Church of the SubGenius

Double Door, February 2

By Sarah Vowell

Ben Franklin, the party’s gonna go on, dude!” screams a man as I walk in the door. So I know I’m in the right place, considering that the rule-following, nitpicking neatnik Franklin personifies everything small, petty, and sterile about pre-Elvis America–everything that the Church of the SubGenius hates. Indeed, if our virtuous founding father, who cautioned us to “avoid extremes,” had come in from the cold behind me, one glance at the stage would have put him right back out into the subzero night. The man at the mike is a portly freak wearing a caftan, a turban, and eyeglasses with demonic eyes painted on the lenses. The apocalypse, he predicts, will begin on July 5, 1998. He speaks before a mob that’s roughly 96 percent male. “Praise Bob!” they call back. Overheard in the crowd: “Are they for real or are they just trying for comedy?”

“They” are the Church of the SubGenius, the Dallas-based collective of artsy weirdos who parody fundamentalist religion. Led by tonight’s headliner, Reverend Ivan Stang, they worship a Brylcreemed, pipe-smoking figurehead (and I do mean head, since a drawing of his smiling mug is all we ever see) named J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. They spread their credo, “Get Slack,” across the nation via books, tapes, the Internet, “devivals,” and their radio ministry’s “Hour of Slack” (heard locally at noon “most Saturdays” on WZRD, 88.7 FM). The Church of the SubGenius preaches against the healthy-wealthy-wise “normals,” doomed cogs in the wheels of capitalism who could be saved if only they sent the church a $30 membership fee.

The “Hour of Slack”–whose sneaky subtext isn’t slack but free speech–is one of the most creative radio programs in town: a rough-hewn collage of sermons, noise, rants, homespun editorials, found sounds, and annoy-your-parents rock ‘n’ roll. It’s strange, but smart. Unlike the bulk of tonight’s performances, most of which are marred by adolescent male idiocy along the lines of “Girls don’t like me” or “Semen cracks me up.”

After the first of what will be three interludes of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” a disgusting duo called Circus Apocalypse takes the stage. Andrew the Impaled, sporting a court jester hat and leather bondage gear, hammers a nail up his nose, then yanks it out with pliers. “I can’t believe I’m clapping for this,” I think, as he extracts an entire screwdriver from his nasal cavity. After his partner, David Apocalypse, dressed like a black-and-white Op Art painting, juggles large, sharp knives and drops them, Mr. Impaled elicits a big group wince by chewing glass from a broken light bulb.

Not to be upstaged, SubGenius preacher Dr. Legume assumes the pulpit to the bagpiped strains of “Amazing Grace.” This is nothing short of resurrection, since Legume’s death was announced a few months back on “The Hour of Slack.” The Lone Star Lazarus proclaims, “Slack is better than getting gang-sucked by a band of Nordic Valkyries.” Gee. Then he plays faith healer to a man on crutches who also suffers from kidney problems, seizures, a heart murmur, two tumors, and “hands so gnarled that he can’t even masturbate.” Cured! Which is to say, “Washed in the jism of Bob.”

All the boy-goo talk makes me crave my favorite SubGenius, Reverend Susie the Floozie, the “Hour of Slack” regular whose sexy, sagacious commentary throws some welcome girl talk into the masculine mix. Instead, I get Janor Hypercleets, a 12-year-old’s mind trapped in a grown man’s badly dressed body, railing against Jimmy Swaggart, Newt Gingrich, and “linear thought.” Hypercleets sermonizes against the mainstream’s co-option of the underground: “In the old days, they used to send an assassin,” he shouts. “Nowadays, they send a representative from Island Records.” I think about all the Island-embossed PJ Harvey records strewn about my floor at home, and I decide that the gutsy, hollering Harvey could swallow this plaid-jacketed doofus whole. Any real woman would, not to mention Nordic Valkyries.

Stang, always the last word, closes the show. Wearing a Bob Dobbs T-shirt and a suit as white as the pearly gates, he speaks in a Texas twang, aping the delivery of a holy-rolling preacher. Though there’s a thick blanket of annoying irony draped over the entire night, there’s something like real passion in his voice. “If this church is a joke,” he asks, “what do you call the evening news?”

A video screen blasts a dizzying mix of images: gulf war tanks, an old porn film, Bob merchandise, and a blurry, purple Ronald Reagan. Stang’s tirade rises above both the flashing imagery and a sound track of Hendrix-like guitars. The sensual effect is loud, fast, and slick. But aside from all the cutesy, pseudo-eschatological mumbo jumbo (the SubGenius rapture is called a “rupture”), Stang articulates a species of oppositional politics, encouraging his flock to unleash their “cre-hate-tivity.” Hate for a government “that has already replaced your name with a urine-test-result number,” for a cultural climate in which rock ‘n’ roll has been turned into “nothin’ but a beer commercial,” for a media soiled by the “silt from the Hollywood death delta.” Enjoining the congregation to “flaunt your weirdness!” Stang points out that “it’s always been the crazy people–the nuts, the crackpots–who have the guts to fight city hall. And sometimes,” he adds, “they win.”

Still, Stang is well aware that his own lunatic fringe–a group of oddballs and misfits who set out to create a do-it-yourself “disorganization”–is turning into a herd. Looking out at the fist-raising, Bob-praising frat boys before him, he calls these taggers-on “Bobbies” who are “stickin’ to the tar baby of Bob.” Perhaps his most telling insight is “I don’t practice what I preach, because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to,” which sounds like the performer’s greatest sin: contempt for the audience. But remembering the creepy Lord of the Flies-ish glee with which the crowd welcomed a bloody rubber head of golfer Arnold Palmer earlier in the show, I can’t blame him a bit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Marty Perez.