Banned in Austin: Fat Mike Shocks SXSW
“You guys are totally fucked.” –Cokie the Clown
Those were the last words he uttered before exiting stage right. As he spoke them, the videotape of his first ever - and quite possibly, last ever – public performance was being rewound on a television screen behind him. That night’s show had been plenty bizarre already, but it wasn’t over just yet. As the tape began playing from its beginning, the room was treated to some never-before-seen footage. A stunned crowd saw a clown standing in an alleyway, exclaiming, “I’m pissin’ in the Patron!” A graphic close-up then confirms this boast, and a continuous shot displays the journey of a man and his bottle: into the venue, onto the stage, and over to a bar tray table, where forty or so tequila shots are poured and shared between a performer and his audience. This last part feels familiar for many in the front row, and forty or so minutes later, it’s dawning on them that the gift of fine Añejo was actually…Repissado?
What the heck?
“Cokie the Clown” is the title track of the most recent EP by seminal punk-rockers/humorists NOFX. Lead singer & bassist Fat Mike, the de facto torchbearer for today’s punk scene, created this character and his accompanying theme song for Halloween a little while back. As anyone familiar with Mike will tell you, he’s no stranger to mischief or recreational drug use, and these habits spawned Cokie, a prankster’s twisted take on your run-of-the-mill ‘sad clown.’ We learn from the music video that those who expect a sniff of his boutonnière to yield the standard, harmless squirt of water are in for a real treat when the air canister is engaged, and – goodness, gracious, eight balls of flour! – a pretend blend of powdery narcotics is discharged in a devastating shotgun blast to the face.
What a rascal.
In the spring, it was announced that this character would be playing Fat Mike’s solo acoustic set on the last night of South by Southwest 2010. On a cold night in Austin, Texas, hundreds of intrigued fans were lining up outside a tent in a parking lot to witness the show. So, aside from the beginning-slash-ending scene with the tequila prank, what else ended up on that videotape? Well, have you ever watched an MTV Unplugged or VH1 Storytellers? It was like that…Cokie performed acoustic renditions of songs that Mike had written about various experiences, and told the stories behind each one. But these were sad, serious, shocking stories: ones about witnessing a violent gang carry off a terrified young girl against her will, and the grisly suicide of an old roommate, and the deaths of his callous, absentee father and his suffering, cancer-stricken mother. The crowd stood absolutely stunned as the clown up on stage strummed his way through this startling set in earnest; no one expected to be ambushed with heavy shit like that.
But what did they expect?
To say the least, this was…a departure. Fat Mike is known to be a funny guy. He also told the requisite anecdotes about depraved sex/drugs/rock & roll, but the audience still hadn’t processed the weighty tales of rape and death that they’d just been exposed to. Some became indignant, others were simply speechless, and there was no shortage of drunks yelling ignorant remarks and insisting that Cokie switch to other, more palatable topics. In the days that followed, video of the performance and media reports began hitting the internet, and the general response was similarly negative. I sent video of this show to a friend so he could see it, and he came back ticked off, saying, “People don’t pay to watch performers’ personal therapy.”
Don’t they, though?
Whenever we agree to participate in an artist’s self-expression, isn’t that exactly what we’re signing up for? You could argue about where the line is (the overwhelming response to Cokie’s set has placed people firmly on the other side of it), but is a concert worth going to if you know exactly what’s going to happen? Shouldn’t art be uninhibited, and make us feel this strongly about something? Disapproving online commenters certainly haven’t bought into that: “Pussy…I don’t care what age he was, what a scumbag for not stopping that rape, I’m done with him,” “If he tried to hand me piss, I’d climb on stage and break his fucking teeth out,” and so forth. The Internet tough guys have displayed all the hypothetical courage in the world, all the while failing to realize that real courage exists in Mike’s ability to make it all the way through that set. As he spilled his guts about some of the most dismal times in his life, the tears of a clown were apparent to all in attendance, and yet he played on. It became clear that this set wasn’t solely for shock value. As he explained the motivations for the songs that everyone came to hear, this performance became a much-needed release for a haunted man.
A man who tricks people into drinking pee.
Well, didn’t anyone ever tell you not to take a drink from a stranger? If you watched him assault his own best friends in the eyes with flour in his music video, would it be smart to assume that you’d be above such treatment? Who knows his motivations, maybe he figured the only way he’d be able to make it through a set that rough was to give himself a psychological upper hand reminiscent of the brilliant “Ass Pennies,” to numb the pain just enough to be able to continue? Or perhaps…he had a very clear reason. It’s important to realize that plenty of these people waited in the cold for hours to get into this special show, hustled all the way up to the front to watch one of their ‘favorite’ artists, happily downed their free shot, and then 30 seconds in, when the performance wasn’t exactly what they thought it should be, they turned on him, and in a truly nasty way. One could easily make the argument that these half-assed hecklers deserved this fate.
Cokie simply knew as much.
During each of these intensely personal stories, someone would actually manage to be more inappropriate than the guy who secretly peed in their drinks. That’s pretty striking, and as the performance fed off this unique brand of two-way interaction, something interesting happened. The event managed to say at least as much about the audience as it did about the artist. Cokie was up on that stage holding a mirror (not like a coke mirror, or a Morris Day & the Time mirror – a figurative mirror) for all the morons out there. When they yelled inane shit during a story about a dying mother asking her son to end her pain, and then later found out that they had been fed urine, perhaps they were forced to consider that those who conduct themselves so poorly on a regular basis have probably been targeted by a disgruntled prep chef or two already.
Makes you think (at least a little).
This show was special because it begged a number of questions– exactly what do we, as an audience, feel we are owed by a musical act? When someone berates a performer, is it justified, and if so, under what circumstances? What does it say when a guy is so certain that he’ll encounter a plethora of jackasses – even during the most serious of sets – that he felt at ease pulling a prank like this on the same people who buy his records? Hopefully Cokie’s appearance does not go completely unappreciated, because it offered things that most shows cannot, and you’ll never see something quite like it again. It was a cocktail that was two parts Kaufman, one part Dr. Rockso, and a splash of Dylan, shaken & poured over urinal ice.
…and it was fucking brilliant.
If people still talk about a show where Iggy Pop smeared peanut butter all over everything, or about that retard Sid Vicious cutting himself up on a broken bottle, they should absolutely be talking about this. The Cokie Concert was a classic, and years from now, you can bet that people will lie about having been there. On that night, this demented bartender raised the bar for everyone else. It was not insignificant; some might call it a touching exercise in the human condition. Leoncavallo probably would have written an opera about it.
Many have been quick to criticize Fat Mike over this set without walking a mile in his clown shoes. Some have simply dismissed him as not only crude but as a whiner, but how many of these same people would go to pieces if one-tenth of his crazy life happened to them? He’s risen above some ugly things to become a very talented songwriter, and songs like ‘My Orphan Year’ off 2009’s Coaster attest to that evolution. Smokey Robinson isn’t the only one who can sing about being a sad clown. Fat Mike has every right to unburden himself, because this is in fact what we pay artists like him for; who are we to tell him how he can do it, or to try and ruin it when he doesn’t appease us? And in spite of the pee prank, the guy does care plenty about his fans. A friend and I once ran into him on the street and struck up a conversation without behaving like assholes. He ended up bringing us into a sold-out show as his guests and made us martinis using his special, piss-free liquor stash. Do you think Maroon 5 would do that for you? Fuck no.
If you want to focus on the urine like TMZ did, go ahead, but it’s not really a big deal. Hell, he drank a half dozen of the shots himself before he passed them out (if drinkin’ your pee is cool, consider him Miles Davis). The prank might have been in bad taste (ha), but there’s worse things that can happen to a person than drinking tequila with a tiny bit of pee in it. For instance, everything that Cokie talked about. There was something to be learned here, and this event should be valued for something beyond the shock value on the surface. A drug addict hasn’t made something this good out of his fucked up stories since The Basketball Diaries. Not to mention that this has the potential to spark a lot of interesting debate about artistic expression, our ability to relate to one another, management of expectations, and so forth. Obviously, no one wanted to drink someone’s insane clown pissings. But at least these people got to see a one-of-a-kind show. Better to have a run-in with Cokie the Clown than with Pesci the Clown, or Crazy Joe Divola. So what if you think he went a bit too far? Maybe there isn’t a line anymore. Maybe Cokie the Clown snorted it right up.
Watch Cokie the Clown’s full, live set at Austin’s SXSW below: