About three years ago, former AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin set out to write a book about the diehard fans of Phish and Insane Clown Posse. “It was originally going to be this sort of dry, ethnological, sociological text,” he says. “It was going to be this wry, ironic outsider casting an amused, affectionate look at these strange people.”
The idea changed quickly after he started traveling the country to Phish and ICP concerts. “My plan proved unfeasible,” he says. “Both because my heart wasn’t in it, but also because I don’t have the journalistic skill set to write that kind of book. So it started as an outsider looking in, but it became my story – the story of someone who had their brain cracked open and all these weird experiences and people and music sort of seeped in.”
Rabin went full-on gonzo while reporting the book, ingesting all sorts of mind-altering drugs, traveling the country by Greyhound bus, scalping tickets and interacting with the hardest of hardcore fans. He also blew through much of his savings, nearly broke up with his girlfriend and found out he is bipolar. His book, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse and My Misadventures with Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes, hits shelves this week.
How much did you know about Insane Clown Posse and Phish before starting this project?
I knew almost nothing about either of them, which is one of the reasons why I think I wrote the book. I have a sensational curiosity about the world in general, and in hindsight it’s kind of weird I didn’t know more about Insane Clown Posse. I’ve always been attracted to things that are weird and disreputable and reviled by respectable people and the world at large. But for some reason, that was a world that I never really explored. I think it’s because they’re considered the worst group in the world.
That should have been as much an inducement to me and an attraction. The fact that everyone hates them is part of their appeal. But for some reason that never really cracked my world until the “Miracles” video hit. As I write in the book, I watched it with the woman who is now my wife over and over again. It was just absolutely compelling, riveting, dramatic and almost hypnotic. There was also this sweetness and incredible vulnerability to it. Also, it’s just fucking hilarious and fucking insane. What an insane contradiction to be espousing the wonders of the world and the glories of nature and God, while at the same time being incredible profane while doing so.
With Insane Clown Posse, there’s this whole mythology that’s rooted in horror movies, wrestling, grindcore and violence. It’s not surprising that I became absolutely transfixed.
With Phish, I knew even less. I didn’t listen to them much in college. The idea was that listening to live recordings of Phish was something you had to do in order to access other people’s marijuana. I just literally resented it. I heard a lot of Phish shows, but I never really listened to them.
Between the two of them, they have exactly zero hit songs.
Totally. That’s one of the things that’s amazing about it. They are both kind of iconic acts and important cultural touchstones in American popular culture, and a lot of people have no idea who they are. That’s kind of fascinating. The Grateful Dead had a fucking hit song.
That’s another thing that makes them special, though. You have to have an entry into the world. It’s almost like a form of contemporary folklore. You have to know a friend that went to a show and was like, “Oh my God, this is the most amazing fucking thing in the world.” Then he brings a friend . . . That’s how these things grow.
It’s a secret world, and if they had hit songs, if there was mainstream knowledge about them, it would feel less special. As long as it’s not hip, it can still be a special thing. It can still be a secret thing that belongs to the sounds. It’s not just people who like that Grateful Dead song they heard on the radio.
Right. Even the Dead had rather popular albums that sold outside of their cult.
Right. Phish are such a live act and such a live experience that it almost feels like cheating if I listen to a Phish studio album. It feels wrong. It shouldn’t be Steve Lillywhite making everything sound pretty, neat and clean. There should be something that’s ragged and raw, and sounds like it was recorded in front of 60,000 people on drugs in some weird place in Ohio.
I think a lot of people don’t realize that the ICP universe is so vast. They even made their own Western movie.
Here’s the fucking thing. They’re really weird. People don’t give them enough credit for being weird, and they’re really interesting and fascinating in a unique way. They have made two motion pictures. People expect exploitation movies. They don’t expect them to be watchable. They’d decided they would basically do a Seventies blaxploitation movie in Big Money Hustlas, but instead of using African-Americans they have white guys in clown makeup. For the follow-up, they decided to do a comic Western. They’re both incredibly bizarre, insane genres for a white horrorcore artist to peruse, but that’s kind of who they are.
Who else would be like, “We’re going to perform music, but we also have an elaborate religious mythology, and we have our own wrestling league.” Those don’t even show the totality of the Juggalo universe, but those are two of the most interesting aspects. It’s kind of a religion, and also kind of an athletic association at the same time. Also, their wrestling league is way better than Phish’s wrestling league. They just kind of dance around for a little bit, and then just give up. It’s not one of the more impressive elements of the Phish universe.
Phish didn’t cooperate much with your book.
At the beginning I put in a request with their publicist saying, “I’d really love it if I could have tickets to the shows. That way I could follow Phish all summer and not go completely broke,” which is what wound up happening. I think they had the idea, “OK, this is a guy from the AV Club. They’re snarky and kind of cynical, and if they’re writing about Phish they’re probably not going to do so in an overly respectful or reverent fashion.” Maybe there wasn’t even that much thinking to it. I think it was just kind of, “Eh, I don’t really know.”
What was your favorite moment from the numerous Gathering of the Juggalos that you attended?
The thing that sticks out for me, other than Tila Tequila, was the number of great comics they had. The first year I was there Hannibal Buress opened for Ron Jeremy, and was absolutely amazing. It says a lot about the Gathering of the Juggalos that they’d want someone like Hannibal Buress to perform. Bobcat Goldthwait was absolutely fantastic. He was there this past year. I feel like the subtext of every performance at the Gathering is, “How the fuck did it come to this? What went wrong in my life that I wound up in front of a bunch of clown-painted lunatics on drugs who spray each other with Faygo?”
Bobcat just made that explicit. There was a woman who yelled out, “We love you, Bobcat!” And he said, without any thinking at all, “That’ll mean a lot to me when I taste the gun metal in my mouth tonight. Some Juggalo whore loves me.”
The other one that really sticks out is MC Hammer. That was one of the things that doesn’t make any sense in the world. This is a guy that’s incredibly clean-cut, incredibly wholesome, who has had albums that went diamond, who legitimately mounted a challenge to Michael Jackson as the King of Pop. Then 15 years later he’s performing at the Gathering of the Juggalos. But he’s an amazing, electrifying performer. And it was one of the things that makes the Gathering so amazing. It’s an opportunity to live out the weird dreams and nightmares and fantasies of childhood in an incredibly surreal context.
There was a part where he came out into the crowd and all these Juggalos were going nuts. At the Gathering of the Juggalos, the audience are basically entertainers. It’s kind of like a Phish show. At a Phish show, one of the least interesting vantage points is looking at the stage. It’s the same thing with Insane Clown Posse. The most entertaining aspect of the Gathering is the fans. They make a spectacle of themselves every day, but they really amp it up at the Gathering.
At one point, Hammer left the stage and the crowd climbed on the stage and started chanting, “Fa-mi-ly, fa-mi-ly, fa-mi-ly.” Then Hammer came back and performed “U Can’t Touch This.” It was this ecstatic, transcendent thing. It shouldn’t have happened and didn’t make any sense, but it was just absolutely stunning. That was probably my favorite non-Insane Clown Posse performance at the Gathering.
How long did it take you to start enjoying ICP’s music?
I wrote this book in such an incredibly haphazard way that it wasn’t until well into a year into working on it that I started actually listening to Insane Clown Posse. If you listen to Carnival of Souls, their first rap album, it’s incredibly raw. They’re basically 23-year-old ne’er-do-wells who can barely rap. There’s almost an outsider art element to it. But they kind of found themselves very quickly.
Something I didn’t anticipate was how funny Insane Clown Posse are, how intentionally funny they are and how warped and cracked and offbeat their sensibility was. That’s where I really connected. Also, they are a really fun pop band.
Part of their ethos is “We’re against things that are pop and we’ll never sell out.” But I’ve interviewed Violent J and he’s like, “I love Beyonce and I love Michael Jackson.” They have Michael Jackson impersonator contests pretty much every year at the Gathering. It’s always one of the highlights. It’s so joyous and childlike. That’s one of the things that took me by surprise, I think because the bar was set incredibly low. I was like, “OK, this isn’t as terrible as everybody says. Like, this is actually good.”
It got to the point where my wife got a little freaked out and a little disconcerted at how much I like Insane Clown Posse. She’ll be like, “Are you sure you don’t just like Juggalos and appreciate them in a meta-academic way?” I’m like, “No, I fuckin’ love ICP.”
Do you feel the same way about Phish?
Oh yeah. Very much so. I just heard their cover of “Boogie On Reggae Woman” again. That’s a big song for me in my Phish fandom. I remember my first time hearing it. I was like, “Oh, this is so embarrassing – they’re middle-aged, awkward white guys from fuckin’ Burlington and they’re playing this Stevie Wonder song, and it’s just ridiculous.”
I was afflicted with the curse of self-consciousness. And I was afflicted with the curse of taste and judgment and this idea of what music should be, and who should perform it and what it should look like and sound like. I had all these preconceptions and hang-ups, and over the course of writing this book and bashing my skull open I lost all of these pretensions and all this ironic distance, I learned to love the music on a really deep, emotional level.