Shane blowing his nose under a picture of Geronimo during their stay on an Apache reservation. Photos courtesy of Shane and Amy Bugbee.
Shane Bugbee has been pissing people off since the early 90s. His company, Michael Hunt Publishing, released zines and underground comics by people like Mike Diana, the first artist to earn an obscenity conviction for his drawings of rape, pedophilia, and crucifixes covered in feces. Shane went on to publish a book with John Wayne Gacy, release a video of security footage of the Columbine shootings, and put out a recording of Diff’rent Strokes actress Dana Plato’s dying breaths. One Amazon reviewer wrote that “no sewer is too deep” for Dana Plato’s Last Breath, which may or may not be exactly what Shane was going for.
Shane and his wife Amy’s most recent "boovie" (book and a movie), The Suffering and Celebration of Life in America, is the result of over a year spent living on the road. The pair set out to make a scathing indictment of America, but unfortunately everyone they ran into was intelligent and nice. “My initial plan was to ask people to tell me about the good and the bad of America,” Shane says. “And then only publish the bad.” Instead, the book they ended up with is a weirdly intimate cross section of America, saturated with photos, journal entries, and interviews with the (almost) unfailingly kind and optimistic heroes and zeros they ran into on the road.
VICE recently caught up with Shane and Amy to talk about their trip, how Americans aren’t all stupid, and what it feels like to be shunned by an entire town in Minnesota.
VICE: What was the concept behind your year at the wheel?
Shane Bugbee: The concept we started with and what the trip turned into were two different things. I wanted to make a damning documentary about America. That’s what I was hoping to do. But it turned into something different.
What did you expect to find before you left?
Shane: A bunch of rubes. The trick question I had was, “Tell me the best and worst thing about America,” and then I planned to cut out everything they said was the best and only use the worst. I was hell-bent on creating a damning document.
But the book is actually kind of optimistic. What changed?
Amy: We believed what we saw on the news. You know how they always interview some total moron who can barely piece his sentences together? We thought America was like that. But it isn’t. No matter where we went, no matter what their political beliefs were, the people we met were smart and well thought-out. It was shocking that this whole cross-section of America was welcoming to us, when we expected them to treat us with contempt, like everyone else had.
Where did you and Amy first meet?
Shane: I was putting out underground comic books by people like Mike Diana through my company, Michael Hunt Publishing, in Chicago. Then I opened a gallery called Goat Gallery. I painted the walls black and we played Slayer all the time. It was a weird place. Genesis P. Orridge and Clive Barker showed there. Amy came to an art show.
Amy: That was the end of 1994. We married in September of 1996.
Shane and Amy today.
How did you guys go from Chicago to Minnesota?
Amy: My father retired to Ely, Minnesota, two hours north of Duluth. He had a stroke and I went to help him. I had no clue what a stroke was. I thought I’d sit by his bedside for three days and it would be no big deal. We ended up moving there.
What happened while you were in Ely?
Shane: I smoked my last joint and said, “What am I going to do to survive?” My usual skull T-shirts and obscene books weren’t going to fly up there. So I came up with a blueberry soda pop and started a company. It took off.
Amy: For a year and a half, everything seemed fine. The school went broke, so we decided to put together a festival to save their arts program. Even the radio station got behind it. The next thing we knew, the general manager from the radio station was at our door saying, “They’ve found out about you and your past, putting out pornographic zines. You’re going to be shunned.”
Shane: I laughed my head off. I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. But it happened.
What did the shunning look like?
Amy: I would walk into a grocery store and everyone would stop talking. We even got death threats. Shane’s always gotten death threats, so we brushed those off at first.
I was in the grocery store and a lady came up and started praying for me, on her knees, in the aisle. I ran into a friend a few weeks later and she started crying, telling me how sorry she was that she couldn’t help us. She said she couldn’t be seen talking to us. No one could. There was a budding arts community up there but they all turned on us because they couldn’t risk having the light shined on them, too.
All the stores in town stopped selling our soda. We suddenly had no more soda business. I got a job at a hotel but they called and un-hired me the day before I was supposed to start.
How did the death threats arrive?
Shane: Phone calls. I became a little paranoid. The town started giving us hard looks and being more than passive aggressive in the grocery store. A lot of people laugh like shunning is a big joke. It does sound funny, but it was not fucking cool.
How did the town find out about your past?
Shane: Someone sent out 3,000 letters to everyone in town and all the churches. It was a scarlet letter, saying that all our soda money was going to Satan worship. We started having dinner at the Baptist minister’s house every week, trying to calm things down.
Amy: He told us the churches might issue a proclamation. They were going to put an ad in the paper about where to find us, and then paint our door red.
And then we came home one day and all of our knives were missing from our kitchen. I searched the house, thinking Shane had been using them somewhere. But no. They were gone. That’s when we realized that things could go really bad.
From the filming of Club Satan: The Witches Sabbath, directed by Shane Bugbee.
What were they going to do with the knives?
Shane: We had no idea. We just knew that our knives were missing and that someone had been in our house. That was enough for us. We tried to stand strong until our landlady and her husband, who was the head of the philosophy department at the University of Minnesota, called. They said, “Some shit is going to go down. You have to be out of here by Thursday.” That was it. We left.
Was your dad OK without the care?
Amy: He got pneumonia and was hospitalized the day before we left. We had to leave in the middle of the night with my dad in the hospital. It was awful.
You guys went to LA, right? What prompted you to leave and start your trip?
Shane: I had a breakdown, basically. Our trip might have been the culmination of a long breakdown. I was working in porn, there were naked girls running around, and weed was being delivered to the sets. But I still couldn’t function under it. It all became about the money. I thought that freedom was going to come when I made money. I thought it would come when I had dental insurance and all those things. But it didn’t happen. One day Amy came home and I was packing boxes.
So the plan was to live on the road for a full year?
Shane: Yeah. We had a sponsor, but he pulled out the day we were scheduled to leave. We hit the road with only $180. And I’m a rotund dude. I like to eat. I am gentleman of leisure.
How did you guys choose the people to interview on the road? The diversity seems very broad.
Amy: We would put ads on Craigslist, looking for work and places to stay.
Where was the best place you stayed?
Amy: The best place was New Orleans. There was so much work to be had after Hurricane Katrina.
Shane: New Orleans is one of the last places in America that is artist-friendly. The people were like, “You’re filming a movie and making a book? I want to buy you dinner.” It was amazing.
I saw the terrible stories on the news after Katrina. But when we talked to people in New Orleans, they all said, “We weren’t killing people. We weren’t robbing each other’s homes. The news was wrong. Please let the world know that it wasn’t like that.” Everyone said they worked as a team to survive. That was shocking to hear.
You guys started with $180 and managed to stay afloat by working wherever you went?
Amy: It was a struggle. There were plenty of times when we were broke. One night, in Austin, we sat in a park with $11, thinking that we didn’t have enough money to get out of town. I thought, This could be it. But we posted a blog, and suddenly, our phone rang. It was a guy who runs a pirate radio station and he said, “Come to my house.”
Shane: It was amazing not to have any money and float around for a year. The most I ever had in my pocket was three or four dollars.
Who was your favorite interview on the trip?
Shane: Mine is absolutely Joe Murphy. He was the first person we interviewed on our trip. He was the neighbor to Fred Hampton, a Black Panther who was assassinated by the FBI. We were in Chicago, in a bad neighborhood, with a video camera. There was no excuse if I got beaten down.
We were filming the lot where Fred Hampton was murdered. I panned the camera around and saw a black dude barbecuing chicken. Here I am, a white guy, filming him cook. I was afraid he would think we were making fun of him. But he just said, “You want to know about Fred Hampton? You should talk to my mom and my uncle.” That was Joe Murphy and his sister, Barbara Ross. How did we survive with $180? Joe Murphy was the fuel.
Did he witness Fred Hampton’s murder?
Shane: He was there when it happened. Bullets came through their walls. Joe told us about how he came home from work the day before it happened and saw 50 utility workers on his block. Joe said, “There’s no way this many utility workers are in our neighborhood at one time.” The shooting started in the middle of the night. We were the first people in 40 years to want to hear his story.
Amy: It was an amazing interview. It was right at the beginning of the trip, when we were thinking, This is never going to work. But then we interviewed Joe Murphy and it was amazing.
What was the conclusion of the trip? You end up staying on the road for longer than a year. Why?
Shane: We’ve always been nomadic. You have to travel to survive in the underground art world. The conclusion of the trip was that we found people to be decent. Maybe we should add compassion and cooperation to Might Is Right.
Amy: If you mean the psychical conclusion, then it was when we landed on the Washington coast and fell in love with the area.
Shane: We’re living in Astoria, Oregon, now. Amy is working at our local paper. They know about her past and they don’t give a fuck. At the beginning of our trip, I did an interview at the Willie Nelson Peace Institute. He was like, “I’ve traveled all around the country looking for humanity, and the only place I’ve found civilization in America is west of I-5.” We found that to be somewhat true. There are pockets of civilization. Brooklyn is one. So is Cambridge. But the Pacific Northwest is great. People here really dig us.
Amy: When we came here, we were worried about being shunned again. When the book came out, we were nervous. We started hearing rumblings and got scared, so we decided to do an event and screen some of our videos. We did, and afterward people said, “Don’t worry about it. Everyone has a past.” That was such a shock for us to hear. This place really feels like home.
Learn more about The Suffering and Celebration of Life in America here.
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