Rob Zombie has paid his dues. Now it's showtime.
By Ron Bally
MARCH 1, 1999: BACK IN 1986, I was managing Midnight Records (across from the Chelsea Hotel where Sid stabbed Nancy to death) in New York City. It was the first time I met Rob Zombie. Zombie (known then as Rob Straker) and then-girlfriend/bassist Sean Yseult were peddling the first self-released White Zombie seven-inch EP Gods on Voodoo Moon. Every hip independent record shop was scooping them up sight unseen. There was one small problem with Midnight. Zombie steadfastly refused to give us the singles on consignment terms (basically the artist "loans" out the record and obtains payment two months to a year after they're sold or distributed).
Zombie, sprouting the beginnings of his unruly Mad Monk whiskers, was intense, determined and articulate but remained mostly silent. Yseult was a friendly, smiling bundle of energy and undoubtedly her hot looks and easy-going manner helped win over Midnight's nasty owner, JD. JD had an incorrigible social disposition, topped off by a notorious reputation for never paying in advance for local or "unknown" releases. Zombie stood firm on his convictions.
His recollections of this encounter nearly 13 years ago pop like a champagne cork: "Yeah, yeah, yeah," Zombie shouts excitedly during a conference call from L.A. "I remember that place (Midnight). That guy (JD) was a jerk--everybody gave me a hard time back then."
Before his run-in with JD, I had witnessed White Zombie perform a sloppy, chaotic live set at a dismal underground dive called the Lismar Lounge. I knew they were attracting a lot of curious interest. I convinced JD he wouldn't be "stuck" with the 45's. He bitched and moaned, and begrudgingly directed me to pay them the paltry sum of $30 for 15 copies. When all 15 sold in less than two weeks, he tried desperately to obtain more by phoning Yseult. The first pressing was already long gone. Today that same "unknown" four-song EP fetches well over $100 on the record-collecting market. Who could've predicted the colossal worldwide success of the Rob Zombie war machine back then? Certainly not JD, nor the rest of the world, for that matter.
The rare, sold-out show ("a big fucked-up night," according to Zombie) at the TCC tomorrow night (kicking off a nationwide tour with co-headliner Korn) reinforces the incredible larger-than-life persona Rob Zombie has honed and perfected. Proving his longevity, as an innovative musical visionary and multi-media entertainer is no fluke. He's a welcome nightmare, a monstrous addition to the Grand Guignol world of rock-and-roll theatrics that Alice Cooper and Kiss revolutionized in the '70s.
In the fall of 1985, when this crude Black Sabbath-meets-Birthday Party excursion in phantasmagoria art damaged-metal was unearthed, White Zombie (the name swiped from the 1932 low-budget horror flick starring Bela Lugosi) was lumped in with the festering NYC scum rock spectacle. The genre was a trashy, reckless punk offshoot breeding and spreading like diseased rats on the Lower East Side. Drunken junkies like Da Willys, Hammerbrain, My Sick Friends, Lunachicks, Letch Patrol and the Reverb Motherfuckers ruled over the packs of born losers, squatters and drug-addled misfits.
Zombie is a little hesitant to be defined with that dead-and-buried scene, but acknowledges his participation. "Oh I remember it pretty well," he recollects. "But there's nothing I really miss about it. It was pretty fucking miserable. I felt part of it (scum rock scene) for what was going on for the moment, but I kind of had other ideas. I didn't want to remain part of it forever. I guess because there was a certain group of bands living within a five block radius of each other, all playing the same clubs, at the same time, we all got labeled scum punk. All I thought about was I can't wait to get past this." White Zombie shared the same fans, friends and lousy club circuit, but the comparisons ended there.
The reality was the embryonic White Zombie trash culture music aesthetic was more sophisticated, lyrically and visually, than the rudimentary punk thrashings of the other scum rockers. In the late '80s, Zombie began leaning more toward heavy metal and the gory splatter horror imagery that he devoured as a kid. The group, labeled by some as a noisy, grunge rock outfit searching for an identity, struggled through several lean years. The ghoulish, fire-breathing, heavy metal nihilists who transformed themselves into creepy-crawly favorites the world over (FM-radio embraced them in 1995, helping to attain the astonishing double-platinum success of Astro Creep: 2000) were still a distant howl from being fully metamorphosed. Endless touring and over-exposure on MTV's Beavis and Butt-head eventually paid off, cementing the band's increasing fan base. The trademark guttural inhuman growl Zombie has perfected in recent years was non-existent during the height of success for lame pop-metal hair shakers like Motley Crue, Ratt and Poison. The 21-year-old Massachusetts transplant sang with a high, anguished yelp that spewed bizarre, stream-of-consciousness lyrics of mass slaughter, dead souls and pig heaven with a generous dose of Big Daddy Roth-inspired cartoon lunacy.
"It just kind of happened," he offers as explanation for his vocal chords' transmutation. "I never listen to the old records, so I kind of forget. But I noticed the few times I've heard them that my voice is a lot higher. As the years have gone by, it (his voice) seems to get lower and lower and lower. It's not that I'm trying to sing that way. I think I'm just losing my voice as the years go on."
The EC comic book-stimulated horror/sci-fi visuals were always lurking beneath the surface. Fueled by Zombie's brief art school enrollment and his insatiable appetite for Lucio Fulci gore flicks, the grade-B, drive-in movie fare of Roger Corman, Russ Meyer's buxom soft porn features and a bleak, futuristic Road Warrior outlook. As Zombie's twisted, obsessive psyche discharged the caged demons that stalked him while walking the circus-like streets of New York, he moved to Hollywood. The man-made monster known as White Zombie was officially conceptualized, single-handedly revitalizing the dissipating heavy metal scene in the '90s. There would be no stopping Rob Zombie (he legally changed his name in 1996), his demonic imagination, and above all his megalomaniac determination and workaholic drive.
His popularity seems far from ebbing. He's become a sinister caricature of his former self, manifesting Medusa-like dreadlocks and a psychotic Rasputin visage--the wild-eyed (pupil-free contacts included) Herman Munster of pure evil for legions of head-banging Gen Xers. He even pays homage to the Munsters by singing about Grandpa's favorite hotrod "Dragula" on his impressive debut solo effort Hellbilly Deluxe (released on Geffen last summer).
He claims the Rob Zombie nightmare is not very different from the White Zombie wet dream. "It's (Rob Zombie) kind of the next level of it (his persona)," he says. "I didn't do it (disband White Zombie) as a reaction to do something different. I just wanted to move on from White Zombie. White Zombie is dead." Despite his obvious claim to fame and fortune today, Zombie says he hasn't changed since those starving scum rock days. "I never imagined myself in this position," he acknowledges. "It's just given me the opportunity to do more things that I've wanted to do. That's the best part about it now. With the music, stage show and everything, when you have an idea to do stuff, you just do it. You feel lucky and amazed by what you can get accomplished."
The $100,000 theatrical stage extravaganza Zombie designed (he also does his own artwork and directs the band's videos) and unveils at the TCC makes Alice Cooper's '70s faux-guillotine live act resemble a Halloween performance at a nursery school. The stage set-up "looks like a lot of everything," Zombie says cryptically. "It's kind of like a giant, revolving haunted castle by way of hell, with go-go girls, giant robots and all kinds of weird stuff. We got three (video) screens now, lots of fire-just lots of everything. It's hard to describe-total overload."
Blood-filled guitars ooze, rapid-fire video images of sex, gore, destruction and assorted exploitation film reveries bombard the senses as blinding pyrotechnics erupt randomly, all while Zombie prowls the stage like a crystal meth-stoked serial killer or the last man on earth. Decide for yourself if Rob Zombie is man, myth or monster (that is, if you were lucky enough to nail a ticket in advance).
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