The Art of Ventriloquism is Straight-Up Amazing: Day One at the Oklahoma City Gathering of the Juggalos
People think the Gathering of the Juggalos is dirty and gross for a very good reason: it is dirty and gross, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. The revulsion respectable folks feel towards Juggalos, particularly the ones that pay tribute to the Dark Carnival at the Gathering of the Juggalos is, on a fundamental level, intensely physical and visceral. People recoil at the mere thought of all those strange poor people in the blistering heat, with clown make-up, on less, taking drugs and getting blackout drunk on cheap liquor in a place with very few showers and places to get clean and a whole lot of places to make mistakes and get dirty.
That was before the Gathering migrated to the seemingly random new destination of Oklahoma City and Lost Lakes, a curious venue that is largely made of sand and dirt. The new site isn’t just a little bit dusty and a little bit dirty: it’s the motherfucking land of dirt and dust. Walking around the campgrounds was like mainlining dust.
Within twenty minutes of arriving at Lost Lakes, I could taste sand in my mouth. My sandals became a sand museum. I like sand was oozing out of every orifice.
So, yeah, the new location is a bit of a mixed bag.
But if the venue was new, and the state was new, and the region of the country was new, plenty remained the same. The first booth I saw, for example, belonged to the adorable, good-hearted believers in Juggalos for Jesus, who have been proselytizing on the Lord’s behalf to clown-painted sinners for years now. Like pretty much all other Juggalos, I politely rejected their gospel while happily accepting their gifts of free water and Faygo.
For was it not Jesus who turned the water in Moon Mist? The terrible planning was similarly soothingly familiar. I arrived at the box office, only to be told that I’d have to go to Will Call to pick up my press passes, but that to get there, I’d have to walk a good mile and a half in the 101 degree Oklahoma heat, and pass under a bridge.
Now, I do not need to tell you that Juggalos are not going to let anything as dope as a bridge underpass go unused, so a smattering of painted true believers were using it as a makeshift oasis, and apparently had been doing so since they first descended upon the grounds on Friday, a full five days before the festivities were scheduled to begin.
And of course there’s nothing more reassuring about the Gathering than when you start seeing your first Juggalos. Insane Clown Posse may not have the most fans in the world, but no other act can claim quite as high a percentage of prematurely grizzled fans.
I had hoped to attend the Gathering alongside one of those grizzled die-hards, my brother Vinnie, who I attended the Gathering with last years. I had initially hatched a crazy-ambitious, super-intense plan for The Gathering. I wanted to take a bus to Saint Louis so that I could meet the rest of my family on my mother’s side, visit my mother’s grave, and stand and stare at the burnt-out crater where my mother’s house used to be before it burned down.
I’m not sure whether wanting to stand outside the burnt down house of a dead mother who had abandoned me would be cathartic, masochistic or just plain crazily over-dramatic but as is often the case, an ambitious plan I had hoped would help me flesh out 7 Days in Ohio into more of a full-sized book became a victim of reality and money, and the sad, seemingly permanent reality that there is seemingly never enough money (or time) to be able to realize our dreams. Except for Feld-Month. Knocked that one out of the park.
It turns out I’m broke as fuck, and pretty much need to be working constantly to not be broke as fuck forever, and my brother, well, he is not a wealthy man either. I still want to go to Saint Louis and experience the half of my family I’ve never known, and to integrate it into a book but it looks like I’ll have to wait until the March on Washington, but I’m just going to be brutally realistic and concede that there’s a very good chance that won’t happen either. It’s hard enough to get yourself to the Gathering; getting other people there can be prohibitively hard, even if they enjoy ICP and could use the escape the Gathering provides as much as my brother does.
Rolling solo yet agin, I headed straight to the venue from the airport because I was excited to see Canadian rapper Madchild, one of many figures in the ICP orbit I have a strangely involved relationship with. I first saw Madchild perform live in a secondary stage at 3 in the morning.
I liked Madchild's music, and his voice, but I was just as intrigued, if not more intrigued, by his story. Madchild told the crowd at the Gathering that he once had it all, that he was a major figure in Canadian hip hop as a solo artist, as part of Swollen Members and as a bigwig at Battle Axe Records. Then he got into pills and wasted millions of dollars and found himself in his forties, buried in a mountain of debt, having to rebuild his career and his finances while sober.
I even bought Madchild’s albums and discovered that he’s a fairly controversial figure in his homeland. There are a lot of people who just don’t like him, and think his narrative of overcoming drug addiction is bullshit. My weird emotional connection to Madchild was strengthened when I covered Canadian Juggalo Weekend, which featured a surprise Madchild solo set and, according to the group at least, the first time Swollen Members had performed onstage in two years.
When I went to the bathroom at the show a whole bunch of people were telling Madchild—who I believed had just urinated alongside them, like a real-ass dude, and not some kind of unapproachable superstar who won’t kick it with fans in public toilets—how much they loved his show. I told Madchild that I’d seen him perform at the Gathering and that he was great.
Madchild has a special place in my heart because he is the only musician I have ever praised to their face in a bathroom in a sports bar in a strip mall in Calgary. He may hold that distinction forever.
So I headed straight to the venue without checking into the Medical Inn Motel to see Madchild—one of the only artists, if not the only artist, to actually mention the March on Washington during Canadian Juggalo Weekend.
Yet I cannot say I was at all surprised when Insane Clown Posse and Gathering fixture Kevin Gill, who was acting as host for the night, one of about 17 thousand jobs he performs over the course of the Gathering, took to the stage and, after the requisite chants of “Family” said he had some good news and some bad news.
The bad news was that Madchild was deathly ill from eating bad poutine or something, and because Madchild is such a down-ass Juggalo he would never want to give audiences less than 100 percent, so rather than let them down with a sub-par performance, he wasn’t going to perform at all.
The good news, however, was that Madchild was apparently on schedule to make a miraculous recovery from that bad poutine and would perform the next night. Somewhat confusingly Gill also told the audience that they might see Madchild hanging around the campgrounds, too deathly ill to perform but not, apparently, to wander around in 100 degree heat and mingle.
It was a story that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but then as a longtime fixture of Insane Clown Posse’s inner realm, Gill has a lot of experience breaking bad news to Juggalos and spinning headaches and mistakes in the best possible light. And honestly, I would be a little surprised and even a little disappointed if things didn’t immediately start falling through.
I was invested enough in Madchild’s story to worry that he might have relapsed and was wandering around the venue in a fucked-up state despite this Gathering being almost suspiciously devoid of open drug use.
How open has drug use at the Gathering been in the past? For years, one of the most prominent and talked-about features of the Gathering, right up there with helicopter rides and Hepatitis Lake, was the drug bridge. The drug bridge, as you might imagine, was a bridge where people very openly and loudly sold drugs, often with the use of megaphone spiels and signs listing prices, and sometimes just by asking everyone who passed if they wanted to buy drugs.
They shut down the Drug Bridge when someone died of a heroin overdose but drugs have never been hard to find except for this year. In a bizarre and seemingly inexplicable turn of events people at the Gathering this year seemed afraid to openly, publicly sell illegal drugs out of fear of getting arrested by the cops.
How fucked up is that? What is this, 1984 or something? True, some folks managed to score, and were serenely, contentedly passed out by three o clock in the afternoon, but they seemed to have brought their drugs with them, rather than openly selling their wares.
Later that evening, watching Anybody Killa, one of the only long-standing Psychopathic artists to play the Gathering this year following the very public split between Insane Clown Posse and their longtime proteges/collaborators/artists Twiztid, I realized that one of the reasons that I find myself at the Gathering year after year after year is because I have come to see Juggalos and Insane Clown Posse as essential Americana. I’m not always too happy about the state of my country, or of patriotism these days, but I look at Juggalos coming together to celebrate their strange bond and I see something weirdly beautiful and pure and special about our nation.
My America is the America of the freaks, the weirdos, the outcasts, the misfits, the non-conformists. These are the faces that adorn the program for the Gathering this year. In previous years, covers have of course featured Insane Clown Posse, alongside Psychopathic artists and big outside guests. Not this year. Nope, this year the program paid tribute to Juggalos with a cover that is nothing but fans, fans as far as the eye can see, all joined together in a spectacularly ugly explosion of photoshop gone awry.
Unlike every other aspect of American society, physical attractiveness does not seem to have played a major role in determining who made it onto the cover, or really to have played a role at all. So along with the expected sexy Jugallettes in Day-Glo bikinis there are plenty of grizzled old dudes as well as grizzled young dudes who looked like grizzled old dudes.
If you were to be cynical, you could argue that the cover’s emphasis on Juggalos instead of performers speaks to the lack of big-name talent on the bill. That’s probably true, but the eyesore of a cover does convey the importance of fans to the Gathering and how, in many ways, they are as important as the performers, if not more so.
In previous years, for example, the comedy tent hosted names like Cheech and Chong, Tom Green, Bobcat Goldthwait, Brian Posehn, Judah Friedlander and a young Hannibal Burress. This time around, however, they weren’t booking names so much as they were booking specialty talents.
So instead of Jim Norton we got a ventriloquist. Instead of Tom Green we got a hypnotist. Instead of Cheech and Chong we got some weird variety thing called Dandypunk that looks more like the variety show horse shit on America’s Got Talent than a conventional show. Instead of Bobcat, we got a ventriloquist.
Ah, but this wasn’t just any old ventriloquist! No, wait, that’s not true.It pretty much was any old ventriloquist.
I love the descriptions in the Gathering program because they faithfully recreate the voice of a 14 year old Juggalo who is just way too fucking excited about everything the festival has to offer. For ventriloquist Marc Rubben, for example, the program guilelessly enthuses, “Yo…on some real shit? The art of ventriloquism is straight-up amazing. How the fuck do they throw their voices like that? It’s truly an epic art form that has been passed down throughout the generations, shrouded in secrecy, and only bestowed upon the chosen. On top of all that flavor, now throw some R-rated, crazy, off-the-chain comedy into the mix and you have the comedy spectacular of super ninja Marc Rubben. One of the top ventriloquists in the word, Marc brings his cavalcade of crazy puppet characters to the GOTJ stage, for all the insane, raunchy antics you can imagine. Kick back, light it up, and get ready to laugh when their colorful comedy act hits the stage and gets all up in yo face. It’s the comedy stylings of Marc Rubben and his crazy puppet characters that will have you tripping’ out.”
On the real, though, ventriloquism is amazing. Straight up, no irony, I do wonder how they throw their voices like that.
The blurb is accompanied by a picture of a smiling Rubben surrounded by his puppets, two of which worse Juggalo face-paint. This understandably led me to believe that I would be seeing a Juggalo ventriloquist, or at the very least, a ventriloquist with Juggalo dummies. It is only now, the afternoon of the performance, that I realize that I did see Rubben perform with the two puppets depicted in Juggalo face paint in the promo photo, but they sure as shit didn’t have face-paint on when Rubben was using them.
This leads me to believe that the program simply photo-shopped face-paint onto some of the dummies of a wealthy, successful older ventriloquist who seems to most do corporate gigs in an attempt to persuade Juggalos that they were going to see a Juggalo ventriloquist. I wouldn’t necessarily call it misdirection or a lie necessarily, so much as a carny trick, a bit of Juggalo ingenuity.
It did not seem to work however. The comedy was sparsely attended but one of the solitary souls in attendance was a cherubic ten year old boy. Now, some of you might think it’s irresponsible for a ten year old boy to go to an R-rated comedy show at midnight at the Gathering of the Juggalos, but he was with his parents and being a ten-year-old, got more out of the experience than anyone else.
Rubben began his set with about twenty minutes of stand-up. My insufficiently drug-addled brain just wanted to see the goddamned puppets so I was tempted to stand up and yell, “Get to the fucking puppets!”
The ventriloquism portion of Rubben’s set began with him essentially turning what was a modified, altered Etch-a-Sketch into a makeshift ventriloquism. For the first, but not the last time, I was fascinated by the incredible technical skills a ventriloquism must possess as well as the astonishingly hack nature of all of Rubben’s material.
Rubben was so hack he almost came off as a scathing parody of a bad ventriloquist. Rubben mastered the technical demands of what can only be described as an epic art form that has been passed down throughout the generations, shrouded in secrecy, and only bestowed upon the chosen, which makes it a shame that he couldn’t think of anything more compelling for them to do than limply realize every lazy cliche about stoners, cantankerous old men and rednecks respectively.
Exhausted by the tragic lack of stimulants coursing through my body, I was borderline hypnotized by his technical mastery, his professionalism and polish, and the almost surreally terrible nature of his comedy.
The evening was hosted by Upchuck the Clown, a fixture of the ICP since I first started writing about them early in this decade. I’d written about Upchuck as a sad-sack, purposefully tragicomic figure but this year he had lost so much weight and looked so good that I didn’t recognize him originally, at least out of his make-up and out of character.
As he has in years before, Upchuck gave me a hard time for the stuff I’d written about him in You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me, before delineating that he was just giving me the business. It’s a testament, again, to how invested I am in this world that I genuinely felt really proud of Upchuck for losing all that weight and being on the ball.
I damn near teared up when the ten-year-old boy who, by all rights, should never be anywhere near the Gathering, beamed with excitement when Upchuck autographed his program. It might not have meant anything to anyone else, but it was a real moment of recognition and validation for a dude who has been kicked around even more than most Juggalos. And it’s moments like these, tiny but tender and important in their own way, that keep me coming back despite the exhaustion, and the heat, and the travel, and the cost, and everything else.
Tomorrow: Cage, Insane Clown Posse performs Shangri-La, and, depending on my energy level and state of mind, RA The Rugged Man, Lil Debbie and something called Juggalo Yacht Club’s Oklahoma Wine Mixer
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