Photo by Ash Daniel
This summer, a strange thing happened in Germany. Two months after his death, Michael Jackson appeared in front of 85,000 screaming fans at the Wacken heavy-metal music festival. It wasn't a miracle. It wasn't a touching tribute. It was something much, much worse.
Jackson was a special guest of GWAR.
Historically, bad things happen to special guests of GWAR. And that night proved no different. After watching a few sloppy moonwalk attempts, GWAR's lead singer, Oderus Urungus, ripped Michael Jackson's face off.
While a faceless, skull-headed King of Pop stumbled around the stage, spewing blood like a garden hose from his mouth, the band thundered into "Let Us Slay" from its new album.
The schlock-metal superstars known as GWAR have been in the business of rocking hard and spilling fake blood for 25 years. What started as an experiment in punk performance art has since evolved into Richmond's most unlikely small-business success story.
That's bad news for those who hoped GWAR would just slither back under the rock whence it came. Even worse is that the twisted musical minds behind timeless tunes like "Maggots," "Slaughterama" and "America Must Be Destroyed" seem to be on a roll.
The band's 11th full-length album, Lust in Space, was released in August and posted a first-ever showing on the Billboard Top 200 (it bowed at 96). And the band hit the road last month for its fall tour, including 20 dates with fellow Richmonders Lamb of God.
The significance of their silver anniversary isn't lost on the members of GWAR. In fact, they're counting on using its momentum to get them up and over the wall of relatively obscure worldwide infamy to the bigger and better things on the other side. For the group once treated as a public nuisance, the next two years might be their best chance at becoming "Scumdog Millionaires."
Depending on whom you ask, GWAR is either the greatest thing ever conceived in our fair city or the most reprehensible. There's no middle ground when dealing with five grown men who dress like H.P. Lovecraft's version of the Village People.
"We'll always be Richmond's pride and shame," says Dave Brockie, the founding member better known as Oderus Urungus.
Each member is a different character, masked and swaddled in demonic armor, embellished with spikes, horns and various fierce accessories. Oderus' appendage, better known as the "Cuttlefish of Cthulu," earned him a night in a Charlotte, N.C., jail on obscenity charges in 1990.
The red-faced guy with triceratops shoulder pads is lead guitarist Flattus Maximus (Cory Smoot). The thing with the metal jaws is rhythm guitarist Balsac, the Jaws of Death (Mike Derks). Bassist Beefcake the Mighty (Casey Orr) looks like a husky gladiator with a spiky helmet, and the snarling, dog-headed drummer is Jizmak Da Gusha (Brad Roberts).
A GWAR live show is a vulgar circus of indecency, bawdiness and bad taste. On stage, in between the head-nodding sonic assault, they do a lot of goofy, gory theatrics that play like the Power Rangers meets Quentin Tarantino, taking no prisoners.
Not even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are above a good beheading.
A Happy Explosion
The mythology of GWAR purports that the band was created billions of years ago and sent to Earth. After misbehaving, they were frozen in Antarctic ice for eons. But thanks to the rise of glam rock, hairspray fumes created a hole in the ozone layer, which helped melt the iceberg that imprisoned GWAR and set them loose on an unsuspecting world.
Despite the official mythos, they were actually conceived much closer to home: the city of Richmond. The concept was born in the fertile imaginations of a group of VCU art students and punk-rock musicians in 1985.
"Richmond is the biggest reason that GWAR exists," says Brockie. "If it hadn't been for the support we got from Richmond, we wouldn't have been able to do it."
The ultra-condensed history goes something like this: Brockie had a band called Death Piggy. Hunter Jackson and Chuck Varga were making a no-budget alien movie called Scumdogs of the Universe. When their respective worlds collided inside the Petri dish of the Richmond Dairy building, a mutant strain of rock band and sideshow emerged.
According to Brockie, Virginia Commonwealth University deserves some credit (or blame). GWAR's infamous Halloween show in 1986 was a crucial early gig that gave the band hope. "If VCU hadn't paid us $750 to play Shafer Court … we probably wouldn't have gone a step further."
Though Brockie was convinced that GWAR was "something the human race needed," the city didn't always agree. Once banned from performing in their own hometown, the relationship between the former Capital of the Confederacy and the Scumdogs of the Universe hasn't always been chummy.
"There's a strange, quirky nature of this town. … It's kind of a land that time forgot," says Brockie. "But if it wasn't for [the city's] complete head-up-its-ass attitude, we wouldn't have had something to hate about it … something that made us want to fight."
How to Succeed in Business
In 1992, GWAR became a private corporation. The band is hesitant to discuss financial specifics, but Brockie describes the band's income as "above poverty." He adds, "We're certainly not getting rich."
Nevertheless, the band takes its business seriously, holding weekly meetings to discuss strategy in intermittent corporate speak.
"We're much too weird and complicated a business," says Bob Gorman, a 22-year veteran and the closest GWAR has to a shop foreman. "We're the punk-rock Disney."
GWAR the company (corporately known as Slave Pit Inc.) is divided into two camps: musicians and artists. The musicians wear the most elaborate costumes and make all the noise onstage. The artists, who sometimes serve as onstage slaves, work on costumes and stagecraft.
An average year for GWAR involves a couple of tours, some recording and occasional film and video work.
The mobile GWAR army usually numbers 15, which includes the musicians, slaves and various tech crew. Besides the tour-bus driver, they pay a trucker to haul a trailer loaded with stage equipment. Setup takes hours every night.
It's a rollercoaster schedule of insanely busy peaks and deathly quiet valleys. Most members work other jobs to supplement the slow periods.
"If we got paid for everything we did, there would be no money to keep the lights on," says Gorman.
Fellow Slave Pit artist Matt Maguire concurs, "Everybody here wears about a 20 bazillion hats."
"We're a commune with an agenda," adds Brad Roberts (aka Jizmak).
These days, the behind-the-scenes magic happens on a weedy stretch of Hull Street. The storefront windows of GWAR's headquarters are boarded over, and the adjacent parking lot glistens with broken glass. The only signage is the address scrawled in Sharpie across the plain wooden door.
Inside are hacked-up foam torsos, loose limbs and what looks like someone's entire circulatory system draped over the back of a chair. Huge blood tanks sit full, waiting to be spewed onto the virginal white T-shirts of front-row fans.
In July, the entire band was flown out to perform at the San Diego Comic Convention. A week later, GWAR played for its largest audience at the Wacken metal festival in Germany.
And most unusual is that the fearsome face of Oderus Urungus has been appearing regularly as the "Interstellar Correspondent" on Red Eye, a late-night talk show on the Fox News Channel.
"I can honestly say in all my years of being in GWAR, it's the most interesting and exciting time that I can remember," says Brockie, who plans to stretch the 25-year-anniversary celebration over two years.
"I think it affords GWAR the best opportunity yet to get a level of major success that has been denied to us for all these years."
This isn't the first time that GWAR has seemed perched on the edge of greatness.
Back in 1991, the band began its seep into the pop-culture consciousness with an appearance in the big-screen Ethan Hawke comedy Mystery Date. In 1992, their long-form music video "Phallus in Wonderland" was nominated for a Grammy. In 1996, they were nominated again for Best Metal Performance. Neither nomination boosted album sales or translated into wider success. (former member Hunter Jackson once quipped that the Grammy nod "didn't so much raise the status of GWAR as it lowered the status of the Grammys.")
Brockie feels that this time is different. And it's exciting because financial success doesn't mean that GWAR would do anything different, it would just make doing what they do a heck of a lot easier.
First on the list when the windfall comes is health insurance.
"It's becoming an imperative because straight up, people are just getting older," says Brockie. But he notes that chasing the paycheck was never really part of the plan.
"We get to do what we love, and we actually get paid for it," he says. "I think of all the artists and all the musicians, all the frustrated ones, who for whatever reason will spend their life trying to get their art and their music noticed and will never get anywhere with it. The fact that we have that ability is something I never, ever take for granted."
And if a group of musicians and artists can make their gravy by building monsters, dinosaurs and a foam rubber Paris Hilton that spurts like a bloody fireplug, it offers proof that anything is possible.