My first time was at The Alibi, a Polynesian-themed bar in North Portland. A friend had found a flyer stapled to a telephone pole. “Free Voodoo Weddings,” it said. “Tiki-Con.” The flyer promoted a night of retro-jungle music, nothing racist-racist, just the brooding fantasy music you’d hear in the soundtrack of Tarzan movies from the 1940s. Luau music with chattering monkeys and screeching parrots mixed in the background.
The Alibi seemed the perfect place for it, a bar built to cater to Greatest Generation service men returning from the Pacific Theater, all plaster-of-Paris volcanoes and papiermâché hula dancers glowing, lurid, under black light. I kid you not, the salad bar is a repurposed wooden lifeboat. Picture Trader Vic’s but in the wrong neighborhood.
Whatever this Tiki-Con was, it sounded like zany fun. People in Berlin have an old saying: “Berlin runs by many clocks,” meaning they have lots of nightlife options. Maybe in Manhattan you could dress as a slutty chicken and boogie, suspended inside a go-go cage at the Limelight, but you’d be surprised how few choices people in Portland, Oregon had on a Friday night in 1993.
So we went to The Alibi, and we went early and claimed a big booth in the middle of the action and ordered drinks that arrived in life-sized ceramic skulls. Drinks that smoked with dry-ice fog, like a mad scientist had mixed them. I wore a Hawaiian shirt. I wore a puka shell necklace that I’d bought before they were ironic, back when the best way to get laid was to look as much as possible like Christopher Atkins in “The Blue Lagoon,” back when white people still dreamed of going native.
The people who’d organized Tiki-Con: the Cacophony Society, they called themselves. They looked like they didn’t care how they looked. Like they never went to the gym or counted calories. When they tried to dance, it was even worse. They flailed, and not in an angry-mosh-pitpunk-rock way. They spun their record albums of weird Hollywood paradise music and hopped around flapping their arms or they puckered their lips and pretended to be tropical fish.
They danced like Special Olympics.
These Cacophony people, they were so un-cool they made even me look cool. Goodness, they were pitiful. So my friends and I, we drank our Blue Hawaii’s, and for an hour we were the cool people at least in comparison to the people who were hosting the party. But then the actual cool people began to arrive – late, like they always do – and they wore miniskirts or Jordache jeans and sneered at everything, like they always do.
They took over the dance floor. They took over everything.
All through high school I only pretended to cheer at pep rallies and football games. While the crowds roared, I merely gaped my mouth open and shut, fake-cheering, like someone choking to death on a fish bone. If that makes me a misanthrope – not being thrilled to adore and applaud the people whom the culture already adores – so be it.
So we were booth hogging at the Alibi, and the perfect people flooded in and turned a wacky Friday night into just-another-boring-beauty contest. They posed and preened. The Cacophony people got squeezed into a smaller and smaller corner, but they persevered. The jungle music kept playing, but you couldn’t really hear it. Not even the trumpeting elephants, not anymore.
As advertised, someone began to officiate “voodoo weddings.” A voodoo witch doctor wearing a necklace of animal teeth stood above the crowd and chanted mumbo-jumbo. Men married women. Women married women. People married themselves. Not that the milling hordes of beautiful people even noticed. No, they’d arrived and kept on arriving, turning Tiki-Con into just another banal mating ritual. Really, isn’t that what everything devolves to for those people? Another showcase for hook-ups? A hipster shop window for flaunting clear skin and thick, glossy hair. Biceps and boobs. Boobs and biceps. Pose, pose, posing.
That’s when the impossible happened. The room was packed beyond fire codes, every molecule of breathable air displaced by a fog of Giorgio and Polo, and not even the servers could squeeze through to replenish our Singapore slings and zombies. Just when it seemed as if we’d be hemmed in forever by these tedious breeding rites… the witch doctor stopped his gibberish sermonizing and threw a handful of something over the heads of the crowd. This clump of something scattered into a cloud of wet mini-things that rained down on the perfect rockabilly haircuts.
The witch doctor threw another handful, and more mysterious somethings splattered the scenester crowd. A profane anointing. One of the soft fragments went splat on our table. And there it was: A wilted, blue bowel. A loopy length of wet intestine. Next to that landed a tiny lung. A gizzard splashed into a friend’s Rum Collins. A bloody heart plopped into a Long Island Iced Tea. Real blood in our fake skulls. It was chicken guts. Giblets filled the air. It was that movie, “Carrie,” only in reverse.
It was chicken guts. Giblets filled the air. It was that movie, “Carrie,” only in reverse.
Instead of the cool kids putting the spastic on stage and pelting her with gore, this was the social reject delivering the offal. The thatched-roof, South Sea ambience was filled with screams and slaughterhouse odors.
Another detail you never get from movies and the Internet is how things in real life smell. It smelled awful. It was a hipster stampede. The formerly chill’n play-ahs, they climbed and clawed over each other in their fight for the exit. The outsider misfits had baited and successfully sprung their voodoo trap.
There was a lesson here: Homemade entertainment versus store-bought. Actual cool versus the appearance of being cool. Finally, the misanthropes had won. The football stars and cheerleaders were routed. It was Cacophony, and I was hooked.
There was a lesson here: Homemade entertainment versus store-bought. Actual cool versus the appearance of being cool. Finally, the misanthropes had won. The football stars and cheerleaders were routed. It was Cacophony, and I was hooked. Here was an escape from the treadmill of always looking good and always looking good and always looking... In the Cacophony Society you could embrace the terrible.
Today, I see a little of this same genius in the zombie culture, where people lurch around with their insides on the outside, but in 1993 we didn’t have zombie walkathons and zombie conventions. In 1993 we had Tiki-Con.
Here, you could propose an idea, any scary, ridiculous stunt – What if we dressed as Mad Hatter characters and played croquet with bowling balls and sledge hammers? What if we rode kayaks through the sewers? – and days later, people would create that scenario as a new, short-lived reality. It was a laboratory for experimenting with the culture. And for experimenting with ourselves. In so many ways, it was my inspiration.
You don’t say anything because fight club exists only in the hours between when fight club starts and when fight club ends. Still, as my mother used to warn me, “It’s always fun and games until someone loses an eye.” The trouble was my friends didn’t laugh. They couldn’t see anything beyond their ruined drinks and the stains on their clothes. They saw no benefit in having their innards on the outside, even if it was just for a couple hours. The good news is that I made new friends.