The new documentary looking at rock ‘n’ roll’s most unlikely survivor, former W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes.
It’s fitting that the phrase ‘heavy metal’ itself was coined in the song Born To Be Wild. Metal is wild. A big part of its appeal as a genre is that it’s incomparably cathartic and provides an expression of emotion that borders on primal. It’s loud, it’s aggressive and – through sheer force – cuts deep beneath the inhibitions most of us carry around in everyday life. It releases the wild animal inside. And arguably there are few animals wilder than Chris Holmes.
Iron Maiden was my gateway band to metal in the 1980s but W.A.S.P. took it to another level for me. Maiden had a certain sophistication to go with the galloping rhythms and bruising distortion – I learned everything I know about history from Iron Maiden – but W.A.S.P. were pure savagery. They were lumped in with the L.A. glam scene but they were never a glam band. At most, they were like a freakshow funhouse mirror image of a glam band. They may have had the big hair and the animal print leggings but their make-up was always smudged and awful. They stuck rusty looking saw blades and spikes to their clothes and rubbed raw meat on themselves. Far from being skinny pretty boys, they were tall hulking beasts and, by the end of their shows, usually covered in litres of sweat and fake blood. They looked like a nightmare and sounded like one too.
At the centre of the band were two uneasy bedfellows, Chris Holmes and Blackie Lawless, almost like a metal Lennon and McCartney. Lawless was the creative genius, mysterious and private, focused on the band’s ‘brand’ and direction. Offstage he was soft-spoken and intelligent. He wrote most of the lyrics – sometimes crude, sometimes unexpectedly poetic – and made himself the face of W.A.S.P. as the Eighties went on. By contrast, Holmes was almost portrayed as the mascot – a gurning, bouncing lunatic sidekick to Lawless – but he brought the wildness. If Lawless was the brains of the band, Holmes was the heart. Even if that meant the band’s pulse was going a mile a minute.
Too often dismissed as a gimmick act because of their gruesome theatrics, there was always so much more to W.A.S.P. than met the eye. In the same way that Lawless’s songcraft far outclassed that of his peers, Holmes’s guitar playing was absolutely world-class. He played quite unlike anyone else. He was my first real guitar hero. The sound he made was just insane. My first guitar was a Flying V because Chris Holmes played a Flying V and I hoped I could sound like that too. His distinctive guitar tone – raw and nasty, high on gain and treble – was years ahead of what a lot of black/extreme metal artists would use a whole decade later. Whereas most Guitar Gods flaunted their technicality and came across a little dry as a result, the first thing you hear from Holmes is just sheer fury. It’s only once you cut through the swathes of distortion and manic energy that you realise how incredibly technical what he’s doing actually is. But the technique – while prodigious – takes a backseat to the passion. Watching him play on stage, it looks like an exorcism, although if it’s hard to tell whether he’s exorcising the guitar or the guitar is exorcising him.
And yes, Holmes was a man with his fair share of demons. He’s perhaps most infamous for his interview in Penelope Spheeris’s Decline of Western Civilisation Part 2 film, where he lounges on an inflatable pool toy, glugging neat vodka, slurring about being a piece of crap and an alcoholic, then answering “probably dead” when asked where he’ll be in 10 years. He ends by pouring the remaining vodka all over himself and sinking sadly into the pool. This pitiful scene is made all the more poignant by the way his mother, sitting by the side of the pool, looks down at him in mute resignation.
Of course, metal was at its commercial peak in the 1980s and L.A. was the epicentre. Those bands made hard partying an art form and it’s rare to see its dark side in contemporary footage. Certainly, there’s nothing so stark as the Holmes interview (and all the more shocking to think it was nearly left on the cutting room floor as Spheeris believed it so bad as to be unusable!). As boom turned to bust in the Nineties and grunge killed off the metal bands, all these young guys who’d had unthinkable amounts of money thrown at them and had their egos dialled up to 11 by slavering record execs were abandoned and ‘irrelevant’. There are so many casualties from this era and many have been depicted in other documentaries. Attack of Life: The Bang Tango Movie is one I’d recommend as a broad, lucid examination of the rise and fall of L.A. metal, but Mean Man, the Chris Holmes movie, is not that story.
Astonishingly, it’s a redemption story. Even Holmes’s family were convinced he’d be dead by 30 from his hardcore lifestyle but, in Mean Man, a 60-year-old Holmes – now sober, happily married and living in France – has found his niche, touring the evergreen metal circuit in Europe with his new band. No genre respects its elders the way modern metal does and younger fans have welcomed him back to the fold as a legend, much as they did the likes of fellow documentary subjects Anvil and Thor.
This is a very different style of film to theirs though. It’s surprisingly light on pathos and unintentional humour. While Holmes is by no means an intellectual or a man of words, he comes across as someone who’s become comfortable with both himself and his level of fame. By his own admission, he had no desire to be a rock star (unlike Jon Mikl Thor who seems to live for showmanship). On several occasions, he’s hung up his guitar and taken menial jobs in construction and the likes. At one point, he even worked as the lighting man on porn movies (“it’s boring” is all he’s got to say about that), only to be eventually invited back to the stage by someone or other who wants to jam with him. He’s clearly happy to play guitar but it’s almost like he has no idea how good he is. It’s just something he does because people sometimes ask him to and he likes to make people happy.
The film doesn’t go too deeply into the dark side of Holmes’s life but it doesn’t ignore it either. There are a couple of tragic anecdotes about friends he’s lost to alcoholism and he talks about how rejection of his Mormon upbringing led him to start using drugs as a teenager, but we never quite get to the real meat of why he sought oblivion so hard and for so long. Arguably, we maybe don’t need to know. It is in the past, after all. Holmes is such an open, unpretentious character that you can see in his eyes and his body language that he’s felt some serious pain even if he doesn’t necessarily need or want to talk about it.
For most of the film, he pads around like an injured bear, towering over everyone around him but moving slowly and being gently sociable. He spends as much time as demanded with his fans and comes across as a genuinely funny, warm-hearted guy whom you just want to hug. But there’s a latent anger underneath, the feeling that the bear could strike out and kill you in a second with just one whip of his paw. Luckily, he seems to have found the best way to express this rage is through his performance and, even with his new band, he still thrashes about like a wild thing onstage.
It’s a shame that there isn’t more about the tempestuous relationship between Lawless and Holmes in this but that’s a different story again and one with so much bad blood in it, the truth could never come out. Nevertheless, it hints at something more complex and emotive than what’s presented here (that Lawless screwed Holmes for money and was a dictator). Mean Man was a (great) song written by Lawless about Holmes and is something he clearly still takes a little pride in as he’s named both his band and this documentary after it. Also, while Holmes reckons it was getting his sixth DUI conviction that finally got him sober, Lawless went out of his way to encourage and support this new sobriety while the pair were touring their 1997 reunion album Kill Fuck Die. He obviously cared about Holmes to some extent in his own weird way, despite undoubtedly being a dick to both his band (and his fans) on more than a few occasions, and I’d love to hear more about this. I see it almost like a heavy metal Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? biopic just waiting to be made.
Still, it’s interesting to compare Holmes’s story here with the trajectory of Blackie Lawless, who kept reinventing W.A.S.P. over and over in new styles before eventually renouncing much of his early work and becoming a born-again Christian. Whatever his reasons, it’s clear that Lawless was ultimately someone who cared what others thought. His art, as brilliant as it was, was often rooted in responding to a previous criticism. This may have kept the flame burning for him for many years but eventually, it burned out and he became strange and reclusive. Holmes, on the other hand, seems to have gone in the opposite direction. He genuinely could not care less what anyone thinks of him or his work. He’s pared down his life to a level of simplicity we could all aspire to and has found an almost zen-like state of contentment in just being Chris Holmes.
For someone who nobody thought would survive this long, it’s a mightily impressive feat and Mean Man feels outright celebratory as a result. It’s a story quite unlike the usual rock survivor narrative in that Holmes never stops to moan that he could’ve been a contender. He just shrugs it all off, cuddles his beloved dog, shares a stupid joke with his wife, signs a record for a fan, then straps on his guitar and lets rip with humble brilliance. He’s weathered a horrible storm and even though it’s passed, you can still hear the crushing sound of the thunder in his playing.
Heavy metal thunder, of course.
Chris Holmes: Mean Man is showing online as part of the Doc ‘n’ Roll Festival between the 9th and 16th of November: https://www.docnrollfestival.com/films/
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