As lead singer of veteran British heavy-metal band Judas Priest, Rob Halford is used to being photographed and signing autographs. But that’s usually backstage at one of the group’s head-banging concerts.
For the past two weeks, Halford, 38, has been approached by fans in a place he never expected to be: the steps of the Washoe County Courthouse, where his band is being blamed in the deaths of two local youths.
“This situation is like Disneyland or something,” said the soft-spoken rocker, who is scheduled to testify today. “It’s so hard for me to comprehend that the prosecution actually believes Judas Priest would ever attempt to hurt the people who buy our records. Why would we want to do that?”
Halford’s band is being sued by the families of two Sparks, Nev., young men who shot themselves on Dec. 23, 1985. The parents of Raymond Belknap, 18, and James Vance, 20, blame their sons’ deaths on auditory subliminal messages they allege are embedded in the band’s 1978 album “Stained Class.”
Attorneys for the parents are seeking unspecified money damages to compensate for the deaths, medical bills and child support. In addition, they want punitive damages from CBS Records, which produced and distributed the album. Both CBS and the band deny the existence of subliminal messages on any Judas Priest album.
Dressed in a conservative gray suit and white shirt buttoned to the collar, Halford shook hands and posed for a series of snapshots with a polite crowd of heavy-metal fans after Friday’s court session. Nothing but the chrome-studded black leather boots and belt suggested the rebellious image that Judas Priest projects on stage.
“A lot of people didn’t think we’d show up except to testify, but we feel this is a very serious issue,” the singer said.
“We are here to defend the name of Judas Priest, but also because somebody has to take a stand against these . . . attorneys who prey upon the grief and pain of families for publicity. We have to stop them from attacking and using art to fill their pockets with cash.”
Halford and three other members of the quintet--bassist Ian Hill and guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, are staying in a house outside Reno. They rescheduled their upcoming tour and delayed the release of their new CBS album to attend the trial, which is expected to run through mid-August.
Onstage, Judas Priest plays the role of a loud leather-clad rock band whose performances include heavy doses of fireworks and feedback.
But offstage, Halford, who jots down notes and observes the courtroom proceedings intently, insists that he and his band mates lead quite ordinary lives. Two are married with children. Three are golf fanatics. Halford is a tennis buff.
“Personally, I consider myself to be a Christian man,” Halford said. “I don’t drink, smoke or take drugs. I don’t plant sinister subliminal messages on any of my songs. Never have. Never will.”
Critics of the band, however, have denounced Halford’s music and stage show for promoting violent, suicidal and satanic themes.
Last week, Robert S. Demski, the medical director of a San Antonio, Tex., hospital for troubled adolescents, testified in court that he banned the group’s music from his facility because he believed it induced violent behavior in his patients. Also, Darlyne Pettinicchio, a Fullerton probation officer, testified that the group’s music glorifies Satan, causing youths to become self-destructive.
Peter A. Michas, vice president of the National Information Network, a Redlands-based organization that prepares training manuals to educate police departments across the United States as to the negative effects of heavy-metal music, says Halford is using his daily presence at the trial to fleece the media.
“Of course he’s going to claim his music is not satanic. What else would you expect him to say?” Michas asked in a phone interview. “If you ask me, putting a Judas Priest album on the turntable is like putting a loaded gun in a kid’s hand.”
Halford scoffs at such accusations.
“It’s preposterous. These people act like we drink a gallon of blood, hang from crucifixes upside down and do incantations before we go on stage,” Halford said. “What we do is show business. Our fans expect us to dress in the costumes we wear. I mean, it’s not as if we could go out there looking like (country singer) Waylon Jennings, now could we?”
Halford says the band is very concerned about the trial’s outcome.
“If the judge does decide against, that means Judas Priest might literally end up being charged with criminal manslaughter,” Halford said. “At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I believe such a ruling could open up a hornet’s nest in the industry.
“Artists, producers and record companies could be forced to sign affidavits swearing that no subliminal messages have been inserted into every piece of work they did. Radio and TV stations that played the music would also come under scrutiny, having to run non-subliminal disclaimers.”
Outside the courthouse, a small group of fans pledged to maintain a vigil throughout the trial to show support for Judas Priest. Reno resident Scott Michaud, 19, called the charges against Halford’s band “a bunch of false accusations.”
William Ellenberger, 18, says he intends to picket the trial for its duration. “Heavy-metal music doesn’t kill people,” Ellenberger said. “How can the parents blame Judas Priest when it was their own kids’ fault?”
Even Vivian Lynch, one of the attorneys attempting to prosecute Judas Priest, waited in line for an autograph in court. Lynch has blamed alleged subliminal messages in the band’s music for pushing “the boys over the edge into eternity.”
During a recess Friday, however, she told The Times:
“I have nothing against the Judas Priest band. They were very nice to me when I took their depositions. They gave me autographed pictures for my sons.”