Rob Zombie: Monster of Rock

Hot pants, hot rods, guitars that spit blood: how he went from a television-addicted high school loser to the new king of heavy metal

February 4, 1999
Rob Zombie
Rob Zombie

Rob Zombie and his band clamber aboard their tour bus, blissfully unaware of the fake cobwebs clinging to their sweat-plastered foreheads. This dark fraternity has just brought Philadelphia's Tower Theater to its knees with a crypt-kicking showcase for Hellbilly Deluxe, the platinum-plus solo debut from the former White Zombie ringmaster. The new Zombie spectacle is an electroboogie burlesque that throws a 10,000-volt switch on the nightmare gallery of one of rock's truly obsessive – and obsessively guarded – personalities.

The Zombiemobile glides eastward with in-flight entertainment of a suitably sanguineous sort: a video compilation of highlights from obscure Italian zombie flicks, German soft-porn variants and American genre classics like Dawn of the Dead. The heckling starts the moment the first hollow-eyed mutant lurches forth: "Hey, look – Billy Corgan!" It's Mystery Science Theater 3000 in leather pants.

At the back of the bus stands Rob Zombie, looking over his new brood and beaming like a proud father. "This has been the most work I've ever put in, and it's by far the most fun I've ever had," says the singer, whose imperious profile and silver-streaked dreadlocks suggest a wise Rastafarian of Appalachian descent. "It took thirteen years and a million tries, but I feel like I've finally found the perfect combination of people."

"Blaskooo! Let's get it awwwnnn!" howls Bronx-born drummer John Tempesta, the only other White Zombie survivor present. Bassman "Blasko" Nicholson slings Tempesta a cold one and dispenses Jaegermeister to the needy. His bartending gig is a demanding one – the tour drinking game dictates that one must imbibe each time blood is spilled onscreen.

Zombie will get little sleep tonight, but tomorrow promises a day off. Of sorts. First there's a seven-hour photo shoot in Yonkers, New York, and then a Manhattan recording session for Powerman 5000, a rising combo led by Zombie's brother, Mike Cummings (Spider to his fans). After that there's just enough time for a wee-hours visit to a downtown strip club. There is, it would seem, no rest for the professionally wicked.

For most of his conscious life, Rob Zombie has been in restless pursuit of . . . something better. "I would always get really mad whenever anybody told me something was good – nothing was ever good enough for me," says the man born Robert Cummings thirty-three years ago in Haverhill, Massachusetts. "I remember entering these drawing contests at the local public library as a kid and winning. Then I'd look at my work and say, 'This sucks!' And I would destroy it. My more would always say, 'If you don't cheer up, I'll send you to a psychiatrist.' Teachers always asked me, 'How come you hate everything?' That was the catch phrase of my life.

"When White Zombie albums were finished, I'd immediately go, 'That record sucks!' And I'd never listen to it again. I guess trying to make the perfect record is an endless quest – but I find that people that are always happy with what they do tend to do crap work."

Complacency rarely clouded Rob Zombie's childhood in Haverhill, a down-at-the-heels burg that was once a shoe-industry stronghold. "There wasn't a movie theater or a record store in town," Zombie recalls. "The number-one thing was cemeteries. As a little kid, you'd play baseball or football there; older kids would carve 'Black Sabbath' into gravestones and light things on fire. When we finally got a McDonald's, I was like, 'Let's have a parade!'"

Both Rob and sole sibling Mike found refuge in constant communion with the family television. In his elementary-school years, Zombie routinely memorized an entire week's TV schedule. When he told one teacher that he watched eight hours of TV per day, she thought he was joking. He was not. "I'd watch everything," he says, "starting with the crop reports at 5:30 in the morning. My saddest moment was when that flag came up at the end of the night, right before the station signed off. Oh, how the tears would flow!"

Zombie still fills his every waking – and dreaming – hour with television, whether he's relaxing in a hotel room or slaving over a hot remix. He sees TV as a creative tool, citing Munsters repeats as inspiration for the custom-car cacophony of his hit single "Dragula." "Demonoid Phenomenon" and "Spookshow Baby" can presumably be attributed to Zombie's confessed weakness for The Jenny Jones Show.

This media-junkie stuff is all very charming coming from a quirky, gifted and properly indulged pop star. But try that crap as a faceless small-town kid and you're practically begging for a wedgie. "Rob and I didn't get along with too many people," says Mike Cummings, who was virtually his brother's best friend despite being two years his junior. "Some mornings we had to fight our way onto the school bus." Things didn't get any easier around 1981, when Mike turned Rob on to Minor Threat-era hardcore bands and they gave each other "wacky" haircuts.

The brothers spent a lot of time in the Haverhill High art room, where teachers encouraged their budding imaginations. At home the boys' furniture-maker dad adopted a surprisingly indulgent attitude toward his sons' outre pursuits. "It's not like our parents really pushed us," says Mike with a hint of puzzlement. "Dad didn't stand behind us going, 'Push yourself – you have to be the best!'" So Rob and Mike just submerged deeper into their own world.

"The two of us would go see a movie and have to know everything about the actors, writer and director," says Mike. "I remember taping Jaws off HBO with a little tape recorder, and Rob sometimes filmed the TV with a Super 8 camera.

"For a long time, I wondered, 'What is the point of all this useless information that we have?' But I think that it's totally paying off now."

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