[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.
Once at the main stage, we catch a new Psychopathic Records artist named Big Hoodoo, a black guy in facepaint and a big trenchcoat. This is his debut show, his Psychopathic Debutante Ball, if you will. There are topless girls roaming throughout the show, kids on shoulders, your usual concert debauchery scene, though amplified slightly, especially in the nudity and drugs department. It must be said, there are a shocking number of legitimately attractive women here.
Big Hoodoo performs with a cane and drinks vodka out of a crystal skull, spitting it into the air as the strobe lights pop behind him. A great branding opportunity for Dan Aykroyd and his skull vodka, if he’s smart enough to realize it. Big Hoodoo is decent enough, and an enjoyable stage presence. He sings a song called “I Never Had Shit,” rapping about all the deprivations of his hard luck childhood – not having food, being molested by his parents, being burned by a crack pipe by his mom, being hung upside down by his feet in the basement, being hosed down and left for dead, among other torments. It seems obviously hyperbolic for entertainment purposes, but the shitty-childhood sentiment genuine. I guess you wouldn’t want to brag about deprivations in front of those possibly more deprived, and just have them feel worse. So instead, he somewhat winkingly embellishes it to the extreme. That way, everyone can just commiserate over crappy childhoods in general without measuring deprivation dicks, so to speak. At least, that’s my take on it. I think I get it. Later we create our own “Never Had Shit” verses, like “My Siblings All Were Rattlesnakes,” “raise your motherf*ckin hands if you got framed for 9/11” and “I Never Seen a Bird.”
The next event I’m dying to see is the comedy. Having performed comedy in plenty of less-than-ideal venues myself, I imagined trying to do comedy at The Gathering to be a nightmare gig before we even got here. It’s about what I expected. The comedy takes place in the seminar tent, and we wait there on hay bale seats as the Dante Nero show scheduled for 12:30 gets pushed back 20, 30, 40 minutes. The MC, Upchuck the Clown, a fairly square-looking, heavy-set radio guy type with a goatee, but for an orange clown wig, facepaint, and a bicycle horn hanging around his neck, tells us Dante arrived on time but they’re waiting for Tech N9ne to clear the main stage (we caught the first part of the set). Which makes sense, given that Tech N9ne is one of the most popular acts and there are only five or six people sitting there for the comedy. It’s not pronounced “Tech Nih-nine-nee”, by the way.
What you look for in a comedy venue is a place with low-ceilings that hold in the sound of laughter, an attentive audience, a lit stage with a dark rest of the room to focus the attention on the comic, and a minimum of distractions. This evenly-lit, cavernous, open air circus tent with drunk Juggalos filing in and others yelling as they walk by fails every test and then some. Despite this, Nero, a big black guy from Brooklyn with tattoos and a skull earring who used to be a bouncer, performs admirably, giving us 40 minutes of funny, mostly about sex and relationships, while rolling with everything the crowd throws at him. He’s respectful, offering only light burns and just engaging with the crowd, who frequently interject while he’s in the middle of a setup, which can really rattle a comic. Nero just “yes ands” them in a nicer way than I thought possible while they point laser pointers at his chest and yell “Who are you?”
“Do you want me to introduce myself again?” he asks, laughing.
While their ignorance of comedy etiquette is hard to watch (pretty much any drunk, not-there-to-see-comedy audience is like this, to varying degrees, though this is an extreme example), and Lieb compares it to trying to teach middle school, the Juggalos aren’t really trying to be dicks, and they do attempt to police themselves. A guy with a bullhorn interrupts the show at one point, apparently just trying to answer Nero’s question of how old people are. This guy really needed to ensure that Nero heard his answer, which was 38 years old. I’ve seen this before, with certain kinds of audiences you have to drop your rhetorical questions unless you legitimately want to hear everyone in the crowd’s answer individually, but it’s easy to forget. Nero can’t understand what the guy’s saying because of the bullhorn, and the show slows to a crawl. The crowd starts to show “you f*cked up!”
Basically it means sit the f*ck down, heckler guy, in Juggalo parlance.
The guy looks mad and angrily smashes his bullhorn on the ground – “HE f*cked up, he asked ME!” The “bouncers” (Upchuck and a buddy) are about to throw him out, but Nero tells the bouncer to leave the guy, and the commotion somehow dies down. That a person is allowed to get too drunk and be an ass on occasion and everyone should accept that is all but an official tenet of Juggalo culture. (See: “What Is a Juggalo,” lyrics of).
A nice couple from Michigan (pictured, below) sitting next to us passes us joints and Jack Daniels throughout the show. They came up to talk to us earlier, unprompted. We find out they have two daughters back home, 7 and 4, though you’d never believe it to look at them. It’s nice, easy small talk. The wife, again, is almost disconcertingly attractive. She’s wearing a cut up black t-shirt that leaves almost her entire back bare, and when she leans in to pass the joint, she smells incredibly nice – unlike the rest of us, whose collective funk is borderline incarceration worthy.
Lieb gets asked if he’s gay (in an earnestly curious, non-judgmental way) by both the Michigan couple and Nero while he’s onstage. Maybe it’s the black tank top? I don’t know. I imagine we city-dwellers all basically look like huge queers to this crowd.
Afterwards, Nero talks to us outback for 40 minutes. I think he would’ve gone on for 30 more, he’s that gregarious. I ask him about how he can perform under such hostile conditions, and he seems pretty blase about it, saying that a lot of black comedy shows are in bars, where people are there to drink, pick up girls, throw money around, etc., and not necessarily there to watch comedy. Obviously, performing comedy for an audience that isn’t interested in comedy involves dealing with a completely different audience attention span. Nero says that if you watch JB Smoove, he’ll repeat his setups two or three times in most jokes, which is just a pragmatic strategy when you’re dealing with people who are only sort of paying attention, like the ones you get at a lot of black comedy shows.
We go back inside the tent for “Juggalo Night Court,” which involves Upchuck, now wearing a white powdered wig, fresh clown make up (different than earlier), and a judge’s robe, presiding over various disputes. The crowd loves to hate Upchuck, and heckling him is basically a meme. The dispute we see involves a guy in a ghostbusters t-shirt, angry at his friend – in a football jersey that says “JUGGALO” on the back – for… coming back to the camp too late? Waking people up? Everyone’s drunk and not particularly articulate at this point, and the plaintiff loses on account of no one knowing that the hell he’s talking about.
Throughout the proceedings, the audience throws firecrackers at the stage. The fact that they just keep on going with the show, barely acknowledging the often fairly large explosions, makes me break into giggling fits every time. “So your homeboy got drunk and (*BOOM*) …woke up all the other ninjas? Is that your complaint (*crack-crack-crack*) …my ninja?”
As the loser of Juggalo Night Court, barely coherent Ghostbusters guy has to spin “The Wheel of Bones.” The wheel lands on “Permanent Peon,” and Upchuck clarifies that this doesn’t mean you get peed on. Another Upchuck joke is, “How do you find a juggalette’s neden?” The answer, “Go through her folds and when your hands get shitty, go back one.”
Ghostbusters Guy’s punishment ends up being having to stand there while four or five Juggalos and Juggalettes, chosen from the audience, get 20 seconds to draw on his torso with “tattoo markers,” which, according to Upchuck, are a whole different ball game from regular sharpies. A more permanent ball game. The Juggalos, most of whom seem to moonlight as graffiti artists, cover him with big cocks and balls and boob drawings. Ghostbusters guy seems unembarrassed and poses for some pictures afterwards, his crudely drawn chest cocks a source of pride, a badge of honor.
We head back to the Big Balla campsite in the shadow of the Underground stage, where someone named Calico is performing. There’s a giant wooden crow’s nest facing the stage, with a balcony of sorts, up a rickety ladder. It’s empty, but Ben wants to climb it, which seems like a bad idea at first. But this whole trip seemed like a bad idea, and it’s worked out thus far. Bad decisions were basically our entire reason for coming. Sitting at the bottom of the ladder is another bored security guard. Lieb, the boldest of us, asks if we can go up, and the guy says no, no one’s allowed up there. Then Ben says something and pulls out his PRESS lanyard. I’m not sure if any of the staff even knows what this means, but the security guy figures it looks official enough, and he shrugs and lets us pass. We drunkenly climb the definitely unsafe ladder the 25 feet or so up to the platform. We take pictures of ourselves and the stage and the half and fully naked debauchery going on all around us from a safe distance/elevated firing position. It’s pretty great.
No way we’re staying up for the Dark Lotus show at 5 am, though I’ve been told not to miss it. Sorry, too tired. On the way back to the RV, I hear a girl telling her boyfriend something to the effect of, you BETTER “whoop whoop” when you see a hot girl walk by. Don’t you DARE not holler at a girl you find attractive in front of your girlfriend, my ninja. If you see a nice pair of titties, you show respect. I’m intrigued by this unique-but-strangely-intuitive morality code, where perversion is forgiven, as long as it’s not concealed but openly acknowledged and celebrated. I feel that there’s some kind of deep truth to this, a rarely-acknowledged aspect of human nature, and that this is possibly the perfect venue for such a realization.
More to come.