Photo by Fred Askew
Reverend Billy spreads The Word
By WILL McKINLEY
It’s a sultry summer Sunday and Reverend Billy is working his way through the congregation, hugging, kissing and shaking hands with parishioners of all ages. But this pompadoured preacher doesn’t conduct his services in a church. His pulpit is the stage of the Highline Ballroom, a stylish concert venue on W. 16th Street. And although he isn’t ordained by any organized religion, the congregants hang on his every word.
Created by wild-eyed actor Bill Talen more than a decade ago, Reverend Billy has transmogrified from parody into a very real anti-corporate gadfly, crusading against Starbucks, Disney, Wal-Mart and those who propagate the sin of excessive consumerism. Talen (in character) has written a new book both a collection of sermons and a DIY guide for budding agitators and is the subject of an upcoming documentary film, produced by Morgan Spurlock of “Super Size Me” fame.
Like Howard Beale in “Network,” Talen may be the truth-telling prophet America has been waiting for, or he may be a raving lunatic. Either way, he’s mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore. Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir have been traveling the world, prophesying of the coming Shopocalypse. And now, after a controversial run at the Spiegeltent last summer, Talen has brought his old-fashioned Revival show to the Meatpacking District, spreading the message of “Stop Shopping” to anyone who will listen.
I listened. And I shall bear witness unto you.
WILL McKINLEY: For those lost souls who don’t know, who is Reverend Billy?
REVEREND BILLY: He’s a post-religious comic preacher.
What is the mission of the Church of Stop Shopping?
Back away from the product, children! Stop your shopping! Reverend Billy wants you to slow down your consumption.
What is the Shopocalypse?
That’s what’s happening. The utopia of the retail economy not only doesn’t work, it’s gonna kill us. You’ve got all the biblical elements of the Apocalypse that are brought on by shopping: Hurricane Katrina, Rita, drowning polar bears. Look around. We’re shopping ourselves to death.
Yesterday I handed the salesperson at Barnes & Noble your book, “What Would Jesus Buy?” She read the title and her response was “Nothing!”
That’s the right answer! She gets a free ticket to the next Reverend Billy show. That’s the genius of Morgan Spurlock. “Super Size Me” and now “What Would Jesus Buy?” He’s good at titles.
So that’s the name of the documentary too?
Yes. It’s going to be out November 1. Morgan saw Reverend Billy for the first time in a community garden on Rivington Street in 1999, when he was an NYU student.
Your publisher insisted that you author the book as “Reverend Billy” and not as Bill Talen. So who am I talking to right now?
You’re talking to both Reverend Billy and William Claire Talen III.
At the same time? Is it crowded in there?
(Laughs) Yes it is. Help me!
Is there a moral dilemma in preaching anti-consumerism but charging a $12 cover for your show?
Our position is, if you’re passing the plate, or charging ten or twelve bucks at the door, it’s not so bad. We’re from the theater world, but our message doesn’t make sense if we go up to $30, $40, $50 a ticket. A successful play is able to charge more, and then they become a show for tourists and older, wealthier people. We never go above $12 because we want to have as much diversity age-wise and race-wise as possible.
So, are you an activist or are you an actor playing an activist?
If our performance on Sunday was successful, the audience was relieved of whether to call this religion or theater or politics. In the sense that we are resisting consumption, we’re also resisting labels. Most of us are in the choir are in flight from organized religion, but we’re searching. And some sort of spiritual experience is possible if you pull away from filling up your soul with products.
So are all those talented performers 34 vocalists in your choir, 7 musicians in your band…
Some of the musicians are paid. Is that your question? Yes. Some of the musical leadership is paid on a modest level.
So where do the funds come from to pay people?
We just had a fundraiser two months ago. We really have to have talented people because it’s a volunteer choir and we can’t rehearse that often. We don’t have the money.
What happened last year during your run at the Spiegeltent?
We really enjoyed it, although we were subsequently banned from the South Street Seaport.
That sounds like a good story.
We were getting phone calls from environmentalists, telling us that Victoria’s Secret was clear-cutting forests for its catalogs. The sheer volume of those catalogs one million a day almost all goes to landfill. So we started exorcising cash registers around the country.
At Victoria’s Secret stores?
Yes. Driving the clear-cutting out of the cash till, and educating people who were in the stores. There was a Victoria’s Secret fifty feet away from the front flaps of the Spiegeltent. At one point one of the producers was in tears and she interrupted the show, because she thought we were going to go straight over to the Victoria’s Secret. And we intended to. We finally agreed to go up to the Spring and Broadway location, because we didn’t want to get our fellow artists in trouble. The mall executives were threatening to shut down the whole festival.
Is there a chance that you’ll be thrown out of the Highline for political reasons?
We asked about that. The Highline Ballroom is operated by the same people who run B.B. King’s and The Blue Note. Maybe they have more experience over the years than the Spiegeltent producers, given the melting pot of America they’ve had on their stages, generations of blues and jazz artists. They said, “March where you want to. This is America, ain’t it?”
You used to live in the West Village. How is it different now than it was before you started your ministry?
I lived on Hudson Street back in 1989. The Blind Tiger Ale House was there. Now it’s a Starbucks. That was a community institution that we should have been able to defend. We hope to have legislation where chain stores must announce to the local community board that they intend to take a lease, followed by a 30-day review in which the community has the chance to consider whether or not they want a 17th Starbucks in their district. A chain store is not a neutral thing. It really impacts the community.
So is it just as simple as each person choosing to bypass Starbucks for the neighborhood coffee shop?
That’s definitely where it starts. We’re going into a three-year residency at St. Marks in the Bowery starting October 7. We’ll be there the first Sunday of every month at 7 PM and we expect to be very active with local activists, community gardens, daycare centers, and longtime, independent shops. We will be fighting for neighborhood defense.
And fighting to keep the Village the Village?
Exactly. Or let the Village change into the new Village, whatever that new Village is. Just not the corporate Village.
Are you hopeful for the future?
I’m an optimist. I see lots and lots of people waking up. And I believe that people around the world are looking to us as an international Village, just like after 9/11, when the world press was surrounding Union Square. People all over the world need inspiration to save themselves from the Big Box. That’s our mission.