Volume 75, Number 30 | December 14 - 20, 2005

Photos by Fred Askew

Above, a victim is removed from crash between Reverend Billy tour bus and 18-wheel truck. Below, the biodiesel tour bus after the collision.

Reverend Billy bus is rammed and filmmaker is hurt

By Lincoln Anderson

As Reverend Billy’s Shopocalypse tour was getting underway, just two days after leaving St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, a disaster struck that threatened to derail the national shopping slow-down traveling act.

As the performance artist preacher and his Church of Stop Shopping Choir were driving near the Ohio and Indiana border on Dec. 7 about 10:45 p.m., one of their biodiesel buses was rear-ended by an 18-wheel truck heavily loaded with plywood. Three people in the Reverend Billy tour bus were seriously injured in the collision, with a total of 13 medevac’d by helicopter to Toledo Hospital and other nearby hospitals.

James Benn, the choir leader, and Jerrold Goralnick, a choir member, both of Brooklyn, had concussions, while Rob VanAlkemade, who is doing a documentary on the tour and lives in Astoria, suffered a lacerated liver and broken ribs. VanAlkemade is still in the hospital, where he was initially expected to spend two weeks, but is said to be recovering faster than expected.

Reverend Billy was also in the hind bus, which had 24 people onboard, but was sitting up front with his wife Savitri D, the tour’s director. They both were uninjured. Those in the rear of the bus were the most seriously injured.

The bus had been driving slowly, about 45 miles per hour, with its rear lights flashing because the radiator of the other bus in the tour in front of it had frozen. They were making for an exit on I-80 to pull off and repair the radiator.

Reverend Billy, whose real name is Bill Talen, recalled the harrowing events on Monday, as he spoke via cell phone from the Flying J rest stop “somewhere in Iowa.”

“It was like 4 degrees and one of our buses’ radiators had frozen,” he recalled. “We were limping toward an exit to thaw out the radiator. I was asleep, like many of us were — but luckily our driver wasn’t. The truck rammed us from behind and lifted us into the air. We were falling over ourselves. Our driver somehow managed to keep the bus in the lane.”

Since the accident, every performance has been dedicated to Aaron, their bus driver, he said.

Named Sammy, the tour bus — a converted 1965 New York City M.T.A. bus built like a rock — was knocked out of commission. But it got the best of the semi, whose front end was demolished. An anonymous donor has since given them a standard diesel tour bus, which joins their other remaining biodiesel bus, The Spaz Bus.

Reverend Billy said the fact that The Spaz Bus runs on biodiesel was not to blame for the radiator freezing, but that it was a lack of antifreeze fluid.

But he admitted that using biodiesel, as well as pure vegetable oil, which The Spaz Bus also runs on, is “tougher.” Their vegetable oil fuel froze last Sunday night, he noted.

Despite the scary accident, the tour went on the next day, mainly because the 32 choir members felt strongly that it should, Reverend Billy said.

So far, they have been given the keys to the town of Oberlin after performing on the site of a planned Wal-Mart that was defeated by community opposition.

“It would have decimated the economy of rural Ohio,” Reverend Billy said.

However, the highlight to date was the performance at the Mall of America in Minnesota. They brought extra robes and got some of the shoppers to join them on a stage that happened to be there and had 100 people singing anti-consumer jingles, like “Little Town of Bentonville,” which refers to Wal-Mart’s headquarters.

“It’s the most-visited mall in America,” Reverend Billy noted. “Forty-two million visitors a year. Direct flights from Japan — amazing.” Apparently security thought they were a scheduled act, because they were allowed to perform for an hour before they finally got the boot.

“We’re on a mission to save Christmas from the Shopocalpyse,” Reverend Billy said, “which is the condition that many of us suffer, which is to express our feelings of Christmas by shopping too much. We’re trying to get the people out here to answer the question: ‘What would Jesus buy?’

“Lots of places we visit have no community left,” he said. “They’ve been destroyed by consumerism. It all fits inside the big box.”

It’s expected VanAlkemade will be able to attend this year’s Sundance Film Festival, at which his documentary “A Preacher With an Unknown God,” which is on Reverend Billy’s DVD, will be shown.

The tour plans to wrap up in Los Angeles on Christmas Day. Reverend Billy said he and the choir will then take a break and may start their monthly performances again at St. Mark’s Church as early as February.

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