Backstage with ''Bob''; is the Church of the SubGenius the ultimate cult? (J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs) Kinney, Jay
Backstage with "Bob"; is the Church of the SubGenius the ultimate cult? (J.R.
Backstage with "BOB" It's 9:30 or so, backstage at the Stone, a nightclub
on Broadway in San Francisco. Guy Deuel, the ex-cattle rancher from Bolivia
with the artificial septum, is fondling an Uzi, the Israeli automatic weapon
favored by death squads in Central America. The Uzi -- like the ridge between
Deuel's nostils -- is plastic. Deuel, who is an imposing fortyish figure in a
tan trenchcoat, looks uncannily like G. Gordon Liddy and has the air of a man
who is no stranger to life and death situations. Deuel is a SubGenius.
Out from on stage, Janor Hypercleats is stalking back and forth across the
stage delivering a hell-raising sermon to an audience of several hundred souls.
Janor mows lawns for a living in Little Rock, Arkansas, and cuts an odd figure
in his garish orange and green pants, looking like the penultimate hick come to
the big city. It is not totally clear just what Janor is raving about in his
Little Rock twang -- something to do with "Launching the Head," golfing, "BOB,"
Heaven, and his sex life or lack thereof. But that hardly seems to matter.
Janor is a SubGenius.
What has brought both Guy and Janor to San Francisco in the damp chill of
November, 1985, is the chance to participate in the SubGenius Devival, a
one-night-only extravaganza offered to both the general public and to devoted
members of the Church of the SubGenius. There are bands from San Francisco,
singers and preachers from Dallas, an intense character in shades from back
East who calls himself "the Pope of All New York" and a smattering of artists,
go-fers, and borderline basketcases.
In an era of designer jeans, designer drugs, and designer cigarettes, it
was probably inevitable that someone would establish a designer Cult -- in this
case one whose members keep redesigning its contours on an almost daily basis.
SubGenii may be brainwashed -- one need only listen to an hour of droll-flecked
conversation about X-ists and "BOB" and Wotan to arrive at that conclusion --
but contrary to every other cult on the horizon the SubGenii are busily washing
their own brains. If there is a "Mister Big" pulling strings from behind the
scenes he stays very well hidden indeed. Of course, there is the nagging
question of cult-founder J.R. "BOB" Dobbs -- a shadowy figure in the tradition
of L. Ron Hubbard and Howard Hughes -- but Dobbs' death in early 1985 brought a
halt to any efforts to centralize control of cultmembers within a rigid
What remains may be scary or at least nauseating -- the best estimates of
SubGenius membership place the cult at approximately the same size as the
forces of Lyndon LaRouche -- but it is a decentralized phenomenon. As police
departments around the country have learned, the threat that the average
SubGenius represents is the danger of the lone berserker run amok, not the
threat of lockstep fascism.
SubGenii are not interested in selling you flowers at airports. That is
not SubGenius style. They are far more likely to sidle up to you in a public
lavatory and pee on your shoes. That is SubGenius style.
The origins of the Church of the SubGenius are hazy at best. The earliest
known nationally circulated Church literature bears copyrights dating no
eafrlier than the late 1970s. But Church old-timers like Rev. Ivan Stang of
Dallas date their involvement in the cult back to the late 50s. At that time
the Church was a local Dallas-based group numbering no more than a couple of
dozen members. Like other obscure fringe groups of that era such as the Science
of Mentalphysics group in Yucca Valley, California, or the Mark-Age
saucer-contactee bunch in Florida, the SubGenius Foundation, as it was then
known, was a self-perpetuating organization clustered around a charismatic J.R.
Dobbs (usually referred to as "BOB" by cult-members) founded the group
following a speckled career as a bit-actor in C-movies and an extended stint as
an aluminum siding salesman. Dobbs' success as a salesman enabled him to build
up a sizeable nest-egg and put him on sure footing for convincing others of his
sincerity. When Dobbs began to hear voices in the mid-1950s -- voices he
identified alternately as aliens (X-ists) and as a so-called Space God
(Jehovah-1) -- he wasted little time in developing a small but devoted
According to Stang, early SubGenius emphasis was on self-development
(hence the group's name) and on Dobbs' eccentric political philosophy, which
share many elements with the far right ideology of Robert Welch's John Birch
Society. Things might have stayed that way -- just another small fringe group
in a western state -- except for a few unexpected twists in the SubGenius path.
The first twist was Dobbs' serious extended love affair with LSD in the late
1960s and early 1970s. During this period the Foundation evolved into a Church
and Dobbs' cluster of SubGenii went through an unsavory spell where
experimentation with sex and drugs was di riguer. The second twist was the
arrival of Dr. Philo Drummond in the late 1970s.
Drummond, who had prior experience in the public relations field and was a
graduate of est, apparently saw much potential in the tiny Church and rapidly
worked his way to a position of power second only to Dobbs himself. In league
with Stang, who was now No. 3 in the cult, Drummond introduced the use of
"BOB"'s face on Church flyers and instituted a policy of heavy new-member
recruitment. Public meetings in Dallas were publicized and began to draw
sizeable crowds. Branches of the Church (called "clenches" in SubGenius
parlance) spread to Little Rock and Austin. And perhaps most innovative of all,
Drummond and Stang pushed for a policy of clench autonomy, both theologically
and organizationally. As SubGenii proliferated, so did the gods and demons in
the SubGenii pantheon. What had started as a monotheistic neo-UFO cult in the
1950s had transmogrified into a polytheistic grab-bag in the 1980s.
One indication of the new regime instituted by Drummond was the extensive
use of false Church names in place of members' real names. Though Stang and
Drummond's names were authentic enough, most post-1979 Sub Genii took assumed
names as part of their initiation into the cult. Janor Hypercleats and Sterno
Keckhaver (both from Little Rock), Tentatively A. Convenience (of Baltimore),
Pastor Buck Naked (of Dallas), Puzzling Evidence (of Oakland), Lies (of San
Francisco), St. Byron Werner (of L.A.) -- all sported transparently ridiculous
monickers. This, in combination with the policy of making every cult-member a
de facto minister, brought a surreal air of unreality to Church proceedings
with Popes, Saints, and Reverends all competing for positions of power over
each other. It also brought the Church to the attention of the FBI and IRS who
were concerned that a new outbreak of mail-order ordinations, all claiming
tax-exempt status, might lend further momentum to the growing ranks of the
The SubGenius Devival is still going strong as the clock at the Stone hits
midnight. Pastor Buck Naked has come and gone with his auto-harp songs about
electrical devices embedded in his brain. Rev. Ivan Stang has stirred up the
crowd with a ritual demonstration of Time Control consisting of
sledge-hammering to smithereens the wristwatch of a trusting volunteer from the
audience. Janor and Sterno have "Launched the Head." The Band That Dare Not
Speak Its Name, a local aggregation of anti-musicians, has gotten the faithful
to their feet with stinging anti-songs about "BOB." And now the evening is
reaching a frenzied climax with the arrival of Rev. Meyer, "the Pope of All New
As a dry-ice mist rises from the stage, Meyer, accompanied by two armed
bodyguards, stalks out to the podium and delievers a bellowing tirade against
"pinks," MTV, Yuppies, personalized license plates, and "the Conspiracy." Meyer
possesses an uncanny and disquieting charisma that local commentators have
likened to that of the late Rev. Jim JoneS. Back on his own ground in New York
he has filled the trendy Danceteria to overflowing with several public
SubGenius rallies. But here in San Francisco, a few doors down from Carol
Doda's topless act at the Condor and across the street from the fourth
generation mohawks at the Mabuhay Gardens, Meyer is just another late night
act. Or so it seems to Meyer, who cuts his speech back to a mere twenty minutes
and stalks off stage abruptly to a final explosion of applause, cheers, and
weary table-thumping. The Devival is devolving and will shortly taper off into
canned DEVO music and dancing.
Perhaps the Church of the SubGenius is merely a harmless eccentric sect
sprung from the same sun-baked environment that Jack Ruby and Lyndon Johnson
both called home. Texas is the home of broad gestures and the SubGenii may be
one of the broadest yet.
Yet one need only watch the glint in Guy Deuel's eyes as he cocks the Uzi
in the dressing room and talks about "showing those pinkboys a thing or two" to
realize that one man's meat may be another man's poison. The Church of the
SubGenius has long since outgrown its humble roots and is stalking bigger game.
Consider it all a joke at your own risk.
COPYRIGHT Whole Earth Review 1986