Vermin Supreme is a meme, according to his music video for his song “I Am a Meme”, which I am watching on my office computer while talking on the phone to Vermin Supreme, who says he is in a “secure, undisclosed location.”
“Where did you get that pony?” I ask.
“That pony belongs to a friend,” Supreme replies. “He let me use it.”
“You have a friend who will lend you a pony? That is totally awesome.”
“Get that lyric?” Supreme asks, repeating it for emphasis: “I will be gone like yesterday’s trash, but here I am—in the pan I flash.” He laughs.
The Democratic candidate for president of the United States has an honest, hearty laugh. He amuses himself with his own absurdity, which is refreshing during this particular campaign season. In 2012, Republicans are seriously asking whether former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who collects $57,000 every day of the year for doing no work at all, might be too rich for the presidency. As such, they are actively contemplating electing a man so hilariously megalomaniacal and demonstrably venal that sincere attempts at parody seem merely to prefigure his actual views. Supreme has long advocated waterboarding schoolchildren as part of his platform. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, by contrast, speaking at Harvard in November, declared this nation’s child labor laws “truly stupid” and proposed that unionized school janitors be dismissed wholesale and replaced by poor children in order to instill in them a proper work ethic. He later reassured voters that he was not advocating that children work in coal mines.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Supreme continued to promise that his longtime push for mandatory tooth-brushing laws has nothing to do with “secret dental police kicking down your door at 3 a.m. to make sure you’ve brushed” and is, furthermore, absolutely “not about DNA gene splicing to create a race of winged monkeys to act as tooth fairies.”
Thing is, Supreme has been saying these things for decades. Far from a flash in the pan, he has been a fringe political mainstay since 1992, when he first hit the road campaigning to become mayor of the United States of America. His campaign paraphernalia was left over from an early run for mayor of Baltimore.
Even if you don’t remember him from his days here, you may have heard mention of Vermin Supreme around election time. He is the “friendly fascist” promising to “do something about the weather,” to harness “the awesome power of zombies” to create clean energy, and to award every American a free pony. Like you, Supreme is weary of these incompetent would-be tyrants; he commands that you upgrade to a professional before it’s too late.
He’s the guy who campaigns in the New Hampshire presidential primary every four years wearing a boot on his head. Vote for him or he will hunt you down.
In the past 25 years, Supreme’s satire has occupied the ever narrowing cultural (and physical) space between the police and the candidates. If you go to New Hampshire during election season you can see it up close: the throngs of ordinary flag-wavers on one side of a rope or barricade, the line of dark-suited, square-jawed men with earpieces, and then the Major Candidate—Bill Clinton, say, or Mitt Romney, or Rudy Giuliani, whose security goons jostled Vermin Supreme four years ago as he offered the candidate the Supreme compliment of a free clown nose. As the authorities have become less tolerant of freelance improvisational mockery, the candidates—particularly, though not exclusively, those on the Republican side—have taken positions that are ever more difficult to parody.
“I was a little bit ahead of my time,” Supreme says. “The PATRIOT Act caught up to the mandatory tooth-brushing law.”
Supreme’s breakout move this election cycle was “glitter bombing” Operation Rescue founder and fellow Democratic presidential contender Randall Terry at the “lesser-known” candidates’ debate at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College on Dec. 19, 2011. “One more thing—Jesus told me to turn Randall Terry gay,” Supreme announces in a C-SPAN video of the event that went viral. He leaves his seat and wafts handfuls of glitter on the resolutely anti-gay, anti-abortion activist, who sits dispassionately while Supreme whoops with glee and the panel’s moderators vocally disapprove.
As Supreme’s antics have gotten ever wider distribution via the internet this time around, this year marked a sort of watershed for his political profile. Supreme’s own campaign posts on YouTube (see: “I Am a Meme”) were re-edited and mashed up by the Songify people with some classic Newt Gingrichisms, resulting in “Get Money, Turn Gay”, which, as of Jan. 30, had been viewed more than 1,143,130 times.
“The whole meme thing took me by surprise,” Supreme says. “I was not able to take full advantage of it.”
Very much in on his own joke, Supreme is anything but indifferent to his public image, as well as the marketing opportunities it represents.
“They released their video three days after I released mine,” Supreme fumes. “They steamrolled me with my own fucking material. Fuckers!”
Supreme’s political roots go back to Baltimore in 1987, when he ran for mayor against a Rhodes Scholar named Kurt Schmoke. The story comes out in rapid-fire bursts.
“It was a bad time,” Supreme recalls, reciting a litany of evictions and an injury suffered on the Pride of Baltimore tall ship. “I had no income. I was living at the Hour Haus—the legendary Hour Haus [art and performance space at Howard Street and North Avenue]—for a while.
“So, one night at the Two Crazy Greeks [restaurant], which older readers will remember, I announced my intention to run as mayor of Baltimore. Mainly to give myself a project . . . something to do.”
Supreme campaigned in a welter of clashing plaids (“It was preboot,” he says. “I was a kid.”) and commandeered City Paper’s street boxes for his campaign fliers. “I got a great picture of me and Schmoke,” he says.
As history records, Schmoke won. Supreme went on to larger pursuits. But it all started—the name, the theatrics, the joyful, edged anarchism—years even before that, in the “Jockee Clubbe Mansion” at 1009 Cloverdale Road, in an apartment building overlooking Druid Hill Park, where the young artist resided with a shifting array of other artists, musicians, shit-stirrers, lawn-ornament thieves (hence the mansion’s name), and an enormous stack of old televisions.
To understand Vermin Love Supreme—which is his legal name; he asked that I not reveal his previous name in this story, and I agreed in exchange for a cabinet position in his coming regime—you need to understand something about the lore of the Jockee Clubbe. “I’d guess about 30 people lived there over three years,” Supreme says. “There was a high turnover.” Rent was about $50 per person per month, and the parties were legendary. When the landlord closed the Jockee Clubbe, and those parties inevitably migrated to other venues, Vermin Supreme—the name, the concept—was born. Supreme was booking shows in the same building that housed Baltimore’s venerable original punk club, the Marble Bar. “All club owners are vermin,” Supreme explains. “So I was Vermin Supreme with my Fabulous Galaxy Lounge.”
Said lounge was located upstairs from the Marble Bar at the old Congress Hotel on West Franklin Street, which had been a hotspot since before the days of bathtub gin (“Glory Hole,” Feature, Dec. 6, 2000) but which was, by the early ’80s, near its last gasp. Supreme’s sense of the absurd and sizable freak network meshed perfectly with the era’s shabby, low-rent DIY desperation. “We were trying to get a big door open,” Supreme says in his stream-of-consciousness recollection of how he fell into the job of running a reopened venue. “The fire marshal needed it to be open. This was for our big annual Halloween party . . . the Marble had been dark for maybe a couple months . . . I went to Bob the Chicken Hawk . . . we had too many bands, too many kegs, so Bob saw the cash kachinging in his eyes . . . he gave me a cut of the door and a cut of the bar . . . so that was very generous . . . best job I ever had.
“Every night was full. We did Grateful Dead one night, poetry the next,” Supreme recalls wistfully. “It was a beautiful thing.”
As Vermin packed the lounge for that magical summer circa 1985, not everyone dug his act. “I think it was Pam Purdy [who] wrote in City Paper that I was unoriginal and obnoxious,” Supreme says. “I stalked the office. I had a giant stick.”
Purdy died in 2007; there are, no doubt, a few people around town who remember these events differently or better. But in the main, it’s accurate enough to say that Vermin Supreme the 2012 Meme evolved from Baltimore’s anarcho-punk-hippie scene in the early 1980s. Vermin developed this one idea here. He has been running with it—and on it—ever since.
But there is more to the Vermin Supreme concept than just a wild guy in a boot hat with glitter dust. There is also the totally private guy who doesn’t want to say much about his wife (leave her name out of it, please), siblings (a brother and sister, a mechanic and a nurse, respectively), day job and income (“I’d love to answer that question, but I ain’t gonna”), or even his campaign plank urging people to “give up a kidney.”
He gave his mother one of his kidneys five years ago, he says: “Here’s the pithy quote that hasn’t been used yet: ‘I wasn’t gonna be the one who was at her funeral and saying “if only there was something we could have done.”’ There was something, so I did it.”
A conversation with Supreme crosses back and forth across the line between his public prankersterism and his personal straightforwardness.
City Paper : How does your mother feel about your political career?
Vermin Supreme: She’s down with it. She just thinks I should be making money off it.
CP : Are you prepared to join the other candidates in releasing your federal income-tax returns?
VS: Are the other candidates willing to release their dental records? Obviously, in the real world, if I ever manage to get $5,000 of campaign contributions that triggers some filing requirements with [the Federal Election Commission]. Up till now my campaigns have run very much lower. Like $1,000 for filing fee and $1,000 for campaign stuff. A little more for gas.
CP : You had some fun with an actual mandatory tooth-brushing law Massachusetts passed a few years back—explain.
VS: They did indeed. Preschoolers are mandated by law to brush their teeth after snacks. There is a parental opt-out, but I suspect that if you try to opt out they call [the Department of Social Services] immediately. All this hard lobbying for mandatory tooth brushing has paid dividends. Yes, I take credit for the law. I take credit for lots of things I haven’t done. You know the PATRIOT Act? That was actually the mandatory tooth-brushing law with the tooth-brushing stuff stripped out.
CP : Is Randall Terry actually gay now?
VS: I think so. Pretty sure. If you look at pictures. And if you read his blog. He doesn’t deny being gay. He says something to the effect that the glitter had no effect on my becoming a homosexual.
After the Galaxy Lounge breathed its last, out of money and searching for a new adventure, Supreme signed on with the Florida Pilgrimage for Peace in Space, a little-remembered coast-to-coast caravan of lefty idealists that made its way from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 1986. “They had library trucks, Port-O-Let trucks, trucks that functioned as schools,” Supreme marvels. “They were—this was 1986—they were using space, using camping, and using a long-term public existence to try to build a movement for peaceful change.
“So I saw this and went to St. Vinnies, ’cause at the time I had nothing but the clothes I was wearing. Got some clean clothes and joined it. I just started walking with it . . . gave me a real flavor of the scene. I just started meeting people on it.”
Vermin marched from Kings Bay, Ga., to Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the service of the anti-nuclear movement. He repaired to Michigan after that, and from there began attending the annual “rainbow gatherings” held by a loose-knit collective of activists in national parks. “It was a pretty critical time in my evolution,” Supreme says. He met his future wife, with whom he still lives.
Life on the road in an ’86 Toyota pickup (he has since, he says, upgraded to a 1994 model) taught Vermin the skills he needed to live on small money and a growing social network. “I started doing my entertainment, clowning, political things,” he says. “That started giving me a deep national base of recognition. People started knowing me—people would call me up and say, ‘Hey Vermin, I saw you on this.’”
The boot hat, he says, came at a rainbow gathering in Minnesota one rainy morning. “I was breaking out my galoshes, and put one on my head,” he says. “My head stayed dry but my foot got wet. People liked it. They seemed to respond to it. And it came to be my fashion statement.”
As Supreme honed his persona, he quickly found a niche for himself both inciting ridiculousness and, he says, toning down the inevitable tension that arises between hippies and cops.
“We went to the Nevada [Nuclear Test] Sites in ’88, ’90, and I started working my thing in these events,” Supreme says. “I started figuring out my role interspersing myself between aggressive police and agitated protestors. I realized I could make a difference in some very tense situations.”
Supreme became a regular presence on the protest circuit—same getup, same bullhorn—but his role there is slightly different.
“It’s a little bit about clown warfare and psy-ops,” he says. “What I have developed over the years is, let’s call it ‘gray propaganda.’ Everything I say is true, but I edit it for maximum impact. In a scholarly manner I have made it a habit to collect different crowd-control manuals, and I read them to the police sort of reminding them of basic tenants of crowd control, such as minimum use of force to effect an arrest. I tell . . . the police that they may have been put in a dangerous situation by their superiors. I try to humanize the police in the eyes of the protestors, and vice versa, so everyone recognizes everyone’s humanity.”
That a 6-foot, bearded guy with a clown nose and a Viking hat with a devil mask on the back of his head, wearing a He-Man Masters of the Universe breast plate and a giant plastic wrestler’s belt, plus a codpiece, random epaulets, and multiple neckties, reading the text of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act through a Radio Shack bullhorn could be a humanizing force may sound dubious. But Supreme is dead serious about this.
“There is this space between the line of riot police and the protestors,” he says. “I try to fill that vacuum with a very calm, professorial presence.”
Supreme says he has seldom been arrested (“And when it happens you can be damn sure it’s a false arrest!”) but he has found himself at the center of some hairy crowd/cop confrontations. There was the Rage Against the Machine concert riot at the Staples Center in L.A. during the 2000 Democratic National Convention, in which police shut down the concert (Ozomatli was on stage at the time) and herded crowds into a bottleneck with their horses in an event the American Civil Liberties Union later called “an orchestrated police riot.” Supreme was in the thick of it, with his bullhorn, telling the police to stop and look at what they were doing. “I find myself in the middle of these situations, trying to de-escalate them,” Supreme says.
“Recently at a G8 summit, I played that ‘Chicken Dance’ through my bullhorn,” he says. “[The riot cops] are coming, smacking their sticks on their shields, and they have to do that to the ‘Chicken Dance.’ I heard people, later, say they never had such a pleasurable experience getting pepper-sprayed. The cops still did their shit, riot control, but they had to do it to the fucking ‘Chicken Dance.’”
Supreme says he’s learned to predict these events by how cops and crowds come together; the pattern was laid bare in some of the recent Occupy shutdown operations: “In city after city the mayor would make an order that they have to be out by midnight or something. The news goes out—thousands of supporters come out. And then they bring in riot cops. What the fuck did they think was going to happen?
“In Boston they gave that midnight notice. Thousands of supporters came out. Boston police—wisely, in my view—let them party all night. We had a really beautiful dance party. Police made a detour around the block. They let the energy dissipate. The police came in, not that morning, but the next morning. The police at least understood the dynamic of that chain of events. This chain is foreseeable, and yet it is re-enacted time and time again.”
And, Supreme says, the re-enactment has gotten more frequent throughout his career.
“The militarization of the police is obviously not a secret,” he says. “And the militarization of the force is to circumvent Posse Comitatus. If you make the police a military force, then you don’t need the military [enforcing domestic laws] on U.S. soil”—which was, theoretically, prohibited by the Posse Comitatus Act.
“I will say that many people, their point of reference is 9/11, that’s when the clamp-downs on protest began to become de rigeur,” he continues. “But in my observation, much of the attempts to clamp down on free speech and protests seem to be a response to the [World Trade Organization] events in Seattle [in 1999]. And once you look at these riots, in almost every case it’s a police riot—instigated through aggressive police tactics.
“We operate symbolically,” Supreme says of the protesters he joins. “A lot of what we do is symbolic. They symbolize the peoples’ ability to gather. The police represent the authority of the state, the willingness of the state to use violence to assert their will. I’ll sometimes deconstruct that.
“The [presidential] campaign symbolizes my desire to bring it up to another level of absurdity. My constituents expect nothing less of me—833 people in New Hampshire voted for me.”
By official count, Vermin Supreme got nearly double the votes Randall Terry received in the January Democratic primary. “I crushed him! I fucking crushed him,” Supreme says. “But he won. He still gets to run his ad during the Superbowl.” (By running for president, Terry can take advantage of a Federal Communications Commission rule that will allow him to run, uncensored, his full-frontal-fetus anti-abortion advertisements during the Super Bowl—provided, of course, that he can raise the money to pay for the ads.)
Supreme thinks it would be just if some of the folks using his name, image, and words would share a bit of their boodle. There is even a Vermin Supreme iPhone app—that he had nothing to do with—designed to blurt out VS catch phrases. In this, Supreme is not so different from most of the other hustlers working the presidential angle these days. Gingrich himself consulted for mortgage giant Freddie Mac as a “historian” (not a lobbyist), and has fortunately befriended people with sufficient means to keep his candidacy (or its unrelated SuperPAC, at least) suitably prosperous.
During a South Carolina primary debate on Jan. 16, Gingrich fleshed out additional details of his poor-kids-as-janitors plan, telling astonished moderator Juan Williams that, because of the “absurd” wages the unionized New York City school janitors earn, “You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out.”
The crowd roared its approval, perhaps understanding better even than Gingrich the implications of child janitors earning one-thirtieth of the $15.77-per-hour starting New York school janitor’s wage.
Supreme watched from his Rockport, Mass., home (or, perhaps, an undisclosed, fortified underground “Vermin Cave,” whatever), sorry that his short campaign had already ground to its inevitable close—and that he ran as a Democrat this time instead of Republican.
“I think if I ran as a Republican, I would have had my turn as a front-runner,” Supreme muses. “I am looking toward a third-party run. As a result of this, I’ve had some different conversations with different people. There seems to be an emerging consensus that I could be a viable . . . maybe a viable spoiler candidate: I could poll just enough to assure a Gingrich victory against Obama.” ?