Last week, two pro-Republican groups sought to stop the showing of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, while Arizona’s Democratic Party sued to block Ralph Nader’s name from appearing on the state’s presidential ballot. And, in West Hollywood, pickets stood in front of the Key Club to discourage a line of kids from hearing Boyd Rice and the British goth band Death in June.
I first heard of the L.A. protest the weekend before, when someone handed my wife and me an Anti-Racist Action flier outside Bar Sinister. “Take a Stand Against Fascism & Racism!” it read. “Oppose Boyd Rice and Death in June. Fascist Aesthetics and Fascist Politics Lead to Fascist Violence.” Knowing of his reputation for pranks, we thought the flier might be a publicity stunt by Rice, a Lemon Grove native and one-man noise band (Non) who lives in Denver. The spawn of Dark Shadows and Jean Cocteau, Rice has made a nearly 25-year career as an art provocateur, having learned that nothing sticks a thumb in the eye of society more than flaunting Nazi sympathies. Non Web-site photographs show Rice nattily attired in what might be called a nouveau Chetnik uniform: black leather Rommel coat, forage cap, and a cruciform medallion that looks vaguely fascistic. Then again, Rice has always appeared in a twilight area of meaning that keeps spectators guessing as to whether he is a genuine Nazi. Brown shirt and boots, trips to Mussolini’s grave, Church of Satan membership — is he or isn’t he?
The day before the show, I spoke by phone to Key Club president and co-owner Keith Pressman, who told me he’d gotten about 10 calls, mostly from “open-minded people” concerned about what they’d heard about Rice. “I explained why we don’t take this lightly,” Pressman says, “and that I did extensive research and couldn’t find anything indicating he or Death in June are racist — they just played a gig in Israel. I wouldn’t book a Nazi in my venue.”
Only a couple of people demanded the evening be canceled. “One lady said it’s disrespectful to our boys overseas,” said Gary Pressman, Keith’s brother and a promoter for the show.
To ensure no problems last Thursday, Keith Pressman hired extra security and asked the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to send some deputies. Showtime arrived on a relatively quiet Sunset Strip, deemed a good but not great night by Pressman. About 10 parking-enforcement bicycle cops clustered across the street from the Key Club, near two patrol cars. A modest line of clubbers — mostly gothy girls or guys in plain black, with one or two sporting Sam Browne belts and boots — were frisked by Pressman’s security.
Only about a half-dozen ARA protesters quietly moved about the corner of Sunset and Wetherly. “Nazi ‘Art’ Builds Nazi Action,” read one sign. Organizer Michael Novick, a middle-aged man who speaks rapidly, told me that a little while before, Rice had come out to talk to his group.
“He said he was for ‘meritocracy’ and was yapping at us to look at his Web site,” Novick said. “Said he was a critic of Judaism and kabbalah, blah blah blah.”
Linda Armstrong, a soft-spoken older lady, was not impressed by Rice’s appearance. “He didn’t seem to have any interest in a dialogue,” Armstrong said. “We asked him if he could give us a copy of his lyrics, and he said, ‘No, I don’t have to do this, if you want to know anything about me buy my CD.’ I felt some meanness there.”
Armstrong admitted that she hadn’t listened to any Rice or Death in June recordings, but felt certain that “he had a mean attitude, just like you’d imagine a Nazi or fascist to be.”
The Rice flap reminded me of the 1977-78 controversy surrounding a proposed march and rally by American Nazis through Skokie, a Chicago suburb that was not only heavily Jewish but also home to many Holocaust survivors. This was a deliberate provocation — and not an ambiguously artsy one, either. The local authorities responded by legislating the march away, only to have its decrees overturned — rightly — in court. The Nazis, whose legal cause was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union, got their permit but, when confronted by the specter of larger counterdemonstrations, moved their rally out of town.
Other cases come to mind, including the Peekskill riots of 1949, when upstate New York locals violently prevented Paul Robeson from singing in concert and, a week later, after he managed to perform, savagely attacked listeners as they left the concert.
I was unable to contact Rice about the Key Club protest, to ask whether he is or isn’t what his enemies swear he is. Some say Rice is a fascist, a wannabe or merely a joker. His name does not appear on the Web site of the Anti-Defamation League, a group that Keith Pressman had consulted, although he rates a single entry on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project Web site (formerly known as KlanWatch), under the heading “White Power Bands, Fascist Experimental.” But even if Rice is a Nazi and a racist, that shouldn’t get him banned from performing at the Key Club or anywhere else. Isn’t it our mantra that a democracy is best measured by how strongly it defends the rights of its most despised members — or is that only something we spout whenever a Mapplethorpe show gets shut down?
Republicans try to ban a movie here, Democrats move to keep a presidential candidate off the ballot there. Sometimes the quest for silence even spreads to the Sunset Strip. When I asked Michael Novick if he believed Rice had a constitutional right to perform, he replied, “No, I don’t believe in free speech for fascists.”
Moments before, though, Novick had said, “He has a right to go onstage, and we have a right to boycott him and tell others not to go in. We’re not trying to pass a law against him.”
We’re all for diversity — as long as it means everyone thinks like us.