Bring Out the Freaks
My first long-term girlfriend in New York was a woman named Bethann. I met her through my friends who worked with her. She made videos and listened to cool music and had dyed hair and talked like a real New Yawker and all of these things I found immensely appealing.
Bethann hung out with a group of people known collectively as the Vic Thrill Salon. Their leader was a gentleman named Billy Campion, who went by the stage name Vic Thrill. A few years before I met him, Billy had been the frontman for a band called the Bogmen that gained a huge cult following in New York and were signed to Epic for some ungodly amount of money during the 90s alternative boom and recorded a few albums that didn’t meet the label’s expectations and partied a little too hard and were bought out of their contract by their label for another ungodly sum. Billy took his portion of the payoff and sobered up and built a recording studio in a used gas station in the (then) mostly-Hasidic part of Williamsburg. He lived almost entirely off the grid for several years and showered with a garden hose because he both lived and worked in the gas station which lacked the proper bathing facilities.
Billy was (and is … I don’t mean to talk about him like he’s dead … he’s still performing and has a kid and is doing very well by all accounts) a very charismatic and talented figure and he managed to assemble a crack team of misfits to help him execute his never-ending supply of grandiose ideas. Bethann was one of these misfits, and so through her, I met a number of strange characters who became a regular part of my social life for the rest of my time in New York.
The Vic Thrill crew were not hipsters, although there are those who might credit them with helping to usher in the hipster era. They were freaks. Honest-to-goodness 1969 Merry Prankster freaks who dressed in weird clothes and built their own instruments out of garbage and ate like birds and threw strange parties in strange places that should have terrified me but somehow seemed like exactly where I needed to be at the time. It sounds incredibly decadent, but there was an unexpected sort of wholesomeness to the scene. They weren’t all on drugs, as one might expect … most of the people were sober, in fact. They got high by being weird.
I was always on the periphery of the scene, because I was never able to commit to freakdom full-tilt. I’m more of a vicarious freak. I like knowing people who are willing to commit to being on the outskirts of society, but given the choice between artistic integrity and dinner, I’m doing whatever it takes to get that spaghetti.
I suppose this doesn’t really count as a story, but it’s good background info for later stories involving the denizens of the Vic Thrill Salon which I’m sure I will share in the future. You may have heard one of the stories already on This American Life. If you haven’t, I highly encourage you head over there and listen to it, because they tell it much better than I do. Also, it took place before I knew any of these people. I always miss out on the cool stuff.