In 1994, I was 18 years old and a freshman in college–not at VCU, but at tiny Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. I had started going to shows in Richmond towards the end of 1993, and quickly learned that shows in smaller clubs were not the sort of shows you went to looking your best, wearing your coolest new t-shirt. No, if you wanted to get up front and really see the bands, you could expect, at best, to get jostled and knocked around all evening. You might also get kicked in the head by stagedivers or have your clothes torn by moshing maniacs in the pit. I learned to wear old clothes and carry as little as possible with me, to tie my jacket around my waist and to wait to buy records until after the bands had finished playing. Once in the spring of 1994, I went to a show at the Metro (a big empty room above where Empire is now, which has been mothballed since 1995) and saw what looked like blood all over the floor. “GWAR played here last weekend,” my friends told me. I knew about GWAR from seeing their videos on Headbanger’s Ball, and while I thought of them as a little too goofy to take seriously, I figured a live show by them would be quite entertaining. Unfortunately, before I could make plans to go see them, Richmond’s city government banned them from performing within the city limits, a ban that would last over a decade. By the time the ban was lifted a few years ago, I was over 30 and my attention was elsewhere. However, in the wake of our interview with them last issue, RVA were offered the opportunity to review their show last week at the National. In light of the fact that I’ve made Richmond my permanent home, staying here over 15 years after the abrupt end of my two-year college career, I figured I should take the opportunity myself. Anyone who claims to be a true Richmonder should see GWAR at least once before they die, right?
Preparing to go to the show, I found myself engaging in the same sort of careful preparation that I used to engage in to go to a show at the Metro back when I first moved to town. I knew that I needed to prepare for my clothes to get ruined, not just because of the hectic crowd action but because GWAR was going to spray me with fake blood. So before I left work that night, I ducked into the bathroom and changed into a pair of torn-up jeans, some old tennis shoes, and a t-shirt that I hardly ever wear anymore. I wore an old jacket with a tear in the sleeve, and I took everything out of my pockets except the essentials–keys, wallet, cellphone. I felt like I was getting ready for battle, and as I walked into The National a few minutes later, I was just as nervous as I used to be walking into the Metro 17 years ago. What was I getting myself into?
My work schedule once again forced me to arrive after the music had begun, and I only caught the very end of openers Mensrea‘s set. Just as I walked into the main room of the National, they slammed into a really brutal breakdown, which caught my interest. However, that was pretty much the only thing I heard. Once the breakdown was over, they did a thrash-speed verse and ended the song, at which point the singer said, “Thanks, we’re Mensrea. Goodnight!” Not much to go on, but the third of a song that I did hear sounded pretty awesome. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this local group in the future.
I squirmed my way down to the third row or thereabouts while waiting for Cannabis Corpse to go on. When they hit the stage, I was really glad I was up front, where the music was loud and everyone was getting into it. The deal with this band, which it took me a long time to understand, is that they take New York death metal band Cannibal Corpse’s gore-obsessed song titles and lyrics, and change the words to be about smoking weed. For a long time, I thought they were a Weird Al-style parody cover band, and wondered why they bothered to release albums, but when I finally heard one of their albums, I realized that, despite the words being parodies of Cannibal Corpse songs, the music is entirely original. And in fact, I like Cannabis Corpse’s music quite a bit better than Cannibal Corpse’s. Cannibal Corpse, like a lot of New York death metal bands, play in a style that focuses on slower heavy riffs, only occasionally speeding up. For me, this style gets boring pretty quickly. Cannabis Corpse, on the other hand, have lots of tempo changes in their songs, and tend to focus on uptempo thrash riffs, which are a lot more fun to listen to. They’ve still got the neck-snapping breakdowns that any good death metal band should deal out on the regular, and at many points during their set, I found myself compelled to headbang furiously. But they keep those parts in reserve enough of the time that they still have power when they come around. It’s easy to dismiss Cannabis Corpse as a joke band, but those who take the time to get to know their music will find a top-quality death metal band lurking beneath the weed jokes. Their live performance wasn’t all that riveting to watch, as they kind of just stood there and headbanged. In that way, nothing they did could compare to what was to come. However, on a strictly musical level, Cannabis Corpse were doubtlessly the highlight of the evening.
Once they left the stage, anticipation in the crowd started to build. Up close to the barrier, where I was, personal space steadily shrank, until by the time GWAR hit the stage, everyone in my area of the crowd was pinned shoulder to shoulder. We were able to move our feet to keep our balance, but unable to actually go anywhere. Before the music even started, the first of the creatures to be slaughtered over the course of the set came staggering out onto the stage, looking like zombie versions of Grace Street spare-changers, and it wasn’t long before the blood started flowing. From where I was standing, you could duck your head a little bit and avoid taking it directly in the face… sometimes. But there was nowhere to go, really, and you were going to get covered in blood. It didn’t feel like I expected it to feel. I thought it would be mixed with cornstarch or something, to give it thickness. I also expected it to be warm. But neither of these things were conducive to what GWAR was really going for–pressure. They wanted to be able to drench the balconies with blood. When I walked in and saw that The National had draped white plastic sheeting from said balconies, presumably in order to keep the blood from ruining their fixtures, I thought they were being a bit overcautious. I changed my opinion on that when I saw blood geysers drench kids standing in the front rows of the balconies. When that blood hits you in the face, it’s cold and wet and feels like getting sprayed with a hose. My guess is that it’s nothing more than water and food coloring, which makes sense–it’ll get the job done on a visual level, and there’s nothing to impede the velocity of the spray. But it wasn’t what I expected, and I found myself laughing at the incongruity of getting sprayed with cold red water. At one point, some of it got in my mouth while I was laughing, and it didn’t taste like much of anything. But it got everywhere. Taking a shower after getting home, I saw the water running red as I rinsed out my hair. I found remnants of red food coloring up my nose and in my ears, among other places.
The thing that seeing a GWAR video or TV appearance doesn’t prepare you for is just how much fake blood spraying there is going to be. Granted, there were a few songs where they took a breather with the onstage antics and just played for a couple of minutes, but almost every song featured some kind of gory effect or another. After a while, a GWAR set is like watching a million different jokes that all have the same punchline. No matter what happens during the bit, the end of the bit is going to be the band spraying the audience with blood. They brought out a (fake, of course) dead dog at one point, and sprayed the audience with blood from a hidden reservoir inside of it. At another point, a secondary character named Sawboy the Destructor came out and sang a song, and he sprayed the audience with blood from a power saw that took the place of his hand. Then they brought out a Sarah Palin effigy, tore her apart and disemboweled her, and she sprayed the audience with blood while playing with chunks of her guts. Later, they brought out a fake Lady Gaga–and I must say, as a Lady Gaga fan, I found this part really entertaining and a dead-on parody of Gaga and the high-art image she aspires to. They had her dressed up as a toilet, and as she pulled some muck out of the bowl, Oderus Urungus declared that she would now demonstrate her credibility by “artfully eating dogshit.” She smeared the fake poop on her face, and then Oderus tore open the toilet costume to expose brown, scaly-looking fake tits. Which proceeded to spray fake blood from their nipples all over the crowd for the next three minutes. All of this fake blood spray is fucking hilarious at first, but then after a while, once you get used to it, it kind of wears off. Still later, though, the sheer absurdity of GWAR’s “every joke ends the same way” premise starts to become hilarious in its own right, and by the time they came out for their encore, during which Oderus Urungus sprayed us down with bloody, supposedly AIDS-infected piss from his two-foot-long fake cock, it was fucking hilarious all over again.
Speaking of the fake cock, though, I have to acknowledge that a lot of what GWAR does could at least generically be considered offensive. At heart, it is fundamentally silly, juvenile stuff, like what a 13 year old boy would create if he had an unlimited special effects budget. However, it applies that silly sensibility sometimes to political topics that are taken seriously by a lot of people, and I feel like you’d have to come from an apathetic or even nihilistic perspective to watch an entire GWAR set and never feel the least bit offended. The dead dog bit I mentioned earlier was accompanied by a whole spiel from Oderus about how much he loves raping animals, which didn’t personally offend me but I could imagine might bother some people quite a bit. I’ve got no problem with GWAR chopping up Sarah Palin or zombie homeless people, either. However, at one point, they did do a bit about Lara Logan, the CBS reporter who was gang-raped by Egyptian thugs during the protests in that country. Personally, I thought the bit was uncool and not funny. I know some people will take this opportunity to rip on me for being PC, and that’s fine. I’m not saying GWAR shouldn’t have the right to make jokes that are offensive and in poor taste–after all, there will be others who feel that way about the Palin bit or the bloody AIDS urine bit, and I loved those. It’s just that I can’t really imagine the sort of mentality it takes to come up with this kind of humor, to be able to blithely make fun of anything and everything in the news, including some really serious issues, without ever worrying about crossing any lines. I feel sure that almost everybody is going to be offended at some point during a GWAR show–and maybe that’s the point.
I haven’t really talked about the music yet, and I think a lot of people would agree that the music of GWAR is a secondary point–they’re a comedic performance art troupe more than a serious band. But the music is a big part of the show, so I should say that, while it’s never impressed me much on record, I found it to be a fun soundtrack for the craziness and gore. The late 80s thrash-metal style that GWAR has played for about two decades now is a fitting sound to get a crowd moving, and while no one where I was standing could really go anywhere, not too far behind us were a series of raging moshpits. As a singer, Oderus (Dave Brockie) is prone towards holding a lot of long notes, which reminded me of a period in the late 80s where stylistic tropes from metal were having a big influence in the hardcore community. I could hear some of Sheer Terror’s Paul Bearer in what Brockie was doing, and some of H.R. of the Bad Brains circa Quickness–taken way farther over the top than either of those guys ever thought about, though. I could even hear some of that in the music, at points, with the riffs mixing midtempo metal and crossover-style chugging. I found myself thinking of bands that were popular in the hardcore scene when I first started going to shows–Four Walls Falling, Supertouch, maybe even a little bit of Ray Cappo’s post-Youth Of Today group Shelter. GWAR clearly took just as much from bands like Slayer and DRI, though, so maybe I’m tripping with all of this. It’s not like it mattered all that much–the real point was to create a soundtrack for blood-spraying and mosh pit action, and the music did its job where that was concerned.
By the end of the encore, GWAR had been playing for an hour and a half, and I finally got tired of getting crushed into the people around me and sprayed with blood over and over. During the final song, I shoved my way out of the crowd and headed back to the back of the room–where I got an even better view of just how far the GWAR blood spray really can shoot. I stuck around until the very end, just in case there was some huge dramatic finish. It turned out there wasn’t; I personally would probably have saved the bloody urine bit for the very last song, because how can you top that? The red-and-green blood cannon used for the last song felt kind of anticlimactic. But really, by the end of the show, I was just worn out in general. GWAR’s stage show is insane and ridiculous. It’s hilarious most of the time, too, so I want to give them credit for that. However, when talking to kids around me in the crowd before the set started, there were some people in my area who were talking about how they’d seen them 15 times or more. That’s something I don’t really understand. It felt like the kind of show that, once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. Sure, the characters they cut open and make bleed all over the audience have changed over the years, and will again. But ultimately, it’s the same silly joke. I’m glad I got to see them play, and I’m glad that what should have been considered a Richmond institution for decades now, rather than being banned by small-minded governments, is finally free to take its rightful place in our city’s cultural landscape. But I don’t see myself going to another GWAR show anytime soon.
Images by Ken Penn