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The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures

Louis Theroux

(Da Capo Press)

Do you think Hitler would have allowed his little girl out dressed like that?
—Message forum post criticizing a Resistance cover that featured provocatively posed 12-year-old twins Lamb and Lynx of White Power band, Prussian Blue


The problem that we have ... is that we are not the majority in this county. I think we have to be prepared to be patient. It’s like the swirling commode. It gets faster and faster. As we get closer to the bottom, more and more people are going to wake up.
—Tom Simmons, Almost Heaven patriot


Louis Theroux (son of travel writer Paul) gained cult-TV notoriety as the host of late ‘90s BBC documentary series Weird Weekends, which followed Theroux as he infiltrated various American subcultures, from ufologists to porn filmmakers to White Power activists. With The Call of the Weird, Theroux is back to take on his old shtick—the wonderful weirdos of America—with a “Where are they now?” kind of twist. The book sees Theroux retreading old paths across the US as he attempts to reconnect with and follow up on a number of his unusual subjects, addressing questions such as: Has alien killer Thor Templar given up his policy of violent alien resistance? Has pimp-turned-gangsta rapper Mello T renounced his promiscuous lifestyle? Have the bigoted views of musician twins Lamb and Lynx, just 12 years old when Theroux last interviewed them, changed upon being more exposed to the world outside their White Power activist mother?


Theroux’s central mission is to determine to what extent these various subcultures wield their power and find out whether their denizens are generally just passing through or card-carrying members for life. It’s an interesting enough inquiry, but what becomes far more interesting is just how cloaked these subjects seem; whether in dogma or persona, the core identities that Theroux attempts, and largely fails, to reveal are all deeply buried. What follows, then, is an exploration of identity that is frustratingly spotty: Theroux may have the right questions and an appropriately diplomatic approach, but most of these fascinatingly complex people have absolutely no intention of unmasking themselves.


Theroux acknowledges this difficulty and seems all too painfully aware that, to these people, he is an outsider, and therefore an enemy. He makes concessions by, in some cases, adopting his subjects’ vocabularies—to a former Heavens Gate member, he tries out a joke about his “vehicle”, which in cult thought refers to the body—and in others, as in Ike Turner’s, ingratiating himself as much as possible to those he wishes to interview. Still, few of his subjects seem thrilled at the propect of a journalist writing a book about them, especially a book called The Call of the Weird, and this is a conflict from which the resultant book suffers: How does a journalist negotiate with his subjects the reality that his main project is to exploit their “weird” beliefs? As Theroux finds out, there’s no easy answer.


As such, a substantial portion of the text is devoted to Theroux’s relation of numerous calls that went unreturned and subjects who repeatedly changed their minds about seeing him his second time around. While in nearly every case, Theroux’s persistence is rewarded, ultimately his subjects seem to manipulate him more then he manipulates them. Theroux is left to tiptoe around them in the hopes that nothing he says or does could offend.


Theroux’s reunion with Ike Turner serves as a case in point. Turner seems like an uneasy fit with the other subjects of the book, but Theroux justifies his inclusion of Turner by explaining that he wondered how Turner was able to control, in an almost cult-leader-ish fashion, Tina Turner despite his infamous abuse of her. During both the initial documentary filming and the follow-up for this book, Theroux finds himself bowing down to Turner’s unusually raw emotional vulnerability, which precludes him from asking the kind of hardball questions he otherwise would. This sensitivity to one’s subject is, of course, the mark of a good interviewer; but Turner is so skilled a manipulator (whether conscious or not) that Theroux, ironically, falls under his peculiar mesmerism.


The book also struggles under the weight of a presumption of weirdness that is misleading. Legal brothels and gangsta rap are certainly subcultural, but relatively familiar territory. Theroux’s most fascinating ventures into so-called weirdness are his follow-ups with Mike Cain, a former member of Midwestern patriot community Almost Heaven, and with April, Lamb, and Lynx, a White Power activist mother and her twin daughters, who have seen press coverage as a White Power tween band. Cain had eventually left the Almost Heaven community to join his wife, but remained obsessed with challenging “the system”. Lamb and Lynx showed signs of wanting to go mainstream, and describe Green Day as the equivalent of “pretty good for a commie band”. Meanwhile, their mother was as emphatic in her views as ever, answering the twins’ “what are we going to eat?” with “We can always stick a Jew in an oven!” (Ha!)


In the end, what comes out of all of Theroux’s investigations into American subcultures is not any clear view of what makes an extreme worldview stick, nor what breed of people are typically attracted to it, but simply an acknowledgement that perspective is subjective. Whatever worldview you subscribe to, you will bend all to it. And, as one ufologist explains, “if you need physical evidence, then you’re not ready to see.”

Megan Milks is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has had critical work published on Venuszine.com, Lost Magazine, Grapevineculture.com, and Sparknotes; her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Pocket Myths, Forge, and Wreckage of Reason, an anthology of experimental women writers. Like once a year, if that, she publishes a magazine called Mildred Pierce, which more people should know about.


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