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Rob Zombie: Monster of Rock

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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.

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