Judas Priest's Real-Life Rock Star

Ripper Owens' life is the stuff of movies . . . well, sort of

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Quick synopsis of the current hit movie Rock Star, which stars a long-haired, Eighties-looking Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston: Wahlberg plays the lead singer of a cover band that he forms to pay tribute to his favorite group, Steel Dragon. Through twists of fate, he becomes the lead singer of the real Steel Dragon.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. It's based on a well-publicized New York Times article about Ripper Owens, an Akron, Ohio singer in a Judas Priest tribute band who, in 1996, was selected to be the new lead singer of the heavy metal legends. But that's where the similarities end.

In Rock Star, Wahlberg's character trashes hotel rooms, rides a motorcycle though a hallway and drinks up a storm -- in short, lives the rock-star lifestyle. That couldn't be further from Owens, who has short hair, plays golf -- he's a ten handicap -- gets excited about having coffee with Megadeth, and is close to his family members, who were the first ones he told about getting the Priest gig. The story, as he tells it: "I get off the plane in Cleveland the day after I got the job, and I handed my mom an autographed picture that I signed too and I said, 'Mom, this is Judas Priest's autograph.' She said, 'Maybe some day it will be.' I said, 'No, this is it. This is the band. This is all of them.' She started crying."

Considering the differences between himself and his cinema "alter-ego," it's little wonder that Owens wants to distance himself from the production. "We have nothing to do with it," he says. But he wouldn't object if someone wanted to make the real story. "I think it would be more interesting if someone would buy it and make a real movie, because it's a very interesting story about a normal person -- not the rock & roll cliches of sex, drugs, rock & roll," he says. "It's unfortunate they have to make it Hollywood though, because what's better than having a guy who lives in the same town he grew up in and has the same friends and actually gets married?"

However, Owens confesses that the scene in which Wahlberg can't contain a smile at a photo shoot rings true for him, because -- after five years, two albums and multiple tours with Priest -- he still can't mask his wonderment about being the lead singer of his favorite band.

With the release of the band's new album, Demolition, it's becoming more real though. "This album was written for my voice this time," he says proudly. After hooking up with the group, he and the rest of the band went straight into recording 1997's Juggulator, an album that was written for someone who could sing in the Priest style, but not necessarily Owens. "After doing the Juggulator album, [guitarists/songwriters Glenn Tipton and KK Downing] knew what they had to work with, which is the main thing that's different."

Tipton and Downing were able to tap into Owens' self-professed love for diversity; Demolition covers an array of styles, from the opening speed metal tracks to the ballads "Lost and Found" and "Close to You." For Tipton, who produced a Priest album for the first time with Demolition, the role of producer brought him a special kinship with this record. "This album is very near to my heart," he says.

An eloquent Englishman with a profound love for music and a soft-spoken nature that belies his twenty-five years in the gruff world of heavy metal, Tipton has been through the highs and lows. After years of headlining arenas around the world, playing to crowds of tens of thousands, Tipton is more interested in the process of making the album. "We had fun making this album," he says. "That's the most important thing to me. That and we can be proud of the fact we made a Judas Priest album."

For the fun, he credits Owens, whose enthusiasm is contagious. "Ripper brings young blood into the band," Tipton says, "and it shows on stage. He loves being up there performing for people."

What does Owens feel he brings to the band? "Obviously, I bring looks," he says, laughing. "Seriously though, I bring an aggressive stage presence. Also, I bring humor."

After a quarter of a century of defending the hard rock faith, Judas Priest are having fun and even laughing, the difficulties with ex-lead singers and lawsuits a thing of the past. That's a story even Hollywood couldn't come up with, but it's something people are paying to see.