It’s been 30 years since I’ve spoken with D. Randall Blythe.
The last time was when we were gawky teenagers, campmates in a summer program at the University of Virginia. Blythe was a skinny, hilariously brazen skate-punk kid, always toting his Vision Gator skateboard, with a knack for questioning authority in most situations. We joked around often and discussed punk and metal groups such as the Sex Pistols, Motorhead, and the then-relevant Mötley Crüe — whose song “Shout at the Devil” we changed to “Dave Is the Devil” in honor of our camp counselor.
The 44-year-old Blythe who greets me at Mom’s Siam is a different beast. He’s an international heavy metal star, the lead singer for one of Richmond’s most successful musical exports, Lamb of God, which has been nominated for multiple Grammys and sold more than two million records. Still thin but with more wiry muscle, he stands more than 6 feet tall with thin locks pulled back, wearing a black T-shirt and board shorts.
“Dude, this is crazy,” he says, taking a bar stool beside me. “I was just talking to [Mötley Crüe bassist] Nikki Sixx about ‘Shout at the Devil’ the other day.”
It only takes one look at that mischievous grin to realize that some part of Blythe remains: that same smartass skater kid we all liked, the guy who drew anarchist symbols all over my textbooks. But in addition to befriending his childhood idols, playing stadiums packed with rabid fans, and maintaining an Instagram account with more than 91,000 followers, Blythe has seen some of hell along the way, too.
- Brent Baldwin
- My candid summer camp photo of a young Randy Blythe in 1985, already an outspoken metal fan and skater in his early teen years.
He’s been through a marriage that failed and was a raging, destructive alcoholic for years. He’s been sober since 2010 and is happily married to a woman who attended that same Charlottesville camp. But after he was rejuvenated by sobriety, he almost lost everything three years ago after being locked away for a month on manslaughter charges in a hellish Prague prison.
The charges involved a 19-year-old fan, allegedly pushed off the stage by the singer at a 2010 Lamb of God show in Prague, The man died weeks later after complications from a brain injury. Blythe was fully exonerated after a lengthy, expensive and confusing trial. The harrowing details of his jail experience and trial form the backdrop for his new 500-page memoir, “Dark Days” from Da Capo Press. The book arrives this week.
“I wrote the book in order to help clarify my situation,” Blythe says. “People ask me what prison was like and I can only tell them it was like being in a Misfits song.”
While behind bars in the infamous Pankrác prison, Blythe had two Mongolian cellmates, one named Dorj who whistled incessantly and made paper swans out of everything. “It drove me nuts,” Blythe says. “And he had a real hard-on for Obama, always calling him our ‘monkey president.’ … I think the Czechs thought it was like a sitcom. Two Mongols and an American rocker in a Czech prison. It was custom-made for absurdity.”
Blythe’s book is striking in its depiction of the ruinous conditions inside the historic prison, where Nazis once used a guillotine to behead more than a thousand Czechs in two years — not to mention the slow-moving, archaic state of the Czech legal system. One of Blythe’s fellow prisoners, an Irishman and one of the few other prisoners who spoke native English, had been held six months without being charged.
“The Czech Republic has a history of occupation and constant shifts in power,” Blythe says. “They’re just really kind of finding their way.” He notes that a Czech professor and member of his six-person legal team is trying to help reform the system. “But after paying my bail twice,” he says, “I wish they could’ve learned faster.”
- Ash Daniel
- On a sweltering summer day in 2012, fans from across the country hold a Free Randy Rally on Brown’s Island, while the Lamb of God singer was being held in the basement of a Prague prison.
Since getting sober, Blythe’s creative endeavors have blossomed. In addition to the new album and book, he recently had a successful photography show in New York, attended by friend Damien Echols of the Memphis Three. He published a book of photos and wrote music for a Richmond Ballet production. He says he’s most interested in writing more, perhaps fiction next time.
But “Dark Days” is the tragic story he felt compelled to write first. To this day, he writes that he accepts moral responsibility for the young fan’s death. He now simply wishes the band never had agreed to play that ill-fated show, where he says security was lax and contract conditions were unmet.
Blythe says that a literary agent approached him early on, pushing him to write the book before his memory faded. So he sequestered himself in Cape Fear, North Carolina, near where he grew up, and periodically sent chapters to friends including acclaimed local writer Kevin Powers, author of “The Yellow Birds,” as well as friends Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses fame, Corey Taylor of Slipknot and music journalist and author Michael Azerrad.
“One of the many interesting things about ‘Dark Days’ as a rock memoir is that there’s not much rock in it,” says Azerrad via email. “Randy does write very insightfully and amusingly about some aspects of being in a rock band, but mainly the book is about being in prison. I’m not aware that a rock musician has done that before.”
- D. Randall Blythe, the 44-year-old lead singer for metal band, Lamb of God, lives in Richmond with his wife, Cindy, and their cat, Salad. Blythe makes his living as a musician, writer, photographer and actor. This week he publishes his first book.
Prior to this book, Azerrad asked Blythe to become a contributing writer for his the Talkhouse site because he was deeply knowledgeable about different genres of music, but also because he “reads a hell of a lot of books, which means he thinks a lot about writing prose.”
“Dark Days” reads well as an eyewitness account and journal of conscience in a surreal, Kafka-esque situation: Blythe displays a fully-formed voice that’s highly idealistic, hilariously withering at times, and steadfastly committed to his moral code — which pushed the singer to return to the Czech Republic and stand trial instead of skipping out on his $400,000 bail. He faced 10 years in prison.
Blythe says his band is only now beginning to recover fully from the financial strain and tour stoppage. He returned from a month of shows in Europe a few days before last week’s interview. Lamb of God has a new album, its eighth studio release (“VII: Sturm und Drang”) due out July 24. Its last album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart.
In prison, Blythe had his own names for the hard-to-decipher guards, Tom Selleck One and Two, and Bradley — because the guy “just looked like a Bradley.” Like a good journalist, Blythe began taking detailed notes about his surroundings as soon as he could secure paper.
In this excerpt from “Dark Days” shared with Style, Blythe details part of his first day in prison, a time when he understood little about what was happening to him, or whether he would be getting out of jail while he could still head bang. — Brent Baldwin
- Pankrác Prison
- The entrance of the infamous Pankrác Remand Prison, which opened in 1889 and was used by the German Gestapo from 1939 to 1945 for beheadings of Czech prisoners. Blythe was mixed in with prisoners awaiting charges as well as those serving 20- to 30-year bits, he says.
Not long after we had finished lunch, Dorj and I were relaxing on our beds when the cell door opened and Bradley stood there, looking slightly irritated, instead of his normal smug self.
“Up! Up! Come, come, both of you. We go,” he barked, clearly annoyed at having to take us wherever we were going.
Dorj and I got up from our beds, put on our sandals, and headed toward the door. Bradley held his hand up for us to halt.
“Fix shirt!” he said, motioning for us to tuck our shirts into our sweatpants. We did so, and walked outside the cell, where we were made to turn around, spread our legs, and place our hands on the hallway wall while another guard did a quick pat down. Then we followed Bradley to the end of the hall, where a group of eleven other men were already waiting. Bradley unlocked the gate, and we all walked single file out of the block, hands behind our backs, and up the stairs I had come down earlier. After a good ten minutes of walking up and down stairs and through gates and around corners, we arrived at a low-ceilinged holding cell a bit smaller than Dorj’s and my room. All thirteen of us crammed in and took seats on the floor and benches bolted to the walls. As soon as the cell door was locked and the guards had walked away, half-smoked cigarettes began appearing from pockets and being lit up, then passed around. I took a look at the men crowded into the cell with me.
Besides Dorj sitting to my left, across from me was a handsome young blond-haired man in his early twenties who looked as if he definitely did not belong in prison. He was well-groomed, and except for his prison fatigues, looked as if he had just walked out of the pages of some high-end casual clothing catalog. He kept rapidly glancing around the cell, trying not to look nervous but failing miserably. Mr. Abercrombie better tighten up or he won’t last long here, I thought. There were three young Asian men squatting together in a corner, sharing a cigarette and speaking quietly in what I recognized as Vietnamese. A tall, overweight man about the same age as the pretty boy sat on the edge of the bench near the Vietnamese, looking resigned. Beside him was a friendly looking older gentleman who had to be at least in his late sixties, smiling and clutching a soft tan leather attaché in his lap. Next to the older gentleman was a man in his thirties about my height and build who appeared to be sweating out some sort of flu at the moment, as his skin was damp and pale, his eyes glassy. To my right sat what I immediately recognized as a very strung out heroin junkie of the homeless street punk variety. He was rail thin, filthy, smelled awful, and his thin hair looked as if someone had cut it with a weed whacker. His hair and obvious malnutrition didn’t make him look punk rock, it made him look like a chemo patient or concentration camp victim. Finally, sitting and standing near Mr. Abercrombie were three different swarthy-skinned men, talking amongst each other. One was thin and quiet looking, with sad brown eyes. Another was tall and beefy, and looked almost exactly like my friend Raymond Herrera, a well-known Los Angeles based drummer whom I had toured with before. The last of the dark-skinned trio was very short, had a clean-shaven head, and spoke constantly in a raspy animated voice to the other two. All three were covered in tattoos, and the short one had what I knew to be knife scars on his hands and arms. These three carried themselves in a way that immediately let me know that this was not their first day in prison. I guessed that they were Roma (“gypsies” being the more vulgar terminology), and I was correct.
- Reuters/David W. Cerny
- Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe arrives for his trial at the Municipal Court in Prague on March 5, 2013. Blythe faced a 10-year sentence for the death of a 19-year-old fan, who allegedly was thrown from the stage and suffered a brain injury.
The Roma were passing a few cigarettes back and forth, and the short one noticed me looking at his. He leaned over and passed it to me, motioning for me to share with the men on my side. I took a few deep drags, and passed it to Dorj first. I wasn’t going to make him smoke after the junkie next to me — God only knows what kind of diseases he had — and spoke to the short Roma.
“Thank you, bro. I’m Randy. Do you speak English? What’s your name?” I asked. The short man sat looking at, then asked Raymond Herrera a quick question, who answered, pointing at me and the short man.
“Englishky? No. Name? Rene,” he answered, pointing to himself. Raymond Herrera spoke to him again in Czech or Romani (I couldn’t tell the difference), and Rene’s eyes got big, then he turned to me with a big smile on his face.
“Aaaah, Americansky,” Rene said, pointing at me “rock and rooooool, baby!” and laughed as he began to air guitar. I suppose Raymond had informed him of who I was. I was definitely not going to be the anonymous American on our cell block. Oh well — at least the Roma seemed friendly.
“Yes, rock-n-roll,” I sighed. “You are Romani?” I asked, pointing to him and his two friends.
“Yes, yes. Say Gypsy, Gypsy,” Rene replied, then turned back to his friends and resumed their conversation.
“I read about you in the papers,” the tall, overweight man carefully said, not unkindly.
“Yup, that’s me,” I admitted. “Do you know why they brought us here?”
“Drug test,” he replied, and soon a guard returned with a tray of urine sample cups with printed labels on them, handing one to each of us as he read the name on the label. As the guard left, a collective groan went up from over half the men in the cell. Uh-oh. Although I was almost certain I would pass any standard drug test administered, as I had been clean and sober for close to two years at that point, a part of me harbored a tiny shred of worry. I had just come off a month of festival tour gigs. Backstage at any festival of any sort, anywhere on earth, not just heavy metal — rock, jazz, country, hip-hop, classical, gospel, it does not matter — I can assure you that somewhere, someone is smoking copious amounts of marijuana. Even if the musicians themselves aren’t smoking it, someone in the crew, either local or band, is getting stoned. That is just a fact of the music business, and I have walked through or sat in countless billowing clouds of ganja smoke in the closed environment of backstage, unavoidably breathing some of it in, much to my annoyance. I don’t think there is anything wrong with recreationally smoking a little herb here and there, just as I don’t think drinking like a normal person is wrong; although even when I was partying I didn’t partake in it much at all — it simply wasn’t a drug I enjoyed. And yes, weed has legitimate medical uses, and it is ridiculous that it’s illegal while cigarettes are not; but just like alcohol, marijuana is a drug. It was not something I wanted popping up during a urine screening in prison, especially since I didn’t even get to enjoy it when I “did” it. (All you deluded and self-righteous stoners with your hackles lazily raising up right now — calm down, I’m not saying your little magic plant should be illegal; but please, for God’s sake stop lying to yourselves — it’s a freaking drug. Psychotropic foreign substance + your body = radical change in mental and physical condition. This means you have done a drug. Why else would you call it “getting high”? Get over it.)
One by one we got up and went to the toilet in the corner and filled our little cups, carefully placing them on the ground near our feet, except for the junkie beside me. In a moment of opiate-inspired genius, he had placed his on top of the small privacy wall beside the toilet, where it was promptly knocked over by the large overweight man already in the process of filling his own cup. The piss splashed all over the junkie and onto the floor, some hitting my feet. I cursed and jerked my legs back, the junkie cursed and grabbed the cup from the floor, Rene paused mid-story to curse and laugh, and the large man jumped behind the barrier, startled by all the cursing. He emerged sheepishly from the toilet with his cup only half full, apologizing as he wiped his own urine from his hands on his sweatpants. Our little trip upstairs was off to a roaring start.
- A still from the documentary “As the Palaces Burn” captures the moment Blythe learned he was exonerated on manslaughter charges. As he writes in the book: “I suppose some of the strange emotions sweeping through me could be characterized as feelings of relief, but there was no joy in my heart. … I have never known anything like it before or since, and hope never to again.”
The junkie was in process of refilling his cup when I heard a man screaming from a cell next to ours, followed by several other voices in the cell yelling in Czech. Immediately four or five large guards came running past our cell, wearing white medical masks, like the ones common during the SARS scare of a few years back, strapped over their noses and mouths. I heard the barred door of the holding cell next to ours being hurriedly unlocked, and the screaming man increased his volume. I heard the unmistakable sound of a scuffle as guards and other inmates in the next holding cell were all yelling over the screaming man. Everyone in my cell had stopped talking and was listening wide-eyed to the ruckus next door, which gave no sign of calming down.
“Dude! What’s going on out there?” I asked the urine displacer, as he had spoken in excellent English to me earlier.
“There is a man next door with tuberculosis. He does not want to go to the hospital,” he replied, shaking his head. “This is not good.”
Tuberculosis? Good God, my Grandma used to talk about how bad tuberculosis was during her childhood! If my Grandma, a woman who grew up during the Great Depression and was one of the toughest people I have ever met, says that something is bad, that means it’s bad. TB has been pretty much eliminated in America, so I didn’t know much about it except that it could kill you — and that it was a highly contagious airborne disease that flourished in crowded places with poor sanitation. Places like Pankrác. I immediately pulled my T-shirt up over my mouth and nose, and most of the other men in the cell did the same. The Vietnamese didn’t bother. They just squatted there and lit up another cigarette, probably thinking what a bunch of scaredy-cats we were — Southeast Asia has a ton of weird diseases that aren’t common in other parts of the world. The Vietnamese are very tough people, and these guys probably ate tuberculosis with a side of influenza with their morning bowl of pho every day back home.
After another minute of struggling, the guards quickly returned past our cell with the screamer in a brutal-looking restraining hold, yanking him down the hall and out the door as he struggled and yelled in Czech as loud as he could through the beefy arm currently constricting his windpipe. Why on earth he wouldn’t want to go to the hospital, I had no idea, but I was glad he was gone. I kept my shirt above my nose just in case any stray tuberculosis particles were still floating about in the air. Soon a guard appeared, unlocked our cell, and called out a Czech name. The piss-soaked junkie stood up and took his second cup of urine with him, holding up his sagging sweatpants around his emaciated waist as he walked out the door. After a few minutes he returned, sans cup, but pressing his thumb into the crook of his elbow, holding a tiny square of gauze in place. He sat down next to me, and within seconds blood had soaked through the gauze and was dripping down his arm and onto the floor. I scooted further towards Dorj. In a matter of minutes there had been piss splashed on me, a hysterical man with a contagious and deadly airborne disease was dragged kicking and screaming past my cell, and now this junkie was bleeding like a stuck pig less than a foot away from me.
Things were not going smoothly. S
Randy Blythe will sign copies of “Dark Days” at the Urban Farmhouse in Scott’s Addition on Friday, July 17, at 7 p.m. The event is sponsored by Fountain Bookstore. Tickets are required. For details call 788-1594 or visit fountainbookstore.com.