In 1953 Marlon Brando brought the outlaw biker to the big screen in director László Benedek's The Wild One, a film about mayhem erupting at a motorcycle rally. Brando's dark, violent character Johnny Strabler became the cultural icon of the 1950s. Elvis Aaron Presley built on that persona with his paeans to teenage lust and black-leather rage — and America's obsession with the antihero was born. The antisocial outsider, the sullen romantic, became an archetype that was as uniquely American as apple pie.
Nice, middle-class kids didn't have to get their hands dirty. They could get vicarious thrills through movies and music, grease up their hair into pompadours and playact the role of an outsider. Charles Manson stated, in a 1989 interview with author/musician/filmmaker Nikolas Schreck, that the real Elvis died in solitary confinement or on a chain gang somewhere — inferring that Elvis Presley was a pretender, an impostor on the throne of delinquency, and that popular music allowed him to put on the trappings of the outlaw without actually crossing the line into criminality. Over half a century later, nothing has really changed. Kids are still enthralled by the dark side, be it extreme metal, violent movies or lurid YouTube videos. All these outlets allow people to safely and discretely indulge their primal urges, to scratch itches that may otherwise be satisfied only by true antisocial action.
Enter hardcore punk hellion GG Allin. Born Jesus Christ Allin on August 29, 1956, in Lancaster, New Hampshire, he was first called GG by his older brother Merle who was unable to pronounce Jesus. The Allin household did not provide the most nurturing environment for young GG. His father, Merle Sr., was an abusive religious fanatic who routinely threatened that he would kill his family, bury them in the basement and then kill himself. And living conditions were grim: no running water, no electricity and extreme isolation (which Allin chronicles in his essay "First Ten Years").
Allin got into music at a young age, performing with early bands Malpractice and Stripsearch, but it was the Jabbers that put him on the map. He then went on to front the Cedar Street Sluts, the Scumfucs, Texas Nazis, the Criminal Quartet, the Disappointments and the Murder Junkies, among others. The musician thought of himself as a kindred spirit of country legends like Hank Williams and David Allan Coe. He would record his own outlaw country tracks — "Guns, Bitches, Brawls and Bottles," "Carmelita" and "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down" — and a full-length record called Carnival of Excess.
It's not uncommon for musicians to claim that music kept them out of trouble, and that without it they would have ended up in jail or dead. But GG was on a totally different wild ride. There was no separation between life and art: He played music and ended up in jail — and ultimately dead by his own hand. For GG, music and rock culture were simply weapons in his arsenal.
"I was interested in the music of GG first and foremost; the raw, primitive, warts-and-all approach of 'like it or not, who gives a fuck' attitude and sleaze rock sounds. What kept me digging deeper into the artist and his life was reality. The reality of animal instinct and what human beings really do to each other."
—Mike IX Williams (Eyehategod, Outlaw Order, Corrections House)
Allin's recorded output was prolific (well over a dozen full-length records, singles and EPs) and he toured the country relentlessly, with controversy following him like a noxious cloud. He was allegedly arrested 50 times and eventually incarcerated for beating up a female fan in Michigan. The spectacle of his live shows — which often included defecation, blood, violence and public nudity — added to his notoriety and pushed the limits of the law, acceptable behavior and general rules of personal hygiene.
"You can't dispute that GG was a pioneer in extremity; the raw simplicity of his music, the feces, blood and attacking of audience members during performances, truly breaking down the walls between artist and audience. You could debate the validity of his music: it was rock & roll with toilet humor or outright hateful garbage. But there was no question that it was scary, dangerous and authentic. It made anyone with a conscience uneasy. It was the id, a trainwreck demolition derby live and onstage.
"However, the whole 'Public Animal No. 1' image became nothing more than a cartoon before long. The excessive drugs and hangers-on and the ability to never not be 'performing' probably led to why he died such a typical stupid rock & roll death. To the end he was always pushing towards oblivion in hopes of taking a bunch of his fans along with him."
—Ron Martinez (Final Conflict)
On June 27th, 1993, Allin played his final show in New York City's East Village at a space called the Gas Station. The power was cut after the second song and a riot ensued. Allin took to the streets and eventually ended up at an apartment where he partied late into the night. It was there that the musician ingested a lethal dose of heroin. Allin was pronounced dead the following day; he was 36 years old. Allin had long made claims that he would kill himself onstage, so it was a bit anticlimactic for him to go out in such a clichéd rock & roll manner.
It's hard to imagine GG Allin rampaging across the USA in the 21st century. A lot has changed. Modern life has become more conceptual — experienced mostly through mobile devices and online — and the visceral, immediate experience has taken a back seat to voyeuristic detachment. The fascination with the dark side is still present, but these days the antihero is expected to play by the rules of conformity and avoid truly embracing total darkness. GG Allin did neither of those things.
A divisive, destructive and demented performer, GG Allin was one of only a handful of musicians who turned the outlaw myth into reality. And in the end, he gazed into the abyss, and the abyss gazed into him.