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It had been almost a decade since legendary local doom-metal band Pentagram performed live.

Apart from a few brief appearances by founder, lead singer, and lone permanent member Bobby Liebling, the band hadn’t played in public since its 1996 show at Manny’s in Rockville.

So fans turned out in droves for Liebling & Co.’s Jan. 15 performance at D.C.’s Black Cat. Some of the more than 400 concertgoers even traveled for hours to see the pioneering metal crooner and his ever-evolving lineup of bandmates.

Doom aficionado Mathieu Deflem, for one, came all the way from Columbia, S.C. “Although I’m a big fan, I had never seen Pentagram,” says Deflem, who runs a Web site chronicling the group’s history, from its 1971 founding to the present. “I was thinking it might be one of the few times, maybe the last, that I could see the band at all.”

The band, yes: Following earlier sets by more-often-seen rockers the Hidden Hand and Alabama Thunderpussy, Pentagram guitarist Kelly Carmichael, bassist Adam S. Heinzmann, and drummer Mike Smail (all also members of Internal Void) took the stage and promptly launched into an instrumental version of “Wheel of Fortune.”

But where was the frontman?

Was this going to be a repeat of Liebling’s last-minute appearance at Towson, Md.’s Recher Theatre in 2001, which the singer later blamed on bad directions?

Witnesses say the 51-year-old Liebling eventually emerged from the back but seemed to have trouble standing—let alone getting up on the stage. Helped onto the platform, the leather- and crucifix-clad Liebling then began slowly crawling across the stage. Grasping at a microphone stand, he tried to pull himself upright. Again with assistance, he made it onto his feet.

But not for long. Before belting out a single note, the singer stumbled backward and collapsed. A chair was brought onstage so he could sit. Instead, he curled up into the fetal position until paramedics, who were already on the scene, hauled him off on a stretcher.

As Liebling’s strange stage antics unfolded, some members of the audience began chanting the singer’s first name. Others stood silent.

Hyattsville resident Josh Sirk couldn’t help but watch, as he puts it, “this withered scarecrow of a man backpedal, arms waving, and crumple on the stage.”

“But after he fell and they went to help him, I looked away,” Sirk says. “I was just too bummed by the whole thing.”

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Richmond, Va., resident Greg Perry, meanwhile, went for his video camera: “I was standing a few feet away from my tripod talking with some friends about the fact that…paramedics had shown up for Bobby when we heard the crowd cheering a little and I looked up to see a brief glimpse of him,” says Perry, who often posts concert footage on his Web site. “But I then went to get behind my camera, and by the time I got things on and focused it was basically over.”

But to Deflem, who had a front-and-center view of the action, this was no Kodak moment. “This was far beyond any rock ’n’ roll mythology,” he says. “I mean, this was very, very intense and serious.”

“It’s not a prideful moment,” agrees Liebling, who received treatment at Howard University Hospital and was released two days later. “I’ve never really faltered to where I’ve fallen on my ass.”

Not that the singer remembers his stage flop. Or, for that matter, anything at all about the show and its aftermath. Aside from what others have told him, the evening is a total blank, he says—from the time he left his Germantown home en route to the Black Cat up until the following night, when he woke up in the hospital.

“If I was conscious,” he says, “I had to have been catatonic or something.”

Admittedly, Liebling has a bit of a drug problem. “I’ve been an addict for 35 years,” he says. But in this particular instance, he says, it wasn’t just the drugs. Sure, he’d ingested a healthy mixture of controlled substances—specifically, his daily dose of methadone, intended to help him kick his heroin habit, and what he calls “a saturation of cocaine.” But it was more a combination of the drugs, depression, and a drop of stage fright.

“A lot of it, I think, is because I actually was, for the first time—I was frightened,” says Liebling, citing his nearly decadelong break from performing full sets, as well as the crowded venue’s air of expectation. “We’ve never been as famous as this,” he says. “It was a lot of pressure. I’m not going to say I buckled under it. But I was nervous. Real nervous.”

Nerves. Drugs. Whatever the reasons, Liebling certainly seemed spaced-out or strung-out on something at the Black Cat that night. “He’d showed up there in not the best of shape,” says Pentagram ax man Carmichael, who further describes Liebling’s condition just before showtime as “unwakable.”

“Whatever he did, he was just passed out cold,” says Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando. “And that’s why the band wanted to get the paramedics there—because they could not wake him up.”

The band, in fact, had decided to go on without the unresponsive Liebling. But once paramedics arrived and, according to Carmichael, administered multiple injections, the singer seemed to snap out of it. “He was more awake and together than he was all evening,” says the guitarist. “Seemed like he was back to normal.”

D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services spokesperson Kathryn Friedman confirms that paramedics responded to the Black Cat’s location shortly after midnight that day. Citing federal privacy statutes regarding patients’ medical records, however, she declines to disclose any further details of the incident.

But the singer wasn’t back to normal for long. “By the time he got to the stage, the things the paramedics had given him sent him into withdrawal,” Carmichael says. “It was just one of them scenarios, you know, that didn’t work out.”

Yet even when the lead singer goes down, the show must go on. And once Liebling was carted offstage, other metal mouths quickly took his place, with Internal Void’s J.D. Williams, Earthride’s Dave Sherman, and ex-Pentagram multi-instrumentalist Joe Hasselvander, among others, all coming from the audience and taking turns at the mike in what turned into a makeshift tribute show to the fallen icon.

“I was really glad the band was willing to muscle through it without their singer,” says Ferrando. “They could’ve walked. And that would’ve been much worse.”

“It kinda worked out, you know,” adds Carmichael. “Helped smooth the crowd out, in a way.”

Well, at least for those who didn’t demand—and get—their $10 tickets refunded. “A few people asked for their money back,” says Ferrando.

Liebling says he intends to issue a formal apology via the band’s Web site. Just as soon as the onetime Gene Simmons– and Paul Stanley– courted songwriter can find the right words. “I don’t know how to say I’m sorry in large enough letters,” he says. “But stick with us, please. I’m human. I fell. I’ve gotten up. I’m still here. And I need ya.”

Specifically, he needs someone to buy his music. A slew of Pentagram albums are in the works for 2005: U.K.-based Peaceville Records is re-issuing three of the band’s old LPs from the ’80s—including Pentagram’s self-printed and self-titled 11-song first album. And Pennsylvania’s Relapse Records will put out a long-awaited First Daze Here Too compilation. Liebling & Co. also plan to return to the studio this spring to start recording an all-new album for Italian label Black Widow.

Mostly, though, Liebling just wants to get back onstage. “I wanted to play as soon as I got out of the hospital,” he says. “That’s the way to really show ’em that you’re a professional.”

The band still plans to travel to the United Kingdom for two March shows that had been scheduled before the fall—albeit somewhat reluctantly. “After the incident, I was pretty much planning on canceling things,” says Carmichael. “But the promoters still want to go ahead with everything.”

Liebling, for one, is with the promoters. He even hopes to follow up that trip with some summertime shows in Germany, where his group is apparently the hottest thing since David Hasselhoff. “Our No. 1 country, support-wise, in the whole world is Germany,” he points out.

But why stop there? Envisioning a full-scale European tour, Liebling does his best Howard Dean. “We’re hoping to do, like, a week in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden,” he says. “And then a week in, like, Italy, Spain, France, and then three or four days in England maybe.”

But first, Pentagram might wanna try something a little closer to home—y’know, to get past Liebling’s nerve issues. Carmichael is trying to schedule another D.C.-area gig in the coming weeks. But probably not at the Black Cat: “I wouldn’t be inclined to book them again,” says Ferrando. “It’s not that I’m pissed at the singer. I just think this hurts their ability to get a turnout.”—Chris Shott

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