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For the past three decades, Pentagram vocalist Bobby Liebling has championed D.C.’s metal underworld.
It’s 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, and Bobby Liebling’s mother answers the door to the high-rise apartment he shares with his parents in Crystal City. “You’re a pretty girlyou must be here to see Bobby,” she says in a perfectly June Cleaver way. “Wait just a second and I’ll tell him you’re here.” She shuffles past the floral patterns and ceramic figurines of the living room and knocks on the closed door at the end of a dark hallway. “Bobby,” she calls through the door, “your guest is here.” The door opens just a crack, and she comes back to the foyer. “You can go right on in,” she says, and then disappears into the other wing of the apartment.
The inside of Liebling’s room looks nothing like the rest of the place. The worn-out carpet is pea-green, and scattered everywhere are assorted papers, CDs, tapes, wires, and plastic boxes filled with more papers, CDs, tapes, and wires. A floor-to-ceiling bookcase is stacked with records, and various disconnected parts of a computera monitor here, a hard drive there, another monitor over there on the leather couch in the cornervie for space with at least four speakers, a couple new, a couple busted and now serving as makeshift tables.
There is an odd dichotomy among the room’s collection of knickknacks. Some are the relics of a normal childhood; others are the red flags of a maladjusted adolescence. On the shelf above the dresser is a lineup of familiar faces: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Snoopy, and Big Bird. A Tigger puppet and a stuffed Charlie Chaplin doll are pinned up on the wall. On the opposite side of the room is a poster from Liebling’s old band, Death Row. Beside that, propped up on the bed, is a portrait of Liebling made by his bandmate Joe Hasselvander. It features Liebling’s face molded out of Sculpey set against a canvas of red and orange flames and small silhouettes of people free-falling. These figures, Liebling later tells me, represent his disciples descending into hell.
A face looks up from the puff of shoulder-length frizzy blond hair mushrooming out from the tiny head of the nearly 50-year-old Liebling, who’s kneeling on the floor going through some of his CDs. He smiles. “Hey, thanks for coming by,” he says warmly in a laid-back voice that makes him sound younger than he looks. “Just putting together a few things for you.” He’s swizzle-stick thinfrail-looking, evenand appears as if he’s being eaten alive by the black Pentagram T-shirt he’s wearing. He’s just finished assembling a selection of tapes and CDs by the band, D.C.’s original doom-metal outfit, which he’s fronted for the past 30 years.
Pentagram’s new album, Sub-Basement, will be coming out in the next month on the Italian label Black Widow, and Liebling can’t wait to show it off. As he cranks up the disc, it becomes clear that he still has a heck of a voice. It’s amazing that such a slight frame can produce such a full-bodied sound, one that recalls the old-school wailing of ’70s hard rockers Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne. Liebling admits that he doesn’t much care for most of the new breed of metal vocalists. “Bands nowadays don’t sing,” he says, making a low, garbled drone. “They’ve got Cookie Monster singing.”
“We could not believe how the sound on the album came out. It’s like our Sgt. Pepper’s,” he says. “This is my baby. Music’s all that’s in my veinsbesides all the other stuff that’s filtered in and out.”
Right now, Pentagram consists of exactly two members: Liebling and Hasselvander, who plays every instrument on every song on the new album. Since its start, in 1971, Pentagram has released eight LPs, gone through about 10 different members, and had at least a couple of different names. The only constant has been Liebling, who prides himself on being “timeless” (which means that he won’t reveal his exact age), loves to talk, claims that he almost never sleeps (he says he gets six hours of rest a week and prefers to conduct business between the hours of 7 p.m. and 11 a.m.), and is still pretty sure that he did the right thing in not selling those two songs to Kiss when Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley showed up at his front door in a limo to chauffeur him to a Pentagram rehearsal back in the mid-’70s. But then, Liebling’s always had his vision.
The Arlington native played his first show in the mid-’60s, when he was 11 and led a cover band he named Shades of Darkness. He used to smoke pot after school with a girl whose Army-sergeant father booked the talent for concerts at Fort Myer. He gave Liebling his first gig and became the band’s first manager. Playing those shows presented Liebling with an early taste of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. He had groupies even as a preteen, and he says that he lost his virginity to a 20-year-old woman when he was 12.
By the time he reached high school, Liebling had decided to focus on fashioning his own style of music, one inspired by the British bands he loved: Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, and the Groundhogs. Steve Martin, a buddy who shared Liebling’s musical tastes, built him a guitar in shop class to Liebling’s carefully designed specifications, and soon Pentagram was born. “We said, ‘We’re going to put this group together that’s going to be’”here Liebling switches into a faux-menacing tone for emphasis’the destruction of everyone’s mind.’”
Liebling recruited his friends Vincent McAllister, Greg Mayne, and Geof O’Keefe as musicians, and the group soon started practicing in a warehouse in Alexandria. The first rule: No covers. The consequence of following the first rule: No gigs. “It was very cut-and-dried back then; [the club owners] all said, ‘We don’t hire bands who play songs nobody’s ever heard,’” Liebling remembers. “Gee whiz, if everybody had heard everything, would there be any music? It’s like, ‘The Bible’s already been written. If you write one again, I don’t think a lot of people are going to be fans.’”
Despite getting just three gigs in the first four years, Liebling and his bandmates continued to work hard, writing more than 50 songs, practicing three nights a week, and building up an underground following. Back then, Liebling was a fan of WINX-FM DJ Skip Groff’s radio show. Groff was on one night a week and played all of the out-of-the-mainstream stuff you couldn’t hear anywhere else. Liebling wrote him a letter asking if he could watch him do his show one night and included a tape of the one single Pentagram had recorded. Groff liked it and started playing it on his show, and even became the group’s manager for a time.
Under Groff’s management, the guys in Pentagram recorded a five-song demo that they personally delivered to local record stores and sent to record labels in D.C. and New York. They didn’t get any bites from the labels, but a funny thing happened: People started coming to the warehouse to watch their rehearsals. At first, it was just a few of their friends. Then it grew to as many as 50 people a night. Groff was getting too busy to manage the band and passed the job along to a friendwho passed it on to a well-connected D.C.-based reviewer for Rolling Stone named Gordon Fletcher.
The success of bands such as Sabbath and Kiss had record companies drooling for the next big thing in the metal scene. Liebling passed on deals with Capitol and RCA, both of which wanted creative control, but flirted with selling Pentagram’s soul to the corporate devil for a little mainstream success in 1975, when Columbia Records flew the band to New York to talk business. “They came down to D.C. to recruit a new band because they wanted something heavy,” Liebling says. But tempers flared over a bad recording session, and it all fell apart.
The group was laying down some tracks in the studio, and Liebling realized that he had gone off-key on a verse. He wanted to rerecord, but Columbia’s sound engineers wouldn’t let him. Liebling shot back a few choice words via the live microphoneand Pentagram was subsequently given the boot. “Well, Bob had a problem with his temper, and he couldn’t control it for shit,” Liebling says, shifting into third person, but there was also another issue: “Back then, it was taboo to be high on anything. I had a very large hard-drug problem, and they thought, What if we find this guy floating in the Hudson River tomorrow? A lot of people in the business know that Bobby’s got his problems like anyone else. But music’s my 12-step program. What can I say?”
Liebling’s single-minded focus on his music-making has not gone unnoticed by his friends and fans over the years. Hasselvander says that that’s the reason the two teamed up in the first place: because they were serious about music while their bandmates were more serious about the chicks backstage.
When he met Liebling, in 1977, Hasselvander was 17 and playing drums for the Virginia-based metal band the Boys, which opened for Pentagram at a gig in Georgetown. Liebling and Hasselvander’s friendship cemented a few months later, when each had been dumped by his respective bandmates. In a cruel twist of metal-band fate, the members of Pentagram and the members of the Boys had decided to form their own outfit called Sex, minus Liebling and Hasselvander. The two ousted members ran into each other at a show by this new band.
“I said, ‘So what do you think of this?’ And Bobby was really upset,” Hasselvander says. But the two exchanged numbers and ended up deciding to form a new Pentagram. “I remember Bobby saying, ‘We’ll start an empire and they’ll start a trash fire,’” Hasselvander says. “Bobby’s my best friend because of that night when we found each other, when both of our bands were playingsomething just happened. When he feels insecure he calls me, and vice versa.”
They lured back onetime Pentagram guitarist Victor Griffin and played together ’til Hasselvander took off for New York to be the drummer for hair-metal band White Lion (though his stint lasted only two weeks). In late 1979, Liebling decided to quit music altogether and got a real job working in a security firm with his Defense Department dad. It didn’t last long, though, and Liebling’s musical career soon took off again.
In 1981, Hasselvander and Griffin needed a singer for their new band, Death Row, so they came calling on Liebling, who agreed to join. They played together for five years, changed the band’s name to the more widely recognized Pentagram in 1983, and finally, after some shrewd strong-arming by Liebling, got their first record deal. Liebling had discovered a British company named Pentagram Records and decided to make a callnot only to demand that the label change its name, but also to ask it to put out his records. In the end, the indie released two albums by the band and promoted it all over Europe, where there seemed to be a greater appetite for doom than in the United States.
Nonetheless, the Death Row lineup of Pentagram found local success among the growing number of D.C. doom fans who were attracted to the band’s Kiss-inspired stage show. “Onstage, we scared the shit out of people,” Liebling remembers fondly. “But the sound was still about serious music.”
That seriousness has earned Liebling some unlikely fans, including Joe Lally, bass player for D.C. punk band Fugazi. In the mid-’80s, Lally shared a Rockville, Md., house with Griffin, Pentagram sound man Chris Kozlowski, Obsessed vocalist-guitarist Scott “Wino” Weinrich, and a couple of guitar players from metal outfit Orthodox. All the bands took shifts practicing in the basement. “It wasn’t until after I lived there that I realized that [Pentagram] had been together since 1971 and realized it’s so amazing what they’ve got going, because they’ve played so intermittently and they’ve managed to hang on,” says Lally. “Onstage, Bobby’s just a frightening character. The hair, the clotheshe’s shocking-looking. It just has a huge impact.”
After a six-year hiatus following the breakup of Pentagram in 1986, Liebling and Hasselvander found each other again and started working on new material. In 1994, they released the album Be Forewarned on England’s Peaceville label and in 1998 released Review Your Choices on Black Widow.
But in 2000, Liebling’s drug problem, which had never before intruded on his ability to produce his music, finally caught up with him, and he spent the entire year in a detention center kicking his 30-year heroin habit. “I’ve lived high all my life,” he says. “If you look up what Elvis died from, I’ve done it all. God and incarceration saved my life.”
Today, Liebling is working on his music full time (though he doesn’t like to talk about whether he’s actually supporting himself with it) and has some good things to look forward to. He’s still living off the charge he got from the packed house at last March’s Death Row reunion show and has Sub-Basement coming out this fall. In January 2002, Philadelphia’s Relapse Records is putting out a collection of Pentagram’s early recordings titled First Daze Here. Liebling and Hasselvander are also busy assembling a group to do a Pentagram show in D.C. sometime in March, and Liebling is at work on a solo album, which should be out next spring. And, on Nov. 1, he’s moving out of his parents’ home.
“Look, I’ve managed to shove the whole album down your throat!” Liebling says as we’re finishing up listening to Sub-Basement. Leaning back on his bed, he continues to chain-smoke and sing along with his CD, as he’s done all morning. When he sings, his eyes get huge, focus on something far away, and don’t blink. He lets the cigarette dangle in his mouth so both hands are free to play air guitar along with the music. “Listen to that!” he says. “It’s sicko! It’s sick, demented shit!”
When the album ends, he pops in a videotape to show me a clip of the Death Row reunion show. Watching him, I can’t help but think of what Lally said to me about Liebling. “You can see the difference between that band and bands today. It’s like they just stepped out of the ’70s,” he said. “The way Bobby moves onstage, his presencepeople don’t command the stage like that anymore. With Pentagram, you’re getting a look at what it must’ve been like to see a band back then. I tell my friends, ‘If you have any interest in that music you have to see them play, because you can’t see anything like that today.’”
Indeed, when I ask Liebling how Pentagram’s music has evolved over these 30 long years, his answer is simple: “Thank God it hasn’t. It’s just riper with ageand seasoned with better herbs and spices.” CP