On a sunny weekend afternoon, the members of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society sit in semi-darkness beneath the old pinatas at a Highland Park bar called Mr. T's. This is their first meeting of 2002, their first gathering in at least four months. They are here to pick up the pieces.
Cacophonists are part of a loose network of underground societies, with "lodges" in about a dozen U.S. cities. For the last decade, the L.A. group has been one of the most active in the country.
But last spring, Al Ridenour, a.k.a. "Reverend Al," stepped down from his post as Grand Instigator and Supreme Leader. "I felt that the original iconoclastic energy had given way to timeworn jokes and stale excuses for socializing," Ridenour, 40, said recently over a sandwich at Philippe's French Dip, a favorite cacophonist gathering spot because of the clown photos that adorn one wall. Clowns are icons for cacophonists, who aspire to "live life as fools."
In the last 10 years, many of the original members have mellowed as they reach their 40s. The world has grown more corporate, and the corporations quickly co-opt underground movements. Furthermore, some once-thrilling ideas--such as unfurling a "Just Quit" sign at Mile 22 of the marathon and offering tired runners doughnuts, beer, cigarettes and beef jerky--have become humdrum.
At this meeting, on a Saturday in January, the cacophonists are in the midst of an existential crisis: Can they carry on without their leader, or are they aimless, as lost as the Merry Pranksters without Ken Kesey?
"Cacophony Societies are disorganized groups of klowns, guerrilla artists, kitsch hounds, slackers and noisemakers in search of experiences beyond the mainstream.... We go wherever there are some raw materials from which we can make our dada.... You may already be a member."
--From the Los Angeles Cacophony Society Web site, at la.cacophony.org.
L.A. cacophonists have staged Laundromat poetry readings, picnics on earthquake faults and field trips to cryonics companies.
At the L.A. Pet Cemetery in Calabasas they have visited the markers of luminaries ranging from Tom Mix's horse, Tony, to Blinkey, the frozen chicken interred by artist Jeffrey Vallance. They have parodied far-out theories about the Kennedy assassination, holding what they called "an unprecedented orgy of paranoia and disinformation." True to their anticonsumerist underpinnings, they have engaged in reverse shoplifting, planting everything from "Bobbitt dog chews" to Cement-Cuddlers--teddy bears filled with cement--in various retail outlets, only to watch as confused cashiers would struggle to ring up the strange merchandise.
One time a group of the urban pranksters descended on Universal Studios' squeaky-clean CityWalk Mall sporting tattered garments they had barbecued in a park the day before. CityWalk should reflect L.A.'s apocalyptic soul, they reasoned, including its poverty and grit. Unfortunately, visitors just assumed the cadre of charred outcasts were human billboards for the "Backdraft" ride.
"We subvert prime-time reality," said cacophonist Robert Moss, 45, a part-time actor and computer consultant. "When we rent a club and put on a show, that's fun, too. But the real nut of Cacophony is going out in public places--where everyone goes and knows what to expect--and doing pranks."
The history of the Cacophony Society, which exists for the most part as an oral tradition, is as slippery as a water-logged rat skittering through a maze of city drainage tunnels--something local cacophonists have been known to do. The group was founded 15 years ago in San Francisco. Ridenour discovered Cacophony in 1991 and decided to import it to L.A. He planned a bogus UFO landing. At a local convocation of saucerheads, Ridenour passed out fliers announcing the landing at a beachfront park.
Near the airport, Ridenour, who confesses a fascination with all things religious, staked out a giant landing pad, constructed a 20-foot foil cross, burned incense and decorated the scene with religious icons. He donned a clerical collar and called himself Rev. Al. The curious and crazy came, his nom de guerre stuck, and the Los Angeles Cacophony Society was born.
You may never have heard of the cacophonists, but you may have heard of some of the people and events they claim to have inspired. The list includes novelist Chuck Palahniuk, author of the anticonsumerist novel "Fight Club," who is said to have frequented meetings of the Portland Cacophony Society, the San Francisco event that was the precursor of Burning Man, and Santacon, the folkloric fatman frolic that originated in San Francisco nine years ago--and features squads of drunken Santas climbing on buses, going to strip clubs and engaging in other un-Santa-like behavior.