By the time Violent Jay and Shaggy 2 Dope closed out their set with “Bang Pow Boom”, the root-beer level on the floor was so high my feet were soaked through to my socks. I was wearing boots. Up front, two middle-aged juggalos in wheelchairs struggled to navigate their way across a plastic reef of pop bottles toward the exit. Myself and a sweat-soaked man in clown-face sloshed through the quagmire, to kick out a path through the slush.

That’s a brand new sentence, folks, and I’m proud of it.

Do you remember in Star Wars when Luke and friends get caught in the trash compactor with the goo and the crushy walls, and how the walls were giant men in clown makeup, and everything was root-beer flavoured?

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I should tell you a bit about who I am and how I let this happen. This is the true story of how I ended up a gooey soda person at the dirty clown show.

Spectacle Bands like the Insane Clown Posse (and fellow Detroitians Alice Cooper, K.I.S.S., and uh Kid Rock) largely inspire two kinds of reaction: adoration in the absolute, passionate minority (Juggalos, Juggalettes, Danny Brown), and eye-rolling derision from everyone else. In between the two, sandwiched between the hipsters and the teens and the Motor City entertainment economy, you’ll find nervous anthropologists and curious, pop-culture weirdos. I’m probably the second one. Once you get past laughing at phenomena like the ICP, the Pop Culture Death Drive™ takes over: the fascination turns morbid, and morphs into a kind of weird respect. It’s just so odd, so out-there: in order to make peace with the clowns, you have to understand the clowns, literal and otherwise, and feel their MMFWCL.

That’s a clown acronym, by the way. It means Much Mutha Fukkin Wikkid Clown Love, and that’s the least crazy thing you’re going to learn about ICP today. Attending an ICP show was a train I had to ride until I hit the last station, which was a live show at Venue Nightclub Shangri-La.

I just had to know, and now I do. And I’m going to tell you all about it – settle in.

Whoop. Whoop.

My personal obsession with the ICP started back in University. A friend and I became totally enamored with these weirdo clowns: we watched all the documentaries on Youtube (yes). We watched the live footage (you’re welcome). We made a dating profile on Juggalove, which was immediately banned but is absolutely a real thing. We dove deep into the Dark Carnival mythos in order to discover the terrifying secrets of their straightforward Evangelical Christianity. It was intense. The piece de resistance came when I, in my madness, took three days straight and listened to the entire Insane Clown Posse Christian Horrorcore discography: every joker card, both decks, even Dog Beats. I’ve heard it all, dude. On purpose.

I learned a lot in those 72 hours. Ah, to be young again.

Maybe that’s a column for another time.

The Lord’s Work.

Years have passed since then. Insane Clown Posse held several successful Gathering(s) of the Juggalos in Legend Valley, Ohio. The Obama administration entered and exited its final term, dunking us all into a kind of bottomless, political free-fall from which we have yet to escape. My ICP Buddy died tragically, leaving me the sole possessor of our dark, juggalo knowledge. Of our clown secrets. This left me with a dark sense of purpose, and a debt to fulfill.

Finally, The Insane Clown Posse booked their first Canadian shows in 16 years, right in my home city. There wasn’t a chance in hell I’d miss it.

From the moment I clicked ‘buy’, I knew I was going alone. Everyone I asked laughed in my face and gently asked why I’d bought a ticket. There was genuine concern in their eyes. This was fair, considering tickets were fifty-five bucks, which is an insane amount to spend on a Venue Nightclub rap show. It is not, however, an insane amount to spend on Science. This was all six months before the show itself; long enough to forget it was coming. Long enough to think I was safe. By the time the show finally did roll around, I’d badly mangled a finger, putting me out of work and forcing me to avoid getting too close to the stage, on account of the bandaging.

It is my honest belief that this total fluke is the sole reason I don’t smell like sickly-sweet cheap soda to this day.

Hold this, you’ll need it later.

The night of the show, I planned to leave my place early and walk to the venue: Venue, the venue. Venue. This was a calculated maneuver: walking would give me time to brush up on my ICP trivia, get a little fresh air, and carefully time my arrival to miss the opening band completely. The music video I’d checked out featured a guy in a hat that read TOMMY CARNAGE rapping along to a nu-metal backing band. There was a lot of fake blood, fake corpses, and Emotion. I skipped TOMMY CARNAGE to drink 4 beers in my kitchen and re-watch Miracles, making sure to get my own Emotion into the proper state for objective, unbiased journalism. I then walked the 40 minutes downtown. Figuring I was putting my body through enough for one evening, I did not listen to Insane Clown Posse at that time.

By the time I got to the venue, I’d walked myself back to sobriety and felt ready for anything. What I got was a small lineup – full of happy folks in clown-face – directly across from the Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver’s most historic wrestling arena and bouncy castle. The Killers were playing, and I could see their excited, clean and well-dressed crowd as I stood fumbling with my wallet in the PBR-scented lineup for Insane Clown Posse from Detroit, Michigan.

At no point did I consider ditching ICP and seeing The Killers instead. I may have spent fifty-five dollars to see dirty-boy clown-rap on purpose, but I don’t hate myself.

I’m not generally a fan of Venue, the venue. I think their viewing angle is awkward, and their vibe is often confusing and lifeless, though they’ve \ been improving lately with a string of diverse and high-profile acts that suit the space. ICP is one of those, which was good. However, that night, Venue was the inside of a trash bag.

For a change, this wasn’t only because they have a zero-out policy before the headliner plays – a policy which, depending on the show, sometimes holds staff and audience alike hostage in a Belmont and Weed hotbox. (Although, side story, this is also true: I once attended a 5 hour show at Venue – and Melvins played two hours in. It was The Cloud Planet of Bespin in there that night, and I’m probably still high from it.)

No, Venue, the venue on July 15th was the inside of a literal garbage bag because Venue had done its homework. They’d been on Youtube, been horrified at what they saw, and made a very important decision: they’d decided to prepare for the coming onslaught by covering every available surface in a layer of thick, black plastic garbage bagging. The balconies. The walls. The stage. The sound booth, crucially central in the room, was encased in a clear plastic, outdoor-festival rain tent.

The bartenders, understandably, looked nervous. The camera-people had wrapped their rigs in black garbage bag armor; it looked like they were carrying black magic staves. Or, long black garbage bags. The stage-front was also wrapped in a man-height stretch of black garbage bag, sort of like a slick, black screen hiding the ICP setup squad from the growing mob up front.

In the Court of the Garbage Bag Kings. (Photo credit Blueprint Live, Venue)

Meanwhile, the crowd was more or less what you’d expect: a healthy dose of metalheads, Langley-issue goths, punks and general-purpose alternative types, all in black, many in clown-face. A few broke dress code and wore all white: this was understood to be a rookie move, and brave – a messy rite of passage not unlike attending one’s first GWAR show. Everyone was extremely stoked on the garbage stage and its garbage exterior. This was to be the sold-out first of two consecutive nights, and I got the sense the whole buzzing crowd was coming back tomorrow. This turned out to be true.

I squeezed between two excited men in HatchetMan shirts and ordered another beer. HatchetMan is the official mascot and emblem of ICP’s enormously successful record label, Psychopathic Records – he’s that little silhouette holding a hatchet/cleaver plastered all over all Juggalo gear. ICP’s remarkably well-stocked merch booth had a dozen shirts and a dozen Cds in stock, all starring the Hatchetman, in his many forms. The Cds were sealed into the tabletop with layers of tape and covered in sharpie writing. They looked super secure, but somehow also already sticky. The stickiness was a warning, but at the time I ignored it. The dozens of shirt designs flew off the shelf, which was a surprise: by my count I was one of only a half-dozen crowd-members not already wearing Psychopathic Records gear, head to toe. The power of their branding is undeniable.

All Hatchetman Everything. No one point out how much he looks like a Swastika. They hate that.

Speaking of branding, there was a certain crucial brand – which I had expected to see represented somewhere – which hadn’t yet reared its head. That was 109-year-old soda manufacturers The Ferguson Bros. – a long name later shortened to Faygo Soda. Don’t worry, they’ll show up later. I promise.

Aside from the shockingly successful Juggalo marketing, this brings me to a point I’ve been asked over and over: what was the hipster-to-real-fan ratio? It stands to reason, since Juggalos are pretty easy to pick on, that a show like this would attract smirking elitists. The answer surprised me: if there was a single person in that room not wholeheartedly Down With The Clown – journalists, irony junkies – I couldn’t spot a single one except myself, and I was quickly being won over by the crowd’s energy.  Everyone either loved them when they came in, or were immediately converted to Joe and Joe‘s Juggalo Church.  That’s a remarkable scene. And while this might have been a function of the $55 tickets filtering out casual fans –  this is literally one dollar for every available flavour of Faygo – this brings up an interesting point: for all the derision that the ICP faces (which is all of the derision), those damn clowns sold two consecutive $55 nights at a trash-bag-coated venue to a crowd absolutely frothing at the mouth with Clown Fever. You can’t argue with the numbers.

The GVRD has more Juggalos than you think, and the cigarette-starved crowd swelled noticeably as time wore anxiously on. I grabbed another beer, and took in the ambiance. Venue venue was sold out, packed, and hosting the loudest crowd I’d ever seen at a venue that size. Shouts of the Juggalo siren-call “WHOOP-WHOOP” were mimicked and amplified immediately by hundreds of my clown-faced fellows. I tried it a few times. It was fun, like yelling into a very drunk echo chamber. As the energy hit a fever pitch, the proper chants started: “I-C-P! I-C-P! I-C-P!” and “FA-MUH-LY FA-MUH-LY!”. I even heard a couple optimistic “FAYYY-GO”s from the true soda fans in the back. The Hatchetmen and I chugged our beers. The bartenders laughed nervously and held up their phones to video the stage, and I braced my ruined finger in its cast.

… and then the plastic curtain dropped and the giant I C P electrical sign flickered happily to life. The “I” immediately blew out completely. Now with a giant sign reading _ C P flashing and the Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope stomping onstage, the crowd went absolutely nuts.

I started laughing like a maniac.

Clowns are Hilarious.

Did I survive???? (Photo credit Blueprint Live, Venue)

To be continued in part two: Kicking Through the Slush.