PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- I never got to meet or have a conversation with Dave Brockie, but I've spoken with his alter ego Oderus Urungus at length. He's nothing if not committed.
Five years ago, while writing for the Boston Herald, I managed to sneak a pitch for an interview with the GWAR lead singer into a pile of other ideas that were mostly onion layers. The plan was to have my editor peel back all the other wilted, rotting refuse and leave the GWAR interview. By comparison, a chat with Virginia Commonwealth University art school graduates in grotesque rubber alien costumes who spray their audiences with gallons of fake bodily fluid beat out yet another unsigned folk rock act playing near Faneuil Hall... because of course it did.
When it was announced earlier this week that Brockie had died unexpectedly at age 50, it made me grateful to have spoken to him in any capacity, but especially with him in character as Oderus for the better part of an hour. That interview is locked behind the Herald's online paywall, but represented perhaps the most tame five minutes of a talk that ranged from ziggurats of severed police heads to shooting heroin into his giant phallus to his defiling of Joan Rivers. There was no letup or break in his facade, just a expletive-laden lesson about the collision of art and commerce: The art has to hit first, otherwise it's going to be a blood-soaked mess.
During a period in music that features Kanye West reinventing himself as hip-hop's Lou Reed and Lada Gaga evoking Karen Finley at South By Southwest (and trying to make the her substance match the hype), would-be art rockers are treating the art as a secondary ingredient. As David Byrne, Anne "St. Vincent" Clark, Wire, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and even Tool discovered, the artistic side of "art rock," "art pop" or whatever name you feel comfortable slapping on it has to be right at the top of the recipe.
In GWAR's case, the theatrics of their rubber-suited metal band of lecherous, debaucherous interplanetary invaders began 30 years ago as a skit. GWAR's founding members initially played together as Death Piggy in an old Richmond bottling-plant-turned-performance-space. Their shows were punctuated by brief little set pieces featuring a band of space barbarians from Antarctica called "Gwaaarrrgghhlllgh." That fake band was supposed to star in a student film called "Scumdogs of the Universe" and had an entire prop shop called "The Slave Pit" dedicated to its costumes and set pieces. When crowds started going nuts for the aliens and walking out on Death Piggy, GWAR was formed.
The GWAR live show became stuff of legend. Audience members were fed to monsters onstage. The crowd was doused in fake blood, puss and other less savory fake fluids. On Memorial Day weekend in 1995 -- large portions of which were spent watching GWAR's skit-and-music-video-filled VHS video compilations Skulhedface and Phallus In Wonderland and listening to their albums This Toilet Earth and Ragnarok -- a group of friends and I piled into a buddy's used Chevy Cavalier and drove from our vacation house in Wildwood, N.J., to The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., just to see them perform.
This was right around the time that GWAR was starting to make the switch from little underground in-joke to legit punk-metal crossover band. They'd had a brief brush with fame after a spot on Fox's Joan Rivers Show in 1990, but by 1995 they'd make a cameo appearance in the Liv Tyler/Renee Zellweger cult classic Empire Records. Their videos for Sick Of You and Gor Gor had become guilty afterschool indulgences on video request network The Box, while MTV gave their video for Jack The World their highest metal honor of all by giving it the "this rules" treatment on Beavis and Butthead.
According to a sprawling GWAR profile that ran in Decibel back in 2010, the increased notoriety and growing metal fanbase took some getting used to. Consider this take from GWAR costume designer and historian Bob Gorman.
About the time that we really went past the punk rock art-school kids who understood us to the crazy meathead crowd, we were playing 1,500- and 2,000-seaters, but we still didn't have barricades. And the whole GWAR show gets people so excited that there's this suspension of disbelief, like, "They're really killing people! This is awesome!' So, people would get up there and f--- with us. By '92, it turned into a wave of people getting onstage to try and steal props, to knock the guy in the dinosaur suit over, or whatever. Instead of us doing what normal people do -- which is, you know, pay for barricades -- we decided to fight 'em. But really, we didn't even know there was a choice. We thought it was our job to stop people, when in reality we could have paid for security. So, it was ugly. It was fights, every night, all night long. We didn't get barricades until '94.
When we saw them in 1995, barricades and security were firmly in place. Their opening acts were 15th-tier Jersey hardcore bands whose fans couldn't cut it in the pits at Madball and Gorilla Biscuits shows and, instead, got their kicks shoving around Rutgers underclassmen who'd made the mistake of standing just in front of the building's view-obstructing support posts before the main act was on. Far from the glossy, memorabilia-covered de facto Springsteen museum it is today, the Stone Pony was a decrepit black box with floor-to-ceiling chain link fences separating the stage from the bar area. It was a place where elbows flew and spin-kicking kids from the suburbs fled as soon as the set ended, less they be subject to the far more consequential violence in the Asbury Park beyond the club's doors.
But when Gwar came on, the crowd that surged forward for Sick of You and undulated during the ensuing push-and-pull calmed a bit once the blood began flying. By the time GWAR's Slymenstra Hymen gave birth to an alien love child on stage and coated the crowd in fake vomit and afterbirth, about three quarters of the room had stopped just to gawk at it all -- and to realize there was just about no way they were ever wearing the clothes on their backs again. It wasn't punk and it wasn't metal, but Ziggy Stardust, KISS' Demon and Karen Finley combined couldn't have produced a work of performance art of that caliber.
It was sensory overload, and it was no surprise that GWAR powered through metal's meltdown at the end of the '90s and through its popular resurgence in the 2000s. Oderus checked in on The Jerry Springer Show, became a late-night Fox News pundit and read Good Night Moon to the world's children on Loudwire. They sneak into music culture through its smallest fissures and turn seemingly benign A.V. Club covers of Billy Ocean's Get Into My Car and Kansas' Carry On Wayward Son into instant memes.
GWAR and Brockie succeeded because their creativity, vulgarity and weirdness preceded their fame. They didn't release Bad Romance or Gold Digger and then bank a hard left turn into Rubber-Penis-and-Dinosaur Town. They didn't sign a whole bunch of endorsement deals with Polaroid, Virgin Mobile and Nike before throwing tantrums because people refuse to take them seriously as artists. They didn't skip the Andy Warhol Factory years, go directly to Walk On The Wild Side, and then double back and ask for directions to some artistic credibility.
The folks behind GWAR realized long ago that you can't be the David Byrne with all the '80s Talking Heads hits and movie cameos if, at your core, you're not willing to toil in relative New Wave obscurity before hand or work on turning buildings into musical instruments afterward. They've realized that, in a Metallica/Lou Reed team-up project, you don't want to be the arena-filling, super serious popular metal act, but the established avant pop artist who has nothing to lose by taking chances.
As Dave Brockie and Oderus taught anyone who was listening, the best and only way to be a true performance artist is to be true to the art you're performing. Be original, be consistent and be wary of those who tell you to conform your craft to the culture. If the work and message is strong enough, the culture will come to you and soak in every disgusting drop you throw at it.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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