This is the Zakk Wylde you don’t normally see, talking to a bunch of inmates at England’s HM Prison Stocken in the village of Stretton. Included on the upcoming Black Label Society DVD / CD / Blu-Ray Unblackened, which is released on September 24, the popular guitar hero doesn’t just play for his audience, but he takes questions about how to deal with certain situations that come up in everyday life. One of them is about avoiding confrontation, especially when such a meeting in a litigious society can end up costing you more than bloody knuckles and a broken nose.
“You might have won the fight, but he won the war because he’s living in your house, and he’s driving your car,” said Wylde with a laugh when reminded of the exchange with the inmates during a press day for Unblackened in New York City. “How about I just buy you a beer and we call it a day? That’s a lot cheaper.”
It’s an attitude that comes with maturity and experience for the 46-year-old Wylde, the once precocious guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne, who is now a family man guiding his own ship with BLS. And if he can pass on that experience to those who want and / or need it while using his status in the rock world to help others, he won’t hesitate to do so.
“If you’re in a position where you can help people, you do the right thing,” said Wylde, whose band also does plenty of charity work for the St. Jude Children’s Hospital and the Wounded Warrior Project.
That’s almost enough to give any self-respecting metal head a bad reputation among those who stereotype the genre, its practitioners, and its fans, but Wylde has never been one to care about labels, hence Unblackened, which sees BLS revisiting songs from their back catalog (and Wylde's) in a format which isn’t exactly unplugged, but not an all-out metal assault either.
“Some of it isn’t unplugged,” said Wylde. “We’re still playing the heavy versions of the songs, and even on the albums, some of the mellow songs have electric solos. So that’s how that came about and that’s why we did this, so it would be different. I think it’s kind of like with Guns N’ Roses if you ask them to do “November Rain,” “Patience” and all the mellow stuff that they have. Everybody that listens to Black Label, they know we do mellow stuff on the record, and when we’re doing Dime’s song (“In This River”) and stuff like that live, when we wheel the piano out, it’s not just a full-bore metal show.”
It will be a revelation to those who don’t know of the dynamics Wylde has had in his music from even before the BLS days though, when his Pride and Glory and Book of Shadows albums showed his range both musically and vocally. Both albums are well represented on Unblackened, and though the focus will always be on Wylde’s axework, hopefully some will now appreciate his vocals in a more mellow setting. But getting his just due for singing isn’t a high priority.
“When you think about Jimi Hendrix, they don’t think about Jimi’s vocals, and I love Jimi’s voice, but you just think guitar hero,” he said. “Or Stevie Ray Vaughan; Stevie sings his ass off too, but when you think of him, you think guitar hero. So it’s that type of thing. And no, it doesn’t bother me (that more focus hasn’t been given to his vocals). As long as we get five people to come down to the show, I’m fine, whether they go ‘Zakk sucks on the guitar, he can’t sing, but he does a helluva Chicken Piccata.’”
Wylde laughs, as much at ease in an interview setting as he is when the cameras are off or when he’s on stage. That’s not surprising since it’s all the same guy, and that goes for his musical tastes, which run the gamut from pop and classic rock to metal and, yes, Crowded House.
“I think they’re amazing, without a doubt,” said Wylde of the Australian pop group, but he’s not done there when it comes to discussing his influences. “When you see a great musician, it’s definitely inspiring. If you saw Adele when she did the Grammys, it’s just pure talent. It’s proof God exists, it’s just ‘wow.’ So when you see somebody like that or if I see an amazing guitar player, it’s definitely inspiring. But I’m still getting inspired by the same things that I did when I was 13 years old, whether it’s an Elton John song or a Led Zeppelin song or a Sabbath song. We still listen to Bad Company with Paul Rodgers singing, the Allman Brothers, Gregg Allman, Skynyrd, Neil Young, The Eagles, and it’s all the stuff I love. And I still listen to everything. I’ll listen to Joe Pass, Ted Greene, Allan Holdsworth, Al DiMeola, and John McLaughlin, then I’ll listen to Sarah McLachlan, then Elton, and then Zeppelin. Anything that’s good.”
As a fellow 40-something, that’s always good to hear, because when you think of growing up and growing old, the conventional idea is that your music will change from what you enjoyed as a kid. That doesn’t have to be the case though, so breathe a sigh of relief folks, you can still whip out those Van Halen and Kiss albums even when your kids look at you funny.
“It goes to show you just how timeless that music is,” said Wylde. “Those are great records; that’s the reason why we’re still listening to them. But then again, you gotta think about it, my dad was listening to Sinatra when he was in World War II, and the bottom line is that up until the day he passed away, he still loved Frank Sinatra. Just like I think everybody that grew up with Elvis, when they still listen to those records, not only does it bring back great memories and make you feel like you’re 14 years old again, but these records are great.”
And it’s likely a whole generation will still be dusting off their Black Label Society albums and CDs in the years to come. Maybe even more so considering that the fans of the group aren’t just fans, but members of a club, gang, or whatever you want to call it. Consider it a community of like-minded individuals that you don’t see too many bands garnering. Or you could just go with Wylde’s description:
“It’s like the Grateful Dead, only on steroids, growth hormone, and Kimmy Kardashian Quick Trim,” he quips, but when the laughs die down, he embraces the fact that his music has engaged fans beyond listening to the albums and seeing the live shows. And that may be Wylde’s greatest accomplishment.
“It’s a beautiful thing because you can be from the Jersey chapter, and you can see somebody with the colors on in a bar, and you can just go up to him and say ‘hey, what’s goin’ on, my name’s Zakk,’ or whatever, and the next thing you know, six years later he’s the best man at your wedding and you’ve been buddies ever since,” he said. “And what brought you together was the band. That’s definitely the super cool aspect of the band. It’s like one gigantic family.”