The first time someone explains to you what GWAR is, you might have a little trouble visualizing it. I know I did.
I was on my way to band practice and had stopped to pick up a pack of cigarettes at a gas station in what was then the far exurbs of Washington, D.C., when I bumped into my friend Dave from high school.
It was 1985 and I had just graduated a few months before. I was working as an apprentice carpenter, living at my parents’ house, and trying to become a rock star. Dave was four years older than me and living down in Richmond doing…something. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
“Hey, man!” I said. “What’s going on?”
We caught up a little bit, and then started talking about our respective bands. Dave had been the bass player/provocateur in a few bands when we were in school together (notably Nuclear Dog Shit and The Suburbans) with members of the band I was currently in.
“So, you’re playing with Shawn, right?” he asked me. Yep. “Like Stooges kind of stuff? Pistols-y shit?”
“Yeah, something like that. Pretty much. How about you? Is Death Piggy still happening?”
“Not really. We’re doing this new thing now. GWAR! It’s music and drama and we wear big costumes and kill monsters and squirt blood all over the place!”
“All right, man. That sounds cool.”
I didn’t want to think that it really was cool, because my band was dedicated to stripped-down punk rock with very little ornamentation, and I had convinced myself that that was the only way to be cool.
“I gotta go dude,” Dave said.
“Me too man. I’m already fuckin’ late for practice.”
I was trying to imagine what GWAR was like as I drove the rest of the way to our singer’s parents’ house. I planned out what I would tell my bandmates about bumping into Dave and his explanation of his silly project that was nothing like the stripped-down punk rock we were going to change the world with. We would all shake our heads and go, “Oh man. Fuckin’ Brockie.”
But part of me knew that GWAR was probably really cool. Really fucking cool and hilarious and exciting. Because that’s how Dave was.
Dave and I were only in school together for one year. He was a senior when I was in the eighth grade, in 1980-1981. We went to Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Virginia, one of the biggest in the state, with almost five thousand students from grades 7-12. It would have been easy to remain anonymous there, but Dave wasn’t interested in doing that, and neither was I.
I had come to Robinson from a tiny school at an overseas post my dad was assigned to, where I had been a big fish in a small pond. I was nobody at Robinson, which, along with my frustration at how the idiots at my new school couldn’t understand that despite my family having lived in the U.S.S.R. for the past two years we were not in fact “commies,” made me angry. Right before coming back to the States, I had heard the Sex Pistols on cassette from a kid who had lived in London, and it had blown my mind wide open. I wanted more of that stuff; forget about Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. So with my newfound anger, a brain that wanted more sneering and crunchy bar-chords, and the tutelage of an older kid in my neighborhood who didn’t go to Robinson or any other school as far as anyone could tell, I re-invented myself as a tiny punk rocker, replete with spiky hair, a dog collar, and a trench coat full of Sex Pistols buttons.
There were a handful of other punk rockers at Robinson. Like maybe ten. Ten out of five thousand.
A typical walk down the main concourse of our shopping mall of a school would involve the following: a full-force shoulder check and a grunted “fuckin’ sick” from Rusty Connelly, a greasy biker who had been repeating sophomore year for as long as anyone could remember; a chorus of “hey faggot!” from members of the football team, leaning over the mezzanine guardrail with their coach, who chuckled approvingly; and a wide berth from girls I had crushes on. The only non-punks who didn’t have a violent reaction to me were the black kids who banged out go-go beats on the trash cans just inside the doors of the smoking lounge, who would nod and say, “What’s up, punk-ee!”
Ah, the smoking lounge.
It was 1980, in Virginia, so of course the children were encouraged to smoke. In an outdoor courtyard, after second period, the cliques gathered in their respective territories: the freaks, the punks, and the grits. That’s where I gained acceptance, at least as a mascot or junior member, into the most reviled subculture in our school, the one that was the target for flicked cigarette butts, hurled milk cartons full of tempera paint from the art classes, and heartfelt but unimaginative verbal abuse.
Dave Brockie was definitely the leader of the punk tribe. He was the larger-than-life center of attention wherever he went, and if he was afraid of anything, he certainly didn’t show it. Something inspired all of us punks to continue our defiance in the face of the hatred and violence from our peers and the disgust and censure of the authorities, even while some of us might have preferred to keep our heads down. We could have lowered our profile; but instead, Dave went out of his way to provoke our enemies. I can’t speak for all the Robinson punk rockers of 1980, but if Dave hadn’t been around, I might have ignored the taunts of my classmates instead of giving it right back to them. I may have even worn the chinos and polo shirts I left the house with instead of the ripped up jeans and combat boots I threw out my bedroom window and changed into at the bus stop.
On a blog post he wrote for rvanews.com in 2009 (presciently titled “GWAR, Me, and the Onrushing Grip of Death), Dave related his perspective of the Grits vs. Punks Smoking Lounge Rumble of 1980, wherein Rusty the perpetual sophomore knocked one of our friends out cold and then fought Dave to a draw. Although somehow I missed the actual fight (as if I would have been any help at 5’3” and 110 pounds), I remember how I felt during the run-up to it. People weren’t predicting a beat-down for the punks. People were talking about how Brockie was going to rage. I was pumped. And although the “rumble” was broken up almost as soon as it started, he did us proud. We weren’t a joke, and it was because of him.
The next year, when I was a freshman, Dave and all of the other male punk rock kids had graduated and the only punks left in school were two sophomore girls and me. It was a tough year. I had grown a lot over the summer and wasn’t quite as easy of a target, and as a group we became much more reserved, which mitigated the abuse we suffered. We made it through the year mostly unscathed, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun.
A few months after my chance meeting with Dave at the gas station in 1985, he asked my band to play with GWAR in Richmond.
We showed up for the gig and set up our equipment. Most of GWAR’s gear was already assembled, and covered up with sheets that served as a backdrop to our performance. We had a great set, and the audience seemed to love us. In fact, there was an older dude there who was jumping around so much that his prosthetic leg fell off, after which he picked it up and swung it around as he continued his one-legged moshing. We thought we would be a hard act to follow.
Then the dry-ice machines started spewing fog, some recorded music rumbled from the amps, the sheets were yanked off to reveal a stage full of sets and props, and the guy we once knew as Dave emerged, dressed in fishnet stockings, a faux-fur loin cloth, and a spiked helmet and shoulder pads. He was playing a character—Oderus Urungus—that he would continue to develop for the next twenty-nine years.
Dave—Oderus—and his grotesque compatriots, all in cobbled-together, cartoonish monster costumes, belted out unintelligible lyrics to heavy thrash-metal guitar noise. Dave taunted the crowd with threats and obscenities, and finally soaked them with lurid synthetic bodily fluids. And they loved it. I loved it too, despite the act being at odds with my band’s aesthetic ethos. It reminded me of why Dave could always make people do things that weren’t necessarily in their best interests. He was all in, and it was fucking cool as shit, exciting, hilarious, and fun. It was beautiful.
My rock and roll dreams faded after a few years, and I went on to college, square jobs, and a family. I ran into Dave every now and then, and I saw GWAR perform several times, each show more elaborately disgusting and fun than the last one.
GWAR has a huge and rabid following, has sold millions of records and earned two Grammy nominations; but they never made enough money to buy things like houses or health insurance. Their guitarist, Cory Smoot, died on the GWAR tour bus from a heart condition in 2011. But Dave and his crew kept living the nightmare and probing the depths of depravity through their absurdist, folk-art horror-show.
I have to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of GWAR’s music; but nonetheless, I have immense respect for their uncompromising artistic integrity. I have kept abreast of Dave’s career for the last thirty years, and have always been eager to say “I know that dude” when anyone mentions GWAR. A lot of people I grew up with have achieved a great deal of success; some of them have made significant contributions to society; and a few of them have triumphed creatively. But Dave is the only person I’ve known—and probably one of the few people ever—who spent his life building a fully realized alternate reality around himself and welcoming anyone in who dared to enter.
I was lucky to have spent a little time in Dave’s nascent universe when we were kids; and even though it was too intense for me, I was fascinated and proud to see it thrive for so many years. That universe has gone cold and dark now, and the regular world is a lot less hilarious and a lot less fucking cool.