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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