If Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever decides to dedicate a wing specifically to those musicians who’ve lived the life and survived to tell their tales, several obvious candidates would emerge immediately: Keith Richards, Brian Wilson and Steven Tyler would be inducted on the first ballot; second-ballot entries might include Iggy, Sly, Ozzy, Bret, Gregg, Roky, Hank Jr. Stevie, Shane and the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd who didn’t die in the 1977 plane crash that claimed their mates. Any participant in a 12-step program with more than two near-death experiences to their credit could also apply for consideration.
A strong argument can be made that Bobby Liebling, a founding member of the early heavy-metal band Pentagram, has as good a story to tell than as any of aforementioned survivors. As evidence, his sponsors would only need to screen the chilling rockumentary, “Last Days Here.” If anything, Liebling would qualify for automatic induction simply for showing up on stage just as his band was preparing to play their final song at the 2001 Doom Fest. He had overdosed on heroin an hour earlier, but somehow rallied to meet his commitment to his fans … sort of, anyway.
Four years later, he would play a gig at a Washington club and, again, OD before the start of the band’s set. After being revived by paramedics, “friends” escorted him to the stage, where he promptly collapsed. He is said to have died twice on the way to a hospital, but pulled through each time. If that ain’t rock ’n’ roll, I don’t know what is.
According to co-directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton, whose previous documentaries include “Rock School” and “The Art of the Steal,” Liebling’s career has been a 40-year-long dance with overnight stardom and imminent doom. That the Arlington, Va., native burned through bands, sidemen and managers the way most guitarists go through picks testifies to Liebling’s inability to keep things together for more than a few weeks at a time. And, yet, in certain circles, the singer/songwriter is recognized as one of the most influential forces in the history of metal.
“In 1974, Pentagram was one session away from success,” says Argott, ahead of the film’s release in Los Angeles. “Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, of Kiss, showed up at Bobby’s door one day to listen to the band, but two of the members had trouble getting time off from work. The managers of Blue Oyster Cult paid for a demo to be cut at Columbia, in New York, but, instead of accepting the producer’s advice that a vocal track Bobby didn’t like could be fixed in post-production, he threw a tantrum.
“He had an idea of how the track should sound and producers of young bands don’t want to work with musicians who think they know what’s best. Rock music was founded by rebels and Bobby never could get past the stage of rebellion in his life and music.”
The timing for such a confrontation couldn’t be worse. The backers sensed that a vacuum existed in the marketplace and Pentagram could have filled the gap between Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols. It didn’t take long before the band imploded for the first time.
The idea for Pentagram was conceived in 1971 by Liebling and drummer Geof O’Keefe, longtime friends who weren’t satisfied with the progress of their own bands, Shades of Dark and Space Meat. Heavy-metal music had yet to coalesce as a genre, although such bands as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, the Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Oyster Cult and Blue Cheer had laid the foundation for it, punk and glam-rock. No one has pinned down exactly when the term entered the vernacular, but a reference to “heavy metal thunder” in Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” probably had more to do with its spread as any line in a William Borroughs novel or the overuse of the adjective, “heavy,” by stoners.
In any case, it stuck. Such variations on the heavy-metal theme as “death,” “doom,” “black,” “thrash,” “industrial,” “power” and gothic” would emerge later, as new bands attempted to strike gold by playing louder, faster and with more intensity than the last collection of chart-toppers. Still, like Liebling and the filmmakers, the average “metalhead” was a white, suburban male, whose rebellion wasn’t inspired by parental abuse, poverty or sensory deprivation. Being a card-carrying Satanist wasn’t a requirement of fandom, even if Lucifer deserved a writing credit on some songs.
“The changes are analogous to what happened to the Haight-Ashbury,” observes Fenton. “Two years after the Summer of Love, the neighborhood was overrun by speed freaks and junkies. By the mid-1970s, the darkness of the times had begun to be reflected in fans’ choices in music and drugs.
“Bobby’s parents have always been there for him, but, growing up, he felt more at home on the other side of the tracks with the winos and junkies. He still does.”
Liebling, who admitted to the directors that he’d never recorded an album when he wasn’t stoned, became his own worst enemy and, of course, that of Pentagram. One step forward always was followed by two steps back, causing frequent defections and the creation of new units. Liebling and O’Keefe had written dozens of songs, but the singer’s reputation for squandering their potential put the kibosh on label signings and tours.
“Of course, if Bobby had found success and made lots of money, it probably would have killed him years ago,” Argott suggests.
The filmmakers began the long process of making “Last Days Here” shortly after Liebling nearly died at the Washington show. They’d heard all of the horror stories and watched ancient VHS recordings of past performances, when he was at the top of his game.
Even so, Argott and Fenton were acutely aware of the surplus of documentaries about rock musicians with serious problems, including “Derailroaded,” about Wild Man Fischer; “You’re Going to Miss Me,” about Roky Erickson; and “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” They needed to separate the truth from fiction before going any further and that required a trip to the generic suburban home he shared with his parents in Germantown, Md.
To say that Liebling looked like death warmed over doesn’t give the Grim Reaper sufficient credit for sensing when a body is ripe for the plucking. With his sunken cheeks, long and straggly gray hair and tombstone eyes, he resembled someone who was already halfway to the hereafter before he realized that he’d left his crack pipe at home in the infamous “sub-basement” of his parents’ home. To rid his body of imaginary parasites, Liebling scratched holes in his skin and covered them with soiled gauze.
Even if screening audiences weren’t familiar with Pentagram, his appearance in the first minutes of “Last Days Here” shocked them. By comparison, Keith Richards looks like Jack Lalanne in his prime.
“Our first thought was that we didn’t want to make a movie about guy who could die at any given moment,” Fenton recalled. “Bobby could be apologetic and sincere one moment and not care at all the next. He cried when he saw himself in the movie.”
Now 58, the singer smoked crack throughout the first interview and nearly pitched a fit when he lost a good-sized rock. Things didn’t look very promising to the filmmakers. Two things worked in favor of green-lighting the movie, though.
“You could see a change in Bobby whenever he started sorting through his albums and drawers full of cassettes and CDs,” Argott points out. “It told us that he was sincere about his dedication to music, if not his health, and wanting to make more of it. He was in a haze, but there was a glimmer in his eyes.”
The other positive force in his life was Sean “Pellet” Pelletier, a fan-turned-manager who refused to let his hero completely destroy himself and constantly reminded him that there were people outside the sub-basement who wanted to see him perform. They remembered how he looked in his 20s, when he dominated any stage on which he appeared, and still collected his albums. His songs have been covered, as well, by such musicians as Hank Williams III, Witchcraft and Dead Weather.
During the course of the next four years, Argott and Fenton watched as Liebling rode a roller-coaster of emotional and physical highs and lows. He found a girl to love him, lost her and won her back after cleaning up from crack and methadone. He spent a bit of time in jail, after which he emerged looking as fit as a pawn-shop fiddle. (“It probably was the best thing that could have happened to him,” Pelletier says.)
Fenton says they got together a couple of weeks ago for a screening and the first-time father of a son is married, looking good, touring and even was seen driving a car through Manhattan. Life in the basement bunker of his parents’ home – his dad estimates that a million dollars has gone into Bobby’s career and recovery – is becoming a distant memory now that his family has moved to Pennsylvania.
“You’ve got to hand it to Pellet,” he adds. “He stuck with Bobby, even when there was almost no hope for him making money as his manager. Their relationship was something of a bromance romance.”
“Last Days Here” may have been in constant danger of crumbling like an ant hill in a hurricane, but, Argott says, “Ironically, it the happiest ending of all of our films.” — Gary Dretzka