Saturday, August 7, 2010

PLEASE! No Sharp Objects!!

The story behind Baby Seal Club's controversial "Lunatic Binge"

by Baby Seal Club

Baby Seal Club
We are Baby Seal Club, an offbeat, award-winning indie-rock band, and this story is about the ruckus we caused trying to raise money to fund our first CD.

We decided to have a benefit concert on July 31, 2010 at the Hopmonk Tavern, our local music venue in Sebastopol, California. All we needed was a chewy theme that would mobilize our artistic collective and excite our fan base. You see, Baby Seal Club has a tradition of creating concert environments that transport audiences into different worlds, if only for a night. We decided to turn the Hopmonk into an insane asylum and we dubbed the event "Lunatic Binge."

Flyer for Baby Seal Club's "Lunatic Binge"
We signed up a bunch of local bands, sent out the usual Baby Seal Club promotional detritus and rallied the troops. We spent the next two months planning. We designed elaborate sets, built interactive art pieces. Virtually everybody we shared the idea with was excited by the theme and offered their support.

Then, 48 hours before the event, our local independent rag published a blurb about the Binge and upon reading it, one individual took offense to the name and concept and contacted the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI).

Moments later, NAMI sent out a local Action Alert; they threatened to picket and go national with their 'StigmaBusters Alert' to 20,000 advocates unless we cancelled the show and issued an apology. The NAMI California Executive Director also threatened to come to our town to meet with the venue owner.

Our reaction was utter bewilderment.

Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety"
We grew up surrounded by iconic cultural references to insane asylums. We had spent two months organizing this event, sharing the idea with dozens of friends and generating tremendous enthusiasm. We found ourselves flummoxed that anyone would be offended because what we were crafting was more akin to a cartoon, a satire, a spoof.

Nevertheless, angry calls and emails inundated Hopmonk Tavern. The owner called us, concerned and distressed. The situation had escalated and he insisted we respond to NAMI and take the heat off the venue. Feeling badly that Hopmonk was being maligned because of our creative expression, we immediately dropped our paint brushes, guitars and hammers and began drafting a response.

"The Pink Panther"
The process forced us to question our own motives and deconstruct our intentions to explore whether or not we had inadvertently planned an event that made fun of the mentally ill. Were we reinforcing the stigmas as they claimed or were we lampooning the institutions associated with psychiatry and mental illness? Were we heartless, unconscious twits resorting to base humor or enlightened provocateurs doing our jobs as artists or something in between?

In writing our response, we began to understand our own motivations. We were surprised to find that virtually everyone in our fold had struggled with mental illness themselves or had someone close to them who had. Serious stuff, too: depression, suicide, PTSD, the list went on...

We now felt a new degree of ownership of the theme and would not allow ourselves to be intimidated into canceling the event and disavow our first amendment rights. We felt justified in our intentions because we were not simply outsiders poking fun, but insiders actually spoofing ourselves and our own experiences. After all, the catch phrase of the event was Baby Seal Club is taking over the asylum.

We emailed our response to NAMI and posted it on our band's website.


We also emailed Rosemary Milbrath, the local NAMI Executive Director, inviting her to contact us directly. Before she was able to do so, The Press Democrat, our county's largest newspaper, got wind of the brouhaha and contacted us. A story was cooking and we felt obliged to defend our position.

Hours later, we were contacted by Ms. Milbrath. A friendly rapport was immediate and we quickly reached a mutual understanding. She even took us up on our invitation to attend the Binge and set up a table to distribute NAMI information.

All seemed resolved until the next morning -- the morning of the Binge. The Press Democrat led with a huge five-column, above the fold story entitled "Hopmonk's 'Lunatic' concert draws protests." In the space usually reserved for dead presidents and moon landings, there we were in all of our perceived infamy.


Based on her quotes in the story, it was clear the NAMI state representative had not yet spoken to Rosemary Milbrath and did not know that we had already made peace. Our phone rang off the hook. The venue was again inundated with calls and protests.

Undeterred, we began setting up for the Binge, not knowing what sort of chaos the article might ignite. Yes, NAMI was on board, but they could not be responsible for all the protesters who might arrive. And, truthfully, we didn't know if our band would be run out of town on a gurney. After all, our town of Sebastopol can be very politically correct, touchy-feely and very spiritually-minded and it is not uncommon for Baby Seal Club’s love of black humor and irreverence to be met with blank, confused stares.

Saturday night arrives.  After a mad scramble, the Binge gates open. Rosemary Milbrath and NAMI representatives are welcomed with open arms. They seem genuinely delighted by all of the lunacy and art direction. They even bring an attractive young woman who suffers from a mental illness who we invite to speak on stage between acts.

SHADY LOBES, a home for the psychotically exuberant
But outside on the street, a commotion starts to stir. Beyond our artfully constructed gothic gate, inscribed with the words SHADY LOBES, a Home for the Psychologically Exuberant, several sign-weilding protesters begin to arrive.

Our hearts grow heavy, and we feel obliged to engage. We listen to their concerns. We tell them ours and remind them that NAMI has a table set up inside. Even Rosemary pleads our case to a few and assures the protesters that we're not poking fun of the mentally ill.

Together we manage to win over a few of the protesters who agree to check themselves into our asylum with the other club goers waiting on the intake line ready to be processed by our costumed nurses. They laugh, join in the merriment and embrace their inner craziness with the rest of us.

Still holding up her sign, another unamused protester is invited inside and is treated to a Diet Coke. She lasts about half an hour before heading back outside in front of the entrance to continue her lone protest about a local knife-weilding youth who suffered from a mental illness and was shot dead by a police officer. Her indignation and pain is undeniable and it is clear nothing we could say or do could convince her otherwise.

The party ramps up and several more protesters arrive to register their complaints.  Ironically, two of our bandmate's in-laws happen to be NAMI members themselves and proceed to quell the concerns of these protesters.

Mixed in amidst the lunacy, Rosemary unveils a large, framed color portrait of a handsome young man and places it on the NAMI table. She explains with poise, acceptance and beatific equanimity that it is a photo of her late son who passed away a year ago due to his own mental illness. She says she brought his picture along because he "loved a good party."  The poignancy was almost too palpable to process as the frenzy of the party begins to take hold.

Fans rock out inside Baby Seal Club's giant padded cell
Our band goes on to play a killer set for all of our costumed friends and fans. The padded cell is on fire.  A mosh pit of orderlies and inmates even forms complete with a madman spinning around in a wheelchair. An insanely good time is had by all.

Baby Seal Club rocks the asylum
It's the next day. The Binge is over. All is well. Disaster seems to have been averted. We learn we only broke even financially, but from an artistic, promotional and consciousness-raising standpoint the event is a monster hit.

Rosemary composes an email to her NAMI community: (Baby Seal Club) and management welcomed us and we all had a wonderful evening. Their event was not exploitative, nor a mockery. Rather, it was a multi-media art event by a talented group of people who have a personal experience of the link between mental illness and creativity. There was sort of an Andy Warhol meets Burning Man feel to the evening. We all made a genuine connection and I think that they will help us in the future.

We start the new day by cleaning up the Hopmonk and then pull ourselves together for a scheduled performance that afternoon. We had been hired by the city to play a concert in the park. The attendance is very large in part because of the newspaper publicity. Many have come out curious to know who we are, perhaps to judge us for themselves. One man approaches the stage and asks if we survived the Hopmonk.  We grin and launch into our second set.

An editorial comment from Baby Seal Club...

We went into the Lunatic Binge just looking to raise CD funds with a theme that just seemed fun at the time, and the ensuing controversy made us look more closely at our intentions, wrestle with our own mental illness issues and investigate more closely what subconscious reasons may have dictated our choice and excitement of the theme.

We began by being self-referential and discovered that the theme was relevant to our community at large. Just within our own group, the controversy and ensuing damage-control opened up the conversation and the attendees and community at large began to share openly their personal experiences with mental illness.

By having permission to open-up a bit and reveal some of the cracks we usually take pains to hide, deeper bonds were forged. What started out as a potential rift not only bonded Baby Seal Club with NAMI, but also bonded the opposing viewpoints within our community. We discovered through art and play that we all have more in common than we thought and many were able to tap into and normalize the insanity that resides within us all.

More on the "Lunatic Binge"

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More on Baby Seal Club