On stage, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford is the self-proclaimed “metal god” but off, he’s a mere mortal, and ready to confess to all of his sins in a new autobiography. In “Confess,” co-written with Ian Gittins and out Sept. 29, the 69-year-old Halford dives into his humble beginnings growing up in a working class steel mill town in England’s “Black Country”; his ascent into rock-and-roll stardom with Judas Priest; and his deeply personal struggles with addiction and his public coming out as a gay man in 1998. Variety caught up with the singer to talk about some of the topics covered in the book. Read the interview and an exclusive excerpt from “Confess” below.
Let’s talk about the title. Why “Confess”? And were there other titles that you played around with?
Yeah. There were the obvious ones like, “The Life and Times of the Metal God,” “My Life in Metal.” There were a number of ways we could have gone, but my job is not only a singer but also a lyricist, and I love words. I love the power of language and of words and “Confess” just seemed to fit the bill. When you say the word “confess,” it hits a lot of nerves in a lot of ways. So, that’s what we were hoping to do by just simply calling it that. That one word is attractive in the emotional sense and carries a lot of, “Oooh, what’s this about?” Intrigue, drama. And we’ve certainly got that in the book.
A lot of the book is about you grappling with your sexuality and also how that has impacted so much of your life. How much of that struggle fed into your addiction?
I think my addiction was definitely married, to some extent, to my life in the closet at that time, which was terribly frustrating and incredibly difficult. You know, most people in the entertainment world have addictive qualities, not necessarily for attention but it’s just the way we’re made up as creative people. When you start off with personal conflict, sexual identity conflict and and throw in some booze and drugs, wow! [Laughs]. You’ve got a ticking time bomb, so to speak. It just manifested itself — booze and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. In our industry, it’s a rite of passage, I suppose.
How was it revisiting all of that for the book?
Cathartic is probably the best word to use. It was like going to the psychologist, which I’ve only ever been to once in my life. “Oh my God, did I do that? Did I say that? Is that me? Is that another person? How could I have survived?” … Reading back my life story. Wow. There by the grace of God go I, that’s all I can say.
You also talk about an assault that happened early in your life at the hands of your father’s friend. How have you processed what happened to you and did writing this book help?
It’s an important story. Sexual abuse is a horrible thing. At the time, it was terribly confusing and couldn’t have happened at a worse time, for me as a young guy that was already dealing with trying to figure things out. Talking about it now, I can feel the horror and being totally frightened and wanting to run away, but at the same time feeling, “Now this is affection, in a very crude brutal manner.” It was incredibly, incredibly complex. You can only imagine for a young man, dealing with that type of assault.
Somebody asked me, “Would you put that story in the book if your father was still alive?” and I hesitated. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have because I would hate to have thought that my father felt that he was in some way complicit to that because he absolutely was not. When it comes to sexual abuse, people on the outside, they feel the guilt as well — “Well, maybe I should have said something” or “it’s my fault for introducing this person to that person.” It has a domino effect. But it was an important story to tell. As a young person, you’re impressionable, and it manifests itself in a way that really stays with you for the rest of your life, and turns you into the sexually dysfunctional person that I am now. I’ve come to terms with that in my adult life [but] had those incidents never happened as a teenager, would I have turned out differently in the way that I’m intimate with people? Probably so.
You expressed concern about whether Judas Priest fans would accept your coming out. In hindsight, how do you view your decision and the timing of it?
For my bandmates, they were accepting and understanding of my role as a singer who incidentally happens to be gay. They knew; management knew; the label knew. So the acceptance was a beautiful thing. However, we were up against this wall of, “Look, at this particular time in metal, you’re in a very alpha-dominated type of experience, and we feel that if you were to step forward and say, ‘Hey, I’m a gay guy,’ damage could be done.” I mean, that’s hard to take, isn’t it? There were certainly indications [because of] the way gay were treated and, still to some extent today, that you don’t talk about it. It’s valuable to reflect on these times because that was part of what the gay movement was going through, in terms of standing up and proclaiming, “This is who we are.”
Do you think the metal community has evolved since then?
Yes, definitely. When I came out in the 90s, a lot of progression had been made. We still don’t have equality. We still have to chip away at things slowly, but there’s been really strong advances. Today, everybody knows a gay person, and there is a lot more acceptance and tolerance but it’s still not 100 percent where it needs to be.
You also include an anecdote about an encounter with someone who you suspect had been under age?
I don’t have any proof whatsoever. I make it clear in the book that this particular individual looked a helluva lot older than 16. I think that that was a ruse because he robbed me afterwards. I think that was the plan — the robbery was going to happen anyway, and this was a case of, “Don’t come chasing after me, or I’m going to the police.” I think that that whole thing was a set-up. But I talk about it in the book.
Did you deliberate whether or not to include it? Were you concerned about how people would react?
Yeah, I don’t know. I have no idea. I can only speak from the heart and tell the truth, which is the way I’ve conducted myself ever since I’ve been clean and sober. But it certainly opens up questioning, especially in today’s climate, and the way I describe this particular subject, should be completely open and transparent to discussion. But as far as my hand on heart, had I had known that that guy was 16 before we had sex, it would never have happened.
Living honestly is clearly a priority for you. Did that come along with sobriety?
Lying is what you do when you’re concealing an addiction of that nature. And I think as a creative person, it allowed me to get more closely in touch with what drives me and gets the best out of my work. My work isn’t masked anymore. There were times when I couldn’t get behind the microphone or [work] in the recording studio without a few drinks under my belt, [which] is just ridiculous. I understand that now. A great opening in clarity [came] with that experience. I think most people that are in recovery can attest to those facts. It makes you a better person.
An Excerpt from “Confess”
I didn’t go along to MTV’s new studios on Broadway, just off Times Square, with any particular agenda in mind. I certainly didn’t intend to out myself to the world as a gay man. But, somehow, that was the way that it ended up working out.
I can’t even remember the interviewer’s name, but he asked me the kind of question I’d got so used to fielding over the last few years. It was all about the rumors and the speculation about my sexuality, and whether I would like to set the record straight, blah blah blah . . .
Normally, I would just blank the question, or say it was nothing to do with my music. But, this time, I didn’t.
I opened my mouth . . . and these words came out.
“I think that most people know that I’ve been a gay man all of my life.”
THUMP! The loud noise I heard behind me was a producer dropping her clipboard.
Well, I hadn’t intended to make this speech, but now I’m doing it, let’s go for it!
“It’s only been in recent times it’s been an issue I feel comfortable to address,” I continued. “An issue that has been with me ever since I recognized my own sexuality.”
I was sitting in front of the interviewer, and millions of TV viewers, in a fur coat and mascara, and with painted nails. I was talking slowly and looking preternaturally calm and happy in my own skin. And that was exactly how I felt.
“Maybe this [the 2wo project] has pushed me,” I said. “Maybe this has made me say, ‘What the hell? It’s time to step out and to let people know what I’m about.’”
I smiled at the interviewer. “But didn’t you know already?” I asked.
His eyes were like saucers as he realized that a world exclusive had just dropped into his lap. He stuttered something about “having heard rumors” and asked me if it would have been possible to come out in my Judas Priest days.
“No,” I said. “I was constantly held back. I allowed myself to be intimidated . . . a lot of homophobia still exists in the music world.” We talked for another ten minutes or so. I advised fans to go back through their Priest albums to find the clues to my sexuality littered throughout the lyrics. And I struck a defiant tone as I hoped my coming out might help other gay people “in a society where they are still treated as second-class citizens.”
“There are as many gay metal fans as there are gay fans of other types of music,” I declared. “We are everywhere! That’s the way it is.”
It was all very chill and rational. It wasn’t until I had finished the interview and got back to my hotel that it suddenly hit me: Bloody hell! I’ve just outed myself on TV!
I had spent twenty-five years as a heavy metal singer hiding the truth about myself, living a lie . . . and I had brought it all to an end in a matter of seconds. This was it. The end. I no longer had to pretend, to conceal, to hide. I could finally be me.
I had confessed. And it felt fucking great. As I had said during the MTV interview: “This is a good feeling. I recommend it to everybody.”
For so many years, I’d imagined that coming out would lead to an outpouring of disgust, end my career, and kill Judas Priest. Now . . . the exact opposite happened. I started to get letters from people all over the world; we had to open an office in Phoenix to deal with them.
People wrote thanking me for coming out and giving them hope and inspiration. “I’ve been hiding for so many years, and you’ve given me strength,” they said. It opened my eyes to just how many gays were still going through the trauma of suppressing their sexual identity.
The great thing was knowing that . . . I didn’t have to hide anymore. At a stroke, it killed the innuendo and the people talking behind my back. I’d occasionally heard comments in clubs: “Oh, look, the fag is here!”
Well, now I had an answer: “It’s Mr. Fag to you!”
A tiny, tiny minority of religious fanatics wrote me letters saying they would never listen to my music again—and that I would burn in hell. But, do you know what? I didn’t think I would miss those people too much!
Of course, there was another, fairly common reaction from friends, people who knew me well, and some fans:
“We’ve known for YEARS, you fucking idiot!”
Sue called me. She congratulated me, and said the family were all happy for me. It meant as much as any message in the world could possibly mean. Mom and Dad, my sister and brother: they’d known, but now they properly knew. At last!
I. Was. Out. The years of angst were over. It was like when I stopped drinking and drugging—the lies and pretense had gone. I had liberated myself from self-imprisonment and nothing could hurt me again.
I was gay, and I had told the world. It was done.
After I came out, I decided to do a big interview—and there was only one publication I wanted to do it with: The Advocate, the pioneering gay newspaper I had been so excited to get my hands on in San Francisco more than twenty years earlier.
“Had I considered coming out five years ago, it would have been very difficult,” I told them. “But, right now, I’m experiencing the same emotions that my friends have told me they felt when they came out: this great clarity and this great peace.”
And it was true. I had never felt stronger, or more at peace, in my life. It’s a feeling that has lasted to this day.
Excerpted from Confess: The Autobiography by Rob Halford. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.