The Devil Inside Glenn Danzig

That old black magic isn't just a sales gimmick

Glenn Danzig Credit: Scott Gries/Getty Images

No trick or treaters came to my house for Halloween," says Glenn Danzig with a dark laugh as he points to a bowl of stale candy on a coffee table in his living room. "For some reason, people around here are scared of me."

It isn't too hard to figure out why the kids in this recently earthquake-ravaged neighborhood in Hollywood might be wary of knocking on Danzig's front door. To them, he must seem like some pumped-up Boo Radley in a post-punk update of To Kill a Mockingbird. Or To Dismember a Mockingbird, perhaps. First, there's Danzig's home, a wonderfully Gothic, vine-covered 1905 Craftsman house complete with spooky stained-glass windows. The place suggests that for the resident within, it's Halloween all year round. Then there's the intimidating, black-clad Danzig himself. Handsome and muscle-bound (although surprisingly short of stature), he looks like Conan the Rock Star. "Glenn's got a certain animal magnetism to him," says Danzig's bassist, Eerie Von. "Especially the animal part."

For more than 15 of his 34 years, Danzig has flexed plenty of musical muscle, mostly on the darker sides of rock – first in the late Seventies and early Eighties as the singer and leader of the Misfits, a now legendary but then – underappreciated New York City horror-punk outfit; later with the more experimental Samhain; and since 1988 with the band that bears his surname. Armed with hardcore zeal and serious chops, the musically ambitious group has covered a sonic terrain somewhere between Black Sabbath and Howlin' Wolf while building a rabid cult following.

Now with "Mother," Danzig – the man and the band – are enjoying a blast of pop success. "This band finally stayed together long enough for everyone to catch up with what we're doing," says Danzig. The group's breakthrough song is actually a new live version of a track from Danzig's 1988 debut album, and the video has propelled the group – singer/songwriter Danzig, bassist Von, drummer Chuck Biscuits and guitarist John Christ – into MTV's Buzz Bin.

Now all hell's breaking loose. The band's first album recently went gold and the 1993 Thrall-demonsweatlive EP (featuring the live "Mother") has crashed into the Top 100; it sold nearly 100,000 copies during one recent 10-day period. But this is no heavy-metal sellout. From the Misfits' "Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight" to Samhain's "All Murder, All Guts, All Fun" to Danzig's "How the Gods Kill," Glenn Danzig has never made music for the faint of heart. For better or worse, Danzig means what he sings.

"Glenn's vision is very dark, apocalyptic and beautiful in its own way," says Rick Rubin, president of the band's label, American Recordings, and a longtime Danzig producer and booster. "But that's how he really sees the world. He's a brutally honest guy."

A few days after the Los Angeles earthquake, an amiable but intense Danzig welcomes a visitor into his home, where Danzig has been both cleaning up and packing up. Though structural damage to his house appears minor, the brick porch columns have crumbled, as has his chimney, and there are cracks everywhere. "I was moving, anyway," says Danzig, who came west four and a half years ago. "This just makes it more important for me to actually do it. I'm thinking of Nevada or Virginia. Somewhere else."

The shades are all drawn as the tattooed Danzig, who's wearing a T-shirt that says UNDERTAKER, pulls up a chair to talk. One of his cats – black, of course – settles in nearby. The decor inside Chez Danzig is Addams Family meets Pop Culture 101: stuffed wolves, bookshelves full of titles like The Anthropology of Evil and Ceremonial Magic alongside Beauty and the Beast figurines and an unopened box of Count Chocula cereal. As he answers questions, he reaches for a pair of wooden sticks. Asked what these sticks are used for, Danzig – a martial artist who trains with one of Bruce Lee's core students – matter-of-factly replies, "Killing people."

This is a tough guy, after all, who, when he recently met Johnny Cash – for whom he has written a new song called "13" – told the original man in black, "Believe me, I don't like many people, but I like you."

Danzig confesses that he is amused to find himself embraced by MTV, getting serious play for "Mother" as well as repeated thumbs-up from Beavis and Butt-head. "It's a sign of the times," according to Danzig. "Supposedly we always had some fans there, but there were other people there who were scared shitless of us and what we represented." For instance, MTV failed to jump on the video for the original 1988 Danzig version of "Mother," in which a chicken appears to be sacrificed over a bikinied babe. "They had a total heart attack," Danzig recalls with a laugh.

A cartoon and comic fan himself, Danzig has no problem with his new animated friends at MTV. "I know kids like Beavis and Butt-head," says Danzig. "Sometimes I was like Beavis and Butt-head growing up. I know people who lit their friend's house on fire accidentally." So when Danzig looks out into his crowds, does he see real-life Beavis and Butt-heads out there? "Always," says Danzig. "Since I've been playing music."

That's been a long time now. Growing up in Lodi, N.J., Danzig heard his father listening to Elvis Presley and his older brother crank up Blue Cheer. Danzig played in a few bands before becoming frontman for the Misfits, a punk band now considered seminal, then totally broke. Danzig isn't especially interested in talking about the Misfits, but he does recall with a smile that they once opened for Patti Smith — a literary hero for him along with Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Charles Bukowski — and that even she was a bit put off by the band.

In the end, Danzig felt frustrated by the limitations of his band mates in the Misfits and moved on. "When I started Samhain, I remember a producer telling me that I had a real band now," he says. "And that was a step in the direction of taking the music a little more seriously, this is what I want to do with my life, so let's do it."

It was on the advice of then-Metallica bassist Cliff Burton that Rick Rubin went to check out Samhain at a New Music Seminar gig in 1986. Rubin came away a major Glenn Danzig fan. "He was this really great singer/songwriter with a history of surrounding himself with people who were incompetent," says Rubin. Keeping Eerie Von from Samhain, Danzig signed on his dream drummer, Biscuits (famed in underground circles for his work with D.O.A., Black Flag and Circle Jerks), and a formally trained guitarist whom the other band members dubbed John Christ. Front and center was Danzig, a gifted singer whose vocal prowess has led to comparisons to, among others, Presley, Jim Morrison and Roy Orbison (for whom Danzig wrote "Life Fades Away" for the Less Than Zero soundtrack).

In search of creative freedom, the band signed on with Rubin. The band members hadn't even played live together before cutting their 1988 Rubin-produced debut Danzig, but there was plenty of time to get tight as they toured to support that album as well as 1990's Danzig II – Lucifuge and 1992's Danzig III – How Gods Kill. "When the first album came out, we were called a metal band, a thrash band, a speed-metal band, a death-metal band," recalls Danzig. "Nobody knew what we were." Thanks to "Mother," Danzig's bound to see lots of new faces in the crowd when the band hits the road this summer in support of the soon to be recorded Danzig IV.

And what does Danzig think of naysayers who write him off as some juiced-up, devil-worshipping metal guy? "It all goes back to the fact that you can never underestimate the stupidity of the average person," he says. "People don't want to get past that stuff, because that means they're going to have to think." Like that moment in the 1990 long-form "Danzig" video in which Danzig gives a tour of his home library and pulls out a book called The Occult Roots of Nazism and says, "Every schoolchild should have this book. You can learn a lot from this one"?

"It was sarcastic," Danzig says, then adds, "Well, you can learn from it. Obviously, if a book is published, it's got knowledge in it. If you let your bias get in the way, you don't know about it. If I was a Nazi hunter, I'd want to read this book." According to him, "If someone says it's politically incorrect to have that book, I basically say, 'Fuck you.' If you're going to tell me what book to read or not read, who's the fascist?"

Politically, Danzig is no lightweight lefty. "I'm totally fed up with this country," he says. "They spew bullshit down your throat every day on TV." He speaks passionately about "press blackouts" and a file that he alleges the government keeps on his band. In the end, though, what makes Danzig interesting isn't his physique or politics but that he's fought his way to the top on his own strange terms.

Danzig drums a bit on the living-room coffee table with his Filipino killing sticks, then says: "I've been doing this a long time. And it gets to the point where you say, 'Fuck everybody.' When you've been doing it so long, it comes time when you decide, if I ain't doing it my way, I'm not going to do it."