The Gathering of the Juggalos 2019: A Motherfucking American Institution
Every time I go to the Gathering of the Juggalos, Insane Clown Posse’s annual festival of arts and culture, I wonder if it’s worth it. Is it worth the time? Is it worth the money? It is worth the travel and aggravation and walking and being away from my family and website and dog? Is it worth feeling old and out of shape and exhausted on a soul-deep level after each night of fun?
When the ninja magic is just not happening, the answer to “Is it worth it?” feels dispiritingly like “no.” It does not seem worth all the hassle and aggravation and time and expense. When things are going better but I still haven’t reached peak Gathering, the answer becomes maybe? And when everything is going right the answer is “Oh God yes!”
The first night of the 20th Gathering of the Juggalos I oscillated between those three feelings. There were moments when I felt nothing short of blissful, like I had escaped the drudgery of the everyday world into a crazed Shangri-La of child-like joy. In these moments I felt like I was home, like there was no place in the world that I would rather be. But there were also times when I felt like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, way too old for this shit.
It’s very easy to feel old and tired when your vampire schedule for the Gathering weekend involves going to the festival every night at 6 PM and then returning to your hotel room some time between seven and ten o clock in the morning.
This year the Gathering took place in picturesque Springville, Indiana, which I foolishly assumed would be a metropolitan paradise like Paris or New York, easily accessible via public transportation or ride-sharing service because it was a mere hour and a half away from Indianapolis, Indiana, a real city with an airport and infrastructure and everything.
How could I have been so naive? You’d think that being stranded in Indiana during my time covering “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour would teach me not to make any kind of assumptions about Indiana and its ride-share economy but no, like the stupid fucking idiot that I am I just assumed that getting a ride to the festival and back would not be some manner of unending nightmare.
I was wrong! It turns out that Bedford, Indiana, where I’m staying, and Springville, Indiana, the home of the Gathering of the Juggalos, don’t have Lyft and Uber so much as they have one guy who does Lyft part-time and maybe he’s available or maybe he’s asleep or maybe he’s on vacation with his family in Italy, you never know. So instead of requesting a Lyft, and then a Lyft arriving shortly I would request a Lyft 100 or 150 times, and then, if I was lucky, a Lyft would arrive two hours after that first request.
Ah, but that is all part of the Grand Gestalt of the Gathering of the Juggalos! It is such an enormous pain in the ass to get to the festival that you need to party harder than ever before just to make it worth your while. You need to have a good time commensurate with the aggravation of getting to the fest, and then the hassles endemic to the Gathering itself, like a layout that makes knowing where you are at any given time a challenge if not an outright impossibility.
Gathering this year means doing an awful lot of walking, much of it uphill, and as a genus, Juggalos are more concerned with avoiding unnecessary exertion than they are in getting their steps in. So I spent a lot of time on a trolley where rowdy Juggalos waged unending, nonsensical war on campers just trying to get a little shut eye by chanting “Fuck yo sleep” at the top of their lungs.
The trolley ran the length of the festival, from the entrance to the main “Soopa” stage, where C+C Music Factory kicked things off at 6 P.M on Wednesday. Now, a name like “Music Factory” brings with it certain expectations. It suggests an assembly line of state of the art R&B performed by a polished assemblage of dancers, studio musicians, singers and rappers.
At the very least, the name C+C Music Factory suggests at least a pair of performers, the aforementioned C and C at bare minimum. So it was a little surprising that while there were traditional instruments on the stage, nobody was playing them because for the purposes of this festival at least C+C Music Factory consisted of Freedom Williams, its frontman and rapper. An equally, if not more accurate name for this lineup would be Freedom Willams—solo.
During his early 1990s heyday, Freedom Williams looked, and for good measure also sounded, like a male model version of Ice-T. The older, crustier version of Williams that prowled the Soopa stage on Wednesday night looked like a dude who had had a rough couple of decades, who was no stranger to sleeping on couches and floors.
This crusty homeless vibe, enhanced by the large bottle of whiskey Williams was holding throughout his set suited the festival if not the material or the genre. In a sense, it did not matter that downsizing hit the C+C Music Factory so hard that it was left with only one employee, and his wages seem to have shrunk over time to the point of non-existence.
It didn’t matter that Robert Clivilles, one of the Cs in C+C Music Factory, described Williams performing solo as C+C Music Factory after he somehow attained the legal rights to do so as “the biggest insult in the world” since he apparently had little interest in being part of the band at the height of their success.
No, all that mattered was that Williams was a key component of several monster hit songs a very long time ago, hits so big and so ubiquitous that you can live off them for decades.
The Gathering of the Juggalos is nothing if not an ecstatic celebration of the nostalgic power of a hit song. A group who only hit the top 100 once in its three decade long career, with 1998’s “Santa’s a Fat Bitch”, insanely but awesomely enough, understands how profoundly and powerfully the cheap, tacky hit music of our youth affects us.
On that level, I was doubly excited to see Morris Day and the Time perform since they were of course a cherished part of my childhood due to their prominent role in Purple Rain but also my college years because when I crashed at my dad’s apartment sophomore year deep into one of the darkest depressions of my life my father tried to cheer me up with tickets to go see Morris Day and the Time at the Park West.
You know what? That shit worked. You can either be partying with Morris Day and the Time or be overcome with despair at life’s inexorable horror. You can’t do both at the same time.
I suspect that the show that Morris Day & The Time put on for the Gathering was more or less identical to the one they put on twenty-one years earlier, when I desperately needed the escape their show provided. I did not mind. It feels like The Time perfected their stage show three and a half decades ago, when they would try to blow headliner Prince off stage when they were opening for him.
When Morris Day and the Time came onstage, a forest deep in rural Ohio became an upscale Minneapolis nightclub in 1984, when Purple Rain was the hottest thing around, in music and film.
It was the same show, I reckon, at a substantially slower speed. Where James Brown and Prince were about furious exertion, Day and the Time are more about conserving energy. Day, his non-Jerome Benton sidekick/valet/hype-man favored small, neat, synchronized gestures that give the impression of perpetual movement without being unnecessarily exhausting.
This fit Day’s carefully cultivated persona as a flamboyant playboy with entire closets devoted entirely to vests, who will do anything to entertain an audience as long as it doesn’t entail mussing his hair or ruining his outfit. Putting on a show is important, of course, but not quite as important as looking good and that first night Morris Day and The Time looked and sounded good.
Morris Day and the Time were followed by returning champions Gwar. If you were to design a band specifically for the purpose of killing at the Gathering of the Juggalos you couldn’t do better than Gwar, who wear elaborate costumes and portray violent, over-sexed monsters from outer space with an exceedingly low opinion of humanity.
At the Gathering, bands that pretend to be evil aliens from outer space have an innate advantage over those that did not since those are the kinds of wildly theatrical, outrageous acts that kill at the festival. The same cannot be said of the Lillith Festival.
Gwar, the shock rock veterans behind albums such as 1992’s America Must Be Destroyed are a cartoonishly evil, extreme band for cartoonishly evil, extreme times. But in true Gathering form Gwar transformed the unrelenting ugliness of the outside world into an inspired sick joke. If you’re going to live in hell, as we currently seem to be, you might as well able to laugh about it.
Gwar brutally murdered and eviscerated a Donald Trump impersonator with a garbage bag physique that was ripped open, exposing all manner of presidential viscera, just as they had when I saw them at the 2016 Gathering. It was nice, of course, but it wasn’t quite enough. It never is.
Then came another band of robots from outer space playing kitschy pop music in the form of Cybertronic Spree, a novelty act that performs selections from Transformers: The Movie soundtrack, including my personal favorite, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Dare To Be Stupid” and Stan Bush’s “Dare” along with other kitschy ditty you might remember from your childhood. “Dare” was of course unforgettably used in Boogie Nights, a movie about a singer with a colorful background who can’t make it past the low-level gate-keepers of the music industry.
As their name suggests, Cybertronic Spree is a joke band with a killer gimmick that absolutely destroys in a nostalgia-rich realm like The Gathering, where people like myself who didn’t have much in the way of childhoods can relive some of the most cherished detritus of their wasted youths in an inclusive, friendly and persistently, pleasantly surreal environment.
I don’t know what it says about me that the group at the Gathering that spoke to me the most that first night were theater kids dressed up like robots from outer space playing spirited covers of songs from cartoons but when the Cybertronic spree played the Pokemon theme song, the hypnotically annoying soundtrack to my son’s latest obsession and “Dare to Be Stupid” in rapid succession, I found myself obscenely grateful that finally a real band, in real elaborate alien robot costumes, were playing music that mattered about things that mattered, like catching Pokemon and vehicles that are actually robots in disguise.
I spent an awful lot of time on the festival trolley, formerly known as the Hayride of Love, loudly, drunkenly engaging in group sing-alongs to Insane Clown Posse classics like “Hokus Pokus.” The Gathering consequently began to feel like a profane, drug-addled adult Summer Camp for Adult Children.
Juggalos were camping out in the woods of Shimmer Forest (a much more lyrical and evocative name for the venue than Lawrence County Recreational Park) under the watchful eyes of chief counselors Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, who had a super assortment of fun activities for us campers, pajama Jammie jams and cheeseburger picnics and clown shows of various sorts. At the Strums and Drums acoustic showcase Wednesday night at four o clock in the morning at the Shazam side stage Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope even dressed up like boy scouts so they could play some tunes and tell some tales.
Watching Shaggy and Violent J in genial storyteller mode looking like Eagle Scouts, I found myself pondering a question I never thought imagined would cross my mind: has Insane Clown Posse, and by extension the Juggalo scene, become too wholesome? Don’t get me wrong: The Gathering of the Juggalos is still a cesspool of depravity, of nakedness and open drug use and gleeful profanity, but it has become a very nice cesspool of depravity. It is defined as much by its sincerity as its hedonism. It’s a rare open space for men, scraggly, bearded, manly men, to express love and appreciation for other men, or the scene as a whole, without fear of being judged soft or weak.
It is similarly a place where bodies of all sizes and shapes are celebrated and on display, not just the kinds of bodies society angrily insists are acceptable or desirable. It is, above all, a quintessentially American place. The Gathering of the Juggalos is a true American institution.
I never feel more American than when I am chilling at the Gathering in a lawn chair, living the good life of the sedentary Juggalo. When you’ve a Faygo RedPop in one cup holder and a homemade lemonade in the other, surrounded by lush greenery and trees that veritably glow with a warm, nurturing light you’re living your best life.
But it wasn’t just the Gathering that felt wonderfully, inextricably American, it was everything surrounding it as well. The archetypal Americanness extended to the Holiday Inn I stayed and the Wal-Mart where I bought my purple lawn chair I dubbed “Prince” and a barbecue place with a “Deplorables welcome” sign on the wall and the Grand Corral where I made like a true American and stuffed my fucking face on food of great quantity if not great quality.
Fifty one and a half weeks a year I am a responsible husband, father, home-owner and small businessman. Then I spend about half a week doing fat dabs with the people who run the funnel cake stand at the Gathering of the Juggalos. It’s cathartic.
The highlight of the second night was a rare set from Soopa Villainz, a super group made up of Insane Clown Posse’s Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope and horrorcore pioneer Esham, the father of ICP’s style and one of the creators of what is colloquially known as the Wicked Shit. The veterans rappers performed dressed like burglars, in all black with black ski masks and performed a visceral, propulsive stripped-down set of old school Wicked Shit. The format suited the clowns much better than the alternate universe Eagle Scout set-up of their acoustic set, which made the mistake of putting the emphasis on lyrics that are, to be generous, often pretty fucking stupid.
Sometimes Insane Clown Posse’s lyrics are transcendently, intentionally, exquisitely idiotic, like when they taunt on “Fuck the World”, “Fuck pre-schoolers/Fuck rulers/Kings and queens and gold jewelers/Fuck wine coolers” but sometimes they’re just dumb and benefit tremendously from the deafening volume and eye-popping spectacle of a full-on, Faygo-spraying Insane Clown Posse extravaganza like the one that closed the festival on an appropriately epic, ecstatic note early Sunday morning.
The big comedy headliner, trumping Clownvis and Randy from the Trailer Park Boys, who was hosting a “Cheeseburger picnic” in character, was Gilbert Gottfried, who didn’t perform traditional stand-up so much as he told dirty jokes. When I say that he told dirty jokes I don’t mean that his material was blue. I mean that he literally told the kinds of profane, ferociously “politically incorrect” jokes you might find in a dirty joke book published any time between the late 1930s and today. Sometimes Gottfried would embellish the mothballed street jokes he was delivering by delineating in hilariously graphic, over-the-top terms just exactly what kind of transgressive fuckery was happening in each filthy joke.
You have to have tremendous presence and charisma to pull off something like that but Gottfried was up to it. Audience participation is always a big part of the comedy tent. This year Gottfried presided over gleeful chants of “Fuck Afflac!” even though the insurance company dropped Gottfried in 2011, some eight years ago.
When fans chanted, “Family, Family!” at Gottfried he looked simultaneously befuddled and flattered and said, “Thanks. I guess?”
It was a rare, welcome acknowledgement that shouting “Family! Family!” during a performance isn’t an actual compliment. It’s not real praise. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the performer beyond, I suppose, suggesting that they embody the Juggalo concept of “Family.” I suppose you could say that Gottfried’s gleefully profane, dirty, counter-cultural aesthetic and unabashed, unapologetic weirdness embodied the underdog Juggalo aesthetic but it would be equally accurate, if a little less idealistic, to say that Gottfried embodied the true spirit of the festival in being a famous, campy veteran entertainer willing to accept money in exchange for work.
Friday night Bone Thugs-n-Harmony brought blinding star power to the main stage playing a rapturously received set full of massive smashes like “Crossroad” and “First of the Month” that didn’t just rule radio and MTV for long stretches; they mattered. They helped people get through deaths. They provided the soundtrack to their youths, to first crushes and high school parties and funerals.
Like Geto Boys, who performed before Insane Clown Posse Saturday night, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s legacy is shadowed by death. Mentor Eazy-E discovered the band and signed it to his label Ruthless not long before he died. The Cleveland superstars, who scored back-to-back quadruple platinum albums in their 1990s prime turned part of their set into a celebration not just of Eazy-E but also Notorious B.I.G and 2Pac and all the other iconic rappers who are no longer here.
KRS-ONE was scheduled to perform on a secondary stage at 3:30 Friday morning but around 4:00 someone came out and uttered words that surprised no one: KRS-ONE was not there. In fact they did not know where he was, only that he wouldn’t be performing that night.
When someone big and iconic doesn’t show at the Gathering it begins to feel weirdly inevitable. I thought, “Of course KRS-ONE isn’t going to play the Gathering. I was stupid to feel otherwise.”
So you can imagine how excited I was to see KRS-ONE hit the main stage Saturday night. Now KRS-ONE is cancelled forever in my book for defending Afrika Bambaataa in light of sexual abuse allegations, treating criticisms of Bambaataa as an attack on Hip Hop culture instead of a long-overdue reckoning for a man accused of abusing his power in terrible ways.
I’ve lost all respect for KRS-ONE as a person but you cannot deny his skills as a performer. The Blast Master rocked the house even if his banter about real Hip Hop and the culture felt a little empty.
At the Gathering of the Juggalos, novelty acts in elaborate make-up and costumes tended do a whole lot better than rappers repping “real Hip Hop” but the main stage bill the final night offered an embarrassment of riches when it came to gritty underground Hip Hop.
I’m a big enough fan of supergroup Army of the Pharaohs that I’ve daydreamed about how awesome it would be if they played the Gathering of the Juggalos, if my worlds collided and my favorite indie rap supergroup played my favorite annual festival of arts and culture.
I was fucking geeked, consequently, when I saw that Jedi Mind Tricks would be playing the main stage the final night. Jedi Mind Tricks frontman Vinnie Paz is a raspy-voiced white Italian dude from Philadelphia born Vincenzo Luvineri who raps ferociously about either wanting to stab his many enemies in the face with a machete or his devout Muslim faith. It shouldn’t work but it does.
Jedi Mind Tricks did not disappoint but when Paz brought out Esoteric, one of my favorite rappers as well a core member of Army of the Pharaohs and Czarface (Esoteric and producer 7L plus Inspectah Deck), my brain nearly exploded from excitement.
To give you a sense of Esoteric’s lyricism, Czarface has done collaborative albums with MF DOOM and Ghostface Killah, two of the greatest rappers and songwriters in Hip Hop history and there was absolutely no fall off in quality whatsoever between Esoteric and his esteemed guests.
I never, in my life imagined that I would hear Czarface songs like “Bombs Thrown” performed onstage at the Gathering. That just made it all the more awesome.
The final act before Insane Clown Posse was Houston gangsta rap legends and returning Gathering favorites Geto Boys, minus Bushwick Bill, who died mere months before the festival.
Early in their set, Geto Boys Scarface and Willie D announced that they were so ferociously invested in politics that they were both running for city council in their communities. I thought that was cool until the music dropped out and they devoted the rest of their time to dryly articulating their policy positions. Let’s just say that Willie D has a LOT of strong opinions about zoning ordinances and gerrymandering in west side Houston. It was weird that most of their set was about local Houston politics since I doubt anyone at the Gathering could vote for them anyway. I mean, I’ve heard of political Hip Hop but this was ridiculous!
KRS-ONE, Geto Boys and the tag-team of Jedi Mind Tricks and Esoteric set the bar high that final night before everyone had to go home but nobody upstages Insane Clown Posse in front of Juggalos, particularly at a landmark Gathering like the 20th. That final performance brought with it a feeling of release; all that anticipation and excitement exploding in a Faygo-soaked orgy of sensation and furious movement.
My first day at the Gathering I ran into a Facebook friend named Jimmy who I believe I first met properly at the Juggalo March on Washington. I’m fascinated by his life because while his jobs are all on the soul-crushing and low-paying side his existence nevertheless seems defined by food, concerts, comedy and friends. He’s a good-ass dude perpetually living his best life, representing all that is honorable and pure about Juggalo Nation. One of my biggest regrets of the Gathering is that I never made it to the Juggalo Wine Club Mixer where he was portraying the role of Bernie from the motion pictures Weekend at Bernie’s and Weekend at Bernie’s II because it was hard to find anything that wasn’t one of the main stages or the entrances.
Even more remarkably, he listens to Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast and is a patron. Those folks are rarer and more magical and miraculous than unicorns. In that capacity, he said that he’d been meaning to send me and my Happy Cast co-host Clint an email for a new feature where readers give us their Happy Places.
He said that the Gathering of the Juggalos was his Happy Place and at the end of four often transcendent days of music, mirth and merriment I felt the same way. Ten years and seven Gatherings in, this still speaks to me on a soul-deep level.
That’s the nice thing about The Gathering: it’s only four days long but it lingers. There’s an afterglow and a comedown/hangover as you leave that weird, magical place, possibly never to return, and are deposited back into the real world, a harsh realm where yelling “Whoop Whoop!” to strangers in public is generally seen as an expression of mental illness and not a hearty greeting to a like-minded soul and violence takes the form of multiple massacres that shake your faith in humanity and the American people, not cartoon clowns pretending to kill people to teach important lessons.
There’s the reality of the Gathering, and that lasts for four jam-packed days. Then there’s the idea of the Gathering, the fantasy, the deathless dream. That lasts all year round. That never dies or fades, instead growing stronger with time.
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