When Rob Halford was just a teenager, he wandered down Lichfield Street in Wolverhampton, a working-class coal and steel town just outside of Birmingham, England.
He entered St. Peter’s Collegiate Church, a house of worship that began construction in 1425. The parish says that renovations to the site’s original structure, the monastery of St. Mary, dates back to the year 994, far before the eventual heavy metal powerhouse would experience a moment of elation there.
In the late 1960s, the soon-to-be Judas Priest frontman already fancied a life in rock’n’roll. He was enjoying a newly acquired pension for booze and prescription pills. And while the young man knew he was gay from childhood, thus far, his only intimate experiences were traumatic ones. This left the singer conflicted and confused. And while the Halford family followed the values of Christianity, he didn’t have much of a religious affiliation in the traditional sense.
“I was terrified,” 69-year-old Halford explains. “As a teenager, particularly when you’re struggling with sexual identity, you’ll go to any length to try to find resolvement. I was compelled, I was so frantic … it’s remarkable isn’t it? That a 15 or 16-year-old kid was so desperate to find peace that I was drawn to a church? It’s absolutely magnificent when you think about it.”
Halford passed by the vacant pews and approached a statue of the Virgin Mary. He can’t remember if he spoke out loud or thought quietly, but he pleaded with the holy statue for guidance. Were his desires evil? Was he a sinner?
Then, Halford felt a wave of peace run through him. His nose perceived the scent of roses. Nobody spoke with him, but he wondered whether he was blessed by Mother Mary herself.
“To go up to that beautiful Virgin Mary statue,” Halford wonders. “Why was I drawn there? Why didn’t I sit down and face the altar? I went straight to her — and wow! It was as real as anything.
Of course, I still had a lot of trials and tribulations to go through regarding that part of my life, but that was a beautiful experience.”
In the years that followed, Rob Halford would leave his smog-filled industrial hometown of Walsall and traverse the world as the singer of one of the greatest bands in the history of heavy metal. As the vocalist of Judas Priest, Halford sang on 16 of the band’s 18 full-length albums and cemented himself as an icon in the genre, earning the moniker, “Metal God.”
But Halford’s moment of clarity only served as a temporary reprieve to his unrest. It would take decades of hiding his truth — and leaving the band he loved — before Halford came out publicly in 1998.
In Confess: The Autobiography, with co-writer Ian Gittins, out now, the singer details years of identity crisis, substance abuse and dangerous sexual conquests. Halford developed a drug and alcohol addiction that turned him into someone violent and suicidal. His sexual plight led to a series of toxic relationships with straight men, visits to Texas rest-stop “glory holes” and a trip to jail for indecent exposure.
But Confess can’t be reduced to a collection of salacious gay encounters, cocaine binges or romanticized rock’n’roll horror stories. It’s a cautionary tale that offers redemption through courage and the changing of times. It’s a treasure-trove of heavy metal nuggets and anecdotes that any rock-blog dork would lose their mind over. But most importantly, it’s a beautiful exploration of the human condition and one man’s capacity for love and self-love.
“Why would anyone want to make a book like this?” Halford asks. “It all really hinges on this pivotal moment in my life where I became clean and sober — and as a result of that there’s an honesty that is uncontrollable. You don’t lie anymore.”
Below, Halford discusses Confess, his journey as closeted man in metal music, the COVID-19 pandemic, attempting suicide, his friend Ozzy Osbourne’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, Judas Priest’s infamous Reno trial — and even describes his dream wedding.
Confess actually concludes in current day — you address the COVID-19 pandemic and say that you’ve been enjoying a lot of Netflix. How have you been doing through all this?
I’m doing good, thank you! As far as the calendar, Priest would be in writing mode, which we have been doing some writing for a new album. The main thing it put the blocks on was the 50th anniversary, which we’ve got to reschedule to next year.
I’m also feeling a little bit of PTSD — if that’s the right way to use that expression — we’ve all been bombarded daily with this COVID situation, haven’t we?
Thankfully, I haven’t been in the terrible place that so many families have had to go through losing loved ones, that must be absolutely horrible. But I think we’re all worn out. And we’re desperately hoping for a vaccine.
But personally, I’m doing good. Currently, I’m watching an amazing 1985 BBC production of Oliver Twist, because I’m a big Charles Dickens fan. That and heavy metal and doing my nightly walks with my mask on and trying to keep healthy and ready for the next worldwide slug which hopefully will happen next year.
Will Judas Priest still be joining Ozzy Osbourne for his European tour? It was first postponed due to an injury, then Ozzy revealed he has Parkinson’s Disease, now COVID-19 has the whole world on hold…
Things are still up in the air with the Gods to what was supposed to happen with Priest and Ozzy for the UK and Europe. Everybody understands how this virus works, particularly with certain generations where the virus can do terrible damage. It affects everybody, but the certain demographic like myself, Ozzy and our fans can get hit really badly.
We all have to be safe. We’re getting the scientific evidence, anybody with any brains will listen to the scientists. Those are the sources for the information to go to, not to anybody else. These people do this for their lives, they’re award-winning people who do tremendous work, not only here in America but around the world, so we should listen to them.
You briefly mentioned Ozzy’s Parkinson’s diagnosis in your book. You’ve had an intimate view at the disease as your mother passed away from it and Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton is currently battling it…
Ozzy and Glenn stay in touch as I understand, obviously that’s a personal thing between those two guys, but it’s an awful disease. I saw it up close with my mom — how it can just suddenly take over in an instant. One minute you’re fine, then the next minute you just lose control of your limbs and it eventually affects the way you think and everything else. It’s cruel, it’s very very cruel. When it affects somebody in your family or somebody that you love, you tend to look at it a bit more strongly. There are some tremendous advances being made, but there’s a lot more work to do.
This book is so candid about your sexual journey, but many of the stories fixate on keeping your sexuality a secret. Is it a freeing feeling to publish the book?
Yeah, especially when we talk about the acceptance of my sexuality, which every gay person goes through. It’s terribly confusing, you’re full of unhappiness, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I this way?” It’s almost a rite of passage as you’re struggling to come out of the closet, you have to go through all these things that are messing with your head and your heart.
I make that very apparent in this book because it had a tremendous impact on my life. On Instagram every year, I celebrate Pride Week. And a number of fans, we talk openly about the ways we support each other by telling our stories.
This is another way of telling my story that I hope will reach somebody that themselves are still questioning or going through a big moment and stepping forward and saying, “Hey everybody, this is who I am… Born This Way, Lady Gaga!” That’s just part of a journey of self-love and acceptance.
For decades in Judas Priest, you contemplated the consequences of coming out: “How would this affect the band? Will it destroy Judas Priest? Will the metal community turn against me?” Was that an enormous cross to bear?
I’ve committed my life to heavy metal music, it means everything to me. And I’d like to feel that me having to go through the hidden side of my person didn’t interfere with the music. When I listen to the music that we made during all those years before I came out, I feel good about my work as a singer and as the lyricist of Priest.
Again, this is such a big and traumatic thing, that it can pervade into every issue of your life, every fabric of what you try and do on a day-to-day basis. And unless you’re a gay person, you can’t understand that, you can’t comprehend it. It’s impossible to tell the stories or express the feelings. Somehow I was able to get the work done.
Fans might find it surprising to read that although you remained in the closet for so many years publicly, you came out to your father at 13. He’d found a dirty magazine in the family car, confronted you and you spoke your truth. What gave you the strength in that moment?
I don’t know if that was an act of defiance. We were raised as kids to be honest, so I gave an honest answer. I was also frustrated, I was kicking myself for forgetting that I left the book in the car. But that’s where your mind is as a kid, you’re always distracted.
But, yeah, you would have thought the obvious reaction is, “Oh, Dad, I was just having a laugh! I’m not interested in that kind of thing, I don’t know why I read that book, it’s rubbish.” But I didn’t.
I can picture it now, I was in my little chair watching the TV and he came into the living room and stood there holding the book and posed the question: “Do you deny it?”
“I don’t deny it.”
He looked at me with a stone-cold face and slammed the door behind him and we never ever talked about it again.
For a 13-year-old boy to reconcile all those moving parts, there’s a lot going on there to even know what you’re thinking.
You can’t have an articulate conversation with your parents when you’re 13. It’s impossible. The first thing you start to do is yell at each other, then the walls go up, nobody is listening and everybody is screaming.
When Judas Priest started donning leather, whips and chains, many people assumed that was an allusion to your sexuality and the kink world. You’ve described your sex life as fairly vanilla and said it was just a wardrobe choice. Why was this theory “bollocks”?
You have to look at it with some humor, because that perception was coming from the outside in. You know, when people started to say that, I thought, “Well, I don’t, oh, yeah, yeah, I see what you’re saying, I get it, I see what the implication is…”
Well, no it’s nothing to do with the S&M world or other subcultures in the gay world! It has nothing to do with it, it just looks great. It’s just a strong visual statement that matches perfectly with the sound of the music.
But years later when you started using the Handkerchief Code on stage (a system used in gay culture in the 70s), that was a little different, right?
Yes, I was being flagrant! [laughs]. I was shoving it down your throats, baby! [laughs] …. in a hidden context. My trips to America really opened my eyes as far as what the gay world is about. We had our own style of it in the UK, but at the time, the early 70s, you could still be thrown in jail for being a gay man.
When I first came to America in the mid-late 70s and I had that wonderful San Francisco moment, finding the Advocate and the Bob Damron guide and I saw a little bit on the back about the bandanas, the handkerchiefs, and what they represented. I just went full on in my own little lie. I just thought it was a little hidden message.
At one point you said how you’d be on the bus and read the Bob Damron guide — which highlighted gay-friendly bars across America — and fantasize about going to these places, but you just couldn’t do it. To be living a rockstar lifestyle but hiding something so important, what emotion does that evoke?
It was loneliness. The want of a feel of another person — I mean that in a non-sexual way — just to embrace somebody that was like me. Everybody needs to be loved in every possible way the word love represents. One of them is just going to a gay bar and seeing somebody and hanging out and having a drink and a cuddle in the corner, not just go back and wam, bam, thank you man. It’s physical contact, touching somebody. I didn’t have that for the longest time.
Do you think that hiding these feelings exacerbated your problem with drugs and alcohol?
Obviously, the booze and drugs was an amplification of me having to hide, but the simple fact was, my brain is not made up to have a couple of drinks or just one line of coke. I have to have a bottle of Dom Perignon and a mountain of coke like Scarface, “Say hello to my little friend!”
But the combination, oh God, it was like a head-on car wreck with all of those things happening at the same time. You have to hit rock bottom. You’ve got to. The next step is death. And that was the moment where I said, “Enough is enough.”
Let’s talk about the “rock bottom” moment. You had become increasingly violent — the police showed up to your hotel room and shortly after you’re violently beating in your lover’s face. It was just a few days later that you took a bunch of sleeping pills in a suicide attempt, right?
Pretty much, yeah. Talk about losing control. When you start to get violent with anything, that’s a real manifestation of the seriousness of the way you’re acting with your addiction, or anger, or a combination of everything. That wasn’t me. That was somebody else, that was another part of personality, the Jekyll and Hyde that was brought out to the surface through all of the psychological trauma brought on by booze and drug addiction and dysfunctional personal relationships and any number of parts to the puzzle of why you suddenly go from being a nonviolent person to beating the s*** out of somebody, beating their face into a bloody pulp — which is what Brad and I did. There you go. There’s your story. Don’t do drugs!
You recalled this moment: you’re chugging Jack Daniels, you take a bunch of sleeping pills in a suicide attempt, but then you still stumble into the next room and say, “Hey, I think I just overdosed, can you bring me to a hospital?” You didn’t really want to die, did you?
That whole episode was a cry for help. Failed suicide attempt, is that the right thing to say? A desperate last, “This is it” type of thing? I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost a bunch to very violent suicides, I’ve lost friends in the music industry that have taken their lives. We just had a day recently for Worldwide Suicide Prevention, that’s a subject we could talk about for hours.
But in this instance, why didn’t I just lie there and fall asleep? Something told me to get out of bed and crawl on my hands and knees and bang on the door to the person that I was living with at the time and tell them what I’d done. It’s complex in many ways.
Congratulations on your sobriety — 34 years — and for the courage to share your darkest moments with the world. Was that important to you?
This isn’t unique to me. We’ve read these rock’n’roll stories and depending on how you present them, they can be funny, can’t they?
The rock’n’roll stories of throwing TVs out of windows and overdosing on booze and “Oh, kickstart my heart!” — and please don’t get me wrong there, I understand how difficult that was — but what I’m trying to get to here is the f***ing cold hard facts of what people go through.
I’m not being very articulate here… but I’m just trying to reference these stories that we’ve had in rock’n’roll for so many years, and “it’s a laugh and a joke!” Well, it’s f***ing not a laugh and a joke! It’s deadly serious. I said to Ian [Gittins], “We have to get that side of the story right.”
This isn’t just, “Oh, tell us a rock’n’roll story, Rob.” This is some really important stuff that needs to be looked at and thought about because of the devastating consequences.
Thirty years ago, Judas Priest went to trial in Reno, NV, where the band was being sued by the parents of two young men who committed suicide together [one died immediately, the other three years later]. The allegations were that Judas Priest had hidden subliminal messages in the 1978 album Stained Class.
Towards the end of the book, you reflect on seeing their parents in the courtroom, saying: “I didn’t feel a flicker of anger toward them. They were misguided, they had lost their young sons. They had been to hell. I wanted to go over and give them a hug.”
How was it navigating your emotions when you were fighting for your own reputation and also feeling sympathetic?
It’s a balancing act. Even the Pope forgave the man who tried to murder him. Forgiveness is everything in terrible situations. That was just a very normal empathetic feeling I had, I could see the pain on the mother’s face. The other side of the story is yes, we were frightened for our lives as a band because of the implications, the suggestions of the prosecution to a judge that was completely impartial at the start of the trial.
But, again, this whole story, the balancing act of the two boys that were mad for metal, they loved heavy metal music: it was their solace, it was their refuge, and their own kind of decision to do what they did because of the complexities of where they were at emotionally, from a dysfunctional family, wrapped up in excessive booze and drugs.
Then you have this band, these British guys that have been subpoenaed all the way from the UK to fly to Reno for a month to fight for our lives in our world. You can’t make this up. It doesn’t seem, by today’s standards, you’d think, “How did it get that far?” That’s where the world was in those days. I don’t believe there’s been an attempt to place the blame at the feet on musicians, these days. There’s a lot of growing that’s taken place. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it happens again.
Well, they were pointing at Marilyn Manson when the Columbine shooting happened. It must have been uncomfortable taking the witness stand, they were fans of your music and the last thing you wanted to do was disparage them…
As we understood it, the parents, I think the last thing that they wanted to do was take this to court but they were cajoled into it by this Evangelically funded support group. That was a stitch-up.
Did you guys discuss what your reaction was going to be if the judge ruled against you? You had ‘Painkiller’ on hold, would you have been dropped from the record label?
We felt confident from day one that once the judge and the world heard our side of the story, because it was a worldwide newsworthy incident, that everything was gonna be okay.
I don’t think we ever thought, and it was never presented to us by our wonderful defense team, that we were not going to get through this. Because, at the heart of the matter, this whole case was about this so-called subliminal messaging.
How would anybody in their rational mind, like the judge, go, “Okay, I’ve been presented with the basic facts of this case, that subliminal messages can make you kill yourself. ‘Do it’ means kill yourself.”
God knows what the judge is going through! I mean, that’s probably one of the most exclusive cases in the history books of law, I don’t think there’s ever even been another one.
The ramifications, as we said to the press afterwards, would have been a complete and utter Pandora’s box. If the judge had found that subliminal messages do work, then, how do you address that? How do radio stations address that? “This next song, we completely indemnify ourselves as a radio station in case there are subliminal messages in here that make you kill yourself…”
That’s how ridiculous it was! But we persevered, we were strong, common sense prevailed, however, the judge left the door a little bit open and that always riled me and left me feeling a little bit unsettled.
You briefly discussed meeting the love of your life and husband, Thomas and how amazing it was when he proposed to you. However, you didn’t mention anything about a wedding. Was there ever a ceremony? Would you like one?
We haven’t had one of those, he stuck the ring on my finger in the kitchen, a thousand years ago [laughs], that’s about as far as we’ve got. Me personally, being old fashioned, I want a f***ing wedding of sorts!
If we do get that far, it would be a very simple affair. I am at that point in my life where simplicity rules [laughs].
Maybe I should call Gaga and say, “Do my wedding for me!” Or RuPaul!
A Lady Gaga and RuPaul compilation wedding for the Metal God!
Follow me on Twitter at @DerekUTG.