From left: Jessika, Peggy, Zachary, Sara, Shira, and Ray hang out on the Big Fun front porch in April 1996. (Courtesy Big Fun Glossary)
Big Fun: Zachary was heard answering the telephone “Big Fun,” and quickly that name stuck as the name for the isolated yellow house in the middle of the blowing field on Fairview Farms north of Scottsville, Virginia, wherein lived The Pegger, Sara, Jessika, Zach, and Josh.
Sometime in the late ’90s, while searching online for information on getting high via over-the-counter drugs, I stumbled across a bizarre website detailing the adventures of a bunch of punk rock kids living in a big house in the country, right outside my hometown of Charlottesville. The website was called The Big Fun Glossary, an alphabetical list of terms and definitions and tales of “impromptu punk rock concerts, Dextromethorphan chug-fests, Nomadic Festivals, nazi skinheads, and (most importantly) record alcohol consumption.” It was something I’d dreamt of finding for a long time—a perfect bohemian scene hidden right in my backyard. Only, by the time I’d found it, it was already gone. All that remained was this crazy website.
Have you ever had a period in your life, be it several years or a single day, when, in retrospect, everything that happened seems to have been of utmost importance? Despite the drama, the craziness and perhaps the very real harm that was done, looking back it all seems so beautiful and golden that you wish you could keep it forever, like a flower frozen in amber.
The Big Fun Glossary captures just such a moment: “state-of-the art youth hedonism” as practiced in Charlottesville in the mid-’90s. It reads like a reality show version of On The Road, a devil’s dictionary filled with gossip, social criticism, and philosophical musings, where people with names like Morgan Anarchy and Diana the Redhead live in a state of enlightened poverty and angry joie de vivre, hoisting jugs of cheap wine like weapons in a war against the straight-laced forces of oppression.
UVA: At Big Fun, UVA is seen more as something to be mocked and exploited than revered and attended. Part of that mocking was well accomplished the night that Morgan, Ray, and others thoroughly spray painted the Rotunda, the holiest of holies wherein lies a copy of (drum roll) the Declaration of Independence, signed by Thomas Jefferson on July 4th, 1776 (a fact that makes the United States of America a Cancer).
This particular moment in time began in the fall of ’95 and ended in the summer of ’96, a roughly eight-month period that Gus Mueller, the author of The Big Fun Glossary, now sees as a turning point in his life. Banned from Oberlin College for lighting his dorm room on fire, the 27-year-old was living on his parents’ farm outside of Staunton. Bored and broke, he began driving over the mountain to Charlottesville, where he met Jessika, Sara, and Peggy, three refugees from suburban Pennsylvania, aged somewhere around 19, known collectively as the Malvern Girls.
Having been kicked out of several residences in town owing to the noise, fights, and general chaos that seemed to follow them wherever they went, the Malvern Girls decided to escape to somewhere isolated, a punk rock Walden where they could pursue inspiration and intoxication without anyone bothering them. They found what they were looking for just north of Scottsville: a two-story, yellow farmhouse in the middle of a field that became known as Big Fun.
There might be a God after all: On days following the use of Tussin, the weather always seems to be warm and sunny, even though most of the winter of ’95-’96 has been horrible. For some reason, the Gus feels pleasant and content after a night of Tussin abuse, and he is given to saying such corny things as “there might be a God after all.”
Gus has always compulsively documented his life, largely through daily journals he’s kept since basically forever, but also by painting and the creation of countless websites. When the Malvern Girls and their motley crew moved to Big Fun, “[t]hings,” the glossary tells us, “gravitated increasingly towards anarchy,” an anarchy that Gus began to immediately try and capture. “I was fully immersed, of course,” he said. “I wasn’t completely remote. But it definitely felt like it was a project for me.”
The denizens of Big Fun seemed to have their own language, an ever-evolving argot with a heavy emphasis on astrology. Gus began collecting interesting words and phrases and laying them out in the form of a glossary. The fall of ’96 was warm and beautiful. Gus would arrive for the weekends loaded with provisions filched from his parents’ kitchen. There was a “disastrous” housewarming party, and trips into Scottsville to frighten the locals. The drug of choice at Big Fun was Tussin DM, an over-the-counter cough syrup containing Dextromethorphan, which in large quantities causes a dissociative, hallucinogenic high. Many days were spent under its influence wandering through the woods and exploring abandoned houses. “When you’re on Robitussin,” Gus said, “everything feels like you’re in The Wizard of Oz.”
Glossary, The: Opinions on the glossary are varied. Sara Poiron, who resents her definition, has said “I hate the glossary.” When Jessika let everyone at the C&O read an earlier version of the glossary, they all said the same thing, “That guy sure has a lot of time on his hands.” Jessika’s mother found the glossary useful because it built a linguistic bridge across an otherwise uncrossable generation gap
At first the glossary contained only 150 words. Sneaking into the UVA computer lab, Gus would print out copies and hand them to various people to read. The glossary is hilariously unfiltered. Real names, real opinions, even real e-mail addresses are used. Some complaints were registered. Aaron the SHARP (Skin Head Against Racial Prejudice) threatened to break Gus’ hands, although he never did. Most definitions were left unchanged with the complaints added in italics. “When you write something about people, nobody’s going to be happy with it,” Gus said. “I mean, I’m going to hate this thing you’re about to write.”
In May of ’96, local musician Jamie Dyer used his job at Comet.net to put the glossary on the Internet. The Web was still in its infancy then, and the first digital iteration of The Big Fun Glossary was one long page with almost no pictures. Still, it was thrilling for Gus to see his work online. “The Web,” he said, “was amazing to me in those days.”
Gus also got a job at Comet.net. Tasked with staying up all night to guard the computers against catastrophe, he was basically paid to work on the Big Fun Glossary. “They were paying me $6 an hour,” he said, “so they didn’t expect much.”
Tattoo: Everyone thinks ‘Big Fun’ would be a good tattoo, but what would it be like having that on your arm even 10 years from now? And ‘Big Fun” just invites trouble when we inevitably end up in prison.
The finished website contains 666 terms, lots of pictures and no ads. It’s a sprawling, labyrinthine entity, filled with internal links enabling the reader to navigate by whim, moving from word to word with no need for a beginning or an end.
Matt Farrell, owner of Hypocrite Press and himself part of the Big Fun scene, has turned the website into a book called Concerning Big Fun, purchasable from lulu.com. But to truly experience the glossary, you should follow the advice at the bottom of its introduction: “This is a post-modern work whose design encourages jumping around and even accidentally missing parts. Whenever one reads anything, one zones out and misses parts, so missing parts of this literature is not something to lose sleep over.”
Punk rock: Idealism has been seen as ineffective (just look at the ’60s, man!), and the only solution is to withdraw from society. For example, at Big Fun, news is completely ignored and any new weather system that comes through is a complete surprise. Should the fascists take over completely (and they almost have), no one at Big Fun will be aware of it until the tanks come rumbling down that long dirt driveway.
A host of problems contributed to the end of Big Fun, but the biggest was the record-breaking cold that winter.
“People were just kinda like wearing lots and lots of layers under blankets, with electric space heaters blaring in their rooms with the door shut,” Gus said. “Their electric bill one month was like $2,000. …So they just didn’t pay it, ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 19 and you have an electric bill you can’t pay. And so then another month came and they didn’t pay that one, and eventually the electric company turned off the power.”
“It was just unlivable. No toilets were flushing, they were shitting in the woods.” And so everyone went their separate ways, and the Big Fun moment was over.
Big fun: A state in which for the most part all the people participating in an event are not bored, angry, sad, or asleep. When big fun is obviously no longer present, it is customary for Sara Poiron to say, “big fun has left the building.”
Gus is now 44 and living in upstate New York, where he’s a database developer. His wife Gretchen is a poet and teacher at Bard College, helping local prison inmates get degrees. They do not have children (they’re “philosophically opposed to reproduction”), but they do have five cats and three dogs. When asked where he was educated, Gus is fond of answering, “At Big Fun.”
If you were alive and young in the ’90s, The Big Fun Glossary rings astonishingly true. It is, I firmly believe, a lost Gen X classic about a small but vital part of Charlottesville’s history. But even if you never had a mohawk or listened to Nirvana, there’s much to enjoy and learn swimming down its chaotic streams. The Big Fun Glossary is a field guide to joyful anarchy and a perfect portrait of a long gone, golden moment.