Even GWAR wrestles with organizational change

They say you can’t go home again. Well, Thomas Wolfe said they said it. He was probably right – by the time you make it back, home has changed and you have changed. Or, as one of my favorite bands, Fugazi, asserts in song, “You can’t be what you were, so you’d better start being just what you are.”

That’s a long, meandering way of saying that I recently had coffee and talked organizational change with GWAR.

If you’re from Richmond, you may know GWAR as a schlock-metal performance band whose lead singer, Dave Brockie, died last year.

You probably didn't realize that GWAR is the performance arm of a thriving artistic collective known as Slave Pit Inc. Dozens of musicians, artists and performers have been employed by the organization over the years, including my college friend Bob Gorman.

The vast majority of my early college evenings were spent hanging out with Bob in the GWAR space on Laurel Street, where he first volunteered/apprenticed and then was employed creating costumes for the band. Twenty-five years later, Bob’s still making costumes and performing on stage – and has just completed a massive coffee table book chronicling the band’s sordid history.

It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to think a punk rock collective of artists and musicians might have organizational challenges. Particularly when the group is in the midst of major transition and change.

Which is what Bob and I discussed over coffee. We talked at length about ways organizations can both lose their orientation and develop a clearer sense of their future after a key leader moves on. In the case of GWAR, Brockie would probably be better described as a creative force of nature who often moved the band, and Slave Pit, by frantically out-thinking and out-working everyone around him. Hyperactivity is not the best leadership tool out there, but it seemed to work pretty well for Dave.

Like many organizations entering their second generation, GWAR struggles with reconciling its rich and messy legacy of creativity with the individual visions of key shareholders, the inevitable politics of an artist collective, and a shared commitment to a yet-undetermined vision of the future. As a bystander at GWAR’s birth, I can attest that the band was born of an era that needed the band’s raw, unfiltered take on the world – Brockie’s nimble evisceration of virtually every political and social construct is not applauded enough.

Listening to Bobby’s perspectives on the changes in his organization made me think about just how hard it is for organizations to reinvent themselves – especially creative organizations, ironically. It becomes even harder when your creativity is oriented in opposition to things that are no longer relevant.

While I might not have been able to “go home again” – relative to my punk rock roots – it sure was nice to reconnect with an amazing friend, and to see our lives once again intersect during a time of change and transition.