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By William Michael Smith
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When Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. was writing "I Wanna Be Somebody," his shock-metal band's breakthrough song of 1984, he probably was imagining being a superstar rock god. He probably never imagined being what he has become, a lightning rod for free speech.
Last week a Montgomery Count y nightclub canceled a W.A.S.P. performance under ambiguous circumstances. Robert Patrick, who bought into Silver City Extreme just before the cancellation, says he pulled the plug on the show for one obvious reason: W.A.S.P.'s incompatibility with the club. "I saw their Web site," he says, "and I knew it was something that would not play in this nightclub." Which makes sense. Silver City, with its "Texas Tumbleweed" grill and hanging animal skins, has always been known as a big-hair country joint. W.A.S.P., on the other hand, has always been known as a big-hair metal act. The April 2 show has been relocated to Bahama Mama's.
But others believe there is a more insidious reason behind why Silver City squashed W.A.S.P. Some feel Guy Williams, the Montgomery County sheriff, put undue pressure on the 18-and-up club and its former manager Jimmy Higgins, who recently relinquished his duties because of poor health. Higgins could not be reached for comment.
Williams, through a statement read by sheriff's department spokeswoman Denise Janeway, says he viewed information from W.A.S.P.'s Web site and thought the band "appeared satanic in nature, and pretty perverted to throw blood on the audience and around on stage." Williams also says that if the show had gone on as scheduled, he would have had "40 officers available to be dedicated to the show and 400 preachers who wanted to protest that performance."
Janeway says the sheriff's department had been receiving many complaints of fights and disorderly behavior at Silver City. The club is owned by Scotchdale, Inc., whose president is Johnnie Rumfolo. The frequency of complaints, combined with the band's rowdy persona, prompted the sheriff to take a stance, Janeway says. The sheriff obviously has his supporters; he has been in his post since 1992 and easily won re-election earlier this month.
During early March, after the show had been scheduled, the sheriff's department coordinated two stings at Silver City. On March 2, according to two separate TABC officials, eight people were arrested for public intoxication, and even more patrons were arrested during a March 9 sting, although exact numbers were not available by deadline. (According to TABC, Silver City was last investigated on October 29, following a complaint for an alleged sale to a minor. TABC proved the complaint unfounded.) Show promoter John Moulds of Diamondhead Records, Michael Hudson of Sound On Sound Productions, the show's sound support, and Chip Ruggieri of Chipster Entertainment, W.A.S.P.'s publicity company, saw the stings as precursors of things to come.
Since its beginnings in 1982, W.A.S.P. has used shock as a selling tool. A onetime Houstonian (his father attended Rice University, and his mother was born and raised here), Lawless became somebody in L.A., where after a few years playing in a punk outfit he formed W.A.S.P. Legend has it the name is an acronym for We Are Sexual Perverts. The band earned a reputation as the hardest, most shocking one around -- quite an accomplishment considering L.A. was then in the throes of hair-metal mania.
Not long after signing with Capitol Records in 1983, W.A.S.P. was giving label execs and politicians fits. Its song "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)" was dropped from its self-titled Capitol debut but was soon picked up by the Music for Nations label and promptly sold 400,000 units. Thanks to tunes like "Animal" and others, a nice synergy developed between W.A.S.P. and cultural conservatives. The louder Tipper Gore and her Parents' Music Resource Center denounced the band, the quicker albums flew off record store shelves. Though other bands have since surpassed W.A.S.P. in shock value, and Gore and her group have graduated to attacking more "obscene" targets, the band (with front man Lawless as its only constant) maintains a healthy level of outrage, which basically keeps its members employed.
Booking the controversial W.A.S.P. may have been part of Silver City's attempt to broaden its patron base, since recent sales have been down. Promoter Moulds says Silver City contacted him, not the other way around. The band's target audience, after all, is white males between the ages of 25 and 35. It's safe to say a good number of those white males imbibe freely, downing all that marked-up alcohol.
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, William Shakespeare and Ben Franklin in his defense, Lawless, who claims to be a direct descendant of Sam Houston, gets downright territorial when defending his right to perform in his family's old 'hood. "It's not like I'm some stranger," he says from a tour stop in Nebraska. "If someone tells me I can't do this, he oughta go back and check his history. I'd like to think we've come so far that something like this doesn't exist.In an election year, this is a big story. It doesn't deserve to be swept under the rug."
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