Judas Priest singer details a career-long struggle with his sexuality
Secrets can be poison. That’s the lonely lesson of a rock singer who was nearly destroyed by the need to hide his homosexuality as his band entertained millions and climbed the charts.
Rob Halford, the vocalist of legendary British metal band Judas Priest, has written a rock memoir so full of life, humor, insight and turmoil that it feels reductive even to assign it to that formulaic genre. But there it is with many of the same contours of every rock memoir ever written — hardscrabble childhood, music as a ticket out, wild excesses of booze and drugs, tensions within the band and regrettable business decisions. There’s even plenty of anonymous sex, though here it’s of the same-sex variety.
And that last bit is not just incidental. Halford’s struggle to authentically integrate his twin identities – rock screamer and gay man – forms the core of this unusually complex and richly textured memoir.
Robert John Arthur Halford was born in 1951 in working class Walsall, in the heart of the Black Country region near Birmingham, or Brum as it’s known to Black Country folk.
Halford incisively observes the ways in which the band’s blue-collar roots impact its career. On the last day of the Operation Rock n Roll tour in 1991, Halford rides his trademark Harley on stage for “Hell Bent for Leather” in Toronto. A crew snafu leads to a bad accident. Instead of going to the hospital, minutes later he’s on stage singing with only a bandage on his nose. By the same token, he remains bothered almost 40 years after the band was twice late for a show in hometown Birmingham because they have been asked to perform on Top of the Pops. That’s a Walsall work ethic.
Halford details the local brogue, as well. “What is yam-yam? It’s a derogatory term used by Brummies to ridicule the Black Country accent: “Am yow from Walsall?” “I yam!” To outsiders, Brummie and Black Country accents may sound similar—but they are very, very different.”
Hearing the voice of Living After Midnight break into these Walsall riffs is just one reason to consider the audiobook version of Confess. Equally charming are the instances in which he imitates how Americans sound to his ear.
As the band hits its stride in the mid-80s, Halford frets about how its macho audience might react to learning that the singer is bent, to use the British slang. (It’s somewhat quaint to recall an era when a performer clad entirely in studded leather and carrying a trademark whip was not presumed to be gay.)
“In my mind, the bigger Priest got — and we were now huge—the greater damage I would do to the band, and to our career, if it emerged that I was gay. I imagined a mass chorus of the voices of our hard-won fans in the Midwest and Texas: Fuck! I ain’t gonna see no band with a goddamn faggot singer!”
That internal struggle lands Halford in a desperately lonely place. Forced to pursue anonymous encounters in truck stops and chronically chasing straight men who hang out with him mostly because they’re Priest fans, Halford nears 40 never having experienced a real relationship.
After the Screaming for Vengeance tour, buoyed by the only Hot 100 hit of their career, You’ve Got Another Thing Coming, Halford relates the solitude of the closeted metaller with heartbreaking detail. “I sighed deeply and got a flight back to Phoenix. I would have loved to have been going home to a partner who would wrap me in his loving arms.”
Meanwhile, Halford delves into fascinating detail about the intricacies of gay life.
In one memorable section, Halford describes how he used “the bandanna code” to signal to potential partners right under the noses of his unsuspecting bandmates — and thousands of screaming fans. He explains how wearing a handkerchief on the left side indicates a top, while the right signals bottom. Light blue means one is interested in oral sex while dark blue bespeaks anal sex. An orange hankie says anything goes.
“Glenn, Ken, Ian and Dave would have no idea, as I pranced across stage before 5,000 people in Houston or St. Louis singing Victim of Changes that the bandannas on my leather-studded leg guards were telling the cognoscenti that I was bang up for a bit of water sports or fisting. It was yet another fishing trip for cock—and, yet again, I’d retreat to my tour bunk or hotel room frustrated, my keepnet empty.”
Learning that this complicated semaphore was all taking place as he repeated “Breaking the law, breaking the law” at maximum volume was a total delight.
Many of the business dealings, a requirement of any memoir, are also of interest. Manager Jim Dawson oversaw Priest’s rocketing success after taking over from hard-working hometown advocate Dave “Corky” Corke. But Dawson abruptly quits on the eve of the band’s sold-out Madison Square Garden show. Halford, who considers himself to have a “sneaking regard for the hard man school of band management, a la Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin,” was impressed by Wild Bill Curbishley. Priest voted unanimously to hire Bill. Despite his having done time for armed robbery and his association with the Kray twins, leaders in East London organized crime.
There are also memorable details about the strange case in which the families of two young men who committed suicide while listening to the Priest record Stained Class sued the band and CBS Records. The lawsuit was brought during the peak of PMRC influence and targeted the band for supposedly encouraging the act via backwards messages that said “do it” and “sing my evil spirit.” It was total nonsense, but went all the way to verdict (Priest won), and Halford’s observations about the circus qualities of American courtrooms draw blood.
While much of the book’s power derives from Halford’s struggle to integrate his public and private lives, there are plenty of beautifully remembered tales of the kind that enliven any rags-to-rock-riches story. In one particular LOL anecdote, Halford recalls an early JP trip to the continent.
“We were driving through Amsterdam. I was dying for a crap, and one thing about the Netherlands, great country that it is, is that there are never any public toilets to be found. I was touching cloth and, as we say in Walsall, when you’ve gorra gew, you’ve gorra gew! I took emergency measures. As Hinchy drove along, I crawled into the back of the van, where I saw a manila envelope. I crouched over it and silently pooed into the top. Luckily, it was a whistler, where you don’t even need toilet paper. It shot out like an Olympic sprinter from the starting line. Well, great… except that I was now in the delicate situation of holding a manila envelope full of my own shit. I crawled back up to the front of the van, wound down the window, and discreetly lobbed the package into one of Amsterdam’s famous canals. Maybe the rest of the band wouldn’t notice what I’d done? Fat chance! They were on to me as my rotten stink suddenly filled the van. “Ugh, Rob, you dirty bastard!” they moaned, as my poo floated happily up the ’Dam.”
Still, the most penetrating insights always find their way back to the author’s sexuality.
By the mid 80s, the band was performing to unimaginable crowds and metal dominated popular music. 1983’s four-day US Festival in San Bernardino was dreamed up by Steve Wozniak and promoted by Bill Graham. The first three days were billed as New Wave, Rock and Country, with The Clash, David Bowie and Willie Nelson headlining their respective days. The fourth day, Heavy Metal Day, attracted over 300,000 people — more than the first three days combined. It featured Priest along with Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, the Scorpions and Quiet Riot, with Van Halen headlining ahead of their massive 1984 album.
And yet, later that year, Halford and the band are on a drive after a show in San Antonio. They break for fuel at a truck stop, which to this point has been Halford’s sole source of sex and even companionship. He spots a man’s feet below the partition and enters the toilet next to him. He latches the door and begins the toe-tapping that gay men used to indicate interest amid anonymous partners. There was no glory hole, but it was a small gap at the rear of the partitions. The next stall man sticks his arm through to give Halford a quick handy, and when that finishes, Halford reaches his own arm through to reciprocate. Halford then goes to wash up, but the next-door neighbor breaks etiquette by coming out of the stall before Halford has exited the bathroom. Halford sees that the young, good-looking men is “decked out in Judas Priest merchandise from head to toe.” Having devoted much of his existence to hiding his sexuality from the band’s fans, Halford simply winks at the astonished fan and says, “See you next tour.” He gets back on the bus and heads to Austin.
It’s an exceptionally lonely life, and his predictable descent into alcoholism and cocaine are more poignant than most. As Halford sinks into despair, he overdoses on pills and Jack Daniels in an attempt to end his life. His first real love, a torture of unrequited desire, commits suicide. He stumbles into physical fights and other dangerous, stupid situations. All of it is the stuff of rock and roll cliché but for the ever-lingering pain of hiding one’s true self from the world and even from his bandmates. Who kind of know, but with typical Black Country stoicism, say nothing and allow their singer his space.
Halford enters rehab and kicks a variety of destructive habits. Sober at last, he begins to love himself a little better. He slowly comes to terms with who he is — slips in lyrics about blowjobs (not new to metal, but focused on both giving and receiving) or attends a gay march against Margaret Thatcher. (“These are my people! There was a real buzz and energy. Oh, yeah, and plenty of eye candy!”) Finally falling in grown-up, reciprocated love with a scrumptious former Marine from Alabama, Halford integrates his life in a way that feels as triumphant as riding a Harley onto that stage at the US Festival. He comes out on MTV and discovers that he is not only not rejected but is reborn among millions of others struggling to live authentic lives. That kind of role model was in short supply during Halford’s own youth, with the raconteur Quentin Crisp providing a rare public example. Halford finally meets Crisp at a gay pride rally in San Diego shortly before Crisp died in 1999.
(I had actually met Quentin Crisp myself a couple years earlier and have been killing with a line he laid on me ever since. He told my friends and me a story about having been accosted by “two blokes who were tall as trees and twice as shady.”)
Confess is a redemptive, funny, honest account. As Painkiller gives way to Electric Eye on my Spotify, the music Priest produced still holds up. And so does its singer. We all carry secrets. The lesson of this unforgettable memoir is not to let those secrets undo what makes each of us uniquely valuable.