Judas Priest is one of the most influential and iconic heavy metal acts of all time, not to mention out frontman Rob Halford invented and codified metal’s signature leather man look. But Halford struggled with the Rock and Roll closet for more than two decades, with no release, epitomized by the night he saw his publicly closeted colleague, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, in an Athens bar.
“I saw Freddie, it must have been in the early 1980s, and I was going to Mykonos with friends from London via Athens,” Halford told me a decade ago. “We got to the hotel and did what we all did then – the clubs, the parties. At one club Freddie was holding court at the other end of the bar. We were two ships passing in the night. He waved, I waved. The place was packed and we never got the chance to connect. The next day we all went to Mykonos and I was on a beach when his yacht sailed by.”
Halford turned 69 this year, but quit drinking and drugging in 1986. He not only wanted to live, he says, but wanted to protect his four-octave vocal range.
Coming out also saved Halford: he has lived an out-and-proud heavy-metal life ever since he came out on MTV in 1998 – the first metal icon to announce that he is gay. Today, he is adored by metalheads worldwide, including Johnny Depp and Lady Gaga.
But all those years on the road, cruising public restrooms, fueled by booze and drugs, as Judas Priest rose from local bar band favourites in Birmingham, England, 50 years ago to become international icons — Halford’s breathless life on the edge is vividly captured in his witty and candid new autobiography Confess (Hachette Books), including the time he was arrested for public indecency in a men’s restroom in 1992.
I recently sat down with Halford for a pandemic-era Zoom interview. Halford was gracious, candid and – as always – a consummate pro.
You had a dildo as a 15-year-old! Your dad found it, you kept it, and your dad never mentioned it again. I can’t help but think you had good parents.
Blessed without a shadow of a doubt. Blessed, unconditional love. You know, it’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Especially when it comes from your parents.
The first gay bars you went to were Grosvenor House Hotel and the Nightingale in Birmingham. But it sounds like going to gay bars didn’t get easier for you as you got famous. Reading your book, your struggle with the closet seemed paralyzing. Then you’d turn around and wear a Tom of Finland T-shirt to Studio 54!
Yeah, and of course, the irony of going onstage in leather and studs, whips and chains, looking like a Tom of Finland character. I’ve got pictures of me in that Tom of Finland shirt with Andy Warhol at Studio 54. I can’t even remember putting that shirt on. The great thing about New York is you can wear a T-shirt like that and nobody blinks an eye. They don’t really make an assumption. It’s just, “Oh, that’s a cool shirt.”
But for so many years I was the gay man in the heavy metal closet. It was a double life for me. I couldn’t go to gay bars after a show. I couldn’t be out with my own people because of the fear of doing damage to the band and everybody else. My life was the classic example of putting everybody else first and putting yourself second. Which is the worst you can do to yourself.
Well, it almost killed you.
Absolutely. I discovered along the way that I was addicted to booze and drugs. A lot of my friends can drink and drug, and do it safely, if there is such a thing. But it was the opposite for me, a cry for help.
Your song “Raw Deal” on Priest’s 1977 album Sin After Sin was about cruising gay bars on Fire Island. What was the reaction to the song?
I don’t know whether the band had a clue. When we were in the studio making that record, I was in the corner with my thesaurus, writing lyrics. I’m always stimulated and given direction by the sound of the song, the instrumentation, and I went ahead and wrote those words, not even thinking about the possible consequences. Then, like we always do in Priest, we double-check with each other to make sure everybody’s happy and comfortable. So, all the guys were like, “Yeah, this is great. Let’s do it.” It’s the most unofficial coming out song in history.
I love your chapter called “The Shirley Bassey Leather Years” in which you detail creating the leather look now synonymous with metal.
Go on YouTube and look at Judas Priest performing at the Old Grey Whistle Test on the BBC, where I’m literally wearing a purple sequin top that I took out of my sister’s closet. The rest of the guys are wearing loon pants and paisley shirts. So we searched for a real strong image that fitted the sound of the music.
I think the first thing that happened was I decided to wear a black leather motorcycle jacket on stage for a song. It felt and looked great. Then suddenly it’s like, “Oh my God, this is the way we need to go.” But it’s pure irony. It wasn’t my intent to develop this look for the band with any kind of agenda in mind. But it certainly is part of my story as a gay man in metal.
You were arrested for cruising a Venice Beach restroom in 1992 but the cops didn’t release the information to the media because they were Priest fans. You’ve called it your George Michael moment.
That cop was very caring and understanding. Here’s the deal about that side of what some of us do. Besides the thrill – and it’s a strange thrill – for my part it was very sad and poignant because that was the only way I could get some kind of physical intimacy. In my book I talk about a couple of those incidents, one of the humourous ones was in a Texas truck stop with a presumably gay Priest fan. I think it’s an important part of the book and not a reflection on us all in the gay community. Still, some people enjoy that experience but it’s dangerous. I got an STD and hepatitis from it.
Rehab in 1986 saved your life, but did coming out publicly on MTV in 1998 also save your life?
I think it saved my life mentally. We go through mental anguish as we try to find peace with our sexual identity. Sharing our truth with family, friends and coworkers is incredibly powerful, and I think in the LGBTQ community we are powerful strong people. We have to deal with so much pushback. We are still kicked around like a football. We’re pushing back constantly. My coming out on MTV was unplanned. But a massive burden was released and nothing but good came from it.
As you wrote in your book, metal fans aren’t known for their tolerance. Since your public coming out, however, I’ve been to three or four Judas Priest concerts and I have never felt uncomfortable. Thanks to you.
Well, that’s beautiful. I really, really appreciate those kind words. I think the early 90s were much better than the early 70s for gay people. The heavy metal community is becoming more and more inclusive. I’ve watched this grow incrementally. We’re an extremely welcoming community. We embrace each other. We’re all here to have a good time. And at the shows I can spot my gays as soon as I walk out onstage. It’s wonderful.
Judas Priest has been eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1999. I cannot believe your band has yet to be inducted. That said, you guys have nothing to prove. Does it matter anymore?
That’s a good question about what matters and what really matters. Because we know what really matters is unconditionally loving each other and the simple beautiful things in life.
Having said that, I think it’s a show of acknowledgement: “Look at what these guys did.” How many times have we almost got in? Is it two or three times now? I still would love it because we deserve to be there. It’s as though the Hall of Fame people keep fanning the fire for no apparent reason. I think we will get in eventually.
INFOS | judaspriest