Los Angeles is burning again, and don't be consoled that the flames from this edition of the city's favorite catharsis won't spread beyond an after dark party around the fire pits at Dockweiler Beach. The wacked-out jesters who are ranting and dancing as they stoke a funeral pyre to disturbing intensity at the Winter Solstice Human Barbecue are no, beach people. Most of the members of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society live inland, among most of the rest of us. The inferno they are feeding with life-size effigies of Hollywood icons, low-down politicians, estranged lovers, former friends, and maybe even their next-door neighbors is merely the manifestation of the eerie internal combustion they have brought with them. They'll be taking it back home when they leave.
Look too closely into the conflagration and you might see yourself burning amid the Martha Stewart hell of common household items. Or you might turn into a pillar of salt. The biblical themes of this pilgrimage to the waterfront sand -- Southern California's own Horny Land -- can get pretty heavy, albeit in a pagan-baby sort of way. The apocalyptic implications aren't exactly groundbreaking, however Sodom and Gomorrah have met Frankie and Annette. Duh. As if there were another explanation for David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson Lee. Everybody knows this is the day of the lifeguards, not the locusts. Nathanael. West... isn't that the name of Aaron Spelling's cabana boy? These days, we're all just extras on the backlot of Baywatch.
That includes Tanya Geddes, an ex-stripper in clown makeup and pink pigtails who calls herself Chuckles but comes across like Pippi Nightstalker. She's putting the finishing touches on her contribution to this weird weenie roast -- the weenie, in this case, being a thrashed mannequin that bears a likeness to someone who was once quite dear to her.
"Last year, I burned my crack-smoking ex-boyfriend," Chuckles says with the deadpan lisp of a serial-killer schoolgirl. She brightens. "And now he's clean and sober! See how it works?"
The Winter Solstice Human Barbecue is about as close as the Los Angeles Cacophony Society likes to get to tradition, unless you count the Summer Solstice Human Barbecue.
Don't say the T word too loudly, however Cacophony Society members don't want the Human Barbecues to go the way of the tradition that was Burning Man.
Burning Man began as a festival of fire and anarchy, the Labor Day torching of
an eight-stories4all effigy in the Black Rock desert outside Reno. It became the annual gathering of Cacophony Society tribes from several West Coast cities. But tradition generated popularity-the first clue that something was going against Cacophony's grain. The event was covered by TV and newspapers and showed up on the cover of Wired magazine. Thousands of people turned out. Popularity led to organization, and the original purpose -- chaos-was pretty much defeated. "The frat boys didn't fucking understand it at all," scoffs Amanda, 43, from beneath a wig inspired by Slash, the former Cousin Itt of Guns N' Roses. "The girl from Albuquerque who came with me was bummed that it wasn't a highly political statement, that it was just spectacle. She was like, "There is no use in this! This is not true anarchism!' I was like, 'I'm having fun, damn it!'
Fun is, ultimately, the attraction of the Cacophony Society; a loosely affiliated band of artists, drifters, computer nerds, poets, fetishists, movie extras, social critics, pornographers, pop-culture junkies, registered nurses, suburbanites, box boys, and palm-tree washers. Ridicule, however, is the touchstone. Sarcasm and cynicism, scatological humor and a smart-ass attitude --- these are the tools of the Cacophonist. It's an eclectic collection iconoclasts Alanis Morissette might call them ironic.
The Cacophony Society has shopped post-apocalypse. Members showed up at Universal CityWalk as tourists from Armageddon in burned-to-a-crisp clothing and melted credit cards.
They've thrown a JFK's Assassins Reunion Party On the 30th anniversary of Lee Harvey Oswald's historic sharpshooting exhibition, they gathered downtown at Al's Bar, where giant, rubbery replica of the fallen president's head was exploded again for old time's sake. They've emphasized the circus atmosphere of the original Easter weekend with a Klown Krucifixion, a re-enactment that might have been Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar except that the dialogue came straight from Scripture and the actors wore prosthetic noses And floppy shoes. Also, the music was better.
They created a giant portrait of Charles Manson out of Swiss cheese and gave away samples On toothpicks to customers at Canter's deli. When asked why, they quoted the ubiquitous billboards: "It's the cheese."
They've marketed their own line of teddy bears. And in the tradition of Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle Me Elmo, the demand for concrete-filled Cement Cuddlers was, uh, heavy. Also chaotic. Cacophony members smuggled the toys onto the shelves at Tovs "R" Us, then pretended to be customers inquiring about the price, creating confusion that inevitably included dropping them with a crash and feigning injury.
Cacophony has gone subterranean on a sightseeing tour of the city's sewer system. It has gone Plastic Surgery Gore Gawking, observing cosmetic surgery from a ringside seat in the operating theater of a Southland hospital. It has commemorated the 1978 burial of Blinkey the Friendly Hen -- a Foster Farms fryer-in the Los Angeles Pet Cemetery by laying a birdseed wreath on the tomb of the unknown poultry. It has staged UFO encounters at the beach, bleeding cross miracles at nightclubs, and random birthday-clown invasions of office buildings where it was no one's birthday.
Members did Dumpster Diving for the Rebel Elf Workshop, creating holiday gifts from materials scavenged from trash bins. Another time, they went into bins behind a photo processing lab to compile a Dumpster Family Album. They encouraged attendees at a UFO convention to reduce the risk of alien abduction by jerking off into plastic bags, which they promised would be rocketed into space as part of a program called Project Starseed. Maybe you saw them picketing for economic responsibility on Venice Beach, a-singin' songs and a-caryin' signs that mostly said, SAVE MONEY-- DIE EARLY.
Maybe you think you saw them at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Wrong! They got that joke about 20 years ago. Cacophony may be obnoxious, but it is contemporary.
Some in the Cacophony Society sense it's already too late for the Solstice Human Barbecues, that whether they are called tradition, ritual, an affinity for astronomy, or just plain pyromania, they have become predictable. "Once you've done it once," you pretty much know what's' happening," says Invisible Ray, whose polka-dot shirt and black tuxedo jacket seem conservative in this company. "Then it ceases to be' cacophonous."
However, when a renegade animal-control worker arrives at the Winter Solstice Human Barbecue with the dead carcasses of some nonhumans to throw into the fire, others become revitalized. "It's nice to get a little of that," allows Greg Reynard, 29, a molecular biologist and biochemist from CalTech, who this night is known as Sneery the Clown and is wearing a painted face he says is modeled after serial killer John Wayne Gacey.
Meanwhile, a succession of people, horrific and liquid in the wobbly light, present their despised victims to a generic god of fire. Each sacrifice is preceded by a recitation of the doomed's offenses that is always thick with rage and passion -- and often delivered with impeccable comic timing
"This allows us to purge our cacophonous souls of all the shit we accumulate every half-year," Chuckles observes, her tongue-flapping lisp spewing almost enough saliva to extinguish the fire. "This is a wonderful thing. Otherwise, we could go crazy."
"We'll all feel better in a couple of days," Sneery says reassuringly. "After the hang-over wears off, of course."
Don't leave before the miracle, in other words. There may even be a happy ending in store for a man nobody seems to know, who is screaming into the fire, The Get the fuck out of my bed, bitch, and check yourself into a psycho ward!" while a crude replica of his wife becomes a smoking, crackling voodoo torch And for his 10-year-old son, who is howling with the same maniacal enthusiasm as his mommy crumbles into glowing ashes.
Hey, we said maybe.
"That was weird," Reynard says, shaking his head, temporarily unable to muster a trace of Sneery or John Wayne Gacy. "That was a little out of hand."
The others gathered around the inferno become rather subdued too. They furrow their grease-painted brows, look down their red-ball noses, and run their fingers through their night wigs, streaked hair, and dopey hats.
You may already be a member," goes the slogan across the top of the Cacophony Society's monthly newsletter, "Tales from the Zone." It's a policy of self-diagnosis that runs intriguingly parallel to the one that has swelled the ranks of 12-step programs. In practice, however, the Cacophony Society's steps are comparable to a game of Twister. Not that an affinity for intoxicants or an appreciation of '60s party games is a prerequisite. Nobody is turned away.
"You don't have to know anyone or pay any dues Just show up and you're in," says Al Ridenour a 35-year-old computer animator who lives with unruly dyed black hair and an assortment of creepy-kitschy mannequins and religious icons in a hillside apartment in Silver take. Within the Cacophony Society he is known as Reverend Al. "We take it on faith that you're going to have something in common with us and that we'll all have fun together because there was something that went very wrong in your childhood, or whatever."
Reverend Al, who received his mail-order ordination from the Universal Life Church, is the de facto ringleader of the Los Angeles group. That's partly a tribute to his freeform imagination and his bizarre apartment. Mostly, however, it's because of the huge copy machine he rents to accommodate the Cacophony Society's extensive printing needs, which include absurd advertisements: psychic car repair, tongue-in-cheek telephone-pole postings, found pet, (answers to Bigfoot, reimbursement for cold storage requested), histrionic religious tracts (the Miracle of the Bleeding Cross of St. Moronus) and, most important, "Tales from the Zone."
With no officers, bylaws, meetings, or membership lists, the Cacophony Society revolves around the monthly newsletter, which publicizes upcoming events. Anyone can create an event by pitching the idea in the newsletter Reverend Al will print just about anything that is not used for profit or doesn't advance any political or religious agenda or-is not very, very illegal. Very few of us get arrested," he says. "More typically, someone will- be held for questioning."
Perhaps the society's most unnerving brush with the law occurred last year when some clown-attired Cacophonists set off fireworks, which some LA police officers on patrol in North Hollywood mistook for gunfire. "The cops pulled their guns on us and got on the loudspeaker and said, actually said, 'Up against the wall, motherfuckers!"' Reverend Al recalls excitedly. "So .we had a half-dozen clowns spread-eagle against a brick wall. And then something else came over the police loudspeaker: 'OK, slowly now, put down that balloon animal!"
Membership figures for the Cacophony Society are impossible to ascertain. Hundreds of people have attended its affairs, but turnouts for particular events usually range from 10 to 50 people "Our membership depends on what we're doing -- where Cacophony happens to be," says Reverend Al. "There's a certain segment of people who get into the clown things. Others enjoy the field trips. We get big turnouts when somebody throws a party. And anything that involves fireworks seems to be popular too."
Whether attracted by clowns, fireworks, and sacrilege or the pranks, mind games, and reality testing, most people who join the Cacophony Society have previous experience Most of them also use aliases or first name-only -- Dr. Quagmire, Eric, Stefanie, Occupant -- the better to be fully silly without concern about repercussions.
"Cacophony is kind of a collective consciousness of SAP, which is Self-Amusing Personalities" says a fellow called Rich Polysorbate, who attended a recent event in dalmatian face paint, carrying a video recorder in one hand and a beat-up trumpet in the other, twitching a cigarette between his lips. "Rather than just lapping up the sort of lazy, convenient entertainment resources pumped out by, like, Hollywood and the professional sports superstructure, we just sort of make up our own. It ends up as sort of a guerrilla theater, part mystery tours and part semi-legal, no-trespassing activities."
Sneery says that when he discovered Cacophony he "found a ready-made bunch of people who understood what he'd been up to all these years. "For me, it's always been about finding smart and funny stuff to do. Finally, everybody got the joke."
Invisible Ray says he "always had an intellectual interest in Dada and Surrealism, and Cacophony is often very much along those lines."
Graham came to his first Cacophony event, a book-burning on the beach, with two friends. "They were put off a bit by some of the sort of freakier people who showed up. Not me. I'd always done stuff like this, purely for yucks. It's not new. I'd always been a lone wolf."
Polysorbate attributes his disposition to Cacophony -- not to mention his alias -- to a childhood diet culled from mini-mart candy racks. "My blood system is so saturated with artificial flavors and colors now that I don't age any more and when I die my flesh won't decay, he says. "Convenience-store mummification, I call it."
Reverend Al was joking about that childhood thing. OK, half-joking. He comes from a family that includes two elder brothers who are fundamentalist Christians. Another is an artist He's a computer animator. "Because my family has this religious mania going on and I was suckered for a while, I have this ambivalent love fascination with cults and stuff," he says. "Fortunately, L.A. is crazy for cults. It's our greatest natural resource."
Like many ingredients of Southern California, the Cacophony Society came from somewhere else. The original group was formed San Francisco in 1986 as a descendant of that city's post-hippie Communiversity, an educational experiment in which instructors taught lessons from their own life experience. Cacophony arrived in L.A. in 1990 -- or so it said. Actually, a man named Maxwell Maude temporarily in town to do some consulting for city hall, distributed a series of flyers reporting on local Cacophony events -- events that had not actually happened. Yet.
"Cacophony started as a lie," says Reverend Al. "Some fucker said, 'We do this, we do that, are you one of us?' and they hadn't done shit. What was beautiful, though, is that some guy was, in effect, getting paid by the city to start Cacophony. I decided I was one of them. I liked the idea and wanted the lie to be true. A few years later, it is."
That's kind of the history of Los Angeles in microcosm -- a dusty desert village lays claim to utopia with shameless PR and attracts a grimy urban reality; and perhaps it's not surprising that many members of the local Cacophony franchise are transplants too.
Reverend Al is from the Midwest. Amanda is from Pennsylvania. Chuckles comes from Turlock, a tiny farm town east of Stockton. Sure, there are also lots of locals, like a teenage clown who call herself Sunshine and comes from El Segundo (but exchange air craft parts for almond trees and what is El Segundo but Turlock-by-the-Sea?)
But the Cacophony Society seems to adapt itself to its environment. Branches are spontaneously springing up in several cities along the West Coast: Portland, Seattle and even San Luis Obispo. There was not Cacophony Society in Los Angels 10 years ago when Amanda left her Venice Apartment for northern New Mexico.
"But I was already a member, as they say," she giggles. In Los Alamos, she met and married a laser physicist. "But he became an alien from the Pleiades Yeah, the constellation) and began answering to a higher karma," says Armanda, with a you-know-how-that-is shrug.
"It wouldn't have been so bad, but there was another woman involved -- an older woman, millions of light years older." Eventually, Amanda came across some copies of 'Tales from the Zone," met several Cacophony members at Burning Man, and knew where she had to be. "In November, I drove here all by myself in my little truck and a little U-Haul trailer with all my possessions I hadn't sold," she says. Amanda is staying with Reverend Al, working off her rent by archiving Cacophony events and operating the copying ma-chine. "But I'll be getting a job soon. I'm a registered nurse, a hospice RN by specialty," she says, adding quickly, "I'm very, very good, very professional. I just like to live on the fringe. I'm a very spiritual person, al-though don't tell these folks. I think all aspects of life need to be celebrated."
The Cacophony Society's itinerary includes field trips to the uncool underbelly of the city. Members have visited the Cake Museum in Pasadena, conducted poetry readings in Blue line commuter trains and all-night Iaundromats, toured the Walk of flame museum dedicated to L.A.'s sinister side (it showcases Charles Manson, the Black Dahlia, Bugsy Siegel, and Bela Lugosi, among other notorious local figures), and dined in the faux-tropical paradise of Bahooka's Polynesian restaurant and the frtrcical arctic chill of Clear-man's North Woods Inn (only a few miles apart on Rosemead Boulevard) on the same evening. They've visited the UFO, Bigfoot, and Loch Ness Monster Museum in Venice, picnicked in a Pick-a-Part auto junk yard, staged Valentine's Day boxing matches between loving couples, and gone to dinner at Denny's with a man who claims to be an inter-galactic traveler
"Obviously, our activities run a pretty long gamut," Sneery says. Sometimes they are marginally legal, like going into storm drains and wandering around. Sometimes they are totally legal, but people might take a swing at you. Nine times out of 10, they are the kinds of things that make security guards say, 'Go away!' 'The exception is when things become egregiously life-threatening."
Look at us! Look at us!" pleads a quintet of clowns, wrist-waving like Rose Parade princesses as a crowd gathers outside the Beverly Hilton Hotel to watch celebrities arrive for the Golden Globe Awards. Hard plastic breasts are poking out of Reverend Al's putrid green sports jacket, which he is wearing atop a tattered bridal gown. Several other clowns hold a dirty banner, swiped from a church, which reads, HE THAT BELIEVES IN THE SON (JESUS CHRIST!) HAS EVERLASTING LIFE, JOHN 3:36. Mostly, they are ignored. Occasionally, however, someone responds with a wave or a honk. Reflexively, the clowns flip them off.
"We do this to entertain, to confuse," explains Reverend Al. "There's also a little criticism implied."
It is funny to watch this pack of degenerate clowns strut past the professional sycophants perched atop Entertainment Tonight's scaffold pulpit, pose for the straggling remains of the paparazzi, and proceed along the red carpet toward the Beverly Hilton ball-room until stopped by a good-natured Beverly Hills police officer. But it's uncertain whether this display is the most pathetic kind of self-aggrandizement or some deft and penetrating social commentary. The answer depends on the question it provokes. You could ask, What fuels a need for attention so desperate that these people would debase themselves by trying to siphon attention from a prestigious international event? Or you could ask1 What makes the invited celebrities and stars in their designer gowns and dangerous haircuts (attire as inappropriate for everyday living as clown suits) any more deserving adulation?
Such considerations permeate many Cacophony events, and LA's upscale West side is a frequent staging ground for the group's subversive stunts-such as Eleven Shopping Days 'Til the End of Civilization, when mud-caked urban' primitives went Christmas shopping on Rodeo Drive. "When we're in opposition to society at large, it's invigorating for us," says Reverend Al. "It's not so much that you are walking down Rodeo Drive covered in mud, it's that the people with you are covered in mud too. There's a real feeling of solidarity there. You're wearing a pretty big badge."
Nonetheless, there is almost certainly some self-loathing mixed in the satire of Cacophony. Either by choice or rejection, most of these people don't qualify for the status quo of Southern California cool. Although they are experts on pop culture, they are also outside it. They are cursed with a curiosity that remains insatiable, even though they are repeatedly appalled by what they discover.
Instead of pathetically groveling for social acceptance, they intellectually engage in social criticism. Despite their disdain, however, none of them have quit their day job -- and most have good ones. At the end of each excursion, no matter how outlandish9 they cannot escape that they are cogs in the machine they mock.
With the sun going down, the celebrities inside, the crowd thinning out, and the Cacophony Society's visit to the Golden Globes fizzling fast, Polysorbate gets frustrated. He begins to rant about the lack of respectful representation of clowns in Hollywood movies and television. He suggests a full-on rush toward the Beverly Hilton ballrooms.
The others want no part of it. "There are about 50 security guards here," Sneery points out, "who would love to beat us senseless."
Outside the Garden Crest Retirement Home in Silver Lake, the Cacophony Society is getting ready to go straight. Under the pretense of repairing its public image, it has decided to do a good deed and will document the occasion in photos and videotape to prove, according to its newsletter, that "Cacophony is not only an eminently respectable organization, it's the very fucking epitome of altruism." The idea is to serenade senior-citizen shut-ins.
Naturally, everybody has shown up in clown outfits. Like football players, they are huddled on the sidewalk, their arms extended to the center of the circle they have formed, participating in their version of a pre-game pep talk and prayer. "OK, let's keep our attention on the purpose of our endeavor, let's use the smile effectively, let the elderly be entertained and let nobody get hurt," says Reverend Al, making rare use of his "man-of-the-cloth" skills. Let's just have a good show."
"Let's just-have-a-good-show!!!!!" the assemblage repeats with a shattering roar "Ready-y-y-y... break!!!" The clowns jog purposefully into the low-slung building of painted cinder block, past the admissions counter into the cafeteria where about a dozen residents have been wheeled into a semicircle.
The familiarity of songs like "You Are My Sunshine," "It's a Grand Old Flag" and "Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking" strikes an immediate chord with the audience, overcoming the clowns' flat delivery and the flatulent accompaniment of Polysorbate's trumpet. Lyric sheets have been distributed, and sever al of the residents sing along.
But the set list shifts, and so does the mood. Soon the clowns are singing "My Generation," and several members of the audience have asked to be wheeled out. Others have fallen asleep. Some get the joke and are amused. Others are disgusted. Mostly, there is confusion. Although they have to look closer at the lyrics, when the clowns launch into a variation of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K," several residents are singing along. "I am the anti-Christ!" they chorus, shaking their heads. "I am an anarchist!"
Santa Claus was coming to town (make that Santa Clauses), and somehow the Portland Police Department found out about it. Good intelligence, you might call it, though that term seems misused considering that this was the holiday season-and the cops were referring to the Cacophony Society's annual Santa Rampage.
In any case, a memorandum was distributed throughout the department and the city on December 12, 1996, and you could almost hear the venomous drone of Sgt. Joe Friday's ghost in the typewritten words of Portland Police Department Lt. Dave Austin: "The Police Bureau has received information of a possible disturbance planned for the Portland area. The individuals involved in these disrupt -- five activities will be wearing Santa suits. last year in San Francisco, 100 of these culprits crashed a children's carnival, ran wild on department store escalators, stole holiday decorations and props We would suggest all downtown area stores and businesses take extra security measures."
Austin foreshadowed the horrors of "drive-by caroling" through Portland neighbor-hoods, karaoke singing at a local ban, roller-skating at a local rink, and a downtown ceremony at which Santa would be hung in effigy. Well, the hanging never happened.
"We thought better of it because we were constantly under surveillance," says Sneery, one of nearly 30 members of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society who, dressed in red, white, and beard, migrated to the Northwest for the Santa Rampage. The police followed us the whole weekend."
Most of the time the cops just kept a watch-fill eye on the nearly 100 unsaintly Nicks, but the show of force became ominous when the group moved downtown. "Suddenly there were about 30 officers in full riot gear forming this Maginot Line, along with their squad cars all parked in a row," Sneery reports. "So we thought, Hmmm, what to do? So we all started singing nutty Christmas carols, like 'Police Navidad."
From there, the increasingly drunken Santas set off into downtown Portland, where they ran in circles around a huge civic Christmas tree and began handing out presents It was the gift-giving that finally got a couple of Santa's arrested-for furnishing obscene material to minors. "We used old Playboys for wrapping paper," Sneery explains. "But I think the cops would have felt silly if they had used so much of the Portland taxpayers' money and didn't arrest someone."
The Portland Police Department had no comment, but Reverend Al did, against his better judgment. "I probably shouldn't say this," he said, abut next year the Santa Rampage is supposed to happen in LA"
I don't understand it when somebody is shocked by something," says Sun-shine, whose colorfully painted face and opera-style horned helmet aren't shocking anyone partying and posing for photos inside Reverend Al's old hillside apartment in Silver Lake On a rainy afternoon, the place is wall-to-wall hideous clowns and furnishings provided by BeeIzebub's interior decorator. And check out those walls. One room is saturated in matador (read: blood) red paint, another in lime (read: uh, well, lime) green. But somehow, with the Day of the Dead portrait of the Mona Lisa, it works. And that statue of Jesus in a Santa hat sure is, well, versatile. Hey, is that the corpse of a real cat?
Sunshine generates some attention, but still no shock, as she strips down to her bra and boxers and administers a not-so-latently lascivious spanking to Chuckles, who is attired only in face paint Involuntarily, her soft slaps seem to approximate the "Happy Wanderer" tempo of a scratch record playing at high volume. But nearly as many clowns surround a TV in the corner, watching with the sound down as a Korean-language drama unfolds above Chinese subtitles. Somebody asks to change the channel to Xena: Warrior Princess.
"The town I live in (El Segundo), it really fucks with people's heads, if I even walk down the street dressed like this," says Sunshine. She has finished the spanking and is reclining on the sofa, a few feet from the TV "But at least I don't sit home and watch videos all night." She is oblivious as Xena kicks the crap out of a bunch of guys in a cave.
Sunshine says her parents don't understand her. But she's 19, so that's not shocking, either. "The clown thing, my mom has a problem with, because she hates clowns," Sunshine says dryly, though not without empathy. "I didn't like clowns, either, until I became one. It was always 'Oooh! Yecchh! Scary! Get me away!' But I always try to embrace things that I find abhorrent. It's a good way to become a more complete person, or something cheesy and New Age like that. Anyway; I put the clown makeup on one day, and it was great. You cross that line and you realize that anything goes. You don't have that sense of danger, and you're not scared of the world as much People, for the most part' don't do what they want to do. But you can do anything you want when you're a clown."