Part merry pranksters, part societal dissidents, the members of the Cacophony Society are out for a little cultural tomfoolery. Rob Hill tracks the chaos and disorder.
December 14, 1997. Los Angeles, CA. 11am. It's a Santa apocalypse. The parking lot of CBS studios it swarming with hundreds of drunk Santa Clauses - riding skateboards and scooters, pushing one another around in shopping carts, and spraying each other with parry confetti. Across a football field's worth of pavement, the Santas are creating total havoc. A very tall, demonic looking Santa wearing an authentic Darth Vadar mask -- "Darth Claus" - immediately catches my attention. He is holding a sermon from inside a trash bin with a bullhorn:
Darth Claus 'wants to knew it you've all been naughty or nice this year!"
The crowd roars back. "Naaaughty!"
Darth Claus reaches into the trash bin, fills his hands with little mutilated dolls, and lets them fly, raining beheaded Barbies and Elmos all over the parking lot.
"Then go forth and be naaaughty!" he announces in a deep baritone.
I'm on my way to find Reverend Al, the so-called "camp counselor" for this bunch of renegade Santas. He told me the previous evening that he'd be the one "in the nice cashmere Santa outfit and purple hair." That hasn't helped so far. After climbing out of the trash bin, Darth Claus points me in the direction of the buses, where The Reverend is holding court.
The buses, rented by Al, are quite a sight: Three charters and two Partridge Family-style rides, lathered in white spray paint and Christmas decorations. One of the buses is mounted with a tawdry reindeer head on its hood.
"Okay," Reverend Al says, his voice booming through his hand-held mic. "First stop: Venice Beach."
The crowd erupts. "Ho-ho-fucking-ho!"
Tourists on their way into CBS studios to fulfill their dreams of being audience members for Wheel Of Fortune wave their filled-to-the-brim tourist bags at the flock of Santas. The Santas smirk back, hurling unwrapped candy and obscenities at the shocked tourists.
"We're here to take Christmas back from Hallmark!" screams St. Nicotine, a Santa who carries bags full of cigarettes to pass out as "bad will."
He reaches into his bag and begins handing out cigarettes to the tourists. He stomps up and down the line like an angry elf, his purple combat boots slamming against the concrete with obnoxious thuds, whistling the mantra. "Merry tucking Christmas! Here's a little coal for your lungs!"
The Cacophony Society, who are the organizers and participants of this second annual Santacon, do not consider themselves a cult. They are indeed a society. In fact, their mere existence is more a poke in the eye to all the David Koresh and Hale-Bop worshippers of the world than a salute to their grand narcissism and hubris.
Depending on who you talk to within the group, The Cacophony Society is either a loose fraternity of free-spirited pranksters out to have some fun, or an ever-growing secret society of Internet anarchists schooled in a subversive philosophy centered around dismantling cultural icons. Regardless, the group has caused enough "minor" trouble over the last couple of years for police departments from Los Angeles to Oregon to track their events.
While I wasn't sure if I should rent an authentic $200 Santa outfit or just throw something together, I did decide to attend their preliminary Cacophony holiday Arts & Workshop. There, a few days before Santacon '97, dozens of Cacophony members, including secretaries, retail workers, single moms, movie people, bus drivers, stock brokers, out-of-work artists, and law clerks got together and made the gifts for Santacon: torn and mutilated dolls, old broken toys, coal, creased pages from porno mags, and things made from everyday trash. They hummed along like happy little helpers and talked excitedly about the upcoming event. It was a far cry from the first few events held over a decade ago.
Tracing the buffoonery of the Cacophony Society back to its origins led me to a San Franciscan named Michael Michel - known as "M2" to the group. lf there is a gentle patriarch or silent leader of the group (the society prides itself in having no titles for anyone), it is M2. He informed me that The Cacophony Society, founded in 1986, is actually the offspring of an earlier group known as the "Suicide Club." The Suicide Club was an extremely arcane and adrenaline-seeking group of a dozen or so who held outings in abandoned buildings and tops of high edifices, often organizing the events under the cover of black, fog-heavy midnight evenings in San Francisco. (Their first event, headed by a crazy adventurer named Gary Warne, involved him and three friends holding onto a handrail at the sea wall below the Golden Gate Bridge as 20-foot waves broke over them.) But then, just as mysterious as their events were, the club disappeared, leaving no trace until nine years later
"I was in a grocery market," M2 remembers, "and I saw a Xeroxed sheet stuffed on the magazine rack that stated that, 'The Cacophony Society is a clearinghouse where anyone who wants to do anything creative, entertaining, or adventurous involving other people can list their event.' It sounded so much like the defunct Suicide Club. I managed to get my name on the mailing list."
In no time, between his myriad day jobs of being a plumber, electrician, clown, and "time traveler," M2 found himself partying with a couple of dozen other members at midnight barbecues under the Golden Gate bridge; setting up fake Macworld booths at computer shows; holding treasure hunts in junk-filled warehouses; and setting up an "official" shredding booth at an Ollie North speaking engagement. But as the events got better and weirder, strangely their numbers began to decline.
"I finally came to the conclusion," M2 says, "that the group was too closed, too secretive."
Then, in 1990, M2 began to circulate the now infamous green and yellow Cacophony newsletter around the Bay area. (M2 also posted hundreds of fake flyers which read; "LOST PYTHON 15 FEET LONG. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CATCH ALONE!!! REWARD $300." It caused a mild paranoia around the city for a couple of weeks.) The newsletter was eventually eclipsed by the power of the Internet, which linked even more people and ideas up with the Cacophony Society. The society was now up and running, with events attracting hundreds of eager participants.
"We were helping people break free of their thoughtless, mundane existences," M2 says. "It was such a release."
Kandy Klaux, who is on her umpteenth Cacophony event, is excited. She's thrilled to see 400 crazy Santas taking over Venice Beach. In many ways, Kandy is the typical Cacophony member: She likes the events because she finds them a good way to just get kooky and forget about reality. They have provided a sort of sorority girl-like camaraderie in her life. By day, Kandy is an account executive for a rather large company in San Francisco and answers to the name Candace Locklear. She gives me her card to prove it. But today, she's just Kandy.
"It's been such a great year for the group," she says. "We'll probably have a 1000 member event this year," she says, her Dr. Seuss hat pulled down over her eyes.
As the procession of Santas march down the boardwalk, beach denizens curiously peep their heads outside their dwellings. Even in surreal Venice Beach, Santacon is quite a spectacle. I decide to slog out to the beach with Long John Claus, a philosophical Santa hailing from San Francisco. Long John is part of a small group within the society that views these events as somewhat socio-political.
"The notion of Santa as this gift-bearing, avuncular, jolly guy checking in to see if you are good or bad is just... it's downright evil," Long John says. "It was created by a right wing drunk illustrator and a religiously fearful poet in the 19th century. He trails off to give a few passing toursists some rusty batteries from his gift bag and pose for pictures with his confused audience, then continues. "We're here to put an end to all that!"
And this isn't the only Santa event held in the world. In Germany, Poland, and Denmark there are Santa Cults, dedicated to tearing down this jolly icon, sometimes even using violence and thievery. But this Santa parade at Venice is relatively peaceful and entertaining, especially when a red wave of 300 Santas descend Lawrence Of Arabia-like over the dunes of El Nino-packed sand and into the glistening murky-blue ocean. They wade around, like plump seals, in the low tide throwing debris at one another, smoking pot, lighting fireworks, pulling each other's Santa pants down, kissing, yelling, and proclaiming their freedom. It reminds me of that scene in the movie theater in Gremlins: pure, unadulterated buffoonery no-holds-barred. Santarchy!
After making a brief visit to Muscle Beach, where one bulging weightlifter bench-pressed a Santa 100 times to rounds of applause, the group exits the beach with as much commotion as when they came.
"We will win!" St. Nicotine spits. "Merry fucking Christmas, Venice! Ba-ha-ha!"
Back in 1990, M2 had a vision at one of the events: Expand the Cacophony Society to other cities. He felt that thousands of other people were living conventional lives and needed to let loose. He planted the seeds in Los Angeles in 1991, by printing up flyers for the 'Brotherhood of Magnetic Light" and distributing them at a UFO convention. The flyer proclaimed that Jesus was landing in a spaceship near a local beach at 9:13 the next night. Then he waited for LA. to nibble.
M2, who was waiting patiently on the beach the night of the mock resurrection in his silver and gold lame jumpsuit, saw his vision come to life: down the moonlit-streaked coastline he saw a young and eager kid, "Reverend Al" swishing up the beach in a priest's robe. Behind him were dozens of other Jesus-seeking acolytes.
"That was the night me and Reverend Al really began to run with the concept," M2 says.
After L.A. was Portland. Then Seattle. Then Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Houston. The events starting getting small press in local papers and also began getting bigger attention by local police.
At last year's Portland Santacon, a few Santas were arrested for drugs and larceny. And in San Francisco, during another event, one member was taken in for possessing a concealed weapon.
It's here, especially in the case of the firearm, that the group has veered from the initial Mission Statement that M2 and the other founding fathers had.
"This is not about violence," M2 says. "This is about living a little The group was really founded on three premises: No financial profit can be involved in the events The events cannot propagate a religious point of view. And they must allow for active participation for all those in attendance."
When not organizing the Los Angeles Cacophony events, Reverend Al spends his days searching out computer graphic and freelance writing jobs. But all that takes a back seat when an event is in full swing. The events, he often laments, become a "fulltime gig." And today is one of those days.
It's now a month-and-a-half after the wildly successful Santacon, but there is an air of gloom floating around Al's living room, which also doubles as Los Angeles' makeshift Cacophony headquarters. Perched precariously on a hillside in Echo Park, Silverlake's considerably less hip and more anonymous neighbor, the house is a David Lynch wet dream. All the walls are painted blood red; dozens of Bibles stolen from hotels litter the floor, along with lizard exoskeletons, mutilated Star Wars figures, and fast-food wrappers. Looming largely through the haze of hundreds of other scattered items of cultural detritus, in one of the corners, is an original E.T. doll hammered to a 10-foot wooden cross. In Al's bedroom, where he types most of the newsletters and sends them out via [-mail, several Halloween shrinking-head dolls, looking like they were lifted from the back lot at Warner Brothers during the Ed Wood days of Hollywood, hang by nooses in the closet. Fifties Big Band music floats languidly through the room.
The few remaining participants from the day's "Dog Event" glumly make their way into the living room. Dressed head-to-toe in dead-on dog outfits - with paws painted on their hands and feet for full effect - the group looks like they just stepped off the set for a Saturday afternoon kids' show. But the day didn't go very well.
It all started for the canine-clad group at an uppity dog show in Beverly Hills, the kind whore immaculately trimmed dogs prance up and down a faux runway and are judged by equally manicured judges who make entirely too much money doing whatever they do when they aren't judging dog shows. The Cacophony members, in their show of dismay for such superfluous displays of high dog maintenance, stood on the perimeters of the runway and barked and growled at the real dogs that were showing their wares.
"No one so much as raised a toupee, one member mumbles from behind a poodle mask.
Then, after hanging out at the Beverly Hills post office and barking at all the incoming and outgoing postal people, the group headed for the Beverly Center to hit a "puppy sale" at PetCo.
"We like to go to large indoor places because this is the best place to get a large-scale reaction from people," Reverend Al informs me in his usual even, matter-of-fact style.
After yelping, sniffing, and lifting their legs in mock peeing stances for half-an-hour with little reaction, John, one of the more adventurous members, began to "doggy-masturbate" on a PetCo employee's leg.
"The guard finally told me to stop," John says from behind his beagle mask. "So I just started barking in his face for, like, ~n minutes, lifted my leg, and then we split. Not one of our best days."
Santacon '97 is the biggest Cacophony event to date. With over 300 Santas proudly cramming on a Northwest flight, they had only one main goal on their way to L.A.: to ambush the Scientology Winter Wonderland site, one of the most photographed and well-attended Santa events in the city.
The three buses pull up in front of the Mann's Chinese Theater and deposit the troops at the feet of dozens of Asian tourists taking pictures. After posing for a group shot, The Santas spill onto Hollywood Blvd., stopping traffic as they cross the street for their ambush on the only Santa Claus on the street who actually took a class to proudly don the red and white. In about one minute's time the placid Winter Park is flooded with impostor Santas. Like killer ants descending on a carcass, they conquer quickly and ravenously. The flabbergasted and petrified Scientology Santa disappears amongst the chaos. One Santa - "Santanonymous - climbs to the top of the seized throne with his bullhorn and holds a sermon:
"We have a dream! Our dream is to take Santa back. You shouldn't just accept the Santa you were given. He is a figure invented to control and scare you. There is no one Santa flying around the North Pole... we are ALL Santa I San talujah!"
Just as he's getting downright Apostlelike, the cops arrive. A herd of policemen approach the throne.
"Come down! Now! And give me the bullhorn!" one cop blurts. Santanonymous complies.
The scene mellows. "I don't know what's going on here, but it will stop - and you will disperse... NOW!" the cop orders.
In about three seconds, the scene is vacant, looking like the day after a carnival. The rightful Santa is rechristened, but visibly shaken in the midst his trampled and torn wonderland.
"Who the hell were those guys?" he mumbles.
Most of the Cacophony events are dreamt up by a member and then dispersed by Reverend At via the Internet or newsletters. Whether it is a group of six slathered with mud walking down Rodeo Drive the week of its big sales or a couple dozen crashing a corporate company's Christmas party dressed as animals and getting liquored up on expensive champagne, the events usually end in confusion and mayhem.
"One of the oldest tricks in the books to show up at an event and say you are there to perform for 'John' or 'Billy' and before anybody finds out you're a fraud, the damage and fun has been had," says Adam Bregman, a.k.a. "Asswipe."
Asswipe has been doing Cacophony projects for three years now and has become quite a legend for his clown events. Some of the most successful and unpredictable Cacophony events have been the clown days. Makes sense: Like Santa, clowns are a well-known American icon with. certain built-in notions and means of decorum. Just the perfect kind of ammo to wield on an unsuspecting and confused general public.
For instance, last Septernber a mass of clowns gathered in downtown L.A., where a group of striking bus drivers were picketing for higher wages. But the clowns brought their own signs that read: CLOWNS ARE BEING ABUSED BY LOW WAGES AND FORCED TO BECOME ALCOHOLICS and SAVE US! WE'RE AMERICA'S LAST CLOWNS! They spent the whole day picketing with the bus drivers, and actually gained more support by the hollering passers-by than the disgruntled drivers.
"The clown events have really been a highlight for the Society," Asswipe says. "Because, after Santa, clowns are America's next most recognized icon."
Santacon ends at a sleazy strip joint on Sunset Blvd. A couple hundred Santas sitting elbow to elbow watching the girls undress to nine inch nails and Van Halen is a sight for sore eyes. I order another round of Jaeger shots and enjoy the festivities. (The other halt of the group has gone up to the Griffith Park Observatory to reenact the knife fight in Rebel Without A Cause.) It is now close to 2 A.M. and Reverend Al looks happy and content1 like the victorious coach of a Little League team, as he sits in a booth and nurses a glass of water
"There's only been one arrest and two fights,'1 he says, proudly.
The arrest was for drug possession. But the fight?
ttA couple of drunk Santas got beat up in the mosh pit at a punk show at the Palace," Al says. "A few black eyes, bloody noses, bruised ribs.. no big deal."
So why do ya still do it, Al? I mean, hasn't the initial rush worn out over the years?
"It's fun," he says. "What else would I do? In the next year this thing might be huge, nationwide. Something that will link a lot of souls."
Tonight that's evident. The Santas, many of whom do not even know each other, have bonded like giddy school girls Even if they have different philosophies regarding the society, which many do, just by attending they automatically become a beloved brother or sister.
"I took forward to these events like I used to look forward to my birthday as a child," Kandy says to me, before darting for the strip stage as the first notes of "Just A Gigolo" trickle through the room.
I know the night's coming to a close because the Santas have started to tip the girls with Monopoly money and are now undressing in a virtual Saint Nick strip show - as hats, beards, and boots begin to come off and tall to the runway. The owner of the club comes over to our table to give us the boot.
t'Okay, buddy, that's it. You've had your fun. Now get these assholes out of here before I call the cops.
Al gathers the group and heads out to the buses in the parking lot. The night has turned chilly and many of the members are now only half-dressed, looking like an armada of drunken deadbeat Santas at the end of the holiday season. The gang is heading back to their hotel for a little late-night swimming and "Santa sex. ', It is definitely time for me to exit. I say goodbye to Al as he swings into the driver's seat of one of the buses and lights a smoke. He looks beat.
"See ya, man," he says. "You're now an official Cacophony member. We're having an Easter event. So make sure you get a bunny outfit...."