There’s one headline I never thought I’d write. Not because one actually thought Dave Brockie — the man who spent the past thirty years known better to the world as the malevolent Scumdog Oderus Urungus — was actually immortal. But simply because if anyone were to ask me, I’d guess that Gwar would have ended somewhere down the line when the group’s members called it quits well before any of them died, the outlandish characters retired in some way that wrapped up the squealingly fun mythos and left a compendium of solid thrash metal behind.
Maybe the end of the Gwar saga would have been a return to their home planet. Maybe the characters would have all died in some hilariously gory episode. Or maybe climate change would have finally melted Antarctica and drowned the Scumdogs’ Earth base. Now we’ll never know. Because in real life, Brockie is dead of some boringly natural cause.
Make no mistake, this is probably the biggest loss for heavy metal since at least the death of Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman last year. Of course, Gwar always had an impressive array of excellent musicians through its various lineups over the years, people who were always able to seriously shred even underneath the schlocky costumes. We were never allowed to forget that at the end of it all this was just good thrash. But it made a difference that the consistent center of it all, balancing the shock and the rock, was Oderus: magnetic, disgusting, hysterically funny.
Former Gwar bassist Mike Bishop (a.k.a. the original “Beefcake the Mighty”) described Brockie: “He was brash sometimes, always crass, irreverent, he was hilarious in every way. But he was also deeply intelligent and interested in life, history, politics and art.”
Thirty years ago it was still possible to talk about “shock rock” in a way worthy of the title. Nowadays, not so much. Want to see someone get their flesh ripped off? Why pay for a ticket to a Gwar show when you can just watch “The Walking Dead”? Given that, it’s rather impressive that Gwar have managed to stay at least somewhat relevant since the early ‘90s, well after the whole concept of shock rock started to lose its potency. I have no special insight into why that is, except to say that maybe Brockie was able to keep it up for so long because he understood that there’s actually something very heady and artistic behind it all.
There’s a story told about Alice Cooper and Groucho Marx, who believe it or not used to hang out before the latter’s death. Keep in mind that back in the ‘70s Cooper’s music and performances legitimately horrified uptight conservative Christian types. Marx, however, according to Cooper, “came to the show and said, ‘Oh, vaudeville.’ Before that everybody said ‘shock rock,’ and ‘theatrical rock’ and ‘glam rock.’ When Groucho said, ‘vaudeville,’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what it is.’”
On some level, Brockie understood this. Today, Cooper is himself a conservative and I’d imagine that there are plenty of Tea Partiers out there who think nothing of listening to Ozzy or Metallica. How do you manage to shock the senses in the midst of this? Well, part of it has to do with keeping the satire and fun front and center. Anyone who thinks that this is substantively different from vaudeville or burlesque needs to come back to Earth. Part of Gwar’s charm has always been that they seemed to be poking fun just as much at the self-serious darkness of metal itself just as much as those who were outraged by it.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s it seemed that every daytime talk show had its “offensive music” episode, pitting concerned parents against over-the-top musicians. Marilyn Manson appeared on “The Phil Donahue Show.” Oprah Winfrey had on Ice-T. In 1997, just as the moralistic “Satanic panic” was starting to run out of gas in the mainstream, Gwar appeared on Jerry Springer. As if to prove that the outrage at the spectacle had itself become spectacle.
That’s the crux of it all; that in good art and good music, seriousness is often found in the most irreverent behavior. Some might call this a rather postmodern takeaway. I happen to think it’s just an essential element of any non-realist artistic outlook going all the way back to Dada and even before. What distinguishes the two views is that the latter has at its very core a kernel of genuine, unmanufactured sincerity from which the sendup grows. It’s not the slimy costumes or gory performances that are absurd; it’s that we live in a time when things like this can flourish organically, when bombs can drop and people cheer but fake blood and urine at a concert can whip up gaggles of suburbanites into a frenzy.
Is this to say that there aren’t elements within popular culture that progressives, feminists and anti-racists shouldn’t have legitimate grievance with? Of course not. I’ve written quite to the contrary elsewhere. But those types of songs are made of a notably different stuff than when a band puts out a song called “Bring Back the Bomb” at the height of Bush’s war in Iraq, intended to use its gleeful ultra-violence as a way to comment on what in a way already exists.
But I digress. What needs to be said here is that Dave Brockie was a hell of a musician and artist. There was a simple understanding and genuine showmanship that he always brought to the music; an understanding too often swapped out for behemoth budgets and jumbotrons. Even at the height of their success, I’d argue that Gwar have been tragically underrated. One doesn’t have to like metal to appreciate this, but it certainly fucking helps you feeble human.
Update: Since this post was first written it was released that Brockie died of a heroin overdose, not "some boringly natural cause."
Second update: The Gwar saga continues! And it is now fronted by a female! All hail Vulvatron!