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Misfit Blues

An excerpt from Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe’s new memoir, “Dark Days,” details his first day in Prague’s most notorious prison.

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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. - PANKRÁC PRISON
  • 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.

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. - REUTERS/DAVID W. CERNY
  • 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.”
  • 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.

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