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On the verge of stardom, the Boston-based rock band pays their dues on the road before Ozzy and fame take over.

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Godsmack: Rock 'n' Roll Karma

by Tim McMahan


When you're a new band trying to make a name for yourself, people generally don't know your face. In the case of Godsmack, the unfamiliar can include the venue's security forces.

"It wasn't our fault," is how Godsmack vocalist Sully Erna (who goes simply by "Sully") began explaining the ordeal that went down a couple weeks ago while playing the X-Fest in Fort Myers, Fla., with Everclear, Cracker and Jimmy's Chicken Shack. The night before, the band had played with Snake Pit, the side project of Guns 'n' Roses guitarist Slash, and didn't get off stage until after 1 a.m., only to catch a grueling 5 a.m. red-eye to Florida. "We had a bad flight and were exhausted, but we sucked it up."

Two songs into their set, Sully did the traditional rock-star turn and jumped into the audience to be carried around overhead. When the fans crowd-surfed him back to the stage, one of the bouncers who hadn't been paying attention, began making his way toward Sully. "I didn't know who he was, either. I thought he was a fan who wanted to jump around with me on stage, something that we encourage. When I went to put my arm around his neck, he grabbed me and started manhandling me."

Sully said he tried to tell the bouncer that he was the band's singer, but the bull would have none of it. "I could see that he was going to punch me, so I punched him in the face and gave him a boot, and pretty much knocked him cold. Next thing I know, a whole bunch of bouncers were coming on stage and I thought I was gonna get killed. But they went up to the guy and said, 'You’re a stupid ass. That's the lead singer, dummy.'"

The bouncer was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, but returned a couple hours later to apologize to the 5'4", 140-pound Sully. "I told him I was sorry, but I could tell that someone was going to get hit, and it wasn't going to be me."


"When I went to put my arm around his neck, he grabbed me and started manhandling me."


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If Sully and Godsmack have it their way, the mistaken-identity-driven Fort Myers incident will soon be a thing of the past. With the video for "Whatever," the first single off their self-titled CD, now in heavy rotation on MTV, along with a slot on the Ozzfest tour beginning May 28, Godsmack has all the ingredients of becoming a big-time arena band.

The Boston-based 4-piece's CD, a remastered reissue of a self-released 1996 demo, is definitely radio-ready. It sounds like a cross between Alice and Chains and early Stone Temple Pilots, with a touch of Nine Inch Nails and Metallica thrown in for good measure. They're hard, heavy-metal pop songs, with Sully's Layne Staley/Scott Weiland-style vocals crooning about bad-luck relationships over layers of thick, marauding powerchords.

Speaking of Alice and Chains, Sully says the band didn't name itself after that band's track off their 1992 album, "Dirt." The story behind the name is much more charming than that. "It was back when we were just getting started, we had a photo shoot and our old drummer came in with a huge cold sore," said Sully in his thick, East Cost accent. "I was making fun of him all day, but he didn't say anything back. The next day, I came to rehearsal with a huge coldsore on my lip. And Tony (Rombola, the band's guitarist), said, 'That's God smacking you for yesterday.' It's about instant karma."

 

Karma is something that Sully not only believes in, but also is part of his religion. A self-professed "recovering Catholic," Sully is now a practicing Witch of the Celtic Religion (WICCA), who studied under Salem Witch Laurie Cabot. Look on their CD sleeve, or on their website (www.godsmack.com), and you'll find a rendering of a Pentagram, a 5-pointed star and symbol used in witchcraft. The first thing you might think of is Satanism, but you'd be far off the mark, Sully said.

"I don't preach WICCA," he said. "In my mind, it's about the power of the Earth, karma and natural remedies. A spell is no different than a prayer. For me, there was too much guilt involved with Christianity, with hell presented as a punishment. Witchcraft is an ancient religion where there's no devil involved, no hell, no Satan. It's about karma – if you remain a good person, you'll have good things happen to you. If you're a dickhead your whole life, you'll always attract trouble."

Regardless, he says the religion is often misunderstood. "What bums me out is when people ask if I believe in Satan or kill animals or babies and weird stuff like that," Sully said. "If you read two paragraphs in any witchcraft literature, you'd realize that we believe everything that you put out, you get back three times. It doesn't make any sense to think anything evil about witchcraft."


"It's about karma – if you remain a good person, you'll have good things happen to you. If you're a dickhead your whole life, you'll always attract trouble."



"We've gone through a lot of crap in our lives, so when we get there, we'll never forget where we came from."


 

Despite his beliefs, Sully chocks up the band's success to hard work, not lucky charms. Back when they first released their CD, the band merely hoped to recoup the $2,500 they borrowed to make it. Thanks to heavy airplay by Boston radio station WAAF for "Whatever" and "Keep Away," the hard-driving soon-to-be-released second single, Godsmack sold more than 20,000 CDs at local record stores and from the trunks of their cars before catching the eye of Republic Records.

"The label likes how we've accomplished everything the old-fashioned way," Sully said. "They set us down and said, 'We don't want to tell you what to do, just keep doing what you're doing.'"

Playing smaller venues, such as the Ranch Bowl, instead of opening for a major tour is part of their plan. "We're not heavy to jump onto someone's coattails," Sully said. "It's real this way. I like being with the people who later on can say, 'I remember seeing Godsmack with 300 people in the room.' It's a more organic experience than an arena tour."

Sully said the band wouldn't lose sight of their roots, even if they become a household name. "We're in our early 30s now, so we respect what's going on more than if we were 18 or 19," he said. "A lot of the big bands never went through the grind of living out of a van. They write songs, make a million bucks; they don't know and they don't care. We've gone through a lot of crap in our lives, so when we get there, we'll never forget where we came from. I don't think we have the personalities to be rock stars."


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Originally printed in The Reader April 1, 1999.

Copyright 1999 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.