The Gospel According to Reverend Billy

Coilhouse is pleased to introduce a new project by Jeff Wengrofsky (Agent Double Oh No). Jeff explains: “The Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers (SHIT) is an independent film production nexus whose mission is to provide exposure to art, cialis artists, movements, events, and organizations that we believe are unusual, timely, and provoking. Our current project is a series of short (10 minute) documentary films that examine the politics and aporias of creativity. “The Gospel According to Reverend Billy” is the first in this series. It is being published on the Coilhouse blog and is very much an extension of my work for you folks. We hope to web publish a little film once a month until the close of 2010.”

“Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” – Rousseau

Film courtesy of the Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers.

The prime, often countervailing logics of 21st century America – capitalism and democracy – seem dangerously out of balance today. Meanwhile, vestigial factors, like Puritanism, sometimes affect public life in surprising ways. Since the Giuliani years, America’s largest city – New York – has seen lower crime, infrastructural investments, an infusion of capital, a proliferation of chain stores, a vast profusion of surveillance devices and, perhaps, the general evisceration of democracy. Just recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored widespread opposition to the construction of two billion dollar stadiums and the much-maligned Atlantic Yards construction project. More egregiously, he bullied our City Council into overturning a term limits law that had been passed fifteen years earlier by public referendum. Now running for his third term, Bloomberg’s campaign war chest has intimidated all prominent Democratic challengers.

As politics appears as (yet another) massively-financed spectacle of buzzwords, scandals, outsized personas and deep psychology, is it possible to enter the political fray without selling your soul? Can you get the attention of the public eye by taking on an identity at once striking and also familiar to our public culture? Fifteen years ago, William Talen began the process of becoming a New Yorker and re-inventing himself as “Reverend Billy.” Today, armed with this identity, he enters churches of consumption – like the Disney store in Times Square – to project a powerful message opposing corporate retail, a culture of consumerism, and the encroachment of our public spaces.

Reverend Billy’s charisma, energy, and smarts have gathered him a gospel choir, the attention of CNN, a documentary film by Morgan Spurlock, and now the nomination of New York’s Green Party for the 2009 mayoral race. Reverend Billy combines a Nixonian charm with the overly stylized tropes of a preacher, and, perhaps as prime mover, a rich Calvinist heritage. America has a long history of Calvinist preachers – you may know them as “Puritans” – who rail against impure desires, “the moneychangers,” and fret mightily for the souls of their congregants.

All photos by Tina Zimmer.

COILHOUSE: Words like “community” and “neighborhood” have a special resonance for your choir. Are you a New Yorker?
REVEREND BILLY: I grew up in Watertown, South Dakota and Rochester, Minnesota, and I always dreamed of being a New Yorker, the way you can dream of New York on the prairie. When the satellites would go up across the night sky, I used to think they were New York City flying through space. I first moved here in 1974, stayed a couple of years. Moved back again in the early 80s and, for a longer period of time, in the late 80s. I was like a hitchhiker, I would come and crash in the Lower East Side. In March of 1994, I don’t know why exactly, my commitment became permanent.

Do you feel like a New Yorker?
I do now because I perform in so many neighborhoods. I marry, baptize and bury New Yorkers in so many different boroughs. We – me and Savitri and the choir – some of us were born here and many of us are immigrants, we like the idea of a homemade spirituality that does not necessarily come from an organized religion. That idea became a New York idea after 9-11. Many of us gathered in rooms. The Reverend Billy idea of a different God or Goddess every day with another name, staying out of trouble with deities that cause us to kill each other, that kind of fellowship, I needed it, too.

[Interview continues after the jump.]

Aum Shinrikyo Anime Funtime!

Via DJ Dead Billy, who says “if only L RON would’ve delved into anime!” Think of the possibilities.

That cute and cuddly bearded fellow you’re watching in the above clip is none other Shoko Asahara, founder of Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth), the infamous Japanese Buddhist/Christian cult obsessed with psychedelics, yoga and apocalypse. They’re now known as Aleph. Guess they felt like they had to change their name after receiving a smidge of bad press back in 1995, when a group of their members released sarin nerve gas into Tokyo’s subway system, killing twelve people and sending thousands more to the hospital.

Yeesh! Asahara with the Dalai Lama, sometime in the late 80s. This was a while before Aum Shinrikyo’s terrorist activities, kidnappings and murders started, mind you. The DL’s inner circle members was initially supportive of the cult’s bid for legal religious organization status, but later severed all ties. More recently, Asahara has been a vocal critic of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism.

It’s worth noting that Aum’s previous deployment  of sarin gas on the central city of Matsumoto was officially the world’s first use of chemical weapons in a terrorist attack against civilians. Asahara was convicted of masterminding both attacks in addition to committing several other crimes, and sentenced to death. He’s now awaiting execution.

Friday Afternoon Movie: Jesus Camp

It’s been a long, long day. When you haven’t been in meetings you’ve been at your desk alt-tabbing between solitaire and Excel, rearranging your budget so that you’ll be able to afford those sweet zebra-print seat covers you saw on Jalopnik the other day. Well, just stop it. You’ll never be able to afford them and Jalopnik was being ironic anyway. Also, anyone can win at solitaire if they pull one card at a time. Yeesh, have some self-respect. Close Excel and prepare for Friday filmage.

Today: Jesus Camp, a documentary about the now defunct “Kids On Fire School of Ministry”, a Pentecostal summer camp in North Dakota. It follows three children who attended the camp in 2005 where they are taught how to become part of God’s army. A lighthearted tale of willful ignorance and homeschooling, this is the film to show your atheist friends if you wish to see them become apoplectic and jittery with spittle-flecked rage. Or to pass the time while avoiding the siren call of compulsive spending.

Seriously, zebra-print isn’t going to make that ’89 Camry any cooler.

Tony Millionaire in “Fun With God”

Whether it’s jet-lag delirium, an abiding love for handcranked slapstick comedy, an abiding love for my homeland’s Rayban-wearing forefathers, or an abiding love for Tony Millionaire that has sent me over the edge, this is making me die:

By the way, The Art of Tony Millionaire is coming out on Sept 2nd. A most beautiful and long overdue collection of gorgeous, fanciful and hilarious art. Geddit.

Friday Afternoon Movie: The Other Loch Ness Monster

Perhaps, like me, you find yourself in the midst of a tedious post-lunch session of completing TPS reports or contemplating non-work related questions like if science will be able to conquer the problem of cooking pancakes in space or, perhaps, you are simply staring blankly into space, a thin thread of drool dangling from your chin. If so, cheer up. No one reads those TPS reports anyway and spacecakes will be more wondrous than you could ever imagine. Now, wipe the drool off your chin and prepare for the wonder of internet archived filmic majesty.

Today’s offering is the short television documentary Aleister Crowley: The Other Loch Ness Monster, detailing the history of Boleskine House, where once Wickedest Man in the World and occult obsessed trust fund baby Aleister Crowley intended to perform the ritual found in The Book of the Sacred Magick of Abra-Melin the Mage, in order to call forth his guardian angel. The six month operation required Crowley to summon a number of demons and attempt to turn them towards good. However, he was called away from Boleskine House in order to help his mentor — and then-head of The Hermetic Order of the Golden DawnSamuel Liddell, leaving the ritual unfinished and, more importantly, the evil spirits he called forth unbanished. He did not banish them! They are still there! Nessie might be one of them! Jimmy Page’s friend totally heard one outside his door one time!

It’s crazy, crazy shit, yet completely entertaining. Besides it will eat up some time between now and five o’clock.

The First Rule Of Scientology Club Is…

Unlike many, I have no particular quibbles with Scientology. In terms of belief their particular brand of lunacy is no more abhorrent than omnipotent bearded men, elephant-headed deities, or reincarnation. There is something intrinsically modern about Scientology’s aliens and space-faring DC-3s. It is a a belief system with a mythology that could only have been invented by an author of science fiction. No other person would have that complete a vision or be willing to go so far beyond the pale. In that regard it is no surprise that the likes of Anonymous have pursued the organization as it has. They are, after all, infringing on prime geek territory.

In keeping with that same tone, Scientology has started a new advertising campaign comprised of a trio of commercials aimed at enticing the public. The one above is most interesting. If one didn’t know better one might speculate that it was aimed squarely at the aforementioned 4chaners, as it appears to be a none to subtle nod at a similar speech from Fight Club which, among other things, inspired the boards’s rules. Perhaps it is merely a byproduct of the organization’s many ties with elite Hollywood actors. Either way, the ads are undeniably slick and handily fit in with Scientology’s sci-fi roots. These are ads you would expect to find on the television in a Philip K. Dick novel; plastered on the billboards of some dystopian, near-future Los Angeles.

Mostly, though, they bring me back to my childhood, staying home sick from school and watching daytime television. Family Feud cuts to commercial break and a series of insightful questions flash on screen, appended by page numbers. How can a person suddenly lose confidence? Can your mind limit your success? Paper or plastic? Then, CRASH, a volcano explodes on the screen, churning up a hellish cauldron of white-hot magma, an ominous voice intoning the words “Read Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard. It’s the owner’s manual, for the human mind.” It had a profound effect on me as a child. At least, until The Feud came back on.

Larkin Grimm: Advanced Shapeshifter

I met Larkin Grimm in the springtime: she and her band came over to my house for tea and stir-fry one sleepy afternoon during SXSW last March, after playing the Leafy Green showcase at Emo’s with Vetiver, Sleepy Sun and Kid Congo Powers. The next day, we bravely explored the chaotic, throng-clogged streets of downtown Austin, in search of late night Thai food and transcendent musical experiences. Luckily, we found both, and got to know each other during the hunt.

Photo by Ports Bishop.

Larkin Grimm is an elegant warrior, strong and tall and crowned with unruly ringlets. Her eyes change color, and her calm gaze penetrates even the most fortified defenses with a chthonic wisdom far beyond her 26 years.

Her legendary upbringing tends to precede her: she was raised in Memphis, Tennessee by devotees of the religious cult The Holy Order Of MANS. When she was six years old, her family moved to the Blue Ridge region of Georgia, where, as one of five children of folk musicians, she found herself largely left to her own devices. She was a wild mountain witch child who dropped out of public school at age ten, yet went on to attend Yale to study painting and sculpture. Nomadic by nature, she has rambled all over the world, learning healing arts in Thailand and engaging with entheogens with a shaman in the Alaskan wilderness. She taught herself how to sing and play music during these mind-expanding journeys, locked in dark rooms and deep in the woods, possessed by spirits. She recorded two experimental albums, Harpoon and The Last Tree, both of which were improvisational and intensely cathartic works.

The enchanting Larkin Grimm sings by the side of a lake. Shot and edited by Bow Jones.

After corresponding for years, Michael Gira (of Swans and Angels of Light) signed Larkin to his own Young God label, and was instrumental in the birth of her latest album, Parplar. In her own words regarding their time working together, “…he has this great ability to make me feel comfortable being my flamboyantly perverse Mary Poppins self, and the songs I’ve written under his whip are probably the best I’ve ever come up with, so I am super grateful for this time in my life.” Gira’s appraisal of Larkin captures her aptly:

Larkin is a magic woman. She lives in the mountains in north Georgia. She collects bones, smooth stones, and she casts spells. She worships the moon. She is very beautiful, and her voice is like the passionate cry of a beast heard echoing across the mountains just after a tremendous thunder storm, when the air is alive with electricity. I don’t consider her folk though — she is pre-folk, even pre-music. She is the sound of the eternal mother and the wrath of all women. She goes barefoot everywhere, and her feet are leathery and filthy. She wears jewels, glitter, and glistening insects in her hair. She’s great!

In a time when our culture seems to openly scorn –but secretly craves– magic, Larkin Grimm is an unashamed and forthright power to be reckoned with.

Photographer unknown.

Coilhouse: Listening to your first two albums (Harpoon and The Last Tree), I get the impression that there was something of a strange sea-change in both your music, and your mode of self-expression, kicking off with Parplar. It’s an incredibly powerful album, and it’s clear that you ventured to some fantastic other-worlds while making it. What was that process like? I’ve read that you recorded the album in a haunted mansion: did the ghosts put their two cents in?
Larkin: Well, my first album was incredibly strange. I was still thinking of myself as a visual artist and a noise musician at the time. I had no interest in songwriting back then. There were some elements of folk that came through, though, and on the second album I tried to explore my folk roots a bit, but still avoided song structure. The big change came when I met Michael Gira and we blew each other’s minds and there was a lot of excitement in our exchange of musical ideas. Michael would force me to sit down and listen to these tunes by Bob Dylan and Neil Young and The Beatles, all bands I avoided like the plague before.

Interview continues after the jump.

Are You Somebody’s Daughter?

Somebody’s Daughter is the title anthem for a Christian-funded DVD/CD set, detailing the trials of five individuals attempting to escape the sweaty clutches of pornography. It’s a sweeping ode to innocence, childhood, and the endurance of the human spirit. It is also unaware that the thought of the young, nude, nubile nymphet fellating a dozen men simultaneously being somebody’s daughter is a turn on for some.

Watching this video one is immediately struck by the simplicity of the views expressed here. Certainly this is no surprise, after all one of the main draws of religion is the distinct separation of right and wrong. There is no room for a gray area where porn may not be manufactured using women enslaved by drugs or, perhaps, actual chains.

What’s more prevalent, however, is the 50s-era sensibilities on display. Maybe it’s the way the vocalist enunciates the word “flesh”, drawing out the first three letters before biting down on the last two, but one gets the sense that these people’s daughters don’t enjoy their sexuality and, if they do, then the least you and your filthy, filthy penis could do is refrain from encouraging them. And it certainly leaves no room for the existence of women who enjoy pornography, perhaps even pornography featuring somebody’s daughter.

More than that, though, I must return to the central premise; the idea that the object of one’s lustful desires is “somebody’s daughter” being a functional deterrent for men wishing to sit down with some porn and massage their genitals. The thinking here is presumably, “You have a daughter of your own, how does the thought of some other man massaging his genitals while viewing video of little Sally fisting a man in a rubber suit strike you?” Really, what is this video talking about here? Is it a serenade to the sanctity of our children’s innocence; the preciousness of their safety or merely the thinking that, if someone masturbates to images of my daughter, she has embarrassed me. If this was your daughter, what shame would it bring down upon you, her father? Wouldn’t it be terrible for you and your family if it was discovered that your daughter was a pornstar or a stripper?

Wouldn’t that just be awful for you?

Shotgun and Paintbrush: Acker interviews Burroughs

Here is one of the holy grails of interviews, with visionary writer Kathy Acker quizzing the legendary William Burroughs.

They talk about many things: Word as Virus, Scientology, Jesus and the legion of apocryphal stories that followed Burroughs around like carrion crows. This took place in the late ’80s, and both had less than a decade to live, passing away within a few months of each other in 1997. We will not see their like again.

A particularly telling moment, at least to my eyes, comes early on when Burroughs talks about the power of “shotgun” methods — the cut-up method in writing or a spray blast in painting — that introduce a random factor. Yet at the same time, they don’t take away the importance of “careful brushwork.”

It’s an important point: it illustrates how false the line between inspiration and discipline is. Acker and Burroughs grasped that instinctually and their works put the lie to that division. I think many people wrongly draw the lesson from both that simply spewing up one’s subconscious visions makes for good writing or art, while missing the considerable craft they put into honing those thoughts into glistening brain-gems.

Lessons aside, the prime pleasure in watching this interview comes from witnessing two keenly unique minds in a fascinating conversation. The rest is below the jump. Enjoy.

All Tomorrows: Parable of the Sower

All creeds spring from catastrophe.

The late Octavia Butler, as keen an explorer of the human soul as ever trod a future-scape, understood that far better than most. In plain, well-turned prose she charted the bonds that hold (or fail to hold) us together through time, space and tragedy.

Perhaps the pinnacle of this search is her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower (also: read Kindred, trust me). The tale is framed as the journals of Lauren Olamino, a woman who might one day be revered as a prophet or messiah. For now though, she’s just a terrified teen in the middle of an apocalypse, praying for survival.

Dystopian fiction, along with its post-apocalyptic sister, is a popular genre these days, and with the fractious times we live in it’s not hard to see why. Since I’ve begun writing this column, I’ve had more than one reader comment how energizing rebelling against a dystopia would be or how freeing it would be to “see it all burn down.” The recently departed J.G. Ballard was right when he noted that “The suburbs dream of violence… they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.”

In Parable Butler strips any bit of glamour away right out of the gate: dystopian times are mostly death, fear and desperation (ask anyone who’s ever lived through a warzone). But while she topples down one dream, she gives the reader a wondrous and utterly rare thing in novels of a dark tomorrow: hope.