Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe is older, wiser and facing the demons of his past head-on. (Photo courtesy: Adam Ewing)
Just off Canal Street in lower Manhattan, there’s a small sign alerting passersby to a second-floor gallery called Sacred Heart. Its walls showcase vivid snaps of snow-capped tombstones in Prague, an armed Israeli soldier deep in prayer at the Western Wall, the glassy doom of the surfer-swallowing shoreline of New Zealand’s Piha Beach, orange balls of fire engulfing a Texas street performer.
Images from the first photo exhibition by Randy Blythe — the screaming voice of Richmond metal band Lamb of God — capture his life at home, on tour and traveling with friends; they are records of places he has visited once, strangers he never spoke to, lucky moments that went by in a flash. Together they contribute to a new narrative Blythe is busy forging for himself, one of an admittedly flawed but evolving man twice reborn in the past five years.
Randy Blythe Montreal
Randy Blythe performs with Lamb of God at Heavy Montréal in 2014. (Photo: Tim Zuchowski)
The 44-year-old, fairly well known in the past for being an at-times nasty drunk, is now five years into a sober life. Finally free of the booze fog that he says has hampered his productivity through much of his life, Blythe is eagerly making up for not just a misspent youth, but a misspent adulthood. Flexing his creative muscles on a broader scale, he has recently added not just “photographer” but “nonfiction writer” and even “composer for the Richmond Ballet” to a CV already notable for its internationally known lyricist, vocalist and frontman credits.
His new memoir, Dark Days, out July 14, brings readers deep — roughly 500 pages deep — into his bout with alcoholism and through the still-surreal story of being arrested, jailed and tried on charges that he caused the death of a teenage fan injured at a 2010 Lamb of God concert in Prague. It drops us on the Australian balcony where Blythe, staring at empty beer bottles, decided to finally quit drinking, and it takes us behind the bars of the Czech jail cells where he spent more than a month disconnected from the world, facing charges that could have kept him there for years.
“I do well with obstacles,” he says, with a slight if-you-don’t-laugh-you’d-cry grin. “Sometimes I’m better off in my life when I’m facing a problem, because I’m focused on it.”
Perched on a bar stool in the lobby of a hotel in New York’s Chinatown, his voice intermittently drowned out by the clinking of bottles — a staffer is restocking beer, wine and vodka a couple of feet away — the sleepy-eyed singer notes that this very moment is proof of the strength of his sobriety.
“If I hadn’t had enough, if I had not come to terms with the fact that I can’t drink anymore — that I don’t want to drink anymore and that I don’t miss it — I wouldn’t be able to sit here with you. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on what we’re talking about; I’d be looking over at that stuff.”
If Lamb of God diehards weren’t personally aware of Blythe’s drinking problem before, they were given a shockingly intimate account of it and its impact on the band in 2005, with the release of director Doug Spangenberg’s tour documentary/performance film, Killadelphia. The film repeatedly captures Blythe’s bandmates confronting the singer about his overindulgence, and his reactions don’t cast him in a flattering light. When drummer Chris Adler calmly tells him after a show that the gig could have been better if he hadn’t drunk so much beforehand, Blythe gets defensive before calling him a “nerd” for practicing too much (a life’s dedication that recently earned Adler the side job of studio drummer for thrash-metal juggernauts Megadeth). In another bratty dressing-room moment, Blythe, seemingly eager for the band to groove a bit more onstage, complains about being “bored” during its precise, speed-metal performances. Later, he excuses his drunken behavior with a flippant “Shit happens.”
It all comes to a head on a Glasgow, Scotland, sidewalk where, after Blythe begs guitarist Mark Morton for a fight, he obliges, quickly knocking out the frontman. Blythe is seen sprawled in a kilt, the camera light illuminating a bloodied and bruised face.
Toward the end of Killadelphia, Blythe and his bandmates dismiss the verbal barbs and fisticuffs as merely the byproduct of more than a decade spent crammed together at close quarters. “We’re probably not the band you want to be in, not at all,” offers Morton. “It’s not a fairy tale/storybook heavy metal band. Sucks, right?”
Although the documentary was filmed more than a decade ago, Blythe says he is still asked about it often. Understandably, he’s over it: “Me and Mark are really close, and fans see us on tour walking and talking together, and they’re like, ‘I can’t believe that you guys are friends.’ Jesus, that was, like, 12 years ago!”
For his part, Morton notes, “People have to remember, Randy is family; he’s like a brother to me. And sometimes, brothers fight. That was just one night in thousands upon thousands. I think it says a lot of Randy that he was open to let that be included in the DVD. I can’t say that if I were in his shoes, I would have done the same. Randy is just a very honest and open person. It’s at the core of who he is.”
CHAOS AND SHOCK
It took another five years after the release of Killadelphia before Blythe was finally ready to quit. “I was just empty, a receptacle to put alcohol into,” he says, remembering feeling like death sitting on that Brisbane hotel balcony, staring at those empty bottles. “And I didn’t say at that moment, ‘I am now quitting drinking forever.’ The heavens didn’t part. Charlton Heston didn’t come down and everything. I mean, that would have been pretty cool, because I like things Old Testament in scope — big, dramatic moments. But that’s just not what happened. I just said, ‘I gotta try something different, because I can’t live this way; I’m empty, I’m dead.’ So just slowly, slowly, day by day, minute by minute, things got better. You just got to hang on.”
Coincidentally, Lamb of God was in the midst of making a new tour film — this one directed by Don Argott and more focused on the stories of the band’s international fans, its members’ personal struggles and their deep connection to the music — when Blythe and his bandmates touched down in the Czech Republic in June 2012 for a routine summer-tour stop.
As they de-boarded, police detained band members, eventually separating Blythe from the rest, before arresting, jailing and charging him with causing the death of Daniel Nosek. The 19-year-old had died a month after Lamb of God’s 2010 gig in Prague, apparently from head trauma that prosecutors argued resulted from the singer shoving the young fan off the stage. The chaos, fear and shock of Blythe’s arrest is captured in vivid detail in both Dark Days and Argott’s film, As the Palaces Burn, the focus of which quickly shifted from the fans to Blythe’s legal odyssey.
The first chapter of Dark Days begins in that very moment in the Prague airport: “Until the handcuffs snapped around my wrists, I still thought I might be dreaming,” Blythe writes. “Ratchet-arm teeth clicking into a receiving pawl make a very distinct sound. Like a pump-action twelve gauge being racked outside your back door, or a tree limb cracking beneath your weight, it is a sound that swiftly wakes you up to the reality of your situation. It is a sound that says: You’re screwed. This was not the first time I’d heard that particular noise, but it was the first time in my 41 years that I had ever been truly scared by it.”
While Blythe spent only 37 days behind bars, the whole ordeal lasted almost a year. Online and on the streets of Richmond, friends, peers and strangers rallied behind the singer almost immediately after his arrest. To cover Blythe’s bail, the band auctioned gear and collectibles, and friend and peer Jamey Jasta, singer for the band Hatebreed, printed “Free Randy” T-shirts. But shortly after he got home, Blythe and his bandmates were off again gigging, in an effort to pay their own bills, cover his mounting legal costs and to keep the band itself — the Lamb of God business entity — from going bankrupt.
After posting bail, Blythe was allowed to return home and tour with Lamb of God while awaiting trial. He could have chosen simply to never return to the Czech Republic, but he went back and stood trial, facing a possible five- to 10-year sentence. Dark Days’ chapters on the trial are fascinating, full of shocking details — like how the prosecuting attorney fell asleep as Blythe gave his testimony, or how his speeding tickets were discussed in court as evidence of poor character.
Video clips testify that Lamb of God was inundated with stage invaders during that fateful May 24, 2010, performance at Club Abaton. In the absence of a barricade or any real security presence, the gig was an exceptionally chaotic one. One fan in particular — not Nosek — kept returning to the stage, irritating Blythe to the extent that the singer knelt on top of him at one point and barked at him not to come back.
Partially because there was no actual footage of him shoving Nosek, partially because fading memories were revealed in conflicting testimony, and largely thanks to the opinions of a key Czech biomechanics expert — whose experiments did not support testimony about how Blythe apparently shoved Nosek — Blythe received a full exoneration. It was immediately appealed by the prosecutor.
The case would haunt Blythe until June 2013, when the singer, sitting in another airplane in Paris (this time waiting to go home), learned that, after two appeals, his acquittal would stand.
Argott’s courtroom footage of Blythe receiving the initial verdict — translated by a member of his defense team — shows Blythe looking exhausted and worried. Nevertheless, he is almost stone-faced when he eventually hears the words “full exoneration.” There are no tears, virtually no emotion.
After the verdict, and at their request, Blythe met with Nosek’s mother and uncle, before they returned to their home village. “As I shook Daniel’s mother’s hand, the tears finally came,” he writes in Dark Days.
While calling the entire trial a “fiasco,” Blythe does agree with an assessment made by the judge — that he “held the moral responsibility” for Nosek’s death. “I must claim it, and live with it the rest of my life. I must hold myself accountable for my actions, for I believe that had Daniel never seen my face that night, he would still be alive today,” he writes.
He notes in the book, as he did in court, that he has no memory of Nosek. But still, in Dark Days, he writes, “I believe I turned, saw him, stepped forward and pushed him in his chest. I believe that he fell backward from the stage as the result of my push, that no one caught him, and that he struck his head on the concrete floor. I believed he died a month later from that injury. I believe that I accidentally killed him. And accident or not, I believe that I hold the moral responsibility for the death of another human being. Accident or not, I believe that I made a critical error in judgment that cost another human being his life.”
INTO THE PUNK SCENE
Born in Fort Meade, Maryland, Blythe first came to Richmond when he was just a year younger than Nosek was when he died. Having spent the previous two years at an arts high school in Norfolk, he was eager to immerse himself in the arts program at Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as the local punk scene. The only other punk in his freshman English class, Scott Hudgins of the local band Brainflowr, provided that introduction.
“He’s the first guy who brought me into the Richmond scene,” Blythe says. “I went to see his band, and it was unreal how good and how smart they were. I moved to Richmond under the guise of being a college student, but in reality I moved there to hang out in the punk scene, in the art scene. Brainflowr, Sliang Laos, King Sorrow. Breadwinner — they were like a proto math-rock band. There was a lot of very smart music coming out of Richmond, and the level of musicianship was very high. I loved the Richmond scene at the time; it changed my viewpoint about punk rock in general. It wasn’t just, ‘One-two-three-four, screw the system!’ It was very smart, very cerebral stuff.”
The gestation of Lamb of God began shortly thereafter, when fellow VCU students Adler, Morton, bassist John Campbell and guitarist Matt Conner formed Burn the Priest, which in 1995 added Blythe as vocalist. “I remember doing this house party with them,” says Hudgins, then playing with Sliang Laos. “It was incredibly intense. The house was packed to the point where people were sort of moshing into you, and as you were playing you would get knocked down, but you would sort of get put back up by the crowd.
“What hit me about seeing them was they wanted to be as fierce as possible. And they had a lot of hunger. You could tell by the ferocity that they were really going for something. And there was a deep love for metal. You could tell the guys writing the songs were huge Metallica and Testament fans. And Randy brought sort of the crustier, punk element to Burn the Priest — and a political side.”
After several releases as Burn the Priest, the band renamed itself Lamb of God, and its meld of thrash and punk started finding favor with fans, critics, the industry and their peers. Since then, they’ve been nominated for multiple Grammys; they’ve seen their albums enjoy both chart and critical success; bands like Metallica and Slipknot have proudly welcomed them as direct support on major tours; they’ve successfully headlined tour after tour of their own; and, thanks to the complexity and might of the music, coupled with Blythe’s angry performances and message-heavy lyrics, they’ve formed deep bonds with fans the world over.
Back in Richmond, it’s always a little amusing to Blythe when he encounters the occasional star-struck fan. “Sometimes the younger kids will see you at the grocery store and they’ll be like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m buying toilet paper. This is the Kroger, bro.’ And of course what I really want to say is, ‘We’re playing a secret show in produce at 7, but don’t tell anyone!’ ”
Jokes aside, Blythe says he was overwhelmed by the support he received in Richmond both when he was in jail and when he got home: “I want people to know that I appreciate the way they treated me. And it was all kinds of people — different races, age groups, economic backgrounds. I’m walking down the street and people are like, ‘Randy! Good to see you. Thank God you’re out!’ People I’ve never met before. It was an immense feeling of love, and it made me proud to be from Richmond.”
In Dark Days, Blythe writes about his wife, Cindy, visiting him in Prague. However low-key they tried keeping her visit, photographs of her appeared in the press. He writes of her delivering a care package that included flip-flops (for himself and a cellmate), smokes, Starbucks coffee, Sudoku puzzles and copies of War and Peace, The Hobbit and The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. He marvels at her strength through the ordeal, and laments that he couldn’t shower and put on clean clothes when she visited him in prison, as he normally does when returning home from long, grungy stretches on the road. “My wife didn’t start dating a rockstar,” he writes. “She started dating a dishwasher who was in a band that made no money. Having a beautiful, intelligent woman who loves me for myself, not my job, is one of my greatest blessings.”
Looking back on the past five years, he says, “She’s a very patient woman. I can’t believe she’s still with me.”
Today, Blythe seems laser-focused on the future: “Time is short, and I’m 44. I gotta get cracking!”
“All in all, he’s just a much happier person. And as a friend, it’s nice to see him in such a better place,” says Morton, who notes that not everything changed when Blythe got sober: “I say this with a tinge of humor: There are a lot of people who drink or do drugs to get sort of a liquid or powder courage, but Randy isn’t one of them. That sort of bravado that he has, it was nice to see that it wasn’t chemically induced, it was actually in his blood.”
Randy Blythe Today
At 44, Randy Blythe has entered not only a period of reflection on his life, but a "creative whirlwind," says his friend and fellow musician, Greta Brinkman. (Photo courtesy of: Adam Ewing)
Blythe is still fully aware of the many parts of his past that will continue to shadow him — things like the fight in Killadelphia or how, every time someone Googles his name, up pops a story about the trial. Originally, he had no intention of reliving it in print so soon.
He was chatting with a book agent, attempting to let him down easy, explaining how those memories were still too painful to write about. “But,” the agent said, “memories fade.” And, having seen proof of just that during testimony at the trial, Blythe acquiesced.
Greta Brinkman is an old friend of Blythe’s, a crush from his punk/college days. A fellow musician who has recorded and/or toured with the likes of Moby, Debbie Harry and L7, she is also a carpenter. She built the striking, weathered frames for Blythe’s gallery photos from repurposed wood, the vast majority of which came from an Oregon Hill home dating to 1860.
She describes today’s Blythe as a “creative whirlwind”: “While we were working on this exhibit, he was simultaneously dealing with publishing his book and dealing with the track listing and cover art for the upcoming Lamb of God record,” she says.
“I have to say, I’ve been very impressed with how he handled the entire Prague thing,” she continues. “Frankly, if it had been me, I’d have been like, ‘F--- that place, no way am I going back for a bogus trial!’ And I would have just avoided the Czech Republic for the rest of my life. Instead, he faced it head-on, knowing that he may be incarcerated for life. And then once it was all over, he even went back again as a free man to take photos and document the location. Respect!”
It’s clearly one of the things Blythe is most proud of in his life. In fact, personal accountability, he says, is sort of the main theme of the book: “It’s something I think is sorely lacking in today’s world. Everybody wants to point the finger; it’s always someone else’s fault. Sometimes things are your fault, sometimes things just happen. And sometimes things happen that you just have to face and deal with.
“I think in our society today, people are full of neurosis and over-medicating; they want something to fix their problem, something external, when sometimes the only way to fix your problem is to go through your problem, to face your problem.”
Dark Days is one of several ways Blythe is creatively purging some of the more horrible experiences of his life, in an effort to spiritually reset himself. Some of the lyrics on the new record, VII: Sturm Und Drang, were written while he was in prison, so the album’s release is sort of another purge. There’s even a purging happening in his photo exhibition, which was set to run through June 30: The photos related to Prague are limited to 10 prints each. Once sold, there won’t be any reprints, he says, noting that he plans on writing more nonfiction, and possibly issuing a book of his collected photographs.
“I have so many different creative ideas right now, they keep spitting out of me,” he says, mimicking machine-gun fire, and noting as an example the music he recently composed for the Richmond Ballet’s New Works Festival. “I think when I drank, it just poured a layer of, like, it might as well have been lead over my brain. That layer of alcohol sort of dampened the creative engine. And now it’s completely off the chain.”
Randy Blythe will be signing copies of Dark Days July 17 at 7 p.m. at a Fountain Bookstore-sponsored event at Urban Farmhouse, 3015 Norfolk St. (Tickets are required. For details, call 788-1594 or go to fountainbookstore.com.) Lamb of God will perform Aug. 12 at Farm Bureau Live in Virginia Beach as part of the Summer’s Last Stand tour headlined by Slipknot and also featuring Bullet for My Valentine and Motionless in White.