In the George Bush Sr. era, they ruled the Santa Cruz music scene, worked with the real-life ‘more cowbell’ guy and came inches away from becoming rock superstars. Almost two decades later, World Entertainment War is back to launch a new assault on mass media.
The 2006 film Idiocracy depicts a dystopian society of the future in which the movie Ass—a 90-minute close-up of a man’s buttocks, with the occasional fart serving to spice up the plot—wins an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and the most popular show on TV is called Ow! My Balls! (It’s exactly what it sounds like.) Absurd as this scenario might seem, the bizarre truth is that much of what passes for entertainment in the present day makes the media as depicted in Idiocracy look downright benign. In recent times, we’ve watched game show contestants vie for cash prizes by eating bowls of blended rats on Fear Factor, and we’ve seen Entertainment Weekly praise Jackass—a TV program whose stars captured the public imagination by attaching leeches to their eyeballs, receiving kicks in the groin from children (Ow! My balls!) and taking massive amounts of laxatives in order to poop into toilets that were up for sale—as one of the greatest shows of the past 25 years.
It’s easy to see how this situation came to be: Knowing that they have just a couple of seconds to grab your attention, television programmers rely on images that are guaranteed to stimulate the ol’ reptilian brain—boobs, bombs, blood, bling, biceps, brutality, burgers. The result is LCD TV of the worst kind—LCD, in this case, standing for Lowest Common Denominator. The typical American kid grows up on four hours of this stuff a day, which, combined with movies, video games, magazines, etc., creates what you might call a mediocracy—an entire civilization of funk-less, unimaginative consumers whose behavior, opinions, sexual attractions and sense of style are dictated by pop videos, cigarette ads, shit-coms, (stupef)action films and soft-porn nympho-mercials.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, armed with jockstraps, full-body condoms, catchy tunes, fierce musical chops, thought-provoking lyrics and a unique tribal funk-rock sound, six Santa Cruzans known collectively as World Entertainment War waged an unforgettable counterattack against the mass media’s plunder of human potential. Though technically a rock band, WEW described itself as “a benevolent media virus programmed to prevent the entertainment criminals from stealing your imagination.” The group’s frontman was the charismatic, extroverted vocalist/showman-shaman Rob Brezsny, best known nowadays as the writer of the internationally syndicated astrology column “Free Will Astrology” (which, as we GT folks never tire of mentioning, got its start at this very paper).
“We wanted to be one of the players competing for the hearts and minds—and more importantly, imaginations—of the people,” Brezsny riffs. “We saw that that’s who wielded the greatest influence in our culture: the people who controlled our imaginations. It was a war for who would get the right to shape the imaginations of the most people.”
Idealistic? Maybe. But the fact is that World Entertainment War did indeed come incredibly close to playing a huge role in shaping the imaginations of the masses. Not only was WEW the hot-ticket item in Santa Cruz, capable of selling out The Catalyst at the drop of a hat, but with a major-label recording contract and the loyal backing of rock biz superpower Bill Graham—who told the band’s members in no uncertain terms that he was going to make them “the Grateful Dead of the ’90s”—the group was well on its way to becoming a legendary act on par with U2, Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones … until an uncanny stretch of bad luck led to the band’s undoing. Their story, like their music, is fun, strange, psychedelic and, above all, entertaining.
Though technically a rock band, WEW described itself as “a benevolent media virus programmed to prevent the entertainment criminals from stealing your imagination.”
Let Us Entertain You
World Entertainment War was a bona fide phenomenon. Comprised of Brezsny, co-lead vocalist Darby Gould, guitarist George Earth, keyboardist Amy Barnes Excolere, bassist Daniel Lewis and former Camper Van Beethoven drummer Kevin Anthony “Squint” Guess, the band consistently packed larger nightclubs throughout Santa Cruz and the Bay Area from wall to wall. A big part of the draw, of course, was the music itself: friendly, mischievous, groove-based rock with a powerful message, played with passion and professionalism. The members of the band understood, however, that to compete with Hulk Hogan for the attention of the populace, they were also going to have to give their audiences a spectacle, and this they did with a zeal that bordered on the religious. On a stage covered with money, clotheslines, furniture and TV sets aglow with all manner of curious images, the band kept the bodies bobbing in the crowd as Gould—who, it must be said, was and still is almost criminally cute—punched pessimism in the teeth with her soaring, soulful vocals. All the while, Brezsny, the confident cosmic jester, regaled spectators with funny, poetic rants, ran out into the audience to kiss people’s behinds, burned bras, donned outlandish costumes and encouraged everyone in the house, by way of example, to act out the title of the WEW song “Kick Your Own Ass” in the most literal way.
For all its playfulness, though, World Entertainment War was no joke. Offbeat as the band’s stage setup was, it had the feel of a genuine sacred space, and underlying all the bombast and fanfare was a sense of urgency—a feeling that the world had damned well better start having some fun, or it was going to end. Brezsny, who had previously sung in the local bands Kamikaze Angel Slander and Tao Chemical, spelled out the group’s message again and again in his lyrics: “Entertainment might as well be just like a rocket launcher—too bad it’s in the hands of the enemy”; “I want a new mania that tells better lies than the media”; “We want some better stories”; “Take back the airwaves”; “Television is the light of our lives, and we will heal it of all of its lies.”
“Some [people] would follow all of Rob’s words as if he were a preacher,” recalls Earth. “In fact, there was quite an odd religious vibe to it, but very pagan.” In light of a CD cover that referenced the Tarot, songs that alluded to occult maxims and practices, and a frontman who wove bits of ceremonial magick (rituals believed by some spiritualists to raise paranormal forces for the purpose of creating change) into his performances, it’s hardly necessary to state that the mystical feel of WEW’s shows was no accident. “We were pretty young, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but years later, I got exposed to a lot of Wiccan culture and stuff like that, and I realized that a big portion of Rob’s lyrics were literally magick incantations,” Earth comments.
One rite of which Brezsny was especially fond involved the purification of money. During the song “The Triple Witching Hour,” he would walk through the crowd with a big bowl of dirt filled with lit candles, encouraging fans to burn their cash. If audience members balked at the sight of burning money, the band would give those people cash. As money burning became more and more of a staple of the show, fans even began burning credit cards. (“We [eventually] stopped burning credit cards, ’cause it smelled really bad,” Guess notes.) At one venue where fire marshals wouldn’t allow these kinds of antics, Brezsny instead washed money and then hung it up to dry across the stage. At another such club, the band used a blender to make a money milkshake, which at least one brave volunteer tasted.
In the early ’90s, WEW was faced with the choice of remaining an underground sensation or taking its music to the masses.
Another prop that frequently figured into the band’s shows was a clothesline loaded with garments, allowing Brezsny to change costumes for each song. Rather than leaving the stage, he would strip naked with the audience watching and put another outfit on. A couple of the more memorable bits of apparel Rob modeled onstage were a red jockstrap and a full-body condom made from a black trash bag. In 1991, at a formal protest that the band staged at the San Francisco nightclub Slim’s on the night that the ground invasion of Iraq began, Rob appeared onstage wearing the jockstrap and did a reverse striptease, adding one garment at a time until fully clothed.
WEW encouraged audience members to be active participants in shows. At various times, the band invited people in the crowd up onstage to relax on couches and watch TV or to do “smoking jacks” (jumping jacks while smoking). Probably the most striking instance of audience participation, though, was the night when the band played a special show for its mailing list fans in a small, packed photo studio. With the boundaries between band and audience disintegrating into the acid punch that most everyone—including the group—had sampled, WEW and its fans mind-melded for four hours straight. At one point, while the band improvised what Gould calls a “beautiful, ethereal lull of a song” that came to be known as “Get out the Guilt,” Rob walked through the audience and asked people to confess things they felt guilty about. “After each person’s confession, Rob would thank them, and the band would swell,” Gould recalls.
In the early ’90s, WEW was faced with the choice of remaining an underground sensation or taking its music to the masses. The turning point came when Pete Carney, the independently wealthy son of a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan, gave the members of WEW a check for $9,000, which they used to record an eight-song independent album at Sonic West Studios in San Jose. Virtually as they were finishing the album, they were approached after a gig at San Francisco’s Club Kommotion by Sandy Pearlman, a musical entrepreneur who had managed Black Sabbath and produced albums by groups like The Clash and Blue Oyster Cult. (He’s the guy who Christopher Walken’s character in Saturday Night Live’s legendary “more cowbell” sketch is based on.) After vowing to make the band famous, Pearlman proceeded to convince the major record label MCA to sign the band. “That was the first testing ground: Do we want to be on a major label?” Brezsny says. “Can we maintain our integrity while being on a major label?” Collectively coming to the conclusion that they could make the transition with their artistic values intact, the members of WEW recorded their self-titled major-label debut album at San Francisco’s Alpha Omega Studios with $200,000 of MCA’s money. “They never said anything about how we should record it; we did it exactly as we wanted to,” Brezsny states.
Even in the early stages, though, there were signs that trouble lay ahead. Earth recalls noticing a strong contrast between the imposing MCA building in L.A. and the modest one-level ranch house building just across the street from it, which was the home of Interscope Records. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘Wow, that’s kinda cool: They’re not really ostentatious. Maybe that’s ’cause they support their bands or something?’” he says. “We were seeing glimpses of our demise before it even happened, and we were still too wrapped up in the experience to really understand what was going on.”
At around the same time, iconic rock promoter Bill Graham came to see the band at SF’s Paradise Lounge. “He started coming on really strong to us: He told me that he’d never been this excited about a band since 1969; he said he wanted to make us into the next Grateful Dead,” Brezsny notes. “I mean, those were his exact words!”
Bill Graham came to see the band at SF’s Paradise Lounge. “He started coming on really strong to us: He told me that he’d never been this excited about a band since 1969; he said he wanted to make us into the next Grateful Dead.”
Graham invited Brezsny and Earth to his palatial home in Corte Madera, where he showed the two bandmates his cases full of memorabilia: Janis Joplin’s slippers, Keith Richards’ tape-covered boots, etc. “He said, ‘Someday your jockstrap is gonna be in the case,’” Brezsny chuckles. “It was hard to resist that.’”
Though Graham made some minor suggestions about Brezsny’s onstage presentation (he thought Rob should do fewer costume changes and project a less androgynous image), he was committed to making the band huge exactly as it already was. The band signed on, convinced that with Graham as manager, they could, in Brezsny’s words, “maintain our integrity in the face of becoming part of this larger machine.”
In a Crisis
As if reaping the rewards of a particularly successful occult ritual, the members of World Entertainment War were enjoying an almost comically exaggerated streak of good fortune: Not only were they being managed by one of the most powerful figures in the business, but the same day that Brezsny’s daughter Zoe was born also saw the release of the band’s self-titled major label debut CD.
Not that everything was perfect—an exclusivity clause in the MCA contract had obligated the group to record the album at the studio of the aforementioned Sandy Pearlman, resulting in a record that some listeners thought needed a little “less cowbell,” so to speak: At the time the group went into the studio to record, Tears for Fears and Janet Jackson had ruled the charts, but by the time of the disc’s release, Nirvana’s mainstream crossover had instigated a change in the sound of rock music, causing WEW’s hi-fi, larger-than-life album to come off as overproduced to some ears. “A lot of people were alienated from our live show, because the album was so big,” remarks Excolere, who feels that the album didn’t accurately represent the group’s sound.
Being on a major label also proved to be a bit of a catch 22 for a band like WEW. “I remember college DJs saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we got turned on to your album, but as soon as we saw that it was a major label, we just put the album back down,’” Earth recalls. “So anybody who had anything to do with major labels thought, ‘These guys are freakish,’ and anybody from the alternative, independent scene was like, ‘Oh, they’re on a major label—we don’t want anything to do with them.’”
Further complicating the matter, the folks at MCA were confused as to how to categorize the band’s sound and which song from the album to release as a single. At a time when albums got written off if they didn’t chart within a few weeks to a month after coming out, the company mismanaged promotion in the early weeks of the record’s release.
Graham, however, was undaunted. Determined to take the band to the top, he began talking with entertainment industry colossus David Geffen and working to secure opening spots for WEW at shows by the likes of REM and Midnight Oil. Given Graham’s status in the business, there was little doubt that he could turn the situation around for the band.
“We were seeing glimpses of our demise before it even happened, and we were still too wrapped up in the experience to really understand what was going on.” George Earth
Then things turned really and truly sour: In October of ’91, shortly after the release of WEW’s album, Graham was killed in a helicopter crash on the way back from a Huey Lewis show. In his novel “The Televisionary Oracle,” which chronicles the WEW saga in detail, Brezsny writes: “I woke up crying at 3 a.m., eight hours before I officially heard the news. In my dream, [Graham] had come to me, holding his severed hands in the crook of his arms, and said mournfully, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t finish the job.’”
Lacking Graham’s skills, connections, charisma and understanding of the band, the promoters remaining at Bill Graham Management failed to take out ads, book promotional appearances and make other such arrangements important to the success of a new group on the block. Instead, the band found itself in situations like this one that Brezsny describes in “Oracle”: “Darby and I appeared on a cable-access TV talk show (probably watched by a total of 40 people) side by side with a man dressed as a giant turtle who retracted his head into his shell and blew soap bubbles out, plus a woman wearing a diaper and Band-Aids across her nipples who could not only put her whole fist into her mouth, but could also sing ‘Swanee River’ while it was in there.”
With the album going nowhere and the band members scattering (Rob had moved to Marin and George to San Francisco), enthusiasm in the WEW ranks began to wane. No longer inspired, Excolere quit the band in 1992, and Gould was singing more and more with the higher-paying Jefferson Starship, whose leader, Paul Kantner, had recruited her to replace Grace Slick in the band after hearing Gould sing at a WEW show. Meanwhile, Brezsny was feeling an increasing pull to do more writing. The signs were clear: It was time to move on.
True to form, the band went out in grand, celebratory style: On Jan. 8, 1993, the band gave one of its final performances at the Digital Be-In in San Francisco, where Timothy Leary—a hero of Brezsny’s—climbed onstage and sang with the band. During the song “Left Hand Fights the Right,” Leary held his palm to Brezsny’s forehead, giving him the blessing of the High Priest. “I was ecstatic,” Brezsny recalls. “I haven’t had a lot of mentors in my life, and he was one of them.”
With the exception of a few shows in 2000 that the band played during Brezsny’s book tour for “Oracle,” WEW has not collectively set foot onstage since the early ’90s. With that in mind, the group’s Saturday, Oct. 24 reunion gig at 19 Broadway in the Marin County town of Fairfax (19broadway.com; 415-459-1091) ought to be one for the books. The show will also see reunion performances by early-’90s Bay Area bands Plethora and Pump Mother.
Will WEW’s concert be a support group for six bitter, “I coulda been a contender”-style almost-weres? Don’t count on it.
“How can you regret something that didn’t happen?” muses Earth, who, after playing in the Goth band Switchblade Symphony for several years after WEW, moved to L.A., where he now plays in the band Small Halo (featuring ex-Switchblade singer Tina Minero: myspace.com/smallhalo), creates the darkly funny Cheap Comix and hosts a live talk show called The Talk Show. “For all we know, everything could have been a success, and we died in a Cessna crash the next day, or maybe we were on the helicopter with Bill. You can’t know those things.”
If Earth is unruffled about having watched his ship burn as it came in, Excolere—one of the two band members who still live in Santa Cruz (the other is Daniel Vee Lewis, who plays in local groups like Dreambeach [dreambeach.net], Solcircle [solcircle.com] and The Joint Chiefs [thejointchiefsband.com]—seems almost proud of it. “There are so many brilliant, creative bands and collaborations that don’t ‘make it,’” opines the keyboardist, who now holds a B.A. in music from the UOP Conservatory and teaches voice out of a private local studio. “I always just wished that we had more time to champion that: the people who don’t necessarily make the radio playlist—that, for whatever number of reasons, aren’t marketable. We’re sort of the poster child for that; those are our people. We were almost destined to not make it.”
While Brezsny, whose writing can be seen at freewillastrology.com, admits that there’s a small part of him that’s still very sad and disappointed about the way things went down with the band, he says the larger part of him is at peace with it. He recalls playing a gig at San Francisco’s Paradise Lounge in 1992, at which point he already knew that the band was on its way out. While the group was playing the song “Marlboro Man, Jr.,” he found himself asking the Divine Intelligence why he’d been given the ability to sing, write lyrics, dance, perform and lead a group of people in a club if not for the purpose of inspiring large amounts of people. Though he still doesn’t know the answer, he says the very fact that he was faced with this mystery made him feel closer to God than ever before.
“The sculptor Henry Morse said something to the effect of, ‘The meaning of life is to have a dream that drives your every day, that you spend all your waking hours thinking of how to improve, how to manifest it. But the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do,’” Brezsny offers. “I love that, because that’s how my life feels: There’s always something beyond that I can’t quite get. The Divine Intelligence is goading me on: ‘You still don’t get something, Rob. You still don’t see something. There’s a mystery here: You don’t have it all figured out; you don’t know everything about who you are; you don’t know everything about how the world works.’”