Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Shopocalypse Now: Rise of an anti-retail campaigner

He's stormed everywhere from Starbucks to the Capitol preaching his gospel of Stop Shopping. As Morgan Spurlock brings the unorthodox anti-capitalist's message to the world, David Usborne is granted an audience with the Reverend Billy

by David Usborne

The Independent & The Independent on Sunday (April 07 2007)

The escapades of Bill Talen, aka the Reverend Billy, are recalled in a scrap of paper pinned above the cooker in his modest Brooklyn apartment, next to a smudgy picture of the late Lenny Bruce. It is a note to his wife, Savitri D, for delivery by a friend: "Bill says to say, 'I am not in jail and I am coming home' ".

Not that Savitri would have been any more worried that night than on any of the others when her husband has been bundled into a police cruiser and taken to the nearest precinct. It happens all the time, and they rarely keep him long. It's tricky, putting a holy man in the holding tank, in pressed white suit and dog collar - even if he is not a real reverend at all. He might start giving confession to the pimps and prostitutes, after all.

If you have ever seen the Rev, it is unlikely you will have forgotten him. Perhaps it was in one of the two Starbucks branches one block from one another in the St Mark's neighbourhood of the East Village, or any Victoria's Secret franchise or Disney Store in New York. They are all favourite targets.

He will have made his way to the cashier's desk and begun one of his favourite "actions" - a laying of hands on the till followed by an exorcism. Or, if it was Starbucks, he and members of his choir - he has one, and they can raise the roof - perhaps began chanting the chain's name. Something even as simple as that always works a treat, sending the manager into a tizzy and the punters out the door.

If you were lucky, the Rev and his songsters will have launched into one of their Starbucks hymns about the chain's alleged exploitation of Ethiopian coffee farmers and its failure to serve Fair Trade coffee. One is called "Sidamo", the name of a premium Ethiopian bean they sell for $26 (GBP 13) a bag. (The farmers see about 80 cents of it.) "You stole my Sidamo/ Sidamo, Sidamo, Please come Back to Me!"

For a man who began his performing career in Los Angeles thirty years ago as a street poet, Talen has in recent years turned himself into a pulpit-thumping, police-defying, hallelujah-baying phenomenon. He looks like an Elvis impersonator with blond hair, brandishing a Bible instead of a guitar.

With perfectly manic pitch, he mimics that special kind of pious American: the television evangelist. Most importantly, he has learned to channel this talent into delivering a sociopolitical message that he and Savitri, 35, passionately believe. The Reverend Billy is the founder and head of the Church of Stop Shopping. His singers - thirty sopranos, altos, tenors and basses - are all members of the Choir of the Church of Stop Shopping.

He has a band too. It's all a performance, of course, joyous and very funny. But the gospel being preached here is serious too, which is why he is prepared to get arrested for it. (And why he will shortly be in court on charges of trespassing in Starbucks.)

He means to save us from what he calls the impending Shopocalypse, a time in America, and maybe it is upon us in Britain too, when community is supplanted by shopping malls, where real spirituality is replaced by the worship of the credit card and where freedom - that thing that George Bush boasts about - is perverted by our enslavement to the addiction of buying.

Word about Talen's crusade has been spreading. His actions - and especially the times he has been dragged away by the cops - have become popular postings on YouTube, the video-clip web site. Everyone in the US Congress is aware of him too, because he was there just last week, gleefully taking the name of the Lord in vain in the great rotunda with his choir, where they performed their First Amendment hymn. This hymn was also sung in the congressional cafeteria and even inside the offices of senators such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

"Change!" he bellowed at each stop, adopting the exaggerated cadences of a crazed preacher. "We have to change now! CHANGE-A-LUJAH! It may very embarrassing to give peace a chance. Might really feel foolish! You might have to stand up and dance today! Make peace in Congress today. Might have to jump and dance!" No one did dance, of course. Mostly they just looked a little stunned.

His fame, however, is about to take off thanks to Morgan Spurlock, the man who chose to eat only McDonald's food for a month and captured his ensuing gastro-intestinal misery in the film that became the surprise international hit, Super Size Me.

Spurlock, who lives near Talen in Brooklyn, has recently finished editing a new film, What Would Jesus Buy? It was premiered at the recent South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, and will appear at festivals - including in Edinburgh in August, which will probably prompt a visit to the UK by the Reverend Billy - before making general release late this autumn.

This time it is not Spurlock who is the main character, but the Reverend Billy. The film traces the progress of the Reverend and his choir as they journey across America by dilapidated bus - actually two buses, since the first one was turned to scrap after being sideswiped on day two, while Talen was preaching the creed of consumer abstinence. He advises that consumers "back away from the product".

They storm malls, chain stores and even spread the word in churches brave enough to invite him in. The trip spans four weeks, beginning in Times Square on so-called Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the start of the retail sprint to Christmas, and ending on 24 December at Disneyland in California.

Just as Super Size Me dwelled partly on the impact of fast-food on children, so this time Spurlock examines the hold that advertisers and toy makers have on young Americans. The film claims, for example, that the average American child is exposed to 3,000 commercials every day. Adults are victims too, of course, with personal saving rates plunging in the US and more and more people willing to get into credit card debt. Americans on average spend one hour a week in some kind of spiritual activity, such as attending church, and five hours shopping.

The film is an ode to Talen, who has written a companion book of the same name to be published in April. As well as offering a diary of the bus trip in the form of email exchanges with supporters, the book is a how-to guide on staging your own stop-shopping interventions.

One chapter is entitled "Direct Action Workbook - Thirteen Retail Interventions for Your Action Pleasure". Look for "What's That Voice in the Mickey T-Shirts". This involves several of you invading a Disney Store with cheap tape recorders which you conceal in piles of their T-shirts. Press play and leave quietly. On the tapes you have described the conditions in sweat shops where the clothes are manufactured. From afar watch the confusion as security guards scramble to find out where the subversion is coming from.

Talen's own journey as the Reverend Billy began when a mentor, Sydney Lanier, saw a play he was in and talked to him about creating a persona that he called a "new kind of preacher". Lanier had been a friend of Lenny Bruce, who over the years had adopted a series of Christian characters for his gigs.

Bruce was even known to sell bibles on the street for profit. "Lanier explained how this wasn't just about Christianity", says Talen, who grew up in a conservative Calvinist family in Michigan and is himself determinedly lapsed. "He said that priests can shake things up and turn things upside down".

Talen began taking on the preacher role in "fits and starts" on stage through the Nineties. He has never been ordained.

By 1999, he was living in Times Square and was becoming enraged with the campaign by the then mayor Rudolph Giuliani to transform it into what it has become today: a crossroads not of the world but of the world's consumer corporations. Talen calls it a "Logo Stonehenge".

"Giuliani was arresting everyone who was powerless basically, people of colour, people who did not have money or a job. If you didn't have a reason for walking in a particular direction, you would be stopped. They were consciously turning Times Square into a mall and that's when I turned to the terrifying prospect of becoming a sidewalk preacher", Talen says.

The film begins with video of the Reverend Billy's first outing, lugging a white pulpit across Times Square to deliver his first stop-shopping sermon. There was no blonde hair in those days.

Over time, the challenge of marching into private property - be it Disney, Starbucks or Victoria's Secret - and proceeding to upset everyone with his faux biblical fulminations has become less daunting. "We have a tremendous lack of embarrassment", he jokes, sitting in his kitchen, Savitri by his side. The two married in 2002.

"Breaking the consumer hypnosis field is extremely exciting. Go into the Disney Store and it's the high church of retail land. The air is thick and just saying anything wrong at a certain volume has an impact. The consumers inside the Disney store actually whisper, as if they were being pressed down into some consumer trance."

The reactions of shoppers vary. "Some people stop and just stare, some laugh, some people begin to shout at us - 'What's going on?' - and some people just leave".

The important thing is to alert them to the "institutionalised hypnosis that's going on, because it's not appreciated otherwise". Talen gets into his stride: "It's called freedom of choice - having all these products to buy is freedom. When Bin Laden attacked us they said it was because he was jealous of our way of life. And so directly after 9/11, you know what they told us? Go shop! That was Bush said and Cheney and Giuliani. 'Go shop, keep the economy going'."

Talen was in Washington last week to join a wider group of activists lobbying for a withdrawal from Iraq. He believes that the invasion of Iraq was a product Americans bought along with their iPods and lawn chairs. "We consider this a consumer war. It is the biggest product we've bought and it was sold to us through false advertising. It was sold like a video game basically and sentimental patriotism is a consumer item as well."

He has high hopes for the film, partly because of a political shift he sees in America which may allow it wider resonance. "Things are breaking up right now", he says, pointing to the November vote that ended the Republican majorities in Congress. He also attributes the changed mood to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the fractures in government it exposed. That might also mean that it does not just "preach to the choir", but that others will tune in to what it's saying.

"A lot of conservatives may have some different opinions than us along the way, but consuming less, not letting our children become hypnotised, not giving 25 cents on every dollar we spend to the credit card companies, they might get that".

The exuberance of Talen is shared not just by Savitri but by all the members of the choir. These days they are artists-in-residence at St Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, where they regularly perform, often visiting one of the nearby Starbucks for a brief latte disturbance.

The group meets Sunday evening for four hours in a performance studio in Chelsea to rehearse their routines.

"When I joined I never imagined it would become as big as this", says Lizzie Steelheart, 27, a soprano soloist. "But I really think that this is something that people are beginning to talk about. And I think that momentum is building behind it.

"People are worrying about so many issues, like the environment, that are connecting with each other creating a growing sense of crisis. They see we are filling some of these voids with products."

As they practise their anthems, the group shows itself to be more than just committed but extremely talented - and loud.

I tease Bill that they should audition for a Disney musical on Broadway. (In his line of work, a sense of humour is required.) Midway through rehearsals, the group takes a break and eats chocolates and popcorn sent by one of their number who couldn't make it. When I hear why, I begin to wonder if Someone upstairs isn't exactly pleased with the Church of Stop Shopping. The absent singer's boyfriend had been walking by Macy's a few days earlier and a slab of ice had fallen from the roof and caught him on the neck, fracturing three vertebrae. But superstition is not about to stop them.

In recent weeks, the Church has counted two significant successes. The harassment of Starbucks may have been a factor, at least, in a decision at corporate headquarters in Seattle to reverse policy on refusing to grant Ethiopia the right to trademark its most valuable coffee crops, notably the Sidama beans.

And late last year, Victoria's Secret, another frequent victim of Talen's actions, bowed to pressure to begin using recycled paper in at least a portion of the no fewer than one million catalogues the lingerie company prints every day.

If the film does well, Talen knows it will mean more exposure for him, which should translate into more resources. That might allow him to buy a bus for the choir and to rely less on the charity of others - mattresses on floors - when they are traveling. "We will be in a better position to do our work".

But fame brings its own hazards. It could turn Reverend Billy into a star, nay, a veritable media commodity. A product!

Talen smiles for a second but vows not to let it affect him or what he believes. "We have to keep our feet on the ground and our hand on the cash register". To exorcise it, of course.

(c) 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

Bill Totten


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