LAST DAYS HERE: COMPLETELY ABOUT LIFE AND DEATH
Filmmakers Don Argott and Demian Fenton spent years with Pentagram frontman Bobby Liebling, documenting the profligate rock god as he shot up, smoked rock, ran his mouth, shared his record stash, and struggled to escape a decades-long addiction that left him nearing early death in the “sub-basement” of his parents’ home. Alternately big-hearted and beastly, Liebling tells the Philly-based filmmakers that “I ain’t done no record, in my opinion, that hasn’t kicked ass.” There’s not a single person in their new film, Last Days Here, who would disagree. Argott and Fenton are themselves metal fans—their band, Serpent Throne, has a stellar set of Satan-themed songs. Here, they talk about Liebling, his parents, his bandmates’ refusal to skip their janitorial job the day they played for Kiss, and his one-man savior, Sean “Pellet” Pelletier, who resolves to haul Bobby out of the sub-basement and introduce his music to the world. Bobby will appear in person with the filmmakers at Cinefamily tonight. This interview by Rin Kelly.
You spent a lot of time in the sub-basement while working on this project. I’m wondering how the sub-basement changes a man.
Don Argott: I’d never smelled crack smoke before. That was cool. No, you know, I think that it was a world which you know, say, listening to heavy metal as long as I had—and I think Demian and I had similar experiences growing up—I’d certainly hung out in the woods with kids drinkin’ and smokin’ pot, but I’d really never been around anyone doing really hard heavy drugs. So it was definitely an eye-opening experience. But as filmmakers it’s our job to not be judgmental and not pass judgment on the situation, how we feel about it. It’s more trying to be honest about where we are and respectful to whose world we’re in. It’s certainly not our world.
Demian Fenton: That being said, I’m someone, I can sleep wherever, end up wherever, do whatever, but man, there were moments where we were locked down there for a while, with crack smoke billowing and music blarin’ and the door locked—it was tough to sustain sometimes. It was tough to stay.
You were down there five or six hours the first time. Did you leave thinking this was going to end up being a feature documentary or did you think it would just be a sad documentation of someone’s literal last days, his last year?
DA: The first day that we were there is the first scene in the film where Bobby’s showing us his clothes. A lot of the early interviews were from that first day. I think we had a long ride home and talked about the first day that we went down there. ‘We can’t make a film about a guy dying in a basement. I don’t want to see that. And I don’t know anybody who’s going to want to see it.’
DF: ‘And I don’t want to make it.’
DA: And we don’t want to make it. But there was something—we all collectively felt that there was something there in this guy. He had a little bit of a glimmer in his eye, especially when he couldn’t wait to play us music, even stuff that he’d recorded in the basement with a couple guys. He was still kind of making music. That was the one thing that he was just—no matter what we talked about it always kind of ended back talking about music. He always got excited about that so we really felt that there was something there and it was really at that moment when we felt— we stuck with it a couple of times just to see where things went. It wasn’t until we realized Pellet’s involvement in the piece—that he was going to be a character in the piece—we really never envisioned him to be that. It wasn’t until that moment that we really saw the film open up. I think at that point forward it took on a life of its own.
DF: There are kind of two journeys in the film. There’s Pellet’s journey, which is kind of this goal to pull Bobby out of the basement with these kinds of grand musical goals, the big show. What I like about this film, it kind of transcends the whole rock-doc thing. It’s this guy in the basement who could care less. It’s not really that he doesn’t want to play music but rather than looking at this grand show and this huge finale, he’s looking to start a life. Pellet was kind of looking to button something up for this guy. That’s what I really love about the film are these kind of journeys happening together. And it took us a little while to figure out that that’s what was going on.
Pellet seems like an absolute hero of a guy. How did you find him, and how far into his time as Bobby wrangler did you spot the gray starting to come out in his beard?
DF: It’s funny, man. I had always heard about Pellet just cuz we had mutual friends. He’s so sincere about music and he’s always had two feet in the metal world. I’d always heard of him but had never met him. I was at a show—a poorly attended metal show outside of Philly where there were probably fourteen people there—and I think the three drunkest dudes were my friend, me and Pellet. I approached him and began chatting with him. I had heard that he was kind of working on a book and he was mainly helping Bobby get Pentagram’s music out there. I approached him and said, ‘We make movies and blah blah blah,’ and I’m sure when you hear some drunk guy say, ‘Yeah, we make movies and blaaaah,’ he’s like, ‘Alright …’ But we kind of built his trust as well by proving that we were legit and that we meant business. So that’s how that happened. The gray hair really started forming, I would say … I’ve always had gray hair. Pellet’s beard! It was such a journey and Pellet was always really—he got beat up a lot on this journey. He’s so passionate about music. He needed all that passion. He needed that much gas in the tank to get through this. Anyone else, myself included, would have been gone way earlier.
DA: Way early.
How did you first learn about Pentagram?
DA: I didn’t know a lot about them. It’s one of those things where, you know, there’s very few undiscovered bands or undiscovered music where you feel like there’s a reason why it’s not discovered. There are certain obscure 70s rock bands that have one or two good songs, but you can understand why they never made it big. And it was really, for me, listening to that compilation that Pellet was instrumental in getting released, First Daze Here I and II—those songs are fuckin amazing. It’s kind of unbelievable that they never made it big. I’m not saying that because I like obscure music or whatever. I don’t think that their music is obscure at all. I think it’s very accessible. I think it’s really good. And it is surprising that they hadn’t gotten bigger than they did. But I think that was another really cool thing about it. There’s a lot of films like The Devil and Daniel Johnston, films where it’s a really good film and you have a lot of people in the film telling you how much of a genius Daniel Johnston is. Some people might be able to hear it and other people might not be able to hear it. I probably fall in that latter camp a little bit. But this music to me, it’s just really good, pure hard rock, really melodic, great songwriting, great guitar tones.
DF: You could totally hear it on a classic rock station. Right in between Aerosmith and, I don’t know, Mountain.
DA: Seriously. That was really cool. I think that’s an ancillary benefit to this film getting out there, exposing more people to this music. But that certainly was never the goal. The goal was not to make a historical Pentagram documentary and expose their music to a whole new legion of fans. If that happens that’s great, but that was never our focus.
DF: I think some people comment that they feel there’s not enough music in the film. But when we met Bobby, it wasn’t a musical, rockin’ time. It felt untrue to have this rippin’ music all throughout the movie because it wasn’t really a rip-roaring rock ‘n’ roll thing going on when we first got there.
I didn’t know the Kiss thing. How much of their lack of above-ground success comes down to the two members of Pentagram refusing to take time off from scrubbing toilets long enough to prep for meeting Kiss?
DF: The best part of that is those are two of my friends who play reenactors, scrubbing toilets, man. So I think about two of my friends scrubbing toilets and hitchhiking, and now, on demand, they’re going to be available in like 15 million homes scrubbing toilets and hitchhiking in dirty onesies.
According to Kiss, which members of Pentagram had too many zits to be rock gods? And which one was the member who was too fat?
DA: It’s funny, we really tried to dig deep into that story and Paul Stanley doesn’t remember. But that’s not surprising.
DF: Yeah, we’ve been through the grapevine—not that we’ve spoken with them in person, but we’ve been trying to get to the bottom of that ever since. And we’re not sure.
DA: We definitely know it happened.
DF: It totally happened.
DA: It definitely wasn’t a made-up story. I just think in the heyday of Kiss in the 70s there’s probably a lot of things they don’t remember too clearly.
I’d never really thought about how much care Kiss must have invested in their own skin. With all that makeup they must have had to be pretty zit-vigilant.
Pellet says, ‘Bobby is completely surrounded by the chaos that he creates, but it sucks everybody else in it that’s around him.’ Did that happen to you as well?
DF: I think it certainly did. Making a film is tough, but the toughest part of this project was getting sucked into the human hurricane that is Bobby. And when I say sucked in, you know, entering this situation that’s really intense, and entering it with compassion for people. I worried about Bobby. I worried about his parents. I worried about Pellet. I saw how desperate people can get and I saw how excited they can get when goals were there to be attained. I saw how sad people can get when those goals were missed. This film went on for like four years and the stakes were really, really high. The stakes are much higher than most rock docs. It’s not just a movie about gettin’ back up on the stage and getting the old dudes out to play your hit no one ever heard. It’s completely about life and death.
At one point Bobby is showing you this sort of glorious flu-fever of a ruffled gold shirt and he says, ‘You can’t out-flamboyant that. That’s a motherfucker, isn’t it?’ And then he says he gets a lot of his performance clothes from his mom. Has Bobby Liebling been performing ‘Livin’ in a Ram’s Head’ in his mom’s clothes all this time?
DF: I’ll bet you 80 percent of Bobby’s most wicked performances were in Diane’s clothes.
Did you get close with Diane and Joe?
DF: Totally. I still talk to them all the time. Diane is a complete sweetheart. She’ll call me—she’s in her 80s now—and she’ll call me and she’ll start talking about black metal and heavy metal. She’ll keep up on Bobby’s career and she’ll say, ‘I’m not sure, do you think Bobby should be wearing eyeliner or not? I think it’s good. I think it looks wicked.’ She’ll start talking to me about Mayhem. Like Satan black metal bands. It’s awesome.
I was going to ask you if his parents are into metal. His dad seemed to be quite proud of Bobby’s music in a way you wouldn’t expect from a man who worked for eight Secretaries of Defense and was apparently dubbed ‘Little Kissinger’ by Government Executive magazine.
DF: I don’t think Joe’s into metal.
DA: I think Diane is definitely the quintessential mom. Whatever her son is into, she fully supports it. She is the mom. I think Joe, we highlight in the film a little bit that contention between the life that Joe probably wanted for Bobby and the life that Bobby ended up with. They rolled in very different circles and they had very different expectations. Joe probably had very different expectations for his son. You know, here he is all these years later and he’s this distinguished guy with this pretty amazing past, and he lives in a crack den. It was heartbreaking in a way because you really feel for these people. They have put themselves—they’ve gotten put in this situation. People will call them enablers and things like that. But the other end of that is this is their only son. It’s very easy for an outsider to say, ‘What are you doing? Just let him go. Kick him out yourself because he’s just poison.’ But that’s their son and they have to make their decision, because ultimately that could mean the death of their son. I don’t know a lot of people who can make that judgment call for another person. We touch on that a little bit because I think we all have the same questions that everybody would, which is ‘What are you doing? How could you let it get like this? How could you let him run your life the way he does?’ I think they both have really good answers. And I think Joe has probably the best answer, which is, ‘Everybody says, “Move him out of your house,” but it’s my son.’ They understand what it means when they kick him out of that house. That they might not ever see him again. So that’s pretty heavy to have to do.
Would you call Bobby more egomaniac than gentle soul or vice versa?
DF: It depends on which day you get him. He can really be a gentle soul. When he’s trying to do life stuff and he’s trying to get things together, he can be a gentle soul. He can be manipulative. He’s been a crack addict forever. He can be a rock god because it takes that—to do what he does on stage it takes that kind of confidence. He can be sharing. He can yank his records out. I could be down there for a week and he’d share every record with me and get so excited about it. Then you add drugs into the mix and withdrawal from drugs and all that stuff, and everything’s really volatile.
Did Pentagram inspire your own band?
DA: They’re definitely an influence of ours, no question.
DF: For me, Vincent [McAllister]’s guitar playing, his guitar tone back then is some of my favorite. It’s a perfect mixture of kind of technical solos for the time but also gets kind of out of control, which is really beautiful.
At one point Bobby puts in writing that if he ever smokes crack again you guys would inherit all of his records. Without giving away what happens, were there any particular records that you would really, really love to have?
DF: Oh man. The rumor is that he has, I mean these goofy, obscure records but he has one of the original Randy Holden Population II records, which is crazy. Flipping through there, he’s got all those old 70s records that record geeks are searching for now. He, Geof [O’Keefe, Pentagram drummer], and those guys, they were buying them when they came out. I’ve never met any adults who bought that shit when it came out. I know everybody’s diggin’ for it now and everybody’s got a story. But the day the new Captain Beyond record came out, Bobby and Geof were at the record store. The day the new Sir Lord Baltimore record came out that nobody else wanted to hear, Bobby and Geof were fighting over the one copy at the record store. Some of it might be a little scratched, and it’s been through a few wars. The first day we walked into Bobby’s house he had a 13th Floor Elevators eight-track sittin’ there. I’ve never seen that stuff.
You’re going to kill my editor. He’s going to show up at Bobby’s house tomorrow morning.
DF: A beautiful thing about this film is perhaps on the outside it looks like it’s a rock doc, it looks like it’s a heavy metal movie, but seriously every time someone out of the demographic sees the film they love it. We have great conversations; it happens at all the film festivals. I’d love to just say that. People, whether they know Pentagram or not, really seem to check into this film somehow.
LAST DAYS HERE FROM FRI., MARCH 23 TO THUR., MARCH 29, AT CINEFAMILY AT THE SILENT MOVIE THEATRE, 611 N. FAIRFAX AVE., L.A. $12 / FREE FOR MEMBERS. VISIT WEBSITE FOR SHOWTIMES. CINEFAMILY.ORG.