RENO, NEVADA — By the rolling green banks of the Truckee River, under a nearly full moon, a tall, vaguely Hispanic-looking man with beautiful shoulder-length black hair, a foot-long beard, and a perfectly relaxed body comes over to tell me that Satan is walking proud these days. He slips his small U.S. Army pack off one shoulder, introduces himself as Jacob, then says he just missed the midnight bus out of Reno.
“Satan’s walking proud through the cities,” he amends himself, taking a deep whiff of grass and river. “That’s why I’ll only work migrant, out in the country. I know the joy of the mountain cat’s full belly,” he says with a devout smile. “And I know the pain of the deer that’s in there.”
It’s my third night in Reno, and before turning in I’ve come down to the river that cuts right through downtown for some fresh air. I was hoping to spare myself the 24-hour passion plays of the casinos, but there’s no escaping it here: Heaven and Hell are married on every 01her street corner in Reno. A block down, across from the Washoe County District Courthouse where I’ve been spending my days watching the Judas Priest “subliminals” trial, a storefront window advertises summer cut rates for “QUICKEST MARRIAGES IN RENO”; a block up, the Truckee glistens weirdly as it crosses under the Virginia Street Bridge — from all the wedding rings thrown in after quickie divorces.
And Jacob, though his voice is warm and clear as a bell, has blue-green eyes that flash from one extreme conviction to another with a scary rapidity. I’ve gotten used to people like him by now, picking me out, of a neon-lit crowd of thousands on Sierra Street to announce the Apocalypse to, or spilling out of the casinos at 2 a.m. on a 90-degree Saturday night and offering to mow my lawn for $3
“I’m just here,” I tell him, “to cover the Judas Priest trial,” then instantly regret having dropped that particular name.
“Three times,” Jacob says stonily, “thou shalt betray me before the cock crows.”
While I consider the wisdom of pointing out that his Biblical quote concerns Peter, not Judas, Jacob continues:
“Oh, I’ll go to the cities,” he admits. “Salt Lake, Sacramento, Vegas. But I tiptoe through town. Satan’s walking around.”
“No. that’s Mammon,” he says matter-of-factly, as though I’d misidentified a crow as a raven. “Robbing, cheating, beating people up in the middle of the night’s no good,” I hear him say from 10 paces behind me. It’ll come back to you, sooner than you think. Good and evil. Heaven and hell. Life and death. The mountain cat’s joy”— he’s beginning to shout now — “and the deer’s pain. Gain and loss! People who want something for nothing will lose their souls to Satan!”
Reno, depending on how your cards are flopping, might or might not be a town for Satan, but it is a town for losers. You see your first half-dozen before clearing the plane’s disembark ramp, grim old ladies in bright holiday dresses feeding the 25-cent slot machines at three-quarters a pull Downtown, the slots become progressive, with red six-figure jackpot numbers “progressing” digitally and fast into the hundreds of thousands of dollars everywhere you look; before you lose all sense of the value of the money in your pocket, its obvious these beautiful numbers aren’t spelling anything but the losses, one coin at a time, of hundreds of thousands of people.
This is a fleeting awareness though, if you harbor the slightest conviction that life owes you something. Within hours of landing in this former whistle-stop on the Union Pacific Railroad, this three-square-mile block of concrete and neon plopped in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain-desert range, you feel indignant, hopeful, and a little out of control every time you put a quarter in a pay phone.
By various estimates, 50 to 70 per cent of the people actually living in Reno and Sparks, the adjacent bedroom community, have moved here within the last 10 years. The migration pattern — families that failed elsewhere and have come to Nevada for a last chance — becomes clear quickly enough. To sit quietly for more than five minutes in a public place in Reno — be it a diner counter, casino lobby, or poolside at a $25-a-night motel — is to invite the person to your right or left to tell you his troubles. And, however dubious these confessions seem at first, the statistics are there to back them up: Nevadans — the last of the free thinkers — have among the five highest rates per capita of marriages, heart disease, cancer, AIDS, alcoholism, prostitution, cocaine use by adults, divorce, population growth, churches, legal handguns and rifles, incarceration, child abuse, teenage pregnancies, and successful suicides by white males ages 15 to 24.
Two “progressions” of that last statistic — Raymond Belknap, 18, by a sawed-off shotgun blast to the chin in a Sparks churchyard on December 23, 1985, and his best friend, Jay Vance, 20, who managed only to blow the bottom half of his face away (he spent three years enduring $400,000 of painful reconstructive surgery to his face before dying of a methadone overdose in 1988) — have led to the strangest media circus (and what one Vegas book-maker called the “biggest crapshoot”) in Reno history: A multimillion-dollar product liability suit brought by three Reno lawyers against CBS Records and the band one recent critic called the “doyens of British heavy metal,” Judas Priest.
Seven subliminal (audible only subconsciously) commands saying “Do it” were allegedly embedded on one song of Priest’s 1978 release, Stained Class — the album that was on Ray Belknap’s turntable the afternoon he and Jay formed their suicide pact. Coupled with four alleged “back-masked lyrics” (audible only when playing the record in reverse) on three other songs— the exhortations “Try suicide,” “Suicide is in,” “Sing my evil spirit,” “Fuck the Lord, fuck [or suck] all of you” — the Do its, say the lawyers, created a compulsion that led to the “wrongful death” of Ray Belknap and to the “personal injury” of Jay Vance. The Vance family is asking for $5 million. The Belknaps for $1.2 million. “If you’re going to hurt someone,” jokes one of plaintiffs’ lawyers, “you’re better off killing them. It’s a lot cheaper.”
The suit was brought in 1986 after Jay, in a letter to Ray’s mother, Aunetta Roberson, wrote: “I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized …” The lawyers initially cited the alleged suicidal content of the Stained Class songs “Heroes End” (“But you you have to die to be a hero./It’s a shame in life./You make it better dead.”) and “Beyond the Realms of Death” (“Keep your world of all its sin./It’s not fit for living in”). The suit seemed dead in the water, however, after the California District Court of Appeal ruled that the lyrics of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” — cited in a similar suicide/product liability suit — were protected by the First Amendment.
The Reno suit made its bizarre beeline into the unconscious a year and a half later, when six Sparks metalheads, hired by plaintiffs’ lawyers to decipher the lyrics of the entire album, reported concurrent, identical nightmares of going on killing sprees with semiautomatic weapons in their neighborhood shopping malls. On the advice of Dr. Wilson Bryan Key, the grandmaster of the subliminal exposé (his books, Subliminal Seduction, Media Sexploitation, The Clam-Plate Orgy, etc., have sold over 4 million copies), plaintiffs’ lawyers hired a self-taught audio engineer named Bill Nickloff (then marketing personalized subliminal self-help tapes through his firm, Secret Sounds. Inc.) to examine a CD of Stained Class. Using his original “backwards engineering” process — by which the audio signal of a piece of recorded music is deconstructed into its component 24 tracks on his Mac II home computer — Nickloff “discovered the smoking gun”: seven subliminal Do its in the first and second choruses of the song “Better By You, Better Than Me.”
Key, a 65-year-old Henry Miller lookalike with a MENSA belt buckle and a young wife he is able to put to sleep with a simple posthypnotic suggestion, lives outside of Reno, off a highway running through surreal, sage-scented moonscape that yields some very exotic roadkill. As he is quick to point out, the issue of subliminals and the adverse effect of music is not entirely without precedent. The Billie Holiday ballad “Gloomy Sunday” was banned from the radio in the early ’40s when several war widows killed themselves after listening. And the foreman of a jury in Pennsylvania cited subliminals as a mitigating factor in the 1989 guilty verdict for Steven Mignogna, a 19-year-old metalhead who murdered two 10-year-old kids after 12 hours of listening to AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, and Judas Priest. Mignogna, who was defended by the Bishop of Sardinia (then in Pittsburgh for medical reasons), was given two consecutive life sentences rather than the death penalty the prosecution had asked for.
The Do its — uttered, said Nickloff, by a different voice than lead singer Rob Halford’s — were allegedly punched into (or layered beneath) the swirling chords of a Lesley Guitar (a guitar played through a synthesized organ), a tom-tom beat and backward cymbal crash, and the prolonged exhalations of Halford’s falsetto rendition of the lyric, “Better by you, better than meee-uh! [Do it!]/You can tell ’em what I want it to beee-uhh [Do it!]/You can say what I can only seee-uhh [Do it!].” Nickloff also speculated that enhancements of the Do its had been spread across 11 of the 24 tracks by a second machine, perhaps a COMB filter. This he couldn’t prove, however, simply by testing the CD.
Thus began a three-year hunt for the 24-track masters, not only of “Better By You” but of every other Judas Priest song, album, rehearsal, and live tape in CBS’s possession. The song left a long paper trail, and discovery of the 24-track proved far easier than other Judas Priest masters (CBS said they still hadn’t located any others by the time trial began): The album’s only number not written by band members, it was added when CBS’s New York a&r men decided none of the album’s original eight songs had hit potential.
CBS located the tape in September of 1988: they delivered a safety copy to Nickloff three months later — an “18-minute-like gap” that became plaintiffs’ second “smoking gun”: CBS, they alleged, had used the three months of studio time to cover up the embedded Do its. Nickloff asked for the original master, then refused to examine it when it arrived. The original tape’s zinc oxide, he said, had begun to flake (suspiciously so, he thought), and he wouldn’t accept responsibility for it.
A series of motions and court orders regarding CBS’s cooperation in the search for other masters followed, leading to two years of immensely mistrustful exchanges between plaintiffs and defense lawyers. It degenerated quickly into one of the most contentious suits since Bleak House‘s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce: public accusations of complicity and conspiracy; shouting matches at prehearing depositions (Nickloff’s in particular): detectives (including a former Scotland Yard man) digging into the silt of CBS corporate policy and procedure, and the Oedipal dramas of the plaintiffs’ families.
It culminated in a 14-day trial, starting July 16, that featured exquisite dramatizations of humility, rage, and bathos; incredulity and condescension; Rob Halford’s a cappella singing from the witness stand; the repeated playing of his ee-uh! heavy breathings that made the court stenographer cover her face in embarrassment; the defense’s strident attacks on the existence of a Freudian unconscious; and a Manichaean courtroom divided between the local born-agains and metalhead autograph hounds.
Courtroom melodrama isn’t something that bothers a man like Ken McKenna. A likable, unabashed media animal (“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing since 1986,” he boasts), he’s the man responsible for the suit’s enormous publicity. The inevitable epithets — “tort twister,” “slip-and-slide man,” and “ambulance chaser” — only bring a bemused, faintly proud smile to McKenna’s lips, and he’s not one to linger on the moral or emotional aspects of a case. Not until closing statement time, that is. Then you realize McKenna’s a pretty corny guy — fond of homespun similes and homilies (“I guess the lesson to be learned from all this,” etc.), and the words “gosh” and “heck.” When the subject of his work comes up, his pudgy, angelic face (at 38, he still looks like his high school yearbook photo) takes on a devilish grin.
“I was born to sue,” he says in his well-appointed two-story office in downtown Reno. “I didn’t know who or why or where or what I was till I discovered contingency law.”
At 8 a.m., sprightly during the first of several interviews he’ll be giving this Saturday morning, he looks like he’s just stepped onto a budget cruise liner: blue shorts, salmon Polo shirt, a big well-scrubbed smile on his face, and a solid gold Mickey Mouse watch on his wrist. Stacked next to his Catalogue of Expert Witnesses (“The expert business is big-time bizarre,” he tells me) are heaps of anti-heavy-metal pamphlets. I leaf through one with an R. Crumb-like cartoon on the cover, Stairway to Hell: The Well-Planned Destruction of Teens, while McKenna faxes a client. A beautiful epigram from Boethius — “Music is a part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior” — prefaces a chapter on backmasked lyrics that focuses on the alleged backward content of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (“It’s just a spring-clean for the May Queen” = “I live for Satan … He will give you six, six, six,” etc.). Italicized in the first paragraph of text is the premise that drives the ultra-right’s fascination with backmasking: “Induction into the Worldwide Church of Satan is predicated in the ability to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards!”
McKenna (who represents the Belknaps), Tim Post (the born-again Christian representing the Vances), and Vivian Lynch (who represents the estate of Jay Vance) deny identification with the anti-metal fanatics, but that Southern California-based fringe (which Frank Zappa calls the “Orange Curtain”) is very supportive of the suit. Two of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Dr. Robert Demski, medical director of a San Antonio hospice for troubled adolescents, and Darlyne Pettinicchio, a Fullerton, California, probation officer, were recommended by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center. Their testimony — Judas Priest’s music induces self-destructive behavior by glorifying Satan — wasn’t allowed on record (Stained Class‘s lyric content was not at issue). Without Pettinicchio, however, the metal link to the suicide probably wouldn’t have been made. It was through attendance at one of her seminars, or the reading of an anti-metal “police training manual” prepared by a disciple, that one of the detectives handling the shootings knew to advise Ray’s mother to hang on to the Stained Class LP on Ray’s turntable.
“You can borrow that stuff if you wanna,” McKenna says, putting a heavy, distancing accent on the word stuff. Walking me out to his porch after the interview, though, he can’t resist telling me that Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant did once purchase Aleister Crowley’s mansion. (McKenna isn’t far off: Jimmy Page, Zeppelin’s guitarist and a devotee of the Grand Old Man of English Satanism, did buy Crowley’s Boleskine House, near Loch Ness, in the early 1970s.)
I stop to look at a gruesome photograph of a twin-engine plane’s wreckage in a copse of pine trees, given pride of place in his front office. That devilish smile comes to McKenna’s face as he tells me, “That’s two million dollars you’re looking at.”
Vivian Lynch, unlike McKenna, is a “lawyer’s lawyer.” A middle-aged woman who speaks in perfectly constructed, declarative sentences, she has a sober, battered look on her face, and pretty, penetrating blue eyes that become a rapid flutter of mascara and sky-blue eyeshadow whenever she concentrates on a point of law. Holder of the highest bar exam scores ever in Michigan and Nevada, she’s known among the defense team as the dragon lady, and several of their expert witnesses tell me how unnerving it is to be cross-examined by her. On both state and national amicus curiae committees, much of her legal work for the last two decades has been the drafting of other attorneys’ motions for the Supreme Court in Carson City. Entering the suit at the beginning of defense’s constitutional challenges in 1987, she has defeated every motion to dismiss, quash, and relocate that Reno and New York counsel for CBS have come up with.
Unlike McKenna, Lynch has no taste for publicity; she once left the suit for months, she tells me, when she felt that his media hi-jinks (particularly an interview given to the Enquirer) had crossed over into the jury-prejudicial. She also seems entirely unmotivated by Mammon: A supporter of Tipper Gore, she’s “in this suit for my children,” two of whom were “extreme metalheads.” Lynch’s only appearance in the local headlines came in the first week of trial, when she asked bassist Ian Hill and guitarist Ken Downing for autographs for her middle son. (“My son wasn’t talking to me,” she tells me.)
When she pulls up to her office for our interview, one side of her pickup’s flatbed is stacked with Diet Coke empties, and the passenger seat of the cab has a three-foot stack of legal paper. When a local Holy Roller, overhearing us discuss the suit in a restaurant a few hours later, comes over with his two young daughters to testify that the “owner of a major U.S. record company belongs to the Worldwide Church of Satan,” and that “my best friend’s brother jumped off the high bridge in Santa Barbara because of that company’s music,” Lynch hears him out patiently, then gives her address so he can send along his compilation tape of backward lyrics.
“I think that man’s insane,” I say when he shepherds his daughters from the restaurant.
“I don’t,” says Lynch, draining her third iced tea. “I think he’s tripping. Didn’t you sec how dilated his pupils were?”
Even if McKenna and Lynch can prove the existence of subliminals on “Better By You” to Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead (both sides have agreed to forgo a jury in the trial), they still have to show the subliminals were the “proximate cause” of the suicide pact. Defense has argued that Ray and Jay decided to kill themselves because they were miserable. CBS’s three-year investigation into the allegedly violent home lives of the boys focused on the marital history of Ray Belknap’s mother, Aunetta Roberson (three husbands by the time Ray killed himself), the religious conflict in Jay Vance’s life (his mother is a born-again Christian), the alcoholic and allegedly abusive tendencies of both boys’ stepfathers, and the bleak work prospects and fantasy-ridden lives of the pair once they’d dropped out of high school in the first weeks of their junior years. The circumstantial evidence is enormous.
By McKenna’s and Lynch’s own lights, however, the families of Ray and Jay were enviable. McKenna’s first case was his brother Pat’s Murder 1 appeal, for the extremely brutal slaying of a fellow prisoner while awaiting sentence on a separate multiple-murder conviction. And though he seems an extremely peaceable man (and is remarkably polite and gentle with hostile witnesses), he is able to provide the most dramatic moment of the trial: At the end of his closing statement (which he prefaces by placing a two-foot by three-foot blowup of Ray Belknap’s 10th-grade yearbook photo on a table facing the court), McKenna’s soliloquy of a father’s rationalizing thoughts after striking his son (“I didn’t mean to hit him that hard”; “he was provoking me”; “I barely touched him,” etc.) has the entire court’s heads bowed (including Judge Whitehead’s) for over a minute.
“Following the defense’s logic,” says Lynch. “I should have killed myself 10 times over.” The eldest of three abused children, she and two younger sisters were taken from her parents when she was two years old and institutionalized in a Long Island orphanage till their teens. After being sexually abused by a relative, a 14-year-old Lynch and her two sisters moved into a Detroit studio with a single Murphy bed, and she went to work to support them. She went through Wayne State Law School on scholarship, saving money by memorizing textbooks and selling them back before classes started. Her own marriage, an extremely unhappy one, yielded three children; she divorced her husband in 1972, four years after she’d come home from a day of practicing international law in New York. turned on the evening news, and saw her house being fired upon by tanks with 9mm anti-personnel weapons during the Detroit riots. (Weeks later, back in Detroit, she was bayoneted in the back while four months pregnant.) Four of the seven children she’s raised came from troubled households in Reno.
“The histories of the Vance and Belknap families,” Lynch tells me without batting an eyelash, “are certainly no different in kind or degree than what you’ll find across America. I can tell you for sure they grew up like most of the kids you’ll find around here.”
The billboards along South Virginia Street arc as likely to read “HAVE YOU BEEN ABUSED?” or “DIVORCE?” — followed by a seven-digit number — as to announce Dolly Parton at the Sands, or next Saturday’s fight card at Harrah’s. Otherwise, South Virginia is a typical five-mile burger strip leading out of town: small businesses, chain restaurants, mini-golf courses, teenage boys screeching their tires on Saturday night till they find a girl or a fight; and the occasional mammoth concrete structure, like the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, where Ray and Jay saw Judas Priest on its 1983 Screaming for Vengeance tour. It was a big tour for the band (the album was their first to hit platinum), and it meant a lot to the boys: Ray stole the six-foot tour poster — one fan described it as a mythic drawing of “sort of a tank with a bull’s face, horns, missiles, guns” — and taped it above his bed for a year.
When I go to meet Scott Schilingheyde, a high school friend of Ray’s, it’s in front of the enormous Peppermill Casino, all the way out of town on South Virginia. Scott, a striking 21-year-old kid with immaculately blow-dried shoulder-length blond hair, has driven from his mother’s house up in the Hidden Valley hills: he’s recently been paroled after two years in the Carson City penitentiary (for selling crank, a methamphetamine), and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s “back in town.” Scott isn’t exactly scrupulous in maintaining his low profile, however: I can hear the Megadeth tape blasting in his yellow Le Mans from a block away.
It’s sadly easy to forget Scott’s tender age once you meet him: he seems far more like some hardened and prospectless maquis — come down from a Philippine hill town to talk to a very foreign reporter — than any American teenager I’ve met. The only clues to his age are his gape-mouthed appreciation of a 40-pound striper in the Peppermill fish-tank, and a fit of uncontrollable giggling when I ask it it’s true Ray and Jay played cowboys-and-Indians with live ammo (“Yeah, that sounds like Ray”). When he speaks of guns, prison, child abuse, and suicide, Scott sounds like he’s talking last night’s ballgame: “Ray and Jay weren’t all-out crazy, out-and-out violent people,” he says. “They did pretty much normal, crazy shit. They had normal problems — Ray more than most. We all talked about suicide, all the time, but it was just tough-guy talk, weapons talk. They did it.”
Scott stonewalls when I ask what problems Ray had: “Ray shelved that shit the moment he got out of the house, and I wasn’t allowed in there. Only Jay was. Those two were as close as close can get. I remember one time, though, we went up to shoot my brother’s gun and Ray had to go get some clothes, ’cause he couldn’t go home. I think we ripped some beers on the way up.”
“Did you guys steal most of the things you had?”
“No, no,” Scott shakes his head emphatically. “I think we bought our own cigarettes.” He blows out a long thin plume of Marlboro smoke. “Mom bought the jeans and T-shirts. We never thought much about food.”
“Did they do a lot of drugs?”
“Everything that came their way,” Scott says automatically. “Anything they could afford. Mostly, they drank a lot of beer.”
On the day of his autopsy, the day after Christmas, 1985, Ray, six foot two, weighed 141 pounds; the only substance in his stomach was a stick of chewing gum, and his alcohol/blood tested at 0.098 (0.100 constitutes intoxication in Nevada). He wore blue jeans with long sweats underneath, a gray Miami Dolphins “Super Bowl ’85” T-shirt with vents cut out, and brown construction boots with white socks. His belt buckle was shaped like a cannabis leaf. He had one tattoo, a green RB on his upper right arm (unlike Jay, who had many on his arms and upper body), and 25 small lacerations on his fists, from playing knuckles with Jay (punching each other’s knuckles to see whose bled first). Ray’s stepbrother, Tom Roach, testified that their former stepfather, Jesse Roberson, would take Ray to the garage, lock the door, and whip him with his belt till Ray could get the door unlocked and scamper back to his room, but no indications of that or any other beating showed up on the autopsy.
“Growing up,” Scott tells me, “Ray didn’t really have friends. He didn’t like no one, and didn’t like himself. He really hated his red hair.”
The first and only person Ray ever really took to was Jay, whom he met in seventh grade. Jay, who’d been left back twice, had BMOC status with his two extra years, and his immediate love for Ray was an unending source of pride. Ray was never at ease with girls, unlike Jay, who’d often find two girls waiting at his door when he came home from work. A pretty redhead named Carol did fall madly in love with Ray in 10th grade, and he left home to live with her for a week, but he could always be counted on to ditch her to spend the night with Jay. Their parents were pleased when the boys finally showed a sign of domesticity: shortly after leaving high school, they bought pit bull pups together (both of which had to be put down by the parents after the shooting).
Jesse worked at a Sparks auto parts shop for $20 a day plus commissions. Aunetta has worked for the past five years as a 21 dealer in a Reno casino for $35 a night and tips. Ray, who was good with his hands (he made a shelf for targets he and Jay would take up into the hills with them), loved construction work. On his last application form, he wrote that he had worked on a building site in Truckee, California, beginning as a laborer at $5.50 an hour and ending, a month later, as a $10.75-an-hour framer, but there’s no reason to believe this is true. His last job, feeding paper reams into a cutter at a Sparks print shop, paid 10 cents above the minimum wage, because he worked from midnight to 8 a.m. Two weeks before he killed himself, he was fired for refusing to work overtime. He’d lost the job before that, in a used furniture store, when he stole $454 from his boss’s desk and used the money to go see his real father in Oklahoma.
He liked to think of himself as a karate master and was very fond of his weapons: a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, a 12-gauge pump, a BB gun, and a two-foot-long hard-rubber whipstick. (When Tom Roach was asked what the purpose of this whip-stick was, he answered, “It hurts when you get hit with it.”) Though Ray was terrible in school (in his two years at Reed High School he flunked all but two classes), he was by far the better pupil of the two. Both were good shots, and when not stalking Tom Roach with BB guns through the house (for liking “mellow” bands like Def Leppard and Night Ranger), they would often go up into the Sierras with their .22s to hunt quail, which Ray loved to eat spit-roasted, or to a cave within the Sparks city limits, to nail bats to the wall with air-rifle shot. Two weeks before his suicide, police came to his house to investigate a report of “animal torture” — Ray had allegedly shot a neighborhood cat with a blowgun.
Other than the occasional trip to the mall, or a night of playing “terrorize the town” on South Virginia Street, Ray’s only regular activity was up in his room with Jay, “listening to Priest” and fantasizing about becoming a mercenary. They loved Priest, Jay said later, because they got power from the music — amps was Jay’s word — and because their connection with Priest was “more intimate” than with bands like Iron Maiden, whose “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out sort of lyrics” left the two cold. If they had a credo to live by, he said, it was “Ride Hard. Die Fast.” In the hospital after the shootings, Jay used an index finger to draw the words Life sucks, when asked why they’d shot themselves.
Of the thousands of details that surface in the Judas Priest trial, two of the few that defense and plaintiffs don’t dispute is that Ray and Jay loved Judas Priest more than any other band (in deposition, Jay said he “would’ve done anything those guys asked me to do”), and that the two boys were inseparable. Several friends testify that when they met Jay after the shooting, the first thing he would ask was if they blamed him for Ray’s death. “I ran into Jay at a gas station one day,” Scott tells me. “But I didn’t know who he was till he started talking, ’cause he didn’t really have a face yet or anything. I couldn’t understand him either, ’cause his tongue was gone. I was angry at him, though. There’s nothin’ in this world so hard,” he says, clenching his fists, slowly, “that you gotta shoot yourself over it. Nothin’.”
“What’d you say to Jay at the gas station?”
“Nothin’. Just walked away. I never saw him again.”
Growing up, Jay wanted to be a hunting or a fishing guide. Several early backpacking trips — in the desolation wilderness of northern Nevada, and on visits to a favorite uncle up in Oregon, along the Pacific Coast Trail — had a huge effect on him. He started doing gardening work in junior high school, and told his school psychiatrist he owned a few landscaping companies and had made investments in pieces of heavy equipment. As he began to realize he’d never get through Reed High, his fantasy of enrolling in Lassen Gunsmith College up in Susanville evaporated; at the New Frontier drug program he lasted half of, trying to cure himself of a crank addiction six months before the shooting, he spoke indifferently of becoming either a mercenary or janitor. He studied typing and applied science after the shooting, and had plans to become either a physical therapist, or, once his tongue was rebuilt, a suicide hot-line operator.
Something went very wrong in Jay’s life in the first and second grades. One school psychiatrist called him hyperactive, another diagnosed him for Attention Deficit Disorder: he repeated both years. His mother refused to give him the nervous-system stimulant Ritalin. “Those kids on Ritalin,” she says, “were just zombies.” She agreed to see the district psychiatrist after Jay tied a belt around his head and began pulling his hair out one day in second grade, but when the man came to see the home environment she wouldn’t let him in. Driving home after being expelled from school in the third grade, Jay became incensed when his mother wouldn’t listen to his version of the argument that had led to his expulsion, and wrapped both hands around her neck. A few years later, he went after her with a hammer, and again with a pistol a few years after that.
From the age of 10 till he dropped out of high school in the first weeks of his junior year, Jay spent his school hours in the Special Ed Room, alongside Down’s syndrome kids, paraplegics, and the severely impaired (he remembered befriending one speechless boy who’d swallowed half a bottle of bleach). Though he tested low on every proficiency and IQ test (he had big problems with hand-eye coordination), when you read the sharp, direct responses he gave in depositions, you realize Jay was a quick-minded and intuitive, if ineducable, kid who never had a chance in school.
From the age of 15, when he discovered Judas Priest, Jay had a Priest album or song for every mood and period of his life: Unleashed in the East, when be needed to “get amped”; Hellbent for Leather, to party; Screaming for Vengeance when he left school and for nine months lived-in as a baby-sitter for an older woman. Both he and Ray loved the early album, Sin After Sin, with its cover: a black figure with no face. He said they listened to the songs “Epitaph” and “Dream Deceiver” when they needed to cry: “Saw a figure floating/Beneath the willow trees./Asked us if we were happy/We said we didn’t know/took us by the hands/and up we go!/We followed the dreamer deceiver.”
“Jay recited those lines like scripture,” says Phillis Vance, who agrees to see me once I swear I’m not from “one of those smut magazines like the Enquirer, or that Rolling Stone” (which ran an even-handed piece a week before the trial began). “Me and Tony [Jay’s adoptive father] would be watching TV out in the living room and he’d be listening to Judas Priest in his bedroom, so loud that even through his earphones we couldn’t hear the TV. And if I’d go in and tell him to turn it down, he’d point that finger at me, just like Rob Halford, and scream. ‘ON YOUR KNEES, AND WORSHIP ME IF YOU PLEASE!’ After he was born-again, in 1983, he sold all 13 of their albums to Recycled Records. He stopped doing drugs for a while too. Either you worship Jesus Christ, or you worship Judas Priest.”
Jay later said it was Priest’s music that turned him, temporarily, into a white supremacist. In school, his guidance counselor once sent him to the infirmary to have his left forearm PhiSoHexed, when the swastikas and the words Judas Priest he’d drawn on with black magic marker had caused a serious infection.
The 23rd of December, 1985, a freezing, overcast day, began for Ray with a family trip to the Happy Looker hair salon in the neighborhood shopping mall. His four-year-old half-sister, Christie Lynn, was getting her first haircut: Ray went home to get a camera, and on the way back to the Happy Looker decided, after years of wearing his long hair back in a bandana, to have it cut into a manageable buzz.
Though he’d recently lost his first paycheck in three weeks over a few games of pool at Doc and Eddie’s Tavern, he seemed to be in a good mood: all but one installment of the $454 he’d stolen from his former boss was still owed, but he’d had enough money to buy Christmas presents for everyone. Not one to stand on ceremony, he’d opened the records he’d bought for Tom Roach and a few friends (including the hard-to-find Stained Class LP for Jay) and listened to them. And Jay had a plan to get Ray’s paycheck back from the local contractor he’d lost it to: “I was going to stomp on him in the back of his knee, and I would crunch his knee to the concrete and then karate chop him in the back of the neck, and he would pretty much be helpless, at that moment, because I know karate.”
The day had begun for Jay shortly after noon: in a deposition given under hypnosis two years later, he remembered that “I saw my death and looked around.” He cleared his eyes, had a piss, and took a glass of chocolate milk from the kitchen to the bathroom. He drank the milk slowly as he sat under a hot shower for 20 minutes, then put the glass on the toilet seat while he washed his newly buzzed-cut hair.
The shootings might never have happened if Jay hadn’t missed his ride to the printing press that day. In his hypnotic deposition, he remembered finding a note his mother had left in the kitchen, saying she was over at her sister’s house and to call if he needed another ride; Jay, however, couldn’t find or remember his aunt’s number. Perhaps he didn’t want to: Jay hated his 12-hour shifts, which left him so filthy it took up to three hours to scrub the print-ink off his forearms.
Ray was baby-sitting Christie Lynn and a few of her friends all afternoon, but he had time to pick up Jay in his mother’s car, then stop back at the Happy Looker to get his hair recut to look more like Jay’s. They drove back to Richards Way together and, up in Ray’s room, put on The Best of Judas Priest and Unleashed in the East. After a spat over the two joints of scrub-bud they were smoking (Jay was angry Ray had “stoled the pot from a friend of mine,” which Ray denied), they got to work on their first six-pack of Bud.
They left the room an hour later, Ray to tell his sister and her friends he was going to bust their little heads if they didn’t stop running around and slamming doors, Jay to get some more beer from the fridge in the garage. He ran into Ray’s pregnant half-sister, Rita Skulason, in the dining room, yelling at Ray to stop messing with the kids, scowling at Jay as he came into the room. Rita didn’t like Jay at all, but Jay didn’t care: He was feeling good, and had realized he had no desire to be a printer’s apprentice any longer.
When they got back to the bedroom, Ray had a big smile on his face from a decision he’d come to: not to wait until the 25th to give Jay his present. Reaching behind his stereo for the Stained Class album, he put the record on the turntable and gave the jacket to Jay, saying, “Merry Christmas, brother.” As the opening lyric of “Exciter” played: “To find this day,/We’ll surely fall,” Ray and Jay stood up and hugged each other, then started dancing around the room.
They listened to both sides of the record two to four times (depending on which of Jay’s depositions you read) before going back out to the garage for more beer. Rita was still sitting at the dining room table. She said that Jay came over and fondled her breast, though Jay later denied that: “Rita wasn’t the kind of girl you could do that to. She’d bust you in the mouth.” Perhaps the two boys were already considering suicide: Jay asked Rita if she was going to name her baby after Ray if something happened to him. “Not unless it’s a goddamn redhead,” she said.
A few minutes after they returned to Ray’s room, Jay’s parents showed up at the front door to drive Jay to work, but they were too late. “I was rocking out,” Jay remembered. Though Phyllis tried to reason with him, asking, “How’re you going to buy your cigarettes if you don’t have any money?” she and Tony were out the Belknaps’ front door a minute later, Jay right behind them screaming, “LEAVE ME ALONE!”
It’s unclear how many more times they listened to Stained Class, and which song was on when Jay said to Ray, “Let’s see what’s next.” In depositions, Jay said it was the lyric, “Keep your world of all its sin,/It’s not fit for living in,” that led them both to understand what the message was: “The answer to this life is death.” Trying to comprehend what had happened to him in the year after the shootings, Jay went a half-dozen times to see Susan Rusk, his former guidance counselor at Reed High; she remembers Jay mentioning that he and Ray had sat chanting “Do it, do it,” as they passed the album cover back and forth.
Ray, in any case, understood what Jay was telling him. “Yeah,” he growled, then offered his knuckles for Jay to punch. After rapping fists together, they were “psyched enough” to tear Ray’s room apart, smashing furniture and glass, including Ray’s prized full-length mirror. While Jay wedged a two-by-four under Ray’s door, Ray grabbed his favorite weapon, the sawed-off 12-gauge, opened his bedroom window, and crawled out.
By the time Jay had followed him out the window, Ray was already 20 feet down the alley behind his house, which led to the six-foot wall of the Community First Church of God. Jay yelled at him to wait, and the two scaled the wall together. At 5:10 p.m. on the third shortest day of the year it was already pitch-black in the churchyard, and neither boy knew where they were. A neighborhood dog had begun to bark, and they were worried about the police coming. Neither of them was old enough to be outdoors with a loaded gun.
Ray stepped onto a small, rickety carousel in the corner of the churchyard and loaded up with a single shell from his pocket. He looked terrified as he heard the gun cock. It was well below freezing, and both boys were wearing only jeans and T-shirts. In several depositions, Jay remembers saying, “Just hurry up” to Ray; Susan Rusk later testified that Jay told her Ray was going round and round on the carousel, chanting “Do it, do it,” and that what Jay finally said to Ray was, “Just do it.”
As the years went by, it was only in dreams that Jay could remember seeing his best friend kill himself, and inaccurately at that: In his dreams he remembered fire coming out of the back of Ray’s head after he shot himself; in his depositions, he testified he had his back turned when it happened. Two days after the shootings, however, Jay told police he watched Ray sit down on the carousel and plant the gun on the ground between his feet. The coroner’s report located the entrance wound in the exact center of Ray’s chin, and Jay remembered that Ray’s voice was clipped when he said, “I sure fucked up my life,” because he had the gun’s barrel “so tight under his chin.” Jay watched in amazement as Ray reached for the trigger and pulled it. The buckshot imploded in Ray’s head, causing no exit wound, but spraying the carousel, the gun. and over three feet of ground with “an incredible amount of blood.”
Jay remembers “shaking real bad” as he grabbed the gun, uncocked it, and put the shell Ray had given him into the chamber. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I thought somebody was going to stop me.” He told police he only went through with his half of the pact because he was afraid of being accused of Ray’s murder. When he tried to put the gun in his mouth the blood on it made him gag, so he put it under his chin, then stood next to the carousel for a minute, perhaps two, thinking about “my mom, and people I cared about.” The gun felt greasy from the blood, and Jay’s hand-to-eye coordination failed him one last time as he pulled the trigger. The shot took off his chin and mouth and nose and missed his eyes and brain.
He remembered feeling weightless as he dropped to his knees, then face-first to the ground. After a long numbness, he felt a stinging sensation, as though someone had slapped him. “Then somebody,” he said, “turned me over on my back … and checked out my blood.” He remembers fighting with that person to get back onto his stomach. As he was placed into the ambulance and given an emergency tracheotomy. Jay had no idea he no longer had a mouth or a tongue, and couldn’t understand why the simple sentence, “I don’t want to die,” wouldn’t come out when he tried to say it to the paramedic.
As you drive out from Reno to Sparks, the buffets broadcast from the hotel marquees get cheaper, the entertainers get older, and the hold-’em games go from $1-3-5 to $3-5-10. A suburban sprawl crawling up the side of a mountain. Sparks extends higher and seemingly at random with each year into the canyons and hillocks of the surrounding Sierras: endless streets of one-story houses with one willow tree on each lawn, a car or two in each driveway-and one four-wheel-drive vehicle, RV, or big boat in every other drive. Most of the four-wheels have gun racks in the back.
Four doors down from Ray’s old house on Richards Way, I find the Community First Church of God. A 20-square-foot patch of grass surrounded by six feet of cinderblock (interrupted only by a chain fence on the east wall), it looks far more like a prison yard. Formerly a playground for Sunday school kids, it has a spooky, cloistered feel to it. The peeling, whitewashed cross on the church roof is visible between two immense weeping willows hanging over a brace of swings; only one swing is still on its chain. Two feet from the sawed-off stump of a third willow is the small foot-pump carousel Ray was sitting on when he shot himself.
Among Jay’s endless nightmares after the shootings, many were filled with Old Christian symbolism and stained glass. Though there’s no such glass visible from the yard, there are three cheap panels on the front of the church that are enough to give anyone nightmares. The last panel bears a striking resemblance to the Stained Class album cover (an android’s face being pierced by a bolt of something that leaves a red halo over the android’s head), which was put into evidence for its subliminal content.
Jay lay in the hospital for three months, getting daily injections of morphine and listening to the music playing over and over in his head. He got a friend of his to make a tape of Stained Class and played it for weeks, trying, he said, “to bury my grief for Ray. It’s real weird saying goodbye to someone.”
The extent of the reconstructive surgery was enormous. Doctors at the Stanford University hospital first took a piece of skin remaining from his forehead and grafted it onto the middle of his face, eventually to become a nose. The skin grew hair and needed to be shaved daily. After two years, surgeons began working on a pair of lips from skin taken from the smooth crease under the knee, and he was halfway toward his third and final chin when he died. A third of his tongue remained, but he’d lost his gag reflex, and would drool and swallow his tongue. He had only one tooth, and could eat only by using his thumb as a second incisor. When Jay went to watch McKenna and Lynch work on an unrelated trial, he was ejected from the courtroom for upsetting the jury; when McKenna’s young daughter first saw Jay, she fainted.
Because Jay wouldn’t be eligible for Tony’s insurance — to pay for what he called his “$400,000 face” — unless he lived at home, he stayed with his parents. Incredibly, Jay’s love life didn’t slow down: he turned down two offers of marriage, and a third girlfriend came to live with the Vances after she’d been booted out of her house on her 18th birthday. She bore a child of theirs a year before Jay died. (“I told the girl that I didn’t want them monkeying around in the bedroom,” Phyllis Vance recalls. “Jay said I had forgotten to mention the garage, the front lawn, the backyard … “)
For three years, Jay was in almost constant agony: coupled with the initial trauma, surgeons had attached skin extenders to his face, pulling down on the single remaining flap of forehead skin to re-form his face, which caused painful swelling. Jay survived numerous addictions to Percodan and Xanax, and often said that he hadn’t known what a “real drug addiction was like” when he checked into the New Frontier program for crank abuse in July of 1985. Just after the shooting, he’d begun injecting up to two grams of cocaine a day into his arm to ease the pain, but he’d been able to overcome that addiction by getting nerve-block injections (a one-and-a-half-inch needle in the base of his neck).
Despite being placed on suicide watch in Washoe Medical Center (Jay got enormously depressed every year around the holiday season), he died of a methadone overdose on Thanksgiving Day, 1988. Though it’s listed a suicide, it isn’t clear how he got enough of the drug to kill himself, and Vivian Lynch, who represents Jay’s child, is considering suing Washoe. Phyllis Vance is convinced it was malpractice: “Jay felt he had everything to live for. He used to say that he was literally reborn after the accident.”
Before he died, Jay put his mother in the hospital on two occasions — during seizures of cocaine toxicity and withdrawal agony: He split her lip the first time; the second time he fractured her nose. “But we were never closer than after the accident,” Phyllis Vance tells me over Diet Cokes in her backyard, where we’ve come because she won’t let me, or her husband Tony, smoke in the house. “Jay would wake up screaming in blind terror in the middle of the night, and I’d be right there beside him. His face was so swollen he couldn’t see anything except what he’d seen in his dream, the same one, night after night: Ray blowing the back of his head off. He’d see fire coming out of the back of his head, hear the thud of his body, and he knew Ray was dead.”
Tony, sitting beside her, lights a Marlboro and nods his head. I ask if he’d like to respond to reports that Jay’s was a violent home. “I remember one time,” he answers with a flat, emotionless voice, “when Jay came back from California with his eyes all glassy. I told him, ‘Show me your eyes’ and he wouldn’t. So I went into his room to punish him. He said, ‘Daddy, I’m too old for you to be spanking me.’ So, I haul off and belt him, two or three times, with my fist. I don’t know if it did any good,” he says, “’cause I never did it again.”
Tony’s a quiet, broad-shouldered guy, a Blackfoot-Cherokee from Kentucky who never seems at ease, either in the courtroom or in his backyard. During the suit, defense lawyers often raised the question of his alleged alcoholism and gambling, and cite an incident where Phyllis pulled a gun on him when he tried to go out gambling with his overtime pay, but Tony didn’t drink until the Oakland GM plant he drove a forklift for closed down in 1979, and he didn’t gamble much till they moved to Nevada. “That gun thing only happened,” Phyllis explains, “because Tony was used to gambling with his overtime. After the accident, though, we needed the money for Jay.”
A short, enraged-seeming woman with a strident voice and piercing stare, after an hour of talking with her in her backyard I’m able to see her for what she is: a powerful and very angry mother who, five years later, finally knows why her son shot himself. “One thing I’ll never be able to get over,” she says, with a sweet, mystified look, “is that he did it in a churchyard, and without even knowing where he was. Piece by piece, though, you put it all together, and you can finally stop asking ‘Why? Why?’ It was the subliminals.”
Though I try to concentrate on what Phyllis is telling me, my eye keeps wandering across her yard. But for a few tons of concrete Tony laid down for Jay’s pit-bull to run in, it looks exactly like the First Community’s churchyard: a 20-foot patch of grass bordered by a six-foot-high wall, the sawed-off stump of a willow tree, and two big weeping willows overhanging a brace with only one chain swing left.
By the last week of the trial, the horde of kids protesting outside the courthouse has dwindled to a few aging stoners with goatees and Motorhead and Houses of the Holy T-shirts and one 90-pound girl wearing white pumps, a white bustier, and jeans with a copper zipper that goes from front to back. Their tinny cries of “Let the music live” are drowned by the right-to-life pamphleteering of a slack-jawed scarecrow of a man named Andy Anderson, who’s been running for lieutenant governor of Nevada for several decades. (“But I still haven’t found the right man to share the ticket with.”)
Of the 75 media people who’d come to Reno from seven different countries, all three networks, four cable channels, and most of the major newsweeklies and dailies in the country, only four rather cynical stringers for the wire services and local papers, three local TV and radio people, and a documentary team from New York survived the first week of the trial, which became extremely technical once opening statements were read. Three-quarters of the testimony given was from “expert witnesses” — psychologists, audiologists, and computer experts for the most part — several of whom seem to have confused their testimony for Oscar acceptance speeches. “We had a suicide shrink here last week,” one stringer says, “who thanked everyone in the Yellow Pages for his long career. He was so deadly the bailiff was talking about putting speed bumps by the exit.”
The 83-seat courtroom, no more than half-filled till the last day of trial, is noticeably devoid of metalheads, whose attendance was successfully dissuaded by Judge Whitehead’s strict dress-code order after the second day of trial. Other than Phyllis Vance (who comes every day, accompanied by a visionary-looking young man dressed in impeccable linen), there are very few “magic” Christians here, born-again or otherwise: a 15-year-old strawberry blond, who sits behind me, telling her rosary; the man whose friend’s brother jumped off the Santa Barbara bridge (with his daughters); and one very anxious elderly woman, wearing the same emerald pants and midnight blue shirt every day, who seems poised to rise and object to every question posed by defense’s lawyers. (On the last day of the trial, she finally stands to say, “Please stop this! I have 25 children I work with downtown and someone has to care for them. Someone has to stop this.” As she was led out, she pleaded, “Your honor, please put me on the stand. I’m an electronics expert too.”)
The empty jury room, formerly needed to handle the overflow press, has been given over to defense’s entourage for recess breaks: band members, U.S. and U.K. management people, a half-dozen independent producers and recording engineers, a few CBS corporate types, and two very jolly 275-pound security toughs from Tempe, Arizona, Rick and Nick, who have the defense team addressing each other with “Hey dude.”
After a first decade of opening shows for bands like AC-DC, UFO, and Ratt, Judas Priest has been on a roll since their 1980 release, British Steel, the album that establishcd them as a hardcore metal band. They’ve been accused of glomming — a la Spinal Tap — from the metal trends set by other groups: Kiss’s leather and two-tiered stage sets; the guitar pyrotechnics, dry-ice smoke, mythic-medieval themes, and onstage monsters of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath; and even some “hell-oriented themes” here and there, when bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate, Scorpions, and Megadeth started hitting gold by reaching the various covens and Satanic wannabees across the country. But from the time Priest learned that heavy metal is show biz — and shed their ’70s kimonos and velvet robes for leather, studs, spurs, and choke collars; added smoke machines, whips, fire pits, flamethrowers. and a 15-foot robot that shot laser beams and lifted the two guitarists into the air during lead breaks; and began riding onstage on Harley-Davidson two-tone Low Riders — they have had their own sound and their own following.
Skip Herman, promotions director and “morning mutant” DJ of Reno’s heavy metal FM station, made friends with the band in the early days of the trial, and has been hanging out with them near Lake Tahoe, where they’ve rented a suite of deluxe cottages. (Skip, who tells me, “This back-masked stuff is all bull,” later invites me to his radio station to hear what are obviously unintentional reverse-direction lyrics on Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning”: “Death to all. He is the one. Satan is love.“) Over and above a mutual love for music, Skip shares Priest’s other guiding passion: golf. “They talk about the trial for the first two holes,” he says, “Then maybe a little music, girls, a lot of old times. Ian and Glenn talk about their kids. From there to the clubhouse, it’s nothing but setting up a good, steady tripod with your legs, and establishing that perfect pendulum for your swing.”
“It’ll be another 10 years before I’ll even be able to spell ‘subliminals,'” Downing says as he signs autographs on the way into the courtroom. Halford and Tipton, however, don’t see the joke. “It’s terribly wrong, y’know,” says Tipton, “for my family to have to turn on the tube, see this poor kid with his face blown off and have the finger pointing, ‘Judas Priest did this.’ I have a lot of work to do. but you can’t go ’round to court every day, sit down behind your lawyers. have the knife twisted in your gut for eight hours, then go home and pick up your guitar.”
“These people act like we drink a gallon of blood and hang upside down from crucifixes before we go onstage,” Rob Halford says. “We’re performers, have been for two decades. We do the show and we wear the costumes our audience expect us to.”
A polite, soft-spoken man with a slow, working-class Birmingham accent and bright, caricatural droopy eyes, Halford says the trial is “degrading and tedious,” but also admits it’s good publicity. “It’s been murder on my creativity as an artist, though. I can’t wait for this tour. I’m going to explode. You can’t fight back the way you should. because you’re in a court of law. Legal proceedings are so frustrating.”
The proceedings are also extremely classist — from plaintiffs’ evocations of CBS’s enormous capital resources (“and they still couldn’t find the master tapes”) to defense’s portrayal of the Vance/Belknap families, the clipped King’s English spoken by half their witnesses, and the ridicule of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ credentials. Nickloff, for example, is often cited as “the marine biologist” — his major in college. The testimony given by Dr. Bruce Tannenbaum (Jay’s psychiatrist in his last two years) — that Jay wouldn’t have shot himself without a subliminal command to Do it — is colored by several references to Tannenbaum’s dabblings in “jam essence” and “block flower” therapies, and his claim to be “the only white man ever to have endured the Native American’s fire-sweat ceremony.”
But there are even more unorthodox witnesses called, and by both sides of the bench: An advocate for subliminal self-help aids, who claims his tapes have been documented to promote the regrowth of hair, enlarge breast size, cure homosexuality, and turn a local college’s worst football team in its history into a division contender; a Toronto psychologist who recites the entire “Jabberwocky” section of Through the Looking Glass backward; and five friends of the deceased who contradict reams of evidence as to Ray’s and Jay’s whereabouts on December 23, 1985. One kid, whose testimony places Ray and Jay in his pickup a half-hour after the shooting, is asked by Judge Whitehead to show his glassy eyes “to the court” before he leaves the stand.
Whitehead, whose decision in the suit will set major precedent, is the last person in Reno I’d play cards with, for his eyes show absolutely nothing. An austere Mormon, with a quiet (almost inaudible) sense of his own dignity, he seems like a man who has grimly determined to catch more flies with honey than vinegar; whether he sustains or overrules an objection, his ruling is delivered with exactly the same measured deference, care, and consideration. His courtroom has a statewide reputation for running by the book and to the minute; entering each morning at precisely 8:45, he says. “Thank you, will you please be seated,” and clears his throat away from the microphone. But except for a question he’ll interject now and again, and the occasional wince when a witness refers to the ”back-masked lyric” “F— the Lord” as “Fuck the Lord” (after 11 days of trial, he still listens to that section of tape with his face averted from the court), he sits impassively till 5 p.m., then whispers the day to a close without the slightest clue as to what he’s seen, heard, or thought.
After Lynch files a Motion in Limine (asking to be awarded the decision outright, on 1he basis of CBS’s lack of cooperation in producing evidence) and a motion for sanctions (money), the first three days feature endless declarations of the impossibility of “punching” anything into a mixed-down two-track (or even 24-track) tape. Several witnesses cite CBS’s impossible task in locating the tapes (probably the first time in legal history an American arts corporation has argued for its lack of control of the matrix of production). Whole mornings and afternoons arc devoted to very unconvincing testimony as to the difficulty and scarcity of backward lyrics in the recording business, either phonetic reversals (lyrics forming a sensible fragment when played backward), or backward-recorded reversals (words recorded forward and added to the mix in reverse direction). After eight court-hours of such testimony (by men who engineered or produced such records as Electric Ladyland, four Zeppelin albums, The Wall, and lier Satanic Majesty’s Request), a 32-year-old engineer/producer named Andrew Jackson (called to testify because he served as assistant engineer on the “Better By You” recording session 13 years ago) is asked if he knows of any backmasked lyrics in the rock industry.
“Yes I do,” he says with a Cockney accent so thick he has Judge Whitehead straining to understand him. “I produced a band just last month had a song with the lyric. ‘And I need someone to lie on./And I need someone to rely on.’ Played in reverse that becomes ‘Here’s me/Here I am./ What we have lost./I am the messenger of love.'” (The singer memorized the backward phrase, with all its reversals and sibilants and plosives, sang it on one track, and that rack was used — backward — as a forward-running vocal overdub.)
“And do you know of any instances of backward-recorded lyrics in the rock industry he was asked by Judge Whitehead to show his glassy eyes “to the court” before he leaves the stand.
Whitehead, whose decision in the suit will set major precedent, is the last person in Reno I’d play cards with, for his eyes show absolutely nothing. An austere Mormon, with a quiet (almost inaudible) sense of his own dignity, he seems like a man who has grimly determined to catch more flies with honey than vinegar: whether he sustains or overrules an objection, his ruling is delivered with exactly the same measured deference, care, and consideration. His courtroom has a statewide reputation for running by the book and to the minute: entering each morning at precisely 8:45, he says. “Thank you, will you please he seated,” and clears his throat away from the microphone. But except for a question he’ll interject now and again, and the occasional wince when a witness refers to the “back-masked lyric” “F··· the Lord” as “Fuck the Lord” (after 11 days of trial, he still listens to that section of tape with his face averted from the court) he sits impassively till 5 p.m. then whispers the day to a close without the slightest clue as to what he’s seen, heard, or thought.
After Lynch files a Motion in Limine
“Yes, I do,” Jackson say with barely concealed pride. “A Pink Floyd song I worked on has the backward-recorded lyric: “Dear Punter. Congratulations. You have found the secret message. Please send answers to Pink Floyd, care of the Funny Farm, Chalford, St. Giles.’ ”
I get to hear two of the back masked lyrics and the alleged Do its on the antepenultimate day of the trial, when the court adjourns to a 24-track studio across town. Two of the stringers look harrowed as we enter a dark room that, through a two-inch plate-glass window, looks onto the console room the court is reconvening in. “We were in Carson City last month to report on a death-penalty execution,” one of them tells me. “It was set up just like this.”
From the four-foot UREI Studio Monitors in our room we hear the title cut’s first chorus, forward first:”Long ago, when man was king./This heart must beat, on stained class./Time must end before sixteen/So now he’s just a stained class thing … ” and then the reverse of the next line, “Faithless continuum into the abyss,” which is supposed to be “Sing my evil spirit.” Though it is a creepy sound, inhumanly high-pitched and extremely emphatic somehow, I can’t say I hear anything more than “S-s-eeg mahee-voh speeree.”
In the song “White Hot, Red Heat,” played next. I do hear something that sounds remarkable, like a dolphin saying “F-f-f-fuck the Lor … S-ss-suck-ck tolleyuse” When the lines, “Deliver us/ From all the fuss,” are played backward. Its existence is important to plaintiffs’ case, since they’ve argued that its backward appearance confirms the “message” of “White Hot, Red Heat.” Which desecrates the Lord’s Prayer: “… Thy father’s son/Thy kingdom come/Electric ecstasy/Deliver us/from all the fuss …”
“Better By You. Better Than Me” is exactly the type of song Jay said he and Ray loved Judas Priest’s music for, “a steady, galloping rhythm … only changing for the chorus. [when] the beat would get more dramatic or more intensified.” After the screeching line. “Tell her what I’m like within/I can’t find the words, my mind dim,” comes the first chorus, with its prolonged ee-eh, exhalation sounds. Though I don’t hear anything that sounds like Do it, there is an extra, syncopated beat falling just on the third beat of each measure, a discolike mesh of noise that has nothing to do with the musical/lyrical content of the song. It does sound — if not “punched in” — added on.
As the song moves into the second chorus with the lyrics,”Guess I’ll learn to tight and kill./Tell her not to wait until/They find my blood upon her windowsill,” the extra beat seem, to land with greater emphasis, more elaborated and groanlike with each ee-uh sound till, yes. I hear the words Do it — a, a kind of antiphonal chant — falling, with relative clarity, on the last rendition of “You can tell her what I want it to be.”
The issue of backward masking seems resolved, forever, on the last day of testimony Halford, noticeably absent from court all morning, arrives late in the afternoon session with a large, black double-deck, and a cassette. Put on the stand, he says that he’s spent the morning in the recording studio, spooling Stained Class backward would like to play what he’s found for the court. Ever the showman (Halford began as a theater apprentice in Birmingham and switched to metal when he realized he’d “stay in the limelight longer that way”), he asks if he can play the tape forward, sing the lyric once, play the “backmasked stuff,” then sing that.
Lynch objects furiously to the tape’s admission, and to Halford’s request to perform for the court. Whitehead agrees there’s no need for Halford to sing again, then cracks his first smile of the suit. “I want to hear this though.”
“Some of these aren’t entirely grammatical.” Halford deadpans apologetically. “But I don’t think ‘Sing my evil spirit’ would”
“Objection,” says Lynch.
“Sustained,” says Whitehead.
A blast of heavy bass and Glenn Tipton ‘s 32nd-note trill accompanies the fragment, “strategic force/they will not,” from “Invader.” Its reverse is the insane-sounding but entirely audible screech: “It’s so fishy, personally I’ll owe it.” When Halford plays, “They won’t take our love away,” from the same song, the backward, “Hey look, Ma, my chair’s broken,” has the courtroom howling. McKenna and Lynch are livid.
After a week of suspending my own disbelief, I lose it completely when Halford plays his last discovery — the lines “Stand by for Exciter./Salvation is his task” — which come out backward with an emphatic and high-pitched, “I-I-I as-sked her for a peppermint-t-t/I-I-I asked for her to get one.”
The band is exultant after Halford’s performance. Up in their Reno counsel’s offices (on the 15th noor of the one bona fide office building I see in Reno), Downing and Ian Hill are talking of issuing a Greatest Hits album. Judas Priest: The Subliminal Years, their American manager is on the phone booking Tipton’s family on a morning night to the Grand Canyon, and Halford, giving an interview to the New York documentary team, lets his hair down: “I’ve never known such a lull in my sex-life, y’now. I don’t think I’ve had an erection since we’ve got here.”
I ride down with Ian Hill and Ken Downing to the bar in Harrah’s, where both they and their drink orders are well-known by the maitre d’. The two original members of the band (they dropped out of their secondary school in Birmingham in the same year), and the only two members of the defense team that don’t seem compelled to shower plaintiffs’ every statement with scornful smiles, they watch the proceedings with a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension till the late hours of afternoon, when they both look ready for a long nap, or a stiff drink. Over second Bloody Marys, I tell Downing I’ve noticed that his ears seem to prick up any time Ray’s or Jay’s name is mentioned in court. A 38-year-old man with a shoulder-length permanent and deeply receding hairline, he tells me that he’s been wanting to go to the churchyard the two shot themselves in.
“I’ve got some strange feelings about those kids,” he says. “It’s not guilt, y’know, but I do feel haunted when I hear about their lives, ’cause they were the same as mine. I hated my parents, y’know, terribly. These kids just didn’t get to live long enough to put all that past them.”
“So you made up with your parents eventually?”
“Oh, I talk to my Mum all the time.”
“Is your father dead?”
“No. he’s alive. But I don’t talk to him. I don’t hate him anymore, though. I don’t feel that I ever really matured till I stopped carrying that anger around with me, and that wasn’t till a year or so ago. The music was the only real release, till then. I do feel angry, though, when they play all that backward surf music and talk about the harm our music did these kids, ’cause I think it was the best thing they had. I remember citing sophisticated stuff verbatim to my folks — like they say Ray and Jay did all the time — Hendrix lyrics like, and they’d look at me, like, Where’s all that coming from? My parents aren’t clever people, you know. They’re just people.”
Halford and Tipton, finished with their interview, come in with the security guys, Rick and Nick. Rick is opining on Nevada’s other major court case — the libel suit brought by Las Vegas’s Stardust Hotel against the animal rights group, PETA — on our way into the adjoining three-star restaurant. “Some guy slaps an orangutan in the face, and they’re asking for $800,000,000.”
I don’t remember much of that dinner, but I won’t forget the next morning’s hangover soon. Between repeated calls for “one more bottle of this Chateau Neuf-de … POP!, Captain Bong,” to our suave Filipino headwaiter and leading a backwardsounding finger-chorus by everyone at the table on our Diamond Optic crystal wine-glasses. Halford, wfto sat at the head, regaled the table with recitations from his favorite Mafia movies. Rick and Nick ordered the Chateaubriand for Two apiece, and I remember an argument starting when Nick told Rick he must have the plaintiff and defendant confused in the Vegas case. “It would have to have been the animal rights guy who slapped the orangutan.”
Ken, who sat to my left, ordered a second appetizer rather than an entree (he was worried about fitting into his stage clothes), and told me how much he hated secondary school. “I was all thumbs in Woodworking Shop. Metalworking, which is a biggie in Birmingham (Tipton worked for British Steel before joining the band), was even worse. The only thing I liked was Chess Club. where I got to beat up on the kids with perfectly pressed uniforms, and Cooking.”
“‘Cause you got to watch the girls bend over. I went to work as a cook after I left school, and loved it. I mean, how many people do you know, even at this age, who can bake an egg?”
Sometime between the third bottle of Moet and the warmed Grand Marnier, I remember a silver plate with an $800 check hitting the table. Happy Verdict, Captain Bong was written on the back.
On the long walk back to the lawyer’s office to get their dry cleaning, Ken and Ian looked thoughtful, and 1000 light years from home; riding up on the elevator, they both admitted they’d heard a couple of Do its in the recording studio on Tuesday.
Judge Whitehead’s decision on both the suit and Vivian Lynch’s Motion in Limine and motion for sanctions was handed down two weeks after the end of the trial. An impressive document, it runs 68 pages, stopping en route to cite Sir Edward Coke’s 17th century interpretation of the Magna Carta and Thomas Payne’s and James Madison’s arguments for the right to trial.
After criticizing CBS’s actions in the discovery process, he awarded plaintiffs’ lawyers $40,000. Finding (I) that the 24-track of “Better By You” submitted by CBS was authentic and unaltered, he declared (2) that there were several Do its; (3) that they were subliminals; (4) but they were placed on the record unintentionally; (5) and that lack of intent establishes lack of liability under invasion of privacy theory; (6) that plaintiffs established a sufficient foundation for the effectiveness of subliminal stimuli, and that the decedents perceived these: (7) but that plaintiffs failed to prove these stimuli were sufficient to explain conduct of this magnitude; and (following a lengthy disclaimer of any intent to demean the Vance and Belknap families) (8) that a number of other factors existed that explain their behavior.
Whitehead’s final findings concerned backmasked messages, which he rejected out of hand. Though he had “grave concerns” as to their possible use if perceived by the unconscious, he found no reason to believe they could be so perceived. And though he indicated his displeasure with heavy metal several times, he closed by thanking the members of Judas Priest for their courtesy during the trial. In Los Angeles to film a video, Judas Priest has reportedly decided to call their upcoming tour “Subliminal Criminals.”
Vivian Lynch, reached for comment after the decision, felt Whitehead was wrong in construing this as an invasion of privacy case. “This is product liability. If somebody explodes in a Pinto, you don’t have to prove Ford intended that to happen.” She said she’ll be filing a motion for a new trial this week: “I feel Judge Whitehead’s findings were entirely correct. I’m appealing on his application of the law to his findings.”
She also expressed satisfaction with the trial: “We accomplished what we set out to: give congressional committees and state legislatures enough reason to take a solid look at what these subliminals are doing to our kids. And I’ve still got Jay’s daughter’s wrongful death suit to file against CBS. It’ll be the same thing all over again.”
McKenna was more succinct: “Hey man.” he tells me. “I’ll take the $40,000.” ❖
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 20, 2020