The Legend of Giant the Jack-Killer

by Whatsblem the Pro

Chicken John Rinaldi -- PHOTO: Chris Stewart

Chicken John Rinaldi — PHOTO: Chris Stewart

People talk a lot about translating their Burning Man experiences to their lives outside Black Rock City, but given the breathtaking diversity of what people take away from Burning Man, that can mean a lot of things; some interpretations are fairly accurate reflections of a large percentage of burner viewpoints; some seem way over the top or even downright silly, like when people get the notion that burners should never, ever sell anything to each other, ever, for any reason. Burner diversity means that if we want to get at our commonalities, we have to take a broad view of things.

Not much is universally applicable to burners; we might get close, though, by saying that burners tend to do the things they do in an active/aggressive manner rather than a passive one. Feeling small and alone and powerless is for other people; we know we are giants, and we behave accordingly, for better or worse.

Civic pride is one of the more obvious manifestations of that oh-so-zesty active/aggressive attitude toward daily life that year-round burners have in common, and last Wednesday night a sleepy little coastal hamlet called San Francisco, California got a lovely example of it, albeit from a man who would surely curl his lip at me if I called him a burner.

John Rinaldi never needed Burning Man to unlock his creativity or his dynamic nature; he is more of an originator of burner culture than any kind of convert. His own civic pride seems to know no bounds; he even ran for mayor of San Francisco once upon a time, and unleashed a zombie flash mob on the debate proceedings as part of his campaign.

When Chicken John heard that corporate chain Jack Spade was moving into his neighborhood, displacing local small businesses and threatening to further infect his demesnes with that dreadful sameness one sees in strip malls all over the country (and the world), he didn’t sit and cry about it, and he didn’t start making plans to move elsewhere. . . he got off his ass and did something about it.

Long story short: Jack Spade will not be opening a store in John Rinaldi’s neighborhood.

How did one man manage to stand off a billion-dollar corporation bent on invading the Mission District? By his own admission, he didn’t, not really, not all by himself. . . but he did rally a tremendous amount of support, and managed to put some formidable pressure on Jack Spade. I’ll let John speak for himself on all that:

The representative from Jack Spade that was at the hearing on Wednesday night was standing around afterwards chatting. Someone handed her this flyer:

And she said: “Yeah. I think we are going to pull out.” With no irony, she said “pull out.” The comedy here is amazing.

Yesterday morning, the CEO from the parent company that owns Jack Spade wrote a letter saying they surrender. We won the hearing, and thus we were in a power position to annoy the shit out of them for six months or more. Meanwhile, that $12,000 a month rent is really starting to add up. . . all the calls and letters and e-mail were probably clogging up their days as well. In the end, we’ll never know if it was this flyer that pushed them over the top. . . but I’m going to say it was because it’s funny.

Tonight our activism is a victory lap, but don’t think for a second that we are done fighting chain stores. There are two pieces of legislation that the Board of Supervisors will be voting on November 25th. There is legislation to be re-worded. . . and there are safeguards that need to be put in place to protect us from carpetbagging interlopers.

So even though we won, and Jack Spade is not opening in the Mission, the Jack Off is ON!!!! Come. Or cum. Or whatever. And know that anything is possible. You can bend the will of a billion dollar company by threatening them with a circle jerk everyone knows you can’t deliver on. If that is true, and we have proven that today, what else is true that we thought impossible?

Forty-eight people in sailor suits forever changed the direction of the Mission district by altering the path of a chain store worth over a billion dollars.

All you ever really need to do anything is a plan. No matter how stupid, insipid or impossible that plan might be. Now, this action wasn’t really the reason why Jack Spade “pulled out.” It was many little things, a few big things and this action came at the right time as the straw that broke the camel’s back. There was all the letters you guys wrote. There was the bombing of their Facebook page. There was the phone calls. There was the comments section of the articles. The bad press. There was the VCMA doing the appeals of their building permits. There was the members of the Latino Community that spoke out at the hearing, and Calle Biente Quatro. There was the letters from Supervisors, assemblymen and legislators. There was the people who showed up to City Hall and spoke. There were the merchants who put “no Jack Spade” signs in their windows. There was the t-shirt company that made shirts for free: Ape Do Good. Arin Fishkin graphic design. The Make Out Room for letting us have a benefit there (that paid for the appeal filings). There was the plea to action for the Mission Merchants Association (a cabal of landlords) that got the conversation going. And a bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting and even some stuff I probably don’t even know about.

The point is that we committed. We committed to do whatever it took to get it done. This is paramount. We stuck together and stuck it out.

What can you commit to that will make things better, in your home, your neighborhood, your city, your country, your world?

The View From Up There

by Whatsblem the Pro

Old Razorback, aka Trego Peak, shot in 2008 by Jedi Master Ratti

Old Razorback, aka Trego Peak, shot in 2008 by Jedi Master Ratti

Mark Phipps, John Phipps, Dallon Phipps, Kevin Johnson, and Meghan Johnson scaled Old Razorback (aka Trego Peak) this year to capture some poignant time-lapse video of Burning Man 2013 as viewed from approximately four miles away at an elevation of 5495 feet above sea level, or 1888 feet above the playa floor.

The climb to set up the cameras (and retrieve them after the burn) is dangerous and difficult; Old Razorback’s approaches are untrailed and not terribly stable. . . but a passion for both photography and Burning Man drove the group up the mountain to bring you a view you’d probably never see otherwise.

With a calming, chill-out soundtrack by Inspired Flight and Dusty Nix, the resulting video is a bittersweet meditation on the epic potlatch impermanence that marks Burning Man as utterly unique among festivals.

In 2012, a group with many of the same members made the grueling trek up the mountain to give us a time-lapse video of that burn.

As Jesus said to Peter while hanging on the crucifix waiting to die: “Hey, I can see your tent from here!”

Here’s the 2013 video:

Embedding has been disabled for the 2012 video, but you can still head over to YouTube to watch it.

Agents of Chaos, Assemble!

by Whatsblem the Pro

You are not authorized to read this book

You are not authorized to read this book

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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100% Genuine Santa -- Photo: Panda

100% Genuine Santa — Photo: Panda

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.

Al Ridenour's Art of Bleeding troupe makes it all better

Al Ridenour’s Art of Bleeding troupe makes it all better

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 -- Photo: Chris Stewart/Chronicle

Chicken John — Photo: Chris Stewart/Chronicle

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 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.

Yes Man assaulted by Hell Yes Women -- Photo: John Curley

Yes Man assaulted by Hell Yes Women — Photo: John Curley

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.

FREEBIRD ME, HONEY BADGER -- Photo: Leslie Benson

FREEBIRD ME, HONEY BADGER — Photo: Leslie Benson