The Cacophony Society
Special Note: The definitive and out-of-print book, Tales of the SF Cacophony Society is being reprinted and will be available in soft-cover on July 1, 2019.
The Cacophony Society combined art and theater in mischievous ways. They outlined bodies on sidewalks and glued toasters to walls. Once they set up a booth offering “Free Casts—arms or legs.” They claimed that a fake injury was all the rage, and they would offer to help passers-by come up with an epic tale to explain their improvised misfortunes. They paraded the streets as a legion of drunken Santas, which continued for many years Santarchy and SantaCon. At the Bay to Breakers run in San Francisco, people dress in salmon costumes and run in the opposite direction as the racers in a Cacophony tradition, now adopted by the wider public.
While transgression or and law breaking was accepted, overt political statements were discouraged. They held a pigeon roast next to a PETA protest in Union Square and staged a Republican rally in People’s Park (ground zero for hippies in Berkeley). Neither of these acts was meant to be political, they were meant to be works of art and fun. Whimsical shenanigans, tomfoolery, and hi jinx were the modes of operation of the Cacophony Society.
Following the end of the San Francisco Suicide Club (SFSC) in 1983, several former members began to discuss what would become the Cacophony Society. In August 1986, Louis Brill contacted Lance Alexander inviting him to participate in discussion about forming a new group. They, along with other former SFSC members that had been mulling the idea of a new club met over coffee to discuss ideas and in September 1986, Lance Alexander penned the original manifesto for the group, using “Rough Draft” as a placeholder name (see insert). (Lance later proposed “Cacophony Society” as the organization’s name, keeping Rough Drafts as the name of their newsletter.)
The first meeting of the club consisted of Jean Moshofsky, Louise Jarmilowicz, Lance Alexander, Louis Brill, Sandy Hatch, Saffron Jeziorski, Joe Weinstein and John “Pepper” Dowdell. They discussed what they wanted to be, what elements of the SFSC they wanted to incorporate and where they wanted to be different. The SFSC had become very insular, avoiding publicity and having virtually no rules and no formal management. Nonetheless, by the time of its demise, almost all of its events were being hosted by a small group of people. Some viewed the lack of openness to lead to a stale membership base (see the announcement of the SFSC’s demise here). In late 1990, Alexander put forth his views on the club and its directions, and solicited member input (the full exchange is archived here).
Following the end of the San Francisco Suicide Club (SFSC) in 1983, several former members began to discuss the idea that would eventually become the Cacophony Society. In August 1986, Louis Brill contacted Lance Alexander inviting him to participate in discussions about forming a new group. They, along with other former SFSC members, met over coffee to discuss ideas and in September 1986 Lance Alexander penned the original manifesto for the group, using “Rough Draft” as a placeholder name (see insert). Lance later proposed “Cacophony Society” as the organization’s name, keeping Rough Drafts as the name of their newsletter.
In September 1986, the first events were hosted. A “Par Course” was held on September 13, where participants would traverse the city in a scavenger hunt styled event. A mask making workshop and a midnight picnic were held, and finally an event called Norm’s Theory Shoppe, where participants were invited to bring three outlandish, but plausible theories, money for beer and their best “question-asking” abilities rounded out the month.
In October 1990, Lance began talking with The City Magazine, a San Francisco publication that was interested in doing an article on the Cacophony Society. In November, he penned a letter outlining his motivations for doing events (see insert). In March 1991, the article was published, and Michael Mikel and other Cacophony member graced the front pages of the magazine, a photo by Bart Nagel, the former art director of Mondo 2000 magazine. A careful eye will pick out Lance Alexandar, P Segal, Steve Mobia, Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith, Ron Rosen and Rob Schmidt. (Read the article here).
Cacophony in the City Magazine
Cacophony continued to growth through the 90s, with events like public protests against Fantasia, claiming to represent parents upset how frightening it was, environmentalists outrages that it encouraged water waste; obesity activists peeved with the mocking of dancing hippos. They seeded the crowd with compatriots to get in yelling matches with the protesters, and got covered in Time. And then were covered by the Wall Street Journal for fooling Time. Other Cacophony antics are covered here.
Less publicly advertised, the Cacophonists were explorers of SF’s abandoned buildings, stores and bridges, events often lead by John Law. Colorful costuming and absurdist theme parties built around cultural icons such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Twin Peaks, public treasure hunts and celebrations of lost American junk culture were part of the repertoire.
1907 Golden Gate
A run down large home presided over by P. Segal at 1907 Golden Gate Avenue near Baker Street became a center of gravity for the Cacophonists as well as other progressive members of the San Francisco arts scene.
Right after the ‘89 earthquake, the Mission district of SF was empty at night, with rooms available for $250 a month. Earthquake and gang wars led to an exodus, widening the nice for the more daring or reckless to move in, giving them space to work, build, and play in. Nancy Phelps remembers “You always felt safe. Everyone was friends. If you went through the sewers, you knew the person at your back was really at your back.”
The living room of 1907 is where Burning Man, and many other events were planned. Read more about 1907 Golden Gate here.
The Zone Trips
Carrie Galbraith was a Cacophony member that developed a taste for Russian literature and film making, who became nearly obsessed with the film Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s poetically beautiful and visually striking film, in which two men are led by a guide into forbidden zone, where the mysterious and bizarre are common place. In the Zone the men seek “the Room” a place rumored to fulfill one’s most deeply held desires.
Carrie had been actively hosting Cacophony events, and had desired to do an out of town excursion. She learned that Phil Bewley, a fellow member has from her home town of Covina, and decided to host the club’s first road trip there. Covina did not hold a fond place in Carrie’s heart; she remembered smog, police harassment, the lack of diversity and moreover an emphasis on conformity. Returning to Covina would be a trip to a Zone; a place of uncomfortable oddness,
Burning Man (a/k/a Zone Trip #4)
In June 1989, Cacophony first advertised the Baker Beach Burn to be held on June 24, the Saturday following the June 21 summer solstice. The following year, Cacophony’s involvement expanded, with a call for volunteers. Cacophony members helped with the construction, hosting a pre-burn event, and providing some security for the event by posting members with walkie-talkies to watch for police.
The 1990 event was held, but the Man was never burned due to the arrival and intervention of the park police (read about the event here). At the Baker Beach burn, P Segal, Kevin Evans and John Law approached Larry Harvey, and suggested that they bring the Man to an event they had planned over labor day in Black Rock Desert. A detailed account of how the event ended up at Black Rock can be found here.
The first event in the desert was a decidedly Cacophonist affair. It would not be a stretch to say the first Burning Man was a cacophony cocktail party featuring the burning of a wooden effigy.
The Cacophony Society shaped and ran most of the operations of Burning Man for its first six years in the desert. For the first two years, a majority of the participants were Cacophony Society members, and the vibe was distinctly that of a Cacophony event, with guns and fireworks being featured. John Law made much of the logistics happen, and was the primary interface with locals in Gerlach, helping delay the inevitable intervention of law enforcement.
Tension began to grow between Larry Harvey and the Cacophony Society within the first few years, with Larry beginning to see the event as more of a large scale art event, and wanting to move away from the “orgy in the desert with guns” image that was beginning to develop for the event. Larry privately complained about the mentality of some Cacophony Society members, suggesting that inappropriate behavior was being excused by people who were part of the “cool kids” (aka, Cacophony Society members). Larry would cite one example being an event where Joe Fenton (aka “JD Boggman”) fired a gun close to Kevin Evan, temporarily damaging Kevin’s hearing. Fenton’s behavior, Larry suggested, was excused by other members, because of his relationship and stature in the Cacophony community.
1996 can be seen as the breaking point for the Cacophony relationship with Burning Man. In that year John Law and other Cacophony members left the event following death of Michael Furey, the growth of the event beyond its original vision and the personal tension among the founders. A full account of the 1996 Burn, including the death of Michael Furey, can be found here. With Law and many other Cacophony members leaving Burning Man, the event’s metamorphosis toward its current incarnation quickened.
Desert Site Works
By 1993, William Binzen had discovered Cacophony. Binzen, a professional photographer, had developed the idea of gathering artists together in Black Rock Desert for a week, to create art and share ideas. A central premise of the gathering is that everyone would be a participant… there would be no spectators. Binzen had the idea, but needed assistance to gather the people to make the event happen. Having become familiar with Cacophony, as seeing them as a resource to help his event come to life, Binzen began to attend Cacophony events and enlist their help to build his event. Using the “open studio” event in San Francisco (where artists open their studios to the public), he and the Cacophony members helped recruit a team of participants, and in 1993, the first Desert Site Works (DSW) event was held. Among other artists, John Law created two neon pieces, one underwater.
DSW was held three times, each a different hot springs around Black Rock Desert. The final gathering was held contemporaneously with Burning Man. During the DSW years, Binzen and Larry Harvey began to have regular, extended lunches talking about the idea of building a larger scale art event. Binzen suggested how to organize a city around art, and together they sketched out ideas for a city plan that would eventually become the basic design of Burning Man. Through DSW, Larry met Pepe Ozan, who would go on to bring the first large scale art to Burning Man, as well as organize the Burning Man Operas, the first large scale performances held at Burning Man.
Growth of SFCS Beyond San Francisco
Cacophony began to spread, thanks in large part to efforts of Mikel. Part of his greater vision for Cacophony was to establish franchised branches in cities over the United States. He started a newsletter and used the limited media coverage of certain outings to help achieve this vision. One person who heard about Cacophony was a man who would become known as Reverend Al.
Alan Ridenour found a stack of Cacophony fliers at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, some of which had left by Cacophonists who had visited the area for Zone Trip #1, the first formal Cacophony road trip and others had been left by Michael Mikel, bored during an extended work trip to the LA area. At the time, he didn’t realize that this group only existed in San Francisco, imagining instead a web of secret organizations spreading the country. After sending letters with ideas for pranks and events to the PO Box listed on the flier and getting no response for months, he began to question whether the flier had just been a prank. However, Mikel eventually reached out to Al and together the first escapade of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society was planned and executed by Ridenour, who adopted the Cacophony alias of “Rev. Al.”
At the first event, Cacophony members passed out fliers at a local UFO devotees’ convention, claiming to be the Brotherhood of Magnetic Light and promising a Space Brother landing at Dockweiler state beach, a beach that is beneath the takeoff path from Los Angeles International Airport. At the beach they assembled a two-hundred-foot aluminum-foil cross on the hillside and piled it with flowers and burning incense. Rev Al. reported to Brian Doherty in This is Burning Man:
“We created a magical Christ icon - a plaster Tijuana Jesus with a walkie-talkie shoved up his ass. When an acolyte would approach it with his walkie-talkie on, it would produce this interference squelching sound… I began speaking in tongues. Rich Polysorbate of course starts shooting fireworks into the air for no reason. Then [Mikel] came running up the hill in a silver suit babbling about how is spaceship had crashed.”
Ridenour bristled at “info packs Michael would send about how to run things, as if I’d become an Amway salesman.” Instead, he notes “I did try to adhere to some of the principles and thoughts from the official propaganda. I did use some of their catchphrases as I saw fit. Some of it struck me as too fey, too much of a dancing-on-the-rooftops flavor.” Rev. Al’s directions was decidedly less whimsical than his San Francisco counterparts.
Branches also started in Portland and Seattle. The Seattle chapter was founded by Yahoon Doorstop and Bob Campbell, a former Suicide Club member, and administer of the Suicide Club’s website (extended archive of which can be found here). A New York chapter followed, founded by William Abernathy, Julia Solis, Caution Mike Connors, Ducky Dolittle and Chris Hackett. Detroit and other cities followed with smaller groups of Cacophonists.
In 1996, the Cacophony Society established its first website, which still exists today here. In December 1998, a new website was launched at http://www.cacophony.org/. In 2011, a Facebook page was launched. In 2018, a website to promote the Tales of the SF Cacophony Society book was launched, and remains active with events that might be of interest to Cacophony sympathizers.