Redemption Song: Bobby Liebling Of Pentagram Interviewed
, March 13th, 2013 09:05
Toby Cook speaks to the voice of rock & roll resilience, Bobby Liebling. Photograph by Jeff Lee
“Drugs have done good things for us; if you don’t believe they have then do me a favour: take all your albums, tapes and CDs and burn them. Because you know what? The musicians that made that great music that has enhanced your lives throughout the years? Real fucking high.”
For as long as there has been rock & roll there have been rock & roll musicians taking drugs, and whatever side of the seemingly endless debate on a workable, cohesive drugs policy you place yourself there can be little doubt that, ethical, moral and health concerns aside, drugs have been responsible for some incredible pieces of art, music and literature. But drugs, all drugs, are dangerous in one way or another – ask Hunter S. Thompson or Kurt Cobain; if you’re not careful they’ll fucking ruin, if not end your life. It should be easy to take the common sense approach; there’s no excuse for anyone not knowing the dangers of heroin, but smoking some weed a few times a month and watching Predator 2 probably won’t do you too much harm.
Yet human beings are amazingly complex, flawed and fundamentally lack the ability to employ common sense en mass. Whether you're a trendy journalist writing about how ultra fucking hip and cool it is to hang out with their bellend mates at a roof party in Manhattan, smoking crystal meth and shoving Oxycontin up their arses or someone trying to take the edge off their quotidian misery but actually sinking into paralysing drug addiction and poverty, drugs often win.
If there is one person that truly embodies the infinite contradictions and debates that surround drug use then that person is surly Pentagram vocalist, and only constant member, Bobby Liebling. Formed in Alexandria, Virginia sometime around 1971 Pentagram have often been described as being a “street Black Sabbath”, and yet despite their considerable influence over not just the doom and stoner rock scenes but arguably the entire metal genre too, through a mixture of bad luck, bad timing and, occasionally, bad attitude they never made it.
Over their four decade existence a plethora of members came and went, new records intermittently oozed out mostly below the radar and various official and unofficial compilations surfaced with little or no input from anyone connected with the band.
Eventually, up until five years ago, all that was left of Pentagram was Liebling, by this time a 54-year-old wreck eking out a miserable existence in his parents' sub-basement, deep in the grips of a debilitating heroin and crack addiction and literally scratching the skin and flesh off of his body as he howled about parasites living under his skin, all the while maintaining the sad delusion the he would one day make it into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. It’s a situation captured brilliantly yet painfully in the 2011 documentary Last Days Here which focuses on the efforts of both Liebling and his manager/ carer/ confidant Sean ‘Pellet’ Pelletier to get clean, get out of his parents' house, make a new Pentagram record and get the band on the road. If you’ve not seen the film imagine something about halfway between Anvil! The Story Of Anvil and Vice’s Swansea Love Story.
Liebling then, perhaps, in a wild-haired, bug-eyed microcosm perfectly evokes the internal conflict most right minded people suffer when dealing with serious, long term hard drug addicts; clean, sober and productive for nearly five years when the Quietus meets him in a north London café before Pentagram’s show at the nearby Islington Garage he’s engaging, witty and effusive; he constantly veers from verbose gesticulation and (probably) wildly embellished stories to shy, introverted muffles; he is an undeniably supremely likable man, seeking little more than redemption. And yet he is also a man whose drug use has caused innumerable missed opportunities and catastrophes for his band; has cost his parents, in their own estimations, upwards of $1,000,000; he has lied to, let down and alienated most of his friends; he’s been incarcerated; he’s been a liar, a cheat and a thief who at one point during the interview even appears to admit to having killed a man. The music and the legacy of Pentagram endures nonetheless, as it rightly should do – rock & roll needs the likes of Bobby Liebling, life is all the more richer because of people like him, but his is a stern tale of waning to those who would aspire to be like him.
So Bobby, I hear you got caught up in super storm Sandy?
Bobby Liebling: Yeah – it was supposed to be the worst since Katrina, I saw whole neighbourhoods under water!
Hurricanes aside, how are things for Bobby Liebling at the moment?
BL: Things are going good – my little boy just turned two; it’s mine and my wife’s third wedding anniversary on the 25th…
Ah, the ‘terrible twos’…
BL: Oh yeah, you’ve got to batten down the hatches with that; everything is nailed up in the house and we’ve got all these baby fences and everything but he still tears the house to shreds, just like I used to! It’s like looking at a baby me, exactly – it’s scary! Except that he’s got white hair still because my wife is blonde, right, and my hair didn’t start to turn brown until I was like four or something.
Has he got the wild curls like his dad though?
BL: Oh yeah, he’s got lots of curls like me; her colour hair and my curls. He looks like me more though, because he’s a boy right.
I was hoping to talk today a little bit about your journey through music – do you remember that first moment that turned you on to rock & roll?
BL: Well I listened to doo-wop a lot in the fifties – y’know, a cappella, fifties pop music and all that. But then when Ed Sullivan came on for the first time, and The Beatles were on – live of course, because Ed never let anyone fake anything, right – and I saw all these bras and panties being thrown up on stage and right there and then I said, 'Yep, that’s what I want to do!'
And do you remember the first record that you ever bought?
BL: Yeah, sure – it was that single 'The Wanderer' by Dion.
Shit, that’s going back a way!
BL: Oh yeah, well I remember when records were all 45s, on a 45 player that you can’t find now but they’re worth a hell of a lot of money. I used to go to sock hops – for real! – like you’ve seen in the movies, people dancing with their shoes off and all that, yeah? I even won some dance contests when I was about seven and nine. Back then I had a transistor radio up against my ear 10 to 12 hours a day by the time I was five, it was just a calling I guess.
So did you grow up in a very musical household?
BL: My mother was a piano bar and cocktail lounge singer and she toured in the Korean war with Bob Hope, through Canada – so she was a professional singer. But my dad, he was in the defence department and eventually ended up running the Pentagon when he retired – and he did, my father was the assistant to the director of defence for the whole of the United States – I was not exactly the apple of his eye!
Wow, so you kind of went in a total 180 from that direction…
BL: Yeah, and I’m an only child too – my parents are Jewish and from Brooklyn, so they wanted the doctor or lawyer trip, right? And I was rock & roll from day one; I was already taking drugs when I was eight years old and I was tripping everyday when I was ten, when acid was still legal – until June 6th 1966, four sixes hey! So yeah, I used to trip when it was legal, until they started all that blotter shit at the end of the 60s/ turn of the 70s; I’d stopped tripping by 1971, I quit.
So as a child I was very ‘untamed’, you might say, I was left to roam the streets – my dad was on a lot of business trips, my mother had no idea and eventually, unfortunately by the time I was 12-years-old I was dealing coke and heroin.
So how weird is it for you to think, when you look back on the records that affected you in your youth, to think that now there are kids in the same position digging Pentagram records?
BL: It’s very surreal – I get really embarrassed and shy, especially the older I get, but it happens more now because we’re playing places, fuck, like Swedrock, Hellfest and places like that. But it’s sort of the same for me still – if you look at my Facebook page there’s a picture of me with Michael Schenker, there’s a picture of me with Zakk Wylde, with Andy Powell and Buck Dharma, y’know, all my idols – y’know Buck from Blue Öyster Cult stayed at my house some 30 odd years ago when they toured the U.S….
But do you feel that to a certain extent you’re getting the reward for the effort that you put in back in the day? And what kept you going? Because with the greatest of respect in the 80s especially there were some bleak, bleak years for the band.
BL: I kind of feel that I am, but the problem is that I’m so old! And too be honest, fuck, I don’t remember the 80s, I really don’t remember them! They just used to grab a hold of my shirt – I had all these extravagant clothes back them – and they would point a flash light and say “go that way” – I didn’t know where I was playing or anything, I was just on auto pilot.
Music’s been my whole life; I mean, I’ve cleaned every dirty toilet, I’ve run every gas station, I’ve worked every phone room, I’ve cleaned every high rise building and emptied out old apartments; all the shit job that all musicians do, I’ve done ‘em all! But I started working at a record store when I was 16 called Giant Music, selling instruments and helping people find records, and I was so deep in music already back then – they still had mono records back then, and mono albums were a dollar cheaper than stereo albums, it was $2.69 for a mono album – but here’s what I’m getting at: I’ve got the first 12 Rolling Stones albums, I’ve got four copies of each, all on different labels and all in absolutely immaculate condition; the Stones man, the Stones are my boys – when they first came along Brian Jones was my all time idol, he was a genius and a sad loss. I actually met Brian once, and later did coke with Mick and Keith in their limo for two and a half hours in New Jersey in 1978; I was such a groupie as far as, I mean, there was no sex involved, but my idols were dear to me, I revered them and I put them up on a pedestal. So when I see kids now, and some of them come up and go, like, "Mr Liebling, can I shake your hand?" and I’m like, "Who’s Mr. Liebling? I’m Bobby! Little Bobby."
I think a lot of people outside of the music world, and some people in it, will do doubt look at a story like yours and say, well, why didn’t he give it up? Why didn’t he get a desk job and join the real world…
BL: Like me; didn’t make it, didn’t make it… why didn’t I give it up and try something else? It’s the commitment and the conviction.
But how do you explain that to someone else, because that attitude, to a lot of people defies good sense and logic?
BL: I always tell young guys in bands… how old are you?
BL: Alright, guys just your age I tell them that the key to success is longevity, you have got to – I don’t give a good god damn how much you love music and get off on listening to records and smoking joints and yadda, yadda, yadda – I learned late in life that you’ve got to keep your commitment. And I said to myself, "You kept yours, you deserved more than you’ve gotten, fucked up or not." And now, when I go into places and get swamped for autographs; in Europe they treat us like we’re gods and it’s strange, it’s like, "What’s wrong with this picture; I’m just a dumb junkie, I’ve fucked my whole life up."
You seem like quite a religious person; do you ever look at it and think ‘I wish I could go back and do this again, and not do that’ or is there, for you, this sense that despite all the shit this was God’s plan for you all along?
BL: I think this was the plan – I’m definite about that, I’m very definitive that this was the plan because if it wasn’t the plan I wouldn’t have been 53, met a 21 year old girl who liked much older men and was virtually a virgin when I met her, I mean she’d gone through virtually her whole entire life, until 16 or something, going to Catholic school and y’know she had maybe two boyfriends before me – and she’s the best friend I’ve ever had, she’s my soul mate and is by far the love of my life; she gave me a son; she married me, this kooky guy who got the rap for doing all sorts of weird stuff – I used to like to cut myself all to shreds at practices, take all of my clothes off and do all kinds of crazy shit – because I thought I was Iggy Pop my entire life – but I’ve learned that the spiritual part of life is what has kept me going.
Before I met her I’d been with close to 1,500 women, but she knows I’ve broken all Ten Commandments, God forgive me, all ten. And I mean all ten; to take people out of the game is hard and it’s not right, somebody somewhere loved that person.
When I met her she said, y’know, "You’re so screwed up, but I love you and I can see that you are redeemable. But you’re hanging on by a thread." I think that when I met her, if I hadn’t stopped then two or three months later I would have been dead from drugs. I mean, I’ve consumed something like $38 million worth of heroin and cocaine – that’s a lot of dough.
You mention your wife, who you met during the filming of Last Days Here; presumably you’ve seen the film? What did you think, especially when you watch the early parts of the film where, with respect, you look close to death?
BL: The first part makes me cry, it really does; it’s like, look at that poor guy, he blew it, he ruined it. And then, when her and I had that separation after we were together for like three or four months we were apart for seven; she had a restraining order on me and I went to jail because I couldn’t stop calling her to tell her that I loved her and to come back home. So, finally, I got out of jail and I said that’s it, I’m going to stop, I want her more than I want the drugs – she was the first one, there’s just something about her that’s just magical.
How much do you feel that the film has given a pretty accurate picture of you and where you were at that period in your life?
BL: The journey from the dark to the light? Yeah, it does do that. But the only thing I do wish is that it had more music in it. Plus the 20 minutes that they cut out is the best part! That was the part with Hank Three [Hank Williams III] in; we’re actually planning on doing an album together… So I’ve got some plans going on there.
But then again, when it comes to stuff like, that I’m a pain in the ass I really am – a royal pain in the ass, because I’m a perfectionist, my demands are solid and I won’t budge. And I’m always broke, even without the drugs I’m always broke, all the time, because I like my friends to smile, I really do.
With Pentagram being the force that I think a lot of people always hoped that they would be, how much is Bobby Liebling smiling?
BL: Bobby Liebling’s smiling a lot! He’s thankful he’s here to be honest, I mean, I’m on my tenth life already and I shouldn’t be here, that’s just the best way to put it really, I should be dead. But that’s all in the plan. Like I said, it has to be – something’s rolling the ball that the worlds rolling around on and it’s not me. And it’s not the devil either because that didn’t get me shit! That got me ostracised from people eventually, to the point where I knew nobody and I was just a criminal, a street criminal. But I always kept that thought that I would do Pentagram again.
And it looks like it’s paying off finally…
BL: Finally! I’m supporting my family at last – I’ll do anything to keep doing that.
It’s a bit of a cheesy question, but what does the 56-year-old Bobby say to the 16 year old Bobby if he could?
BL: Keep the drugs out of the game, they’ll take you down. I don’t give a shit who you are – you can think you’re Superman; I don’t care how much you think that you have a handle on it and "Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control" – it’s impossible. What I’ve done, how many people have done that? I mean the dosages I was on and the length of time I was on them, which was an awful, awful long time – I started smoking pot and drinking beer when I was eight, maybe seven and a half. By the time I was 12 I was skipping school and by the time I was 14… With Shades Of Darkness, my local band who did all covers – we were like a known local covers band – I heard my name on the radio every half an hour and sure, it went to my head, of course it did, I was 14 years old; I thought I was the fucking king!
So, going back to Pentagram, it took you some 40 odd years to get over to the UK with them – and you’ve now played here twice in as many years – given the style of music that Pentagram play do you feel that the UK is almost the spiritual home of Pentagram?
BL: It is, yes, it really is – I feel at home here, really, just like I feel at my own home. If I could afford to live here this is where I would take my wife and son right now – this is where it all came from man, in my life at least. I mean, when The Beatles came on Ed Sullivan I was nine years old and, y’know, the next year I was trying to start an band.
And with that, and touring Europe too, what’s next for Pentagram?
BL: Well, we’re signed for three albums, and then when Metal Blade drops us Sony and Housecore [Phil Anselmo’s record label] want us – but I like staying on Metal Blade, it’s the only independent that really survived the indie-era and you could almost call them a major label too, they’ve got distribution in the US and Canada and Sony serves them in the rest of the world, so you can find our records in a lot of places. And you can find my movie all over the world too – I mean, when I saw that I was just like, "I can’t believe this man, this is like the pinnacle, the icing on the cake – somebody made a movie about me!? Who am I?" But I know where my talents lie – I don’t want it to come off as sounding conceited, but there’s no other way for it to come off; I know rock & roll. I know the business, I know the industry, I know the cheap scum bag industry that it is – and it’s always going to be like that – but you take it with a pinch of salt when you go out, there’s no other way to do it.
You’ve spoken already about having to literally be propped up on stage during the 80s, but as someone who on their day looks born to command a stage how much do you feel now that you are actually giving the quality of performance that you’re truly capable of?
BL: Well yeah, I feel that I can give the performances that I always wanted to give, except that my physical health isn’t great, partly that’s a natural thing because I’m getting older and I can’t move around like I used to. But I can sing better now than I used to and I’m, y’know, trying to groom my art so I can earn my place in the ‘hall of respectable’ – I still hope to be in the Hall Of Fame some day.
More likely now than ever I guess?
BL: Yes, exactly! I mean, until I was 55 I’d seen five states in my whole life, that’s was it: five states. Since then I’ve seen 46 States and 35 countries – that’s a lot of fucking travelling! And I feel a little more worldly now – I mean, I am, I feel like I’ve been to half the world now.
It must feel like being a teenager?
BL: It does, it does. And I’m still a little boy at heart; I’ve got a Peter Pan complex. But my wife likes that too – I’m resilient, I do bounce back, eventually!