“I just flat said, ‘if your mother was playing church, and your mother wasn’t busy praying for you, you would have died on December 23, instead of living.’ He never challenged me on it again.”
Two days before Christmas, December 23, 1985, two young men shot themselves in Reno, Nevada. One killed himself (Ray Belknap), the other (unintentionally) blew his face off and did not die that night (he died three years later from drug complications). His name was James Vance, and the above quote is from his mother.
Music affects us, no doubt. But to what extent?
English heavy metal band Judas Priest’s music, drugs and alcohol were present in the lives of the two young men who decided to use a shotgun that night on the church playground. Judas Priest wasn’t the only music in their lives, just the band they were specifically listening to (apparently a lot) that night.
Following the death of Belknap, the surviving Vance communicated to those closest to him that Judas Priest’s song, “Better By You Better Than Me,” had an impact on their decision to end their lives.
In a frantic and baseless response, the families filed a civil suit against Judas Priest and CBS Records, the band’s record label at the time, claiming the phrase “do it” is hidden within the song, “Better By You Better Than Me,” and that this caused the men to shoot themselves that night. The case went to trial in the summer of 1990 and was eventually dismissed.
Let’s assume the phrase “do it” was purposefully inserted into the song by Judas Priest. Would it even mean “kill yourself”? No, the lyrics to the song aren’t exactly uplifting, but I submit that even if “do it” was clearly present in the song, you can’t make the case that it would be to blame for someone’s self-inflicted death.
If you spend much time researching this story, you quickly see that both of these young men had troubled pasts, and current situations. They weren’t “terrible” people, but combined they had a history that is worth considering here, with plenty of family violence, legal run-ins, animal torture, etc.
Quarantining the cause of the suicides (or any other event) to an individual song is simply absurd.
Does art always deliver a positive social influence? Of course not. But is it the only catalyst to deliver life-altering action? No way.
There is always way more that has led to the moment. If Judas Priest’s “Better Than You Better Than Me,” without the alleged “do its” accompanying (because they’re not there), helped push Vance and Belknap over the edge, that is extremely sad and is no laughing matter.
But it makes no earthly sense to put the burden of such a horrific act on one work of art. It is nearly impossible to dissect the whole of our lives in such a way as to separate the compounding affect of time, and the residual implications it brings.
You can not look at the story of Vance and Belknap without looking at the whole of their histories.
Judas Priest puts into words and music what so many people have felt, feel and will continue to feel as long as earth exists in its current state. Not all can handle said content as well as others, but there’s still no reason to try and incriminate the messenger.
*Watch the documentary about this trial, “Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs Judas Priest.”