In his review of the 2005 drama The Family Stone, Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers called Diane Keaton “a sorceress at blending humor and heartbreak.” Switch the genders, and it’s the perfect description of former-A.V. Club scribe Nathan Rabin. He takes subjects that have no right to be funny – depression, absent parents, orphanages, personal and professional disaster – and can make his readers smile, even laugh out loud. In his excellent first autobiography, The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, Rabin shares deeply personal stories of a difficult childhood growing up with an absent mother and a very sick father, only to be passed around from institution to institution, and what resulted was a beautiful memoir of overcoming adversity in some of the most trying of situations. In his follow up, You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures with Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes he brings some of that talent, but overall the book is somewhat of a letdown, despite solitary moments of brilliance.
Because he frames his story with the stories of Phish and the Insane Clown Posse, the readers will have to be patient while Rabin writes extensively about the two bands. These passages are interesting only because both bands inspire cult-like followings, similar to Dead Heads, who often travel throughout the country to hear them perform. These followings are subcultures – Insane Clown Posse in particular has a whole mythology surrounding it, which Rabin goes into with great detail (sometimes too much). What is so poignant about Insane Clown Posse is that the followers are people like the author – poor, disaffected, often abused; unlike Rabin, the large number of the followers – referred to as Juggalos – are undereducated. They are often and unfairly slammed as white trash, and Rabin’s efforts paint a far more complicated picture of the band and its followers, finding some vulnerability underneath the angry horrorcore rap music and demonic clown makeup.
But Rabin fails to hold the band and its followers accountable for the more unsavory aspect of the mythology – and I’m not talking about the instances of violence that occur at the concerts – violence in public performances are commonplace – just this past week a guy was stabbed at Gay Pride. What I’m referring to is the pervasive misogyny and homophobia of the band. The latter Rabin completely ignores, and the former Rabin documents with his description of scantily clad women being encouraged to disrobe as well as a distressing episode with MTV reality starlette Tila Tequila, who performed at a gathering and was quickly pelted with excrement-filled beer bottles and ordered by the unruly crowd to take off her top, all before being injured in a melee in her trailer. Surprisingly enough, in Rabin’s account, it’s Tequila who’s to blame for the violence, because she misjudged the crowd and performed badly, coming off as false and hostile.
From reading Rabin’s account of these bruised souls, the Juggalos seem to suffer from some severe entitlement issues that result from denial; you know what I’m talking about – angry, resentful guys in high school who didn’t get the pretty cheerleader or the homecoming queen and feel they are owed something. A more pointed look at this ugly sexism would be helpful in that judging from the book alone, the Juggalos come off as injured and oppressed – underdogs who are reacting to an unjust world. Maybe, but just a quick listen to some of the Insane Clown Posse’s music and its sometimes gleeful depiction of homophobic violence makes it very difficult to feel too much sympathy for the followers.
Along with writing about the bands, the music, and the followers, Rabin very candidly shares lots of his experiences with recreational drug use, which is prevalent, especially when he follows Phish. In fact, despite the fact that Phish’s sound and image is friendlier than that of Insane Clown Posse, Rabin’s life while following the band was anything but friendly. He writes freely about his mounting financial distress, with debts piling so high, collectors were phoning his work to harass him; he also writes of taking on too much work(including a collaboration on a book with Weird “Al” Yankovic), and endangering his relationship with the saintly Cadance, a genial and restorative presence in the book who seemingly brings out the best in Rabin (it was she who introduced him to Phish). Like with The Big Rewind, Rabin doesn’t shy away from writing ugly: there’s one episode in particular, in which Rabin describes – at his descriptive best – being high and cracking his head on concrete, and still continuing with the festivities, despite having blood pour down his face. It’s this willingness to go to the dark areas of his life that make Rabin such a powerful writer, and it’s genuine love for life that make him such an enjoyable writer.
Those expecting The Big Rewind will inevitably be disappointed – even though the book works as a memoir, he does devote a lot of ink and paper to his subjects – but when he gracefully steps back into the spotlight and writes about his life and his growth, readers will be reminded why they loved The Big Rewind so much.
Click here to buy You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures with Two fo Music’s Most Maligned Tribes by Nathan Rabin on amazon.com.