Godsmack singer and practicing witch Sully Erna keeps a level head.

Godsmack, opening for Black Sabbath. Blossom Music Center, Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls. 8 p.m., Friday, August 20. $31/$61, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555
Karma chameleons: Robbie Merrill, Tony Rombolo, Sully Erna, and Tommy Stewart (from left) of Godsmack.
Karma chameleons: Robbie Merrill, Tony Rombolo, Sully Erna, and Tommy Stewart (from left) of Godsmack.
Hear the name "Sully," and a back alley transaction comes to mind. Whether it's a bet with the local numbers racket or the acquisition of contraband, the name has a dark connotation. For Godsmack lead singer Sully Erna, a rough life seemed to be written in the stars as soon as his parents took one look at his mug and listed Sully on the birth certificate.

Growing up on the hard streets of Boston, Erna learned about survival. While the 31-year-old singer doesn't go into great detail about his poverty-ridden past, he does mention gang fights, drugs, and police chases. On the surface, Godsmack's down-and-dirty, grinding style is a perfect fit with Erna's tough background. But the fodder for the band's self-titled debut disc comes complimentary of a relationship gone sour. Nothing reeks havoc like a lover scorned. "Stab me in my heart again/Drag me through your wasted life/Are you forever dead?" goes "Keep Away." Obviously, a hard breakup put Erna over the edge.

If there is an upside to living on the downside of society, it's having the rage that many rock fans can relate to. Since the release of its debut disc late last year, Godsmack has found a home alongside the Korns and Limp Bizkits of the hard rock world. In fact, the band is closer in spirit to bands like Alice in Chains and Metallica. One listen to Godsmack's disc reveals a cavalcade of Alice guitar hooks and Metallica's angry lyrics. Some metal fans claim that Godsmack, which is also the name of an Alice in Chains song, should have just called itself AIC Jr. Erna feels otherwise. "We've been influenced by them; we're not going to lie about it," he says. "I was definitely influenced by Alice in Chains and Metallica, but I don't think we're ripping them off. It's not like we're a clone band."

While Godsmack may not be living off of someone else's name, the band does have a textbook attention-getter in Erna's religion. He's a practicing witch.

A hard rock band couldn't ask for a better hook with the Manson youth. Erna's a witch of the Celtic religion, or wicca, and he casts spells — but he doesn't worship Satan or twinkle his nose and make Darr-wood turn into a skunk. For Erna, wicca provided him with something that Christianity didn't — freedom.

"It's pretty simple," he says. "It's all based on karma and the power of the earth and natural things about nature. It's a very earthly based religion. It's something I believe in a lot more than what the Bible had taught me. I just felt there was a lot of guilt and fear involved in Christianity. I didn't like the options of "You had to live this way because, if not, you could go to hell'; and "Hell is a severe punishment.' They kind of scare you and fear you into believing in God. And I just didn't agree with that. So I did a little research, and I found that this was something that I felt good about inside anyways, and I didn't really know there was a religion based on the same thing. It helped me through rough times."

Erna explains his religious practices earnestly, though he admits being a witch in a hard rock band is a publicist's dream. "Yeah, I didn't really know it was going to go down that road," he says. "I didn't want to be the poster boy for witchcraft. The way I look at it is, I'm not ashamed of it, and if people are interested in it, I'll tell them at least what I know about it. I'm not going to hide it."

As for the spells, Erna says they are no different from Catholic prayers. It's fitting that karma plays such a large role in his religion, since it was a form of karma that gave the band its name.

Apparently, Godsmack's old drummer came to practice one day with a huge cold sore on his lip, just as the band was to have press photos taken. The drummer complained, and Erna, in a very un-witch-like way, told him to quit his bellyachin'. Wouldn't you know, Erna came to practice the next day with a cold sore in the exact same place. Guitarist Tony Rombolo made a comment that God had just smacked him for being an ass, and the name clicked.

The Godsmack story of glory differs little from that of most bands: record a demo, build an underground following, attract major-label interest. Their self-released disc was recorded for a paltry $2,500. Rombolo wanted to use a Les Paul for the recording, but he didn't own the guitar, so he borrowed one.

Godsmack's current disc, originally titled All Wound Up, was ready to go in 1996. It eventually caught the ears of Republic Records and was re-released as Godsmack in late 1998. The sobering album moved up the charts steadily, ultimately leading to a spot on this summer's Ozzfest. So impressive was the band that the reunited Black Sabbath asked Erna and the boys to open for the classic rockers on a mini-tour, which brings them to Blossom Music Center Friday night.

Interestingly, it was a Northeast Ohio parent who supposedly gave Godsmack trouble over the pentagram depicted on the band's album and for Erna's propensity for using the word "fuck."

"I guess his little girl dragged him to a Wal-Mart, and she went home and sang the lyrics," Erna says. "He didn't like the fact that "fucker' and "motherfucker' were printed here and there. So he raised a big stink about it and said something about the pentagram inside cover being Satanic. Whatever. This guy will probably sue McDonald's for the coffee being too hot. It's not that big of a deal."

Erna says that the band has no problems with stickering albums that contain questionable lyrics. In order to place the album in Wal-Mart — the conservative chain doesn't carry CDs with parents' advisories — the label released an edited version.

The record is selling well, and the band is taking everything in stride. "I'm still trying to swallow gold," Erna says of reaching 500,000 units sold. "I haven't really started thinking about platinum yet. It's taken me awhile to figure out the album went gold legitimately. It's really flattering, but it's kind of not believable to us yet, because it's been so long and such a struggle to just get the record deal and have people accept what we do."

Suggest that it may be difficult for Godsmack to maintain the same level of intensity and wrath after chart success, and it's obvious Erna has already been asked the question a million times. "It's really hard to say," he says. "I've seen a lot of bands go through those motions. It seems like everyone is your best friend at first. And then, as you grow, things change and people perceive you differently. It's a tough question to answer. You just have to wait and see when that time comes.

"I mean, even with the media, everyone loves you at first, and then the better you do, the worse they're going to pick on you. So who knows? — it could end tomorrow, and I would still be excited that I was able to buy my mom a Cadillac. If it all ends tomorrow, I can say I did that."

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