Life lessons from GG Allin

by Jack on January 2011

Most of the people that I talk about in this blog are spiritual teachers – the Buddha, or Jesus, or Lao-Tzu – or other distinguished role models from the past. For a change of pace, I decided to look at the lessons that we can learn from a very different kind of person.

Frankly, I’m a bit scared of publishing this post, because GG Allin is not really the kind of person that most people are likely to understand. Or, if they understand him, they probably wish that they didn’t. And you may be wondering about why I’m researching the life of such a strange, deviant, and self-destructive person. (“Has Jack lost his mind? Is he starting a punk band? What’s his angle here?”)

The fact is, we can and should learn lessons from both the “best” of humans, and also the “worst”. Love him or hate him, no one will deny that he brought an incredible focus, passion, and intensity to his short and damaged life. I also decided that if I was feeling irrationally scared to write a blog post about Allin, then that made it… necessary. 🙂

GG Allin was born Jesus Christ Allin (yes, really!) in New Hampshire, the younger of two sons. His Christian fundamentalist father believed that Jesus himself had visited him after his second son was born and told him that this son would be a great man. His nickname came from his brother’s inability to pronounce “Jesus”. He spent his early years with his family in a two room log cabin without heat or running water in northern New Hampshire.

When he reached school age, his parents had already separated owing to his father’s abuse and mental illness, and his mother legally changed his given names to “Kevin Michael” to avoid the inevitable teasing that would have followed his original name. He was a bad student and juvenile delinquent before becoming a professional musician in a variety of punk bands starting in the late 1970s, and then becoming one of the most infamous and offensive stage performers and musicians in the world in the mid to late 1980s.

I’m not going to tell you about all the crazy things he did on stage. And I’m certainly not going to tell you to look that up for yourself – some of it is pretty disgusting. Suffice it to say that he lived the rock and roll lifestyle to the extreme, and beyond, both on and off stage. He left behind a body of work that included some hostile punk music as well as some surprisingly inspirational quotations.

Following your own inspiration is its own reward

I do this for me, ’cause I have to. Whether anyone likes it or hates it or shows up or doesn’t, I’d still do it.

Allin didn’t perform for money or fans. He was the opposite of a sellout – if anything, he rejected numerous opportunities to cash in on his infamy and notoriety. Toward the end of his life, he wound up on the TV talk shows of the day – Jerry Springer and Geraldo in the early 1990s – and didn’t cash in or sell out.

Although he probably wouldn’t have described it in these terms, he was so dedicated to doing what he loved – regardless of the apparent downsides like social unacceptability, personal danger, physical discomfort, pain, and injury – that he was willing to experience all the consequences of his actions.

Attempting to please everyone pleases no one. And when you serve only yourself, and a core of rabid, hard-core fans, you’ll probably annoy and alienate many other people.

You don’t have to listen to anyone. I don’t care if you’re a painter, whatever, but for me, this is my way, this is my reality.

Allin certainly didn’t seem to be aiming to please anyone in particular. If anything, he seemed to be aiming to alienate and repel as many people as possible with his behavior. However, a fan base spontaneously formed around him anyway.

This is a great lesson: people who do something with wild passion and dedication, even something that most people consider unpleasant and repulsive, are going to attract fans who love them. When you apply true passion and devotion, it’s hard not to attract some adoring attention.

At the same time, the opposite is also true. When you do anything with great passion, as much as you inspire and energize some people, you are going to alienate others. This is inevitable. Perhaps it’s more obvious in the case of someone like Allin, who seemed to be aiming to be as offensive as possible.

Although it’s a cliche to say it, it’s still true – you can’t please everyone in your choices and your art. So you might as well do and create something interesting that actually inspires you, instead of something boring that’s calibrated to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s better to be the authentic version of “you”, whatever that is, then a pale imitation of something that you think will sell well.

Be uncompromising and grow from it

Well, I don’t think what I do is outrageous. I put myself through it so I can get stronger every day. I can face anything. I really don’t, I don’t have a problem with any of it.

I’m serious, I will go to jail, I will die for what I believe in.

Allin took “uncompromising” to an extreme degree. He was authentically disgusting, and deliberately so. Despite this, he gained a wide following of fans and curiosity seekers who wanted to see what he would do next. Lots of people react strongly to their environment, hoping to avoid offending others or making any kind of waves at all. Their thoughts are purely reactive: thoughts about how the social fabric around them will respond when they dare to do something. Allin was the polar opposite of this – he pursued his own bizarre and repulsive inner artistic agenda without compromise, retreat or surrender.

Your will is much stronger than you think

This is nothing. My mind is too strong. They’ll never break it. I’ve been doing this fifteen years now. I’d like to see anyone do what I do for one week. One night. They couldn’t stand being in my head, never mind on the stage.

It’s the extremes of human performance and behavior that we begin to see the limits of what we might be capable of. This is why people like the Olympic Games and other extreme athletic contests. They like to see the edges of what’s possible.

Seeing the kind of extremes that Allin pushed regularly in his shows, puts our own demands for comfort and safety in perspective. Despite being a “rock star”, he suffered a lot, largely by choice. He lived hand to mouth on cheap food – peanut butter and dog food – and suffered regularly from the injuries that he inflicted on himself during his shows. As one profile describes: “Allin is virtually homeless outside of prison, living from gig to gig, recording on a shoestring, and blowing any residuals on booze, drugs, and prostitutes.”

How someone could live in such an extreme way as he did, and still keep moving forward for as long as he did is still an open question. In one respect, he’s kind of a early poster boy for the recent minimalist lifestyle movement. Of course, most minimalists (myself included) couldn’t endure his lifestyle.

You can find lots of other examples of people living in extreme situations, and while their lives aren’t necessarily something that we’d want to emulate, we can pick and choose. Your will is probably capable of enduring a lot more than you think, and a lot of your supposed “needs” are simply thoughts conditioned by advertising and the herd instinct of society, the tendency toward equilibrium and enforced stability.

I need to get a respectable job.
I need to be successful according to the standards of my race, society, and my social class.
I need to buy the brands that fit my personality.
I need to drink light beer on the weekends.

Are these needs? Or lies and illusions trying to convert you into a puppet of the advertising-propaganda industrial complex. What are your thoughts, and what are the thoughts of the prison of bullshit and lies that’s been under construction in your mind since you were old enough to watch TV and attend school?

Self improvement is masturbation. Now self destruction… (Fight Club)

I don’t really know what to think about GG Allin. I don’t want to make a hero out of someone who was highly destructive to himself (and incidentally destructive to the others who ventured into the maelstrom of chaos that surrounded him). Even so, there’s something pure and remarkable about a person who managed to attract attention by behaving in such a powerfully self-destructive and dangerous way. Or maybe he was just a sad case – a man who was genuinely and dangerously mentally ill. Who decides?

Your goals and dreams are probably more helpful to the world than his. You are probably neither a slow-motion car crash on legs, nor a self-destructive human disaster zone. (And if you are – please get help!) But what if you could bring half of the fearlessness, passion, focus, and energy to your life and your art that Allin brought to his?

The fact is, no threat of external punishment controlled or threatened him – social disapproval, pain, or the prospect of jail. He had already done a lot of it to himself, willingly. Most people are controlled by these things – or more specifically by their thoughts and fears about these things. People think they will be rejected by others, or by the structure of society, if they don’t operate within a narrow band of “acceptable” behaviors. Allin flagrantly and aggressively rejected this assumption, and yet he became popular. He had fans despite pushing them away, and demanding that they hate him.

It’s not like he was some sort of misguided Zen master – he was still responding to craving and aversion. However, it’s obvious that GG Allin was controlled by very different drives than most people.

A person can go beyond this, of course. The most liberated and enlightened people are the ones that can’t be controlled by anything. This could mean things inside – their own bodily feelings and urges (craving for “good” feelings), avoidance of physical discomfort or pain (aversion to “bad” feelings). Or it could mean things outside – other people, money and possessions, social status. The more “stuff” you want, the more it controls you. Even a search for religious experiences or enlightenment can emerge from a craving, or else create one. (Thought you could solve the riddle by being detached and “spiritual”? Ha! Good luck!)

The final answer may be that there is no answer. Meaning is constructed in one mind at a time, craving and aversion create suffering, and your gift and your curse is that you have to figure it out for yourself. Enjoy the journey!

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Darren Daz Cox January 14, 2011 at 20:55

I’ve been saying this for year, GG was tuned into his spirit and was following the path the way it was laid out for him, he inspired, he appreciated and he made some great art…

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Jack January 15, 2011 at 12:17

Yeah, he was pretty rough and obnoxious, but he was truly on his own path and left a wild legacy and example. Thanks for your comment!

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Alison Moore Smith January 15, 2011 at 15:52

This post certainly made me think. And you presented the material and thoughts very well. But… (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

The same kind of analysis could work as well for Hitler, Jared Loughner, Charles Manson, and jihadists around the world as it does for GG Allin.

Following your inspiration, ignoring what others think, being focused and passionate and uncompromising, being strong-willed, etc., aren’t laudable in and of themselves. They are only positive as far as they are used for positive purposes. Having great passion for vile and evil things is evil, not commendable.

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Jack January 15, 2011 at 16:22

Hi Alison,
Thanks for your comment! But don’t we have to end the discussion now that you mentioned Hitler? (Godwin’s Law, etc) … ha.

Anyway, you do make a good point. I think those qualities are neutral until they are directed at a goal or purpose. Allin seemed mostly self-destructive, and those others you mentioned used their focus to be destructive to others.

That was the point when I wrote: Your goals and dreams are probably more helpful to the world than his. You are probably neither a slow-motion car crash on legs, nor a self-destructive human disaster zone. Since most people’s goals are somewhat benevolent, juicing them up with great passion can generally do positive things for the world.

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Alison Moore Smith January 16, 2011 at 13:16

I wasn’t comparing Allin to Hitler — nor Allin’s passion to Hitler’s passion. (But you’ll note the GL isn’t a logical fallacy by definition.) You expressed discomfort with writing about Allin but seemed to think the lesson learned from him validated the choice. I gave you some other examples (intentionally more extreme) to express that maybe the reasoning doesn’t hold up. 🙂

My point (well hidden, I agree) was that given the fact that the character traits Allin exhibits can be used for great good and incredible evil means that we really don’t learn anything unique from using evil examples. And unless we make a point of chronicling the awful things he did and expressing them in terms of the societal damage they did, I don’t think it serves a purpose to use him as a teaching point. For the sake of civility — which I appreciate! — you refrained from actually naming some of the horrific stuff he did, but in doing so you underplayed his true character rather than highlight how vile it really was.

You were concerned about writing about him. Personally, I think the concerns were valid. Not because people just don’t get it, but because there are very good examples to learn these lessons.

Appreciate your post and response. Thanks.

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Jack January 17, 2011 at 20:30

Fair point. This post was more of a thought experiment – “how can I extract a personal growth lesson from a ‘repulsive’ example?” – rather than a more typical example.

Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other “heroic” examples have been examined over and over, so I decided to venture (gingerly and trepidatiously) into the “dark side” and see what I found. 🙂

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Carlon January 18, 2011 at 02:48

GG Alin…I once had the “pleasure” of seeing a GG Alin concert. Watching him defecate on the stage and setting his testicles on fire was just the beginning. I remember a guy running to where I was standing and saying, “Dude, it’s GG. He’s coming to kick our asses.”

Sure enough, he’d gone off stage and was proceeding to go after the audience members. And they LOVED it!!! The show lasted about 15 minutes before they shut it down.

That was the last time I went to a show because my friends were playing in the band.

Oh, the memories.

In all seriousness, Kant once said something like the only thing that is good is a good will. Qualities considered “good” like patience can also be used for evil. I agree.

When we look at “good people”, it is natural to look at their qualities to see what we can learn. But I think the whole is always greater than the sum of their parts.

In GG’s case, I think he just did too many drugs that did him in in the end.

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Jack January 18, 2011 at 09:29

Hey Carlon, thanks for your comment. It inspired me to think!

GG Alin…I once had the “pleasure” of seeing a GG Alin concert.  Watching him defecate on the stage and setting his testicles on fire was just the beginning.  I remember a guy running to where I was standing and saying, “Dude, it’s GG.  He’s coming to kick our asses.”

Sure enough, he’d gone off stage and was proceeding to go after the audience members.  And they LOVED it!!! The show lasted about 15 minutes before they shut it down.

Yeah, that sounds about right, according to what I’d read. Speaking honestly, I know I would probably go to his show if I had the choice (obviously not an option now). I like to experience the adrenaline rush of mild danger and to witness any kind of over-the-top spectacle. I know it’s probably not my wisest or most intelligent quality.

For example, one time I was on a main street in my home city, when a couple of police cars came to a screeching halt chasing a man running on foot. The cops got out and ran after the man. Some people went in the opposite direction to avoid trouble (my girlfriend), while others ran to follow and see what happened (me).

She felt very upset with me afterward, citing the potential danger. I wasn’t sure why she was upset – I felt like this was an interesting experience that didn’t happen to me every day. For me, not seeing what happened would have felt worse than any fear of harm I experienced while watching what unfolded.

In all seriousness, Kant once said something like the only thing that is good is a good will.  Qualities considered “good” like patience can also be used for evil.  I agree.

That makes sense. Skills / abilities / attributes (even those deemed “good”) are essentially neutral. The will to use them for good, self-serving, or evil ends is what determines their actual value in the world.

When we look at “good people”, it is natural to look at their qualities to see what we can learn.  But I think the whole is always greater than the sum of their parts.

This is a valuable point – I think “good qualities” in isolation are fine, and it’s nice to see which ones we want to develop. But it’s a bit reductionistic to turn someone into a video game character through this analysis – “hmm, Buddha has Compassion 10 but Insight of 9, whereas Jesus has Courage 8 and Enlightenment 10”. (A lot of “list posts” on blogs seem to foster this kind of simplistic reductionism.)

In GG’s case, I think he just did too many drugs that did him in in the end.

I think that’s true, both figuratively and literally.

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Eric February 28, 2011 at 11:54

I agree with your article in so much as GG was a man who had great command and charisma. If he would have used that for kind of constructive rebellion, the impact and force on society would have been great. However, destruction, of self, others and society is all he was interested in. Anti-social is what he was in my opinion. Even listening to old interviews and concert footage that are really tame compared to what he would go on to do. He explained the goal of his shows were just to be as obnoxious as possible because they hated all the towns they played in.

Check this out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKb55hwAphM

Todd Phillips, director of Hated, is in a better position to have an informed and personal opinion about GG and I think he hits the nail on the head about everything that’s being said here. In an interview (sorry, can’t find it, search youtube and you might), he says something like “I think he was probably insane. And it wasn’t an act, he was pure evil, but I loved him.” Sums up many people’s seemingly conflicting sentiments about the man.

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Eric February 28, 2011 at 12:06

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9In4SB8DxE0

nevermind, found it easily. At about 7:00 he talks about a large part of GG’s appeal was that he became a legend through people telling stories. That is what we are doing right here. He mentions also, that he wasn’t an act as some one like Marilyn Manson or Eminem is and I think that is part of what attracts us too. He was real and yet the legend distorts it a bit into part fiction. The mystery is attractive too. I noticed GG contradicts himself more as time goes on. Early on, he sited the likes of New York Dolls, Ramones, Hank Williams and even Nancy Sinatra as inspiration. Later would arrogantly claim to have no inspiration and that his music come from he himself alone. He also would later claim to have never heard of punk rock and people just labeled him like that because of his sound. However, in earlier interviews he’d say he wanted to be in a band so he could one up groups like Stooges and Sex Pistols. So, even GG contributed to his own folklore.

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Jack February 28, 2011 at 12:18

@Eric

Thanks for your comments!

I think you make good points. His “act” or behavior or whatever you call it seemed more real, raw, and unpredictable than most “rebellious” or “offensive” bands of that era, or today.

Unlike many artists he truly seemed to turn his back on the financial benefits of fame (though not the fame itself, nor the stories and mythology, as you point out).

I suspect people watched because they were curious / afraid of what he would do next.

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Eric February 28, 2011 at 12:36

To clarify, I was saying that he wasn’t an act, but such as Marilyn Manson, or Kiss, Alice Cooper, GWAR, etc. are calculated stage performances. Adults bring their kids to Marilyn Manson shows. Manson himself admitted in his autobiography that he is an actor. GG was truly dangerous and as you said in your article, people are attracted to the fear and adrenaline rush that his shows created.

Yes, GG did reject the financial gains, but he is not the only musician to have done that. The Clash for example often sacrificed royalties to make their records cheaper and argued that ticket prices should be lower or donate to local charity. They even got in physical fights over it. Guru of the rap duo Gang Starr could have cashed in during the bling-bling era of hip hop but to go underground and do independent albums. GG was more extreme than them though, literally living like a vagabond, the kind of lifestyle that someone like DMX only wrote and rapped about on his early stuff. As Jello Biafra said, people had a soft spot for him because he was so extreme. Who will one up GG Allin? Is there even any close in the past? Maybe death metal band Mayhem.

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Jack February 28, 2011 at 13:14

Thank Eric – good points!

I definitely agree with what you say about congruency between his stage persona and his real life – I put “act” in quotes to emphasize that part. He walked his talk and while he may have amplified his “extreme” behavior on stage, he truly lived as close to the edge as he performed (homeless or nearly so, drug abuse, unbalanced and violent relationships, etc).

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Eric February 28, 2011 at 13:54

Hi again Jack,

Without reiterating what Alison, Carlon and yourself have already said, I think his independence is one the biggest attractions for his fans. Everyone needs a mentor or someone to follow. GG was a vindictive one though, not positive at all. I think this venture in the dark side may shed light on some of your, my and others’ own personal dark sides. Some one like GG may simply just show us what not to be.

To push the mentor point further. I can’t help but think of ancient tribal societies and how they took boys out in to the woods and beat them up to turn them into men. Much has been made of the feminization of Western (and esp. American) males and the crisis of masculinity. I think part of GG’s appeal lies here. Out of a desire to be stronger and fearless and perhaps out of an immature and naive idea of what makes one a “man”. What GG himself spoke a lot about, esp. on talk shows. The fact that you have a Fight Club quote in your article makes me think you have made this connection as well.

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Eric March 2, 2011 at 23:39

posting this video for fun. Anyone who wants to see GG in his early days will see how tame he was compared to his later stuff. Check it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeEF4quppuk

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lucas deletis August 4, 2011 at 12:50

You all have it wrong, gg wasnt about organizational influence on people like you or me. He wanted to tear out the roots he had been grown to feel embedded around and he truly saw the spirit. it is only in the few that can feel it for themselves, a truly righteous ideal but it is there and you cant ignore it with your own mindsets. No rules! no laws! we dont need each other to tell each other what is wrong. gg showed people he knew the garbage that they all were taught was wrong was just antics and human nature at its most unexplicable times. the mere fact that he wrote songs with offensive titles and turned himself into a freak on stage proves that he understood what was unexceptable and in america as long as you know that line and why you are crossing it with good reason you should be worshipped as a deity in your own sense the way us alli followers do to him. He opens up my mind to having no limitiations based on the fact i already know right from wrong implanted since birth. and for you people that said it isnt good to take lessons from hitler, gg allin, charles manson and jihadists, look around! society already does find inspiration from commies and american leaders that are responsible for mass genocides of species every year. since they established their semitic beliefs in our cultures back in the early 13 and 14th centuries in very distinct and clear ways, theyhave been controlling our pagan naturalist bloodline with a fearful guilt and twisted mindset that drives people into a fixeD-through-scope economic enslavery. WHAT ABOUT STALLIN AND CHE GUIVARRA OR HOWEVER U SPELL IT…they had gays jailed and killed and millions of others killed innocently for a general scheme of things. fuck money and controlled wealth it all turns into communism or fascism eventually. anarchy true and free belief from your own blood and family. that is where we came from in the first place. anarchy forever!!

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Jack August 7, 2011 at 12:39

Whoa…! Preach on brother! 🙂

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joe April 23, 2013 at 22:46

Ive only recently gotten into gg, but he has been (as with othere musicians i discover and really dig) my new “obsession”. The timing of my stumbling accross this article is ironic, or maybe just a coincidence, as just today i was talking with a coworker about the freedom gg exhibited. This person couldnt get past the disgusting aspects of ggs stage set, and that caused blinders to go up to the message i was trying to convey…. The message of fuck it all, be free. Not that i think i could or would ever go to such extremes on a stage, knowing that the ultimate freedom we seek is out there on earth (albeit in this jilted examole) is inspiring and uplifting.

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Andy June 17, 2013 at 08:18

GG Allin – he’s just an amusing footnote on cracked.com

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