A caravan of 70 San Franciscans, cruising a desolate highway in Northern Nevada, halts in a swirl of dust at the edge of a dry lake bed. Car doors open and everyone piles out. With the toe of his cowboy boot, a man draws a long line on the arid desert floor. The group gathers silently along one side and grabs hands. One, two, three... as a single entity they step across the line. “Yahoo!” “Yeah man, we’re here!”
They’ve entered the Cacophony Zone.
The caravan drives on across the dead lake, a gold Volvo coupe leading the way, a sand storm billowing in its wake. In the middle of nowhere, the caravan stops again; cars, trucks, and vans form a circular encampment, creating a tiny village in the barren desert.
“Lawrence of Arabia” erects his domed pup tent. Across the compound, Louise, in yellow and pink harem garb, spreads lambswool rugs beneath a canopy. Nancy tends to her pots of cacti. “They had to come along, this is their home,” she informs. Phil dons Arab headgear. Margo parades by with a parasol, but Margo is only Margo when she wears her long black wig, so for now she is Jane. For this event anyone can be anyone and many go by nom de guerres. Props are part of the trip, but then it isn’t just a trip, it’s a Cacophony event.
As “Moses” puts down his divining rod, the coolers appear and the beers start to disappear. Next to the camp Larry Harvey supervises the building of a gigantic wooden man. Sven plays drums and Ron, the Dadaist poet, watches John sand surf. After a game of croquet,
Nancy and Steve wander off for a splash in nearby hot springs.
By sundown the next evening, the wooden sculpture is finished and lays stiff on the sand like an enormous wooden corpse. It’s time for a cocktail party. The nomads exchange their desert gear for elegant cocktail dresses and formal evening wear. Beside the supine wooden figure, a man in a white tuxedo chats idly with a women in taffeta and pearls. Then the call goes out, everyone grabs onto a long rope connected to a rotating jib and pulls. Slowly, as the last purple and orange rays of light fade from the desert sky, the wooden man rises to his feet. He towers more than four stories high. Moments later, Dave Warren, a fire-eater, blows an enormous torch of flame from his mouth, igniting the sculpture. Against the starry night, The Burning Man soars to life. “His groin burns blue as flames ascend his spine. His arms outstretched, reach upward and the fire, flaring red about his heart.”
Meet the SF Cacophony Society, a randomly gathered network of free spirits. They are united in the pursuit of experiences beyond what they see as the pale of mainstream society. They are the Merry Pranksters of the 1990s. They travel through the social landscape, dispensing a variety of mind challenging activities to everyone. You may already be a member...
“Burining Man, Zone Trip #4” was an elaborate Cacophony Society event. “Event” is the catchword used to describe adventures, projects, and pranks. Events have included a canoe ride under the piers, a night of surrealistic theater as written by the audience, a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party on the Embarcadero Freeway, a walking tour of Oakland’s sewers, midnight picnics, the Atomic Cafè, a Golden Gate Bridge dinner party, and a midnight laundry bash. A Cacophony event is anything the mind can imagine and the body can execute. Anyone can join in. Anyone can give an event. Indeed, you may already be a member...
“You could say that a lot of the events are like the experiences you’d have while taking drugs, but without the drugs. The events themselves make people look at things differently,” explains “M-Squared,” a society member for the last two years. “A lot of us grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s. We were exposed to a barrage of alternative ideas. Now as we mature, we aren’t going to settle for the norm.”
There are few organized aspects to the group, but among them is the newsletter, Rough Draft. In it upcoming events are communicated to 250 or so member/subscribers. There’s also a monthly meeting at the Common Grounds Coffee House on Hayes Street where ideas for events are formulated and organized. Planning an event can take weeks or months- and includes everything from assessing the dangers to scouting out the perfect location and renting equipment. Once a new person starts showing up, it isn’t long before the old hands start asking hopefully, “When are you going to give your event?” The only constraints on events are that they can’t be commercial, nor may religious or political groups use events to propagate their views. “We give events to challenge the mental set of contemporary society,” says M-Squared. “We break ordinary reality either for ourselves or other people. We challenge reality, stretch it, twist it.”
Enter the Unknown
Tonight we will delve into a nether world of shaded grey where all is silence and death walks behind you!
You will need:
(1) All black or dark clothes with a comfortable fit.
(2) Good shoes or boots that you don’t mind getting dirty.
(4) Valid ID.
Your host: Sebastian Melmoth —Rough Draft, December 1990
About 25 people gather in the chilly night air at Lincoln and 7th, a favored place of convergence. Blindfolded, they are driven to a predestinated location, Then, hand- in-hand, they are led down a hill, through mud and along a gravel path.
Finally they are allowed to halt. “Okay, you can take off your blindfolds now,” invites tonight’s host. The participants find themselves in a dimly illuminated, wooded area (which turns out to be Golden Gate Park (near the windmills). Sebastian Melmoth (not his real name) hands out tarot cards, and whoever picks the card Death is “it.”
“I hope I get the death card,” someone whispers.
“Whew,” someone else sighs, “I’m just a zombie.”
Melmoth calls out, “Let the game begin!”
Within the boundaries of the playing field, the “zombies” shuffle around trees and paths, merging into the shadows or, for the more adventurous, stalking Death. Once again, there are few rules: no running or talking. Should Death manage to sneak up and squeeze your shoulder, you die. The victim must let death escape by first counting to 30 before emitting a blood curdling scream and falling to the ground. The dead stay where they fall, silent until the game is over. In order to kill Death two zombies must point him out at the same time.
“We live in the kind of society where you pay other people to entertain you,” says Melmoth later. “You pay to go to a movie someone else made, or pay to go to a play, or pay to see performance art. That’s all great, but it’s not something that you’re doing. You’re sitting there watching images and ideas that someone else went through enormous amounts of anguish and grief and creativity to create. It’s their thing that you’re experiencing. In an event, initially it may be the idea of two or three people, but the best ones are those that everybody gets into, interacts and are doing... physically doing themselves. Events are an incredible experience.”
Melmoth breaks events into several categories: infiltrations (like joining the Moonies); street theater; games in weird places and costume; and exploring bizarre environments. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else. It’s a great way to socialize. It’s a way of getting people together that isn’t based on money, commerce, or the desire to have sex or whatever else normally gets 42 people together.”
The Cacophony Society’s roots go back to a stormy night in January of 1977. Four friends went to Fort Point underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, to the place where in heavy weather the ocean’s waves would hit a concrete pad below in the surf, splash up 30 feet in the air, and then crash down on top of anyone standing there. The four clung tenaciously to the ruined iron railing that once secured the area while the waves threatened to drag them into the treacherous surf and certain doom. Later that night, huddled around a fire with hot drinks, they formed the Suicide Club. Its members were asked to “put their worldly affairs in order and live each day as though it was their last.” The Suicide Club was a totally exclusive, infamously secretive, underground club that bathed in rumors of illegal and dangerous doings.
Melmoth along with 40 others went on the first mass Suicide Club initiation. “We were blindfolded and taken to an undisclosed place (Fort Funston), led over a narrow beam (in a parking lot!”) then taken underground, given one match and told to find our way out. After three hours of total darkness, groping along, I saw this tiny light. I’m walking toward it with this person... holding her hand but I didn’t know who she was... had never seen her... and we’re walking towards this tiny light. Then this figure with a shroud blowing in the wind stepped into the middle of the light, it’s getting bigger and bigger as we get closer and closer. Then the figure walks away. And we’re outside. It was a pretty mind boggling experience. I decided at that point that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to start doing events right away.”
The Suicide Club was composed of college-age, college- educated, pre-career people, says Melmoth; people a little too old to be hanging out in the Haight and a little too young to be in business. Drugs were forbidden on events- in part because the event was supposed to produce “the trip” and in part to avoid hassles with police. “The group was just adventurous, took a lot of risks. For the first three years, it was great being a secret society. We could get by with doing a lot of things because no one knew about us. But it was very insulated and that’s what killed it,” he continues. “As the years went on we became too ingrown.
“Cacophony is a lot more open, especially to the world at large. People know who we are and what we’re doing. We communicate and get together with other groups to do events. That’s something the Suicide Club never did. Cacophony interconnects and intertwines with a bunch of smaller groups, serving as an umbrella to make things happen. By not being as secretive and paranoid as the Suicide Club was, we don’t have as much to fear. We’ve been able to integrate with a real mix of people who we wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise. And that’s great because out of ten people, maybe one has an instantaneous mindmelt with the group. They go, ‘hey, this is great. This is what I want to do.’ Then give events and open our minds up to new things.”
Gothic Nouveau Winter’s Ball
The notes of airy waltzes, steamy sambas, and pounding trash rock filter across the waters of a dark lake to call those who would and will to dance. Don your (warmest) finery, bring a snack to share, and a chair to the rotunda at the Palace of Fine Arts. Some dances will be taught so that all may engage in dancing regardless of the number of left feet. The music’s taped, the dress creative and the mood festive.
Info: Yahoon Doorstop
From Rough Draft- December 1990
“From a social standpoint, Cacophony provides friends,”
says M-Squared, as he takes a breather form dancing.
Under the lit dome, four circles of dancers, some in
baroque ball gowns and pantaloons, skip and sashay as
if Louis XIV were holding court. “It’s a society, a kinship.
In general, those in Cacophony are more open and
sincere, that is, accepting and less judgmental. There’s an atmosphere of trust. We don’t judge on lifestyle, money,
or looks. It’s the individual character and imagination
that matters. You can be a real misfit or oddball and you’ll 43 be accepted.”
“There are some people who are really unusual and seem gifted in some way,” agrees Louise Jarmilowicz, an artist. She is the current editor of Rough Draft and specializes in such events as the Haute Trash Fashion Show and Midnight Laundry. “Through the group they can express that. They blossom. It may not be noticeable right away. That’s kind of fun. Every time someone comes in, they have their own imagination and ideas that no one else has ever thought about. It’s very exciting because there’s always an unknown factor.”
“Beyond that, if you’re shy like I am,” adds M-Squared, “Cacophony helps us challenge ourselves to participate.”
Bar-B-Que on the Edge
Meet: Bouncers Bar, 64 Townsend St.
In the spirit of previous Midnight Picnics, we will gather for a late night meal in a picturesque, industrial setting. This particular spot is located on the water (swimming is not suggested), where wild plants meet abandoned machinery. Bring food and drink, something to barbecue, and suitably appropriate tales to read or tell. Wear dark clothes.
— Rough Draft, May 1990
“I’ve always looked at this city as an urban environment, an urban playground,” says Melmoth. “You look at places that people don’t even think about, that are completely negative places in the daily life of commerce living. Those are the places that I look for- underground, behind buildings, on top of buildings, in abandoned buildings, in between freeways, under freeways. Places that you don’t even know exist. I think about what event I could give there.
“We were at an abandoned pier for a Midnight Bar-B-Que, you had to sneak out on to it, walk on this little trail along a fence then climb over a railing and go out on this rotting pier. About 150 yards away under the freeway overpass there was this encampment of six or eight guys, most of them Vietnam Vets, and I’m 95 percent sure, really heavily cranked up on speed. Speed freaks. They had all the markings. Really dangerous people. And we were
44 doing an event with 20 or 30 people on the pier!
“I knew that they might be a problem beforehand, so I just walked over and talked to them. I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have 20 or so people walk through here around midnight, having a bar-b-que. How about it? Why don’t you come over later for a beer?” They left us alone.
Probably because they thought we were weirder than they were,” “It’s not for everybody.”
The BART Lounge
Hey there, you truly fabulous people! BART is going to Vegas! This will be a truly incredible evening of entertainment, when the evening commute BART train is transformed into a Las Vegas-styled lounge. We are looking for three sorts of people to join in:
1. If you have an act (comedy/magic/showgirl-routine, or any other entertainment), be prepared to perform.
2. If you want to be part of the atmosphere, come decked out in your best Vegas wear (Iowa house-wife, lounge lizard, eloping couple, cowboy, etc.).
3. If you want to dress “straight,” we do need plants to blend in with commuters. Remember, you in the audience are the ones we truly, truly love the most!
Cost: 85 cents if you get on & off at different but adjoining BART stations (ex: on at Powell, then go to Glen Park, off at Montgomery).
Info: Dwayne & Dusty.
— Rough Draft, January 1991
Chris couldn’t believe it. On his commute home from San Francisco to Concord, there was this woman in a bushy brown wig and slinky, pink lounge gown singing into a microphone with her partner, a tall blond-haired man in a white and gold tuxedo, while parading up and down the aisle of the BART car. A cigarette girl, more of a woman really, sauntered behind, two rats crawling across her wooden tray of goodies. Another man handed out a questionnaire: What kinds of acts would you like to see on the BART Lounge? Should we designate any BART cars as non-entertainment? Are you interested in becoming a BART Lounge entertainer? Suddenly, the cigarette girl was on Chris’s lap. “Those your rats?” he asked. She chuckled, “Naah, I just found them in the trash. Chocolate?”
Weirdness feeds on itself, goes the saying, and Cacophony upholds the theory. Everyone encourages, even competes, to be slightly more outrageous. “Have you ever been to Britain?” asks Alexander, Rough Draft’s first editor and producer of Ritual Lying, Midnight Picnics, and an Absinthe Literary Party. “Eccentrics, who are basically people with an idiosyncratic vision, are tolerated, even cultivated there. The U.S. is shifting towards a more centralized concept, everybody is thinking the same thing. I think there’s still room for people to be eccentric, for individualism. But less than there used to be. Maybe Cacophony provides that, a place where people who have their own strange vision can be together.”
Sometimes their strangeness attracts the REALLY strange, even too strange for Cacophony. “We tend to draw weirdos and kooks,” says M-Squared with a laugh. “And the authorities,” he laughs again. “But as long as people aren’t violent or too disruptive, we try to remember that we’re all equal. The main thing is that people are interested in getting together and experiencing events.”
In these serious times, the question often asked is: wouldn’t all that time and energy be better directed into the pursuit of something of significance? Alexander replies, “Cacophony is a place to be amateurish. There’s a real drive, even among the whimsical, to be very professional. And that can be intimidating. In Cacophony there’s definitely a playfulness.”
Alternative views, eccentrics, creative, accepting—of course, The City is the natural place for a group with such adjectives as these. “San Francisco has always been a boomtown, a place to go to make your dreams and indulge in your grandiose impulses,” says Larry Harvey, artistic creator of The Burning Man. He joined forces with the Cacophony Society to stage “Zone Trip #4” in the desert. “The City is a place where people are tolerated-in the old days because you had to, if you didn’t your neighbor might shoot you. It’s more of a small town than big city. Small enough to create a community, which also creates tolerance. You can come here and be whatever you imagine yourself. There’s so much diversity that co- exists here. Cacophony represents that—a society of free spirits. Where else would they exist? Cacophony is made by the same instincts that started the Beatniks and Hippies.
M-Squared concurs, “All the weirdos have come West.”