[1 April 2014]
I first came into contact with GWAR when I was about 13 years old. This would have been about 1993 when my friends and I somehow came across a copy of GWAR’s album America Must Be Destroyed in the only record store in the small town in Northern California where I grew up. This was the high era of grunge, and the music that we were listening to took itself very seriously. Like so many young kids, we looked to popular music for examples of the kinds of people we wanted to be. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins suggested the possibility of channeling our feelings of awkward pre-teen alienation into something cool, or at least fashionable.
GWAR offers something very different, and in retrospect, something far more significant. GWAR offers a hyper-transgressive, Dionysian celebration of chaos caught up in an endless funhouse mirror maze of irony, playfulness, and often very serious social satire. GWAR presents an image of unbridled, demonic violence taken to completely absurd, nihilistic proportions. The band takes the violence that contemporary American culture celebrates and forces its listeners/viewers to experience, in the words of William S. Burroughs, “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. GWAR satirize the violence of American culture in such a way that it becomes inescapable; the obscene, militaristic hypocrisy of the Bush/Reagan years is hung out for everyone to see, blood-spattered and unavoidable. Indeed, GWAR is really about obscenity in all its forms.
Dave Brockie, AKA Oderus Urungus, Scumdog of the Universe, and frontman of GWAR, was found dead in his home on the evening of Sunday March 23rd, 2014. The reasons for his death are still unconfirmed at the time of this writing. Brockie was the driving creative force behind GWAR, one of its only real constants in a revolving cast of musicians, puppeteers, set designers, costume builders, and various other artists that made the act probably the most entertaining live show this side of ancient Rome. Brockie “played” the character of Oderus Urungus, although I am not totally comfortable describing Oderus as simply a character in a stage show. Oderus was an alter-ego and a metaphor; a blood-spraying, crack-smoking, monster-raping, force of unholy nature who would never let us forget just how stupid and pathetic humans really are. Oderus Urungus does not ask us—he forces us to take a good hard look at our most atavistic desires and most sadistic impulses. GWAR is an absurdist parody of every narcissistic MMA fighter beating someone’s brains in while his fans scream for more blood. GWAR is the reflected image in the rear-view mirror of every horror hungry rubbernecker slowing down to get a good look at the carnage on the highway. Dave Brockie and his merry band of intergalactic degenerates made a career out of mocking America’s most vicious appetites and fascistic power fantasies.
Just a few months prior to Brockie’s untimely death, I had the acute pleasure of interviewing the mighty Oderus Urungus. Mind you, it was Oderus Urungus that I interviewed, not Dave Brockie; he did not break character for a moment and threatened me with violence several times. I asked this hyper-violent, ageless space creature about the purpose of violence in GWAR’s music and performances and he responded in the following way:
Oderus Urungus: I hope that it encourages it. In our own way it is a crude metaphor when we drag the pope out on stage and rip his guts out. It is, in a sense, an incitement of the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, but it is also us having dinner… let’s not forget that… the connection between the two is both clear, and completely murky… so I don’t know…those GWAR fans out there, they inflict great violence upon themselves and each other during the shows, but once they are done with the shows, I think they go out there and they are just a bunch of teddy bears… So I don’t really understand what’s happening… We are trying to encourage you people to kill each other but GWAR fans seem so happy… I’ve got to start just being meaner to you people… more awful…
BHO: You have to find ways to make us more legitimately violent, and stop achieving this kind of catharsis?
OU: Yes! Quite frankly, the catharsis is blowing my mind.
GWAR shows were indeed cathartic and euphoric; a baptism in gallons of fake blood and Lovecraftian burlesque. I feel genuinely sorry for people who never had the chance to see GWAR perform live. There was nothing quite as entertaining, joyous, and gleeful as watching Oderus Urungus feed a pantomime Sarah Palin or Bill Clinton to a giant, world-consuming maggot while thousands of kids, soaked head to toe in fake blood, screamed with approval.
Like metal culture more generally, GWAR constantly deconstructs masculinity, exposing the hyper-macho absurdity of the narcissistic “He-Man” athlete or rock star. I asked Oderus about this during our interview:
BHO: Are you a particularly macho creature, or are you beyond petty human gender roles?
OU: Oh certainly beyond petty human gender roles, but at the same time, selfishly, even slavishly devoted to my own persona. Any type of praise or compliment, I receive well. Therefore, I would have to say, being an overtly masculine creature, even though I have a pussy in my chin, I involve and imbibe and endow and bestow upon you all of the greatest things about being a shit-kicking male. Obviously we are the best at whatever we do.
BHO: Is GWAR mocking masculinity or embracing masculinity, or both?
OU: Both. We are mocking it, the way that you humans do it, because you look so stupid when you do. But at the same time we are embodying it with our own gestures and showing you how it’s done, so to speak. We are the immaculate and perfect masculine force, and when humans do it you just suck. Not to say, that there are not some humans that rise above the pack and shine, they shine like a little star for a time. Some men, like Mr. T… men like Charles Bronson… but ultimately they must be consumed into corruption.
As the above response illustrates, Oderus (and Dave Brockie) was very conscious of the ways in which GWAR satirize masculinity. The concept of performance always takes center stage with GWAR, and the performance of masculinity in particular. Oderus Urungus was the embodiment of the ultimate strutting, muscle-flexing, narcissistic dude-bro; so roided-out and pumped up that he can’t stop himself from tearing the world apart. The ridiculousness and artificiality of masculinity is impossible to ignore with GWAR, and that is exactly the point.
Like other great examples of postmodern American art, GWAR is hilarious and devilishly entertaining, while simultaneously forcing us to confront something that is deeply wrong with our culture. There is a genuine sense of anxiety in GWAR’s music, aesthetics, and performances that runs much more deeply than the band’s scatological silliness and hyper-violent excess. Brockie consistently returned to one basic question throughout GWAR’s career: who has power, and over whom do they wield it? Censorship and the insidious power of those who would claim moral authority over others, is as much a part of GWAR’s art as their deconstruction of violence. I asked Oderus about his attitude towards censorship during our interview:
BHO: Recently I took the time to revisit your 1992 film Phallus in Wonderland, which chronicles GWAR’s struggle with Granbo and the Morality Squad. Do you feel that the Morality Squad and their spiritual and ideological brethren have become stronger or weaker since GWAR defeated them in the early ‘90s? As you see it, what is the state of censorship and moral crusades in America in the year 2013?
OU: Well that’s just another example of what I am talking about. As soon as GWAR came on the scene, censorship got bigger than ever. You know, they saw the face of the beast at that point, and ever since then the elements of… even though we defeated Granbo and the Morality Squad in battle, truly, they have gone on to other more subversive ways. Their numbers have swollen, and swelled also… and become swullled… there are more of these creatures than ever, and that is also very good, in a very bad way for the human race… because your life is basically doomed… things will continue into a state of controlled idiocy…
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when GWAR rampaged into public American consciousness, there were many very powerful people who were very serious about banning metal and accusing anyone associated with it of everything from murder, to child abuse, to satanic conspiracy. The West Memphis Three spent decades in prison for listening to Metallica in the state of Arkansas, and Judas Priest was put on trial in civil court because a few demented lawyers heard satanic messages in the group’s records when they played them backwards. GWAR baited, mocked, and decapitated in effigy the paranoid, fascistic lunatics behind the anti-metal moral crusades of this period. In doing so, it was an important part of the process of delegitimization that prevented the moral crusaders of this period from succeeding in their witch hunts.
Brockie forced those of us lucky enough to be exposed to GWAR to take absurdity very seriously. GWAR is playful and endlessly fun, but they are more than just a joke. GWAR is popular performance art of the best kind that can be enjoyed and understood on multiple levels. I am deeply grateful to have been given the opportunity to have had a conversation with Oderus/Brockie while I still had the chance. I am even more grateful for all of the times that I have seen GWAR live, experiencing the group in all of its blood-soaked Wagnerian glory. I will be listening to its records, watching its movies and videos, and exchanging stories about different live shows with other fans for the rest of my life. There is nothing that I can say here to properly thank Dave Brockie for all of that; for all of the blood, laughter, and happiness that he brought to me and to millions of others during his too-brief life. News of his death broke just a few days ago and I have been in mourning ever since. A quote from the funeral of Beowulf seems appropriate in expressing how I and many, many others have been feeling this week:
“The twelve warriors rode around the tomb
Chiefton’s sons, champions in battle
All of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
Mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic exploits
And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
For a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
And cherish his memory when that moment comes
When he has to be conveyed to his bodily home.”
Dave Brockie was an artist and a hero. He scared the hell out of self-righteous, puritanical, right-wingers; people who would have obliterated everything good about American culture long ago if they were allowed to have their way. He gave hope to countless kids all over the world, suggesting to them that maybe creativity, humor, and heavy metal might be infinitely more powerful than the stultifying, small-minded idiocy that they saw all around them. Dave Brockie is no longer with us, but his legacy continues. I look forward to raising a glass with him one day in Valhalla.