Burning ‘Bob’: Cacophony, Burning Man, and the Church of the SubGenius

by Whatsblem the Pro

The Holy Seal of the Church of the SubGenius -- Image: CotSG

The Holy Seal of the Church of the SubGenius — Image: CotSG

As our regular readers will recall, Whatsblem the Pro attended the shenanigans at the Castro Theater in San Francisco last weekend, where Chicken John Rinaldi’s Institute of Possibility staged an unauthorized guerrilla book signing to celebrate the release of TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO CACOPHONY SOCIETY.

After being trapped in the theater and subjected to some sort of experiment at the hands of amateur scienticians, Whatsblem awoke, his memory mostly a blank, but his phone filled with unusual pictures, videos, and audio recordings.

I haven’t slept since I woke up in that alley in Reno after the Cacophony Society “book signing.” My hands shake as I pick up my mug to gulp down yet another sour mouthful of black coffee, but I dare not sleep until the work is done. My phone is full of weird and mostly inexplicable artifacts documenting the time I spent drugged and under some kind of alien control at the Castro Theater, and I know that I must warn the people of this planet of the horrors that threaten them from every side (but mostly from the in-side). The lingering after-effects of the drug are terrifying all by themselves: existential warts, intense olfactory hallucinations, fleeting involuntary glimpses into the raw minds of passing strangers. I look down, and see that my body is covered in sores and boners.

Among the relics of my induced fugue state I discover an audio recording in which I can hear my own voice – though weirdly altered – and another voice I recognize immediately: Ivan Stang, nominal head of the obscure religious cult known as the Church of the SubGenius. A careful listening reveals the identity of the other speaker as Philo Drummond, co-founder of the Church. Dr. Hal Robins, reputedly the true brains behind not just the Church of the SubGenius, but the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission, the Rosicrucians, the Raptor Conspiracy, Opus Dei, and even the dreaded Fearrington Homeowner’s Association, was apparently lurking nearby.

Read on, if you dare.

Image: CotSG, via Jack T. Chick

Image: CotSG, via Jack T. Chick

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Philo, how do you draw the Venn diagram between the Church of the SubGenius, the Cacophony Society, and Burning Man?

PHILO DRUMMOND: I would say they all represent a certain counterculture perspective that is an eccentric perspective, and then there’s a lot of pranksterism and creativity involved. That’s probably a good overlap, if you were to draw the diagram of intersecting circles.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So it comes down to pranks.


WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I think that’s a very major, possibly even main artery of burner culture, but it’s under constant assault by people who think Burning Man is a hippie festival, who go out there thinking it’s all about peace ‘n’ love. Do you struggle with that at all within the Church? I mean, not necessarily peace ‘n’ love types, but people coming in with assumptions about what you’re doing that aren’t necessarily valid or accurate?

PHILO DRUMMOND: Oh, we already knew in advance there would be those kinds of people. Any organization attracts those kinds of people. We tried it minimize it from the beginning by positioning ourselves as an organization of non-joiners, people who don’t want to be part of another organization. That helped limit it; it kept those people out of it.

The joiners that join – versus the non-joiners that join – they stand out like a sore thumb. We call them ‘Bobbies.’ Their money is green, and we like that about them, but they’re still, y’know. . .

Philo Drummond -- Photo: SubGenius.com

Philo Drummond — Photo: SubGenius.com


PHILO DRUMMOND: Pink-souled. Yes.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So they become a resource, really, and don’t do you any harm.

PHILO DRUMMOND: They don’t really do us any harm, no, except as part of the Conspiracy. . . but that’s what they are by default. They’d be part of the Conspiracy whether they joined us or not.

So yes, I think we have some of the same challenges as Burning Man, just not from a physical perspective; whatever it was, it isn’t the same thing now. . . but Burning Man has that continuity: it’s in the same place. People going out there and thinking that they have freedom.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: All the trappings of an Autonomous Zone, without the messy autonomy.

PHILO DRUMMOND: Right. It’s not autonomy out there. . . but it’s fun to think that it is. We like to fool ourselves into different types of allegorical scenarios, it’s fun to do that. We think we’re in this free society. It’s fun to think like that, like you can just go out there and do whatever you want, and everything’s going to be great.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: We have a lot of people who really guzzle the kool-aid and start thinking that the ten principles were handed down from God to Moses to Larry Harvey. They turn into burnier-than-thou “burner lawyers” on the Internet, chiding people about how they live because it doesn’t fit with their interpretation of this list of rules they’ve decided is sacred. Do you see that kind of thing happening in the Church as well? Is there actual Church dogma that. . . well, does anyone take any of it too seriously?

PHILO DRUMMOND: Oh yeah, there are wikis out there that try to take the Church apart. There are even college courses that try to dissect the Church and figure out what its true philosophical implications are, what its contribution is, from a cultural expansion perspective.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Given that art is sort of something that occurs in between the artist and the audience, what do you think of that?

PHILO DRUMMOND: SubGeniuses always like to blur that; they like to think of the audience and the artist as co-participants in a performance. The best SubGenius events are the ones where the audience is a full participant, or even transforms into the performance while the performers become the audience.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Very much a punk rock aesthetic as well. . . erasing the barriers between the stage and the crowd.

PHILO DRUMMOND: We actually had a band of about seven or eight individuals, and we’d invite members of the audience up to take over the instruments until we’d replaced every member of the band with members of the audience. . . without stopping the song! And so now the band is in the audience, the audience is on stage, and the song is evolving into something completely different and new from what it was.

Ivan Stang -- Photo: Scott Beale

Ivan Stang — Photo: Scott Beale

IVAN STANG: I remember once sitting back with you, and we were feeling so proud because we’d finally done that successfully. We had left the stage, and everyone else was taking over.

PHILO DRUMMOND: That was a great experiment. We didn’t know those people on the stage personally, but we were like “that’s OUR band up there. We MADE that band!”

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So what has it been now, thirty-one, thirty-two years of the Church of the SubGenius?

IVAN STANG: Thirty-three years since Pamphlet #1 was published. I actually picked it up from the printers on January 2nd of 1980, so it’s really easy to date that stuff. . . although Philo first told me about ‘Bob’ a couple of years before that. It just took a while to figure out the right approach for public outreach.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Is there a bit of Philo T. Farnsworth in the mix? “An experimental television of his own design,” etc.?


PHILO DRUMMOND: But television did figure largely in the whole Emaculation of the ‘Bob’ thing.

IVAN STANG: The number two man in the Illuminati, after Adam Weishaupt, was this guy named Philo Knigge.

PHILO DRUMMOND: Sort of. They had secret names. . . Adam Weishaupt’s secret Illuminati name was ‘Spartacus,’ and this guy Baron von Knigge had the secret name ‘Philo,’ after Philo Judaeus.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: That’s very telling, actually. I mean, aren’t we all Spartacus?

IVAN STANG: No, I’m Spartacus!

PHILO DRUMMOND: I’m Spartacus!


PHILO DRUMMOND: He’s– no wait, I’M Spartacus!

IVAN STANG: We’re Spartacus!


Photo: CotSG

Photo: CotSG

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So tell me straight. . . is it still fun?

IVAN STANG: Oh yeah, yeah! Although, I’ll tell you, I have as much fun being part of the Church of the SubGenius now as, as. . . actually, I spend about half my time now debunking the Church of the SubGenius. Or rather–

PHILO DRUMMOND: Trying to get the lies out of Wikipedia.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So, “re-bunking?”

IVAN STANG: The Wikipedia article is fine, except that they keep taking your name out, and I keep not putting it back in.

PHILO DRUMMOND: Not MY name; my Conspiracy name. They keep taking my Conspiracy name out.

IVAN STANG: Yeah, he wanted his Conspiracy name in there for some reason, and every time he puts it in, somebody comes along and takes it out. I fixed it once, but they keep taking it out and I keep forgetting to take care of that. I’m not a very good Sacred Scribe after all.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: There’s Truth with a capital ‘T’ and there’s truth with a small ‘t,’ and I think you’ve told the Truth with a capital ‘T’ here in these books, and they’re trying to tell the small-‘t’ version in the media.

IVAN STANG [sarcastically]: Yeah, and look how it’s selling! I brought four copies of THE BOOK OF THE SUBGENIUS and there’s still four copies sitting here!

PHILO DRUMMOND: Truthish. They’re sort of truthish.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: They have a certain truthiness.

IVAN STANG: They’re truthier than they used to be because they now finally have the Cleveland address in them.

PHILO DRUMMOND [holding up samples of sacred Church art]: These were designed to be xeroxed onto sticker paper so you could cut ’em out and lick ‘n’ stick.

IVAN STANG: Sticker paper costs too much. They’re still in the membership pack, but you have to bring your own Scotch tape. Sad.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: What else do you guys do? Have you got other projects going on?

PHILO DRUMMOND: Other projects. . .?

IVAN STANG: Actually, I’ve got a SubGenius movie script and a SubGenius video game concept, and we did do another whole book in 2006, the Bobliographon.

PHILO DRUMMOND: It’s just too easy to do anything you want to do, and then hang the SubGenius banner on it.

IVAN STANG: I actually spend a third of my year now hiking in national parks and then mailing this crap out from hotel rooms at night.

Buttons for 'Bob'

Buttons for ‘Bob’

PHILO DRUMMOND: Putting stickers on stuff.

IVAN STANG: Honest to God, my wife is retired and gets a pension, and as long as I keep mailing this crap, which I can do from the Internet as we travel around, well. . . I’m kind of partying my ass off, basically, after wasting my youth really working myself into illness on this stuff. Now I’m resting on my laurels and getting all the slack I deserve. . . but! There are all kinds of projects in the works; it’s just that we’re slow. We were always very, very slow. It’s ten years between those two books, and then the next book. . .

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I was kind of thinking of stuff like HIGH WEIRDNESS BY MAIL. I mean, I’m a member of the Flat Earth Society and have been for decades because of that book.

IVAN STANG: Well, the Internet kind of made that a redundant thing.

PHILO DRUMMOND: It wasn’t as overt, as far as being a SubGenius thing, you’re right about that.

IVAN STANG: You know what, though? It was really hard to be that sarcastic, it really was. When I was finished with that, I did not want to badmouth anybody’s religion again. In fact, that’s when I started badmouthing ours much more seriously.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: There’s precedent for that too. . . “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Pro Tip: Nuke Buddha from orbit -- Photo: CotSG

Pro Tip: Nuke Buddha from orbit — Photo: CotSG

PHILO DRUMMOND: That’s right.

IVAN STANG: Yeah, that was one of the first lines we ripped off. That was Philo’s thing, “if you meet Bob on the highway, kill him.”

PHILO DRUMMOND: We’ve killed ‘Bob’ so many times now, it’s amazing. It just seemed natural.

IVAN STANG: We do X-Day every year, and I do a new radio show every week, and he does a new radio show every week, so it’s not like we’re not doing anything. . . and a weekly radio show is a son-of-a-bitch!

Dr. Hal does TWO weekly shows.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: What a marvelous brain you must have. The three of you, I mean, together. Like, in a jar somewhere or something.

IVAN STANG: Yeah, if only Dr. Hal didn’t keep all the good parts for himself. He’s got most of ’em. . . but I’ve got the dick, and one of the balls.

[shouting] BUG PORN, ONE DOLLAR!

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Do you think there might be another revelation in the works? Something that might change the whole game?

IVAN STANG: There will be an announcement this summer at X-Day that will rock the Church.

PHILO DRUMMOND: It will rock the Church, that’s right.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Are you having X-Day in New York again?

IVAN STANG: No, we’ve moved it to Wisteria Campgrounds, in southern Ohio. It was in very rural New York. . . X-Day is always in a place that is very hard to get to–

PHILO DRUMMOND: And hard to endure.

IVAN STANG: It’s not like a sci-fi convention.

All aboard! -- Image: CotSG

All aboard! — Image: CotSG

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Is it growing every year?

IVAN STANG: No, it’s shrinking– or yes, it’s growing by one person every year. In 1998, like four hundred people showed up. . . and right after that, our business dropped by half, which made me think that maybe half of the people believed it, and were so disappointed afterward that they want away. So it’s like, that’s good, that we got rid of those assholes. Now, the real diehards come and wait for the saucers every July 5th.

It’s the only time of the year that I have to get up early. That one day of the year, July 5th, I have to get up at like six in the morning and go to work from like seven to seven-thirty. Then we go back to bed.

PHILO DRUMMOND: Until July 6th.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Do you feel some kinship with the Reverend Dr. Harold Camping over all this?

IVAN STANG: Well, really, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a longer track record of failed ends of the world than anybody, and they haven’t quit, so. . . one of our slogans is “we’re not going to let the Jehovah’s Witnesses out-kook us.”

PHILO DRUMMOND: Plus, we don’t necessarily think of failure as something to be sad about. It’s a learning experience. Failure is just success’s way of telling you that you’ve made a mistake.

IVAN STANG: We like to think of it as involuntary slack. If you lose your job, the worst thing that’s going to happen is you’ll get another job.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: There’s a bright side, too: you might not. . . and you don’t have to go to work the next day in any case.

PHILO DRUMMOND: Yeah, that is the bright side!

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So maybe, sometimes, if you succeed while you were aiming at something you only think you wanted, your success means that you’ve failed.

PHILO DRUMMOND: Yes. Ordinary paradigms of success are highly over-rated. Turn those high hurdles into low hurdles!

IVAN STANG: We tell ourselves that a lot, anyway. . . actually, I wouldn’t mind having millions of bucks. Then again, I’m already living the same way I would if I did have millions of bucks, aside from some of the little things. I’d still wash my own car. I assemble these membership packs myself; I’d still do that. There are thirty pieces that go into one of these things; you would think I’d have some Chinese kids doing it for me, but I actually do it myself, and – honest to God – it’s the only time that I get to listen to music.

PHILO DRUMMOND: You two will have to have more Chinese kids.

IVAN STANG: I was saying to my wife one day “Christ, I don’t want to be doing this when I’m sixty years old,” – which is this August, by the way – and she said “why not?”

And it sunk in. I really shouldn’t complain; once a month I have to assemble a hundred of these, and I spend about an hour a day filling orders, and I have to do the radio show. . . but that’s it! I can sit around in my house in my underwear; I’d be listening to music if I wasn’t deaf.

[At this point the recording becomes unintelligible as Philo begins recommending various footwear options – mainly clown shoes – for working in a home office setting]

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Ivan Stang delivers a rant on the subject of ‘Bobbies’ diluting and corroding the Church of the SubGenius, circa 1985:

SubGenius commercial from MTV, circa 1991:

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.

*         *         *         *         *        *         *         *         *

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 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.

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