In the late 90s, perhaps around 1998, I pulled over at a truck stop about 45 miles outside of Richmond, Virginia. I grabbed a few snacks and went to the checkout line when it occurred to me that the clerk was staring, somewhat horrified. I looked down and remembered why: my entire body was covered in fake blood and unidentifiable substances. I had spent the evening near the front row of a GWAR show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. I politely paid for my food, walked out and laughed in the car.
I lived in Richmond for about four years, until early 2000. I wasn’t a part of the city’s metal scene as much as I was an outlier, a guy with a straight job who dropped in on gigs at the old Twister’s club on Grace Street. At that point, you couldn’t see GWAR play a proper gig in their home town. The reason for the band’s exile was for something dubious like performing an alien abortion on stage. It seemed ridiculous but, then again, this was the same city where Howard Stern was booted off the air. You could see GWAR as “RAWG” which, in case you forgot, was advertised as “Gwar Without Costumes!” on fliers.
I ran into Dave Brockie plenty of times at the Richmond YMCA. He’d show up to work out in a Redskins hat. When I finally got up the nerve to talk to him he couldn’t be friendlier and told me that the long Stairmaster and weight-training sessions prepared him for the rigors of wearing a near-suffocating suit on stage. I was one of the fortunate few who got to see more of Brockie in his civilian clothes than as his alter ego. Everywhere in town you’d run into people that were somehow part of the GWAR enterprise, which seemed to employ half of Richmond’s creative class.
How fitting that one of the people who helped develop Richmond’s metal culture couldn’t play a proper gig in his hometown for years. For Brockie, spectacle still mattered. He gave people something they remembered. They remembered it so much, in fact, that they saved gross, gory shirts and wore them the next time GWAR played. Brockie was perhaps one of the most prescient people in metal. Years before downloading effectively gutted the recording industry, forcing bands to live on the road, Brockie figured out what mattered was putting on a show that fans remembered. It’s not that albums weren’t important. But when the rest of the world got dour and wore lumberjack shirts Brockie only increased the audacity. What made a GWAR show fun wasn’t just the hysterics that took place but the wait: walking into a club and seeing plastic wrapped around the room like a Costco warehouse. It was a tacit admission that things will get very messy. But these guys will sell out and there’s nothing we can do.
Brockie provided metal with a much needed shot of levity throughout his 30 year career. So much of metal is about taking yourself too seriously. Brockie and GWAR allowed your eternal inner kid, the kid with a KISS record player who dressed up like Ace Frehley, to come back and believe in super heroes for an evening. He also smashed every sacred cow in his path. When I last saw GWAR shortly after President Obama’s first election I told my friend there was no way that we’d see the new President get the GWAR treatment. But like every idol before him, an effigy was brought on stage and decapitated.
What made everything about GWAR work, and made Dave Brockie such an improbable success story, was that there was no Jekyll and Hyde involved. Brockie was Oderus Urungus as much as he was the nice guy who worked away at the gym.
In Richmond, there is a street called Monument Avenue that houses the statues of the famous Confederate dead. How fitting it would be to place Oderus Urungus right on the avenue and then slime the rest. Dave Brockie, halfway on his journey to parts unknown, could laugh somewhere and let us know he approved.