One of my favorite things that I’ve read in the last couple of years was Nathan Rabin’s reporting for the AV Club from the Gathering of the Juggalos, Insane Clown Posse’s summer festival in Cave-In-Rock, Illinois. Drop a snarky music critic in the horrocore rap band’s festival in the middle of nowhere to perform some pop anthropology and you get internet gold.
I was very excited for Rabin to expand his reporting into book form, and really get in depth into the stories of the Juggalos, the common themes, and how they all connected. You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me is not that book.
Instead of the pop anthropology I was expecting, Rabin wrote a much more personal book, a memoir about his experiences immersing in the cultures of Phishheads and Juggalos, as well as his struggles with coping with newly-diagnosed bipolar disorder.
What struck me so much about You Don’t Know Me is how narrowly I avoided becoming a Phish phan. (Is that a term? If it isn’t, why not? Too obvious?)
Back when I was in high school, Phish was ascendant, and one summer, I went to a summer program at Amherst College, where I took music and SAT prep classes and had a lot of fun. Some of the other kids turned me on to Phish, and I dug the combination of catchy choruses, long inventive jams, and the combination of serious and silly lyrics.
The friend and neighbor who drove me to school most days once she had a car kept Rift in her car and it was a frequent soundtrack. But without having any reason to dive into the deep end of fan culture and go to shows, I occasionally listened to a couple of albums, a couple of tapes and was enough aware of the band without becoming a real fan.
In college, I discovered Agents of Good Roots, a band whose music fell squarely between the jam band scene and the indie rock scene. So they shared a lot of fan culture from jam band fans, borrowing the ethos of concert recording and tape trading, but with more brevity of songwriting and without as much of the dirty hippie element to the fan base. They were too jazzy and jammy to succeed in the mainstream and too punk to catch on in the jam band scene. But they hit right in the sweet spot of my musical taste. Because of those shared elements of fan culture and fan overlap, I appreciated a lot of the elements of Phish’s culture.
But unlike Rabin, who got into Phish through his wife, I didn’t have a catalyst to dive in. But, I can see how if I had that guide into the scene I could have appreciated the scene and the music. Without a reason to, I never felt a deep emotional or intellectual connection to their music. But if I was dating a Phish fan, I would be jamming out to the tastiest live jams and grooving on Mike Gordon’s five-string bass solos. OK, maybe not the bass solos.
The common thread throughout Rabin’s books is about how much Americans can be looking for community. Today, thanks to cheap communications and travel, we often create those communities these days based more on common interests than on geography. So, the Phish fans can find each other and meet up in the Lot before the show. Fans travel across the country to Comic Con in San Diego to dress up in costume and hang out with the tribe of fans. Internet communities become real-life communities. Juggalos get together for a few special days out of the year to spray Faygo on each other and listen to their favorite Psychopathic Records acts.
I hesitate to criticize You Don’t Know Me, But You Don’t Like Me too much because it ultimately is such a personal and intimate book. I feel like I know way more about Rabin’s headspace than I ever expected to, but I recognize many similar neuroses and anxieties that I have. Mine aren’t as amplified by the various cocktails of illicit drugs and mind-altering substances that Rabin documented using in the book, but I imagine that I wouldn’t have reacted to those in a similar way. Although he does provide comprehensive and useful histories of the two bands, Rabin’s book doesn’t go into much greater depth about the subcultures than his reporting for the AV Club. Rather, that additional depth is very personal.