In the summer of 1990, the heavy metal band Judas Priest stood trial in Nevada for hiding subliminal messages in its music that allegedly led to the deaths of two teenagers.
By the 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 plump, perfectly relaxed body comes over to tell me that Satan is walking proud. He introduces himself as Jacob, slips a small US Army pack off his shoulder, and tells me he just missed the midnight bus out of town.
“Satan’s walking proud through the cities,” he quickly 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, fixing me with an aggressively devout smile, “and I know the pain of the deer that’s in there.”
It’s my third night in Reno, and I’ve come down to this river that snakes through the center of town for some fresh air before turning in. I was hoping to spare myself that twenty-four-hour passion play of the casinos, but there’s no escaping it here: Heaven and Hell are married on every other street corner in Reno. Two blocks 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 their QUICKEST MARRIAGES IN RENO. Three blocks up, the Truckee used to glisten as it crossed under the Virginia Street Bridge—from all the wedding bands thrown in after the 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 on Sierra Street to announce Apocalypse to, spilling out of the casinos at two a.m. on a ninety-degree Saturday night and offering to mow my lawn for $3. Still, this guy’s frightening.
“I’m just here to cover the Judas Priest trial,” I tell him.
“Three times,” he says angrily, “thou shalt betray me ere the cock crows.”
While I consider the wisdom of reminding Jacob that his quote concerns Peter, not Judas (Iscariot), he continues: “Oh, I’ll go to the cities. Salt Lake, Sacramento, Vegas. But I tiptoe through town. Satan’s walking proud.”
Pointing to the hotels’ twenty-story skyline a block up, I begin to tiptoe away from Jacob.
“He’s walking proud up there,” I say.
“No, that’s Mammon,” he says matter-of-factly, as though I’ve mistaken a crow for a raven.
“Robbing, cheating, beating people up in the middle of the night’s no good,” I hear him say from ten paces off. “It’ll come back to you, sooner than you think. Good and evil. Life and death. Gain and loss. The mountain cat’s joy”—he begins shouting—“and the deer’s pain. No pain, no gain. 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 reaching the end of your 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 are mostly “progressive,” with red six-, seven-, even eight-figure jackpot numbers progressing faster than the eye can move on large digital displays above your head. Though it’s impossible not to see that these jackpot numbers are spelling nothing but the losses of millions of people, this is a fleeting awareness if you harbor the slightest conviction that life owes you anything. Within hours of landing in this three-square-mile city that, for no immediately discernible reason, sits in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain-desert range, you’ve learned to 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 percent of the people living in Reno and Sparks, the adjacent bedroom community, have moved here within the last ten years, helping to make Nevada the fastest-growing state in America in the 1980s. The migration pattern—families that have failed elsewhere and come here for a last chance—becomes clear quickly enough. To sit quietly for more than five minutes in most public places 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 their confessions seem at first—the morose mechanical engineer who tells you, over third helpings of prime rib at the $10.95 buffet, how he was tortured out of his mind in Vietnam, the pretty jazz dancer who came out west with her gun-toting boyfriend from the Pine Barrens and became a twenty-one dealer—the statistics are there to back them up: Nevadans, “the last of the free thinkers,” have among the five highest rates per capita of marriage, cancer, heart disease, AIDS, alcoholism, prostitution, second mortgages, cocaine use by adults, divorce, churches, teenage covens, legal handguns and rifles, illegal handguns, murder, death-penalty cases, incarceration, child abuse, rape, single white mothers, teenage pregnancies, abortion, and successful suicides by white males ages fifteen to twenty-four.
Two “progressions” of that last statistic—Raymond Belknap, eighteen, 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 away the bottom half of his face—have led to what a Vegas bookmaker called the “biggest crapshoot” in Reno’s history: a multimillion-dollar product-liability suit brought by three local lawyers against CBS Records and the British heavy metal band Judas Priest. Seven “subliminal commands” (audible only by the unconscious)—all saying “Do it”—were allegedly embedded in a song on Judas 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 “backmasked lyrics” (audible only when playing the record in reverse) on three other songs: the exhortations, “Try suicide,” “Suicide is in,” “Sing my evil spirit,” and “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. (Jay died of a methadone overdose three years after his suicide attempt.) The Belknaps are asking for $1.2 million, the Vance family for $5 million.
“If you’re going to hurt someone,” one of plaintiffs’ lawyers tells me, only half-joking, “you’re better off killing them. It’s a lot cheaper.”
The suit was first 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.”
Initially citing the 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 after the California District Court of Appeals ruled that the lyrics of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution”—which had been cited in a similar suicide/product-liability suit—were protected by the First Amendment. Two copycat suits, for example—another California heavy-metal suicide and an Edison, New Jersey, suit brought by the family of a thirteen-year-old who stabbed his mother seventy times and then flayed her face before killing himself—were dropped shortly after the Osbourne decision.
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 Stained Class album, reported concurrent nightmares of going on killing sprees with semiautomatic weapons in neighborhood shopping malls. On the advice of Dr. Wilson Bryan Key, the godfather of the “subliminal expose” (his books, Subliminal Seduction, The Clam-Plate Orgy, Media Sexploitation, etc., have sold over four million copies), plaintiffs’ lawyers hired Bill Nickloff, a self-taught audio engineer who had achieved wealth and some local fame through the personalized subliminal self-help tapes he’d been marketing through his Sacramento firm, Secret Sounds, Inc. Examining a CD of Stained Class with his original “backwards engineering” process—by which he claims the audio signal of a piece of recorded music can be deconstructed into its component twenty-four on his Mac II personal 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.”
Though he is never called to testify, Key is the genius loci of this suit. A sixty-five-year-old Henry Miller look-alike with a MENSA belt buckle, huge forearms, and a young wife he is able to put to sleep with a posthypnotic suggestion, he lives twenty miles from Reno, off a highway running through a surreal, sage-scented moonscape that yields the most exotic roadkill I’ve ever seen. We lose fifteen minutes when I pull out my pack of Camels (and he tells me the subliminal history of the camel and the pyramid and palm trees it’s standing in front of), but he’s quick to point out that the issue of subliminals and the adverse (and actionable) effects of music are not without precedent. The Billie Holiday ballad “Gloomy Sunday,” for example, was banned from the radio in 1942 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 nineteen-year-old metalhead who murdered two ten-year-olds after listening to AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, and Judas Priest for twelve hours in the cab of his pickup. 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 State asked for. Key served as an expert witness in that trial.
Key and Nickloff eventually concluded that the Do its had been uttered by a different voice than lead singer Rob Halford’s. Nickloff also speculated that they had been “punched into” (or layered beneath) the swirling chords of a guitar, a backward cymbal crash, a tom-tom beat, and the prolonged exhalations of Halford’s falsetto rendition of the lyric:
Better by you, better than me-ee-uh! [Do it!]
You can tell ’em what I want it to be-ee-uhh [Do it!]
You can say what I can only s-e-ee-uhh [Do it!]
Nickloff also felt that enhancements of the Do its had been spread across eleven of the twenty-four tracks by a second machine, perhaps a COMB filter. He couldn’t prove this, however, simply by testing the CD.
Thus began a three-year hunt for the twenty-four-track master tapes, not only of “Better By You” but of every other Judas Priest song, album, and rehearsal and live tape in CBS’s possession. The song left a long paper trail, and discovery of the twenty-four-track proved far easier than other Judas Priest masters. The album’s only number not written by band members, it was recorded after CBS’s New York A&R men, who felt none of the album’s original eight songs had hit potential, proposed a list of “adds.” The list itself became a major piece of evidence, as the only songs highlighted for serious consideration by the A&R men were the Manson “Family” favorites, “Helter Skelter,” “Revolution #9,” and “I Am the Walrus”—the last two of which promoted endless fascination with backward lyrics.
CBS located the master of “Better By You” in September 1988; they delivered a safety copy to Nickloff three months later—an “eighteen-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 tape’s outer coating of zinc oxide, he said, had begun to flake (suspiciously, he thought), and he wouldn’t accept responsibility for it.