Nathan Rabin finds his rhythm in 'You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me'

Nathan Rabin once had two distinct personas.

The first was a snarky master of detachment hoping to score points off people with jokes and jabs. The other was a compassionate champion of underdogs who yearned to connect with his fellow man. That first persona died in a field of Phish fans.

It was May 27, 2011, and Rabin was in Bethel Woods, N.Y. It was the start of his second summer following the fans of Phish — a jam-band known for its hippie, drugged-out followers — and the Insane Clown Posse — a horrorcore rap duo from Detroit that paints their faces with clown makeup and are notorious for their riotous fan base. 

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

Rabin was working on a book about those fans that he increasingly believed he would never finish, he was drowning in debt and he was on the verge of emotional collapse.

"I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat," he writes in "You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me," the now-published book. "I trembled with anxiety. I nursed fantasies of collapsing in a fetal ball and waking up weeks later, a new man. I thought about committing myself to a mental institution."

Instead he took some LSD and gave himself over to the music and to the community of fans rocking out in a field in upstate New York.

Rabin then saw his book come into focus - and his snarky side die.

"I finally figured out that this story wasn't about me having superior distance from these people," he said during a recent interview at Logan Square's The Brown Sack. "This is a story about me connecting on a profound emotional level with these people who I wouldn't have imagined I had anything in common with."

Rabin, former head writer for The AV Club, chronicles in his book the more than two years he spent following the fans of Phish and the Insane Clown Posse. In the memoir, he describes the insanity of the Gathering of the Juggalos (Insane Clown Posse fans) and sleepless days spent crisscrossing the United States via Greyhound bus to get to remote stops on Phish's tour. He provides detailed histories of the bands and recounts the people he met (and the drugs he took) along the way.

He also chronicles his breakdown and his eventual diagnosis with bipolar disorder. Most touchingly, he tells the story of falling in love with his wife, a Phish fan who ultimately inspired the book.


Some background: Rabin's mother abandoned him as a toddler. His father, who developed multiple sclerosis and lost his job, was unable to care for him. Rabin would spend time in a mental hospital and a group home for emotionally disturbed adolescents.

Rabin, now an Albany Park resident, said he used to lean on comedy to "create detachment from the intense, painful experiences" of his life.

"I grew up thinking that I wasn't good enough and I wasn't worthwhile unless I was really, really funny or really, really smart because (I thought) there was so much at my core that just wasn't good," he said. "I kind of felt like I have to make you laugh or you're just going to be like who is this weirdo."

While his 2009 memoir, "The Big Rewind," was raw and personal, "You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me" goes further, Rabin said.

"I feel like it is maybe more embarrassing," he said. "It makes you more vulnerable to write about being in this weird place in your life when you're 35 versus when you're 17 because I feel like everybody can identify with kids, with adolescence, but once you are an adult, you are on your own. You make bad mistakes, it is on you."

At a book signing at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Rabin read a particularly hard-hitting portion of his book that features his darkest, most anxiety-ridden period, but also a moment of transcendence.

After the reading, Rabin tweeted: "Reading aloud from 'You Don't Know Me' I realize how achingly sincere it is. Is it too late to add ironic quotation marks around the book?"


The title "You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me" sums up Rabin's thesis. He wanted to explore the popularly reviled subcultures of Insane Clown Posse and Phish fans, both of which have come to be defined by stereotypes created and perpetuated by outsiders.

These bands' music couldn't be more different, but the groups share many similarities. Both have mythologies surrounding their music, and their concerts offer an intensely physical experience. In both cases, being a fan is like belonging to a secret society.

In short, it's about more than the music.

Evie Nagy, music editor at Billboard magazine, fell in love with a Phish fan and came to understand the band's followers through him.

Phish fandom is "largely about the experience with other people who share a sensibility," she wrote in an email. "I think for a lot of fans it started with freedom and getting away from home; for others it's the fact that you'll never get the same show twice because of Phish's reliance on improvisation …. The band does things like encourage participation on certain songs that you would only know to do if you've been to shows before, and that makes fans feel like they're part of a special club with a bunch of secret handshakes."

It took Rabin a year to decide that he couldn't understand these bands unless he was on the inside: You have to be an ape, not Jane Goodall watching from the fringes.

Rabin's unique combination of pop culture and life experience led Brant Rumble, a senior editor at Scribner and editor of Rabin's two previous books, to purchase the manuscript for this book.

Rabin "puts forth the mind set that 'OK, let's give everything a second chance. Let's give everything a harder look and let's not assume that we hate things. Let's be open in terms of pop culture,'" Rumble said.

Through his writings and AV Club columns such as "My Year of Flops," in which he chronicled his viewings of movies largely panned by critics, and "Nashville or Bust," which featured his sojourns into the world of country music, Rabin fought to understand people's obsessions.

"My entire career has been dedicated to trying to articulate the value of things that people don't like," Rabin said.


Back in 2011, when seemingly everything was going wrong in Rabin's life, his wife, whom he refers to by the pseudonym "Cadence" in the book, was the only person who could ground him.

"She was the one connecting me to the rest of humanity," Rabin said. "I was losing my (mind), but I had this wife who understood me."

In large part, he felt lost because she wasn't with him. Her love of Phish in high school and college set him out on a quest to understand how someone he adored could enjoy the notorious jam band's music. Their shared amusement over Insane Clown Posse's over-the-top music video for the song "Miracles" partly inspired Rabin's decision to add the Juggalos to the narrative.

Rabin's journeys with "two of music's most maligned tribes" yielded more than a book. Soon after returning from the 2011 Gathering of the Juggalos, he asked Cadence to marry him, and they commemorated the occasion by going to a Phish show that night. The couple celebrated their first anniversary July 3; the same day Phish's tour kicked off.

Since writing the book, Rabin accepted a position at The Dissolve, a new website dedicated to film.

"I found my destiny (writing this book)," Rabin said. "I found what I am supposed to do in the universe, which is to be empathic and compassionate and to be a champion, because there are already enough things in this world that people just pan and assume are awful."

Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.

"You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me"

By Nathan Rabin, Scribner, 272 pages, $16

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad