On Cokie The Clown at SXSWBy James
Saturday, April 24th, 2010
At South By South West, something actually unscripted happened. Fat Mike actually went off the rails. Not just what you’d expect from the perpetually-juvenile NOFX frontman, but exactly what you wouldn’t expect from him. He gets up on stage in full Cokie the Clown gear with an acoustic guitar, brings some tequila to the front row and then starts talking about rape.
Past this point, we are assuming that the Cokie character is nothing more than window dressing for Fat Mike to express things that are too heavy for him to put forward at a NOFX show. Understand that last sentence isn’t a swipe at NOFX. NOFX is a very specific kind of vehicle for a very specific kind of expression. Stuff like this would kill the mood at a NOFX show. For example, hearing about how Thomas has a very specific fondness for S&M lesbians and obscure South Asian hallucinogens would be incredibly uncomfortable and mood-killing at a Strike Anywhere gig.
Also, I have no idea what to make of the urine in the tequila thing except that while the potential for a lawsuit is there it’s not dangerous so much as disgusting and that’s not how I’d want to treat my fans.
But the rape is the most interesting. Here, we have Fat Mike, a guy known for not taking terribly much seriously except for drugs and drugs, talking about something that happened when he was a teenager that haunts him to this day.
Past this point, I am assuming that this story is true, though because memory lies, who knows how accurate it is.
These are the important facts: Mike, (16) and Melvin (17) were in a stairwell at a Vandals show in 1984, when two known gang members (two of 40 at the gig) were carrying a girl across their shoulder to be raped. The girl grabs Melvin and says “help me”. The gang members tell the kids that they didn’t see a fucking thing. Mike and Melvin go upstairs, knowing there is a rape happening directly below them.
It is theoretically possible that Mike and Melvin could have stopped the rape by force, but it’s highly unlikely. However, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that somehow, Mike and Melvin beat up the two gang members, and they’re knocked out. The girl, Mike and Melvin, need to escape from the venue, where there are 38 gang members, presumably who know what’s going on. Therein lies another problem. Let’s say a quarter of those people know what’s going on. Again, being optimistic. If any of them get spotted by any of those nine gang members, the gang members get their buddies together and suddenly, it’s a mad dash for the door.
In something that reflects reality, two teenagers were intimidated by gang members, with a plausible threat of violence from saying anything about the rape. It is also theoretically possible, that between the two teenagers, they could have convinced the two gang members not to rape this girl using words. This possibility is so remote, it almost doesn’t seem worth mentioning, but it’s a possibility.
Given anything resembling reasonable odds, this girl’s rape was sealed. Put more directly: It was not within Mike’s or Melvin’s power to (again, ages 16 and 17 respectively) stop the two men from raping that girl when they passed the two teenagers in the stairwell using force. Should Mike and Melvin spoken up and invited violence against themselves even if there is no demonstrable reason to believe that life would improve for the person they’re trying to help?
Yes. Of course. Doing good deeds isn’t always easy.
That said, I can’t personally fault the two teenagers for not standing up to the two gang members. I’d have shit my pants, placed in that position. I’m not sure I would have enough backbone to interpose myself even briefly, between the gang members and the rape. According to a survivor, they don’t teach women to yell HELP in self defense classes, but instead to yell FIRE, because it gets people’s attention. It means that Mike and Melvin are with the majority of people when they went back upstairs to watch the Vandals.
“They were powerless to stop it, but perhaps they should have tried.” It’s an excellent thing to say and certainly something that ought to be felt, but hardly ever is it acted upon. In short, it’s easier to say on the internet (or otherwise removed from the event) that one would do the right thing than it is to do it. Put differently, I don’t think even a quarter of the people railing on Mike would stand up if they were placed in his shoes at the time. I believe they would value not getting their body beaten and broken more than they value their ethical stance. I think they’d be too intimidated to move.
What comes after that, I’m not so sure. We don’t know to what extent Fat Mike and Melvin followed up on the issue. A call (from a pay phone) or tip to the police would be in order, even if the famously antagonistic police would laugh it off. This is California in the 80’s and punk rock before THE DROPKICK MURPHYS. If police and punks saw eye to eye at the time, it was with a riot stick or tear gas between them. Going to the owner of the venue might be another recourse for the guys, but again, that’s only post facto.
There’s other thing that Mike admitted to, being hard-hearted around his dying father that tried to reconnect before his death, stealing a friend’s vinyl record after that friend hung himself but I find that less powerful than the staircase episode, because of the rubber meets road nature of the incident.
I find the hostility aimed at Mike for admitting that something he did 26 years ago still haunts him is…not terribly powerful because of their distance from the experience. Aside from not believing anyone who said they’d try to stop it, my belief is that for the words to have any meaning, the speaker has to be placed in that moment, with their back against the wall. The terror is integral! There has to be the vivid, clear and distinct probability of crippling, permanent injury (and possibility of death) in the decision making process for anyone to plausibly make the claim they’d stop that rape.
In short: It’s one thing to say you would stop the rape on the internet. It’s another thing to say you would stop the rape with no cell phone, outnumbered, surrounded and with no one coming to help you.