It is no exaggeration to say that the Coen Brothers’ film “The Big Lebowski” has become well-loved enough to have seeped into the popular culture. It also seems nearly certain that Lebowski Fest — the fan-launched convention celebrating the film — is rapidly soaking through the otherwise moribund summer entertainment scene.
After starting modestly in Louisville some five years ago, the event has spread to Vegas, L.A. and New York City, its quirky charms winning over fans of the film as well as newcomers.
This year’s gathering — the Louisville one — begins Friday and boasts a musical performance by Jon Spencer (actually, his new band Heavy Trash) as well as all of the madness the weekend has come to represent. For those unfamiliar with this oddity, a brief description is perhaps in order.
So, first imagine several hundred adult men and women dressed as Vikings and hippies and paraplegics … all … bowling. Yes, bowling, and with all their hearts. As a Lebowski Fest veteran, I am permitted to speak of these foolish rituals without fear of reprisal. Married couples and One Night Standers from all over America and the world become tipsy on white Russians and compete against each other for the 20 or 30 lanes for rent. It’s not the drunken bacchanal described by Hunter S. Thompson in his classic piece about the Kentucky Derby, but it’s not too far off.
The film runs for days on a big-screen TV in an endless loop whilst the faithful parrot the dialogue, shouting at and mimicking the actors. Lebowski Fest is a perfect hybrid of redneck sporting event and hipster rock gig. It’s NASCAR wedded to a participatory “Rocky Horror” viewing.
In its midst, I, the evening’s musical entertainment, sat with one of my stooges waiting for the closing ceremonies to commence. I’d talked my way onto the program for the (second annual) Lebowski Fest by (once again) reminding co-organizer Will Russell of my past friendship with Townes Van Zandt. Townes had contributed a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” for the film’s closing scene. Voila! I was hired for a fee of zero. I toted a mandolin player with me to the bowling alley, setting up minimal equipment and staying strictly inside the alley’s bar. No way did we want to have to interact with these bowlers and freaks and psychopaths and … bowlers. Drunks, we can handle, but some of these others … We greased our throats all night with milk and Kahlua, waiting until well after midnight for the chance to play our one song. We made a pretty good mess of it. The saving moment came when a similarly disheveled, seemingly disinterested, slovenly slacker emerged from the lanes demanding to be heard.
Perhaps it is unfair to call Jeff Dowd a slacker. It is certainly so to call him a singer. Nevertheless, he has run a gauntlet of jobs (professions?) since arriving in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He has been a stunt man, maitre’d, security guard, driver, actor and “consultant.”
How Dowd initially hooked up with the Coens is a matter of much conjecture — indeed, much mythology. How Dowd hooked up with me was much easier to nail; he simply stormed the stage.
How else would the Dude have done it? Jeff’s singing voice was bad and his breath was worse, but he brought to a lackluster performance a certain raw edge, a je ne c’est quoi that was otherwise (it must be said) lacking. If we’d not had to share a single microphone, my take might be lighter. But, there it is. He was awful and so were we. The crowd loved it and insisted we keep trotting out warhorse rock standards — Creedence and so forth. Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, stuff from the movie. The next year we did it all again, but with a full band. Will Russell dumped us the following year for My Morning Jacket.
This year there is to be a panel discussion featuring various serious academics discussing the sociological import of the oddball characters in the film. Sample topic: “Images of Masculinity in ‘The Big Lebowski.’” The Dude has yet to announce his intentions as to attending. For music, as mentioned, it’s Jon Spencer’s band. I don’t hold it against Will. His only response when I asked was, “Take ’er easy.”
At that last performance (“Lebowski III”), I was greeted with a $40 parking ticket upon completing the show. The parking lot attendant was a young man of Asian-American descent. I tried to argue with him as he threatened to call a local towing company. I was clearly out of my element.
As Walter would have said, “The Chinaman is not the issue.”
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