by Whatsblem the Pro
The Cacophony Society is a venerable but obscure institution that can lay claim to being the very origins of Burning Man, art cars, Santacon/Santarchy, the Billboard Liberation Front, urban exploration, culture jamming, and more, with strong ties to organizations, traditions, and phenomena like St. Stupid’s Day, zombie flashmobs, Survival Research Labs, the Church of the SubGenius, Fight Club, etc. The Society can also legitimately take some serious credit for the resurgence of circus/freak show/burlesque troupes across the nation and around the world.
The San Francisco Institute of Possibility, led by Chicken John Rinaldi, presented an “unauthorized book release party” at the Castro Theater in San Francisco last weekend for the release of TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO CACOPHONY SOCIETY. Whatsblem the Pro attended.
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When I first heard that the Cacophony Society was having a book release party in San Francisco, I imagined a modest get-together of perhaps forty or fifty people at a place like City Lights Bookstore. Apparently, that’s what the book release party at Ferlinghetti’s Folly was supposed to be like: tweed, elbow patches, plastic cups of Cab-Merlot, little squares of fontina cheese with toothpicks in them, something light and unobtrusive on the stereo, and a lot of polite reminiscence about how much fun everything used to be.
Chicken John had a different vision; a bigger, bolder vision. . . so he shamelessly hijacked the event. At Chicken’s behest, approximately a thousand walking anomalies, professional raconteurs, semi-human chimerae, stump preachers, miscreants, miscreations, amateur inventors, bons vivants, characters, loners, part-time zombies, sports, morlocks, kooks, crackpots, anti-human racists, beatniks, geeks, Overmen, neodadaists, giant ants, screwballs, underground celebrities, common deeves, Situationists, Groucho Marxists, burlesque mutants, renegade federal agents, sign-wielding protestitutes, and other assorted weirdos invaded the Castro Theater and filled that hallowed hall (and the sidewalk out front) with a veritable bacchanal of conceptual and sartorial mayhem, in celebration of their tribe and people.
And of course, they shilled the book. Hard. Chicken John is, after all, nothing if not a consummate showman, and well-endowed with the appropriately hucksterish skills and instincts that go with that.
If you’ve never heard of the Cacophony Society before, or only have a rough idea of its history and purposes and accomplishments, then you’re quite mistaken if you think you know much of anything about Burning Man. For instance: perhaps you are under the impression that dictums like ‘Leave No Trace’ and ‘No Spectators’ are a Burning Man thing; of course they are, but we got them directly from the Cacophonists who first introduced Larry Harvey and his Man to the Black Rock Desert. John Law, one of the triumvirate that originally founded the Burning Man Org, is a very prominent Cacophonist. . . and he is a co-compiler and editor of TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO CACOPHONY SOCIETY. Without Cacophony, there would be no Burning Man, plain and simple. Cacophony is nothing less than the root of the many-branched tree of weirdness that makes life tolerable for those of us who realize that the Apocalypse has already happened.
Once I had a firm grasp on the scope of the event, I knew I had to be there come Hell or high water. An appearance by THE YES MEN was promised, as were performances by the likes of Al Ridenour and his brilliant ART OF BLEEDING troupe. POLLY SUPERSTAR was on the bill, and the Reverend IVAN STANG, spiritual leader of THE CHURCH OF THE SUBGENIUS, was rumored to be hosting, accompanied by Church luminaries PHILO DRUMMOND and the formidably erudite DR. HAL ROBINS.
Chicken John – whose sole failing as a carny is his unflinching generosity – graciously offered me a free ticket, and this bit of largesse cemented my resolve to make it to the show in spite of the fact that I was determined not to use that ticket under any circumstances. No; I was dead set on infiltrating instead and being a part of the show, a performer without portfolio, as unauthorized as the event itself.
To this end, I arrived early, and simply walked in amid the hustle and bustle of staff and crew getting ready, as though I knew what I was doing and was supposed to be there. Having located a coatroom backstage where I could stow my gear with that of the other performers, I changed into my favorite evening wear: a fully-accessorized Santa suit, paid for with the Burners.me credit card – still uncomfortably hot to the touch – that nestled in my Santa hat with the rest of my valuables. I wore my costume with the confidence that can only come from having True Santa Nature, an epic beard, and the assurances of the staff at the costume shop that my outfit had indeed been laundered since the last Santa threw up in it. They told me they went the whole 9 yards on the clean up job, they even used the best beard oil on the costume!
I spent the next two hours hobnobbing, palavering, flirting, exploring the Castro Theater, and joining the other performers in entertaining, confusing, and harassing both passerby and people waiting in the long line out front that snaked around the corner onto Market Street. . . and then, suddenly, the doors were flung wide, the line began to inch forward, the theater seats were filled. The show began in earnest.
After that, I can’t remember much. There was some sort of film playing, I recall, with a spinning hypnomat filling the screen as a man’s voice droned on and on from the surround-sound speakers. A strange odor filled the air as some kind of gas began to quietly hiss its way out of the ventilation system in smoky tendrils. Strong men first pounded upon, and then hurled themselves at, the oversized theater doors that led back to the lobby and safety, but to no avail; the Castro is an old theater, built well and well cared-for. The doors held; my head reeled.
Glimpses of half-remembered scenes that swim up from the darkness that followed are all that is left to me now: Andie Grace tucking a dollar into my Santa belt as I performed a wholly involuntary St. Vitus’ tarantella; Andy Bichlbaum, surrounded by a bevy of adoring painted harlots, tearing his own face off to reveal the face of Jacques Servin beneath it; Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond gently extracting an “ordination fee” from my nerveless fingers; a bizarre but tender assignation backstage with a honey badger (call me, honey!). A man covered from head to toe in bandages and wielding a keyboard and joystick seemed to be controlling all my movements.
When I awoke, I was in an alley in downtown Reno, soiled and disoriented. A hardbound copy of TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO CACOPHONY SOCIETY lay open before me in my lap, silently exhorting me to “DO YOUR DISHES.”
There seem to be some recordings on my phone, with time/date stamps that indicate they were made that terrible evening as I languished in some kind of nightmarish state of induced fugue. Stay tuned; once I’ve had a chance to listen to them I’ll let you know if they reveal anything of importance.