Shock rockers GWAR inspire civic pride, fake blood and all
Immediately upon moving to Richmond, Virginia, 15 years ago, I found myself pleasantly surprised by my neighbors’ . . . pleasantries. To this relocated northerner, the daily courtesies and door-holding chivalry of the South were a delightful novelty. But I simply wasn’t prepared for the overly friendly postal clerk who struck up a conversation on my first visit to buy stamps.
“Hey, have you seen GWAR?” he asked with suspicious enthusiasm, as if recommending a new exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints. It took a moment to realize he meant the sci-fi/thrash-metal/horror/novelty rock band I had, until that very second, figured for an obscure underground secret.
“Ah. No. Not yet.”
“Oh, I think they’re just great,” he said, with that royal Virginia drawl I found so amusing. The clerk had to be in his 50s—and not the cool, hippie kind of 50s, either. There was no rational way he could have known about GWAR.
“Their warehouse is just a block away,” he added. “Aren’t they great?”
Hometown pride, of course, works with whatever it can get. My hometown of Albany, New York, celebrated an oversized statue of Nipper the RCA dog until the late 1960s, when the governor added a massive concrete egg to the skyline. When I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, I learned of fierce local loyalty to the giant aluminum cockroach that greets arrivals on Interstate 95. Living now in California, I find that my neighbors must content themselves with fabulous beaches, a movie-star governor and the planet’s eighth-largest economy; you make do with what you have.
During the Civil War, Richmond served as the capital of a certain rival country, and can thus claim something unique among all American cities: monuments to an alternate future. Not just one, but lots of them—street after street of Confederate statues and columns and mausoleums. From certain angles, the statuary is otherworldly, maybe even alternate-dimensional. It almost makes sense that such a city would celebrate a collection of gigantic, guitar-playing, costumed monster freaks.
It is a bit weird, however, to link your civic pride to a band whose public nudity, fire demonstrations and mock executions have gotten them in hot water with many different lawmen in many different jurisdictions. After 1990’s Scumdogs of the Universe LP, their performances and arrests, both real and rumored, earned the band national notoriety. Following in the tradition of France’s Grand Guignol theater, GWAR shows became known as a good place to get showered with fake blood. The band’s banishment from neighboring North Carolina (the entire state) inspired 1992’s America Must Be Destroyed album. Meanwhile, one writer for the local Times Dispatch—the ultraconservative and onetime pro-segregation bastion—has dubbed the group “Richmond Representatives.” This seems to push town pride to the extreme, up to and beyond Baltimore’s embrace of John Waters or Dublin’s full-throated (though posthumous) acceptance of James Joyce.
When televangelist Jim Bakker was arrested for fraud in 1989, he briefly went insane and claimed that giant insects were waiting outside the courthouse to “get” him. Visiting North Carolina several years later, I met two guys who lived just a few blocks from that courthouse, and they told me of their scheme to build giant papier-mâché insect costumes and parade in front of his holding-cell window. Whenever I think of this story, my mind inevitably wanders to GWAR, and I find myself wondering: Have those giant, scary getups ever pushed an audience member over the brink of sanity? It must have happened. Their costumes, magnificent and terrifying, are stunning works of artisan craftsmanship. Why settle for Metallica, who only sing Lovecraft-inspired lyrics, when you can actually see Lovecraftian monsters onstage?
In all my years in Richmond, I heard much talk of that fabled warehouse. But I was never able to figure out exactly where it was. It was always one street over, down a certain alley. It was like the Flying Dutchman. One day, the drummer in my own band arrived for practice with a severed human leg. It was made of foam latex and had a cartoony femur popping up from the bloody stump.
“Guess who gave me this?” he asked. “Did you know their warehouse is just around the corner?”
I never did get to see GWAR.
GWAR perform with with Kingdom Sorrow and Toxic Holocaust at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Fri., 7 p.m. $20-$23. ALL AGES.