[Note: I wrote this while I was at The Gathering of the Juggalos over the weekend, but I couldn't post it until now, because internet access was spotty at the Gathering, where we stayed the entire time. Unlike *some* media outlets who shall remain nameless, who left to sleep in nice hotels with their perfumed heads on ivory pillows every night. I'll have lots of much better pictures - we had professional cameras, these are just my iPhone pictures - and accounts of more specific events to come.]
Among the Jugs
I eventually hope to fashion this report into one, coherent story, our journey into the heartland of darkness, to explore this most peculiar tributary of Americana, distinguished by extreme love of clown rap, but for now, I wanted to get out to you what I could in bits and pieces, even if it’s not complete or even particularly coherent. So judge this writing on a curve. Understand, making words good takes a fair amount of brain power, and under these circumstances, mine’s about as spotty as the wifi.
As I type this, it’s 8:30 am Friday morning and I’m sitting on an ice chest in front of the bathroom, the last horizontal space in the RV not taken over by sleeping dudes. I’ve woken up too early from metabolized alcohol – the booze rooster, I’ve heard it called. Last night I slept about 75 yards from a massive stage (pictured, above) where groups called I believe Calico and Dark Lotus played until at least 5:30 am. What sleep I did get was on a twin-sized rubber mattress in a rented RV, shared with Matt Lieb, who’s 6’6″, only one of two Jews taller than 6’5″ on this trip. There are six of us in this rented RV, and none of us have showered, as we made the difficult choice of electricity over water at the available RV hookups. At about 4 am, we prepared for sleep, Lieb with a towel over his side of the bed in lieu of blankets, me with some extra 3X-size FilmDrunk shirts I luckily decided to bring at the last minute. We’d just finished a debate over whether noise-canceling headphones or big balls of crumpled up toilet paper stuffed in the ears would be our best bet for sleeping amidst the unrelenting din of horror rap and had just laid down to attempt sleep, when, from onstage, a rapper (Calico, I believe) delivered the line “I’m kinda jealous of my dick sometiiiiiiiimes…”
We pause for a second, both briefly attempting to let it slide, as we’ve learned that it’s impossible to point out all the surreal and ridiculous things going on around us if we want to get anything done – and what we’d like to get done is witness more surreal and ridiculous things, obviously – but it’s like trying to hold in a sneeze. We both break into uncontrollable laughter, and sleeping seems even more unlikely.
So ends night one of our Juggalo Vision Quest 2013, at the 14th annual Gathering of the Juggalos.
After a plane ride to Chicago next to a giant clammy Principal Belding in suspenders with what I would describe as a moderate case of halitosis, we arrived at our hotel outside O’Hare. Dinner of buffalo wings at Shoeless Joe’s Sports Bar, my stomach’s baptism by fire.
The next morning, it was a short eight hours inside the RV, with a couple pit stops, at the biggest Wal Mart I’ve ever seen outside Champaign, and a gas station with McDonald’s attached. At the former, we procure $500 worth of food, beer, energy drinks, packs of Newports (these as prison currency in case we have to barter our way out of a jam), and jorts. I opt for the nine-dollar jeans, which I will cut into jorts myself, rather than the $11 denim that comes pre-jorted. Ben points out at that because my scissors cost $8, we actually lost $6 on the transaction. This is why he handles the financials.
After a detour through some sketchy non-highway roads that either shortened our trip by an hour or lengthened it by two, depending on whether you ask Laremy The Deputized Navigator or his critics in Tall Tale Productions’ trail car, we finally hit Cave-in-Rock, Illinois at sunset, just a stone’s skip over the Ohio river from Kentucky.
The sun just beginning to dip behind the trees as we hit town, we take a wrong turn through the tiny (“quaint”, even) downtown. We turn back the proper way, away from downtown, and toward, presumably, the Hogrock Campground, site of this and the last seven Gatherings of Juggalos. The festival started at a convention center in Novi, Michigan in 2000 and kept moving until finally settling on Hogrock to avoid getting hassled by the authorities. There’s only room for one car on the bumpy road, and trees crowd the unlined asphalt at both sides and sometimes overhead, blocking out a lot of what sun there is left. It finally starts to sink in just how far out in the middle of nowhere we are. It’s hard to believe this deserted road will take us towards people, let alone a massive gathering of them, but it’s all very exciting. On the way, we pass two separate scrums of Sheriff’s cars, who seem to be waiting just up the road to arrest people. They eye us as we pass, but don’t stop us.
Finally the road opens up and we see a clearing on our left, with a giant grass and dirt parking lot with ferris wheels in the distance. We pull in, driving the RV through tent cities and people sitting in lawn chairs, our eyes as big as dinner plates. I don’t want to overstate it and have you think I’m gilding the lily here, and anyway this was our entire reason for the trip, but somewhere between the tree-lined road and pulling into Hogrock, the culture shock absolutely slaps us in the face like a wet washcloth. The excitement evolves to include a moderate tinge of panic. Suddenly there are real, human Juggalos everywhere, walking before us at sundown, the whole place verdant and enshrouded in the light mist of a post-midday thunderstorm, giving the whole place a Jurassic Park vibe. Only, you know, with braids and hatchetman tattoos instead of teeth and scales.
As we wait to pick up our press passes – which come with yellow lanyards and say “PRESS” on them in giant letters, yet another thing branding us as interlopers – I stand next to the RV and start smoking our Newports (one of the few things I can do to feel like I’m blending). In a record scratch, we’ve become extremely conscious of our outsider status. Every single thing about us seems to scream “NOT JUGGALOS,” from our haircuts and clothes to our press badges to our lack of visible tattoos to the rented RV with a puppy decal in the window. That the golden retriever decal was there seemed awesomely kismet at the rental place, but now it just feels like it’s waving “hi, boys!” with two hands in preparation for a wedgie. What I wouldn’t give for that dog to be a skull. A guy with clown makeup walks slowly by next to a girl in either a filthy bra and underwear or a bikini (it’s too dirty to tell). His make up includes a scar going vertically down his face bisecting his right eye, which is fitted out with a white contact lens that blocks out the pupil and iris, giving the illusion that he’s been perfectly blinded like a horror movie villain. The only part of their conversation I catch is him telling her “Yo, but I thought we had something.”
We climb back inside the RV to try to find our campsite, rolling slowly through what feels like hostile territory. Part of the hostility probably stems from the fact that Mike from Tall Tale Productions (Jew Tower number two, our 6’7″ documentary director, a former minor league baseball pitcher) is walking alongside the RV filming exteriors. At this stage, the Juggalos don’t seem too stoked on cameras. A guy throws his body against the side of the RV and yells “F*CK OFF!”, amidst numerous icy stares and middle fingers. We realize we’ve been driving with the RV’s interior lights on this whole time, illuminating our terrified faces. “Turn it off, turn it off!” someone flails when we realize, in genuine fear.
Lieb says it feels like we’re driving through an Iranian protest in Argo. I can’t disagree. We’re not finding where our campsite is supposed to be, and the security staff, through an apparent combination of laziness and a non-existent training process, aren’t much help.
“Do you know where the Big Balla camp site is?” we ask a big guy with a crew cut.
(long shrug, drag on cigarette) “Ya got me, bro.”
We drive a little further, and stop to ask directions from some people standing outside an RV of their own. Lieb approaches, still wearing his yarmulke, which he still seems committed to wearing the entire weekend (he doesn’t wear one normally). Wearing the yarmulke seemed like an assholey move at first (though a funny idea a few days ago), but in a way I can’t explain, it actually makes him look less of an outsider than the rest of us. And at the very least, it’s probably a beating deterrent, since that would now involve a hate crime.
A skinny kid of about 20 with his long dark hair in braids tells us exactly where we need to go, calling us “my ninjas” about 12 times along the way and seeing us off with “head back this way if you want to smoke some bud together later, my ninjas.”
He was really nice. We don’t quite feel welcome yet, but definitely less terrified. I think we’re safe as long as we don’t use the cameras much.
We hunker down in camp and consult our schedule. Much to my chagrin, we’ve arrived too late to see The Neden Game, a Juggalo dating game named after their slang for vagina, which is also a song. “The Neden Game” is a song, I mean, “Neden” is apparently slang for vagina. I asked a guy how Neden came to be vagina slang and he just shrugged. We listened to the song on the way here, whose lyrics include Violent J talking about pulling a woman’s titties down below her waist, letting go and watching them slap her in the face; and Shaggy 2 Dope wooing a woman by telling her he can’t believe how fat she is, and if she lost some weight she’d look like Riki Lake. I have to admit I thought the Riki Lake line was decently funny.
So instead we celebrate our arrival inside the RV and grab some road beers to take to the main stage. We walk across the infamous drug bridge to get there, which isn’t much of a bridge, just 10 yards or so over a brown creek, but definitely has some drugs. The sellers sit on chairs and coolers, advertising their offerings with cardboard signs and shouting their wares like newsies into bullhorns. Yes, actual bullhorns. Supposedly there are some designer drugs, but I see mostly weed, molly, and Adderall. Though with our camera guy trailing, I’m wary of staring too hard at people doing illegal stuff. Not that drugs feel illegal here, nothing does. It’s part of the appeal, obviously, and it does appeal to me.
On the way to the main stage we pass through the carnival rides. There’s a double ferris wheel called a sky wheel, a tea cups-type ride that was called “The Scrambler” in my childhood at the Big Fresno Fair, a tilt-o-whirl, and one of those rides that spins a circular swing set. As I look over at the swing set, two heavy-set guys undo their harnesses while the ride’s still going and bail, hitting the ground chest first in the mud and skidding towards the metal barricades. One guy, holding a giant green plastic, Vegas-style souvenir margarita cup stands up first, drunkenly embracing his friend before they both stagger off laughing.