Nathan Rabin — original head writer of The AV Club, author and memoirist, prolific pop cultural critic, noted Juggalo — is one of the funniest and sharpest observers of our current media landscape and the way we live now. His work, rooted in a bemused outlook and anti-cynical, democratic approach to material, is as likely to tackle the 1966 Batman movie or the vapidly handsome train-wreck that is Ryan Lochte as it is the rise of comedy geek culture or his own experiences of recent fatherhood.
Rabin’s view is expansive, to put it mildly.
His new book, out tomorrow, contrasts the Republican National Convention and Insane Clown Posse’s annual festivities. 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering Of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane is a portrait of clowns and cartoonish maniacs, and also ICP fans.
With the book barreling toward your Kindle like a backyard wrestler in clown makeup, Rabin was kind enough to field a few of our most pressing questions, including whether or not RNC delegates shared their drugs with him, if he considered starting a riot, and to what degree his experiences echoed the classic American film MacGruber.
Rick Kelley: So how did the idea for 7 Days In Ohio first come about? Obviously, you’re already something of a Juggalo chronicler — arguably the preeminent one. But was it just the weird happenstance that the Gathering was occurring so close (in time and place) to the RNC? Were there other motivating factors that made you connect the two events?
Nathan Rabin: I suspect it might horrify my wife to admit this, but, real talk, going to the Gathering of the Juggalos is a highlight of every year, personally and professionally. It’s what The Long Shot podcast‘s Jamie Flam might refer to as a “place of enchantment.” Tragically, however, people’s fascination and curiosity about Juggalos has a limit, so I need to find a new angle to cover it every year. Last year my angle was “family.” I was supposed to write specifically about families with the questionable judgment to bring children to The Gathering but I expanded it to be about family in all its forms — biological, surrogate, even the family of man as found in the gospels of Juggalos For Jesus, an interesting group of true believers trying to spread the message of Christ to Juggalos. I ended up writing about Juggalos for Jesus fairly extensively.
So when my long-lost half brother Vince re-entered my life unexpectedly about three months ago, brandishing a massive homemade sword that he had made for me, and radiating a very Juggalo kind of desperation, I knew I had my angle: I would reconnect with my brother and have this intense, spiritual, cultural and familial experience attending my fifth Gathering and his first. THAT, alone, I think would have made for a really compelling piece. But then I found out that the Republican convention was being held on overlapping days in the same state and I saw an opportunity to take a really big idea and make it positively epic. So I seized upon the overarching concept of dysfunctional family reunions and violently differing takes on our country’s future and problems and thank God, the experience lived up to my expectations. I had a chance to say something important about a singular moment in our culture. Hopefully I succeeded.
RK: One of the striking things about your writing is the way you meld personal experience and social/cultural observation. That’s been true for a long time, and prior to the book, you wrote a really fascinating piece about this whole Juggalo/Trump endeavor and reconnecting with your brother. Did you anticipate how intense this was going to be?
Rabin: I think I anticipated it being intense because my brother is intense. Really intense. Like, pummelingly intense. And that’s a big part of what made him so fascinating to me. I think I am a little less intense because I’ve had an easier life. I write about silly movies and go to The Gathering. He uses fire and iron to forge steel to his will. He’s been in multiple knife fights. At various points in my life, I’ve collected ALL of the early EPs of both The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian. And my brother is tormented by his relationship with our biological mother because it’s so intense whereas I am liberated from it, in a strange way, by having her out of my life. So I think I realized going in that this wouldn’t work if my brother and I were both super intense, so I think he was intense, and then his wife and myself tried to be mellowing influences, with some success. The Gathering began on kind of a weird, dark note but it improved tremendously.
RK: In your earlier book You Don’t Know Me, But You Don’t Like Me, you go out of your way to shelve cynicism and try to find the redeeming aspects and connective threads between frequently despised subcultures — in that case, not just ICP but Phish fandom. Are you in any way able to recuperate Trump’s lunatic legions of supporters? Are they somehow redeemable in context, or at least explicable? Or are they exactly what they appear to be — namely, garbage bigot monsters?
Rabin: I was wondering about this going in. When I went to my first Gathering a long, long time ago I knew almost nothing about them except that people thought they were the worst, they dressed like clowns and sprayed Faygo and did that silly “Miracles” song. And I was writing a book about them! So I learned through experience that they were not what people derided them as being, or at least were a whole lot more complicated and impressive than the stereotypes held. On the other hand, I knew far too much about Trump going in. And he’s EXACTLY what his detractors accuse him of being. So while there was half of one percent of my brain that wondered, “What if you go there and Trump starts to make sense to you? What if he converts you?” I doubted that anything there would change my opinion of Trump and his supporters. And nothing did. If anything, it made him seem even MORE terrifying and wrong.
RK: The Gathering is known for the pervasiveness of clowns and drugs. The RNC, of course, has no shortage of clowns, but I’m curious if you went full Hunter Thompson and ate a ton of mescaline to deal with it. In retrospect, are there narcotics you wish had been distributed more freely to the delegates?
Rabin: To be brutally honest I had two different visions for the trip. In one, I would take a Greyhound bus to Cleveland with the whole Fear & Loathing accessories unit, with mushrooms and molly and pot but I had to choose between taking a bus 14 hours so I could be on some powerful drugs I shouldn’t have been on in the first place, or go the sober route and save myself the time and the hassle. So I went the sober route in Cleveland and the very non-sober route in Thornville and I’m glad I did. The convention was trippy and nightmarish enough without drugs, and the wall-to-wall ubiquity of cops would have freaked me out if I had been stoned. And while a lot of the revelers seemed to be drunk and possibly coked up at the RNC, it was, on the whole, less of a druggy scene, or at least no one was sharing their stash with me.
That’s what I really hate about Trump supporters. They’re selfish in all respects, including not sharing their drugs with me.
RK: I watched some of the Republican National Convention, and it was a resolutely dour affair. One of the great ironies here, it seems, is that ICP has been deemed, alternatively, a pitiful subculture of losers (Mr. Trump’s favorite word) or a dangerous clown gang (by some of the very people attending the RNC). Yet it’s The Gathering that seems the more positive, affirming event. What do you think explains this weird nexus of political rage and carnival joy, given that both are in essence spectacles?
Rabin: I think Trump’s brand, as a politician, is fear. It’s xenophobia. It’s racism. It’s sexism. It’s racial and cultural division. Those are all scary, dark, paranoid qualities to build a political brand around. To Trump and his supporters, being pro-American or patriotic is shorthand for anti-immigrant and xenophobia. The Gathering, in sharp contrast, is a celebration. It’s supposed to be heaven on earth, a place where people who are mocked and ridiculed are elevated and revered. It’s supposed to be the four happiest, most upbeat days of a Juggalo’s year. And they need it, because Juggalos lives tend to be hard, whereas I imagine most of Trump’s delegates have pretty cushy lives. The same can’t be said of a lot of his working class supporters, but then they’re looking to build themselves up by tearing other people down, which is a very un-Juggalo way to go about things.
RK: This is a film website, so I figure I should close with a film question. What movie did your experiences at the RNC, the Gathering, and the spaces between them most evoke, and why is it MacGruber?
Rabin: That is a good question, and also a good answer.
The RNC did remind me of MacGruber in that Trump is a dithering idiot convinced he’s a genius whose dangerous incompetence threatens the lives of the more competent and less insane people around him. And it’s hard to get around the obvious Idiocracy parallels.
But I’m going to go in an even more obvious direction and go with Medium Cool, particularly the RNC parts. At its most electrifying, I felt like I was watching history unfold in front of me and I would be lying if there wasn’t some part of me that secretly kind of pined for a riot. Even one I would perish in. That’d sell another 100 copies of each of my books at least. I was on my Mookie/Sly & The Family Stone shit, and I ended up doing the right thing. Which in this case was not starting a riot. Confusing, huh?
RK: Lastly, the basics: when do you expect the book to come out and how can people get it?
Rabin: The book comes out on September 13th! (which is probably, at this point, the distant future) and is only available on Amazon. [Ed. note: That’s actually tomorrow.] I’ve got nothing against conventional booksellers. In fact I love them and appreciate their support through the years, but this story was perfect for a Kindle “short reads” so that is the form it ended up taking.
Nathan Rabin’s 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering Of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane is available for purchase here. If you like funny, smart things, you should buy your copy immediately.
Thanks once again to Nathan for taking the time to chat.