By Any Means Necessary
Steven Johnson Leyba still keeps his first controversial artistic creation on his desk, a deer skull impaled on an evil-looking shape of bent tubing, with the tongue-in-cheek title of "The Last High School Student." When he was a shy high school art kid in Camden, Ark. -- just spitting distance from Bill Clinton's hometown of Hope -- this sculpture was shown in the school's display case, next to the football trophies. Students were horrified.
"What the hell is this?" he remembers them saying. "What's up with this guy?"
People still ask such questions of Leyba's art, but now they're not high school students, they're scouts from Hard Copy. They're reporters from the New York Times. They're know-it-alls from the Art Institute, squeamish PC members of the local S/M community, members of the Mescalero Indian tribe, registered San Francisco voters, friends of Jack Davis.
Yep, he's that guy.
The whiskey-up-the-butt Indian guy with the horn-rimmed glasses, the guy who put the town back on the butthole map. Everybody likes a little attention once in awhile, and right now Leyba's gotten so much, he's turning down CNN.
He's a nice enough guy, but the bedroom walls of his Mission flat radiate a visual assault that could send weaker souls scrambling for their moral code -- devils, shadowy oil paintings of hairy anuses, a banner with Indian swastikas, a framed certificate from the Church of Satan. On the desk is a handmade leather holster, inside of which is nestled the notorious Jack Daniels bottle (now under exclusive contract to CAA). Next to it are some 6-inch-thick books he calls "multimedia appropriation," their gloppy pages laden with heavy oil paints, beadwork, hair, and images and articles snagged from magazines. This pack-rat form of expression, Leyba explains, most likely comes from his Uncle Joe, who, he remembers, was obsessed with constructing collages of the career of Brooke Shields.
"I found that fascinating," Leyba says, smiling.
Despite what you might hear in the news, Leyba does more than tricks with sour mash products from Tennessee. His appearance was a hit at the recent Burning Man festival. The 1970s American Indian Movement guys are big fans of his work. His paintings are owned by everyone from directors Clive Barker and David Cronenberg to H.R. Giger, Stephen King, Joel-Peter Witkin, and William Burroughs. He's contributed illustrations to many magazines, including High Society, Honcho, and Critical Visions; the most memorable may be a cover he created for The Advocate's "Is God Gay?" issue.
But nothing has resonated with people as much as his Apache Whiskey Rite, the latest addition to San Francisco's over-documented Kooktown reputation. When Leyba says that seven generations of his family have all succumbed to the white man's hooch, there's a tongue-in-cheek tone to his voice, but it's also true.
His family has alcoholics all down the line, and he knows he's got the demon.
"If alcohol's gonna fuck me," he smiles, "it's gonna fuck me in the ass."
As Leyba and I chat, a pair of devil horns appear over the top of his mohawk, courtesy of roommate David Aaron Clark, whose sly account of the Davis party in the Spectator is one of the more sane versions extant. Apparently, it's time to view what the rest of the country is talking about. We file into the living room to watch the infamous Davis soiree -- 15 minutes of surreptitiously recorded tape that KGO-TV reporter Dan Noyes was willing to pay $1,000 for. (The offer was gleefully refused.) Sitting on the sofa brushing her hair is the third roommate, writer/performer Danielle Willis, who also plays a role in the Ritual That Shook the Bay. The following description is not for the faint of heart, but if you've read this far, you're obviously curious in each and every detail of the big stink, so here goes:
An image pops on the monitor: Leyba in his loincloth and headdress, approaching the stage of the Furniture Mart, where his band, the United Satanic Apache Front, is playing.
"There's the chubby, angry Indian," teases Clark.
Leyba chides his own visage: "Hey, that's not an S/M regulation mask!"
A dominatrix appears, disposable surgical scalpel in hand, and proceeds to carve a design in Leyba's back. Blood rivulets trickle down his skin in straight, even lines, looking oddly like an aerial shot of the Bay Bridge on-ramp at rush hour. On the audio track, an audience is applauding and cheering. So far, this could be any club in SOMA. The dominatrix then squats down and pees on the whole mess.
I ask if it hurts. Leyba replies that it actually feels pretty good.
The woman then scoops up the goo with a Tibetan bowl, and Leyba drinks the concoction. He pulls out a copy of the Declaration of Independence, announces, "I dedicate this to the Republic of Texas," and begins rapping some curse on the United States. Things grow chaotic and surreal. The microphone is abruptly cut off, signalling that the performers should cut to the chase, and an unseen DJ starts playing the Janis Joplin song "Me & Bobby McGee." No sign of Jack Davis.