|18 Happenings in 6 Rats: a memoir
Author: marginaliana PM
An interview with Rizzo the Rat, from The New Criterion, volume 30, number 5, January 2012 – special issue dedicated to the 50th anniversary of The Great Gonzo's 18 Happenings in 6 Rats, pp. 55-60Rated: Fiction K - English - Humor - Words: 2,942 - Published: 01-01-12 - Status: Complete - id: 7699246
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Editor's note: The following document was dictated by Rizzo the rat to Jacob Harris, Professor of Art History at the University of Liverpool, and is reproduced to the best of Prof. Harris' ability. Rizzo requested to dictate this essay rather than submit a manuscript because, in his words, 'Rats and typewriters don't get on too well.'
I'm a rat, there's no denying it.
If that made you squeal and jump up on a chair, you might as well quit reading now, 'cause rats are gonna figure pretty largely in this story. As largely as a rat can do anything, anyway.
Heh. That's a joke, by the way, in case you hadn't noticed. Nevermind. Forget it.
So, like I said, I'm a rat. Lots of places I've lived, that meant gutters, meant being kicked around and stomped on, meant being treated like we were lower than low. When you're a rat, you learn pretty quick how to scavenge, how to stay out of the way of everyone who's bigger – which is everyone. How to stick together. How to survive. And then I met Gonzo, and things changed, you know?
It's different from being a rat. Rats, yeah, we share stuff, we're a family and all that, but it's not personal. It's just 'cause you're a rat. Whereas Gonzo is... he's a friend. That's all. Maybe you can't understand why that's important. It's probably good if you can't understand it, 'cause it means you've never had to do without it.
Everyone told me Gonzo was crazy. Well, come on, of course he is! Absolutely nutso. That's why I love the guy. You think I wanted to stay in New York eating pizza out of garbage bins when I could come to Hollywood with a guy who was gonna be a star someday? The only thing New York's got going for it is that pizza. And I knew he'd be somebody, he'd take the world by storm, whether they liked it or not.
You can't hide genius. Especially not with a schnoz like that.
So now I live in Hollywood, land of dreams. Providing you dream about working for nothing and sleeping in a dressing room with chickens, that is. But chickens are warm, and they make a heck of a lot less noise than the pigs do.
Anyway, I suppose you don't care about all of that. But you gotta have the background, you gotta know how we got to, well, where we are now. You can't understand how the Great Gonzo came to be a recognized figure of the 'art world,' a guy who's got stuff named after him, without knowing that, for a long time, he was just some weirdo. He did a lot of different acts – he was into the daredevil thing, you know, shooting himself out of a cannon, eating a tire, defusing a bomb while reciting poetry, and all that. I didn't understand any of it, really, but I'd help him out because, you know, it's not like any of the other acts from that crew were any better. Have you heard Wayne and Wanda?
But one day he came to find me back in the prop room and he was all excited, waving his arms back and forth the way he does, you know, and his eyes all wide, and he said, "Rizzo, Rizzo, Rizzo, Rizzo—" like that for a while, until I managed to get him calmed down enough to actually tell me what the deal was. And then he just read me a line out of this book he was carrying, I don't even remember now what it was. Some academic thing, one of those ones with big words that don't make no sense even when you know what they're s'posed to mean. The line was something like, lemme see. I think it was, "Theater happens everywhere, and art is just the thing that makes you realize it's happening."
Editor's note: Most likely: "Theater takes place all the time, wherever one is, and art simply facilitates persuading one that this is the case." —John Cage
So then he told me that he'd been reading about all these other artists – he said it like 'artiste,' because that's how you know they've been to college or something – and that he had a new act that he wanted to do, a 'happening.' And he needed my help. Of course I said yes. What else was I gonna do?
Then he started telling me about the act. I didn't understand a word, so we went back in the dressing room and he drew some diagrams and got chalk all over his face, which was pretty funny, but I still didn't understand what the heck it all meant. After the fifth diagram I pretty much said that I got it because I was getting hungry by then, and really, it didn't matter if it made sense to me, right? That was part of what he kept saying, that this happening thing was sort of about what the audience brought to it, that it didn't have to make 'literal sense' or something like that. Yeah, I still don't understand it. I guess that means it worked, hey?
But even if I didn't understand it, at least how it was actually supposed to go was clear enough. That's how me and Gonzo work, you see. I always help him with his acts – he tells me what it needs to look like, and I make it happen. And it ain't easy. You ever tried to buy a working canon? They don't exactly stock those at the corner shop.
Anyway, the first thing I knew we had to do was get the frog on board. Gonzo got me a sandwich and then after I ate it, I left him finishing his script so I could corner Kermit in his office.
I remember I didn't get very far in explaining what Gonzo actually wanted. I started talking about having the audience come up on the stage, which was the big thing, and before I could even say the rest of it, Kermit started ranting and raving about how he just wanted to put on a show, and why couldn't we make it easy on him, yadda yadda yadda. Which is when I decided I better interrupt, you know, head him off. Once the frog gets going, he can go for hours.
So I said, "Let me tell you something you probably don't know about rats, hey Kermit?" I said, "We got a union."
His mouth started to hang open. That was pretty satisfying.
"Nobody looks out for a rat," I said. "So we look out for ourselves. And maybe you don't realize just how much you need us to keep this place running." I didn't like threatening the frog – he's been a good boss. He's fair; he doesn't treat us rats different from the pigs or the kittens. But for Gonzo? Yeah, I was gonna do whatever I had to do. "Who keeps the wires for the lights working? Who cleans all the popcorn from under the seats when the audience has gone? Rats, that's who."
I let him think about that for a moment. He wasn't stupid, and I knew he wouldn't need it spelled out.
"If I let Gonzo do this act, it'll make the rats happy?" he asked finally.
"Yeah," I said.
"Why?" His eyes were all bugged out, even more than normal.
I shrugged and said, "Rats like art." Which was sorta true. The crew in that theater did, anyway, because they were from Hollywood. When you live here, you either want to be famous, or you want to make art, or both.
Anyway, after that Kermit gave in, and said we could do have the audience on stage but he wasn't going to make them get up there. And that was fine, 'cause I figured we could do it, easy. We'd just have to bully them a little.
The next thing I had to do was get the cast on board. The chickens were easy – they'll do anything for Gonzo, same as me, and you can pay 'em chicken feed... That's another joke, by the way. No offense, Prof., but I hope most academics got more of a sense of humor than you do.
Like I said, the chickens were easy, especially 'cause I spoke a little bit of chicken by that point. I'm almost fluent, now. Bawk bwaawk b'gwak and all that. I also got some of the rat crew to say they'd help out: Chester and Templeton, Fast Eddie, Troy, and Stuart Big – all the guys who were good on stage, reliable, you know.
The other big problem I had to solve was Sweetums. Not that he didn't want to help or anything. I mean, you can tell him you need him to take out the garbage as part of an act and he'll do it. We even used to do that on trash night. But the thing with him is that you can't get too complicated. 'Go over there and bring me that car,' sure. 'Count to twenty and then move those boxes,' no way. By the time he's got to eight he's forgotten what he's supposed to do next, and he's just as likely to open the boxes to see what's inside.
I suppose we could've used someone else, but Gonzo really wanted someone big, you know, in contrast to the rats. And in the script there was all this stuff that had to get moved around, and Sweetums is great for that. So what we ended up doing, which a lot of people don't know, was that we had two rats sitting on his shoulders and telling him what to do each step of the way. We used Stan and Louie for that 'cause they were a good team, and with two of them they could also make sure Sweetums didn't trample anybody. Which was partly for the benefit of us rats, and partly to make the frog happy.
By the time I had all that worked out Gonzo was done with his script, or at least as done as he was ever gonna get, so we started rehearsing, and... lemme put it this way. Imagine three ballets happening all at once in the same space, and only half the dancers know what they're supposed to be doing. That's pretty much what it was like. In the first rehearsal Sweetums broke the desk in Gonzo's dressing room, and one of the chickens laid an egg on top of the radiator. It wasn't pretty. In the second one, Kermit came in right when Stuart Big was reading this sort of lecture about Godel's incompleteness theorem, and Chester was reading this other lecture about, um, Magritte, I think it was, and the way it worked was that one of them would stop partway through a sentence and the other one would start with a different part of a sentence that wasn't supposed to be related, but kinda was anyway. And Kermit just got this look on his face and turned around and walked out again without saying a word. It was pretty amazing.
But you know, he never said a word to Gonzo to discourage him, I gotta say that. Not about the happenings, and not about any of Gonzo's acts. He might, you know, have concerns about how we were gonna make it work, how we were gonna afford the props, but he never said any of it wasn't worth doing. He never said it wasn't art.
And by the tenth rehearsal, everything kinda started to fall into place. Yeah, it was still a hundred things all happening at the same time, but we got it to where there was kind of a rhythm to it, like bing over here, bang over there, boom in the middle. Maybe that don't make too much sense but if you've seen it, then you know what I mean. It was a lot of fun, actually. I didn't really think it would be – it was just an act – but once we got into it, it was... I dunno. Weird, but good. It made you think.
My favorite part was always the bit where all the rats kind of disappeared, right, and then Sweetums came out with this weird robot thing made out of junk, and people came up all curious to look at it, and then just when they got up close the robot's stomach opened up and all us rats came rushing out and did a quick little song. When we did that on the night of the show there was this woman who squealed so loud it drowned out our first chord. I was kinda ticked off. But Gonzo said that was good, that it showed that the audience was truly experiencing the happening and not just observing it.
I've watched the video of it a couple of times since then, and it's not the same, no way. Even practically a lifetime later, I can still remember what it was like, and you can't get that from film. I think Gonzo would say that, too. You can't get what it was like just from watching. I mean, you sorta can, because we shot it from a couple of different angles, but it's not like being there. The thing that made it what it was, you had to be there for. Ah, I'm not explaining it very well. You're better off asking the weirdo.
So what happened after? That's the part that got even crazier. I thought, you know, we'd set it up, do the act, take our applause or rotten tomatoes or whatever – hey, I like a good tomato, and a few moldy spots don't make no difference to a rat – and then move on to the next one. But apparently there was this legit art critic in the audience that night, some guy that Statler and Waldorf dragged in, and he wrote an article about the act, and he must'a been somebody, because people actually read it. Gonzo started getting requests for interviews. We did some more happenings, some in the theater and some just out on the street with whoever was passing by. We went to a lot of parties that year, met a lot of 'artistes.' Gonzo did some work with this guy George who was making art films.
Editor's note: George Landow, also known as Owen Land, an experimental filmmaker probably best known for Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc.
And the next thing I knew, people started turning up at the theater just to see Gonzo. Can you imagine it? Coming to see some 'capital A' Art and first you gotta sit through half an hour of a pig doing the cancan, with penguins playing trumpets? Or twenty minutes of Lubbock Lou and his Jughuggers singing about a horse named Bill? It was brilliant! Of course, it all made the frog a bit mental, and anyway eventually Gonzo decided that he didn't want his happenings recorded, 'cause it was cheating or something like that to let people observe without being part of it.
Not too long after that he started teaching at UCLA, doing performances there, and that's what he's been doing ever since. I help out with those, too – I do a guest lecture on set-building every term, make stuff for the students when they don't know anything about electrical wiring or how to use a hammer. I enjoy it. These little punk kids, you know, when you start off, they look at you and they see what everyone else sees – nothing but a rat. But by the end of the term they know better. They respect you. It's a good feeling. Plus there's always free food on campus. I eat like a king now.
Gonzo's pretty well known now, I guess, but he hasn't changed, not really. Yesterday he came into his office – I was playing poker with Stuart Big, but I was losing 'cause the chickens kept distracting me – and he was all hyped up about this new thing he wants to do with computer-generated voices reading out song lyrics. He still gets excited about art, you know, and when he's excited he wants to share that with everybody. It's pretty great. He's a good friend, always has been.
Eh, so, anyway, Prof., I hope that's kinda what you were looking for. I gotta run now – Gonzo's meeting with Gaga about her next tour, and I'm consulting on the costumes. I know this great little rat sewing company she can use, and if we can get the order in tonight...
Editor's note: Rizzo left the room mid-sentence. Interested readers may wish to read Professor Harris' conversation with Gonzo, pp. 61-86, and his, er, interview with Sweetums the Ogre, p 87.