James Rickman plays in the band People Get Ready, whose second album Physiques is available via Brassland. He’s also a freelance writer and a contributing editor at Paper magazine. Follow PGR here and James here.
One freezing November afternoon in 2007, I was getting ready for a show in Williamsville, New York with a band I was in at the time when I learned that GWAR was playing in nearby Buffalo that night. Back in our mid-teens, my friends and I had devoted countless hours to GWAR’s albums Scumdogs of the Universe and America Must Be Destroyed, and I once sat squirming on a couch next to a girl I was in love with, watching Live from Antarctica — a concert film that features disembowelings, decapitations, and at least one hi-powered ejaculation — while her dad shuffled in and out of the room. But somehow I had never made it to a show.
I jumped into a stranger’s car after our set. Twenty minutes later, we were running across the lobby of the Town Ballroom and into an auditorium filled with green light, smoke, and bowel-quaking shralp. The band looked like half-melted, larger-than-life He-Man action figures, and they were surrounded by henchmen in loincloths wielding gigantic foam weapons. In the middle of it all, Oderus Urungus hunched over his mic, his bug-eyed phallus swinging between his fishnet-clad thighs. The vocals were low in the mix, but that phlegmy, surprisingly expressive gargle was still there.
Soon enough, George W. Bush came out. Oderus knocked his head off with a broadsword (muttering “I fucked up my cue” — W.’s canned monologue was still going) and the blood spurting from his neck almost reached me in the mezzanine. Next up was a Janus-like figure, if Janus had Jesus’ face on one side and Hitler’s on the other and a massive boner; it climaxed almost to the lights and all over the pit. There was a fetal Bam Margera, an obese man blasting blue stuff out of his ass, and a 10-foot-tall monster with a Star of David on its thorax. I got up front for the encore and, as they played “Maggots,” took a head-snapping blast of bin Laden blood to the face.
The house lights came on. I got busy trying to navigate around the puddles of bodily fluid on the dance floor and looking at the soaked T-shirts, the dripping hair, and the pink, shining faces — everybody smiling, if not all-out gaping like kids who’d just opened really awesome presents. I realized I was making the same dopey expression.
When I heard that Dave Brockie, the man behind Oderus, died this past March 23rd, I thought about that happy delirium we all seemed to share, briefly, before dispersing into the night. As someone with no stomach for horror, whose current band is about as far as you can get from intergalactic gore-core, I have to ask: why does that show stick out as one of the most life-affirming I’ve ever seen?
An easy explanation is that GWAR is just plain funny. It isn’t as much the cartoonish violence as it is the abrupt shifts away from that violence — the way Brockie’s tone could flash between Captain Beefheart, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Axl Rose, and Higgins from Magnum, P.I. And as articulate as they were when they needed to be (e.g. minute 27 in this Jerry Springer episode), GWAR were also masters of Spinal Tap-grade boneheadedness. “The Salaminizer” ends with Brockie thundering, “This deli tray is UNACCEPTABLE!”
Then there’s the fact that, despite the New Yorker calling them a “band” — with the word “band” actually in quotes — and their albums “dismissible,” GWAR knew how to write wildly catchy songs. Consider the deep cuts “The Horror of Yig,” “King Queen” and “Gilded Lily,” or the more recent “Hail, Genocide.” Revisiting Scumdogs and America this week, I find two solid, satisfying albums — spitting distance from the best pre-Nevermind guitar stuff, but with giant fabricated cocks instead of unhinged male egos.
Finally, getting back to that night in Buffalo, there was a sense that the thousand-or-so of us, although mostly strangers to each other, were united by something the vast majority of the world either didn’t know about or really didn’t want to know about. This gave GWAR an edge over more palatable bands: if we all liked something this aberrant, maybe we had other things in common.
And the fact that ultraviolence can lead to feelings of love for your fellow human has the effect of redoubling those feelings: it suggests that we are very complicated, very messed-up creatures, but that sometimes we can find each other through that messiness — because of it. I’m glad Dave Brockie had 30 years to share those horrifically happy stirrings with us.
I said that my band couldn’t be more different from GWAR. That’s not quite right. When we play shows, we want to wake people up, make them move, build a little tent of noise that we can all huddle under for a little while. Whatever planet Oderus and the Scumdogs were from, I don’t think it’s that far from here.