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Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Doc Proves Rumors Of Pentagram Singer’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

If Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever decides to dedicate a wing specifically to those musicians who’ve lived the life and survived to tell their tales, several obvious candidates would emerge immediately: Keith Richards, Brian Wilson and Steven Tyler would be inducted on the first ballot; second-ballot entries might include Iggy, Sly, Ozzy, Bret, Gregg, Roky, Hank Jr. Stevie, Shane and the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd who didn’t die in the 1977 plane crash that claimed their mates. Any participant in a 12-step program with more than two near-death experiences to their credit could also apply for consideration.

A strong argument can be made that Bobby Liebling, a founding member of the early heavy-metal band Pentagram, has as good a story to tell than as any of aforementioned survivors. As evidence, his sponsors would only need to screen the chilling rockumentary, “Last Days Here.” If anything, Liebling would qualify for automatic induction simply for showing up on stage just as his band was preparing to play their final song at the 2001 Doom Fest. He had overdosed on heroin an hour earlier, but somehow rallied to meet his commitment to his fans … sort of, anyway.

Four years later, he would play a gig at a Washington club and, again, OD before the start of the band’s set. After being revived by paramedics, “friends” escorted him to the stage, where he promptly collapsed. He is said to have died twice on the way to a hospital, but pulled through each time. If that ain’t rock ’n’ roll, I don’t know what is.

According to co-directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton, whose previous documentaries include “Rock School” and “The Art of the Steal,” Liebling’s career has been a 40-year-long dance with overnight stardom and imminent doom. That the Arlington, Va., native burned through bands, sidemen and managers the way most guitarists go through picks testifies to Liebling’s inability to keep things together for more than a few weeks at a time. And, yet, in certain circles, the singer/songwriter is recognized as one of the most influential forces in the history of metal.

“In 1974, Pentagram was one session away from success,” says Argott, ahead of the film’s release in Los Angeles. “Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, of Kiss, showed up at Bobby’s door one day to listen to the band, but two of the members had trouble getting time off from work. The managers of Blue Oyster Cult paid for a demo to be cut at Columbia, in New York, but, instead of accepting the producer’s advice that a vocal track Bobby didn’t like could be fixed in post-production, he threw a tantrum.

“He had an idea of how the track should sound and producers of young bands don’t want to work with musicians who think they know what’s best. Rock music was founded by rebels and Bobby never could get past the stage of rebellion in his life and music.”

The timing for such a confrontation couldn’t be worse. The backers sensed that a vacuum existed in the marketplace and Pentagram could have filled the gap between Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols. It didn’t take long before the band imploded for the first time.

The idea for Pentagram was conceived in 1971 by Liebling and drummer Geof O’Keefe, longtime friends who weren’t satisfied with the progress of their own bands, Shades of Dark and Space Meat. Heavy-metal music had yet to coalesce as a genre, although such bands as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, the Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Oyster Cult and Blue Cheer had laid the foundation for it, punk and glam-rock. No one has pinned down exactly when the term entered the vernacular, but a reference to “heavy metal thunder” in Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” probably had more to do with its spread as any line in a William Borroughs novel or the overuse of the adjective, “heavy,” by stoners.

In any case, it stuck. Such variations on the heavy-metal theme as “death,” “doom,” “black,” “thrash,” “industrial,” “power” and gothic” would emerge later, as new bands attempted to strike gold by playing louder, faster and with more intensity than the last collection of chart-toppers. Still, like Liebling and the filmmakers, the average “metalhead” was a white, suburban male, whose rebellion wasn’t inspired by parental abuse, poverty or sensory deprivation. Being a card-carrying Satanist wasn’t a requirement of fandom, even if Lucifer deserved a writing credit on some songs.

“The changes are analogous to what happened to the Haight-Ashbury,” observes Fenton. “Two years after the Summer of Love, the neighborhood was overrun by speed freaks and junkies. By the mid-1970s, the darkness of the times had begun to be reflected in fans’ choices in music and drugs.

“Bobby’s parents have always been there for him, but, growing up, he felt more at home on the other side of the tracks with the winos and junkies. He still does.”

Liebling, who admitted to the directors that he’d never recorded an album when he wasn’t stoned, became his own worst enemy and, of course, that of Pentagram. One step forward always was followed by two steps back, causing frequent defections and the creation of new units. Liebling and O’Keefe had written dozens of songs, but the singer’s reputation for squandering their potential put the kibosh on label signings and tours.

“Of course, if Bobby had found success and made lots of money, it probably would have killed him years ago,” Argott suggests.

The filmmakers began the long process of making “Last Days Here” shortly after Liebling nearly died at the Washington show. They’d heard all of the horror stories and watched ancient VHS recordings of past performances, when he was at the top of his game.

Even so, Argott and Fenton were acutely aware of the surplus of documentaries about rock musicians with serious problems, including “Derailroaded,” about Wild Man Fischer; “You’re Going to Miss Me,” about Roky Erickson; and “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” They needed to separate the truth from fiction before going any further and that required a trip to the generic suburban home he shared with his parents in Germantown, Md.

To say that Liebling looked like death warmed over doesn’t give the Grim Reaper sufficient credit for sensing when a body is ripe for the plucking. With his sunken cheeks, long and straggly gray hair and tombstone eyes, he resembled someone who was already halfway to the hereafter before he realized that he’d left his crack pipe at home in the infamous “sub-basement” of his parents’ home. To rid his body of imaginary parasites, Liebling scratched holes in his skin and covered them with soiled gauze.

Even if screening audiences weren’t familiar with Pentagram, his appearance in the first minutes of “Last Days Here” shocked them. By comparison, Keith Richards looks like Jack Lalanne in his prime.

“Our first thought was that we didn’t want to make a movie about guy who could die at any given moment,” Fenton recalled. “Bobby could be apologetic and sincere one moment and not care at all the next. He cried when he saw himself in the movie.”

Now 58, the singer smoked crack throughout the first interview and nearly pitched a fit when he lost a good-sized rock. Things didn’t look very promising to the filmmakers. Two things worked in favor of green-lighting the movie, though.

“You could see a change in Bobby whenever he started sorting through his albums and drawers full of cassettes and CDs,” Argott points out. “It told us that he was sincere about his dedication to music, if not his health, and wanting to make more of it. He was in a haze, but there was a glimmer in his eyes.”

The other positive force in his life was Sean “Pellet” Pelletier, a fan-turned-manager who refused to let his hero completely destroy himself and constantly reminded him that there were people outside the sub-basement who wanted to see him perform. They remembered how he looked in his 20s, when he dominated any stage on which he appeared, and still collected his albums. His songs have been covered, as well, by such musicians as Hank Williams III, Witchcraft and Dead Weather.

During the course of the next four years, Argott and Fenton watched as Liebling rode a roller-coaster of emotional and physical highs and lows. He found a girl to love him, lost her and won her back after cleaning up from crack and methadone. He spent a bit of time in jail, after which he emerged looking as fit as a pawn-shop fiddle. (“It probably was the best thing that could have happened to him,” Pelletier says.)

Fenton says they got together a couple of weeks ago for a screening and the first-time father of a son is married, looking good, touring and even was seen driving a car through Manhattan. Life in the basement bunker of his parents’ home – his dad estimates that a million dollars has gone into Bobby’s career and recovery – is becoming a distant memory now that his family has moved to Pennsylvania.

“You’ve got to hand it to Pellet,” he adds. “He stuck with Bobby, even when there was almost no hope for him making money as his manager. Their relationship was something of a bromance romance.”

“Last Days Here” may have been in constant danger of crumbling like an ant hill in a hurricane, but, Argott says, “Ironically, it the happiest ending of all of our films.” — Gary Dretzka

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10 Responses to “Doc Proves Rumors Of Pentagram Singer’s Death Greatly Exaggerated”

  1. mark c says:

    Never heard of Pentagram and frankly the music scares me but I love Rock docs and loved Last days here after I saw the whole thing with a happy ending.
    I was expecting the worse at the end.
    Still a well made movie showing that friends and family are always behind you even when you think the world does not care.

  2. Sandra M. says:

    I, too, remember Pentagram from years ago. I always thought drugs had killed the band forever, and thought “what a shame.” The one successful performance shown near the end of the film proves Bobby and the band never really grew up, or out of their abilities in the genre, but proved, more than anything, that love really can cure all ills. There are so many musicians who, like Bobby, gave up on themselves, and for whatever reasons, never had love surround them so purely. It can cure all. I am glad the film was as much about Sean Pelletier. He is my hero. As a former rock singer, myself, I remember fans like him, and am glad to see that the world still possesses such pure love. I wish Bobby and Haley a bright future, as parents, and as a couple, but most of all, I wish love and success for Sean Pelletier, who seems to have nearly single-handedly, and at great personal cost, to have made a nearly dead man sing again. God bless perseverance of a dream.

  3. Michael Weil says:

    Although I am old enough in years to have already been twenty during the Summer of Love, I must admit that, surprisingly or not, all I had ever been aware of about Pentagram from those days long gone by until yesterday was their name, i.e., the fact that they had indeed existed as a band; beyond that I was literally clueless. Therefore, when I stumbled upon the documentary “Last Days Here” on television last night I had no idea whatsoever as to precisely what to expect, that is to say, I went into this with no prior knowledge, no anticipation, and no opinion; with a veritable clean slate, so to speak. Consequently, the opening scene of Robert “Bobby” Liebling firing up his (clearly well-used) crack pipe completely threw me for a loop, to the point where I thought,”Well, this is certainly going to be a short film…this guy looks like he’s going to die in a few minutes!” Never in a million years could I have anticipated and/or imagined the astoundly upbeat ending – however circuitous, erratic and at times rather calamitous the journey for Mr. Liebling to arrive there quite obviously and demonstrably had been – that the documentary would ultimately deliver to me, the viewer; it left me completely speechless, but in good way. Relief, joy, and hope where the principle, completely unexpected emotions and feelings I experienced at the very surprising conclusion; rarely in my previous experience has a true story ever begun in such utter darkness and ended in such blinding light.

  4. joseph brookins says:

    I seen “Last days here” last night,it moved me so much I watched it twice,I could not hold back the tears.I had heard of pentagram but never listened to them “awsome” I cant wait to go buy their albums.I too struggle from addiction,it has ripped my life apart and I feel this mans pain.I recently got out of prison and I am fighting my ass off to get my life back.Although im staying sober i have been so depressed lately with trying to find work and getting people to accept me for the man that I really am.This documentary is a f#*kin masterpiece and has inspired me greatly.Thank you and god bless

  5. Kale R. says:

    So the dudes still alive? Kick ass.

  6. John S. says:

    Pentagram, Bobby, Hallie and new babby boy, Pellet (Sean Pelletier), and the documentary…..WOW and Holy WOW!!!! Pellet was God sent to Bobby and the Rockumentary that came about “Last Days Here” is a masterpiece! The original drummer Geoffe O’keefe (sp) lives near where i live in San Miguel CA (near San luis Obispo, CA) so that was kind of cool to learn.
    I truly hope and pray long lives and friendships, especially with Bobby, new wife and child and of course Pellet. Such an inspiring real life situation that proves it’s never too late for anything. God bless all!!!

  7. Jesse says:

    U r a true rock god I just got done wacthing the move doc bobby u r a true fighter

  8. terry says:

    Wow! I vever heard of them and still don’t really but this doc. was amazing and just finishing it, I’m thinking possibly life changing. I’m actually at a loss for words right now but i feel blessed to have came across Bobby and his struggles and his triumphs. Just goes to show its never to late. WOW!

  9. vernon says:

    Bobby was a very dear friend to me. And u had to personally know him to appreciate what he was worth…regardless of how the outside looked. Was a very kind- hearted man ..GODBLESS YOU BOB

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon