"How's Cleveland? I'm missing it," says singer Tim "Ripper" Owens. On tour in "I'm not even for sure what part of Germany," Owens has the kind of story that gives hope to aspiring musicians playing in faceless heavy metal bands everywhere. After all, if Owens, an Akron native who has fronted Judas Priest for the last four years, can go from singing cover songs in half-empty, dimly lit bars to playing arenas packed with fist-pumping fans, you gotta think that every pimple-faced kid with a Metallica poster in his room will think he can be the next James Hetfield.
Like anyone who grew up in the early '80s, Owens owned a copy of REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity ("Don't make fun of me, now," he says defensively. "I don't listen to them anymore"). But then, one day, his brother brought home Priest's Screaming for Vengeance, and ever since, Owens has been, to quote a Priest album title, "hell-bent for leather."
"I looked at these guys and thought, 'That's some heavy shit -- look at the leather and the spikes,'" he recalls. "This was in the early '80s, and they just blew me away, because they were so versatile, and every record I got was different. I became a huge fan. My bedroom was nothing but Judas Priest pictures. My parents are still pissed at that. I stapled them to the wall, and the plaster was falling off and shit."
Owens eventually started a hard rock band called Winter's Bane, which would play an original set and then transform into British Steel, a Priest cover band. "I'd put on leather garb, and we'd do two hours of Priest," Owens says without a hint of shame. While most cover bands never become more than novelty acts, British Steel was the band that paid off, because it was a tape of one of Owens's performances that got him the gig with Judas Priest.
When singer Rob Halford left Judas Priest in 1992 to pursue short-lived industrial side projects, the group went on a three-year search for a new singer and had already assembled a short list by the time Priest drummer Scott Travis acquired a tape of Owens singing. The guys in Judas Priest then flew Owens to London and hired him after he sang just one line of "Victim of Changes." "It was a miracle," says guitarist Glenn Tipton of their discovery.
Owens says the transition from being an office worker who moonlights as a rock star to a full-fledged international celebrity was a smooth one.
"The guys in the band are so normal and level-headed, that's how they made me feel," says Owens, who spent the last two months of last year in London recording Demolition, the group's new album. "They made me feel like I was part of the band, so that grounded me. They just made me feel like one of the guys."
Owens ended up singing on the Grammy-nominated Jugulator, an album written for Halford. After four years of touring in support of Jugulator (during which time the band recorded a live album), it wiggled out of its deal with CMC International and signed with Atlantic Records, which will issue Demolition. It's the first studio record Owens has been involved in from start to finish. While Owens had the opportunity to write songs for the new album, he chose not to. (The one track he did write is available only on the Japanese version.)
"I respect his decision," says Tipton. "He's been with us for four years, but this is only his second album. He didn't want to interfere with our format. I'm sure you'll see his name on a lot of songs in the future."
To hear Owens tell it, his life hasn't really changed since joining Priest. He still jams on occasion with Seattle (formerly Winter's Bane) and describes himself as "a common Joe" who "doesn't need to wear his sunglasses inside the grocery store." He says his appearance is so nondescript, he doesn't even worry about getting stopped by rabid Priest fans.
"I look like everybody else," he says. "I've got short hair, glasses, a goatee. When I'm at home, I go out every Monday night to Scorchers to eat chicken wings. It's the same routine every Monday. We play the golf video game, drink beer, and eat chicken wings."
All that might change with the release of Rock Star, which is scheduled to open in September. It's a film starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston that's loosely based on Owens's story. The script was taken from a New York Times magazine article that detailed Owens's rise to Judas Priest. Originally, the band was asked to contribute music for the film, but once it realized that the filmmakers took liberties with the story, which is reportedly now a comedy, it backed out. Now, Owens says, the band wants "nothing to do with it."
"It's a shame," he huffs. "They should write a nice normal story about a normal guy who makes a band and has a normal life and gets married along the way, and all these great things happen to him. Instead, they made a story that starts like that and then it's Hollywood, and they have to Spinal Tap it. There's no sex, drugs, and rock and roll here, so they have to make sure that there is, I guess."