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ICP playing in front of the Lincoln Memorial

ICP playing in front of the Lincoln Memorial

I’d love to love Insane Clown Posse, if only because of my new-found respect for their song subject matter, and in fact, their general sensibility.

There are plenty of ICP songs about mystical carnival stuff. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope also have songs with subjects that run the gamut from Charles Whitman in the University of Texas tower, to critiques of prosperity doctrine preachers, to killing rednecks, to the everyday magic of everyday life. They’re guileless, but profane. They’re morbid-minded, but full of simple joy about basic things. All of that is a little bit…me. Even if I grew up nice and middle middle class, not bottom of the heap and fighting for self-respect like those two.

The amazing thing about ICP is that they have embraced everything uncool about themselves, and their fans by extension. Pride in poverty, in bad taste in cheap soda, pride about being mocked, and taking it back–saying yes, I am a clown, that’s ok, and turning that into not just a rabid fandom, but an entire subculture who, among their many siren calls, declares each other “Fam-a-ly!”

But it isn’t just their greasepaint clown garbe, their throwing cheap soda around, or their over-dependence on A-A-A-A rhymes. ICP also has a ridiculous, borderline spiritual mythology. First it was the dark carnival, and the Joker’s Cards albums that stressed the murderous stuff. Then the album containing the legendarily-mocked “Miracles” came out in 2010.

Another song off that album was about the end of the world. “It’s All Over” it has some of the usual ICP awkwardness (and Shaddy 2 Dope’s aggressive A-A-A-A breakdown is so unnecessary), but there’s something else going on that has captivated me.

In the video, our boys are in the middle of a city. Everyone else is panicking, but they’re not. Violent J repeats the sentiment that when all of this shit is going down–every possible apocalypse at once, because ICP can’t do anything halfway– my favorite being “aliens come and eat mankind” which proves that these are funny dudes, and have never gotten enough respect for that–he’s just going to “stand on the roof, spread my arms out, and sing.”

Near the end, is my favorite part. Violent J sings  “And you’re not missing anything when you’re gone/Plus seeing it all end and what goes on/To see this great world come to an end/Would be the next best to seeing it begin.”

In one of the tear-inducing pieces on Rogert Ebert a year or two before he died, he had a line, “I was perfectly happy before I was born.” That is to say, old Ebert didn’t fear death. Neither does ICP, it seems. The band is Christian — a supposed twist, that most ardent fans say that everyone should have seen coming — and this casualness towards the end of things could be seen as a Christian confidence in being saved. But it doesn’t come off that way, even if Shaggy introduces things with an evil revival preacher voices. The perspective, still, it comes off more human than religious. More “Can the Circle be Unbroken” than God is Not Dead because the band is accepting the end, but not spitting all over feelings and life the way that hideous movie does.

It’s a funny song, crammed with armageddon overkill, so it’s hard to highlight just one source of doom. However, it doesn’t feel like a mere joke or an alienating belief in God having their backs (and no one else’s), and that’s it. In fact, the song clarifies that “God has had enough of our shit.”

Like even the best ICP songs, this one is a big mess. But it sounds like the mess that these two guys are — it is them, not something made in a hitmaker’s factory. The realness of ICP, even after notoriety and the mantle of “worst band of all time” is obvious after a day of research, and a day spent with the most passionate Juggalos congregated in DC. For a lot of Juggalos, it’s about the scene and the acceptance perhaps more than the music. But there are moments in the music, too. This is a very strange song about death, and the death of everything and everyone, and of all things, it’s kind of comforting and optimistic. People are losing their minds and screaming, and Shaggy and J are just walking and listening to music on their headphones. It’s got the commendable swagger of Benjamin Guggenheim saying “we are dressed in our best, and prepared to go down as gentlemen” as the Titanic listed and sank.

Plus, I really like the moment when Shaggy sits on a park bench and checks out the one woman who seems more upset about the end of the world thing, but then kind of exasperated about being checked out. I am still not sure what’s happening there, but it’s hilarious.

Update: for me on ICP, check out my Spiked Online piece on the Juggalo March on Washington.

The Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival could book Nickelback from 2017 until the end of time, and I would forgive them, because in 2013 they booked Ralph Stanley, and I got to see him sing, and to shake his hand and fawn over him.

He was frail already, but it was still one of the finest concerts I have ever seen. That voice will not come again.

“Ralph Stanley is not immortal. In spite of refrains — at least half a dozen at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival alone — of his status as a “living legend,” Stanley is 86 years old and frail. One half of the first-generation-of-bluegrass duo The Stanley Brothers, as well as a solo artist in his own right, Stanley might have just a few years left in him. He already can’t play his famous clawhammer-style banjo. On Saturday, his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, gave Stanley a lyrics sheet so he could remember the words to “Angel Band”, a song which someone in the crowd requested. A song he must have sung hundreds of times.”

Read the rest.

I know Andrew Kirell from his former tenure as Mediaite’s Ed in Chief, and now for the Daily Beast. I also know him to be refreshingly scornful of politics and the worst people in media. I also know him as that guy I met twice, and wish I could hang out with more because he’s pretty legit.

I heard whispers for several years that Kirell had musical yearnings and talents, and I was curious to hear what he sounded like. If you talk to someone a lot, but you don’t know their musical self, it feels mysterious. They could be a secret Bowie or Britney Spears or Paul Simon. You just don’t know.

A few weeks ago, Kirell had me listen to his song “On My Own” and it was completely not what I had expected, in a fun way. I knew Kirell had great taste in music — Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan and all — but I didn’t expect him to sound like the alt country Ian Curtis. He does. He sounds like the alt country Ian Curtis, and it is awesome. Go have a listen over at his Bandcamp page. I’m excited to hear what he does next.

charlieparrCharlie Parr at Club Cafe — March 10

A correction for

October post, Charlie Parr

is able to smile.

 

Willie Watson (with Wood Brothers) at Rex Theatre — April 8

Bros sing Gus Cannon

Drunk. A rare Venn Diagram

is Willie Watson

 

Off-brand Avett Bros.

Maybe bit of Grateful Dead

Needed more Watson

 

Pokey LaFarge at Rex Theatre — April 30

No one with that face

could sing different music,

still pull off “Pokey.”

 

Richard Thompson at Pittsburgh Arts Fest — June 12

Here’s the second time

I’ve seen half Richard Thompson’s

set. Worth twice the bus.

 

Neko Case at Pittsburgh Arts Fest– June 13

Sometimes I wish she

weren’t so dreamy in tempo.

But what a goddess.

 

Mischief Brew at Roboto Project — July 24

Old mosh pit story

Risk life and limb to feel life.

(Still not a commie)

Old Time Etc. With DJ Jesse Walker The DJ 1-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

Old Time Etc. With DJ Jesse Walker 2-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

Old Time Etc. Pairs Show 1-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

Old Time Etc. Pairs Show 2-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

I'm the worst professor in history!The most infuriating thing about the 2012 Christian film God is Not Dead is not that it’s an email forward of a film. Nor is it that I am not a Christian, and therefore this movie isn’t for me. No, it’s simply that this doesn’t have to be so appalling, no matter the yay-Jesus sentiment.

There are numerous dodgy side plots including a Muslim girl who wants to find Jesus (and who wears short sleeves and a sloppy hijab, which I suppose is possible, but sure didn’t look like anything I’ve seen), a woman with cancer (and an I <3 Evolution bumper sticker, which sure seems like a Real Thing a Secular Human Would Have) and various other tedious cardboard cutouts in vaguely human shape. The main event, however, is the battle between painfully clean cut college student Josh and his villainous, atheist, philosophy professor played by Kevin Sorbo, who is both the best actor and the least believable person in the movie.

Professor Hercules isn’t content to simply teach philosophy, no, he demands that each member of his class write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and then sign it in order to pass the class. Josh objects to this because he loves Jesus. The thing is, this is a horrible, bullshit assignment particularly in a philosophy class. Atheist boyfriend who was watching the film for camp value said he wouldn’t do such an assignment. I agreed. There’s an obvious principle at stake (and I will grant that some public schools might complete it because they’re wusses, but enough of them wouldn’t.)

This kind of activity would make you a bad teacher, especially in a setting where it’s not about factually right or wrong answers. This is a cheap, plastic way of making the prof the villain. Instead of making the debate truly rhetorical and religious, the menacing secularism has to be browbeaten into everyone. And maybe it’s some kind of metaphor for the world at large, but within a classroom setting, it’s terrible and false.

In short, this makes even the staunchest atheist want to root for Josh for contrarianism’s sake. (I also want him to call Fox News, Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh and become a national news story, because that would totally work). So, the young, earnest lad decides to fight his professor and debate in front of the class. He’s much too good at it, yet it’s also completely muddled and nonsensical. His metaphor-for-Christians-who-don’t-want-to-make-waves-in-the-secular-world girlfriend is pissed off and dumps him. But Josh soldiers on.

Oh, and professor has a beautiful, Christian girlfriend. She frowns a lot because he’s such an atheist.

The end — spoilers — is the worst. First of all, Josh appears to have converted almost his entire class to Christianity at the end of his final debate. This is, ironically for such an anti-secular movie, pure Hollywood claptrap. Wouldn’t it be more fitting if after class, one shy student came up to him and asked him for more info about Jesus? Then Christians would know that this wasn’t some fairytale confirming all that they believe, but that bringing people over to the Lord takes some work. The film appears to be telling Christians that if they just stand up for God in class, they’ll convert heathens by the dozens. A little humbleness about the state of this here fallen world seems more appropriate and better then this wish-fulfillment.

(I could, and may, write another rant on the difficulties of message movies and making them not Godawful. This relates to libertarian feelings and the several other terrible Christian movies I have watched out of curiosity.)

Prof Hercules had his own reasons to disbelieve in God. However, at the end, to the sounds of the Newsboys’ Christian rock jamz, he gets run over by a car conveniently next to these pastor and his friend who had had car trouble in the earlier film. It was meant to be, see. Hercules comes home to Jesus as he dies in the street. Yep. He converts, thanks to the pastor, but he still dies. And presumably directly in front of his bloodied corpses, the pastor stands in the rainy streets smiling because at least Prof is home now, and someone has even texted him “God’s not dead.” (“God’s not dead — but you are” more accurately.) The pastors or pastor and friend (I forget/who cares) then exchange a line about how “what happened tonight is a cause for celebration. Pain yes, but only for a few minutes. Then, think of the joy of heaven.” Okay, but can you not smile so wide directly in front of the dead man smeared across the street? Can we not immediately be quite so delighted?

The final scenes involve Josh, every other minor character, and someone from Duck Dynasty rocking out to the Newsboys while celebrating his victory over the professor — which, considering that he’s dead, seems a little like adding insult to injury. (Plus, the final scene encourages texting during a concert, which is definitely the work of Satan.)

Horrible, robotic inhuman attitudes permeate this movie, and this ending is the capper. There is no sadness that a man who was just coming around to the Lord, and you know, was a human being in addition to that, is dead. They’re all happy about it. This is one reason why the non-religious find religion — and religious films such as this — cold. How about a little respect for this life, not just pleasure in leveling up to Jesus?

When we’re talking about Jesus, songs are so much different than movies. Suburban Christian rock songs may not be. But painful country music can be beautiful, human, and accessible to the non-Christian just because of the depth of feeling (or even the wrath, if you have the Johnny Cash voice to match God cutting us all down sentiments).

Perhaps because Professor Hercules losing his mother is what made him lose his faith, and this tune is about the very same tragedy, I found myself thinking about “Can The Circle Be Unbroken” after watching God is Not Dead.

First recorded by The Carter Family in 1927, the song has been played many times by many people, but that trio’s version is it for me, because it’s just so brutal. Often in later covers the song is played more as a cheerful, hopeful gospel number. The circle will be unbroken by and by. Everything will be alright.

The Carter Family were not so sure.

AP Carter rewrote a hymn that seems to be a lot more chipper, like the later covers have been. But the Carters’ “Can the Circle be Unbroken” is not joyful or certain, but pleading. The strange, flat Virginia harmonies of Maybelle and Sara Carter make the tale of a mother dying eerie and heartfelt. And in a line that has made me tear up more than once, they sing “Lord I told the undertaker/Undertaker please drive slow/for that body you are hauling/Lord I hate to see her go.”

Maybe — maybe “by and by” they’ll all be together again in heaven. They do believe that. But that doesn’t stop their pain now. It doesn’t even stop the dreadful grief of wanting to keep the body of the loved one. The body is just a vessel, right? The soul is gone to heaven. And they still hate to see what’s left of her go.

That sort of religious feeling — that sort of spreading of a message that says, yes, we’ll probably be in heaven later, but it sure is awful now — is worlds away from the self-satisfaction of God is Not Dead. Religion is supposed to fill those holes in your heart that appear when, oh, say your dear mother dies. I fail to see the good in it if it morbidly cheers the death of someone — even someone who has finally found Jesus.