Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003)
When Good Pranksters Go Christian
For years, the L.A. Cacophony Society was a haven for creative misfits with a sense of humor. Then tragedy struck, and everything changed.
By Christopher Noxon
Photography by Jack Gould
A new product appears on the shelves of a Los Angeles toy store. It’s a stuffed white teddy bear, sweet and fluffy and unremarkable but for one thing: It’s filled with concrete. The bear’s name, the label announces, is “Cement Cuddler.” A warning is attached: “Unfortunate child, do not mistake me for a living thing, nor seek in me the warmth denied you by your parents. For beneath my plush surface lies a hardness as impervious and unforgiving as this world’s own indifference to your mortal struggle.” Baffled clerks quickly remove the item.
A bus traveling through the Mission District of San Francisco pulls to a stop and picks up a man in a purple wig, pancake makeup and a polka dot jumpsuit. He takes a seat and flips open a newspaper. At the next stop, a woman wearing a rubber nose and carrying a toy poodle pays her fare and plops down with a sigh. Another clown climbs aboard at the next stop, and the one after that, the bus gradually filling up with men and women in full clown costumes, each apparently unaware of the others.
A knot of spectators gathers at the 22-mile mark of the Los Angeles Marathon. Others along the route flash thumbs-up signs and offer hoots of encouragement, but this group has other things in mind. As the weary athletes pass, they offer malt liquor, lap dances, donuts, pork rinds, and lit cigarettes, which they call “sport smokes.” One holds a sign: just give up.
Such are the works of the Cacophony Society, a loose group of art pranksters and satirists based in San Francisco and active in Los Angeles, Brooklyn and 20 other cities in the U.S. and Canada. Members don’t join for God or profit or art or politics. They join for what they call “the pursuit of experiences beyond the mainstream,” which translates as elaborate pranks and public spectacles that, just for a moment, tear the fabric of everyday life.
The Los Angeles chapter is among the most active of Cacophony’s “lodges,” organizing more than 500 public stunts and nonsensical spectacles since 1991. You might have spotted them outside the Academy Awards, picketing for more onscreen male nudity. A week later, the same group hosted a “yard sale from hell” in which customers pawed through bottles of expired prescription drugs and mud sculptures. A few years ago the Cacophonists filled four charter buses with 200 drunken revelers dressed in Santa costumes and made a stop at a holiday display sponsored by the Church of Scientology. After heckling the costumed elves, juggling the prop presents and yanking Scientologist Santa’s beard, the red-suited mob retreated to the bus and peeled away.
In certain counter-culture circles, Cacophonists are modern day Masons, mixing social activism with acts of goofy public exhibitionism. Los Angeles membership hovers around 200, with a core “strike force” of 40 including a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer, a guy who removes dead animals from under houses, and a number of semi-employed artists, punks, eBay merchants, and dot-com casualties. Among these assorted malcontents, Cacophony has fostered something approaching contentment. “When I was growing up, I was always called immature or crazy or strange,” says Michael Perrick, a Web site designer who performs as a party clown called Fucko. “I was told I’d never have a normal life. Then I met these people who, when I said, ‘I want to run down the street naked and covered in mud,’ they wouldn’t bat an eye. Someone would grab a camera and say ‘Let’s go.'”
The group also attracts weekend eccentrics who use Cacophony as a way to safely dip their toes in the underground while remaining on solid footing in their everyday lives. What’s unusual is that no one appears to dwell on–or even make–distinctions between the full-time freaks and the recreational ones, says TV writer Michael Perry, who has fallen in and out of Cacophony between stints on Law & Order, NYPD Blue and The Practice. “I have no idea what most people in Cacophony do for jobs, and they know nothing of what I do for a job, and that’s kind of great,” Perry says. “L.A. can be so craven and horrible, and here there’s none of the corporate cultural element that blinds you to the actual possibilities of life.” (Perry helped organize a “JFK assassins reunion,” in which participants came costumed as their favorite suspect – for one night a dingy downtown bar was overrun by mob bosses, CIA agents, Cuban revolutionaries, and a communist bear. The evening ended with the messy detonation of a papier-mache JFK head.)
* * *
I first encountered Cacophony six years ago when I took some out-of-town friends to a Halloween haunted house in the flats of East Hollywood. Our friends were visiting from Sonoma, where they collect vintage wine and grow organic vegetables. Stepping inside, we were greeted by a man wrapped in cellophane fondling a length of sausage between his legs. Nearby was a fellow in a blood-drenched butcher’s smock and a plastic baby mask. On the walls were pages torn from fat-fetish porn magazines. Exiting the room required passing through a curtain of beef tongues. By the time it was over, we’d been flashed by a woman in a Mother Teresa costume, offered pieces of Spam sushi, and witnessed a guy in surgical blues remove with a vacuum cleaner the viscera of a man lying on a gurney.
Back on the sidewalk, my friend the earth mother looked up from her blood-splattered blouse and smiled brightly. “That sure was more interesting than the Getty Center.”
Over the next few years I stopped by several more Cacophony events, including a screening of hygiene movies and the bonfire of a member’s personal belongings on a beach below the runway of Los Angeles International Airport. Some of the events seemed anti-consumerist, others purely obnoxious. Cacophonists walked the finest of lines, of constantly being in on the joke but playing as if they weren’t. When I first started talking to Cacophonists I found I didn’t know when they were being serious. A few months later, I realized that most of the time, they don’t know when they’re being serious.
Then about two years ago, the simmer of insincerity boiled over. Over the course of a few weeks, the group was consumed by an escalating series of in-jokes, put-ons, half-truths, and one shocking tragedy. Members who had become so adept at mocking the mainstream found their attention turned on themselves, as they traded threats of lawsuits, rumors of resurrections, and then, suddenly, grief over the mysterious and utterly unfunny death of one of their own.
What had seemed funny for so long was suddenly very sad.
* * *
For most of its ten-year history, the Los Angeles Cacophony Society was run out of a squat Craftsman cottage inhabited by five cats, a dozen mannequins and a 40-year-old writer and sometime artist named Al Ridenour. The house is perched on a steep slope in Echo Park, a neighborhood of weed-and cactus-covered lots with long concrete stairways and the occasional chicken coop. Friends call his place “the parsonage.” Inside, there’s a full-scale gold-painted crucifix, propped up not far from a glass case containing a phony corpse named Bubbles. The walls are painted deep red. Piled around are leftovers from past Cacophony events–lengths of rubber tubing, a Tiki head, a busted wheelchair. The air smells of cat food, candle wax, and rubber cement.
When Al sits down to talk, he smoothes the fabric of his pant legs again and again. He’s polite, deferential, and always, it seems, a little nervous. He looks a bit like Roy Orbison, with the same spooked expression and timid hunch. Greetings and good-byes appear acutely difficult for Al, his handshakes mis-timed and his gaze furtive underneath a cover of bottle-black bangs.
Al is the first to acknowledge that he’s been an unlikely leader for what is, on one level, a boho social club. “I’ve always had real trouble with groups,” he says. “I’m pretty reclusive. I’d rather work than socialize. That’s part of the reason I started Cacophony. I thought I’d work and it could be a social thing, too.”
Raised in Texas and Indiana by devoutly Christian parents, Al studied philosophy in college, married a linguist he met in Europe, and moved to Los Angeles in 1986. For a while he was happy, working at a group home for autistic boys and eventually landing a job in computer animation. But when his wife took off to Switzerland with his best friend, Al went into a deep depression. With few friends and not much interest in his job, he found himself bolting upright at three in the morning, his mind a beehive of worry. There was also terrible social anxiety–just the thought of a party or gathering of friends would send him into a daylong panic.
That changed one night when Al picked up a flyer at a coffee shop describing what he remembers as “a secret cabal engaged in all sorts of bizarre stuff.” He soon discovered that the membership of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society was composed, at that point, of one guy: a computer consultant who went by the name of Michael Michael. The flyer was Michael’s attempt to establish an L.A. branch of a group he had helped found two years previously in San Francisco.
The Cacophony Society traces its roots to San Francisco’s Communiversity, one of several “free schools” that sprung up in the mid-70s offering curricula that included everything from theoretical physics to juggling. Typical was a class called the Suicide Club, which took its name from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The New Arabian Nights, about the group of friends who lived each day as if it were their last. Students scaled the Golden Gate Bridge, hosted costume games in an abandoned hospital, and posed as prospective members of the Moonies. After the Suicide Club petered out, four former members banded together to form its sillier and much less secretive successor.
John Law, who joined the Suicide Club in 1977 and went on to become active in Cacophony, says the original group was composed mainly of socially awkward obsessives who wanted something weirder from their nightlife than bands and bar-hopping. “Nine out of ten people who showed up to events were hipsters who thought what we were doing sounded cool,” Law says. “They quickly discovered that we were all nerds covered in mud and making strange plans, and they never came back. But one person would stay. That was the guy looking for a good mind-fuck, basically.”
The group took inspiration from such historic antics as the French Situationists’ defiling of comic strips, the Yippies running a pig for president and the work of New York performance artist Joey Skaggs, whose many media hoaxes include Walk Right!, a vigilante organization devoted to pedestrian etiquette. More recently, groups like Survival Research Laboratories, the Church of the SubGenius and the GLAMericans have used pranks, guerrilla theater, and media hoaxes to satirize consumer culture and organized religion. While members of Cacophony don’t follow any particular movement, many feel a kinship with culture jammers like the Billboard Liberation Front, a semisecret outfit dedicated to altering outdoor advertisements (recently scaling a Hollywood billboard picturing a boy whose face was smeared with chocolate cake and changing the caption to read, “Got shit?”) and the Canadian Media Foundation, whose quarterly magazine Adbusters promotes Buy Nothing Day. In all, says media critic Mark Dery, culture jamming is “artistic terrorism directed against the information society.”
But unlike highbrow theorists or political pranksters, the Cacophony Society has always been more about kicks than theory. It’s no coincidence that Cacophony spread during the early ’90s, a time in which latchkey kids raised on ’70s kitsch, David Letterman, and punk rock began to act out their collective obsessions. It was an era, announced a 1989 cover story in Spy Magazine, “of the permanent smirk, the knowing chuckle, of jokey ambivalence as a way of life.” Becoming a Cacophonist put you on the knowing side of the joke, safely within a group one member calls “a lodge of oddfellows.” And the best part was that participating in a Cacophony event–whether a “protest against death” outside a cemetery or a “biohazard cleanup” stunt at a street fair–felt vaguely meaningful, without having to take a genuine stand on anything. Cacophony membership was fireproof insulation against becoming either trendy or unseemingly earnest, the perfect foil in the era of the Big Wink.
* * *
For his first event, Al organized an elaborate hoax around a UFO Expo held at an Airport Sheraton. After corralling a dozen co-conspirators from coffeehouses and nightclubs, Al showed up on the convention floor with a stack of pamphlets for an organization called the Brotherhood of the Magnetic Light. The Brotherhood, the pamphlet announced, had recently discovered “a mysterious icon” that had the power to attract extraterrestrial beings and would be on display at a nearby park. There, dressed in robes and making every effort to look regal, Al chanted over a foil-wrapped crucifix, a pile of dead flowers and a ceramic figure of Christ. When a few curious souls from the convention arrived, Al felt a pang of remorse.
“One of these guys was on crutches, and it looked like he’d come for a healing,” he remembers. “He was standing on this hill, looking up into the sky, and I thought, ‘Oh God, this is so wonderful and so wrong.'”
Al went ahead with the ceremony, burning incense and calling on alien beings to heed his call for communion. The ruse didn’t last long. “It started seriously and then just degenerated into nonsense,” Al recalls. “At one point someone set off a bunch of fireworks and someone came running up in a silver Mylar suit saying his ship had crashed. Then the cops showed up, the UFO guys scattered, and that was pretty much it.”
Al left the event feeling exhilarated and was soon hosting three to five a month. Early members included the likes of Rich Polysorbate, a pyrotechnics enthusiast whose bedroom was decorated by hideous close-up photos stolen from his mother’s dental practice. In addition to offbeat field trips–he once led a group to into the operating theater of a Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon–Al organized a series of “harder-core,” confrontational events, like the time he posed as a burn victim at Chuck-e-Cheese, wrapping his head in bloody gauze and gleefully watching at the other patrons recoiled in horror.
As word spread and the subscription list for Cacophony’s newsletter swelled to 750, Al found himself in a position he never imagined–at the center of a network of exhibitionists who were only too happy to funnel their energies into his most cockamamie fantasies. One of them was a gangly 17-year-old who had first encountered the group at the same Halloween party that stunned my Sonoma friends. Peter Gieberger had just graduated from high school and had entered what he called “his formative floundering years,” working nightshifts at a copy shop while saving tuition for college. He later said that seeing such an extreme display of bad taste represented a pivotal moment in his life: “I knew I belonged right there.”
Peter soon joined Reverend Al’s repertory of regular players. In Peter, Al found an eager student and helping hand; in Al, Peter found a role model for the kind of creative, uncorrupted “phony-baloney artist” he might become. “I really look up to Al,” he said later. “Not that I would ever tell him that.” Peter went on to organize events on his own–in once case donning a pith helmet and safari gear to observe the mating habits of male hustlers who cruised a public park. Eventually he picked up what Al cheekily called a “nom-de-guerre”–other Cacophonists are known as Pastor Clod, Zardoz and Amanda Hotcakes. Peter earned the nickname Mr. Outerspace.
After setting himself on fire at an Easter event, Peter earned a reputation as one of the group’s most fearless members. Cacophonist Victor White, a microrobotics engineer at JPL remarked, “Peter is either going to be dead or a millionaire by the time he turns 30.”
White’s worst fears appeared confirmed when Reverend Al sent out an urgent e-mail regarding the aftermath of the group’s recent Halloween event. After knocking back a bottle of brandy and speeding away in his battered white pickup, Peter and a friend named Daniel Lippert had been killed in a drunk driving accident.
News of Peter’s death was only the beginning of the shock. Al went on to say that he felt a measure of responsibility for what had happened. Since the accident, he had been doing some deep and wrenching soul searching. “In many of our lives, that was a literal Devil’s Night, a culmination of the chaos we as Cacophonists have long sought to invoke,” he wrote. “None of us could have guessed that Cacophony’s call to break the shackles of complacency would become a process of personal transformation.” Al also posted an essay urging members to embrace so-called Anarchist Christianity. “Christ is one with the mystery of death,” he wrote. “And for this reason he is man’s destiny.”
Cacophonists closest to Al weren’t all that surprised that reverence had caught up to an ironic reverend (Al is an ordained minister of the mail-order Universal Life Church, a popular goof in the group–there are more Cacophonists who have the legal authority to perform a marriage ceremony than are actually married.) Al made no secret of the fact that one of his brothers ran a Bible bookstore in Northern Indiana and another was active in the Moral Majority. He had told friends that he had found comfort in Scripture at age 11, when his father died of lymphatic cancer. Al’s churchgoing had ended in college, when a mix of Flannery O’Connor stories and Calvinistic determinism led him to reject what he dismissed as “rationalist religion.” Now, apparently, he was back in the fold. Reverend Al was born again.
* * *
Few Cacophonists were as swept up by Al’s surprise conversion as Bruce Elliott, perhaps the most beloved member of the group. Balding and burly with a mustache waxed into a Teddy Roosevelt curl, Bruce was known to wear the duds of a west Texas lawman and other spoils from his sojourns into the so-called uniform community. Cacophony was just one of the subcultures Elliott explored. A self-taught expert in everything from Thai cuisine to coffee shop architecture, Bruce searched out “maximum experience of all kinds,” says friend Kim Cooper.
“You knew you were dealing with someone different from the first moment you met Bruce,” she says. “You could see it in everything he did–in the books he read, the music he listened to, the food he ate, in all his knowledge.”
Raised by observant Catholics in central Detroit, Bruce was a sweet and precocious kid who learned early on how to use his facility for trivia to gain the approval of friends, recalls his older sister Claudia. Every year at Christmas, Bruce would ask for the latest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. After committing to memory all the strangest feats and facts, he would hold court in the parking lot of St. Matthews Elementary School, regaling his audience with a recitation of the fastest this and the biggest that.
After community college in Michigan and a stint working at a fish market, Bruce headed west in 1989 and moved into a studio apartment near downtown Los Angeles. He found a job training mentally retarded immigrants to work as janitors and later as a content producer for a Beverly Hills dot-com. Work was never a priority, however, and his attention was easily diverted. He might spend one day at a Micronesian tea festival, the next at the Central Library boning up on Tiki architecture or 3-D photography. Nights he might slave over an authentic noodle dish at his sister’s place, or working up routines for an Internet radio show he hosted with friend and fellow Cacophonist Michael Perrick.
In Cacophony, Perrick says Bruce found not only an outlet but an audience. “Bruce got to be around people who appreciated him for his weirdness,” he says. Cacophonist Skylaire Alfvegien remembers mentioning to Bruce that she was curious about the so-called bear subculture of hirsute, paunchy gay men. Bruce promptly set up a grand tour of L.A.’s big bear bars, leading this “skinny straight geeky girl” through each of his favorite haunts. “He loved playing tour guide,” she says. “He loved the idea that he might have been shocking or titillating me.”
Bruce didn’t have the stomach, however, for Al’s confrontational pranks, preferring Cacophony’s theme parties or oddball lectures. Increasingly, he found his patience running out for what he saw as juvenile, hipper-than-thou nonsense. After almost a decade in Cacophony, which had included a night tossing watermelons off an office tower and a recent performance in which he ended up buck naked on stage with a four-foot-tall dreidel, Bruce had had enough.
* * *
Meanwhile, Al, too, was ready for change. Too many Cacophony events felt humdrum, frivolous, or just plain wrong–he recalls a bowling night where players wore wacky wigs and a stunt called “Beer Fairies,” in which a co-ed group dressed up in tutus and leotards and hit Skid Row, passing out cans of Coors to the homeless. More and more, the group’s camp superiority was careening into self-congratulation. “We would go smugly visit a cult or perhaps a folk artist living a life far more interesting than the ones we live,” Al says.
Still, few in Cacophony were prepared for his announcement that Al had embraced Christ as his personal savior. The news came in an e-mail urging members to follow “a radical new direction” and a redesigned Web site that included a heartfelt essay about a Syrian Saint and links to groups including The Bloody Gospel and Ship of Fools: The Magazine of Christian Unrest. “Embracing the ideal of chaos and destruction, we have embraced the death that leads to Second Birth,” he wrote. “Activities over the future months will follow this new more revolutionary path. We know that this direction is not for everyone. Some of you out there will hate us. The world will hate us. This is one thing that hasn’t changed.”
Reaction was swift and emotional. Perry says he couldn’t do anything but sit in “horrible anguish” for hours after hearing the news. Most unloaded on the Cacophony posting board, where the 1,200 subscribers began weighing in within hours of Al’s announcement. Soon the debate spread to Cacophony posting boards across the country, with San Francisco members discussing “pulling the charter” of the L.A. chapter. Most, however, were simply dumbfounded.
“Peter was one of my best friends, [but] I think he would be mortified to see some of his associates turning to Christ in the wake of his death,” wrote Cooper. “Personally, I have turned to Bushmill’s.”
Others rushed to Al’s defense, expressing relief that an organization that had been about so little for so long was suddenly getting serious. A few inquired about Bible studies and church allegiances. “You guys are very, very cool to be walking the journey that you are,” wrote a member identified as Ludmilla. “I offer my condolences and support, especially during this difficult time.”
Most went straight to rage. Mike Kupietz, a member of the San Francisco chapter who works as a system administrator for a California bus company, fired off more than 30 e-mails lambasting Al’s “self-righteous attempts” to inject faith into Cacophony. “If you cannot or choose not to separate your superstitions from your Cacophony-like activities, please form a new group and stop using the Cacophony name,” he wrote. To members of the San Francisco group, Kupietz wrote: “When these guys hole themselves up in a compound, they’re not going to do it under the Cacophony name.”
Many more rallied into the anti-Al camp. Paul de Valera, a 29-year-old substitute teacher and bassist in a punk band called Kung Fu Chicken, had no patience for Al’s soul-searching. “I guess when Peter died, so did all the heartiness of L.A. Cacophony,” he wrote. “The rest of you are a bunch of lawyers or computer nerds with cushy jobs and do Cacophony so you can sit by the water cooler at work and have your coworkers be amazed at how ‘wild’ you are and how much of a ‘rebel’ you can be. Blah.”
Soon the discussion broke down into tortured pleas for tolerance, confessions of spiritual allegiance, and declarations of long-held resentments. Mike Smith, an artist and sometime Cacophonist, wrote that with Al’s announcement, he’d given up on the group for good: “It has long been my contention that the Cacophony Society existed solely as a low-lifer Billionaire Boys Club where middle-aged adolescents could hang around drinking beer and smoking dope under the pretense of ‘breaking the rules’ or ‘messing with the system,’ when, in reality, their so-called ‘pranks’ were nothing more than glorified ‘do you have Prince Albert in a can?’ gags. It’s amazing that tragedy didn’t strike sooner than it did.”
Within a few weeks, members had begun to rally behind a secular splinter group, while others declared the end of Cacophony. Wrote Cooper: “Cacophony had–funny how it seems to require past tense, ain’t it?–a way of bringing out the monstrous in us, and I guess no amount of ‘fun’ is really worth it.
“So forget it,” she wrote. “All of it.”
I called Al a month or so later to ask what he thought of the whole mess. He sounded anxious and out of breath. He said he had just received a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney for the San Francisco chapter, ordering him to stop using the Cacophony name in association with his religious beliefs. He talked about how unfair it all was and how he was planning to fight the group in court.
When we hung up, I tried to picture Al on the other end of the line, holed up in a dusty corner of the parsonage. Was he peacefully contemplating his friends and faith and the legal fight to come? Or was he laughing?
* * *
He was laughing, of course. As had become clear to everyone on the inner circles of Cacophony, the whole thing was a prank. There were no fatalities, no accident, no one even named Daniel Lippert. Peter was alive and well and following every word of grief, like Tom Sawyer eavesdropping on his own funeral. As for Al’s newfound Christianity–well, that wasn’t quite sincere, but it wasn’t exactly a put-on either.
The prank began, Al said, with a realization that the time had come to get out of Cacophony–a decision that came after he had quit drinking, gone into therapy and began taking antidepressants. “A lot of us are getting older and it’s no fun anymore,” he says. “A lot of ugly stuff catches up with you.” In early November Al learned that Peter Gieberger had been laid off from his dot-com job and had fled with a severance check for a new life in New Orleans. It happened that Al had recently spotted a photo from the Halloween event of Peter in a Santa suit, waving a blurred can at the camera lens with a crazed look in his eye. The scheme took shape from there. Both Peter and his friend Ryan Hill (an outsider to Cacophony whose name was changed to prevent collateral grieving) gave the go-ahead, pleased to have been given the unusual opportunity to survive their own deaths. After warning longtime members about his plans and recruiting a few to play along, Al dropped his bomb.
Friends of Al fanned the flames, baiting other members by acting the part of outraged secularists and loyal Christians. But in typical Cacophony fashion, the roles soon blurred, as members began mixing searing confessions of their own spiritual yearnings with bald-faced lies about their identities and motives. Others traded outrage for faux sympathy once they realized they’d been duped. “It was a completely paranoid game we were all playing on each other,” says Margaret Torco, a freelance writer and eBay merchant known as Reverend Margaret. “Even people who were in on the prank thought they were being pranked.”
The resulting mess pleased Al enormously. “It’s the only prank I’ve done that counts, in a way,” he said. “All of us who have been organizing to make chaos happen got to experience what Cacophony should be about–chaos, confusion, puzzlement, wonder.”
Al’s conversion and the resulting turmoil came just as Bruce Elliott, six months shy of his 40th birthday and growing increasingly disillusioned with Cacophony, was taking stock of his own life. He vented his harsh conclusions on the Cacophony posting board. “This decade-long downward spiral of stupid and silly behavior has finally killed someone (apparently), and I’m only surprised at how long it took,” he wrote. “For a while I have privately said this about Eastside boho society, and now I state it ‘publicly’: There is a depressing difference between a bunch of people who are 25, underemployed, and sarcastic and a bunch who are 40, unemployed, and bitter.”
Bruce e-mailed Al privately to warn him that the group was falling apart. “I’m not sure if this is some kind of prank, Al, or another raft of peace you have swum to and are inviting us on board,” he wrote. “If the latter is the case, I want to thank you for the invite. It has certainly electrified a dormant group, but I fear it has also offended most of them.”
While the debate soon cooled, Bruce’s depression didn’t lift. One late night with friends at a neighborhood coffee shop, Bruce complained about his ongoing troubles finding work and making a living. “Here was this big birthday coming up, and he was like, ‘What have I got to show for it?'” Perrick says. “He told me his older sister had told him if it got too bad he could move into his old room at her house. I think that really upset him.”
Friends in Cacophony hoped they might cheer Bruce up at a big event planned to complete Al’s prank, a party at a German beer hall where members would celebrate their cleverness and toast Al on his retirement. But on the morning of the party, Al received a message that sounded, at first, like the out-of-the-ether climax of one of his own pranks.
Bruce Elliott was dead. His body had been found strung up under a doorway of his apartment. He had been hanging there for two or three days. Michael Perrick and Bruce’s boyfriend made the discovery on a Wednesday evening after several messages left at his house went unanswered. There was no note. (As for the inevitable speculation that Bruce’s suicide was yet another hoax, spokesman Scott Carrier of the L.A. County Coroner’s Office read to me the death certificate. Name: Bruce David Elliott. Age: 39. Cause of Death: Asphyxia. “The death has been ruled a suicide,” said Carrier.)
The celebration for Al became a wake. No one joked about Peter’s phony death. Instead, they told their favorite Bruce stories–Bruce convincing a vegan dinner companion to try a bite of silkworms, Bruce putting on a spectacular Fourth of July fireworks display for the kids in his neighborhood. “I feel like a student who just enrolled in a great class, only to find the star professor has quit the university,” Daniel Collins, a disc jockey and sometime Cacophony member, wrote on a hastily posted memorial page.
Messages Bruce posted to the Cacophony Web site in the days before his death make it plain he was caught up in a dark struggle. “Having come out in a time of plague, I’m tediously familiar with the death of acquaintances and friends and their affect upon their peers,” he wrote. “Surprise and shock are quickly traded for remembrance but little recollection as the party carries on with the specter of ever-present death hanging over it like an ugly black pinata.” Later, he added: “We all pass through the formless void, which has neither purpose or reason, thus it is sensible to give it those things, knowing they can only come from within you.” The self-styled expert in kitsch and irony was now plunged into far more profound territory.
For their part, Cacophony members say they don’t believe Al or anyone else in the organization bears responsibility for Bruce’s death. “It is horrible and shocking, but I don’t think anyone believes his death had anything to do with Cacophony,” says Cooper. “There’s no connection, other than the fact that we’re all hard-living people. Any time you do the stupid shit we do, go underground or play with fire, or go out into the desert with guns, there’s a risk you’ll get hurt. We’re lucky we don’t die more often.”
Al saw Bruce’s death as another eerie and troubling coincidence in the make-believe world of Cacophony. In the days after Bruce died, Al says he lay awake stunned by how it all came to an end. “I feel like I built this huge hall of mirrors and then ran smack-dab into the middle of one.”
More than a hundred family and friends filled a church in West Hollywood for Bruce’s memorial service. It was, says his sister Caroline, quite a crowd, including Bruce’s mother, a former stewardess, taking turns at the podium with Tiki enthusiasts in Hawaiian shirts and fully outfitted members of the California B&B Corps, a gay uniform club.
A week later, Al was given his own memorial service of sorts. Miles from the nearest paved road in the moonless Mojave, 20 longtime Cacophonists gathered to burn a life-size effigy of Al. Friends worked on the figure for more than a month, fussing over the facial features and wrapping a steel skeleton in layers of paraffin, burlap, and auto putty. While the rest of the group sang and danced under the din of a boom box blaring a Highland bagpipe, Al shivered in the desert cold, watching himself burn. Smoke billowed out his eye sockets. Fluid dripped from his fingers. A stash of fireworks ignited inside his chest, sending white sparks spraying from between his ribs.
Looking back on those past few months, Al says he wonders how many of those involved had any idea how many of his true feelings were exposed within all the put-ons. He may not be born again, but he insists he’s always considered himself a Christian–he just kept quiet on the subject with most Cacophonists for fear of being labeled a freak. “This was a way of coming out of the closet and masking those religious beliefs in exaggeration,” he says.
Meanwhile, Cacophony continues. A group of longtime members continues to host field trips and plan events. At one monthly meeting, members discussed plans to erect a memorial to the deceased pets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a neighborhood dog park. Later, they made preparations for an evening of performance and sermons under the auspices of an imaginary sect called the Church of the Pornographic. “We need strippers and sex acts and fire-breathers,” said Cacophonist Eric Howard. “We need guys who tie their dicks in knots.”
For his part, Al has stayed out. Getting used to everyday life hasn’t been easy–Al says he went through a “long, dry, lifeless” period. He split up with his longtime girlfriend Jane and struggled in attempts to make a living writing. Things began to turn around when he met the comic Margaret Cho though an Internet dating service. “I had no idea who she was,” Al says. “Which is the only way it would have worked – I don’t think she could have standed it if I was a fanboy.”
The pair moved in together last year, combining their collections of religious artifacts, ethnic trinkets and flea market knick-knacks. One recent Friday the 13th, they exchanged Masonic wedding rings in their back yard at an alter Al rigged to spit fire at the moment of truth. The ceremony was vintage Cacophony, with flamboyant drag queen pals hobnobbing with bewildered Koreans and Midwestern relatives.
While a few former comrades were astonished to learn of Al’s marriage–a few assumed it was yet another elaborate prank when their names turned up in People magazine–Al says longtime friends are delighted he found a partner who shares his love of the perverse and the absurd. “She’s delighted to have corpses on the roof dancing for her wedding,” he says.
Lately, Al has found himself himself instinctively tuning in the fire-and-brimstone preachers on AM radio. He would have snickered at such a thing back in the Cacophony days, or maybe cooked up a prank that would have left the broadcasters and listeners momentarily gasping or annoyed or just plain mystified. But not anymore.
“I can’t explain it,” Al says. “But now I find their voices very comforting.”