Remembering GWAR, Regional Identity, TEDx and Me

By Michael Bishop

So, TEDxRVA is gearing up for this year’s TEDx event to be held April 8th, 2016 here in Richmond, Virginia. TEDxRVA is part of an international community of groups that organize and produce independent events in the spirit and style of TED conferences, using TED’s format and rules. I was honored to speak at the 2015 TEDxRVA, and I wanted to look back and write about that experience because it was a pivotal and important moment in my recent history, but also because it was hilarious. Around January of 2015 I was contacted by representatives of TEDx who asked me if I would be interested in speaking. I said I would. They also wanted me to involve GWAR in organizing an interactive presentation of some sort, and the guys were fine with participating, so I agreed on both counts. Right from the drop, there was a strange dynamic with TedxRVA. They had reached out to me, and seemed very keen for me to accept, but as soon as I agreed to participate, I was informed that I would have to convince other members of their group that I was a good choice. So basically I had to be vetted; which is understandable I suppose, but it was a bit odd to immediately go from the belle of the ball to an “applicant.”

The vetting process was a series of meetings with thirty-somethings at a local hipster coffee shop near the GWAR studio, the Slave Pit, located in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition neighborhood. I am a long time Richmonder, but unfortunately, I have only recently moved back to the city after having to live in Charlottesville for more than a decade while teaching at the University of Virginia. I was, in fact,  surprised to learn that there was a coffee shop in Scott’s Addition, which I remembered as an industrial part of the city made up of warehouses, factories, and a few restaurants. Richmond has changed quite a bit, and the way GWAR is thought of in this city has changed. In the intervening years since GWAR grew out of the fertile Richmond punk scene of the 1980’s, the band has become a sort of symbol for the city’s unique modern cultural identity, an identity that goes beyond, and even resists the old idea of Richmond’s historical identity as a town built on the tobacco economy of the Old South and best known worldwide as the capital of the Confederate States of America. The irony of these meetings with the TEDx reps, and I suppose what left me feeling vaguely, ever so slightly, but noticeably discomfited, was the fact that the sorts of changes that are driving the new face of Richmond neighborhoods like Scott’s Addition are the same changes that have given rise to a group like TEDxRVA, and these are exactly the economic and cultural changes that are making the city less and less familiar, less and less like the place that gave a young group of artists and musicians the space and energy to create GWAR. The truth is, the Slave Pit has moved around the city over the years, but we have always set up shop in areas like Scott’s Addition, or more accurately, like Scott’s Addition ten years ago,  where the spaces are large and the rents relatively low. Indeed, the fact that Richmond’s economy allowed the Slave Pit and GWAR to take hold was one of the central themes of my TED talk. But the way the city is changing, GWAR and the Slave Pit find themselves once again needing to move, to leave behind revitalized Richmond and look for more affordable space in a shittier part of town, as yet undiscovered by a generation of young “creatives.”

Still, it was nice that TEDxRVA was interested in us, and this interest speaks to exciting possibilities for GWAR to move closer to the mainstream world of art and music in Richmond, Virginia. In fact, during our talks with TEDxRVA, the organizers told me that they had partnered with the Richmond Symphony who would be performing as the sort of house band for the TEDx event. With this in mind, I worked with fellow Misery Brother Joe Adkins to come up with a great plan for a collaboration between GWAR and the symphony. We proposed a performance titled “Die Schwarze Und Blau.” For this performance, it would be announced that GWAR was going to join the symphony in performing the GWAR song “Black and Huge” under the direction of the famous conductor Melvin Fleebish Fartwrangler (a perverse reference to Wilhelm Furtwängler, a German conductor and composer considered to be one of the most important conductors of symphonic music in modern times). The performance would start with GWAR characters dancing hilariously to a deliberately belabored and absurd version of Strauss’s “The Blue Danube.” At some point, the dance would go horribly wrong and GWAR would decapitate Fartwrangler who would continue to conduct sans head as the band and the symphony launch into a symphonic version of “Black and Huge” expertly arranged by Joe Adkins. This would have been great, but it didn’t happen. We did our part, giving the Richmond Symphony a concert score of the arrangement, but apparently there was never really an agreement that the symphony would perform, and indeed, they wound up not performing at the event at all.

After this plan unraveled, things got a little strained between myself, GWAR, and the TEDxRVA camp. In the place of “Die Schwarze Und Blau” we proposed to decapitate TED himself. We were going to bring out a Steve Jobs looking character in a black turtleneck and introduce him as the actual TED, never before seen anywhere. He would have a tablet and be trying to talk but no words were coming out…the joke was that his technology was failing him….and we would come out and cut off his head. The TEDx camp refused to do this and arranged for me to talk to curator Andy Stefanovich to explain why. Stefanovich is a good dude, all the TEDx people were good folks, so don’t misunderstand me here. I got the sense that they were willing to poke fun at themselves, but they were under pressure to make sure the event met certain standards set forth by the national TED brand. They couldn’t afford to appear to endorse the symbolic killing of TED. Also at issue was the fact that we would be decapitating someone, and they were reluctant to allow a decapitation in the light of recent high profile decapitations by ISIS. All of this was reasonable. I was happy that in the end, they allowed us to do a face rip instead. Basically, we got to do what we had planned in the first place, with Pustulus ripping the face off of Bob Gorman as the TED talker. It was hilarious and went over exactly as we had hoped.

GWAR TED talk

GWAR TED talk

A less positive aspect of the experience was when I showed up for a rehearsal THE DAY BEFORE THE EVENT, and learned that while I had prepared an 18 minute talk, I was only being given 9 minutes of time for my TED talk!!!!! WTF??  I was completely floored to learn that unlike the other presenters, who would get full time, I was only allotted 9 minutes. I assumed that once they learned about this mistake the organizers would correct it and give me my time back. I was wrong! I argued vociferously with the young stage managers and other organizers, but they absolutely refused to budge on the time limit. Any one who has written a speech knows is it is often far more difficult to make a talk shorter than it is to make it longer. In fact, with my time cut in half, I essentially had to REWRITE the entire speech, and that is exactly what I did. The minute I figured out that they were simply NOT going to give me my allotted time, I took off of work and got busy rewriting. In fact, I stayed up all night rewriting the speech with the help of my assigned mentor Luke Rabin, and bandmate Bob Gorman. Luke had been in regular contact with the organizers but he had no idea of the change in my time limit. During the talk with Andy Stefanovich I mentioned earlier, we specifically discussed the 18 minute format of the TED talks. I let him know that I was ready to go, and very familiar with the 18 minute format from given academic talks which were generally around that long. He never mentioned that I was to be given half that time. I still have no idea why this change was made. I eventually gathered that there must have been some lack of communication in their organization, which is understandable. What I do NOT understand, and what still amazes me, is that they absolutely refused to change their plans and give me the time to deliver the speech I had originally prepared. If someone from TEDxRVA reads this and would like to respond with an explanation I would love to understand.

This news in fact gave rise to the most memorable thing about the whole experience for me. Apparently, there was a woman there from the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, that runs TED. She was very well put together; nicely dressed and professional. This woman approached me backstage after hearing me raise my voice to the stage manager. I gather that she could see that I was visibly distressed about the change in my allotted time. In a voice like Fran Drescher, she said something to the effect of; “Excuse me, I heard what is happening here, and I just want to give you some advice if I may. I have helped hundreds of people prepare talks and many of those have gone viral. I think you should view this as an opportunity. Can I touch you?” WHAT?? She asked if she could touch me. Luke and Bob were standing behind her. Bob looked like he was getting ready to burst out laughing, but Luke’s face fully registered the awkwardness of this moment. His eyes were the size of saucers. Why would this woman want to touch me?? Still, I agreed for shits and giggles, maybe I was too stunned to say no…”Sure,” I replied. “You need to speak from here….” She said, reaching out to touch my stomach. I am a fat man. People, let me tell you….Do NOT touch the stomach of a fat man you don’t know. It is just not cool under most circumstances. It is in fact more obnoxious and potentially dangerous than touching the stomach of a pregnant woman you don’t know. But this loathsome woman said to me “I heard you are an academic, and I can tell you are very brilliant, but as an academic you speak from here…” and she moved her hand from my stomach to my forehead. “I need you to speak from…here…” and she rested her hand back on my stomach. “I think if you give a nine minute talk it will have a better chance of going viral.” I was flabbergasted. I looked at her, and said “I don’t care if it goes viral…I have to make it shorter, and I am not prepared for that.” I was winding up to break WAY shitty….and thankfully, Luke saw this and grabbed me by the elbow and led me away. “I had to get you away from her” he said. “Who the hell was she? That was horrible!” I am so glad that he and Bob were there to witness that awful but hilarious moment.

So, I am not 100% happy with how my TEDx talk turned out. I spoke on GWAR and regional identity, but I was not able to really get into the meat of the matter. It worked, and it has it’s moments, but the longer talk was better. Still, the crazy thing is that this woman WAS RIGHT. I know more people probably watched the talk then would have if it were longer, and to date, the official video of the talk has more than 140,000 views on Youtube, and probably way more than that on all sources combined. So, all is well that ends well. In the end, I do think people can gather from the talk what I was hoping to explain: that GWAR grew out of AND reflected a specific cultural moment. That GWAR could only have emerged from that particular cultural moment, and could only have come from the place that gave it life, Richmond, Virginia. So…Thanks TED..and perhaps best of all….one day “Die Schwarz Und Blau” MUST come to fruition.

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