GG Allin/“Naked Lunch”/‘Extreme’ art

“Bite it, you scum” -GG Allin

A brief warning here: I’m going to use some song/book titles and quotes from people who were/are shitheads with shithead ideas. In a lot of cases, these people were simply seeking to shock by being offensive/‘not caring what you think’. There’s some thoughtful stuff in here as well, but it’s also partially designed to be offensive. If deliberately offensive things are going to put you out in some fashion, I’m going to encourage you not to engage with this entry. 

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There exists a set of books in a series, lumped under the banner of 33 1/3; at the time of this entry there are more than 150 of them; they are short-ish books, each one focusing on a different album. They range wildly in style and tone, some of them are ‘making of’ kind of books, focusing on the history of the band and album, some of them being more loose essays which include thoughts about the record and its overall place in music. None of them are about GG Allin. 

This isn’t a surprise; GG Allin’s art has next to no merit. He was more famous for shitting himself on stage and fighting with his audience for any of his music, which, for the most part, is badly recorded punk rock with songs mostly designed for shock value. He died of a drug overdose in 1993; and might largely be forgotten about, but a documentary about him that was released the year he died gave him a lengthy half life. (“Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies”) It contains all the antics for which he was famous, preserved for all to see, and it’s a fairly well made film. The director would go on to make “The Hangover” and “The Joker” among other things.

The thing that fascinates me about the movie is probably not what fascinates others— I spent most of it wondering what it would be like making a living by being a member of GG’s band. Unfortunately, it does little to answer a lot of my questions: like, did they get guarantees? Most of GG’s shows were cut short, because he was either too drunk or high to perform, or because the venue stopped the show after he began fighting with the audience, or flinging shit, or some combination of all of those things. What would it be like, in a very real sense, to earn your next meal by standing behind someone who was basically a gigantic child, who’s main concerns seemed to be getting his next dose of literally whatever drug he could and hating every person who paid to see him perform?

I think there’s a 33 1/3 in there somewhere. Someone I know from twitter argued you could write one about how his last album, “Brutality and Bloodshed for All” was a proto-sludge album, and it has a place in musical history for that reason. It’s not the worst argument: Allin’s voice at this point had become completely shot; it’s a gravelly croak, which gives it a different feel. It’s also probably one of the more fully listenable records he put out (if you want to hear songs like “I Kill Everything I Fuck”, especially), benefitting from a guitarist who plays something akin to actual riffs, and not-bad-for-shitty-punk-rock production. I’m not 100% convinced it has a place in musical history, but I wouldn’t be the one making the argument. I’d read it, though. 

As for me, I’d be more interested in answering the question about how and when Allin’s don’t give a fuck persona became his don’t give a fuck lifestyle, and what that meant for those around him. Whatever Allin actually produced, he had a strong desire to do so, and, despite his professed hatred for his audience; he seemed to want to get other people to listen to it. He was a relentless self promoter, and would speak to just about anyone who had an outlet. Making deliberately offensive art is one thing; anyone can do it, and it will likely have a small inbuilt audience of shock junkies. Seeking a wider audience for it is something else, and there’s a point of interest for me there. I just don’t have the time or inclination to actually write it; nor do I think the 33 1/3 people would really want to publish it. 

Luckily for me, there’s a second documentary about Allin, made long after he was dead. Sometimes called “The Allins” and others “GG Allin : All in the family”, it focuses on GG’s brother, Merle, and actually does answer a few of my questions. At the time of filming, Merle was living in California (where he apparently remains), still playing in a band named “The Murder Junkies” and making a living by playing music, selling memorabilia, recordings of his brother’s music, and paintings made out of his own shit. The movie does contain a bit more about the divide between GG the ‘artist’ and GG the person than I was expecting. It’s surprising to hear a kind and thoughtful letter from GG to his mother, for example. Like most every human, things are complicated. However, GG’s music remains the same, and while Merle has recorded and performed new material, it’s more or less an extension of GG’s (sample titles include “Shit Princess” and “My Good Whore”).

GG’s mom is in the movie, and she talks about the divide between “Kevin” (GG’s actual name, kind of), and “GG”. The film is a little more successful to me than “Hated” simply because it engages with its subject matter a little more closely, and we walk away from it seeing a little bit behind the curtain. Ultimately, to quote Vonnegut, “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” GG seemed to be incapable of being careful, Merle a little more so.  

There’s a point in a lot of sheltered suburban boys lives where they seek out transgressive stuff (and, yeah, I believe it to mostly be boys, especially at the time when I was one). I was no exception, and I bought a copy of GG Allin’s album “You Give Love a Bad Name” when I was 17. I went to high school in New Hampshire (where GG was born), and GG was a sort of local legend; a kind of punk rock boogyman, who’s records were sold at the independent record store in Manchester, but you had to ask for them. 

“You Give Love a Bad Name” was his first release which had wider distribution, and I think I bought it in Boston at Newbury Comics. I was really disappointed when I realized that it was like the music I was already listening to, only with more swearing, less thought, crappier recording, and an obsession with being so juvenile that even as a 17 year old I rolled my eyes. (I still think the album’s title is kinda funny, though). 

It was natural that a book nerd like me, seeking out ‘shocking things’ would hear about Burroughs/Miller/Joyce, etc. They were presented as transgressive and obscene (“Ulysses was in an obscenity trial! Oooo!” is, in retrospect hilarious when you actually read it and fail to comprehend the obscene bits because it’s James Joyce.) From the outside, especially to a relatively sheltered suburban kid, the beat writers seemed cool (“They lived lives on their OWN TERMS, MAAAAN”— right up until you actually read about they way they did live their lives and, well, “their own terms” frequently sucked for both them and those around them). It follows that 17, 18 year old me would dive on in to Naked Lunch. 

So what’s it like to read it as a grizzled, tax paying adult instead of a suburban punk rock doofus? It’s a mixed bag. 

In a previous entry I described it as “rightly considered a masterpiece”, and I’ll stand by that. It’s funnier than I remembered; the parts describing A.J.’s ‘pranks’ still make me chuckle ; the sabotaging of a meeting of “Anti-Flourides” with a drug that turns their gums to mush, the attempts to bring a “purple assed baboon” into a night club by calling it an “Ilyrian Poodle” reminded me simultaneously of “Every Which Way But Loose” and Hunter Thompson, which is impressive. 

And Burroughs is a good, sometimes great writer. The chapter “The Market” contains beautiful descriptions of a surreal landscape:

All houses in the city are joined. Houses of sod-high mountain Mongols blink in smoky doorways-houses of bamboo and teak, houses of adobe, stone and red brick, South Pacific and Maori houses, houses in trees and river boats, wood houses one hundred feet long sheltering entire tribes, houses of boxes and corrugated iron where old men sit in rotten rags cooking down canned heat, great rusty iron racks rising two hundred feet in the air…

His juxtapositions between the beautiful and the horrible are very impressive; and while the book has no real central plot, its themes and events hang together in a way that makes it feel like a complete novel. It’s an impressive trick, and one that’s hard to pull off. 

By the time we hit the end, the book has become a word salad; it’s almost as if Burroughs is backed into a corner, having run up against the limits of language. Famously, Burroughs suggested that the book could be read in any order. I disagree. While he may have submitted the chapters more or less at random, there’s a flow that occurs within them, and maybe it’s entirely on accident, but maybe it’s a testament to the writing  that it achieves that. As I said, masterpiece.

But it’s also a flawed masterpiece: Burroughs is overly fond of the word ‘ectoplasm’. Some of the stories don’t land quite the way he intended. And the book’s central themes of commodification and addiction don’t so much suggest themselves as they do repeatedly shout into your ear via megaphone. “HEY THIS BLACK MEAT THING IS A METAPHOR FOR HEROIN”— and yeah, it’s satire, and satire isn’t always subtle, but there’s a line, and Burroughs dances all over it, probably intentionally. Intentionality does not always make something good, though, and it gets to be a bit much.

Then we come to the gross shit. The book is loaded with it; it piles up until you nearly become numb to it all— the chapter “Hassan’s Rumpus Room” is filled to the brim with images of boys being hung, ejaculating, and shitting, all described in extremely graphic detail. You begin to wish Burroughs wasn’t such a good wordsmith because holy fuck these images burrow themselves into your brain and they can easily become all you remember about reading “Naked Lunch”.

There’s a variety of interpretations for these scenes that float around— Burroughs may or may not have intended them as a protest against capital punishment; I prefer the notion that it fits in with the rest of the book’s themes; that the world is a giant mountain of exploitation, and the lowest and most vulnerable are going to be used for whatever they can be used for, and then thrown into the trash. Heady stuff, but it doesn’t always read that way to me; some of it comes across as shock for its own sake. 

But let’s be fair: some of that is the product of 60 plus years of evaporated time. In 1959, this would have blown your goddamned mind. In the early 90’s when I first read it, I had heard GG Allin singing that he wanted to alternately rape and kill whoever listened to his album, and I was too dumb to know the difference between one thing and the other. So in my head, it got all lumped in together with ‘provoking the squares’ or something like that. And yeah, the squares need provoking, but flinging shit in their faces isn’t worth a good goddamn if they don’t stop afterwards and think about why. Maybe this is one I shouldn’t have read as a kid. It’s adult in the truest sense of the word. 

It’s a part of the comfortable human condition to seek out the uncomfortable. I may not have entirely understood the book when I first read it, but I don’t regret seeking it out, either. Wes Craven called horror films “boot camp for the psyche” and that’s the most cogent explanation I have ever heard for an interest in being shocked. There’s a comfort in being on the one side of the screen or the page or the whatever while some horrible thing occurs on the other side of it. Eventually, however, we will be called upon to confront something that’s actually damaging to our psyche. At that time, hopefully our bootcamp was run by experts, not amateurs. 

2 responses to “GG Allin/“Naked Lunch”/‘Extreme’ art”

  1. If you want to know what the people in GG Allin’s band got out of it, you can ask Chicken John next time you see him. I asked him once, and the answer in a nutshell was “hepatitis.”

    Like

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