Rock Star painted him as a wannabe, but Ripper Owens is doing better than ever

read your music Judas Priest metal

The house sits in an unassuming Akron development filled with practical brick- and vinyl-sided bungalows colored from a factory pallet of neutral hues. Its netless basketball hoop is surrounded by evergreens and budding dogwoods, growing in tandem with the children in residence.

In the kitchen stands a barrel-chested 40-year-old, covered in tattoos and dressed in black down to his steel-toes. He didn't break in, and he's not the oddball uncle who's been crashing on the couch. He's Tim "the Ripper" Owens, and this is his house — a surprisingly vanilla abode for a metal god.

Owens is best known for Rock Star, a movie starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston that was loosely based on his life — loose being the operative word.

It's the fictionalized tale of his rise from "pudgy kid from Akron," as The New York Times called him, to frontman of Judas Priest — the kind of a-nobody-who-shoots-to-fame saga that has Hollywood written all over it. But by the time the screenwriters had their way, it had become a strand of campy clichés that painted Owens as a fanatic wannabe who stumbled into celebrity not through his own merits, but through a knack for imitation.

These days, as he sips coffee at his kitchen table, it's obvious the cherub-faced singer is nowhere close to Wahlberg's mascara-wearing impostor. He's merely a down-to-earth father of three, who just happened to front one of the biggest metal bands in history.

He doesn't distinguish himself from the other working dads in his neighborhood — other than preferring black hoodies and Sabbath to Dave Matthews and khakis. He keeps his memorabilia in the garage, his gear in the office off the master bedroom.

Since Owens left Priest in 2001, he's been largely dismissed as a has-been — that guy who once got lucky, then swiftly returned to obscurity. Rumors even suggest he still lives with his parents in a bedroom cluttered with Priest posters.

In truth, Owens is the antithesis of rock and roll tragedy, the opposite of CC DeVille or Jani Lane. Though metal may have been pushed off the American Billboard charts, it's alive and well from Colombia to Norway. He remains one of the genre's most sought-after voices. And he's doing better financially than when he was fronting one of metal's most iconic acts.

His is the story of a singer who managed to elude the pitfalls of stardom by turning his music into an honest living. Or, as he says, "I'm just an incredibly lucky guy."

It was 1983. Owens' older brother came home with a copy of Screaming for Vengeance, the Judas Priest record that made the Brits a U.S. mainstream success. Fifteen-year-old Tim Owens was hooked. "That was it," he says. "I was done. The singer was just so versatile. I remember hearing him change his voice. It was like he was singing in different characters. I became a fanatic and bought everything."

Priest singer Rob Halford's decadent Phantom of the Opera-on-acid wail was a world away from Owens' straitlaced upbringing. Dad worked in an aluminum-siding factory, and the family lived in the east Akron neighborhood of Kenmore. Though Tim preferred sports to almost everything else, father Roger says he showed an early aptitude for music.

"So one day, the piano teacher is sitting at the piano at school, playing a song," Roger says. "Then Tim sits down and starts playing note for note. He'd never played before. So the teacher called us up, and I thought, 'Oh no, he's in trouble again.' But instead he says, 'You have to get this kid in music.'"

Owens dabbled in guitar and piano, but it wasn't until he heard Judas Priest that he set sail toward a life in music.

He got married at 19 and had a baby girl. He paid the bills working as a file clerk for a law firm, burning through weekends playing with Damage Inc. — a metal outfit he started with Dan Johnson, who later became Judas Priest's guitar tech. "We were just young and dumb, in this speed-metal band, playing a bunch of covers of Priest, Slayer, [Iron] Maiden, and Metallica," says Johnson.

Damage eventually evolved into Brainicide and started playing original material around Akron, Kent, and Cleveland. But as the 1980s accelerated, bar crowds were migrating to cover acts that could replicate the hits of AC/DC and Queen. Creative dirges by local dudes were not a huge draw. "It was hard," Owens says. "We weren't playing Top 40. We got kicked out of a lot of places. And when we did do covers, we always did obscure numbers."

Adds Johnson: "The crowd started falling off because we weren't playing the hits . . . So we split up."

In the midst of a divorce — and sick of the late nights, heckling crowds, and shoddy pay — Owens stayed away from music for almost two years, until he got a call from US Metal. The cover band was a sturdy draw for those willing to shell out $10 to hear the hits of Iron Maiden and Anthrax. US Metal's singer had just quit; Owens stepped in. "The crowds were amazing, and the money was good," he says.

But duplicating the work of others can grind on the creatively inclined. So Owens left to start Winter's Bane, a metal act in the vein of early Metallica and Slayer. The band landed a deal with Cleveland's Massacre Records. The label even flew the band to Heidelberg, Germany, to record. It was the first time Owens had ever left the country.

He was finally going somewhere with his music, or so he thought. He had a record deal and gigs outside Akron, even if they were before meager crowds in Beaver, Pennsylvania.

But the deal turned out to be a flop. Like many a young musician, he had failed to read the fine print on his contract, which signed away all royalties. Of the money made off the album — which was released only in Europe — Owens never saw a cent. "They totally ripped us off," he says. "We were just young and dumb."

Winter's Bane continued to travel the Midwest for weekend jaunts. But it was still hard to draw crowds without the lure of covers. That's when drummer Terry Salem decided to hook up with a booking agent who promised bigger shows. The hitch: They had to be a tribute band. "[Salem] called this guy up and asked if he could get them some gigs," Johnson says. "The guy asked what he did. Terry bullshitted him and said, 'We do a Judas Priest thing.' The guy gave them some gigs, and then they started learning the Priest show."

Winter's Bane threw together a Priest act under the name British Steel. The goal was to draw an audience with Priest songs, but also play as Winter's Bane. "We actually opened for ourselves," Owens says. "We'd play as Winter's Bane, then get changed and play as British Steel . . . It was either play for $50 or $1,000."

But the band began to coast. Practices were few and far between, and the playing got sloppy. Owens was frustrated.

It didn't help that metal itself was in decline. The onslaught of watered-down hair bands was being repelled on the charts by the likes of Soundgarden and Nirvana. "It's really funny to me how music comes in and out and changes," Owens says. "When the grunge thing came in, some people got so mad. But I loved that sound."

Salem had already left British Steel to start another band with Johnson — a cover band called Seattle, in hopes of capitalizing on the grunge scene. Owens had no problem mastering the new sound, doing renditions of Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder as well as he did Halford and James Hetfield. He decided to leave the leather and studs behind and join Seattle.

Then he got the call of a lifetime.

On a breezy spring day, the sound of screeching guitars and an impossibly high vibrato seep through the linen treatments of Owens' second-story windows. The music cuts out when the doorbell rings, and Owens appears at the door with a wide smile, his facial hair seemingly trimmed by Mephistopheles' barber. "I was just working on some new tracks," he says, but refuses to show off his home studio. "It's a total mess — my wife would kill me."

After neatly arranging a couple of bright pink kids' shoes, he launches into his favorite story.

When he quit British Steel in 1996, he still owed the band one more show, a gig they'd booked in Erie. He was supposed to play with Seattle at the same club the following night. "It was so strange," Owens says. "I was Rob Halford one night, then Chris Cornell the next."

Owens didn't realize that two women were videotaping his final British Steel performance with plans of delivering the tape to a friend — the drummer of Judas Priest.

At the time, Priest had been dormant for six years. Its members were feeling the wear of 12 studio albums, dozens of world tours, and each other. Especially Halford.

While Halford's homosexuality was no secret to bandmates, the group's hardcore image didn't allow him to be publicly out, despite the band's leather-bar aesthetic. "His lover/manager was trying to talk him into starting his own group," says Johnson, who roadied for Priest. "It was a total war. There was a lot of bitching and drama."

Halford quit in 1991 after a disastrous show at Rock in Rio, the huge Brazilian music festival, where he fell off his motorcycle as he made his grand entrance. "They did the whole first song without him," Johnson says. "He ended up finishing off the show all bloody, but he was pissed and just quit that night."

For the next six years, the band auditioned numerous singers, but no one seemed good enough. "It was an incredible task," says guitarist K.K. Downing. "Halford had such a range, such an incredible ability to deliver the goods, literally. And so we thought, well, you know, there has to be somebody out there. But it proved to be harder than we thought."

Then came the British Steel tape. "We were elated," Downing says. "He was such a great singer, and he was as good if not younger and stronger in a way than Rob."

It was February 1997 when Owens got the call from Priest's drummer, Scott Travis. "It was so weird," Owens says. "He was in England, sipping wine, wanting to make sure that it was really me singing on the tape."

Travis wanted him on a plane to England the next day.

Owens was driven to a studio in Wales. "I was so starstruck. They were just sitting there, eating breakfast, hanging out, playing music. It was surreal."

The band told him to relax, that he wouldn't have to sing until the next day. But Owens demanded to perform then and there. "I was so freaked out," he says. "I hadn't sung Judas Priest in months, and I just wanted to get it over with."

He launched into "Victim of Changes," a complex song with incredibly high notes. "Whiskey woman, don't you know that you are driving me insane," Owens sang in his perfect falsetto.

The band offered him the job before he'd finished. But Owens insisted on singing one more tune, "The Ripper," a Judas Priest classic. "That's how I got my nickname," he says.

As soon as Priest announced its new frontman, Owens' fairy-tale story appeared in every publication from Kerrang! to The New York Times. "He was the everyman metal fan," says Deena Weinstein, author of Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture. "That's how metal musicians become metal musicians . . . They see their idols onstage and want to be like them, and here is the biggest dream come true. Every rock writer wrote about Ripper Owens."

Still, hardcore Priest fans were reluctant to embrace Halford's replacement. "Replacing one's hero is a horrible thing," Weinstein says. "And the problem was that you couldn't replace Rob, because he was so important to Priest's persona."

"He stepped into a legend's shoes," adds Chris Akin, host of internet radio's The Classic Metal Show. "You take [Halford] and Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie Dio, and you've got the founders of metal."

Weinstein recalls reviewing a Cleveland Priest show in the late '90s. Owens hit the notes perfectly, his vocal chords dancing through octaves with the power of his predecessor. But Weinstein says it was impossible not to compare him to Halford — a comparison Owens could never win. He certainly had the talent. What he couldn't duplicate was Halford's larger-than-life legend, built over decades.

"It was awful, but you could hear that 98 percent of his voice is like Rob's and the 2 percent that wasn't," Weinstein says. "And that 2 percent stands out to the big fans."

Jugulator, a harder death-metal record, was Priest's first album with Owens and a departure from its poppier radio hits. It received mixed reviews, with many lamenting the absence of Halford.

Still, Owens persevered, doing nonstop promo trips and tours. "It was so much work," he says. "I couldn't believe how hard the promo trips were. We'd be in three cities in just one day. It was crazy. I could see the Eiffel Tower from my hotel room, but I never stepped outside."

Despite the mixed reactions, the band received a Grammy nomination for the Jugulator track "Bullet Train" — a nod to Owens' talent. "The Grammys was my first date with my wife," he says of second wife Jeannie, who Owens has known since grade school. "We got to sit next to B.B. King. It was surreal."

For the next few years, Owens toured consistently, spending a month and a half on the road in Japan, Europe, or Latin America, then a month at home in Kenmore. Owens approached the band like any other job. There were few late nights, and he insisted on napping and drinking tea before shows, rather than indulging in rock's traditional delights. "It wasn't vacation," he says. "It was a job. It was about the work."

The band eventually recorded another album, Demolition, which was released in 2001. Like Jugulator, Owens simply sang what Priest wrote for him. He never received royalties from either album. "I didn't write anything, so there was no money," he says. "But the band gave me my career, which is priceless. They paid me for the work I did while I was with them, and some when I left."

But his fame would lurch higher after he got a call on a golf course from George Clooney's production company, Robert Lawrence Productions. It wanted to bring his story to the big screen. "They were going to call it Metal Gods," Owens says. "And it was going to be a more accurate film, and Priest was going to be involved, doing the music, and I was gonna help out. But it didn't end up that way."

John Stockwell, an actor/director/writer best known for Hollywood camp like Breast Men, Turistas, and the TV show Cheaters, was tapped to write the screenplay. But rather than introduce himself to the band as the film's writer, Stockwell oddly posed as a reporter for Details, conducting faux interviews backstage. "I have no idea why he did that," Owens says. (Stockwell did not respond to interview requests.)

Once, while Johnson was on tour with Priest, Stockwell called up his wife, claiming to be doing "research on Akron for an article," Johnson says. "She drove him around town and told him silly stories."

When the band finally got hold of the first draft, they were mortified. "We said no way — we wanted nothing to do with it," Owens says.

The script was so saturated with sex, drugs, and rock and roll clichés that it made Spinal Tap look like a drama. Priest had been transformed into a glam act, decked out in makeup and wigs along the lines of Cinderella. "It just all seemed so crazy, really," Downing says. "The more we found out about it, the more we stood away from it. It was gonna be so sensationalized, so Hollywood-like. To us, it was going all the wrong ways."

From that point on, the band and Owens had no contact with filmmakers. And they had no clue what the movie would finally entail until its release in 2001, just days after 9/11.

Owens was on tour with Priest in Mexico. Wife Jeannie and his parents saw it at an Akron theater. "I thought it was funny as shit," Jeannie says. "It was so far from the truth that it was flippin' hilarious. I was sitting next to his mom, cracking up the whole time."

Though the film was purportedly "based on a true story," that story seemed to come from a community-college writing workshop. Wahlberg plays the requisite humble-man-ruined-by-fame, who buys a Batmobile, engages in orgies, and trashes hotel rooms. In one scene, he gets so wasted that he can't even recognize his life's love, played by Jennifer Aniston. "People always ask me if I'm Jennifer Aniston," Jeannie laughs. "There was never an Aniston!"

The movie was a critical and commercial flop. "What they did with the film was a horror," Weinstein says. "No metal fan embraced that movie or took it seriously."

But it did fit the caricature of metalheads in mainstream minds, a perception that had already pushed the genre off the charts, forcing it to seek more accepting audiences abroad.

Owens went with it.

Shortly after Rock Star came out, Priest began talking about a reunion with Halford. "Everyone in the metal world knew Halford would come back," says Bill Peters, president of Cleveland's Auburn Records and host of WJCU's Metal on Metal. "He had to. And it was good for Tim. Priest just wasn't Priest without Halford, and Tim had to move on and do his own thing."

The band parted ways with Ripper that same year. "Everyone thought it was a sad day," Owens says. "But it wasn't. I never would have quit Priest, but it was the right thing for Halford to come back and for me to move on."

Still, Owens walked away with a reputation as one of the most versatile voices in metal. "Singers are a rare commodity," says Downing. "World-class singers are seriously rare — you can count them on one hand and still have fingers left over. And Ripper is a world-class vocalist, just legendary."

Weinstein concurs. "He has a very good metal voice," she says. "He has the octaves; he can do high and low. It's powerful. He's got a variety of styles. He has the moves. And he looks good. What more do you want?"

Owens was flooded with new offers. "He's probably everyone's favorite replacement singer," Akins says. "He just kind of steps into every and any band that needs someone quality, and he dominates — he ends up being the center."

Owens became the lead singer of Iced Earth — a band that lacked Priest's fan base, but maintained a respect among metal connoisseurs. Owens likens it to moving from the majors to Triple A. But Weinstein believes it was the best decision he ever made.

"Getting into Iced Earth as the singer was a nice move, because it got the Priest thing away from his persona," she says. "He was now just a really good metal singer, and Iced Earth is one of those bands that wants top-notch musicians, so it was a very good deal."

The band released The Reckoning in 2004, a Civil War concept album that showcased Owens' incredible range. "It was a very challenging record," Peters says. "He did this entire gigantic concept record, and it was very demanding for him to sing, but he came through. He earned the reputation for being a quality singer."

Owens also introduced a lot of Priest fans to Iced Earth, a band whose following was concentrated in the underground. "They definitely didn't have as many fans before Tim," Akin says. "He really brought them a lot of attention."

Still, Owens was feeling like a hired gun rather than a true frontman. The band centered around guitarist Jon Schaffer, the only original member, while the rest seemed to pass through a constantly revolving door. Owens was the band's fourth singer.

"The main man in that band was the main man," Weinstein says. "And bands tend to have a very specific power dynamic."

While Owens was comfortable being bossed around, he wanted to tour more. He also didn't like Schaffer's constant derogatory comments about his time in Judas Priest. "He hated that I was called the Ripper," Owens says. "He said that my era of Priest just sucked and that the songs were bad. It was tense."

After one more album, Schaffer replaced Owens with another singer, just last year. "It was two weeks before Christmas, and he sent this press release out," Owens says. "I didn't even know he was going to announce it. I was pretty upset by how it was handled."

Still, Owens was relieved, hoping to finally focus on writing his own music. Thanks to connections he'd made during his Priest days, he was able to get Wendy Dio, the wife of the legendary metal singer Ronnie Dio, to be his manager.

"He's just got such talent," she says. "There are very few singers who have a range like Tim's, but who also don't have an ego. I can count them on my hand. There are a whole bunch of guitar players, bass players, drummers, but singers are few and far between."

Owens quickly began working on an album with his new band, Beyond Fear, a melodic act in the vein of Sabbath that he started with John Comprix, the guitarist for Spawn.

"Oh my God — it was crazy when he asked me to play with him," Comprix says. "For one thing, if you were watching Winter's Bane, bands like that throughout his career — he was the singer, the guy. Everyone looked up to Tim. He's just one of the few that have that God-given talent for real, not that fake thing."

They've since released an album on the German label SPV Records and toured with Anthrax. "Of the bands he's been in, the best work he's done is with Beyond Fear," Akin says. "It's his most incredible work — a real force in metal."

While metal may no longer be Billboard's sound du jour, the genre has had no problem remaining vibrant. "In today's world, the metal fans will go out and find what they are looking for and still buy it," Akin says. "Sales are down for everyone, but the metal bands are still selling."

Akin points to the newest release by Testament, a West Coast thrash band that is huge in places like Germany, but has only marginal success in the States. When The Formation of Damnation was released earlier this year, it sold 15,000 copies in just the first week. "That's just incredible," Akin says. "Especially for a band 25 years past their time and one that was never an A-list band, even in the underground."

Metal's dedicated international fan base has allowed Owens to flourish, even if it's under the rest of the world's radar.

On a May afternoon, he hits golf balls at the Firestone driving range before his wife meets him for lunch. He's outfitted in his stock rock uniform — jeans, steel-toed boots, a black hoodie, and fierce sideburns.

Aside from his work with Beyond Fear, Owens recently hooked up with Yngwie Malmsteen, the Jimi Hendrix of metal, to sing on Malmsteen's new record. "It's one of the most anticipated records of the year," says Peters.

Between jaunts to Mexico and Finland, Owens is also working on a solo album. In a bit of a role reversal, he's now the one hiring the help.

As he and his wife munch on chicken salads, they seem happier than ever. "He just has so much freedom now," Jeannie says. "We like to say he got his master's at Judas Priest University. He needed to do that. But now he's in control of his own destiny, and it's so much fun."

Since the release of Rock Star, Owens has contemplated writing his own account of how things went down. But he's moving on with this life, his best work still far ahead of him.

Weinstein says she'd read that book. "One thing is for sure," she says. "The fat lady has not sung."

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