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
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."
Rob Zombie's old art teachers would surely be impressed by the Hellbilly Deluxe tour stage set. It's a towering edifice that resembles a whole city block from some noirish anime comic; each metallic skull, mangled gargoyle and Gothic appurtenance was conceived and drawn by Rob Zombie himself. "Every little kid draws," says Zombie with a shrug. "It's just that I never gave up." When he's required to explain himself, his gruff, laconic tone turns to that of a put-upon teen, complete with implied eye roll.
Zombie spent more than $100,000 to have his sketched-out ideas built by a Hollywood special-effects team. Even if the Hellbilly tour continues to sell out venues nationwide, it is at best a break-even proposition.
Rob Zombie cares little for the bottom line at this particular moment – the newly emancipated thirty-three-year-old is hellbent on the proper execution of his maximalist vision, to the smallest detail. It is, you see, a matter of ideology. Because nothing makes the Zombie blood boil like the tendency among contemporary rock stars to strike anti-performance poses in front of paying customers. "I don't understand how it became hip to act like you don't care," says Zombie. "It reminds me of when it was cool to be dumb at school – it's a bizarre sickness.
"Stuff was more mysterious back when I was a kid," he continues. "If they'd told me Gene Simmons or Alice Cooper were from Mars, I'd have said, 'That's cool!' Now all the mystery's gone. Nobody wants to go to an amusement park and take a two-hour course on how the roller coaster works."
Three thousand jaws drop in disbelief when the curtains part at New York's Roseland Ballroom to reveal the cyber-Goth glory of Zombietown. Mouths remain agape as Rob Zombie's three-piece band launches its unhinged assault on the Hellbilly stomper "Superbeast," skidding across the proscenium like men possessed. One of them looks like a gravedigger on crystal meth; another could be a Confederate soldier exhumed one moonless night.
Outsize video screens spew forth every sick-kitsch image that has haunted Zombie since childhood: A-bombs, dragsters, vampires, pinups, rocket ships, biblical hellfire, billowing Stars and Stripes, and sundry icons of evil.
Enter our Zombie in chief, a springheeled cadaver with all-white eyes and a pyrotechnic halo. He dazzles the faithful with a shamanistic two-step and scours their souls with guttural entreaties. "Pray so hard on bloody knees," Zombie growls. "Bound the dead triumphantly."
In White Zombie's heretical heyday, the band drew Christian-right salvos with this sort of big-beat blasphemy. The solo Rob Zombie just wanted to make the beat a little bigger. So he sought out a few bad men who'd work at his "certain level of excellence" – that is, with the same high standards to which he holds himself.
Then again, the Hellbilly draft process had its random elements. Co-producer Scott Humphrey, for instance, was a friend and neighbor of a Zombie associate. Humphrey, a clean-cut California dude who has produced and engineered for Mötley Crüe and Metallica, looks like an unlikely partner of the Undead One, but Zombie knew what he was doing. The sonic polish on Hellbilly Deluxe scarcely diminishes the record's essential Zombieness. For Zombiephiles, it must be like seeing a favorite TV series turned into a decent movie.
New cast members were found not among the ranks of shopworn industry hirelings but in obscure branches of the Zombie family tree. Blasko Nicholson, a distant cousin, was languishing in anonymous L.A. outfits before the Hellbilly mission. Guitarist "Riggs" Robinson was hunting squirrels on a fifty-five-acre family compound in Arkansas and working in a boat factory. Now here he is, strutting before adoring multitudes and slashing at a hollow guitar full of red liquid.
The other night, Riggs plucked the cork from his instrument and quaffed freely the fake blood within. Then he barred over the front row. Colleagues mutter about Riggs' little eccentricities, which include an ever-expanding knife collection. Dancer Sherry "Kitty" Moon (Zombie's current paramour) informs your Rolling Stone reporter, "Last night on the bus, Riggs said he was going to kill you."
Bringing such a raw recruit along on one's Major Solo Debut Tour might appear perverse, but the end product again proves that Rob Zombie's instincts are his greatest asset. While fellow larger-than-lifers Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson use their considerable wits to unerringly tickle the media's G spot, Zombie cuts out the middleman, delivering his soft-core thrills with the hard-core conviction of the eternal fan. This may be part of the reason that White Zombie's 1995 album, Astro-Creep: 2000, has sold twice as many copies (nearly 3 million) as Hole's Live Through This or Manson's Antichrist Superstar.
Live, the new Zombie machine fires most efficiently on the bone-crunching MTV hit "Dragula." Pyrotechnics and video overkill swathe two giant robots, which thwack out martial rhythms on huge metallic drums; on platforms twenty feet above, Zombie's two go-go girls gyrate. In the background, flashes of the song's video prove that Zombie appreciates the light side of the dark side – at one point he and his spooky accomplices do a Night at the Roxbury head bob.
It was TV that first illuminated the morbid mental recesses that Rob Zombie now mines so profitably. Late-night creature features led to obscure midnight screenings in Boston, after which he'd walk the streets until the morning train home. "It seemed so cool," he says. "Like your whole life depended on it."
Zombie worshiped the whacked-out, low-budget efforts of Ed Wood and James Whale and the seditious camp of Roger Corman and Russ Meyer. He'd been primed for such obsession at an early age.
"Certain things burned heavy impressions on me back then," Zombie says. "I remember seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and I was so young, I thought it was all real. By the time I was old enough to know that it wasn't, I figured, 'Well, why can't it be?' I guess I never lost my fascination for anything that I immediately liked as a kid. I'll never forget the first time I went to Disneyland – I thought, 'Oh, my God! I have to make my life like this!' I always told my parents that I'd never work."
Zombie's labor-averse philosophy failed to impress New York's Parsons School of Design, which cast him out into the work force after a few seasons of poor grades and attendance. He landed a string of jobs to grace the resume of any future rocker: bike messenger, production assistant on Pee-wee's Playhouse and art director for pore magazines (Zombie completists should seek out late-Eighties issues of Over 40 and Tail End).
At night, Zombie haunted the legendary CBGB, where he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the anemic post-hardcore contenders parading before him. "After going to shows for a couple years, I couldn't believe how god-awful every band was," he says. "It just became obvious to me that any idiot could do this." So Zombie formed a group in his very own image, an image that, he says, has remained the same since he was old enough to grow a decent set of whiskers.
Named after a 1932 horror classic, White Zombie welded Rob's beloved schlock-shock aesthetic onto lurid neometal. "We were too metal for the N.Y. artsy-fartsy scene but too artsy for the metal scene," he says.
One early White Zombie supporter was influential fanzinc editor Gerard Cosloy, an East Village neighbor of Rob's and his then girlfriend and bass player Scan Yseult. "Rob always had a fully realized idea of what he wanted," remembers Cosloy, now a co-owner of the post-indie label Matador Records. "White Zombie were an intelligent group – it was always meant to be larger than life, not some insular, weirdo punk-rock thing. But, then again, I don't know anybody who'd have predicted that Rob Zombie would end up a hero to every fucked-up teenage kid in America."
White Zombie lumbered on through adversity and neglect, eventually building a strong following with indie releases and punishing road work. In 1991 the band scored a Geffen Records contract that – with support from tastemakers Howard Stern and Beavis and Butt-head – turned it into a reliable platinum commodity. But "reliable" wasn't what Rob Zombie got into this business for; "reliable" wasn't going to get him that personal Disneyland he'd always dreamed of. So Zombie abruptly called time on White Zombie after AstroCreep: 2000. "We hit a wall," he states. "I don't want to have ideas for things that can't be done just because other people aren't into it. And I didn't want to make records for money, which is what it would have turned into."
White Zombie co-founder Yseult was informed of Zombie's decision by conference call. Even so, she bears no ill will toward her former partner. "Rob is definitely driven," she says. "He has a vision, and he gets it done, and there's a lot to be said for that."
Yseult is speaking from a small Oklahoma City club, where she's performing with her new all-girl band, Famous Monsters (which she describes as "Josie and the Pussycats meet the Munsters"). "I definitely don't want to do anything as serious or grueling as White Zombie again," she vows. "But it was great while it lasted – I had a blast."
Rob Zombie pleads ignorance about the current fortunes of any former colleagues. And just in case you suspect that there's any mushy nostalgia hidden behind that gnarled exterior, he adds, "I could give a crap what anyone's doing."
If Rob Zombie had his druthers, he would not be involved in music at all today. In the wake of White Zombie's demise, Rob was commissioned to write and direct the third installment in the Gothhorror franchise The Crow – even though his only previous celluloid credit was conceiving the acid-trip sequence in the Beavis and Butt-head movie.
"Listen," Zombie says, "I don't see directing a movie as any different from anything else. The thing that gives me the confidence to do stuff is when you meet the other people that are doing it. You think, 'Jesus Christ, if that retard can do it . . . '"
Rob Zombie reserves a special animus for the teen-horror flicks that have lately dominated the multiplexes. "I finally checked out the first Scream, after much protest," he says. "And I couldn't believe what I was seeing! What is this? Some kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys mystery?!" Zombie's voice rises in Beavis-esque indignation: "I was like, 'This film sucks so bad – I want my money back!' I want to like new stuff, but it's always crap. It seems as if anything made past 1985 is hopeless."
Zombie nurtured The Crow 3 through two years of rewrites before walking away in frustration. "There were too many cooks in the kitchen," says Zombie. "Nobody knew what they wanted all they wanted was a hit, and nobody knows what a hit is. It's usually the exact movie that nobody wants to make."
He still intends to make his big-screen statement. And he'll likely expand his empire further by updating the White Zombie comic book that Marvel developed a few years back. But it was the need to recoup the "pile of money" he'd lost on The Crow 3 that led Zombie to return to an arena where he can rule with a whim of iron. He launched into a frenzy of creativity, whipping up the Hellbilly Deluxe album, plus all the attendant graphics and videos and stage sets and costumes. Fortunately for Zombie, his old constituency was ravenous for his new incarnation.
None are more ravenous than the well-groomed ladies who linger outside Rob Zombie's dressing rooms at New York's Roseland. While they wait for a glimpse of their hero, these music lovers can at least eye Tommy Lee, amateur porn star, pop-metal survivor and improbable guest drummer on a couple of Hellbilly tracks. (Lee had been staying at the house of Scott Humphrey after he got out of jail for assaulting his ex-wife, Pamela Anderson. "At that point, it was so great just to go and play music," Lee says.)
No other celebrities grace Rob Zombie's inner sanctum, and no old-time New York pals are there to greet him. "All my friends are on this tour," says Zombie, who admits that his isolationist tendencies breed misperceptions about him. "People don't really know what I'm like. They seem to think that in order to do what I do, you'd have to be sooo fucked up on drugs all the time. But I've always found that people who are fucked up on drugs don't produce much of anything."
In other words, Zombie is as much an outsider among rock-business contemporaries as he was among his peers at Haverhill High. Which was well illustrated when he withdrew from Korn's summer '98 Family Values outing because the Zombietown set simply proved impractical for a package tour. Industry gossip, however, insisted that it was Rob Zombie's ego that was unwieldy. (The gossips should note that a Zombie-Korn tour is now set for February.)
"At this point nothing really bugs me," he says with a touch of weariness. "Everything I love was slagged at the time it came out, from Roger Corman to Alice Cooper to Black Sabbath - no one gave a shit about it until so far after the fact. If all of a sudden I was a critics' darling, I'd be wondering what I did wrong."
On the sidewalk outside, dozens of sweat-drenched fans line up in testament to the triumph of Zombie's ruggedly individualist work-as-play ethos. Every one of these grateful Zombie victims knows that he's just ridden the last E-ticket ride in rock. And that is all the reward this clean-living Antichrist, trash-purist control freak seeks for sharing his childhood nightmares with the world.
This story is from the February 4th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.