Judas Priest is playing in San Francisco this week. They’ve got a new album, Firepower, and it’s every bit as great as people say it is. Maybe I’ll post a sort of review at some point, but it’s too soon; I have to sit with albums before I know what to say about them, usually. But suffice it to say if you ever thought that Judas Priest just wasn’t anthemic or “heavy” enough before, this is the record for you. People are saying this may be the swan song, given Glenn Tipton’s failing health, and if so it’s a hell of a curtain drop. They’ve remained the best of their kind all the way up to now. Halford is a marvel.
I last saw Judas Priest around four years ago when their last album Redeemer of Souls (also great) came out. It was an eventful night, and I’ve got a tale to tell about it. So with another Priest event looming, and some decisions to make in preparation, I figure this is as good a time as any to dust it off and tell it once again.
Here it is, as I first told it, with some edits and such.
I went to see Judas Priest in San Jose a ways back. I love Judas Priest. The last time I saw them was some time in the early ‘90s I believe, and before that in the mid ’80s. I don’t get out much, as a rule. And it’s doubtful I’d have made it down to San Jose to see this show, but for Living Social. (“Do we like the Judas Priests?” my girlfriend had emailed, “because there’s a coupon.” “We do,” I reponded. It was a good deal, or so we originally imagined.)
The show was great, maybe even the best one yet, even though the opening act was Steel Panther. [I’m keeping that flippant line in because it’s sort of funny, but in fact that show led to a true renaissance of Panther-appreciation my household; the afore-mentioned girlfriend, who fervently loves vulgarity with a passion matched, I daresay, by few girlfriends in the world, took them to her bosom, so to speak, and never let them go; we saw their show in SF last month, and it was a epic, a night I’ll remember forever. So, death to all butt metal. — ed.]
I certainly felt the absence of KK Downing conceptually, as it were, but it didn’t impact the power of the set itself, which was damn powerful. Tipton is still a wonder to behold, standing stock still, nothing moving at all besides his fingers, which were all a delicate blur as much as they’ve ever been. I love the new album and “Halls of Valhalla” sounded great. As did Rob Halford. He’s a man of many jackets. And he’s still got his shriek.
But things have changed as well. Judas Priest, and Halford in particular, seem a lot more — for want of a better word — “evil” these days. In previous shows I’ve seen, his stage act was enthusiastic, energetic, and honestly, rather goofy. A lot of jogging in place, like a leather-clad aerobics instructor; melodramatic, flailing operatic gestures (to match the impossibly operatic high notes I suppose); and an eager-to-please demeanor of rock and roll showmanship (the occasional serious mic break about how they’re all just working stiffs like us giving it all they got notwithstanding.) His continual pointing at the audience, front, back, and sides seemed to reflect an exuberant spirit of inclusion, at least to me at the time. We’re all in this together, loaded, screaming for vengeance, united, united, united we stand. And that means you, buddy. That means all of us.
Now, however, the backdrop video show is all flames and altars and symbols that fall just short of pentagrammatical. Halford is a menacing presence in his floor length, druidical leather coats, bald head, and flamboyant whiskers, stalking the stage with measured deliberation, giving the audience meaningful looks if not the stink-eye, lifting one arm skyward in a grim salute, or sometimes raising both as if invoking the nameless, unspeakably ancient gods to which his backdrop’s altar of blood and fire appears to be dedicated. And when he points, it feels like a curse.
Well, maybe I’m projecting backwards there. In the event I was having a great time, free of care, wallowing in the metal and the general Judas Priest-iness of it all. This new aesthetic style, as I perceived it — new to me, anyhow — is in many ways an improvement, even an achievement. It is a comprehensive, integrated work of art, greater than the sum of its parts, or at least greater than the relatively conventional plain old rock and roll stadium shows I’d seen before, wonderful as they were.
But the girlfriend, new to Judas Priest, new to metal, and definitely new to San Jose, said: “wow they’re so serious.” And of Rob Halford: “man, I hope he doesn’t point at me.”
And I could see what she was saying. We joked of the Curse of Halford, even then, knowing nothing of what was to come. Marion don’t look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it no matter what happens. (We have fun.) But as we were riffing like this, Rob Halford was dedicating himself to pointing meaningfully at a whole lot of people. And as it happens, I was one of them.
As the show went on, my right eye began to itch and twitch and swell up. Tears started to run down my face. It began to feel like there was a small object lodged in there somewhere, a grain of sand or a hair; or, eventually, a piece of razor edged wire. This wire seemed to wrap itself around my eyeball, constricting it, lacerating it, wringing the moisture out of it, more painful than almost anything I could imagine.
“Is my eye bleeding?” I kept asking. Because it felt like it was bleeding, all down my face, soaking my shirt. It wasn’t. But it was hard to believe something could hurt that bad without bleeding, that was my point.
We made it to the end of the show and back home, an agonizing ride. I tried flushing out my eye, which only seemed to make it worse. That invisible razored wire was in there, in there for good. This is how I live now, I began to think, and it didn’t seem like it — living — could possibly be worth it. It hurt so much to blink that I found myself using my fingers to hold my eye open, and wishing I had access to some of those Clockwork Orange eye-opening devices.
Soon I was at the Kaiser Permanente emergency room, waiting for the on call all night ophthalmologist to reach in with his forceps and remove the wire. I could only hope he would manage to do this without pulling out a good chunk of my eye with it, but I wasn’t optimistic. That thing was really in there.
“May I ask,” said the on call late night ophthalmologist, “what you do for a living, sir?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“So, not a welder?”
“Have you operated a wood chipper or combine harvester in the last 24–36 hours?”
“No, sir,” I said. “Pretty much just the writing.”
The doctor frowned. “So no wood chipping or…” He made a note. “…welding.”
“No harvesting either,” I added, helpful even while in agony.
Well, it turned out there was no wire in there, nor any other object. My eye had become spontaneously infected. The doctor’s best guess was that an airborne allergen or other infectant had alighted on my eyeball during the night and found its way in via some superficial corneal scratches that are apparently normal in contact lens wearers. An airborne infectant, alighting during the night…
I looked at my girlfriend.
“Halford,” we said simultaneously to each other.
The Curse of Halford cost me a great deal of misery and $540 for the emergency room visit, curses of Halford not being covered, evidently, in the standard Kaiser Plan in Obama’s America. Was it worth it? Could be. It was a great show and nobody can take that away from me. My eye is better at the moment though it still flares up on occasion. And my love for Judas Priest is undiminished.
I still love Rob Halford, too, though I do feel he should perhaps be used sparingly and with all due caution. Wear protective goggles. Perform a banishing ritual. Carry a raw turnip, or whatever folk remedy your people favor. And maybe set some money aside for the treatment that may be needed if you happen to get pointed at. You gotta do metal smart these days.
So, as I said, with a Judas Priest show in the offing, and Rob Halford and his finger of doom lurking in the area, I had some preparations to make. And I was only half-joking about the protective goggles. I was ready:
In the event, though, the show sold out before I got my act together to get tickets and there’s no Living Social to come to the rescue this time.
This is often the case in my world: my laziness and procrastination saves me from leaving the house and all the risks attendant therein. This is a good thing, in general, though I miss out on good stuff as well as this or that potential medical emergency.
So I won’t be seeing Judas Priest this time around. But I’m probably going to wear the goggles anyhow, on the day, around the house, just to be on the safe side. The Curse of Halford’s range is, at this stage, unknown. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that it could be capable of traveling across the bay. And evil never dies.