I went to see Reverend Billy in Petaluma. At the start of the day, I was going to go to an antiwar march in San Francisco, but then when I saw that Reverend Billy was coming to Petaluma -- fuckin' Petaluma, the "Egg and Butter" capital of California, the town where Pete used to live -- I dropped everything and went. Reverend Billy is a performance artist from New York City -- "The collar is fake, but the calling is real" -- and he's a hoot. Billy has bleached blond hair (with the roots showing) in a sprayed and gelled pompadour, a cheesy polyester leisure suit, and a gospel choir behind him. He preaches the evil of consumerism; the decay of our neighborhoods when Wal-Mart and Starbucks move in and drive out the local businessman; the "big-boxization" of our culture, where the commons, the town square, the lifeblood of the relationships in a community are destroyed, commercialized, and corralled into shopping malls with Muzak and endless advertisements bombarding our subconscious.
It was a beautiful evening, with a warm breeze and the sun coming through the trees in the way that reminded me of days in Grayslake, Illinois, driving around on hot summer nights in convertibles, drinking beer with people who knew exactly who we were.
Coming off nicotine, with a not-yet-full payload of Wellbutrin onboard, I felt weepy, nostalgic, and wistful, but mostly labile, with tears flowing from a chemical soup within my brain uncontrolled and uncontrollable. I moved to the back of the crowd, afraid I was going to be viewed as a complete head case if I was at all visible.
The event was at Walnut Park, the equivalent of the commons in Petaluma, with a gazebo and playground equipment.
The crowd was small, I'm sure much smaller than the one who would pay to see him that evening at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco, where he is better known. But the atmosphere was electric, with a band and the gospel choir from the "Church of Stop Shopping," whom I asked Billy if I could audition for before the performance. He was milling about and shaking hands and told me that they're only in New York, having "failed" to put together a West Coast contingent.
He exorcises the "Devil" of credit cards, asking the crowd to give them up to him, becoming spastic and possessed when he touches one. "CHANGE, hallelujah!" he says when one has bent his or her card in half.
Billy seems to be not quite "on," in the way one would expect after having seen him on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman on Free Speech TV. His performance is off.
But Billy gets an uproarious laugh when he talks about how "Tommy Jefferson" and "Jimmy Madison" had no idea that the Constitution would one day be seen as giving us ONLY the right to consume, to buy, all other rights subsumed into corporate right to profit.
He speaks of the "beatitudes," free speech, free assembly, the Bill of Rights. The Choir sings in a way that would put Billy Graham's to shame.
He leaves with his choir and musicians in a huge school bus, dented in the front, painted with "The Church of Stop Shopping," a pile of shredded plastic in his wake.
The nostalgia of a warm spring evening with a balmy breeze, the sun coming through the trees in a way that reminds me of my youth?
Advertisers hire Stanford and Harvard psychology grads to design ads that appeal to this; the quest to always get back to that dreamy summer night in the backseat with Joey Schmidt or Ray Ritter, a simpler time, one only now attainable if we buy what they are selling.