An Intelligent, Revolutionary, Rock Opera
An Essay by Jeff Blocker


At the Seattle'98 party I was lucky enough to meet a cool guy named Jeff Blocker. Here was this guy, confined to a wheelchair, drinking a Foster's Lager (Australian for beer) through a straw, digging the new 'Ryche tunes being blasted through the PA (as was I). I had to meet him! We started talking, and he told me of this essay he'd written about the 'Ryche using Voice Recognition Software. Since I'm a computer user by trade, I'm always impressed by how many people are ahead of me in the technology department. I asked Jeff to e-mail his essay to me so I could post it. Good stuff, Jeff!

-Brett Miller

Hey Brett:

Hi, my name is Jeff Blocker. I met you at the Seattle 98 party. I was the guy talking with you about an essay that I had written for a composition class at Arizona State University. Feel free to post it on your website if you'd like. Most hardcore Queensryche fans will probably know a lot about the information in the essay. I wrote the paper as if the reader was completely unfamiliar with the band and "Livecrime." I dictated this work as I do all my papers-with voice recognition software called Dragon Naturally Speaking. In 1991, at the age of 21, I had a diving accident at left me paralyzed from the neck down. This software is great (despite my dislike of computers) as it allows me to continue to write as well as use many other applications. By the way, this is not an endorsement for the company, but I'd be using this technology if I were still able to use my fingers as I couldn't type worth a damn. I'm a Senior English major at ASU, and life goes on. I want to thank Queensryche for their class. I was fortunate to have met each band member at Showbox.

Their music continues to inspire, prophesize, and jam!


Jeff Blocker

Operation: Livecrime": An Intelligent, Revolutionary, Rock Opera
An Essay by Jeff Blocker

It was the summer of 1988. I was working for a landscaping company. The job usually entailed grooming the yards of rich Connecticut homeowners. I was earning six dollars an hour; pretty good for a high school student. One particular hot, sunny afternoon I popped Queensryche's "Operation: Mindcrime" into my Walkman before mowing an expansive, Great Gatsby-like lawn. This was my first time hearing what I thought would be just another heavy metal album. I was wrong.

As I maneuvered the cumbersome five-foot deck lawnmower, I started hearing lyrics such as "politicians say no to drugs, while we pay for wars in South America." I started to get angry. I was already an angry, disillusioned teenager. My disillusionment was mostly based on ignorance, but these words were providing some knowledge and substance to back it up.

I finished with the lawnmower and picked up a trimmer to take care of the rose garden. I could feel the glare of the idle rich couple through their picture window scorching the back of my head as I cared for their precious flowers. They were probably suspicious of the eighteen-year-old kid, with hair down to his shoulders and no shirt, caring for one of their many prized possessions. The pressure in my head caused by their searing eyes increased as I heard Geoff Tate sing, "the cops get paid to look away as the one percent rules America." I wanted to take down one hundred percent of those roses with my trimmer. (I relented out of my respect for nature and my own need to make a buck.) The anger that I was feeling was caused by these intelligent lyrics that spoke so passionately about the inequity between the rich and the poor. This record was instrumental in shaping my own political beliefs and in realizing the social power of music.

Queensryche is a rock band from Seattle, Washington, who would most likely be placed within the music genre of "heavy metal." Many people associate heavy metal with moronic subjects such as Satanism, mindless teenage rebellion, and misogynous musical lyrics. The album, "Operation Mindcrime," was released at the height of the popularity of this type of music that emphasized big hair, screaming guitars and a stereotypical rock and roll lifestyle. "Mindcrime" was released in 1988. On the surface this record seems to have all of the ingredients that made 80s heavy metal popular. The singer, Geoff Tate, can scream as well as Axl Rose from Guns `n' Roses. The two guitar players, Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, can match the playing of Eddie Van Halen. The rhythm section of Eddie Jackson on the bass and Scott Rockenfield on drums played pounding, staccato rhythms. All of these musicians wore the traditional leather garb of the genre and had the "big hair" to match. The major differences between Queensryche's "Operation Mindcrime," and other popular records of this genre's era such as Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet," lies in its intelligence and substance.

"Operation:Mindcrime," is a concept album. Each song helps tell a grim story of a desperate revolutionary named Nikki. "Operation:Livecrime," the video, was recorded and mixed from the band's 1990-91 "Building Empires" concert tour. "Livecrime" took the concept of "Mindcrime" a step further to create a rock opera. This opera gives the viewer insight into the politics of the time, a tragic love relationship, a commentary on religion, and a personal look into the tortured soul of Nikki. Because of these elements, this work deserves to be recognized as a classic because it can be interpreted in so many ways. The record transcends the loose term "heavy metal" and belongs in a genre by itself.

It was the 80s in America: the greedy "me" generation. Television shows like "Lifestyles of the Rich Famous" were popular, our national debt was escalating and the poor were becoming poorer as is suggested by the words, "The rich control the government, the media, the law." Geoff Tate, as the revolutionary Nikki, continues this discourse by singing:

the system, we learn
says we're equal under law
but the streets are reality, the weak and poor will fall
let's tip the power balance and tear down their crown
educate the masses, we'll burn the White House down

Nikki's social commentary and radical solution is essentially the mission of the underground movement for which he works. Dr. X (who happens to resemble Lenin of the Russian revolution) is the leader and has recruited Nikki, mostly because he's a high school dropout and addicted to heroin. This recruiting method is quite clear in the introduction of the song "The Needle Lies." Nikki has lost all sense of reality and Dr. X controls him with his drug supply. The revolutionary movement offers a solution to the political unrest. Unfortunately, like most revolutions, they need soldiers dedicated to a belief system that is beyond their own comprehension. No matter how noble the cause may be, the leaders of a revolution often become corrupt and power hungry; much like the government they're out to depose. Queensryche effectively communicates this with the characters of Dr. X and Nikki through their dependence on one another. Dr. X needs an assassin and Nikki needs his fix.

The religious element to this story enhances the radical feeling of the opera. "Livecrime" displays several images of preachers pounding bibles. At the introduction of "Mission," we see a bell tolling and hear the voice of an evangelical minister speaking in sermon-like fashion:
"God, the holy ghost is calling out to you. I want you to reach deep into your hearts and your pocketbooks and take his hand."

This caricature of the 80s televangelist isn't that much of a stretch considering what we now know about preachers like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Bakker squelched the elderly for donations to his ministry and than had his dog's house air-conditioned. Swaggart was caught with a prostitute despite his conflicting public views on what he perceived as morality. The character, Father William, is introduced and Nikki has been sent to kill him. Nikki sees Father William as a hypocritical televangelist and has no difficulty carrying out this mission.

The most moving part of "Livecrime" lies in the love relationship between Nikki and Sister Mary. Dr. X recruited Sister Mary when she was sixteen while "working live S&M shows." Dr. X has promised her salvation through Father William. Father William will "wash away her sins." The Father takes money from old people afraid of going to hell and he "takes Sister Mary on the altar like a sacrifice." Nikki has fallen in love with Sister Mary and has no problem killing Father William. He sees the parallel between her control by religion and the priest with his control by heroin and Dr. X. This is where the production becomes an opera in the traditional sense.

The performance of the longest song of "Operation Mindcrime" is carried out flawlessly. "Suite Sister Mary" begins with rainfall in the background and what sounds like Latin Catholic religious chants. The guitar and rhythmic sections sound mournful. Nikki is melancholy as he thinks of Mary. He sees her out in the rain and we learn more about their relationship. Nikki tells Mary that "she knows too much for her own good." Dr. X has sent him to kill her. She has only been a "whore for the underground," according to Nikki. Nikki doesn't need any faith she has to offer him. He insists that they need trust in each other to keep them both alive. Singer, Pamela Moore, answers as Mary. This response to Nikki is the first we hear from Mary. She's dressed in white and wind whips through her almost see-through dress. She's distraught and her singing voice is filled with emotion:

I want no more of any faith
binds my arm and feed my mind
the only peace I've ever known
I'll close my eyes and you shoot

Tate answers with heightened passion that she needs to listen to him. The priest is dead and she doesn't need her cross anymore. Nikki insists that Dr. X has used them both. Nikki tries to convince her that they only need each other's love. Mary, unfortunately, can only think of herself in terms of her sins and "the blood of Christ can't heal her wounds." Nikki, on his knees, pleads with Mary to spare herself. As the song finishes, thunder and lightning dominate the video screens and we hear what sounds like the closing of a vault. Herein lies the mystery of Mary's death. Who killed her? The piece concludes with Nikki collapsed and unconscious. Mary is gone.

Upon the release of the album, "Operation: Mindcrime," guitarist Chris DeGarmo was asked if the band was "planning a subversive revolution against the government." He was even asked if he wanted people to be assassins for them. He responded wryly:

"Hey, we're just writing about cars and women. We've got nothing against right-wing conservative fascist governments who run the United States."

DeGarmo's humor was based on the fact that some people might assume a band from the heavy metal genre would only sing about such trivial things. Clearly, "Livecrime," isn't about "cars and women." Queensryche effectively created a moving tale of political intrigue, tragic love, and keen insight into the inner workings of an underground revolution. The band accomplished this through Geoff Tate's singing and acting as well as the dynamic instrumental performances of the rest of the band.

The progressive and ambitious goal to replace the rich one-percent of America with the working class and to "tear down the crown in Washington," seems noble. However, "Operation: Livecrime" shows us the innate problems in many revolutions. These problems lie in the organizers' ultimate hunger for power and the ignorance of their recruits who carry out their plans. Amazingly, Queensryche has explored these complicated problems in a genre that one would not associate with expressing this type of commentary. This work is truly a revolutionary piece of art.