It’s a perfectly ordinary day in a Liverpool city centre branch of Tesco. Customers clutching lunchtime snacks queue patiently in silence. Bored-looking cashiers scan sandwiches and salads on autopilot, daydreaming of clocking off and enjoying the sunshine outside.
Suddenly, the store fills up with men and women wearing long green robes, making low humming noises as they weave in and out of the aisles. The humming grows louder, and the expressionless troupe begin to clap- softly at first, before raising the volume and tempo. One woman starts to sing in a beautiful and sorrowful voice: ‘Shopping in Tesco- it hurts the people, hurts the ’hood.’
Her associates join in the chorus and approach the tills, where the queue has become significantly shorter as customers abandon their baskets and edge towards the exit. Two young cashiers exchange bemused glances and giggle nervously while their manager frantically calls security.
In bursts a Kurt Russell lookalike wearing a beige polyester suit and dog collar. His blonde hair is swept back into an enormous quiff and he’s carrying a megaphone. At first glance, he looks like any other Evangelical man of the cloth. But this is Reverend Billy, head of the Church of Life After Shopping, and he’s a man on a very different mission.
‘This new Tescos is like a spiritual slamming of the door!’ declares the Rev, his Southern drawl mirroring the style of the archetypal preacher. ‘We see the devil, expanding like a cancer, and as the economy collapses it takes advantage!’
Reverend Billy shimmies under the barrier and stands with his back to the tills, legs straddled wide and arms outstretched touching the cash registers. The employees back up against the cigarette display with increasingly fearful expressions as a whispering crowd gathers to watch the spectacle unfold.
‘Change-a-lujah people!’ the Rev cries, his pitch rising. ‘How do we defend ourselves against the demon monoculture? Rise up! Resist the corrupt men in suits sitting on fat clouds thinking about profits!’
Then, writhing around with shaking legs and rolling eyes, he ‘exorcises’ the cash registers (or, in Reverend Billy speak, ‘the genitals of the giant’). Once he has dispelled the evil from the tills, the Rev’s twitching body falls into the arms of his green-robed disciples who begin clapping and singing wildly, and we file out of the store as though nothing outlandish has taken place.
Reverend Billy is the alter ego of Bill Talen, a 59 year-old playwright, community leader, comic actor, poet, activist, author and performance artist.
Born in Michigan in 1950, Talen’s parents were strict Dutch Calvinists who threatened him with terrifying images of hell, to the point where Bill ‘was afraid to look down in case his pants caught on fire’. As a teen, Talen ran away from home regularly and spent his early adulthood hitch-hiking across America.
On his travels he became politicized, getting involved in the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam war, inspired by counter-culture figures such as Kurt Vonnegut, Spalding Gray and Lenny Bruce. He arrived in New York in 1994 to make it as an actor on Broadway.
‘But I was crushed to discover that theatre no longer exists there,’ he says. ‘I put my last 70 dollars down on a great seat at a Broadway opening night. The curtain rises and there, centre stage, in hat and tails, tonight’s celebrity host: Mickey Fucking Mouse.’
Sidney Lanier, cousin of Tennessee Williams, became Talen’s close friend and mentor during this time. He persuaded Bill to put his acting skills, religious upbringing and anger at what he calls ‘The Disneyfication of Times Square’ to good use.
‘Sidney thought I should cast myself as a preacher who begins comically then gets serious,’ Bill says. ‘I retorted that, as a recovering Dutch Calvinist, I didn’t even want to spoof a Christian. I treasured my trauma and would take it jealously into middle age. Sidney reminded me that Jesus wasn’t a Christian, he was a prophetic social commentator. Jesus had never preached in a church or synagogue either; it was hillsides, living rooms, bars, and the street.’
So taking Sidney’s advice, Bill reinvented himself as a ‘pastor for the post-religious’. He dyed his hair, bought a pulpit and began shouting through a cardboard megaphone, eventually leaving the sidewalk behind in favour of retail interventions in Starbucks, Gap and the Disney store.
‘I became more and more focused through time on resisting consumerism,’ Talen explains. ‘The only sin is consumption.’
In 2000, Bill met his wife, Savitri Durkee, in a theatre lift. Together they built the Church of Stop Shopping, taking on actors, activists, ‘preacher’s kids, recovering executives and Wall Street addicts’ as choir members or musicians for the ‘Buy Nothing Band’.
The church grew steadily under Savitri’s theatrical direction, with regular services blending gospel singing, performance art and religion into a melting pot of wacky sermons and inspirational activism.
A decade on, Reverend Billy’s movement has captured the zeitgeist. Regular US tours were followed by European shows, the release of CDs, and his first book, What should I do if Reverend Billy is in my store? the title of which is taken from a Starbucks HQ memo issued to all stores across America in the wake of Talen’s numerous ‘retail interventions’ against the corporate coffee giant. Reverend Billy is now banned from going within 250 yards of any Starbucks on the planet, although this hasn’t deterred him.
In 2007, Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me fame produced Talen’s first feature-length movie, What would Jesus Buy? Released at Christmas, it appealed to consumers to stop shopping and consider the impact of their purchases on the children working in sweatshops, the environmental devastation caused by shipping and packaging, and the advertising industry that supports rampant consumerism.
‘There’s only one authentic preacher now,’ Bill drawls. ‘And that preacher is talking to us. It’s coming in the form of tornadoes and fire and tsunamis. The Earth says, pay attention to this. And we don’t know how to: that would demand radical change.’
Far from being accused of blasphemy, Christianity Today called Talen’s message ‘contagious and admirable.’ Did this reaction come as a shock?
‘Yes, we were very surprised,’ Bill says. ‘We have every gender and sexuality in our choir, and we live our lives in ways they would not. But even evangelicals can be radical enviromentalists, and resisting consumerism is like Jesus driving the moneychangers from the temple.’
I met Bill on the Liverpool leg of his 11-day UK ‘Shopocalypse’ Tour. Elusive, mysterious and impossible to pin down, Talen speaks very slowly, pausing often and searching for the right words. He has a habit of trailing off halfway through a point, flitting from one topic to another, and refusing to play ball with any information-gathering techniques I attempt to employ.
‘The first step in resisting consumerism is to elude the easy labeling of a Tesco shelf,’ Bill tells me softly when I ask why his church recently changed its name. ‘Artistic discretion is something not coded.’
Talen, or Reverend Billy (he struggles to decipher the distinction himself, saying ‘the lines are blurred, it’s beyond confusing’) is in the UK to support local traders, challenge Tesco, and forge links with grassroots activist groups. In the aftermath of the G20 summit and the expenses scandal, he has plenty to work with.
‘Those at the top, with their solid gold shower curtains, are addicted to shopping in exactly the same way as us at the bottom,’ Bill points out. ‘Politicians are being caught naked, like in the Emperor’s new clothes. Consumerism wages war and hypnotises us, like all fundamentalist religions.’
‘The stories and the narrative are so similar in every place,’ Talen says of the UK tour. ‘The Tesco’s and the Primark’s great monster shadows are over every town.’
In Bristol, a ‘retail intervention’ in Primark caused the Rev and his choir to be chased out of a shopping mall ‘by police officers who looked quite comic; had a bit of Charlie Chaplin about them’. In Grantham, he ‘exorcised Maggie Thatcher’s birthplace to rid it of any remaining demons.’
Reverend Billy begins his day in Liverpool drinking coffee and chatting to strangers in the lobby of the Bluecoat theatre, where anyone and everyone is welcome to join him for the day. After sitting in a circle and introducing ourselves, we are invited to
follow the troupe as the Rev heads out of the theatre lobby to ‘bless’ some local shops.
First we go to an independent shop selling glassware, gifts, jewellery and ornaments. As the green-robed choir sing about the wonder of the non-chain store, Reverend Billy asks the bemused trader, ‘sister Maureen’, to stand with him, while two middle aged ladies, smartly dressed and browsing the display cabinets, stop talking and bow their heads as if they really are in church, before scuttling out when nobody is looking.
Next it’s into Purlesque, a trendy boutique adorned with knitted items of all descriptions, polka dot and starred bunting, balls of wool in every colour, bags and gifts.
The choir provide some amazing backing vocals while the Rev improvises his sermon.
‘Oooh, aprons with hearts on them, children!’ He shouts. ‘Buttons, knitted martians; can I get a Local-ujah here?’ The choir obliges.
‘May the God of knitting defend us all,’ he goes on, his arms raised to the heavens, his head nodding furiously. ‘Give us the fortitude of the knitting Gods against the Tesco and the Primark!’
The choir clap and yell ‘Knit-a-lujah!’ as the laughing shop owner thanks Reverend Billy for his support, and we move on to Bob and Joan Porter’s, an independent jewellery and engraving shop.
‘Here’s Bob, surrounded by precious metals and crystal glass; he’s very much the high priest of his independent church here,’ raves the Rev, to whoops and claps from the choir. ‘May we all be this precise! Whoop! And this patient! Whoop!’
‘Amen!’ cry the choir in unison.
‘Bob gives us the artistry we need to defeat the monoculture devil! The reproduced invasion of Tescos!’ screeches Reverend Billy. ‘Local-ujah! Amen!’
Finally, we file into Drum, a fairtrade shop selling tribal percussion, masks, rugs, ornaments, and vases.
This time Reverend Billy’s sermon centres around Ethiopian Sidamo coffee beans, which Starbucks were previously selling for 26 dollars per pound. Only 78 cents were going to the farmers until Talen joined the campaign to get them a better deal. Starbucks eventually relented, and the farmers now get a measly, but improved, three dollars per pound of Sidamo beans sold.
After lunch Reverend Billy blesses a local bookshop before spotting a Tesco store across the street. He can’t help himself: despite his wife Savitri stating earlier that ‘yelling and police are off the table for today’, the Rev has other ideas, and his retail intervention goes ahead.
‘When the devil shows up and starts threatening your friends with its gnashing of teeth and threats of hellfire, you have to do your duty,’ he explains with a grin.
When we exit Tesco, security are waiting for us, but they don’t say a word as we file past. The troupe grows in numbers as passers-by join the parade, and as we cross the road to St Lukes Church, two police cars tear past and screech to a halt outside the Tesco store we just came from.
Reverend Billy’s tour manager is then approached and questioned by two officers on horseback, who seem unsure what charges to make (‘have you been singing in Tesco?’) and reluctantly, they leave us to seek refuge into the derelict church for a final sermon and choir performance before tonight’s show.
Savitri, warm and welcoming with a shock of messy dark curls, is understanding about the police presence everywhere they go.
‘People are attached to their brands; it resembles nationalism and it’s endemic,’ she says softly. ‘You can see it in both workers and customers. It means something to people to say, “I shop at Topshop” or “I drink Starbucks coffee.” It’s a lifestyle. But you can’t blame consumers; those are the tools we are given within this culture.’
She is, however, optimistic that things are changing in the wake of the economic crisis: ‘I feel we’re starting over. There’s a breaking up of forces, and cracks and seams you can move into.’
We chat about Bill’s New York mayoral campaign- he is running on the Green Party ticket. Although he faces stiff opposition, his localisation policies are simple and appealing.
Talen wants to empower local communities by giving them more opportunity to borrow money from credit unions, thus pushing out the big banks and make it more difficult for corporations to undercut local traders. He is campaigning for economic diversity, the defence of public space, sustainability, and safe, diverse, vibrant neighbourhoods.
I wonder whether voters are as confused as him about whether they are supporting a human parody or a politician who happens to have an alter ego. Talen brushes this concern aside. ‘We found a new way to connect; we campaigned all day on the subway and it was fascinating,’ he sidesteps.
‘It’s like another kind of law-making,’ Bill says, referring to people power. ‘It’s very exciting; it comes from neighbourhoods and the home-made, rough-hewn politics we explore in our choir: a hope and a faith and a new kind of value system. Looking across history, real change- such as ending slavery or overthrowing fascism- started in people’s homes, and they ended up gathering in plazas and marching. That is how we break from the past.’
To Talen, it’s pretty simple: corruption, the homogenisation of towns and cities, environmental devastation, economic globalisation, war, poverty- it all boils down to consumerism.
He claims that ‘Bombing Baghdad is shopping’: the invasion was sold to us through a sophisticated advertising campaign (Bill likens the worldwide protests to ‘focus groups’ which were ignored), the country is carved up for profit, and all the while we are told to carry on shopping if we want to save ourselves from terrorism and economic collapse.
‘Somehow, we’re involved in an economy that starts thousands of miles away, and all of it adds up to war,’ Talen says. ‘It starts in Afghanistan or God knows where else- and the over-packaged, over-shipped big box stores, personal debt, traffic jams and union-busting make those wars possible.’
I’m curious to know what Bill thinks of Obama: is he optimistic the president will keep his campaign promises?
‘I’m not waiting around,’ Talen replies wearily. ‘Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s Chief of Staff) served in the Israeli Army, and Larry Summers (Director of the National Economic Council) is a big liberal economist. I had my doubts as soon as Obama hired those two guys.’ He shrugs thoughtfully. ‘But he brought people out to vote, and social change is tended by the reclamation of public space.’
That night, at the Bluecoat theatre, the Reverend invites the congregation to throw away their credit cards and confess their consumer sins.
‘I see some sin in the back row!’ he screeches wildly. ‘Let me exorcise the evil into my pastoral flesh!’
Reverend Billy takes credit cards from the giggling congregation, and with trembling limbs and contorted face, he falls backwards and thrashes around as the choir soothe him by launching into an upbeat ditty called Blessed are You.
‘Forgiveness is the beginning of power,’ cries the Rev.
‘Forgive-a-lujah!’ comes the choir’s response.
‘Blessed are the kids working in the sweatshops,’ howls Bill, ‘and blessed are those of you who confuse consumerism for freedom! Can I get a Change-a-lujah here tonight!’
The show ends with a nod to Bill’s hero Martin Luther King, whose speeches made the basis for a song written for Elvis in 1968.
‘If I can dream of a better land, where all God’s children walk hand in hand, tell me why oh why can’t my dream come true?’ Talen recites sorrowfully.
He is dumbfounded as to how this song could have been used at the American Idol final in 2007: ‘I have a dream. How did that become instant fame and advertising?’ He rants. ‘You don’t see a social movement these days that hasn’t become a Starbucks coffee flavour.’
‘We have to break out of so much that makes us comfortable,’ Talen goes on. ‘Dr King said, at the moment I dream, my dream will have power. So they will be pushed back by our dreams, and we can reclaim our neighbourhoods. I’m no longer captain of this; the world is changing. If we can dream, our dream WILL come true. Amen!’
You can contact Reverend Billy or buy books, CDs and the DVD at http://www.revbilly.com.
Originally published in Red Pepper, August 2009