August 11, 2001

Combating AIDS on a Metal Band Tour

By DAVID JAY LASKY from the New York Times


Chris Abrego dispensing AIDS information at a table at the Ozzfest 2001 tour stop in Camden, N.J.


When Ozzfest 2001 rolls into PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., today for the last two concerts of its summer tour, all the usual suspects will be there amid the nose rings, tongue rings, lip rings and tattoos. The event will include headliners like Marilyn Manson, groups like Pure Rubbish and all-around crowd-pleasers like the master of ceremonies, the Reverend B. Dangerous, who on the tour's swing last month through Camden, N.J., stapled his shirt to his tongue to great acclaim.

In the sea of black-clad audience members, though, there will be a less ostentatious member of the tour, Chris Abrego, a pierce-lipped 23- year-old resident of Bayside, Queens, who hands out condoms and pamphlets and talks to metal fans about AIDS. This is the second year Mr. Abrego has crossed the country with Ozzfest, living with the tour crew and setting up a stand at each of 40 concerts to answer questions about safe sex, distribute free condoms supplied by Trojan Brand Condoms and refer people to volunteers from local organizations for AIDS testing and treatment.

His work is part of a $2 million annual effort by the music industry and various recording artists to combat the spread of this disease. Its focus is Lifebeat: the Music Industry Fights AIDS, an organization established nine years ago that sends people like Mr. Abrego on the road with summer tours and musical festivals or has them appear with traveling acts at several locations. Scores of performers, from Tony Bennett to Outkast and 'N Sync, are cooperating with the effort. Ozzie Osbourne, Ozzfest's guiding light and the source of its name, adds a 25-cent surcharge to his ticket prices to support the group.

"This is a generation that thinks AIDS is very easy to manage they don't see it as a death sentence," said Sonya Lockett, Lifebeat's communications director, who believes that AIDS outreach programs are not directed at the 13- to 24-year-olds at the core of the Ozzfest audience as much as they are at younger and older age groups. "But these teens listen to and are heavily influenced by the music."

Which is where Mssrs. Osbourne and Abrego come in. While Mr. Osbourne supplies the milieu, Mr. Abrego answers questions from concertgoers.

"Sometimes they're shy, but they can easily relate to me," he said. "I answer all questions, even if they're stupid."

Among the typical ones Mr. Abrego hears are: "Can I get AIDS from kissing?" "Can I play sports with someone who has AIDS?" and "Can you get AIDS from a toilet?"

Sometimes people will come by and tell him that they lost a best friend, sibling or parent to AIDS.

Among metal heads, Mr. Abrego seems to pass muster. At a recent tour date in Virginia Beach, Kelly Matthews, 19, who works at a Gap outlet, said that health education in school was poor. "I'm more receptive to him because he's around my age," she said. "He's down to earth."

Stacey Buchanan, 21, who works as a saleswoman in a clothing store in Virginia Beach, credited him with creating "a good atmosphere and a good vibe."

Mr. Abrego came to this work after AIDS touched his own family. His stepfather died of it several years ago, a loss that particularly affected his younger brother, who was 6 at the time. Shortly after graduating from Queensborough Community College three years ago, Mr. Abrego was drawn to Lifebeat by his girlfriend, Danica Kirschenbaum, who worked for the group as a volunteer. He became one as well, and after several days of training, including instruction from doctors, social workers and representatives of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, he was sent out on salary with the heavy metal Sno- Core tour, which featured bands like Fear Factory, Kittie and Slaves on Dope.

He finds that there is a better understanding of the threat of unsafe sex in New York and Los Angeles than in the heartland, where there is an attitude that "it won't happen to me because I'm not gay," he said. In many parts of the Midwest, he observed, he had to work doubly hard to reach people, even if they were fans of the same music. But he still thinks he connects with them more often than "a 45-year-old guy who works for the board of health."

"The fans are not going to listen to their teachers or guidance counselors," he said. "They will listen to Papa Roach or Ozzie Osbourne at the concert or on the public service announcements. It becomes part of their psyche. It hopefully empowers them to make smart decisions."