Thousands of black-clad metal heads roast in the midafternoon August sun. They've come in droves to linger around the main stage at Hadad's Lake in Henrico County, a family-oriented water park with a large dirt lot set against hillside trees. Flower wreaths adorn the black stage and a banner the size of a house hangs behind the drum riser, spelling out the dripping, bloody letters of the home team: Gwar.
|A man in a dirty pirate outfit struts by with a large white egg labeled "crack" hanging between his legs. "He's a pirate in real life in Florida," says his roommate, turning serious. "You think I'm kidding." Another group of tattooed, goth-punk kids wear homemade, papier-mâché costumes that recall the early days of Gwar in all its cartoonish glory.|
It looks and feels like a big concert is about to start. The line for beer tickets already is unconscionable. But this is something else, something more memorable.
It's the day before the fifth annual Gwar B-Q concert, and the group's fans, aka bohabs, have made the pilgrimage. Some drove overnight from Florida and New Jersey, others traveled from as far as California and Europe — all to pay their respects at the public memorial for Gwar's demented and visionary leader, Dave Brockie, who died March 23 from an accidental heroin overdose.
When the ceremony begins, around 15 members of Slave Pit Inc., the art collective that spawned Gwar in the mid-'80s, take their seats onstage. Jenna Lea Anderson, familiar to locals from her job at Bygone's Vintage Clothing, steps to the microphone to sing a stirring a cappella version of the Irish-American national anthem, "Danny Boy." She changes the lyrics to "Davey Boy."
Trees bristle overhead while Anderson's voice builds with each line, hitting and holding the highest note on the final word: "And you will bend and tell me that you love me / And I shall sleep in peace till you come … back … to … me!"
A huge cheer goes up and hundreds of Gwar Killsner beer cans are hoisted into the air. Tribute speeches follow from famous and not-so-famous friends of Brockie's, including former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra and Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe (whom Biafra introduces as Adam Blythe, prompting sarcastic chants of "Adam" from the crowd). There's Hollywood television director Adam Green and Gwar publicist Jon Freeman. The speaking order feels backward, but nothing about Gwar has ever contained any logical sense of order.
The real attraction, however, sits doused in gasoline and floating in the lake. That's where a Bass fishing boat, remodeled to look like a Viking funeral pyre, holds the lifelike, full-body rubber costume of Brockie's alter ego, space alien Oderus Urungus, who lies on his back surrounded by flower petals and fireworks.
"I didn't expect it to be so moving," says Michael Bishop, a former bassist in Gwar, shaking his head while surveying the scene earlier. Bishop is rejoining the band as its new vocalist for an eight-week North American tour. People close to the group say it's a move that couldn't have been pulled off by anyone else. Bishop's new character is set to be unveiled during Gwar's headlining set the following day.
"To see nothing behind those eyes," Bishop says of the empty costume, pausing to collect himself. He then breaks into a belly laugh: "Then there's that huge boner."
He's referring to Urungus' unmistakable, 2-foot schlong, the cuttlefish of Cthulhu, which points skyward from his body like a middle finger mocking death. "Yep," adds Bishop's girlfriend, musician Sarah White. "That's Dave. Knocking on heaven's door."
When the speeches end, the mournful notes of a bagpipe fill the air. Former Gwar member Danielle Stampe (Slymenstra Hymen), wearing Valkyrie wings and high heels, swings a flaming sword while leading the crowd down the dirt path to the final send-off. Several thousand people are assembled on the banks of the lake, like some Civil War-era oil painting full of rock and roll casualties.
A traditional archer, Style Weekly Creative Director Ed Harrington, shoots a flaming arrow that sets fire to the boat, which soon is engulfed in flames. Crowd chants of "Oderus" and "Brockie" echo out while the black smoke rises, punctuated by occasional rounds of fireworks. The dark plumes grow thicker, at times blocking out the sun, a touch the eternal teenager Brockie probably would've loved.
It's more like a scene from the Ganges River in India than Henrico County. And even more than the happy memories shared today, it sums up what Brockie was about in one unforgettable image: It's fucking cool … and funny, and weird, and passionate, and ultimately, it comes from a place of love.
A half-hour later, the blaze has lessened. The crowd wanders quietly back out the dirt road to their cars, which tomorrow will line the hilly roads as far as the eye can see. The crew still has last-minute work before Gwar B-Q begins the next morning — another day rife with emotions as it marks the public transition to a Brockie-less Gwar and a major step in the uncertain future of Slave Pit Inc.
Tomorrow the music will be louder, the partying will be harder, the fake blood will spew farther, and obese men in dinky thongs will rock freely.
Hanging out at the Slave Pit in the busy weeks leading up to Gwar B-Q, it's apparent how the group has been working through its grief: literally by working, just as it's always done. But things have intensified.
"We always wanted to diversify," member Bob Gorman says. "To become like the punk-rock Disney. Brockie's death just pushed all those plans up a few years."
There's the planned GwarBar in Jackson Ward, a restaurant headed by guitarist and former chef Michael Derks, which the group hopes to open before it leaves for tour in early October. There's the documentary film "Let There Be Gwar," directed by Don Drakulich and produced by Gorman. A graphic novel by Matt Maguire that tells the mythos of Gwar, being pitched to Dark Horse comics. The 300-page coffee-table scrapbook being compiled by Gorman. A possible Gwar exhibit at the Valentine Richmond History Center. And lots of product tie-ins, including bassist Jamison Land's Gwar vaporizer deal, Gwar beer, Gwar cigars. [see sidebar].
Brockie's death made international news within 24 hours. Widespread tributes and media coverage poured forth, and his goofy grin was featured in tribute during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame broadcast on HBO. Even Richmond City Council, whose members Brockie once called upon on live television to be crucified and their bodies strewn about town, recognized the passing of this "incredible artist."
As Jello Biafra points out at the memorial, the concept of closure is a self-help scam designed to sell things. It isn't reality. Biafra is still struggling with the death of his friend, he says, while spinning records at the Viceroy earlier in the week.
"Totally preventable," he says in his theatrical voice. "Dave knew better. He knew better."
The night Brockie's body was found, "all the right people" showed up at Slave Pit headquarters, Gorman says. The place was adorned with flowers by the next morning, though the group prefers to keep the location unpublicized because of overzealous fans. After the initial shock came talk of what would happen next for the band.
Things have begun to take on a cursed, "Spinal Tap" quality lately.
Three years ago, Gwar lost former guitarist Cory Smoot, who died on the band's tour bus while it was waiting to go into Canada. "I remember seeing a picture of Mike [Derks] and Dave onstage. They were still touring and Cory had just died," Bishop recalls. "That made me cry out, it was so painful."
The loss of Brockie seemed to jeopardize the entire project, setting nearly everyone on edge. A key stage member of Slave Pit, Scott Krahl, suffered a medical emergency, collapsing in his bathroom on his 50th birthday and going into a coma after his heart stopped. He made a remarkable recovery, joining the band at Gwar B-Q. Also, bassist Jamison Land was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He underwent surgery and is doing much better.
But you can't blame the group members for feeling shell-shocked — this isn't just normal aging. It feels more like tragedy hunting them for sport.
"Everyone was trying to make sense of it, the whole bad things happen in threes," illustrator Maguire says. "We had been on cloud nine because we just lived one of our lifelong dreams going to play in Japan. Then one thing after another, crazy shit started happening."
In fairness, Gwar always has been about crazy shit happening.
And by all accounts, the members of this Richmond institution plan to keep pushing that ideal of turning their crazy artistic dreams into reality, even without their mastermind — or any of their founding members.
The original concept of a group of hedonistic space aliens was a goofy idea Brockie dreamed up in the early '80s, when he was still running around naked on acid on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. He wanted an opening band that would get people to come see his original band, Death Piggy. Turned out people enjoyed the comic booklike spectacle of Gwar more.
During the past three decades, Gwar honed its over-the-top stage theatrics and got serious about playing metal. It toured the world many times, was nominated for two Grammys, became Beavis and Butthead's favorite band on MTV, raised a ruckus on "Joan Rivers" and "Jerry Springer" and sold close to a million records in the United States.
But the core focus on Slave Pit artistry remained intact, even as band members came and went. From the beginning, Slave Pit was a do-it-yourself art collective operated by a pool of talented artists, musicians, writers, illustrators and sculptors who later became shareholders when the business was incorporated.
The lion's share of funds came from a steady diet of Gwar touring. The band's philosophy was forged in the anti-careerist flames of '80s hardcore ideology, yet it wound up creating its own niche that operates as a co-op, more like a commune from the '60s. Brockie was the ringleader, but everyone chipped back into Slave Pit to do whatever it took to keep making the art they loved.
When the 50-year-old Brockie died, the group's members were planning big changes to come after Gwar's 30th anniversary in 2015. They were old and beat up, Gorman says, and realized they would need a viable transition from constant touring sooner than later. Gwar B-Q, launched in 2010, was the first step in a new strategy of making people come to the band, rather than the band going out.
"Somehow, Dave always found a way to shoot us in the foot," guitarist Derks says. "When big things were about to happen, he would stab them with his spear."
Like when Gwar was about to sign with Warner Bros. Records, and Brockie refused to remove a silly song called "Baby Dick Fuck" from an album — costing Metal Blade Records and the band a much larger distribution deal.
The most difficult thing for any metal band is losing a lead singer, says Jon Wiederhorn, co-author of "Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal." But in Gwar's case, this wasn't like Metallica losing James Hetfield.
"For Gwar, the template is already put in place. Someone can step in and replicate and develop upon a lot of the insane ideas and theatrics," he says. "I think their fans are devoted enough and Brockie's death was handled in a sensitive enough way that people who want to continue enjoying the chaos will celebrate the lunacy of Gwar."
After his death, Gwar discussed being the executor of Brockie's estate, but his elderly father in West Virginia, with whom Brockie's relationship long had soured according to friends, took over dealing with future royalties and his son's share of the Slave Pit pie.
The shackled elephant in the room remains: If both money and exposure are needed for other Slave Pit projects to be successful, can Gwar ever stop touring, as it had planned to do after its 30th anniversary?
"The genius of what Dave did by turning Slave Pit into a rock band is a quick way to sell and get exposure," Gorman says. "So to a certain degree, no. But people know who we are. We just have to keep putting out quality stuff. The band, if that started to suck, we would lose our credibility for all these other things."
The goal is to have the side projects humming for the anniversary. Then it's anyone's guess. That puts high stakes on this next tour, pressure that will fall inordinately on the burly shoulders of a 280-pound 45-year-old, Brockie's old friend and protégé, Bishop.
Or as he will be known for the next few months: Blothar.
Bishop already planned to move back to Richmond the week after his longtime friend died, having earned his doctorate in ethno-musicology from the University of Virginia in 2012. But instead of a homecoming party, he wound up delivering one of the most memorable speeches at the private memorial for family and friends at the National Theater. (If you haven't seen it you should, it's brilliant.)
Bishop had admired Gwar's fallen leader since he was a teenager growing up in Hopewell, where his grandfather was a founding member of its Church of Christ. Early on, his parents recognized a talent for oratory in their child and steered him toward becoming a fiery young preacher. But Bishop rebelled against religion, got into punk and became a prodigious musical talent on the bass — "as a fat kid I had a lot of time alone to practice," he once told Style.
His heart was in the Richmond punk scene of the early '80s, hanging out in front of the Grace Street Burger King and living through Throttle magazine, he says. "The self that I imagined was there at the Dairy building, this mysterious place you couldn't get in," Bishop recalls of Gwar's original bottle-shaped practice space, which sits a few blocks from the new restaurant project.
Brockie saw potential and asked him to join Gwar as bassist Beefcake the Mighty and the two became fast friends. "Dave liked that I was heavyset," Bishop says. "I think he really wanted a cave-man band, which is what Gwar was at first." Bishop hasn't toured with the band since briefly rejoining in 1996.
After moving back to Richmond in the wake of Brockie's death, Bishop says Gwar started asking him to attend more Slave Pit meetings. While lecturing at U.Va., he'd found a content-writing job with a Washington-based higher-education company which allowed him to live anywhere. He's also performing in Richmond's re-formed rock trio Kepone, and with his girlfriend, folk and alt-country musician Sarah White.
One day he was heading into Kroger when he got the call asking him to rejoin Gwar as its lead singer.
"These guys have been working hard for a long time — suddenly all that was threatened," Bishop says. "They've been through a lot of shit. And they're my friends and I can see that they're traumatized. I had an obligation, not only to Dave, but to them."
With his new role in motion, Bishop says he's starting to worry about the physical side of touring with Gwar this fall — performing highly theatrical, 90-minute sets in costume night after night for eight weeks, probably 40-plus shows. "I guess I figured if I could do it with Kepone, I could do it with them," he says.
He'll continue his writing job on the road, he says. And as far as the live performance, he'll get help from the other members onstage.
"We're trying to pattern [the tour] more on the old vaudevillian Gwar," Gorman says, "where there's a bigger cast of people doing different things."
Bishop says the two most difficult things will be remembering Brockie's ample lyrics and nailing his unique timing — or lack thereof. "His placement is seemingly random," he says. "He doesn't pay any attention to traditional song structure, it's just words."
Bishop believes that Gwar will continue even if it slowly replaces itself with another band, which he isn't entirely convinced it will do.
"I think of Gwar as of a piece with Negativland or the Residents," he says, referring to two classic experimental groups known for performance art and pushing boundaries. "There are a lot of possibilities for more age-appropriate shit, projects that go for a different sort of funding. But the key figures in the band at this point are the artists, the guys making stuff: Matt Maguire, Bob Gorman, Davis Bradley."
Could Slave Pit ever spawn another band, an idea that's been floated in past interviews? It might be difficult to convince younger hotshot musicians to go along with the Slave Pit co-op business concept. It's a hard sell to ask today's kids to have their publishing royalties folded into a larger entity that, as Bishop notes, "Eighteen geezers have access to."
"We have problems with it now," Maguire says. "Kids come see us and want to know how much we make. They think it's all strippers and Lamborghinis or whatever twisted idea they have — and it's really a labor of love. You have to love it."
Gwar has been replacing members all along anyway, or as Derks notes, "we're kind of the metal Menudo."
What ultimately may prove more important than the music is Slave Pit's ongoing role as an incubator for artists. Stampe, the aforementioned Slymenstra Hymen, now designs sets for Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj in Los Angeles, as well as for Hollywood films by directors such as Guillermo del Toro.
Former intern Sam Ware ('93), who moved to Los Angeles and became a character animator for popular video games such as the Tony Hawk series and "Guitar Hero: Metallica," says Slave Pit was extremely influential — a place of pure creativity filled with punk-rock MacGyvers.
"Instead of buying hundreds of pounds of expensive plasticine clay, they just made it themselves," Ware recalls. "There was a huge drum where they mixed ash and motor oil to create their own oil-based clay. They also figured out a really clever way to carve Styrofoam with wire, a large battery, and some wood scraps."
At a local Mexican restaurant, Bishop can't help but think about the group through his academic lens as an ethnomusicologist.
"I studied musicians and cover bands and how they use music in their lives. A big part of it was they wanted time away from family, and they all had wholly unrealistic dreams," he says. "There may be a 'Peter Pan' element in Gwar. But I think Gwar can change in interesting ways that might not even have been possible with Brockie. … It's more likely that Slave Pit evolves into something else entirely."
If the future of the band doesn't involve Bishop, he says he's fine with that. "I'm at a place in my life where I don't give a shit," he says. "If I'm not the singer of Gwar after this tour, I'm not going to fucking cry. I'm going fishing."
He can always be proud of Gwar's legacy in the history of rock, which he sees as a connection between the thinking side of punk and lowbrow heavy metal.
"Gwar to me is like Theodor Adorno, like this heavy cultural critique — it's very meta and it's all about the horrors of modernity," he says. "I think it's high art. And it manages to do something that art so often fails to do: It connects with regular people."
The rabid fans showing up to Gwar B-Q may not look like regular people, but his point is made. All the pent-up energy from months of preparation and stress finally gets a cathartic release Saturday, Aug. 16, in front of 5,000 insane fans at Hadad's.
There are energetic daytime sets by the Meatmen, the Misfits, Ice T and Body Count — who calls out police brutality in St. Louis during his notorious tune "Cop Killer," as well as a blistering side stage set by up-and-coming locals Iron Reagan, which plays 20 songs in 18 minutes with nearly a full crowd hanging from wooden crossbeams.
A few hiccups occur: The bands Goatwhore and "Jackass" star Bam Magera's Fuckface Unstoppable don't show after getting stuck in traffic or having vehicle issues. Worse, beer runs out in the afternoon. But the crowd takes it in stride with a feel-good show of support. Everyone is waiting to see the new-look Gwar.
After an introduction by Sleazy P. Martini (Drakulich), Gwar bounds onstage and the place goes bat-shit bonkers. Bishop makes his grand entrance wearing huge elk antlers and a Viking-like mask, like a low-budget "Game of Thrones" version of Dom DeLuise's alter ego Captain Chaos, his exposed belly smeared in black and his ass hanging out.
Smoke rises while he screams the lyrics to "Madness at the Core of Time" with the ferocity of a young scum dog — a heroic effort considering he played with Kepone earlier in the day. A headless body beside him is shooting geysers of fake blood into the audience. Bodies are flying across the crowd as well as other foreign objects. (There's nothing like erasing videos to free up space on your phone and being hit in the face by an 8-foot inflatable penis for your trouble.) Later the band tears Justin Bieber to pieces.
In the packed photo pit down front, all the Gwar correspondents, including this writer, are mercilessly splattered with watery fake blood from the villainous Sawborg Destructo's spinning blade. It covers our eyes, mouths and iPhones. Like the earliest Gwar shows, it's not as gory as it sounds: this is pure escapist, food-fight fun that breaks the imaginary wall between rock star and audience and spreads instant smiles.
Blothar explains that he's an ancient scum dog who's come to grab the leadership of Gwar, but other characters will fight him for it. As the band later explains on its website, Oderus is missing and they'll scour the earth on tour to find him. I'm reminded of something Bishop said earlier: "The best thing about Gwar, and this has always been, is what goes on onstage always registers with what's going on with us in life."
After the weekend is finally extinguished, Gwar turns its attention back to preparations for its other projects. The Slave Pit needs to finish the plan for Brockie's tombstone, which may be a full sculpture. It will go in a plot purchased at Hollywood Cemetery, which sits in a choice location near the entrance.
That's right, soon you may see Oderus welcoming you to Richmond's loveliest cemetery. The guys had wanted a full statue of him on Monument Avenue with a fountain that ran red once a year on Halloween … but that probably isn't going to happen.
Then again, it's Gwar. The impossible is never quite out of reach. S