Taking a break to use the restroom at the Euclid Tavern during one of his recent concerts, known as "devivals," the Reverend Ivan Stang has a rock-star-style encounter with a long-haired fan.
"Are you Ivan?" bubbles the excited fan. "Those SubGenius books changed my life! Did you write those?"
"Sort of," Stang says hesitantly. "They're the word of Bob, speaking through me."
"Oh, you're kind of like an apostle," gushes the fan, who's wearing a shirt with the Spam logo emblazoned on it. "That would be apostolic, or apostolish." He fumbles for the right word, gearing up for a religious reverie.
Obviously, he doesn't get the joke.
"Yeah, apostolic," interjects Stang. "You know what? I really gotta pee."
Praise Bob! The acolytes just keep on coming to the Church of the SubGenius, a mock religion so influential that, in a recent Time magazine online poll, it was voted "Fraud of the Century." The Euclid Tavern is packed with the faithful tonight, dressed in bizarre costumes, waving weird icons, dancing and drinking and staring transfixed when Stang takes the stage for one of his nonsensical rants.
Founded by Stang in Dallas in 1978, the Church of the SubGenius has amassed an official membership of 4,000-5,000 and a much larger international following by promoting a bizarre blend of salvation, humor, and a philosophy of slacking off instead of working hard. Celebrities such as Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, writer Ken Kesey, actor Pee-Wee Herman, the Talking Heads' David Byrne, and director Jonathan Demme are all card-carrying members.
The SubGenius message, promulgated by mythical messiah J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, is simple: "Normal" people are the ones who are screwed up. It's the misfits who will triumph in the end.
Stang, who regularly performs with a Cleveland band called Einstein's Secret Orchestra, is equal parts preacher and rock star. Between music sets, he takes to the podium to deliver quasi-evangelical speeches filled with apocalyptic warnings and improbable conspiracy theories. Audience members raise their beers and chant "Praise Bob!", transforming seedy bars like the Euclid Tavern into places of cult worship.
It doesn't faze Stang that, on this night, the toilet in the women's restroom has flooded a hallway, overpowering the club with the smell of urine. He keeps preaching, flicking his throat occasionally to make a slightly obscene gargling noise. And selling. In fact, the back room of the club is littered with more T-shirts, CDs, and trinkets than a downtown street corner during baseball season. Strike up a conversation with one of the eager buyers, and you'll likely end up in a debate about whether L. Ron Hubbard was a prophet or just a good science fiction writer.
Cult, prank, pop phenomenon, rock and roll -- the Church of the SubGenius combines elements of all these into its own special brand of high weirdness. As Stang says, "It's a joke that makes fun of other religions, and at the same time is still a religion."
And now the center of the SubGenius universe has shifted. Like Moses leaving Egypt or Buck Rogers blasting off for Mars, Stang pulled up his tent stakes in Dallas last year and set out for a land of religious freedom and economic opportunity.
The road led straight to Cleveland.
Are You Abnormal?
Except for the faded image of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs on a mat, sitting on the front doorstep of a modest duplex in North Collinwood, you'd never know you're at the new headquarters for the Church of the SubGenius. But inside the two-story house, amid stacks of sci-fi books, VCRs, mannequins, and mismatched furniture, Reverend Ivan Stang operates the nerve center of the SubGenius universe.
In a small office space not much bigger than a cellblock, Stang sits at a cluttered desk and swivels in his chair to simultaneously operate a computer, fax machine, and phone -- the tools he uses to update the Church's website (subgenius.com) and record his radio program. Every week, he tapes the Hour of Slack radio program here, enabling him to reach out to fans who listen to the show in some 17 markets (Cleveland among them, Sunday nights at 9 on Cleveland State's WCSB-FM/89.3).
Despite the low-budget operation, and despite Stang's blatant admissions that the Church is a scam, it continues to grow -- and turn a bigger profit. In 1998, it brought in $100,000 in revenues. Stang maintains that, since he moved to Cleveland some seven months ago, on the heels of a divorce that freed him to join longtime collaborators and a girlfriend here, the Church has become better organized and more energized than ever.
His schedule bears that out. Last week, Stang staged a devival in Amsterdam. Over the next two months, he's scheduled to appear in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Columbus, where the bill includes Broken Circle Gospel Deluxe, a Columbus band that does a send-up of a religious revue. Stang will be back at the Euclid Tavern on May 26 and at the Starwood Festival in New York state in July.
He couldn't be better poised to take your money and introduce you to a world of strange, depraved behavior.
While its history is shrouded (deliberately) in stories of space gods and alien abductions, the Church of the SubGenius revolves around a messianic character named J.R. "Bob" Dobbs. Only sketches -- no photographs -- of Dobbs exist, though Stang and his followers insist he's real. As the story goes, Dobbs was abducted by a UFO when he was a child and started a covert religion in the mid-'50s, while he was working as a salesman peddling drilling equipment. It fell to Stang and his partner, Dr. Philo Drummond, to take the SubGenius doctrine public in 1978.
"It's really dense and complex," Stang says of the Church's history, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "In fact, you'd almost think that, whatever visionary had seen these prophecies had read a lot of sci-fi and seen a lot of cheesy monster movies. If you look at our video Arise!, it's illustrated using clips of shitty monster movies.
"And when you listen to our old tapes, you go, "God, they must have been taping Christian preachers off the Dallas radio every day of their lives.' Which actually is not necessary, because you only have to tape Dallas radio for one day, and you'll have enough material to make a thousand SubGenius appropriation albums -- not that we do that anymore."
Not coincidentally, the roots of the Church are deeply entwined with Stang's own. Born Douglass St. Clair Smith in Fort Worth, Texas, Stang had what he calls a "pretty normal" childhood, except for the fact that he loved monster films like nobody else. When he was 10, he purchased his first 8-mm movie camera for $10 and started making movies, funding his film projects with money he earned by cleaning dog kennels that his parents owned (or as he puts it, "shoveling shit").
After experimenting with clay animation, he made a short called "The Wad and the Worm," which so impressed a Dallas businessman that he gave Stang the money to film it in 35 mm. That was 1969, and Stang was all of 15 years old. Despite his youth, he won awards for the film, which depicts a clay dinosaur gobbling up a clay inchworm, only to vomit it back up and have the inchworm turn into a giant hand that crushes the dinosaur.
Stang spent just two years in college, where he failed most of his classes and ultimately dropped out. He held a variety of jobs, ranging from dishwasher to freelance writer, and continued to make short films, including an adaptation of a Robert Crumb comic ("Ducks Yas Yas"), a mock documentary as seen through the eyes of a demented clown ("Let's Visit the World of the Future"), and another animated piece about voracious clay creatures ("Reproduction Cycle Among Lower Life Forms Under the Rocks of Mars") before turning his life over to Bob.
The big break for the Church of the SubGenius came in 1981, when Stang tried to recruit new members by publishing a very strange brochure. Brimming with anachronistic and illogical clip art, the brochure extolled its readers to "Repent! Quit your job! Slack off!" The cover featured a UFO and asked, "Are we controlled by secret forces? Are alien space monsters bringing a startling new world? Do people think you're strange? Do you?"
If Christians offer to take in the downtrodden and poor, the Church of the SubGenius wanted the "abnormal" and promised "Yes! Your kind shall triumph." The pamphlet, which sold for $1, included a lengthy narrative about the ways in which Jehovah 1 (a.k.a. Yahweh, the Christian God) is really an alien creature who has deceived humankind with fake rewards and promises of salvation. It railed against the new-agers and Aquarians, calling them "fools" and denouncing their conservative attitudes toward spirituality.
"I spent $60 printing that flier up, and my wife was furious," Stang recalls. "She said, "You better send that around to publishers and get some money from it,' because we were just going to leave them around Laundromats for free. I did submit a pamphlet with a cover letter to every publisher and writer's market, and the response was classic. There were about 150 that I sent out, and I got at least 100 rejection letters, some of which had rubber stamps with horrified faces on them -- things like that. The rest didn't respond at all."
The people who did answer the call, however, were the ones who counted -- at least in Stang's eyes. He had sent brochures to several underground comic book publishers, where they made their way into the hands of artists such as Paul Mavrides, who was living in San Francisco and working for Rip Off Press at the time. Mavrides, who lived in Akron for a short period in the early '70s, literally fished the pamphlet out of the trash after his boss had thrown it away.
"The publisher must have been having a bad hair day, because he looked at it and said, "What is this gobbledygook?' and threw it in the trash can," recalls Mavrides. "I saw this thing with Bob's face sticking out of the garbage and pulled it out and started laughing immediately, because it was the funniest thing I had seen in my life. If I hadn't walked through the office at that point, who knows, my entry into the Church might have been delayed for something like six months. Now it's my religion, so it comes and goes as needed. The challenge of continuing to beat this dead joke out into the 21st century keeps me interested in it."
The best exposure came from Robert Crumb, who did a reprint of the pamphlet in his first issue of Weirdo comix in 1981. Bill Kates (a.k.a. the Reverend Bleepo Abernathy) worked in radio in Boston at the time. When he picked up a copy of Weirdo and read about the Church of the SubGenius, he knew he had found his calling.
Kates, who now lives in New York, says he liked "the visual style" of Stang's pamphlet and admired the Church's "fanatical devotion to anti-fanaticism." He sent in his money and became an ordained minister (he's even performed a marriage). But even more than its visual style and humor, Kates was drawn in by the Church's appeal to his status as an outcast.
"It's the least known of the popular religions, which makes it big in my books," he says. "I'm proud of being a member of a cult when I'm on a subway in New York. I know I'm a SubGenius, because I'm able to laugh at things that normals don't laugh at. It helps keep me sane; it really does.
"The Church has truly taught me to exploit my abnormality. These were other freaky people, and they provided a certain freedom for geeks and freaks."
A Spazz-Church of Macho Irony
In the early days, the Church functioned much like Negativland, a prank performance group from Berkeley, California, perhaps most famous for being sued by the Irish rock group U2, which found no humor in its kazoo cover of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." When Stang started staging devivals in Dallas in the early '80s, he teamed up with a band called Doctors for Bob that was so offensive, he says, "They couldn't play anywhere in [their hometown of] Little Rock, Arkansas, or they would get egged." The guitarist, Stang recalls, would epoxy a guitar to his tennis shoes and play whatever notes came out as he walked around onstage.
In 1984, Stang and the Doctors of Bob were joined by a polka band, Brave Combo, at a rally protesting the Republican National Convention. Stang says their shtick didn't go over too well with certain members of the audience.
"We were outside the Reagan/Falwell prayer breakfast, handing out Bob pamphlets, and the Secret Service followed me to my car," Stang recalls. "But they didn't follow me home. I know because I went home, changed clothes, came back, and entered the convention as a reporter for the Austin Chronicle. I was with my mom, who was a Republican delegate, and sat within slingshot distance of Nancy Reagan -- right after they had been photographing me as a potential subversive."
While the Church of the SubGenius was regarded with suspicion in Dallas, it flourished in other parts of the country, particularly San Francisco, where, Stang says, it was considered "super cool." Devivals there incorporated elaborate stage shows and props. In one video from an early San Francisco devival, Stang clubs a replica of the "bleeding head of Arnold Palmer"off the stage, as a fake assassination of Bob takes place. The whole affair resembles an improv comedy session gone awry. Devivals are usually peaceful (if drunken) affairs that only portend the possibility of violence -- and always in service of a good joke.
"People would bring so many fake guns to the shows, if there was a real one there, no one would have known the difference," Stang says of what was obviously a less dangerous era. "We had gun checks at the shows. Women dressed as nurses with metal detectors would run into the audience, yank a fake gun out of a plant's pocket, and throw it into the corner, as if every 10th person was trying to kill someone.
"We would hand out Kool-Aid, too. This was after Jonestown, so we found half of them untouched underneath the seats. Other people assumed we were the Merry Pranksters, and they were filled with acid. But we never put anything in the Kool-Aid except the truth of Bob."
Membership in the Church has always been open to anyone who cares to join. For $30 (it used to be $10), you can get a "Ministerial Membership Packet and Fistscription" that guarantees "eternal salvation or triple your money back." The package includes a subscription to the SubGenius newsletter, which provides information on upcoming devivals.
Typically, newly "ordained" members choose a name to represent their new SubGenius identity and, if they're so inclined, a place in the Church hierarchy. In the true spirit of anarchy, members are free to give themselves a title, such as "reverend," "pope," or even "popess." And because Stang has registered the Church as a division of the Universal Life Church, members can perform legal marriages -- in some states, anyway. Stang says he's performed five marriages and has another scheduled for Pittsburgh this month.
Throughout the '80s, Stang promoted the Church on talk radio shows and news programs. His status as a cult celebrity may have peaked with an appearance on the now defunct Jon Stewart Show on February 7, 1995. He stammered a bit trying to explain the SubGenius philosophy in his allotted time, but managed to perform the ritualistic smashing of Stewart's wristwatch (which SubGeniuses refer to as "a set of handcuffs"). Unlike other cults, which keep their operation out of the public eye, Stang isn't afraid to take his show on the road -- he was the opening act on a mid-'90s tour by the shock rock group GWAR and has opened for the punk band the Dead Kennedys.
Making blatant pitches to the pocketbook is a standard part of his routine.
"That's what a lot of people consider the funniest aspect of it," he says of his shameless sales tactics. "But that's what is not funny to me. I don't want them to think we're kidding; we're dead serious about selling products that we're proud of. Our videos are very entertaining. You can watch them over and over again. The CDs are high-quality, and the T-shirts are 100 percent cotton. That's part and parcel for it. For one thing, that's when we sound most like our rival cults. And the other thing is that, to defeat the concept of money, it's going to take a lot of money."
The Church is officially licensed as a novelty company, and the product line has grown to reflect that. In addition to books, videos, and audiotapes, you can order SubGenius coffee mugs, clocks, keychains, and buttons. Stang claims to see the commercial influence of the Church everywhere he looks, from cable television ("The entire Nickelodeon channel looks like Arise! half the time.") to Richard Linklater's 1991 film debut, Slacker ("There's a couple of characters in the movie that do rants that they copped from me"). In addition, the Church of the SubGenius has been cited by the ska-punk band Sublime, the cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, and MTV's cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-head.
The first Hour of Slack radio show aired in Berkeley in 1983, and Cleveland followed four years later. The show features Stang's rants -- he generally pontificates on the pleasures of gluttony and sex. When he's not ranting, he plays clips from movies such as The Matrix, which he calls "a SubGenius metaphor," and songs by cult musicians such as Captain Beefheart. Incidental music is provided by keyboardist Chas Smith (who plays with local rock groups Cobra Verde and Einstein's Secret Orchestra), and a stock character named Lonesome Cowboy Dave, another Clevelander, does vocal impressions. Even for college radio, the program is on the fringes.
Like all good cults, the Church even had its own doomsday -- July 5, 1998. "Obviously, it's completely ridiculous that alien sex goddesses are going to pick us up at 7 a.m. on July 5," a Church member told The Boston Globe on the eve of the big event. "But it's also ridiculous that a person can walk on water, and millions of people believe that."
Since the world didn't end as predicted, that date is now celebrated every year as "X-Day." Plans for this year's apocalyptic celebration are unfolding on the Church website, which promises, in typical SubGenius hyperbole: "Our final days on this planet will be a PORNORELIGIOUS ORGY of RIGHTEOUS SEXHURT with OOZSQUIRT galore!!"
Personal Savior or False Prophet?
Dallas, with its raving televangelists, might have provided some early inspiration. But the Church of the SubGenius has always had kindred spirits in the Midwest, where comic book artists and rock musicians were some of its earliest devotees.
In the mid-'80s, Cleveland was one of the only cities to have a SubGenius pope. Called Pope Jimbo, he was most famous for producing stencils of Bob that he used to spray-paint on everything from sidewalks in the Flats to RTA trains. The vandalism became so out of control that, at one point, RTA threatened to sue the Church of the SubGenius.
"He not only bought everything that we sold, but he manufactured his own shit," Stang says admiringly of Jimbo, adding that he's lost touch with him ever since the early '90s, when the pope left the Church because he didn't like one of the female ministers. "He was the greatest of popes, in that he brought in new members and made it look like there was an army of SubGenius members. He helped give the paper tiger flesh in a concrete way."
Jimbo made images of Bob so ubiquitous that the Cleveland police reportedly thought they were gang graffiti and, according to Stang, warned community groups to avoid them, because they could possibly trigger acts of violence.
By the mid-'90s, the Church was more popular than ever in Cleveland, thanks to Steve "Jesus" Bevilacqua. A graduate of Bowling Green State University who worked briefly as a technician for University Hospitals, Bevilacqua ran a Lakewood bookstore called the Flying Lemur. Selling left-wing literature such as The Anarchist Cookbook and operating a body-piercing facility out of his shop, Bevilacqua was a devoted follower of the Church of the SubGenius and frequently brought Stang to his store for performances. Bevilacqua was also instrumental in organizing one of the early SubGenius tours, an eight-city venture called "The Slack Crusades." Eventually, he was called to run the business side of the operation.
"One day, I got a call from Bob Dobbs -- at least he claimed to be," says Bevilacqua via phone from Dallas. "He said, "Pack up your stuff and move to Dallas, because I want you to be business manager. And by the way, you're Jesus.' I said, "Oh, okay.'
"At the time, I was getting heat from the city [Lakewood], because I wasn't supposed to be having poetry readings and devivals and things like that. I came to Dallas with the understanding that I had to double the profits in less than one year, which was a pretty big demand. I guess Bob must have seen my business wisdom, because we managed to do it."
With a new business plan in place, Bevilacqua hopes to make the Church self-sustaining. Stang has always worked side jobs as a film editor and website consultant to make ends meet. But since hiring Bevilacqua, he's found it easier to get by.
"Recently, due mostly to our Internet exposure, it's becoming a semi-lucrative business," says Bevilacqua. "We're not on the level of Scientology or the Jehovah's Witnesses, but we will be. We have a big advertising campaign planned, because a lot of people don't know about us, and that's what holds us back. We've attracted our members through our books and word of mouth. We have never had a legitimate advertising campaign. We figure we should be able to get a million people with advertising."
Which is not to say the Church is starting to take itself too seriously. One of its central tenets is still "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." And most other religious groups can, Stang believes.
"The average religious person has no problem with any of this stuff at all," he insists. "It's not that big a deal. It's super-fundamentalists of any kind that get upset about other religions. When we do get hate mail, it usually comes from new-age people. They really hate us, because they understand that we're making fun of them. They think it's OK to make fun of the silly Christians -- "but how could you make fun of our sacred circle of drummers?'"
Still, the SubGeniuses and new-agers get together once a year, happily, at the Starwood Festival: an alternative spiritual, musical, and cultural extravaganza put on by the Cleveland-based Association for Consciousness Exploration. At last year's Festival, held at the Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, New York, Stang teamed up for a jam session with Einstein's Secret Orchestra that lasted for five hours. Playing in an inflatable structure called the "Pufferdome" kept Stang's rants from overshadowing other speakers at the convention, which attracted nearly 1,500 participants over six days.
"We like to laugh at ourselves," says Jeff Rosenbaum, the executive director of ACE (formerly the Chameleon Club, which Rosenbaum founded at Case Western Reserve University in 1978). "There's a magical tradition in shamanism and Sufi work of laughing at yourself. Some people say, don't trust any magician or shaman who doesn't laugh or dance."
When Stang first appeared at Starwood 10 years ago, he didn't expect the crowd to dance or laugh at his act. Little did he know, Rosenbaum says, that many of the participants are "bad-movie-loving, Firesign Theatre-loving good ol' boys primed for the word of Bob." Now Stang's rants are part and parcel of the Starwood Festival. "The SubGenius thing is one of the most popular events," says Rosenbaum.
The demands of being so weird so much of the time can take a heavy toll on personal relationships. Kates says his ex-wife, who lives in Cleveland with his children, was not a fan of the Church. And the only moment Stang slips out of his sarcastic preacher persona comes when he is pressed on the details of his divorce.
"My wife told me a long time ago that she would have left me over this ridiculous thing, if it weren't for the fact that we met so many cool people," he says. "She's not in a real good mental state. She got new-age religion and decided that magic was real after all, and I had been putting it down too much.
"I hung in there as long as I could. [The divorce] didn't have much to do with the Church. She just decided I was a horrible monster who kept her from fulfilling her true bliss, which it turned out was storytelling. She also quit her job -- at the same time that she told me I needed to move out because I was too dependent on her. I probably should have been a little more involved in what she and her therapist were doing."
An anonymous ex-Church member who called after seeing Stang's photo in Scene several weeks ago claims that Stang was having an affair with his Cleveland-based girlfriend for several years before getting his divorce. But Stang has never promoted conventional morality as part of the SubGenius credo. After all, the Church promises "all of the pleasure and none of the guilt," and SubGenius literature guarantees that becoming a member "will get you laid." Still, when the caller raised the issue at a recent devival, he claims, Stang threatened him.
"I just asked for my money back and asked if his wife wanted to hear about his adultery. And he grabbed me and said, "Get the fuck out of here,'" he says. "It's a good scam, like Tammy Faye and what's-his-name. It was good when it was really innocuous and fun, but I think it has ceased to be that way. It's your typical lying, cheating minister, and I don't think he differs from the norm."
In footage from the 1998 "X-Day" devival, Stang can be seen cavorting with naked women in a pool -- the scene looks like something out of Caligula. The Church's loose morals have even inspired an anti-Bob group. Kurt Kuerstiner, an ex-Church member, was so outraged by its warnings of an impending apocalypse and promotion of alternative lifestyles that he created a website dedicated to "exposing Bob" (members.aol.com/exposebob). On the site, he says that he became aware of the Church's "disturbing subtext of hate and violence" after starting to make a short documentary about its leaders and blames SubGeniuses for a wide variety of societal ills.
"High schools across America have been riddled with shootings," Kuerstiner writes. "Literally dozens of kids have been shot in class by weirdos carrying guns. We've been told they were satanic or that they were outcasts. That they didn't fit in. All these are typical traits of SubGenius members."
Kuerstiner advises fighting the Church by calling talk shows when the topic has to do with hate groups, writing letters to government officials, submitting editorials to local papers, "monitoring" SubGenius Internet activity, and sending him $20 (plus $3.20 for shipping and handling) so you can view his unfinished 20-minute documentary about the Church. He'll also accept random donations to support his cause.
All of which sounds pretty cultish itself -- though not entirely untrue. Given the nature of fanatical followings and Stang's deranged persona, it's safe to say there's always an implied threat of a riot at SubGenius devivals. But then, isn't that what rock and roll is all about?
"The Church of the SubGenius is a concept," Stang says. "It's out there, and it will always be around. If our P.O. box closes down, I'm sure there will still be tons of obnoxious SubGenius people irritating people all over the world for years to come."
Jeff Niesel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.