Look Into My Eyes and Hate Me: GG Allin, R.I.P.
I’ll confess: I was unaffected by GG’s personal charisma, until I was sucked in by a picture of him, dead in his coffin.
Now that he’s dead, it feels like GG Allin is everywhere. Maybe you’ve noticed a fresh sign, added to those scrappy memorials lining the Emeryville mud flats off of Interstate 80: ‘GG, Live Fast, Die.’ Or maybe you’ve seen Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, a documentary by Todd Phillips, which offers a behind the scenes view of the man whose punk rock shows included shit-eating, bloody head-bashing, and songs like ‘I wanna rape you.’ Maybe you’ve just heard the hype: GG on the Jane Whitney Show, promising to lead the youth of America in a bloody revolution against their parents; GG on Geraldo, talking about community, ‘my flesh, blood, and body fluids are a communion to the people.’ Heck, maybe you saw GG Allin, up close and personal, when he was still alive. But I’ll confess: I was unaffected by GG’s personal charisma, until I was sucked in by a picture of him, dead in his coffin.
What drew me to dead GG was his wretchedly purple and battered head, token of a life spent head-butting glass walls. The difference death makes is that all the living tension has drained out of his face, leaving him with a pouty expression and the appearance of a very old baby. Wearing his leather jacket, a discolored diaper, and a walkman, GG’s hands are crossed over his crotch: he is holding a photo of a young blonde boy. He is surrounded by the effluvia of the living: a Lunachicks album cover, pictures of his brother and band-members, aNew York Post announcing his death. With GG, it’s difficult to draw a line between death and performance — and so whenever I stare at this sepulchral portrait I’m half-afraid that GG might wake up and yell, ‘You came to see it, you’re going to feel it,’ and pull me into the coffin. But I can look all I want, because the threat of GG’s immediacy is over; now we can all rent GG videos and experience armchair authenticity, never to be confronted with a spectacle throwing his own feces at us.
Live, GG’s shows collapsed the distinction between audience and performer. In Hated, he describes his stage ethic in terms of war, ‘my mind is a machine gun, my body the bullets, and the target is the audience.’ Live, GG used death, like his body fluids, as a structuring presence: ‘Will this be the show where he kills himself?’. GG built death into his performance, beginning with a promise to kill himself on-stage for Halloween, 1990. He broke this promise by getting sent to jail for ‘assaulting’ (slicing) a woman in Michigan; but jail, as he told Jane Whitney, was good for GG, ‘I just sit in there and reload the gun.’ Breaking his parole to film Hated with Phillips, GG’s death became a messianically good game of ‘chicken’ for his audience — Will he take me with him? Compared to the build-up, GG’s death from a drug overdose this past June might seem a pathetic anti-climax, especially as contextualized with GG’s talk show claims on the nobility of a warrior’s final moments: ‘when you reach your peak it’s time to die.’
Despite his brother Merle’s statement that ‘[GG] hadn’t even begun to peak yet,’ GG’s work is finished now, and becoming available for distribution (video, recordings, and somewhere, a prison notebook). But there is a difference between goods and bodily presence, as this eye-witness report illustrates: ‘I can remember a woman at the front of the stage being stomped on by a band member, and I went up to the stage and pulled the woman away so she wouldn’t get stomped, and as soon as I let her go she ran back to the stage’ (Steven Rubio, ‘Me and GG Shut Down Ruthie’s Inn’). Received wisdom associates projectile violence with GG, but the specific performances I’ve viewed (most occurring in the 1990s, to date them from GG’s shaved skull) haven’t overwhelmed me with the audience’s pain and suffering. Maybe I’m experiencing alienation from the video format, but what strikes me about the latter-day GG is how often he’s alone up there on stage, pounding himself on the head with his microphone. At a show in Chicago, on an untitled video, the audience actually runs away from GG every time he approaches them (or they hide behind the drum set, which is apparently the safest viewing location). GG is left running his hands over his bleeding pate, looking blankly at palms filled with his own blood.
But why beat your own head? Auto-head bashing — with the microphone, with a bottle, against the bars of a gogo cage — is the back-beat underlying GG’s project. In Hated, an ex-member of the Murder Junkies, named Chicken John, criticizes GG’s performance, ‘he’s not helping, he’s not hurting…he’s just a spectacle.’ But to prove that what GG does is no big deal, Chicken John suddenly begins punching himself in the face, over and over again at full strength: ‘its no..(pow)…big deal (pow).’ In a strange way, you might think of aggression turned against the self as an ethical decision: as Unk, one of GG’s fans, says, ‘if GG was not being what he is now, he would be murdering people.’ In other words, GG found an aesthetic cure for the desire to kill; by directing his violence towards a paying audience, GG found a legitimate site for breaking down social and behavioral limits. However, this reflexive gesture of knocking on one’s own skull indicates a further limit: what’s enclosed within? What memories, and what motivation?
GG called his live shows ‘therapy’; opening the door for his remote audience (aka, the home viewer) to play ‘read that symptom.’ Despite the best efforts of video producers to recreate the experience of GG live (GG Allin Eats His Own recommends defecating in front of the TV), we can’t experience the fear, pain, and possibly joy of full presence in the safety of our homes. We might question whether GG’s live shows ever attained ‘true’ immediacy; whether they constituted a genuine threat to the social order, or whether they simply expressed spontaneous behavior that failed to disrupt the social world. GG’s promise of a bloody revolution, like his promise of an on-stage suicide, may have been simply rhetoric. But I don’t want to judge what I’ve only experienced in a thoroughly mediated fashion — though my experience has its compensations, like ‘rewind’ and ‘pause.’
‘This is real,’ GG said of his act; and while I won’t deny that the skin sliced by a razor blade is really opening, I wonder just who found immediacy at the GG show. If GG’s performances were therapy, a ‘ritual,’ a reworking of infantile rage (and believe me, to see GG rolling around in his own shit is to witness infantile rage), then the scene they recall, the pain they cite, was felt and experienced a long time ago. Looking at GG’s eyes as he stares at the blood on his hands is to see a performer who is not present in his own act. Even as the audience drinks in potentially threatening body fluids, GG’s not there. I can’t look in GG’s eyes in the picture I have, because they’ve been closed. But I can look at the picture the dead man clasps — it’s a typical school photo, blue background, grinning kid — and I ask that kid: what happened to you?
Catherine Hollis is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley, and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. Look for GG Allin paraphernalia at your local independent media outlet.