Guts No Glory

In today's corporate entertainment world, bona fide "cult" status gets harder and harder to come by. Cult bands, movies and books, after all, are supposed to be cool because their cynical disaffected tone alienates all but the most worldly consumers. But nowadays "cult" is just another category in a big schlocky pop culture market. Blockbuster video has a cult movie section, and HMV has an alternative music bin; now you can buy your Suicidal Tendencies album in the same spic and span shop where your grandmother picks up the new Amy Grant CD. It's just no fun being subversive any more.

The problem is everybody loves the new "cult" culture. Anybody with a tiny sense of humor thought Heathers' macabre take on the high school movie has a scream everybody and their brother thought Blue Velvet was a witty dismantling of small town American morality. So where's would be fan of truly radical culture to turn?

GWAR sounded liked the perfect answer. Their promotional literature touted them as a group of art students from Virginia Commonwealth University who perform outrageously raunchy heavy-metal music while dressed in gargantuan papier-mache costumes that make them resemble dinosaurs from outer space. They sport Iudicrously enlarged phalluses as well as leather, spikes, whips and chains. The band puts on an elaborate stage show, complete with ritual tortures, eviscerations and decaptitations, and squirts gallons of phony blood and semen into the audience. Responding to charges that they are sexist they retorted, "We're also racist."

This sounded like the real stuff; a band this scary was likely to retain its genuine outsider status for quite a while. All the articles included in their brochure warned that a GWAR show would turn my stomach. Mainstream Rolling stone ignored them, while the more clued in Spin thought they were hilarious, pushing mass culture's rampant images of sex and violence to an absolutely nauseating hilt. Their album was called America Must Be Destroyed, their forthcoming video Phallus in wonderland.

Not a fan of either heavy metal or slasher flicks, I decided anyway to use the free tickets the band's manager had sent to The Crimson to see their show at the Boston nightclub, Avalon.


I figured I could test my tolerance for hard-core parody, see if my sense of humor could withstand this gross spectacle which everyone was saying could be the underground's next big thing. The could be genuinely funny, after all, sort of like Spinal Tap with an edge. I mean, they were just benign art students under all the papier mache, right?

Well, sort of. At first it all seemed like a joke. The band members, with names like Oderus Urungus, Techno Destructo, Jizmach the Gusher and Slymenstra Hymen (the group's long female) romped around the stage to a thrashing beat, spitting on, stabbing and biting each other. They employed all their art school know-how to create disgustingly vivid stage scenes of cartoonish mayhem.

It was The Muppet show meets I Spit On Your Grave.

Oderus, who, as advertised, had a dick the size of a basset hound, disembowelled a "fan" during the first song. The victim stumbled and bounced around the stage for a while, tripping on his own rubbery intestines. In the next song, Jizmach sliced off the head of a "security officer" while singing the catchy refrain to the band's tune "you Ain't Shit Until You've killed a Cop." The cop danced headless around the stage for 20 minutes, his jugular spurting a jet of red water into the slam-dancing audience. The fans jumped up gleefully to catch it in their mouths. Gross, but sort of funny.

Things went on in this vein for a few more songs. From where I was standing in back (out of the splash zone) I got a pretty good view of the crowd. They seemed surprisingly unaffected by the carnage onstage. Most of these straggly teenagers weren't laughing, they weren't flinching, they just sort of bounced to they beat. They didn't appear to be viewing this with quite the sardonic enthusiasm of most fans of cult culture.

No, these people had the intent, critically attentive gaze of opera buffs checking out a diva's pitch. "Was that spurt realistic enough?" they seemed to be mentally debating. Was that a clean whack that took off the arm of the papier mache fan? Periodically they moved their heads in a sort of approving nod: good spurt, good whack.

I was beginning to suspect I'd misunderstood GWAR's target audience. These people were attracted to the concert not because they were curious about the boundaries of absurdity, but because they were connoisseur of violence. They seemed to be enjoying this a little too genuinely.

The next set confirmed this impression. The opening numbers seemed downright cute by comparison. During one song, a security guard was impaled and carried around the stage. Then Slymenstra Hymen performed a kind of projectile menstruation. Then Oderus Urungus defecated in a bowl and catapulted his shit to the audience member, who dove for it as if they were catching foul balls at Fenway. Then Oderus introduced us to his "girlfriend," a bloody doll pinned to a spinning rack which he dismembered and raped.

This was all in the first-half hour or so. The line between parody and glorification was pretty much gone by this time, and I decided to leave. The audience bopped right along, apparently having lost any ability to be shocked by such hateful stuff. I suppose a GWAR defender could take up the predictable argument that the band's act simply redicules the misogyny and violence that pervades our culture, giving us back our own prejudices magnified to hideous proportions, etc., etc., but I won't.

Perhaps even the members of GWAR realize what shaky artistic ground they stood on after this last trick, because as I left, Oderus was running to take predictable, wimpy refuge behind the first amendment. Spurting a yellowish stream out of his trusty member, he screamed, "Is this pornography or is this art? Is this cum or is this piss?"

He was way off the mark. This was just crap.

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