I argue in my dissertation (The Book of the Un) that I know what people want. Mystery. Secrets. Connection. Collaboration. They want to collect precious moments, not check a box on a bucket list. I argue that people know that they want something greater than they can imagine. And the sorcery to unlock all this is imbued in the arts, specifically in ritual performance when a person is surrounded by immersive beauty and grace.
And the example I give is a show I did in 2015 called The Fallen Cosmos. It was a tricky, complex collaborative artwork that was devised to unfold before them as something to confront in the moment, instead of having the experience clearly worded so people can shop for it ahead of time to make sure it is the content they wish to consume. This was different. It was different and impossible, as chaos magik is wont to be. But it was also easier to explain what it wasn’t than what it was. If we would have explained what it was, it might not have worked.
And if you apply this reasoning to other things that don’t work, we might be on to something, no? Experience design is a hot new way to describe some of what happens at convention centers and theme parks. A teeny tiny percentage of “experience designers” are people like me who have been doing what we do for decades. I create opportunities for people to touch the divine using garbage. Meh, it’s a living.
I got hired to clean out a funeral parlor that went out of business. There is a plot twist. Lots of great footage and weird, creepy implements. Hosted by Jamie DeWolf with performances by Freddi Price, Benjamin Wachs, Dr. Hal Robins, Ben Burke and more!
Thanks to the Rosbergs for sponsoring our Spotlight this week!
2020 took many things from us. And many people. But Dr. Evermor is a hard one for me.
He had an interesting niche and perfect timing. And he’s got a great story…
Born Thomas Every, he was a scrap guy. A demolition man. People paid him to scrap stuff. He would deconstruct things and that was his business. Come with a crane and a crew and some trucks… take a building down, haul it away to the dump. But he didn’t trash all of it…
The choicest pieces he put in a meadow behind his friends business: Deleny’s Surplus. The stuff just sat there for a few decades. Some old trucks, tons of steel and the scraped remains of the industrial revolution. Thomas Every scrapped power plants, beer vats, Victorian elevators, steam systems and railroad cars. And kept the beautiful parts and pieces from a time where form and function were both held to the same high standards of beauty.
Then he started working for a guy named Alex Jordan. He was a billionaire in the 70’s. Who knows how much cocaine was involved. Alex was building a house. On a rock. Thomas helped him. For a few years. Alex stiffed him. Thomas lost everything. His house. His business. His wife left him and took the kids. Who knows. It was bad. He ended up living in a shipping container behind Deleny’s. In Wisconsin. In the winter. Alex’s House on the Rock became a huge hit, a tourist destination for thousands and thousands of people. Thomas became bitter and angry. And decided to kill himself.
And he went about it in the most fascinating way…
He became an avatar: Dr. Evermor. And he built a copper egg rocket to blast himself to the heavens. He built a viewing stand for the king and the queen to watch the event. He needed power to blast off, so he pointed 16 Tesla Coils at the egg, powered by Juice Bugs… there was a whole spiel, I can’t remember all the patter… it’s been a while…
This “set” of his suicide took him like 8 years to build. He finished in the early 90’s. I found him in 1996 on tour with the circus. In a very odd way… you see, Doc has the Guinness Book for “world’s largest metal sculpture.” Someone brought a copy of the Guinness Book on the circus tour. While hanging around somewhere, I picked it up and was looking through it, wondering if Guinness Book just charges people to be in it (they do!). And I saw that entry: “Baraboo, Wisconsin: World’s Largest Metal Sculpture.” I figured it was a grain silo or some shit.
We found ourselves at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, ancestral home of the Ringling Brothers (actually the Rungling Brothers, but who cares). We got in free, so we did the tour. It was horrible. Cringy, full of themselves commercial for their circus. We couldn’t leave fast enough. But when we did, we were turned around: tornado. Cops said we had to drive back east, find shelter. We drove down Route 12 and something caught my eye on the side of the road. And it all clicked. He put a few sculptures on the side of the road, with no sign or explanation. I pulled over. “Where is the book!?” I read the passage again. Sure enough, Route 12, Saux City just outside of Baraboo. Drove up and down. Finally just pulled over and started walking into the woods. When it revealed itself to me, I straight-up-no-bullshit-100%-absolutely fell to my knees.
He was sitting there. Leaning on his cane. Drinking lemonade. He asked me, without any greeting or whatever: “What did you do today?”
He was impossible. Hard to work with. Spoke in riddles. Cranky. But he had more talent than could be managed. He was just a visionary. His skill in welding/fabrication was unparalleled. The bird band is made of lawn mower parts and shears for wood planes… His relationship to time was scary. He cared nothing for his health, any practical maintenance, current events, politics or your feelings. He was crazy. I loved him.
I’m going to spare you all the rest. His sculpture park became more celebrated than the House on the Rock, of course. His wife sort of came back to him, his children love him, he won awards and grants and took on students (hello!) and had all the bragging rights. It ended well. A life well lived.
He died April 2020. He was 81 years old.
He called me a few weeks before he died. I was driving my RV with the family going to or from a camping trip. He was yelling: “Chickenjohn, why don’t you do it? Answer me that?” I tell him it’s good to hear his voice, and I tell him that I miss him. “You’re just fuckin around with, just do it or don’t do it. I can smell that jerk-off indecision stuff from here. Ya hear me?” You could hear him. Anyone in the RV could hear him, he’s a yeller. “Yes sir.” I meekly reply. “I gotta go now so you take care. Power on.” And that was it.
2020 took so many people dear to us. I could do a list but it feels bad to demote someone to a single position on a list instead of having their own woo woo. It’s like 12 people. People who were numbers in my phone. People who held positions that filled needs. People who were the experts of that field in my world. People in my shows. So many at once, it’s just brutal. Cancer, alcoholism, Covid, old age, suicide… combined with the shutdown, the science deniers and the election, it’s just too much.
The grief I feel every day can make my legs feel like lead. It’s just so sad, it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning… but like Doc says, you have to Power On. There can be no spring without winter. I’m looking forward to a post-Trump, post-Covid, post-decimated small business time. Weather that’s spring or summer or fall or whenever. If a man can take discarded scrap and turn it into a magical nirvana of wonder and whimsy and become a top folk art destination even though it was designed to be an execution stage, then there is still some mystical energy left in this world yet. The trick is to find something or someone that gives you power and dip your ladle into that well, and offer yourself munificent dispensations of its manna…
Reflect, heal, be wisened and never forget… chicken
So I invested some money in a novelty game called The Tricky Triangle. It was a thing you bought bulk for distribution. I was done with the moving company, living in NYC in my $200 van, and I got a windfall of money selling my phone number to a rival moving company. I sold a bunch of musical equipment and other stuff in preparation for my move to the West Coast. It was all the money I had, and I borrowed some: $8,500.
I got 10,000 Tricky Triangles. My plan was to get a vinyl sign made and sell them in malls or flea markets. They came 250 to a box. There were 40 boxes. So many, that with all my other stuff I had to sleep in the front seat of the van.
Tricky Triangle Great Stocking Stuffer
You already know how this ends up. It seemed totally reasonable. Totally doable. For $8,500, I got 10,000 of the product I could easily sell for $3 to $6. At an average of $5 each, I would only need to sell 1,700 to make my investment back. If I could sell 50 to 100 per hour and there were 45 hours of holiday shopping for three weeks, I would sell out.
I ran the math over and over again. “What if I only sell 25 an hour?” Well, then I only make like half my investment back this year, and can try again next year. See, that’s the appeal. To break into a market to see what is what. I needed to make a living and I was very interested in stuff that was winter or Christmas-based, so I could be free in the summer for circus or other stuff…
I thought that if it got tough, I could go door to door. People did that back then. Go door to door in December selling stocking stuffers. People do that, right? I worked the numbers. Thinking of places that would be good to “set up” at. What kind of place would generate what kind of sales. I went over it again and again. I said to myself: “They are gonna stuff those stockings with something, right?”
You already know how this ends up. The feeling of failure and self loathing when I put 15 of the boxes on the curb next to the garbage cans so I could sleep laying down. The dejection. The emasculating horror of 100% rejection. The bitter cold of winter. The bald tires on the van in the ice and snow. Actual hunger but too proud and stubborn to admit to anyone (at the time) that I hadn’t sold a single one.
I thought for sure I was a natural for the flea market. For selling stuff. For 10 years I tried to sell things. On and off. I even had a junk store on 28th street in SF for a year: Shuck and Jive. Anyone ever go to that? Selling at the flea markets and doing sales requires you have certain ruthless traits. I possess not a drop of ruthless.
It was a cataclysmic mistake. I let more and more boxes go over the years. I have one Tricky Triangle left. I’m gonna put it in Edsel’s stocking someday when he’s old enough to understand what it’s like to make an actual, tangible, shit just went sideways mistake.
I can’t remember 1990. I was a high-functioning drug addict. I have phone message pads that my moving company office took, and I have the job logs. So I can actually look through and see where I was on a day to day. I can’t remember any of it. Addiction is weird like that. It seems so impossible that I would gamble the last of my money with no way out on a stocking stuffer. I was truly out of my fucking mind.
May 20th, 1992 was the first day to not do heroin on purpose. Some days we were doing other drugs. But when I knew it was the heroin that was the problem, I was shocked to find out that I was addicted. Because we were snorters, we didn’t think we were junkies. It’s kind of amazing that I wrote the date down somewhere. That it followed from one calendar to another. So I have that information now. Miraculous.
I’d like to think that it was the drugs that made me invest in the Tricky Triangle. I pepper any/all decisions I make with it’s spice: “the same mind that is making this choice also invested in the Tricky Triangle…” Ask my wife, she’ll tell you.*
So this is your Christmas Spirit holiday spotlight. Do you have a Tricky Triangle? Of course you do! I wanted to share something about the true meaning of the magic of the holidays, which is what is most important is that we are all here. Together. Laughing at our inabilities and our limitations. I didn’t make any money with the Tricky Triangle, but I learned that I could live in a van, and because I could do that, I did the circus. I didn’t have a wildly successful moving business, but I got good at moving stuff and I use those skills every day. I can’t remember 1990 but I can totally remember 1991, and that was an awesome year… I played with GG in that year and toyed with the idea of monastic training to be a Buddhist cleric: at the same time! It’s all just a big mess.
I hope your life is a mess too. This time of year is a great opportunity to fuck everything up. If you are ending up with good stories, you’re doing it right.
This is a mini-doc from KQED about my book release party. I wrote a book that was designed to “save” the Chez Poulet (my old warehouse needed $200K to satisfy a loan) from the predatory mortgage I signed on to (I had no choice). The 13 minute video is super well done, watch it!
So my dear friend Kate wanted to do an interview with me. For her podcast, or something. I said yes, of course. Happy to help. I thought she was going to talk to me about Bernie or Libertarian stuff, because it was September and the election was coming up. We started the interview, and she started asking questions about my books and about the magic of show and I have to admit: I was rusty! Years of toil and diapers and infrastructure, I haven’t spent much time on the intellectual side of town… I did the best I could.
But I finally asked her, what is it that she is looking for? Context! Turns out she is doing a podcast on toxic masculinity and since I’m a paradox (I’m a manly man welder/fabricator who can survive the apocalypse with 16” of twine but also a Buddist-adjacent pacifist prankster who is into elves), and wants to know how much macho bullshit was there in the punk scene in the 80’s. Now we have something I can help with… as I was explaining to her the ethos that we made up as we went along which spilled onto a world stage, she was perplexed. “What do you mean by that?” she said. “Do I know about this ethos you are talking about?” It’s funny that so much time has gone by that people don’t connect the DIY movement with punk. But they are one and the same…
When people on the outside look into our community, they see something we don’t: they see DIY. It’s just our normal. We eat roadkill, keep chickens, repair our cars, build our houses, defend ourselves in court, homeschool our kids and make our cars run on wood. We make our own booze, hats, shoes, clothes, jewelry and grow some kind bud. All this is normal to us. We are makers. Doers. We do it ourselves. DIY. Not all DIY is punk, but the entire punk movement was DIY. And put DIY on the map. The punks had their own venues, their own zines, their own labels and their own bookstores. The DIY movement and the punk movement are kind of inseparable. No matter what kind of music you like. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s not some corporate bubblegum crap: it’s punk rock. Moldy Peaches? Punk Rock. Johnny Cash? Punk Rock. Joey Bada$$? Punk Rock. Tom Lehrer? Punk Fucking Rock (look him up!).
I explained to Kate that I was proud of the DIY thing. That it wasn’t just a phase. That we are here, still doing it ourselves. All of it. Any of it. As much of it as we can. The artist Swoon, myself and 40 others collaborated on the Swimming Cities project: DIY boats handmade from trash, a floating stage for a confusing show. The boats ended up in a museum show. And somehow this quote ended up on a plaque in that museum:
I admit it: getting published by a reputable publisher was attractive to me. That I could say that Simon and Schuster published my book would give me a certain “I made it” credit. Of course, I haven’t made it. I know I haven’t made it. But I admit that there was a gravity to that. That they would send me on a book tour, and I’d be part of their catalogue and my book would be in every bookstore in the country… that’s appealing. And that they would pay me. They give a big advance, right? $100,000 or something?
Wrong-o. If you are a new writer you can’t get published by a big name publisher unless you have an agent. And if you send your stuff to an agent, guess what they say? “Well, there is some good stuff in here. You’re going to have to edit it for a wider appeal to get a deal. I can help you do that, but you’d have to pay me for consulting…” it’s a pay-to-play real estate scam. The real estate, in this case, is the space your book takes up in the bookstores and the catalog of the “legit” publisher. You pay the agent, hoping to get published but you never do. And if by some miracle you do, they only give tiny advances. Like $5,000. And you sign away basically everything. So like after you sell 10,000 copies of a book, the publisher breaks even, then you get $.30 cents a book. 35,000 books sold is a “best seller,” so you can make a whopping $7,500. Along with your $5,000 advance, you just made $12,500 for your life’s work IF it becomes a best seller. This is what happens when “they have the ball.”
I self-published my book. I made 2,500 copies. They cost like $8 each to print, incurring all costs (printing, proofreading, layout, design, photographers, slip cases, taxes, etc…). I had 72 artists do a hand-made slip case adorned with art (painted, metal fab, collage, etc…) that I sold, with a book, for $250 each.
Swoon made me 400 slip cases with art on them signed and numbered, sold those for $250 each.
I put a coupon in each book at the back, good for one Anything.
Sold those for $100.
Sold just the book with the coupon ripped out for $40.
So it was $18,000 for the fancy covers, $35,000 for the Swoon ones, $45,000 for the $100 ones, $48,000 for the $40 ones… total: $140,000.
That money floated the Chez from being a place where people lived, to a venue where people just made art and did shows. And until I got a better loan, that made sense. When I did get a better loan, the Chez had seven amazing years of thousands of shows from weddings to drawing nights to porn shoots, dinners, movie screenings and everything else. I sold the building in 2018 after the city denied me the permits I would need to operate legally (and get insurance). But without that book money I would have been forced to sell in 2011, at the bottom of the market. And we would have missed those seven years and over 1,800 shows…
If you watch the video at the top of this post, you will see what the filmmakers saw when they looked in to where we are: they see the DIY. The title for the mini-doc wasn’t determined ahead of time. It was coined after they made the film. Because that’s what they see. That we do it all ourselves. It’s what Kate sees when she looks into our world. She sees the tools and the mess and how effective we are. The dark side is that usually when you deal with professional services, they lord over any information or skills they have. The DIY people are opposite of that. They are giving free workshops and making YouTube videos of how to hack your cars computer to get it to burn vegetable oil instead of diesel or how to make a composting toilet or winning the X prize. This is kinda important. Not getting caught in the “lording over the information” trap is imperative if you want to replicate and make other people into makers. It’s kind of an unspoken moral code of our secret club that isn’t a secret. Anymore.
So when you are doing something yourself, whatever it is, you aren’t alone. You are part of a group of persons who are shirking their duty as slaves of consumer culture. Free thinkers who subvert the dominant paradigm by doing things outside of commerce and solving problems using time and “gumption” instead of money. I say it is an art. Or at least an opportunity to weave art into all that we do…
“Finally, if you’re as exasperated as I am by the parts problem and have some money to invest, you can take up the really fascinating hobby of machining your own parts. […] With the welding equipment you can build up worn surfaces with better than original metal and then machine it back to tolerance with carbide tools. […] If you can’t do the job directly you can always make something that will do it. The work of machining a part is very slow, and some parts, such as ball bearings, you’re never going to machine, but you’d be amazed at how you can modify parts designs so that you can make them with your equipment, and the work isn’t nearly a slow or frustrating as a wait for some smirking parts man to send away to the factory. And the work is gumption building, not gumption destroying. To run a cycle with parts in it you’ve made yourself gives you a special feeling you can’t possibly get from strictly store-bought parts.”
So… I used to walk on a guy for money. Prostitution? Maybe.
Pedophilia? Nah. He had no clue I was only 16!
It’s a New York Story, one of many… Enjoy!!!
That video was taken in 2011, at a thing called Bawdy Storytelling. For 20 years Dixie De La Tour, Sexual Folklorist, has been relentlessly doing this show. From the humblest of beginnings in the Cataclismic Meagasheer Ranch warehouse, to some of the best theaters in the country, to a popular podcast reaching the four corners of our cruel world.
The evenings are usually organized and focused around a theme. And they can be very very funny. Especially so when told by people who aern’t show people. Somehow, it’s better. You can kinda tell when someone is a comic or whatever. The stories aren’t about breaking a bed in a hotel room or the time you met someone at a party and fucked them in the cab on the way home (everybody does that, right?). The stories are sublime. Hilarious. Risky. Unbelievable. And cute. It’s all surprisingly cute.
There are teeth too, for sure. Normalizing fetish, liquifying stigmas, empowering people who may have been beaten down by trauma or abuse… this is good work the world needs to do. Fuck, it’s work I need to do…
We were a circus. At times there were 30 people in the troupe. But that was at the beginning of the year, when we were moving towards the East Coast. Now after three weeks in NYC, August is here. We left in May.
We are heading back across. There are eight of us. We don’t have enough show. So. We made a puppet show out of things we found in a dumpster. Later, we made a video of it. With inferior puppeteers, but whatever.
The music was recorded at Kommotion by Jeff Mann. He did a great job. We were so proud of the music, and still are!
We lovingly made the puppets and the sets and just loved every minute of writing it, building it, and performing it. So much so, we did the show the next year as well. We did the show over 100 times! This would be 1997. Hard to imaging that 23 years have gone by…
I made $29.43 a second doing fundraising, once. For three minutes, 40 seconds, I sang Come Sail Away, by Styx. Karaoke style. In a sailor suit. To raise money for junkboats to Europe.
People paid me because, if you didn’t already know, I have a beautiful singing voice! OK, that’s not true. They paid $10 each for bottlerockets that they shot at me while I sang the stupid song.
Some people paid over PayPal, because they couldn’t be there at the show. We promised to write their names on the rockets. Halfway through the show I threw the “proxy” rockets out into the crowd, because they were out. It’s just a guttural, stupid fundraising technique. And boy is it effective:
I’ve done dunk tanks. I’ve told little girls that they “Throw like a little girl” from the perch of a dunk tank (dad came and gently pushed the lever as his stern, judgmental stare threw me off the deck of a ship into the abyss of the sea…)
I’ve suffered for my art. Sure. We’ve all suffered for my art! Suffering for money is a fundraising path I’m no stranger to. Here is what $100 donation from Tom Price looks like:
The night I did the bottlerocket stunt, Eileen almost left me. She didn’t get it. But now when Come Sail Away comes on the radio, a smile breaks out on her face. Which you can’t see because her head is in her hands…
I have threatened to wash cars in a bikini to raise money for art. It hasn’t come to that. Yet. It might!