At the center of the glamour and Guignol is the man who is W.A.S.P.: Blackie Lawless. The 43-year-old lead singer, rhythm guitarist, occasional bassist, chief songwriter and lyricist, concept man, costume designer and producer has weathered 12 albums. What sets him apart, besides his très-cool moniker, is his voice. By design or by nature, Lawless possesses the pipes of evil. Had Torquemada cut an album, his voice probably would have sounded like Lawless' -- a torturous howl of vibrato that puts W.A.S.P. in the pantheon of metal bands that are great even before the guitars kick in. What Rob Halford did for Judas Priest, what Bruce Dickinson did for Iron Maiden, Lawless does for W.A.S.P. We are not worthy.
Lawless on his voice: "You just develop it over a period of time. It's just like any other muscle -- you gotta work it. A lot of that is acting. You look at a song the way an actor looks at a part. You say, "What am I trying to say with this? What's the feel that you're trying to get across?'"
Their current tour brings W.A.S.P. to the adult theme park of Sauget, Ill., and Pop's in support of their latest disc, a greatest-hits collection called The Best of the Best, Vol. 1.
Blackie Lawless purportedly began life as Steven Duren. He started raising hell from the get-go and was banished to and then kicked out of military school. After earning his freedom, he would never again receive a meaningful haircut.
He grew up in New York and was friendly with Kiss' Ace Frehley. At age 18, Lawless fronted one of the final incarnations of cross-dressing pioneers, the New York Dolls. He moved to LA and started a ghoulish Alice Cooper-type outfit called Sister, which became W.A.S.P.
Capitol Records signed W.A.S.P. in the '80s LA-metal heyday but refused to release their first single, "Animal" ("Fuck Like a Beast"), for obvious reasons. Their self-titled first album did not contain the song, though it would later become a favorite of Tipper Gore's when it was released as a single by a different company.
Never at a loss for clever turns of phrase, Lawless writes in the song "School Daze" that "a homework hellhouse screams at me, "Make the grade!'" -- an accurate description of modern education. In the bridge to "Wild Child," he wails, "a naked heat machine, I want your love," backed by noises that sound like screeching monkeys and maracas.
After releasing The Last Command, Inside the Electric Circus and The Headless Children, W.A.S.P. switched gears and produced The Crimson Idol, a rock opera about a music icon whose fame leads him down a dark path to suicide. The darkness became darker still with the release of the Spinal Tappishly titled Still Not Black Enough and the laconically named Kill, Fuck, Die, a parent-scaring opus of slow, spooky tempos and synthesizers. A W.A.S.P. press release describes the contents of KFD as "a new dimension in shock rock where parental warning stickers serve as toilet paper." I have no idea what this means, but it is hilarious.
Then came Helldorado, chock-full of tales of decadence from the Old West, along with the possessed Cadillac of the title song. This most recent studio release contains the man's song "Dirty Balls" and the woman's song "Don't Cry" ("Just Suck"), a song that harkens back to Whitesnake's "Spit It Out" ("If You Don't Like It").
Lawless is as noted for his haunting voice as he is for his macabre image and toys. He fronted W.A.S.P. in the good old days of the '80s wearing a black mane of hair highlighted by spectral gray streaks. He has not forsaken his trademark, halved circular-saw blades dipped in chrome paint and mounted on armbands; the blades, he says, are as sharp as they look. At concerts, Lawless used to throw raw meat at the audience and pretend to torment a half-naked girl, daubed in fake blood and lashed to a torture rack. W.A.S.P. album art of note has included the bloody heads of the band members impaled on stakes.
Lawless has moved beyond these gimmicks, though. His later repertoire includes the "exploding codpiece," a device that shoots a spray of sparks from under his crotch. (This stunt once burned his ass nicely.) He sometimes uses a mike stand fitted with chopper handlebars, headlights and revving sound effects. A recent tour included his gross-out-de-resistance, a knife mounted to his codpiece known as the "dick blade," with which he rapes effigies of a nun and Marilyn Manson in various orifices. He then pulls a bloody fetus doll from the victim's insides and impales it on the knife. The kids just love it.
Of the show he's bringing to town for this tour, he says, "Man, this thing is wild. It's got blood and guts and more blood and bangs and booms and bombs and mayhem and pornography. Think of it as your local Boy Scout troop on crack."
If you're wondering whether W.A.S.P. stands for "White Anglo-Saxon Protestants" or, as some of us figured in the '80s, "We Are Sex Perverts," Lawless provides the cryptic answer: "We Ain't Sayin', Partner."
W.A.S.P. plays Pop's in Sauget, Ill., on Saturday, March 18. Call 618-274-6720 for tickets.