he may have hidden his sexuality through having sex with women so, unlike Halford whose sexuality all the rest of the band knew about, it’s possible that the rest of the band genuinely had no idea about Holland.

Nonetheless, it’s still extraordinary that, for ten years, two-fifths of one massively successful band was unable to publicly speak of their sexual preferences – and that both were colluding (consciously or not) in the silence about the other.

So the lesson of Confess is not just how far denial and silence can corrode and damage, but also that breaking that silence is often not as complete a project as we think – and certainly not as complete as the Judas Priest frontman thinks.

Rob Halford embraces the identity of a plain-speaking Walsall lad, but he still struggles to find the ideal balance between that which must be spoken of and that which can never be spoken of at all.

Photograph courtesy of Kyle Gaddo. Published under a Creative Commons license.