September 11, 2012
Last Days Here, directed by Don Argott and Demian Fenton, opens with a frazzled, fifty-four-year-old Bobby Liebling on the sofa, living in his parent’s sub-basement, tugging on bandages that wrap open sores, and reflecting on the only things he knows how to do: rock-n-roll and drugs. Liebling’s band, Pentagram, had been in the early seventies an even grittier, American answer to the likes of Black Sabbath, but botched auditions, ever-evolving line-ups, and Liebling’s drug-abuse had derailed Pentagram’s career. Enter fan Sean “Pellet” Pelletier to nudge Liebling toward sobriety and back onto stage for a Pentagram revival. There are moves, a girlfriend, prison, Fig Newtons, deals, paisley shirts, and marvels beyond the fact that Liebling has made it to fifty-four. But mostly there’s the music. I recently asked Pelletier about Last Days Here, Liebling, and life after the documentary’s release.
First off, I read about Bobby’s bicycle accident and his insistence on playing the Power of the Riff Festival despite 12 staples in his head. Did that show go on after all, and how’s he doing?
Bobby really is a professional when he’s not clouded by drugs. Which is the way of his new world, of course. In the 80s, he had a very high temperature from a serious illness. He was shaking and vomiting yet he went on stage for 90 minutes and performed extremely well. He did collapse backstage as soon as the set was done, but he did what he was born to do — rock. So, considering that he’s not clouded by drugs these days, he realized what was at stake with this revered headline spot of Power of the Riff – East in NYC. The band already got a deposit, and there was a lot of time and effort spent in the promotion of this special event. It was the first time since the early 80s that he and the band, Victor Griffin inlcuded, would be playing their classic “Relentless” album. He was as excited about this event as everyone else, and he knew the show must go on. I’ve worked with plenty of musicians in my 20+ years in this business that would not have performed had they been in the shape he was in at the time. Bobby went on with 12 staples in his skull, a healing dislocated shoulder, and two broken ribs. Judging from his performance, nobody was the wiser. It’s another example of how the power of music is a true painkiller and motivator, especially when channeled through such a grand medium as Bobby Liebling.
How did your quest to bring Bobby and Pentagram back to the stage end up being chronicled as a documentary?
I had been trying to help him for about 7 years at that point. One of the reasons that I got involved with Bobby was to stop the legacy of people who had preyed on him by either bootlegging his music or giving him pennies for either his songs or personal belongings. Junkies tend to do and sell anything for a fast buck.
I was at a Reverend Bizarre show on my birthday, and I was approached by someone who had bought a “First Daze Here Too” LP from me through the mail. His name was Demian Fenton, and although I didn’t know him, he was in a band with friends of mine. He was telling me that he was a filmmaker who wanted to do a story on Bobby. I was very apprehensive. I was writing a book on Bobby at the time but figured that a film would be a better medium for his story as well as for the exposure of his music. Over the weeks that followed this initial drunken conversation, I agreed to let Demian and his co-director come down to Bobby’s place with me to do a filmed interview. I insisted that I be a co-producer in such a way that I could make sure that they wouldn’t exploit Bobby. They really did prove to me that they had his best interests in mind, and I realized that they were legit filmmakers. We gave them full access to him and the story. They felt that I was an important piece of this story and ended up working me into the film. It became Bobby’s and my struggle, and that’s what they wanted to capture. I would call Demian up when there was some action going on, and we’d drive the 3 hours down to Bob’s sub-basement lair. They did let me see an early cut of the film and heard some of my suggestions here and there, but aside from me giving them a history lesson on the band and introducing them to the right folks to interview, they had full control. They shot for about 4 years and could have told many different stories, but, overall, I think they did a fine job. The film was all part of my initial vision of making Bobby known and mentioned alongside the other innovators of heavy metal. I do hope that one day they open the vault that holds over 100 hours of footage and decide to make a doc on the history of Pentagram. That would be neat. The problem with that, however, is that the band doesn’t own much of their publishing, so using any music can get very expensive fast.
How gray is your beard now?
100% grey. As is most of the hair that I have left. The five-year period of the film process, from the first shoot to the first screening, was a difficult time. I was also very heartbroken over a woman, and I was also watching, and trying to help, a close family member who was also killing themselves with hard drugs. Top that off with Bobby’s antics, most of which are not in the film, and it’s a recipe for graying hair and a balding scalp. Life is to live and make your mark though, so, whatever.
I have to say, you have more patience and tenacity than anyone I’ve ever seen. Where does this come from?
My own life experience. I know what’s it’s like to be misunderstood. I know what it’s like to be a drug addict. I know what it’s like to be incarcerated and kicked to the curb at an early age. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one to addiction. I also know what’s it like for a stranger to believe in you and give you a second chance. I was blessed with foster parents who were very patient with me and allowed me to finish school and get an education so I could find my own path. I know what it’s like to be so passionate about music that it’s all you can think about. This passion is a great blessing but also a curse at times. I bet my entire life on a music career and sacrificed a steady income and personal relationships because music came first. I couldn’t help it; it’s the way I’m wired. I had 20 years experience of working for record labels and giving bands away to them. I felt that I was the right person for this job. I had the experience from a do-it-yourself standpoint of being with indie record labels. I was fueled by passion for this man’s music. And I felt that all my hard life experiences had armed me for this one task. Bobby had many managers over the years but none of them, in my opinion, were able to put this man up in the spotlight where he needed to be. Nobody had made him realize that he had a metal heart and everything he needed to make it was inside him. I was driven by these facts but also the facts that THIS was my calling in life. I had finally figured that out. And if I couldn’t make this happen, well, my decades in the music business were all for nothing. I was enamored by the thought that I could correct history and help affect pop culture. Aside from that, I love Bobby like a brother. I don’t have a very close family, and I tend to feel a kinship with the artists that I adore and connect to. It drove me. When I would feel like quitting, I’d put on my headphones and remember that it was about the music. And realize that all of this was way bigger than just Bobby and I.
I found this film to be not just a celebration of underrepresented music but also a compelling character study of Bobby and everyone involved in Bobby’s world. I’m wondering if seeing the film afforded you some new insight or new perspective on your involvement with getting Bobby back on stage that you didn’t quite have before.
It was about the history of music, about giving credit to an innovator, and about finally giving the world the wonderful gifts — the songs, that had been channeled through Bobby in the early 70s. The film made me realize even more that my years in this hard business were training for something greater than myself. I too felt like the chosen one of sorts. I would be one of the few people who could help resurrect a great, lost artist and who could correct history. When I watch the film and see myself in my final scene, I finally feel understood. I really feel connected to like-minded people all over the world, and it’s a wonderful thing. Whether those people connect with the film for the music or for the struggles within it, be it drug addiction or faith or perseverance, or what have you, I finally felt understood.
I’ve also read that Bobby felt his music wasn’t as front-and-center in the film as he’d hoped. For Last Days Here viewers new to Pentagram and drawn to their music via the film, which tracks would you suggest they dive into first?
Bobby would have made a very different movie, but I feel like anyone in his position would have. He was laid out, warts and all, without being exploited, which is a great credit to the directors. I myself would have done things a little differently, but in the end I realize that the directors were correct in their methods They saw a bigger picture than I did because I was too close to it and too much of a fan of the music. I would have liked to have focused a bit more on the music, but they wanted to make a human interest story. The film really is a love story on many different levels.
I would suggest that people buy “First Daze Here” and then “First Daze Too” for the 70s stuff. That’s the period where Bobby wrote hundreds of genius, essential rock songs. Those songs are the reason why he needs to be mentioned alongside the greats such as Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, New York Dolls, Ozzy/Iommi and so on. I also feel that the 80s era is very important and where the band truly made a natural yet original evolution out of what Black Sabbath had started 10 years prior. A new fan needs to hear “Relentless” as well. It’s an incredible collection of songs and was even inducted into Decibel Magazine’s “Hall of Fame” a few years ago. The guitarist/co-songwriter on that stuff, Victor Griffin, is also a rock and roll treasure. That entire line up was born to play together, and, once again, Bobby Liebling was there to help perfect another genre/sub-genre of music.
I think I was as happy for you by the end of the film as you were for Bobby during that NYC concert scene. What’s changed since Last Days Here’s release?
Well, not much changed until it hit streaming on Netflix a few weeks ago. The ‘likes’ on Facebook went up by 2,000 a week. Many metal fans wrote me and told me that they never really paid attention to Pentagram until now. This is all part of the vision that I had when I first tracked Bobby down. It’s building his and the band’s profile, and I hope it gets him and the band the respect and acclaim they deserve. I dream of a day when Bobby and his family can live off of his music. It’s also amazing how many non-metal fans are discovering his music. It’s still not easy. The day the film hit theaters is the day my electricity was turned off, and Bobby still struggles every month to keep a roof over his head. I still believe, however, and we’ll be alright.
A few update sorts of questions for you: Who’s in possession of Bobby’s record collection today (I’m thinking of “the contract”)? How are Bobby, Hallie, and baby? And have the festering arm wounds healed?
Once Bobby kicked hard drugs, his arms did heal! He had told me repeatedly that they would never heal because they’d just rot or get gangrene. There was a time when we thought that he’d even lose his arm. I’m glad that this wasn’t the case. He also stopped having visions of parasites coming out of his skin shortly after he got his act together. I want to point out that Hallie is the huge part of his success. She gave him the love and understanding that he needed and what I obviously couldn’t give him.
We never did take his record collection. We knew that he’d break that contract, but I think it was an important, gentle, and hilarious step in making him realize that this really was an “all or nothing” time in his life. Unfortunately, Bobby sold off most of his really rare albums to a certain vulture living down in the D.C. area who took advantage of a desperate drug addict who would have done anything for his next fix. This is also the guy who continues to bootleg Bobby’s old music to this day. I can’t mention his name for fear of legal repercussion, but, please, don’t buy anything unofficial off of Ebay that’s from the D.C. or Maryland area. I’ll say that much.
Bobby, Hallie, and little Robert Joseph Liebling are GREAT. They are still struggling to pay the bills but they are a happy, healthy family. Hallie is a fashion model who started her own fashion design business called Kaarme, which goes hand-in-hand with what Bobby is doing. She’s making clothes and jewelry and has customers and fans such as Mia and Steven Tyler. Little Bobby is very bright and happy and very musically inclined just like Bobby was at his age. He bops up and down to the music on the children’s shows and even has his own microphone that he carries around with him! He’s a ham just like his father, the head ram!