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.)
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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.