"I know that we live in the kind of a society where everyone's afraid of everything," Reesce tells me. "And I think the bikes are the antithesis of all that."
The Hunters Point resident founded the Cyclecide Rodeo in 1996 as a simple bicycle club for enthusiasts who also had a thing for welding, loud music, and roughhousing.
"We just like to get together and make bikes [out of those] that have been disposed of by our wonderfully disposable society," Reesce explains. "We take 'em and kind of pre-cycle them before they get re-cycled, and we make 'em into all kinds of altered monstrosities. 'Alter-cycles' is what they're sometimes called."
But what started as a club is now an in-demand troupe of welders, musicians, clowns, and general nutcases roughly two dozen strong. In addition to appearances around the Bay Area, the group just finished a tour that took it as far away as Mexico and New York City; it's now getting phone calls from companies like Bank of America to play at corporate events.
If you intentionally go to a Cyclecide show -- or stumble across one (the group can be found performing alongside bands in warehouses and parking lots throughout the Bay Area, and will embark on a West Coast tour next week sponsored by, of all things, a company that makes beer) -- one of the first things you'll notice is how dangerously these people live. If you dress up like a rodeo clown and get mentored by the rodeo's chief bozo, Walter Laing, as I did recently in Berkeley, then you'll feel just how violent things can get -- and how much that truly rocks. If you can manage to get yourself hospitalized in the process, Laing and company may accept you as one of their own. Such was my charge, and I was up for it.
To get an idea of what, exactly, the Cyclecide folks do, imagine Cirque du Soleil. Now take away the grace and beauty of a hundred seminaked French people and replace it with a bunch of surly, moonshine-swilling, outlaw types wearing monkey boots and moth-eaten clothing. Then substitute the dancing-on-a-moonbeam twinkle-twinkle with gnarly, yee-haw-ready rock seemingly smuggled straight out of a Mexican tequila tavern. Oh yeah, and switch out those cuddly Russian sun bears with jagged metal bicycles. And instead of Evian, drink beer. Lots and lots of beer.
The rodeo itself comes in two parts. There's the midway, which consists of a handful of homemade rides (all of which incorporate a bicycle theme), and there's the show proper, in which the rodeo band, El Baño, plays a chunky blend of punk, surf, and mariachi music as the rodeo players perform skits and stunts with little or no regard for safety. It's a rock show, a circus, and performance art all rolled into one. And it's incredibly fucking dangerous.
"People have hurt themselves," says Reesce, adding, almost as an afterthought, "unfortunately." It's easy to see how. In addition to offering rides like the Whirl and Hurl (essentially a pedal-propelled seesaw with two seats attached to both ends that spins violently in circles) and the Ferris wheel (a rickety, 20-foot-high Ferris wheel-for-two), Reesce, who fronts El Baño and plays guitar, encourages audience members to ride the troupe's homemade bikes around and participate in such things as the tall bike joust and the bicycle mosh pit. Doesn't this man worry that he'll be sued?
"We stipulate to people that these bikes are built for fun, they're not built for safety," he says. "But yeah, I do worry about it. Maybe someday someone will sue me." Amazingly, no one has, although the rodeo was banned from at least one town when its Homeland Security bike shot 40 bottle rockets into a crowd.
By the time El Baño takes the stage on an early afternoon in a park near UC Berkeley, Laing still hasn't told me what the responsibilities of a Cyclecide rodeo clown are, beyond, "Cause trouble, be annoying." Nevertheless, I catch on pretty fast, as our job duties aren't too complicated. They include: Laing and I running into each other on bikes, squirting people with beer from pressurized water pistols, taking pies in the face, and feigning fear when the Chupacabra bike chases us around during one of the skits. The show lasts about 45 minutes, features a couple of opportunities for audience participation, and culminates when Reesce and the rest of the crew invite the crowd to join in on the largest mosh pit involving bike riders that I've ever seen. Actually, come to think of it, I've never seen a mosh pit involving bike riders.
Now some of you are probably thinking, "Yeah, but is it rock?," implying that what Cyclecide does is really more the stuff of Burning Man devotees and wanky performance troupes. To those nonbelievers I say: You try dressing up like a clown and diving headfirst into a customized bike with a metal grill welded to it like the cow-plow on the front of a steam train as a five-piece band kicks out a bastardized version of what sounds like "La Cucaracha." If that's not rock 'n' roll, I don't know what is.
That stunt, by the way, is my best attempt to injure myself, seemingly the goal behind these proceedings, although Laing doesn't make it that easy. At the last minute he steers the cow-plow bike away from me, saving my head from a concussion, but ultimately costing me his approval (clowns can be such assholes).
"You didn't hurt yourself. We didn't need to take you to the hospital," says Laing when I ask him to evaluate and grade my first outing as a clown (well, a semiprofessional clown). "I'm kind of a little disappointed. I think you damaged two or three bikes, which is kind of mediocre for a first-time performer. But you didn't light yourself on fire. You wear a pie well, we can say that. You fall down and you're stupid, which is definitely a prerequisite for any kind of performance that we have, but most first-timers we hope to take to the hospital, so I'll give you a C-minus."
If the mosh pit is nature's way of proving that rock 'n' roll is not a spectator sport, then the Cyclecide Rodeo proves that the pit is as fertile a ground for creativity as the stage itself. And if you ask me, scars and bruises are a hell of a lot better souvenirs than T-shirts.