Vinnie Cleanhands

Vinnie Cleanhands told me to meet him at a bar called Billy Ray’s. The bar hides out among the other run down businesses along a minor thoroughfare on Portland’s east side, so I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. It was dusk. The struggling glow of the green neon sign provided the only light and it wasn’t much–only the first three letters of TAVERN were lit,  the ERN was lightless. I was getting out of my car when a large man dressed in a traffic-light-yellow, furry, baggy bodysuit with matching mittens and a padded wrestling head guard covered in yellow fur went running by. He waved at me as if I were a bystander at a parade and ducked into the tavern. This was a good sign. I was in the right place.

The dimly lit, long, narrow room had yet to fill up for the evening and the few early drinkers turned to look as I entered. Under the glow of a slightly swinging overhead lamp at the far end, the furry yellow being was a color shock to its surroundings. It stood behind a small table with a crate of LPs and a laptop computer and next to another man who wore a black mask tied around his head with white plastic devil horns sticking out from each side like coat hooks. I didn’t know what Vinnie Cleanhands looked like, but I suspected that they might be able to point me in his direction. Barstool imbibers watched as I made my way to the back of the bar. When I asked for Vinnie, the furry thing raised its hand. “I’m Vinnie,” it said, “but tonight I’m the Yellow Fuzzy Monster.” Plastic eyeballs were glued into the fluff of his forehead. “And this,” he said pointing to the man next him, “is Rose City Rudo.”

Vinnie Cleanhands is the Boss of an underground wrestling phenomenon in Portland, Oregon called Portland Organic Wrestling (a.k.a. POW) where characters like Rose City Rudo, Bob’s Big Boy, Reverend Brother Ray the New Age Guy and Anna Nicole Smith duke it out before packed-in crowds at the Ash Street Saloon. The night I met Vinnie wasn’t a regular match night, however. It was just a few POW wrestlers hanging out in a scruffy bar doing what they love to do — fighting some kind of fake fight with the same earnest passion of eight-year-olds playing Power Rangers in their basement. The fake fight that night was a DJ Battle and they were about to try to outdo each other by playing the worst music they could possibly come up with.

The contenders each had their battle gear: Rose City Rudo had the plastic crate of LPs and an old turntable, the Yellow Fuzzy Monster had his Apple laptop computer. Rose City Rudo was as big as a football player with thick, tattooed arms and a coarse, dark beard. Rubber skulls were somehow attached to his wrists to look like mean wristbands adding ominous oomph when he waved his arms in the air each time he thought he was winning. Vinnie looked more like a big chicken without tail feathers or a beak and would write things like, “You’re asking for it!” on a small whiteboard and hold it above his head for the whole bar to see. At any given time it was hard to discern who exactly was winning. But then again, it didn’t seem to be about winning. It seemed to be more about reveling in the crazy concoction of outdated, re-interpreted pop music and persona. The more ridiculous the better.

Real match nights happen on the first Thursday of each month and are much less tame. Absurdity reigns supreme. The Ash Street Saloon is packed with cheering, beer-throwing fans who usually throw their beer after beer has been thrown at them by one of the wrestlers, like Garcia, the Dirty Hippy. He threw his beer because he didn’t like the response of the crowd. He was trying to psych himself up before taking on The Preppy and paced the small square stage ranting about how preppies suck. To gauge who was on his side he yelled down at the restless crowd, “Who would you rather get your drugs from? A preppy or a hippy?” The crowd murmured incoherently so he yelled again and again until finally he launched beer from his plastic cup, showering the heads below.

The crowd went wild and began to chant “Hippy! Hippy!” and threw their beer back at him, leaving everyone soaked. Then, the Preppy appeared and lots of yelling and fake choke holds and head bashing with faux garbage can lids ensued. The match was refereed by a very tattooed girl dressed in hot pants and a bustier who randomly threw her fingers at the wrestling duo as if she were counting down, even though no one was pinned yet. Ultimately the Preppy was no match for Garcia, the Dirty Hippy who hauled his opponent offstage in a headlock. Next, the Teletubbies battled the Plushi Hunters (they hunt stuffed animals). Appearing from all corners of the bar, wrestlers for this match eventually wound up in a giant tangle on stage with stuffed animal parts flying from the mass. Through it all, music hits like Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical” pumped up the crowd until most everyone was either dancing, cheering or singing at the top of their lungs.

POW repeatedly performs to sold-out crowds, has toured the west coast and has performed at the Sundance Film Festival. Writers love to speculate on what the all the fuss is about. One reporter compares POW to Native American tribes whose rituals and naming of tribe members are essential for giving order to a chaotic world. He claims POW is filling a crucial need for the bar hopping youth of Portland who get to identify with their favorite characters as they duke it out.

After having seen POW, I had a few ideas of my own that I wanted to run by Vinnie that were inspired by the post-modern French philosopher Roland Barthes who wrote an essay entitled, “The World of Wrestling.” Barthes posits that low-brow is really high-brow when it comes to wrestling. Wrestling is a kind of transcendent theater experience because we get to witness Good battle Evil in all its dramatic and sweaty glory. It’s a morality play where the conflict is clearly cast. We pick a side and feel deep satisfaction watching the fracas unfold. It’s not like boxing that takes skill and tactics. That’s just sport. Wrestling is more base than that and, because it is base, it resonates with our profound need as human beings to resolve the eternal war between Good and Evil. With victory comes catharsis. That is why it’s High Art.

What makes POW so compelling is that the battle is between characters like Aunt Flo the Menstrual Cycle Lady, The Ground Zero American Hero, MacJesus and Michael Jackson. Not only can the audience pick the side of Good and Evil, they get to cheer on the ridiculous rise or demise of farcical characters drawn from a cross-section of the collective unconscious and the landscape of American pop culture.

Vinnie thinks that either of these theories could be valid, but he says he runs POW out of boredom more than anything else. Rather than being some high art happening that he’d carefully concocted or even created by accident, Vinnie says POW is his own little practical joke and he wants to see how far it will go.

When Vinnie isn’t dressed up, he looks like a punky Ed Sullivan just getting out of bed. His clothes are slightly crumpled, bar-casual: a short-sleeved T-shirt layered over a long sleeved t-shirt and cargo pants. His hair, however, is slicked into a Pompadour — except, that is, when he’s hiding inside the hood of his sweatshirt and then it goes every which way. Vinnie talks like he just woke up, too, although it could sound like he’s bored or just a very gentle person or that he’s slightly spacey (a trait he gets from his mother). His voice is soft and husky and he does not emphasize any of his words, but lets them meander to the end of a sentence lackadaisically. He’s the most relaxed Boss I have ever met. I wanted to give him a cup of coffee just to see what would happen.

It’s hard to imagine how this thirty-three year old sleepy boy brought a world of wrestling from obscurity to small-time national renown. However, every now and then when Vinnie talks about life as the Boss, you can see he means business. His otherwise lazy hands become stiff as a board and they punctuate the air in decisive slicing motions while at the same time he laughs self-consciously, as if he is uncomfortable hearing himself talk about wielding power.

If you compare Vinnie to his heroes, Sharon and Ozzy Osborn, things make a little more sense. Vinnie loves that Ozzy came from nothing and made it big. He loves that he shocks people and pushes his own ideas and still advances his career. He also loves that Sharon runs the business side of the Osborn legacy. He admires her business acumen and aspires to be Ozzy and Sharon all rolled into one. And, because he draws a distinct line between his private and performing personas, when you meet Vinnie offstage there is barely a trace of the sensationalist who believes that all’s fair in show business. Instead, you meet Vinnie Taggert, small town Mormon boy who came from very little and, with the bits and pieces the world throws his way, is hoping to make it big.

Apparently, it’s hard to find good talent for POW. Vinnie says most guys show up with only backyard wrestling experience. They’re the ones who come in and say, “I want to be a wrestler.”
 And Vinnie says, “Great. What’s your character?”
 And the guy says, “Well, I’m Spawn,” (said with drawn-out dramatic superhero emphasis.) 
And Vinnie says, “What’s your costume?” 
And the guy says, “Oh. Umm. Camouflage pants and a t-shirt.”
 This bores Vinnie and he says, “No, that’s gonna work. You’re the Mummy. Go get a Mummy costume,” which they do although they’re not very happy about it.

Vinnie uses these guys as filler at the shows because they’re not creative and can only do one character. These are also the guys he has to keep a close eye on because they have a tendency to want to all pile up on stage making for very complicated wrestling matches where the audience doesn’t know who to like. Vinnie tries to keep it simple – just a good guy against a bad guy. If the new recruits don’t like it, if they can’t take direction, or if they don’t take Vinnie’s ideas seriously, then they can’t be a POW wrestler.

In the end, however, Vinnie doesn’t really mind these guys because he gets to push his own ideas on them, but he’d rather have wrestlers who come up with cool, original characters. Those are the ones who are valuable because they can wrestle two or three times a night and he can take them on tour. One girl is Wonder Woman, Bat Girl, the Easter Bunny, does a Michael Jackson impersonation and is Aunt Flo the Menstrual Cycle Lady. He can tell her what he wants and she makes it happen. One of the guys is the Ground Zero American Hero, Reverend Brother Ray the New Age Guy, MacJesus and John Ritter. These are the wrestlers Vinnie values because they get what he is trying to do. As for the others, he’s learned to simplify things for them: new guys without much imagination can either be a monster, a super hero or a celebrity.

At a recent monthly meeting of POW upstairs at Billy Ray’s, Vinnie was trying to plan for the upcoming show. A bloodied monster head with long blond hair swung in circles hanging from the overhead fan. He ran through the list of upcoming matches: Garcia, the Dirty Hippie versus Bike Boy, The Plushi Hunters versus Jack Rabbit, and The Bad Girl Paramedic versus Gaydolf. Veteran POW wrestlers —largish guys in their mid-twenties each having some kind of remarkable feature like wildly curly long hair, tattoos or a shaved skull—sat quietly, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. The filler guys—tending toward smaller frames and having remarkable resemblances to one of MTV’s Beavis or Butthead—weren’t really paying attention because they were dreaming up new characters and calling each other “gay” a lot. Vinnie just kept talking and sometimes swatted his notepad in their direction to get the filler guys to stop their yaking. Once, he stopped mid-sentence to respond to what he heard them going on about.

“No, you can’t use real blood,” he said sounding irritated at having to explain the obvious. “Everybody thinks its fake anyway. I mean why do real blood when you can do fake?”

The next order of business was Wreck the Halls III, the special Christmas match. It looked likely that Santa (a disgruntled mall Santa) would battle The Space Elf who had returned to free the elves from Santa’s slavery. A discussion ensued where the filler guys were trying decide if a story line is really necessary and the veterans explained that no, it isn’t, because if you die one month, and then come back the next month for revenge, no one really remembers anyway. It’s the names, they explained, that people remember.

When Vinnie is optimistic, he envisons POW on TV. He thinks there are tons of crappy TV channels and he can’t see why it couldn’t get picked up by one. POW is working on making well-produced videos of their matches or a DVD compilation of their best work to shop around to networks and producers. If that doesn’t work, he thinks they’ll tour again. In the meantime, they’re trying to develop a fan base around the country by creating their own little cable access network where they’ve hooked up with performers in Austin, LA and New York and have exchanged tapes that they show in their local areas.

When Vinnie is realistic, he sees himself running POW, eeking out a happy living as a barkeep and working on his fur projects. Right now he’s into making monsters, stuffed animals for adults. He thinks it’s a great racket because he can sell them in galleries for $200 to $300 a piece. The Yellow Fuzzy Monster is his latest creation.

Just as I was leaving the DJ Battle, Rose City Rudo launched his final attack, a Spanish version of “Wild Thing” by Jimi Hendrix. The translation of “Wild Thing” is “Loco” which was repeated in every chorus. Rose City Rudo was inspired by his selection and kept yelling, “Yeah! Yeah!” and shaking his mean-looking wrists at The Yellow Fuzzy Monster who placed his fists defiantly on his hips and shook his head to show Rose City Rudo that the offensive move was not intimidating him in the least. As the end of the song drew near, Vinnie took off a fuzzy mitten to better negotiate the mouse pad on his laptop. He selected a doozey of a response—the Oompa-Loompa song, from the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a funky drumbeat. This was near-death for Rose City Rudo, who fell back into the corner gasping like Superman in the presence of kryptonite. Vinnie danced a mellow victory dance, mildly shaking his furry butt, spindly puffs of yellow fluff twirling with the bar smoke under the glow of the hanging lamp.

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