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Judas Priest Lead Singer Rob Halford

Judas Priest has a new album out, Angel of Retribution, and is on tour this summer. Originally from Birmingham, England, Judas Priest pioneered the heavy metal sound in the 1970s and '80s. Lead singer Halford left the band in 1991, citing internal tension, and in 1998, he disclosed that he is gay during an interview on MTV. Nicknamed the "Metal God," Halford returned to Judas Priest in 2003. The band — which takes its name from the Bob Dylan song "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" — is best known for songs such as "Breaking the Law," "Hell Bent for Leather" and "Livin' After Midnight."

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Other segments from the episode on June 21, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 21, 2005: Interview with Bob Halford; Commentary on poetry memorization.

Transcript

DATE June 21, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Rob Halford discusses his heavy metal band Judas Priest
and new CD, "Angel of Retribution"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As the lead singer of the British heavy metal band Judas Priest, my guest Rob
Halford became famous for his powerful voice, the leather studs and handcuffs
he wore on stage and the way he often made his entrance on his motorcycle.
Judas Priest is one of the originators of heavy metal and one of the most
theatrical and successful bands in the genre. Famous for such songs as "Hell
Bent for Leather," "Breaking the Law," "Ram It Down" and "You've Got Another
Thing Comin'," Priest was a band that scared some parents. In 1990, a lawsuit
claimed one of their records convinced two teen-age boys to commit suicide.
The judge ruled in favor of the band.

Rob Halford started singing with Priest back in 1971. He left the band in '92
and later surprised his fans by coming out. Being gay sure didn't fit the
stereotype of the heavy metal god. Two years ago Halford returned to Judas
Priest. Now the band has a new CD called "Judas Rising," and it's the first
one to feature Halford since 1990. The flip side of the CD is a DVD.

Let's start with a track from the CD "Hellrider."

(Soundbite of "Hellrider")

Mr. ROB HALFORD (Judas Priest): (Singing) Here they come, these gods of
steel, megatron devouring what's concealed. Speed of death, crossfired they
stare, final breath from vaporizing glares. Raised to man oppressed, sign
of persecution. Hellrider roars on through the night. Hellrider raised for
the fight. All incensed to overthrow...

GROSS: Rob Halford, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. HALFORD: Thank you for inviting me.

GROSS: Pleasure to have you here.

Mr. HALFORD: Pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

GROSS: How did the band decide to get back together, and how did you decide
to get back together with them?--because you'd already left the band years
before.

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah. You know, this is another movie in the making, isn't it,
really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALFORD: We had "Rock Star."

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HALFORD: Should be "Return of the Rock Star." You know, it's--bands are
strange animals, and there are a lot of emotions and a lot of stories attached
to the wonderful life of Judas Priest over the last 30 years. We've been
seeing each other individually over the years, but this was the first time
we'd actually been together in a, quote-unquote, "band meeting," which was at
my house in England. And we were there to discuss the first-ever box set by
Sony, which was the "Metalology" box set. And I think the emotions of that
box set, looking at all the incredible things that we'd done together
musically, just came to the top. And the final question at the end of that
meeting was, `Well, are we going to reunite? Are we even going to consider
reuniting?' And we just looked each other in the eye and said, `We got to go
for it, you know.'

GROSS: So what's it like, more than 30 years after you started in Judas
Priest, to be, you know, putting on the costumes again, the leather and, you
know, the studs and the collars and all the stuff...

Mr. HALFORD: Well...

GROSS: ...and then to be singing these kind of...

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah.

GROSS: ...anthems that were like teen-age anthems of defiance...

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah.

GROSS: ...for your audience?

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah.

GROSS: But so many people who were your fans early on are probably in
positions of authority themselves now. I bet there's a lot of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really, I bet there's a lot of, like, cops...

Mr. HALFORD: That's true. No, that's very cool.

GROSS: ...who were your fans and teachers who were your fans and...

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah. Well, the--you know...

GROSS: ...parents who were your fans.

Mr. HALFORD: Yes. Yup. Absolutely. And you've just named three parts of
society which attend frequently Judas Priest shows. I have friends...

GROSS: And used to be terrified of you, right? Like, this was a bad era...

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah. Well, maybe so. Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HALFORD: You wouldn't believe the amount of law enforcement that loved
Judas Priest, especially here in New York City. And here we are, a band that
wrote this called "Breaking the Law"...

GROSS: Right. Exactly (laughs).

Mr. HALFORD: ...you know, which is quite remarkable. But I think beyond
that, there's this incredible bond that is maintained with our fan base
internationally.

GROSS: One of the things that has changed is that you're out now. And this
is the first time you're performing with Judas Priest since you've been out.
And do you think that changes anything for you and the band or changes the way
your audience sees you?

Mr. HALFORD: Well, I think it destroys the myths of, you know, the so-called
intolerance and homophobia that was supposedly existing in heavy metal.
Having said that, I think that if I'd have done this earlier in the '70s or
the '80s, things may have been a bit more difficult. But that's kind of a
debatable question because we never really confronted the issue at that time.
I wanted to do it for myself, like any gay man or lesbian woman and anyone
that wants to, you know, bring this forward. And my proclamation is it's what
you're entitled to; it's your own right, so to speak. But I was always
protective of Judas Priest. I always felt that if I'd have done this any
earlier or had I've done it in different circumstances, the fallout would have
damaged the band. And I would never do anything to hurt the band or its
reputation or its following.

So I think that, you know, the timing was right. I was at MTV studios. It
was very much an unplanned moment of speech on my part. I heard the guy's
clipboard drop to the floor when I mentioned that, you know, yada, yada, yada,
`speaking as a gay man.' But that was it for me. And, you know, the word
went out, and there was a little bit of a firestorm for a time, not in a
negative way, just the way that news and information travels at the speed of
light these days. And so it was. It settled down. And just for me
personally, it was a great moment of release.

GROSS: You know what I love about the fact that you did come out is I think
for so many teen-age boys, heavy metal is not only about the music. It's
about, you know, these fantasies of, like, orgies with women, you know, and
having all the women...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...and how you're going to treat the women...

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah, the sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll thing. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And, you know, if nothing else, it's like your coming out
really complicates all of the cliches about, you know, the sex part of the
sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah.

GROSS: And it takes it out of this kind of simplistic, sometimes misogynistic
fantasy that I think teen-age boys have.

Mr. HALFORD: Exactly. Well, without laboring on one element here, just the
teen-age boy element--because, of course, the thing about Judas Priest's music
is that we're not the same as every other heavy metal band. I think we've
created our own niche, our own particular stamp, identity, trademark, whatever
you want to call it. We've never--the closest this band has been to a party
band is "Livin' After Midnight," you know, and that was one song that covered
that topic. But, again, if you look at the broad catalog of this band's
material, some hundreds and hundreds of songs over a three-decade span, I
think that that's just, really, one small focus of area...

GROSS: Well, a lot of your songs have this kind of, like, mythic quality to
it.

Mr. HALFORD: Yes, they do.

GROSS: Like, even the song "Hellrider," which we opened with...

Mr. HALFORD: Yes.

GROSS: ...from the new CD--I'm just going to--forgive me as I read some of
the lyrics. I'm not...

Mr. HALFORD: Please do. Please do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALFORD: Go ahead.

GROSS: OK. `Hellrider, hellrider, you slaught them all extinguished, wrath
of doom in killing fields, they consume for valiants never yield.'

Mr. HALFORD: Yes.

GROSS: `Triumph to the gods vanquished...'

Mr. HALFORD: Yes.

GROSS: `...of enslavers.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALFORD: Absolutely. Well, there you go.

GROSS: It's like overblown, mythic language.

Mr. HALFORD: Isn't it wonderful? It's wonderful. But you see what the
overriding story is there? The overriding story is of optimism. And the
overriding story is of defeating anything that stands in your way, that
prevents you from achieving your goals or your dreams. A lot of the lyrics
that I write for Priest--and I'm the primary lyricist in the band--come from
this streak that I have inside of me, which has always been one of
determination and overcoming the odds. And things...

GROSS: But this has really, like, archaic language.

Mr. HALFORD: Oh, it does.

GROSS: You `slaught them all.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALFORD: Ah, but that's because I love to--I love the English language.
My favorite book is a thesaurus, you know. I'm constantly looking to find
words and language that some bands would maybe hesitate to use or they're not
able to because of the arena that they work in.

GROSS: Though I have to say, like, the Judas Priest songs, particularly
something like the classic ones, like, real hits, like "Breaking the Law,"
they have...

Mr. HALFORD: Yes.

GROSS: ...so many pop hooks within them. OK, sure, it's like it's heavy
metal, but there's so much pop within it. And I think particularly listening
a couple of decades later, you can really hear the pop elements in it, you can
really hear the hook.

Mr. HALFORD: Melody is everything, isn't it? It doesn't matter whether it's
da-da-da-dah, you know, or whatever. I mean, it's just all about the hook,
it's all about the melody. And we were born and raised in a time in the UK, I
guess in our formative years of music, around the '60s, which was full of
Beatles, and we were all big Beatles fans. And there is your absolute primary
example of great melody and great formula in song structure. And I think in
our way we actually went very close to that with the "British Steel" album,
which is where "Breaking the Law" came from and "Livin' After Midnight." So
we kind of fine-tuned ourselves through those writing sessions and were able
to make very precise, concise pieces of material that were just full of melody
and memorable hooks.

GROSS: Well, why don't hear "Breaking the Law"? And this one of the Judas
Priest classics. And my guest is singer Rob Halford, who also is one of the
songwriters--this is one of yours. So here's "Breaking the Law."

(Soundbite of "Breaking the Law")

Mr. HALFORD: (Singing) There I was completely wasting and out of work and
down. All excited, so frustrating, had to drift from town to town, feeling
as though nobody cares if I live or die. So I might as well be dead, but the
future's in my way. Breaking the law, the breaking the law. Breaking the
law, breaking the law. Breaking the law, breaking the law. Breaking the law,
breaking the law. So much for the golden future; I can't even start. I've
had every promise broken, anger in my heart. You don't know what it's like.
You don't have a clue. If you did, you'd find yourself doing the same thing,
too. Breaking the law, breaking the law.

GROSS: That's Judas Priest. My guest is the band's lead singer, Rob Halford.
They have a new CD called "Angel of Retribution." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Rob Halford, the lead singer of the heavy metal band
"Judas Priest." They have a new CD called "Angel of Retribution."

Now there's the Judas Priest sound; there's also the Judas Priest look. And,
I mean, you were one of the creators of that look--of wearing, you know, the
leather and the studded collars and the handcuffs and the choke chains and, I
mean, all the stuff that almost looks like fetish gear.

Mr. HALFORD: Well, it is, to some extent...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HALFORD: ...although maybe not so much now because...

GROSS: Because it's a genre now. It's...

Mr. HALFORD: Well, no, because I can spend some money on some outfits,
whereas before I had to go into the local S&M shop and pick up something for
2 pounds.

GROSS: Oh!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALFORD: That's the truth of it all. Yeah, I used to go down to my
local--used to S-shop in London and put 10 quid down and try and grab a little
bit of this and little bit of that and slowly put it together, you know. But,
yes, we're--again, it's something that we're very proud of. For a number of
the early formative years of metal, the image was not really tying in to the
fierceness and the strength and power of the music. And we kind of stumbled
upon it with a song called "Hell Bent for Leather," which is very much a biker
anthem song. We actually started to use the motorcycle at that point, too.
So all of these things kind of connected and created the heavy metal look.
So, yes, blame us for that.

GROSS: Well, can you...

Mr. HALFORD: For the whips and the chains and the wristbands and so on.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit more about what you related to about that
look? I mean, I know there's a song "Hell Bent for Leather," but, you know,
you didn't have to take that literally and use that as your look. So can you
talk...

Mr. HALFORD: Well, it's--I'll tell you--yeah, I'll tell you, it looked and
felt a lot better than silks and satins and Spandex. So, you know...

GROSS: Had you ever been wearing silks and satins?

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah. Well, you know, that's how it started out. I mean, if
you look at the very, very early, primitive videos of Priest going to Japan in
the mid- to late '70s, there was a combination of looks going on from the band
members. And we didn't really nail it down, so to speak, until we brought
about that song and started to kind of explore this territory. And it just
made absolute sense to us. I mean, you're wearing all of these studs that are
made of steel and metal. You've got the leather look, which is very tough and
has that kind of "Rebel without a Cause," "On the Waterfront" type of approach
and attitude. And so it just made absolute sense to go with that and develop
it.

GROSS: Did you think of it as a gay look?

Mr. HALFORD: No, I never did. I mean, you know--and I've been asked this
question numerous times. I can say, hand on heart, that was never my
intention. It was just coincidental that there's a portion of the gay
community that's into that kind of lifestyle. And that's it, just pure
coincidence.

GROSS: And this isn't meant to be as personal as it's going to sound, but was
all the leather and handcuffs and fetish gear an expression of your personal
lifestyle or just good theatrical costuming?

Mr. HALFORD: Well, that's a very good question. I'm sure if there was a
couch here for me to lay on and a psychiatrist...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALFORD: ...he'd probably go, `Yep, that's what you were doing, Rob.'
Who knows? I don't know. As I said, it was never part of a deliberate intent
for me. But, yeah, I would hasten to say--because you're the first person
ever to ask me this question--that subconsciously that was my way of saying,
`Look, this is who I am.' But, you know, in my outward kind of conscious
level, that was never a thought because that would have meant that I would
have been using the band and my look for some kind of agenda, which I've never
had.

GROSS: When you say that it was in some ways a level of who you were, was it
like a fantasy level of who you were or...

Mr. HALFORD: Oh, yes. Yes. Well, I don't know. This is just kind of an
open, free-forming kind of thought here. No. I mean, I'm not particularly
attracted to that world or that fantasy element of what that lifestyle
presents. It's just of no interest to me personally. It's all about, in all
honesty, the fact that putting all that stuff on and looking at yourself in a
mirror before you went on stage felt absolutely the right thing to do.

GROSS: Well, since you've mentioned "Hell Bent for Leather," I think we
should hear it. So this is Judas Priest, "Hell Bent for Leather."

(Soundbite of "Hell Bent for Leather")

Mr. HALFORD: (Singing) Seek him here, seek him on the highway, never knowing
when he'll appear. All await, engine's ticking over, hear the roar as they
sense the fear. Wheels! A glint of steel and a flash of light! Screams!
From a streak of fire as he strikes! Hell bent, hell bent for leather. Hell
bent, hell bent for leather. Black as night, faster than a shadow, crimson
flare from a raging sun.

GROSS: That's one the classic Judas Priest recordings, "Hell Bent for
Leather." My guest is Rob Halford, who is the lead singer of the band. And
there's a new Judas Priest CD called "Angel of Retribution."

Did you like Westerns, too?

Mr. HALFORD: Oh, yeah. That's a great question. I'm glad you asked me that
because growing up in England as I did--I was born in 1951 and was just able
to afford a small black-and-white TV. But we would watch these Western shows,
you know, from--being pumped out from Hollywood, whether it was "The Lone
Ranger" or "The Cisco Kid" or "Champion the Wonder Horse." And these were all
based in the desert, you know, in Arizona or the Southwest. So there's still
an affinity with that kind of cowboys-and-Indians type of imagery that's loved
not only in the UK but of all over Europe, I would imagine. So one of the...

GROSS: And a lot of leather in there, I might say.

Mr. HALFORD: Oh, yeah. All those chaps.

GROSS: That's why I asked, yeah.

Mr. HALFORD: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALFORD: All that sitting in the saddle. But, no--so, you know, for me
to actually watch that on TV as a kid and then to suddenly get off a bus in
Arizona at 3:00 in the morning after a trip down from Vegas in 1978 was just
mind-blowing, you know. And I woke up the next day and there was the cactus
and there was the desert and the roadrunners and the Gila monsters and the
rattlesnakes and the cowboys and Indians. And it was a dream come true.

GROSS: Rob Halford is the lead singer of Judas Priest. They have a new CD
called "Angel of Retribution." It's the first CD since Halford returned to
the band. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "You've Got Another Thing Comin'")

Mr. HALFORD: (Singing) One life, I'm gonna live it up. I'm takin' flight; I
said, `I'll never get enough.' Stand tall, I'm young and kinda proud. I'm on
the top for as long as the music's loud.

If you think I'll sit around as the world goes by, you're thinkin' like a fool
'cause it's a case of do or die. Out there is a fortune waitin' to be had.
You think I'll let it go, you're mad. You've got another thing comin'.
You've got another thing comin'.

That's right, here's where the talking ends. Well, listen, this night
there'll be some action spent. Drive hard; I'm callin' all the shots. I got
an ace card comin' down on the rocks.

If you think I'll sit around and chip away my brain, listen, I ain't foolin'
and you'd better think again. Out there is a fortune waitin' to be had. You
think I'll let it go, you're mad. You've got another thing comin'. You've
got another thing comin'. You've got another thing comin'.

In this world we're livin' in we have our shares of sorrows. Answer now is
don't give in, aim for a new tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of "Ram It Down")

Mr. HALFORD: (Screams) Oh!

GROSS: Coming up, more with Rob Halford of Judas Priest. He'll talk more
about coming out and about the impact of the 1990 lawsuit that accused a
Priest recording of convincing two teen-agers to commit suicide.

Also, linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on the act of memorizing poetry.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HALFORD: (Singing) Raise the sights, the city lights are calling. We're
hot tonight, the time is right; there's nitro in the air. In the street is
where we'll meet, we're warning. On the beat, we won't retreat, beware.
Thousands of cars and a million guitars screaming with power in the air.
We've found the place where the decibels race; this army of rock will be there
to ram it down, ram it down straight through the heart of this town. Ram it
down, ram it down, razing the place to the ground. Ram it down. Bodies
revvin' in leather, heaven in wonder...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Rob Halford, the lead
singer of Judas Priest, one of the first heavy metal bands. Halford started
singing with the band in 1971. He left in the early '90s and later surprised
his fans by coming out. Halford returned to the band a couple of years ago.
They have a new CD called "Angel of Retribution."

Judas Priest shows are quite theatrical experiences. How did you head in
that direction of making it, like, theatrical?

Mr. HALFORD: Well, it just comes from being a kid, you know. I mean, when I
was in my early grades at school, I was able to get into the school choir and
be a part of all of the school productions, much like a lot of kids do. And I
just ran to that. It made me feel good inside. Everybody likes to be looked
at and applauded, especially when you're a child. And I think that stuck with
me. So there was a point in my life when it was kind of a toss-up between
whether I was going to actually go from school--high school--into drama school
and drama university in England. But I chose to go with music because that
was the love of my life at that time, and it still is today. So I think I
brought that theatrical desire with me to Priest. And I was always, you know,
at the band meetings pushing for this lighting effect or that stage set or
these costume ideas or these smoke machines or, you know, pyrotechnics,
whatever it might be. Whatever is really theatrical came from my love of the
theater and the magic that it can make.

GROSS: For listeners who haven't seen your show, can you describe one of the
most theatrical things?

Mr. HALFORD: We have a moment going on in this current "Angel of Retribution"
worldwide tour that we do. We--there's an opening cut from "Angel of
Retribution" called "Judas Rising," and I appear behind the drum riser on a
50-foot hoist, a pneumatic man lift. And at the bottom of the hoist is
this theatrical flame fire effects. And so there's an intro--there's a piece
of intro type that works with that song, and the man lift, as it's called, is
being taken up to about 50 feet. And there's all of this smoke and fire
billowing around my feet, and I'm wearing this outfit made out of pure
reflective chrome and hit with, you know, two or three spotlights against a
backdrop of this larger-than-life, 100-foot-wide reincarnation of the "Angel
of Retribution" artwork. And it's absolutely spectacular. I mean, I can see
the reaction as that all comes together, and that's just one element of a
two-hour Judas Priest performance that the fans love.

GROSS: Is there part of you that stands back and says, `God, this is really
funny'? Do you know what I mean?

Mr. HALFORD: Honestly, you've got to have a "Spinal Tap" mentality.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HALFORD: "Spinal Tap" helps, yeah, because, you know, you've got to be
able to laugh at some of these things and smile and enjoy them, which is not
to kind of take it as a joke or to humiliate it. But you've got to certainly
be able to kind of smile at some of these things that you do but in a loving
way and in a way that you're cherishing the moment. And you know the effect
that it's creating and how it's making you feel yourself as you bring that
effect to life. But, yes, certainly every band has a copy of "Spinal Tap" on
the tube or...

GROSS: So at its best, what does it feel like to come, you know, rising out
from--on this, like, hydraulic lift in your chrome costume with spotlights
shining on you. Like, what does that feel like on a really good night?

Mr. HALFORD: Well, I'll tell you what it feels like, Terry. It feels like,
`I hope the lift doesn't jam. I hope the smoke machine doesn't blow up. I
hope my microphone works at this height.' That's what it feels like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALFORD: It's a complex run of emotions right up till I start singing the
song, but once the song is in full roar, it's just a very powerful, dominating
type of explosion that goes on for the duration of the song. It's a very
powerful song for us to perform because I think it embodies a lot of the
reunion aspects that we're still enjoying right now.

GROSS: So are there moments in performance now where you feel, `I am a heavy
metal god'?

Mr. HALFORD: Oh, yes. Every time I get dressed before I go on stage, and I
think that I can say that in all honesty that doesn't mean to say that I'm a
schizophrenic or a split personality. But definitely when you get dressed to
go to work, your persona changes. You're getting psyched up. Your attitude
is being prepared mentally. And much like a boxer going into the ring or a
basketball player going out to court, and you know there's a job to be done
with your teammates, and you're going to win. And so definitely there's a
feeling of confidence and a certain makeover that takes place.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Judas Rising"? And this is from the new
Judas Priest album, which is called "Angel of Retribution."

(Soundbite of "Judas Rising")

Mr. HALFORD: (Singing) White bolt of lightning came out of nowhere, blinded
the darkness, creating the storm. War in the heavens, vengeance ignited.
Torment and tempest attack like a swarm. Forged out of flame from chaos to
destiny, bringer of pain forever undying. Judas is rising.

GROSS: That's "Judas Rising" from the new Judas Priest album "Angel of
Retribution." My guest, Rob Halford, is the lead singer of the band.

Now, you know, with Judas Priest titles like "Hellion," "Eat Me Alive,"
"Devil's Child," "Breaking the Law," "Screaming For Vengeance," "Beyond The
Realms Of Death," "A Touch of Evil," "Sinner," we can all see why parents in
the '70s and '80s weren't necessarily thrilled that their children were
listening to your records. What effect do you think your music has had over
the years on your teen-aged fans?

Mr. HALFORD: Well, our teen-aged fans have grown up now, and they're healthy,
stable, balanced, family-oriented fans. They bring their children to our
concerts. So if that isn't proof that Judas Priest has stood by nothing other
than giving people some escape and some great nights out when they see us live
and some very personal enjoyment at home on the headphones or on the speakers,
then I don't know what else to say. I'm at a loss for words. It kind of puts
to sleep that moment in the '80s when this--not only this band, even
individuals like Sheena Easton were attacked by a political agenda that really
had, in our opinions, some misconceptions.

There was the one side of it about protection, which was running very close to
censorship. But we all approved this PG rating. We thought it was a great
idea because some of us were using language and ideas that we felt it was
important to attach some kind of notification towards. But those songs that
you mentioned are but a handful of some, I don't know, two, 300 recordings
that we've made over the years. And it's like a lot of things that any
career-oriented creator makes. Little things pop out more than others, and
things get more attention than others.

GROSS: There was actually a lawsuit against Judas Priest, a now-famous
lawsuit, in 1985. And two teen-age boys tried to commit suicide; one of them
succeeded, one of them shot his face off and had it reconstructed with plastic
surgery. And one of the parents charged that they were inspired to commit
suicide by one of the Judas Priest records, which had a subliminal message
saying, `Do it.' What was your reaction when you heard about this?

Mr. HALFORD: Well, it was utter shock and disbelief and, again, dismay that
it was coming from a country that we'd had so many great times with. And you
can imagine--well, I guess you can't. But, I mean, to actually get off the
tube and be handed a subpoena by the deputy in Texas, I think it was or--no,
actually in Reno, but I think we were actually subpoenaed while we were in
Texas--to say, you know, `On this date, you have to leave your home country in
England, get on a plane and come to a courthouse in Reno and basically fight
for your life.' But we looked at this. We were very upset. We thought that
the allegations were completely ridiculous and without foundation. But the
only way we could put our side of the story across and to tell everybody the
truth was to go to Reno and sit in the courthouse for five weeks and deal with
each issue as it was presented to us. But that was just a very upsetting time
for all of us to go through.

GROSS: The judge ruled that the band had not intentionally placed subliminal
messages on the album. What was the most surreal part of the trial for you?

Mr. HALFORD: Well, the balancing act between the First Amendment, freedom of
speech and the so-called subliminal messages which--by my definition, if it's
a subliminal message, you don't even know what's happening or what's going on.
So their presentation of a subliminal message, which was a combination of both
breathing and some guitar effects, was just ridiculous. I mean, we dismantled
that theory and that allegation in the courtroom with recording equipment, and
we showed the judge very clearly how these strange quirks of sounds and
mysterious things that go on in recordings can actually make it on to a disk
and be misconstrued.

So it really was without foundation, but we had to go to the courtroom and
stand up for ourselves and to prove that we had not done this and that we
would never do this and there was never intent or any, you know, reason on our
part to actually do something like this. Oh, they'd say that, you know, `Why
on earth would any band want to go and kill its fans?' Because these two boys
were hard-core Judas Priest fans. They came from a very tough family life.
There was a history of alcohol abuse. There was a history of drug abuse, and
the boys were finding solace in the music of Priest. So it was after the
event really that they were approached by a group of people who we were led to
believe had connections with some of the more conservative religious elements
in America that urged them to take this to court to make a case out of it, but
as you said earlier, we came out of it clean, you know, which is the way it
should be.

GROSS: My guest is Rob Halford, the lead singer of Judas Priest. They have a
new CD called "Angel of Retribution." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rob Halford, the lead singer of
Judas Priest, and the band's back on the road. They even have a new CD, and
it's called "Angel of Retribution."

I want to get back to something we were talking about a little earlier which
is coming out, and what year was it that you actually came out?

Mr. HALFORD: Do you know, I can't be absolutely precise. I would think it
was around '93, '4.

GROSS: OK. I imagine there were a lot of times when you were in a really
awkward position. I mean, for example, most bands have groupies. I'm sure
there were so many women waiting for you, you know, actually throwing
themselves at you, and, you know, how do you make it clear that, like, you
know, `No thanks'?

Mr. HALFORD: Well, that's it. I mean, I'm a very polite British gentleman.
`No thank you.' It's as simple as that, and I'm kind of proud of that. I'm
very proud of myself that I didn't go out onto this kind of extreme limb of
displaying myself in a way that was not truthful, which is to say that, you
know, I wasn't caught in those kinds of situations just because I felt it was
important to portray myself in a certain way, being a singer in a famous
heavy-metal band. You know, I couldn't do that, because again, I would have
been using myself, I would have been using a lot of different things that go
against my own particular standards. So, yeah, you say, `No thank you,' you
know, and leave it at that.

GROSS: Did you feel cut off from other gay people? Because if you felt you
couldn't come out, it probably meant you couldn't hang out with a gay crowd
and...

Mr. HALFORD: Ah, yes.

GROSS: ...so, like, you know, what do you do when you're on the road? Who do
you...

Mr. HALFORD: Well...

GROSS: ...hang out with?

Mr. HALFORD: ...yeah, again, this is all about surroundings and
circumstances in it because that was a world that I didn't really walk towards
or begin to investigate until I was probably in my mid-20s or so, which might
sound amazing to some people, but it never really interested me. I'm
still--I'm a conservative gay man and, you know, bars don't interest me, clubs
don't interest me. I'm still to some extent invisible within the gay
community and that's because I don't really seek to be, you know, a
spokesperson for whatever things are being discussed by other celebrities by
their choice. I feel that what I do is enough for me and, to a certain
extent, a cause, if any. By walking out night after night in front of
thousands of metal fans all over the world as a gay metal singer, that, to me,
is my cause and my moment for celebration.

GROSS: I also like to ask musicians on the show to redeem a song, to tell us
about a song that they love that we might be surprised that they love, that we
might think of as square or corny or sentimental or whatever. Would you do
that? Would you choose a song that you really love that you'd be--that you
think we might be surprised that you love?

Mr. HALFORD: Oh, OK. This is going to take a little bit--I might need a
prompt here, but, oh, Lord, there's a song by Hank Williams, and I have this
really cool double-CD set of Hank Williams, and I love his music because it is
so pure. It's so from the heart, and he has this wonderful, soulful voice,
and it's a story about this gal that lives in a mansion on the hill or a house
on the hill, and there's just something about that song. It's very appealing,
you know, because it's about a love lost and about the fact that because
there's a distance between the two strata, you know, she's up there on this
hill and he's in a different place and, you know, they can't connect because
of that bridge--I just think that's a wonderful song. And if you can find
that song for me and share it with the listeners, maybe that'll be a bit of a
surprise, but there you go. The metal god's a Hank Williams fan.

GROSS: We'll try to do that. One other thing: How do you take care of your
voice?

Mr. HALFORD: You know, I don't do a lot to look after my voice. I'm very
fortunate. I use it much like any musician uses an instrument. I know what
to do and what not to do. Physical rest is the best you can do. Taking as
much of a breather between shows and resting your voice is the best that you
can offer yourself. So that's about it really. I don't really do anything
else other than just get dressed and go to work. I don't generally warm up or
take any lotions or potions and incantations. It's all very straightforward.
I count my blessings. Some singers have to do certain things before they go
out on stage, but I just get dressed and start screaming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HALFORD: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Rob Halford is the lead singer of Judas Priest. Their new CD is
called "Angel of Retribution." Here's the song he was just talking about,
"Mansion on the Hill," recorded by Hank Williams in 1948.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS: (Singing) Tonight down here in the valley, I'm lonesome
and, oh, how I feel. As I sit here alone in my cabin, I can see your mansion
on the hill. Do you recall when we parted? The story to me you revealed.
You said you could live without love, dear, in your loveless mansion on the
hill.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Practice of memorizing poetry
TERRY GROSS, host:

A few years ago, Ruth Lilly, the heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, left a $100
million bequest to Poetry magazine. The magazine's publishers have been using
some of that money to encourage the practice of memorizing poetry. Our
linguist Geoff Nunberg thinks that's a good idea.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

Digging into what have to be the deepest coffers of any literary publication
in history, the publishers of Poetry magazine recently joined with the
National Endowment for the Arts to hold the first of a series of recitation
competitions patterned after the National Spelling Bee.

I have to say, I'm a little uneasy about that model. The National Spelling
Bee is one of those odd competitions that turn an ordinary activity into a
high-performance event, like extreme ironing, and when you think of poetry
recitation contests, you might have the image of overachiever kids declaiming,
`The boy stood on the burning deck' with appropriate gestures while their
parents and elocution coaches watch nervously from the audience.

But that's probably unfair, and you have to welcome any program that might
encourage more learning of poetry by heart. After a half-century you could
think of as the great forgetting. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, `I wandered
lonely as a cloud. We were very tired. We were very merry.' Nowadays,
high-school graduates don't recognize any of those lines. Where the hundreds
of others that used to paper the walls of the collective memory, only a few
scraps remain. Students may know the first stanza of "The Highwayman," which
comes in handy for teaching about metaphor: Is the poet saying that the moon
was really a ghostly galleon? They probably know Shelley's "My Name is
Ozymandias, King of Kings," which makes for a good lesson about irony, not to
mention about the futility of big government. And they almost certainly know
a bit of "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening," which is pretty much the last
poem left in the American literary cannon.

That obliteration was already well under way when I was in grade school, and I
was spared some of its ravages only because I picked up the habit of
memorizing poetry from my dad who liked to recite to me when I was little, a
mix of patriotic ballads like Barbara Frietchie and light verse by the likes
of Don Marquis and the sadly forgotten Arthur Guiterman. I've tried to pass
on some of these to my daughter Sophie. She does an impressive job with the
beginning of "The Cremation of Sam McGee," though she generally loses the
track somewhere around `mushing our way over the Dawson trail,' but that's
normal.

Unless you're one of those freaks of nature who can soak this stuff up
effortlessly, most of what you've got left of the poems you've learned is
snips and snatches. `My heart aches and a something-something pains my
sense.' `I will arise now and go to whatchamacallit.' `To tum, to tum, your
mom and dad, they may not mean to but they do.' Yet the odd thing is that
once you've memorized a poem, you still own it even after you've forgotten
most of the words and have to Google it up the way everybody else does.
That's reason enough for learning poems by heart, and there's no need to sully
the case for memorization by claiming that it's good for mental discipline or
cognitive development.

Memorizing poetry does seem to make people a bit better at memorizing poetry,
but there's no evidence that the skill carries over to other tasks. For that
matter, it's doubtful whether memorization makes you a better writer, either.
The former poet laureate Robert Pinsky once suggested that anybody who's
memorized a lot of poetry can't fail to write coherent sentences and
paragraphs. There's probably some truth to that nowadays, since the only
people who know a lot of poetry by heart are the ones who are drawn to it out
of a love of language, but the Victorian schoolchildren who learned reams of
verse at the end of their teachers' canes grew up to write an awful lot of bad
prose, most of it happily lost to literary memory.

In fact, it's misguided to wax nostalgic for a time when students were
required to memorize sentimental ballads and patriotic rousers in the name of
character building and when kids who misbehaved were given 20 lines of poetry
to learn as punishment. Memorization back then was a kind of conscription.
The whole world learned to march to those regular four-beat rhythms that make
poems easy to learn.

The progressive educators of the 20th century were right to want to sweep all
that away, but they were wrong to dismiss memorization as mindless rote
learning as if the sounds alone communicated nothing by themselves. If you
think you can understand poems without feeling them in your body, you're apt
to treat them as no more than pretty op-ed pieces. You wind up teaching kids
to value the road not taken as merely a piece of sage advice about making
difficult decisions.

I was about seven or eight years old when my dad taught me "Scots, Wha Hae Wi'
Wallace Bled." I had absolutely no idea what the poem was about or even what
half the words meant, but I learned something else, how verse can become a
physical presence, in Robert Pinsky's words, which operates at the borderline
of body and mind. That's an experience that you can only live fully when the
poem comes from within rather than from the page in front of you. I like the
way the Victorianist Catherine Robson put this: `When we don't learn by
heart, the heart doesn't feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes of its own
incessant beat.'

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist and author of "Going Nucular:
Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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