Business lessons from our unofficial manager and our first merch deal.
Above: a great shot by my old buddy John Durham of our recent show at Riotfest, held every year in Chicago’s Humbolt Park. It’s always weird playing in direct sunlight–makes me feel like a living Hot-Pocket. Now, on to the meat of the matter!
GWAR, Me, and the On-rushing Grip of Death
Episode 58: Death Tour ’89 Part Four1
With our new buddy Billy Boy firmly in tow, we were off to do another gig with Operation Ivy at the infamous Gilman Street, a building synonymous with the legendary publication Maximum Rock and Roll. Maximum Rock and Roll was THE punk fanzine, and in its well-packed pages could be found scene reports from all over the country and indeed the rest of the world. Yes, Jiz told me, there were clubs all over the world, and if we kept running amuck in the manner that we currently were, we were bound to get over there.
I was blown away! We could actually go and play shows in Europe? That might actually be happening? Yes, said Jiz, the word was spreading about GWAR internationally. Hell-o, our first album, had been out for a while, and Shimmydisc had distribution in Europe. We started to receive our first international fan-mail, even getting a letter from a Dutch U.N. soldier in the middle of the Srebrenica siege, who basically thanked us for being so cool and hoped to show us around Amsterdam if he got out of there alive.2 For me the desire to travel had always been at the heart of my being, and it seemed that being in a band was a only way I had a shot to accomplish that. I mean, it was crazy enough that we were headlining at the spiritual heart of the Bay Area punk scene, but to think that we could actually go overseas and do GWAR shows? It blew our pointy little dicks right the fuck off!
The Gilman Street scene always had a reputation as being the closest thing to “politically correct” in the punk scene as you could get: racists, fascists, and assholes in general could count on getting their asses kicked. I wouldn’t say I was nervous, but I was certainly interested in how the 300+ crowd was going to react to our decidedly not-correct-in-any-manner sense of humor. But any concerns I had were erased as they reacted like everybody else in the world was reacting. The word was out on GWAR. Everybody there knew what to expect and expected to love it. Hopefully there were some people that hated us too! But even they acted like they loved it, writhing in spew and groveling in slam-tastic delight to the glory of GWAR!
Jello was backstage stealing pizza. He had expressed an interest in getting involved w/ GWAR, and we loved chatting with him and receiving his merciless critiques. But he was into GWAR, of that there was no doubt. When you had guys like him and Gibby Haynes backing you in various drunken backstage conversations across the country, it had to be a good thing. All across the world, the few people that had seen GWAR were trying to explain what GWAR was. Ah, such an innocent time, because there is little doubt people know what we are now!
A lot of these things were happening because of Jiz, our un-official manager at that point. Everybody loved her, and through her running the Covered Wagon, one of San Francisco’s best punk venues, she seemed to know just about everybody in the world. I can say that without her help GWAR might have stayed a Richmond art-school joke, I would have continued painting houses, and my life would have sucked. GWAR never would have become the two-time Grammy losing entertainment juggernaut that it continues to be!
She was the biggest part of the rock and roll learning process for me, my rock and roll mentor, and she began my schooling as soon as we became friends. Slowly I was learning my way around record contracts, licensing deals, and most mystifyingly, publishing agreements. All of these things are made to help musicians make a living off of their art, but they are also made as confusing as possible, so you have to hire lawyers and managers to decipher them. If you hire the WRONG manager or lawyer, they make it even MORE confusing, and it only becomes understandable if you take wagon-loads of money and dump them into a flaming pit in the floor. Once you have given the right people enough money, it becomes crystal clear–right at the point when you realize you have just enough money left over to make the album, pay the studio, lawyers, and manager, and just enough left over to buy the band a 12-pack of beer (Milwaukee’s Best Lite Ice).
But right from the start Jiz made it easy to learn. While we were in SF, Jiz took us by Winterland Merchandising, who were interested in GWAR. It was a big warehouse full of activity, and in the central area there were a bunch of artists working on designs. One of the guys had just completed the famous Slayer “Green Demon” shirt, and I marveled at the fact that the image had come from a small (like five inches high) clay model! We loaded up on as much free stuff as we could and took off for Guerneville, the next stop on our journey.
Guerneville was a little riverside resort/arts community tucked into a tangle of valleys about an hour or so north of SF. There was a decent hall there, and for many years after it was a regular stop on any GWAR tour. The terrain of Northern Cali is some of the most beautiful in the world, and as we whiled away the hours before the show splashing in the river, or hanging out in the cool cabin they let us stay in, or letting Billy-Boy squeeze drops of liquid LSD into our eyes, all was right in the world. We had just crushed LA and SF for the second time in six months, and this time, people had actually came!
But what was really amazing was what I had walked out of Winterlands offices with–no, I hadn’t stolen somebody’s wallet–I had a deal memo…a deal that had several zeroes attached to it. At first I thought it was a typo but no, explained Jiz, Winterland wanted to do our merch and were willing to pay us a lot of money to do it. If we took the deal we would have enough money to actually pay people…to buy road cases, and new amps, and many other essential things we had basically had just done without up until that point. If we could make it back alive, and take this deal, we could set up the Slave Pit like a REAL business, get incorporated, have shareholders, and really have a shot at success (whatever that was). Hell, we thought, we might even have enough to buy the Slave Pit a new bong and jam-box!
Mind alight with the many possibilities ahead of us, I wandered back into the club to check out the opening band. Standing on stage was a man smeared from head-to-toe with what looked like either mud of dogshit. Branches from various trees protruded from his underwear and he held a larger branch in one hand, which he pointed at the audience like a magic wand. Some fucking horrible pre-recorded track was playing as the dude repeatedly said the words “I am living sculpture…I am living sculpture…”.
Wow! This was going to be even more fun than I thought!
— ∮∮∮ —
- I’ve realized that the “Death Tour” was the name for ALL of the tours we did in 1989, so after this week we can go back to having regular chapter titles again. Whew! ↩
- Little did I know that was the beginning of a “life-long buddy” class friendship with the The Big E. He survived the siege (8,000 Muslims didn’t). ↩