GWAR’s Growing Pains
Posted on May 11, 2015
May 11, 2015 | by John Gentile
GWAR is, without question, one of the greatest bands ever. Jackasses like to say, “Oh, that costumed band? I hear they’re funny.” But, that statement is a cruel and spitefully reductive. If you really pay attention to GWAR, you’ll see that they function as a hilarious mockery, and celebration, of the human condition, highlighting its foibles, sins, and merits via masterful, self-designed art. And the music? GWAR makes mind-blowing, smashing heavy metal. They’re probably my favorite metal band on music alone. And in the center was Oderus Urungus, a warty beast that growled and roared with a distinctive, textured voice—part Viking, part demon, part Frenchman (for no apparent reason… oh GWAR). He was charismatic, hilarious, able to flip from making fun of humans to being a pinhead himself, and always as quick as Groucho with the zingers.
And then he died. And it’s gotten even worse since then.
So, to say that it’s been a tumultuous few years for GWAR would be a gross understatement. Here’s the streamlined facts: In late 2011, Cory Smoot, who is credited with artistically revitalizing the band after seven disappointing years and giving them a second prime, suddenly and unexpectedly died, with the cause of death being determined as a pre-existing heart defect.
The healing process was long and difficult with Oderus Urungus (a.k.a. Dave Brockie) acting as pastor for the mourning GWAR fans. Eventually, Pustulus Maximus (aka Brent Purgason) replaced Smoot and the band released the fantastic Battle Maximus in the fall of 2013. Against all odds, the band triumphed again, creating a worthy successor to the amazing Smoot albums. Purgason didn’t have the clean, European guitar style of Smoot, but rather, a more rough and ragged American thrash style. But it worked because he was talented and enthusiastic. This was evident by Brockie’s own performance on Battle Maximus, where he sound as fierce and excited as he ever has, clearly glad to be able to keep GWAR moving.
Then, on March 23, 2014, Dave Brockie died of an accidental heroin overdose. At the time, it was unclear if the band was going to continue at all. But those that have followed the band know that Brockie, in a bit of dark foreshadowing, had commented in interviews that once he got too old, or was unable, to do GWAR, he wanted it to continue—perhaps as a way to act as his legacy.
So within a matter of months, the band reformed with two new singers: Blothar, who was played by former GWAR veteran Mike Bishop, and Vulvatron, a new female character played by Kim Dylla. The strategy was well-played. You can’t simply replace a talent as massive as Brockie, so why not just go in a completely different direction? GWAR, as it is, has very few “rules.”
The first tour with the new singers, and relatively new Purgason, was good, though not as great as the last Brockie tour. The band sounded good, but perhaps not quite as intense and berserk as they had a year prior. But most importantly, there was promise. The band was touring off the death of their former leader and were essentially brand new. Things were falling into place and, as was evident by the excellent show at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory in November 2014, the band had the ability to grow into being, perhaps, as wonderful as they were before. I mean, really, how could one possibly hope for them to come out perfected without GWAR’s matchless leader some six months after his death?
And then, just last week, GWAR announced online that Dylla was fired from the band. If you look up the story online, the whole thing was a huge mess. Purgason and Dylla got into a nasty, public spat, visible for all the web to see on GWAR’s Facebook page. Essentially, Purgason said that Dylla knew she was fired in January due to drinking issues. Dylla countered that she was told that she was only told that her character was not on the upcoming tour, that she was under the impression that she was still in the band, that she had no drinking issues, and that the other members drank the same, or more, than she did. It was ugly and no one came out looking good.
Quite simply, this isn’t a gender issue. It’s a band breakdown issue. And that’s what has me worried. Replacing Brockie is an impossible task. I think back to other bands that tried to continue after a loss of an important member or bands that tried to reform after a substantial breakdown. For example, one thinks back to the last Germs show, wherein much changed, Darby Crash muddled through a weak set at the Starwood. Then, there’s the disappointing Greg Ginn Black Flag shows from 2003 and 2014. Without the band’s classic frontmen, the shows were just bad and it appears the band has self-destructed. Or how about the Clash who, after the firing of Mick Jones, hobbled along in an ungainly fashion before finally pulling the plug?
Frankly, GWAR is showing all of these symptoms. In fact, if you look at the online Purgason/Dylla spat, it appears that Purgason, the new guy, is directing the band, making hiring and firing decisions. The new guy coming in and making drastic changes does not bode well.
But, still, I’m hoping, and even believing, that this isn’t the case. As we said before, Brockie is impossible to replace. So with that hole, the band could very well be going through growing pains. The fact is, with someone as special as Brockie, you will have to go through a few, or even hundreds, of people before you can find someone that bring a certain spark to the band that’s even in the same ballpark as Brockie. And, as for Purgason directing the band—maybe he’s just speaking on behalf of the band as a whole, and as the “new guy,” is willing to take the flak from the public for the sake of the band. Or,maybe he really is the new driving force, because, possibly, maybe the band’s long-timers don’t want to be the boss. Not everyone necessarily wants to be a commander. Purgason may be acting out of necessity rather than any self-interest.
It seems the band is trying to grow, and it can be a difficult process. Well, that’s expected. GWAR has gone through difficult periods before, but they have always emerged victorious. When costume designer Hunter Jackson quit in the early days, they figured out new ways to make costumes. When they were stumbling through the ‘94-’99 period, Cory Smoot appeared and brought them to fantastic new heights. When Smoot died, they forged ahead as a four-piece before finding a new guitarist in Purgason. GWAR is a band that knows how to triumph.
GWAR is facing one of their biggest hurdles ever. But, they’ve leaped some pretty big hurdles before. I believe they can do it again.
Please GWAR, don’t let it end like this.
Update: Purgason has posted a lengthy comment about this essay here.