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the Cacophony Society, Clowns on the Bus, Santacon and the Palahnuiak connection…
Early member John Law interviewed by V.Vale
VALE: When did the Suicide Club start?
JOHN LAW: 1977. I was just an eighteen-yearold juvenile delinquent who didn’t know anything about anything! I was fortunate to join the Suicide Club, which introduced me to a world of adventure. Our motto was: ‘To live each day as though it were your last.’ It was about challenging your fears. The club lasted about five years.
V: Now, who started the Suicide Club?
JL: Five people started it. Gary Warne [pronounced ‘Warn’] was definitely the avatar–the central driving force. He was a truly unique, brilliant character, but very low-key in his demeanor. He was soft-spoken and looked ‘normal.’ However, he had these crazy ideas that he would implement in the real world, and get people to come and do events based on his ideas. The Suicide Club was one of them.
Gary was heavily influenced by the Surrealists and the Dadaists. He introduced us to the concept of ‘synaesthesia’–e.g., to taste a smell, or to feel an image. He wanted to create experiences that would be like living out a fantasy or living out a film. Climbing the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog with a group of people is a surreal experience. The Suicide Club could create an other-worldly, surreal environment. Getting naked on the cable cars was a surreal experience. He wanted a disconnect with ‘reality’ and a connection with ‘super-reality.’ ‘Cuz knowing you could fall off the bridge and die is a super-real feeling.
Going out to the drawbridge of an abandoned ghost town and almost being run over by a train coming out of the mist made you realize how ‘real’ the experience was, even though it seemed so unreal and phantasmagoric. Because when a light came toward the group out of the distance, no one could hear anything, and everybody thought it was just some guy on a hand-cranked railroad car. But suddenly it became a train going fifty miles an hour bearing down only a hundred yards away. It was like Daffy Duck opening a door and suddenly a train zooms into your room!
At that time, Gary was a chief administrator for the ‘Communiversity,’ which started in 1969 at San Francisco State College. It was part of a sixties hippie concept called the ‘Free School Movement,’ where people could actually exchange ideas and information without exchanging money. But around 1974, S.F. State started objecting to certain Communiversity classes having to do with jokes and pranks, like ‘How To Do Clown Make-up.’
Gary and a few other people decided to separate from S.F. State and run the Communiversity as a California state non-profit. However, Gary’s interests became more arcane and bizarre. He was interested in hosting events based on fear, sex, lying, and other human interactions. He was interested in the way cults test people¹s freedom of will, especially in light of the cultural brainwashing that we get every day.
Then Gary came up with the idea for the Suicide Club, a group which would seek the most outrageous, extreme and frightening adventures– both physically and psychologically, and push their limitations to the extreme. He set up a phone tree so that members could mobilize to do something on very short notice. Our plan was to visit Fort Point during the next huge Pacific storm.
Finally, around January 20, 1977, a gigantic tempest hit San Francisco. Four people got together: Gary Warne, David T. Warren (a carny; he¹s a whole book in himself), Adrienne Burke, and Nancy Prussia. The fifth person, who didn’t make the trip but helped plan it, was Kathy Hearty. So, four people convened at the west side of Fort Point, which faces the ocean. (It’s now closed off because of ‘Homeland Security.’) There was a huge, heavy-duty sea chain acting as a protective barrier.
In the middle of this huge storm, with eightymile- an-hour winds and giant waves crashing, the four people ran out, grabbed the chain and held on really tight. They held on tight because the sea was hitting below you on this wall, and right in front of your feet was a drop-off that went thirty or forty feet. So the waves would hit this wall and send up a massive wave that crested and fell down on you. If you had taken the full force of the wave, it would probably kill you and sweep you away. But the force of the wave was broken by the wall, so you could hold onto the chain and not die. But it was still very dangerous. Because if you let go of the chain or were knocked unconscious, you’d be swept out to sea and probably never be seen again.
So the four founders of the Suicide Club did that and survived. They were so invigorated and blown away by the experience that they sat down and decided to start the Suicide Club right then and there.
V:So it was a quest for an intense group experience?
JL: Absolutely. And the core of the philosophy was inspired by that statement, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ (William Blake). The Suicide Club was a secret society, but it lacked any dogma that you had to adhere to (except secrecy)–you didn’t have to sign anything in blood…
THE BILLBOARD LIBERATION FRONT
JN: We collaborated with Ron English, whocame in from the east coast, to help celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of McDonalds. After some reflection, we realized that McDonalds’ ultimate goal was ‘to serve man.’ We decided to do our part by putting up a billboard close to one of the highest-volume McDonalds retail stores in San Francisco.
People dressed up as ‘Ronald McDonald’ and showed up for our billboard ‘christening.’ Ron painted a backdrop of a fat, sardonic Ronald McDonald on the left, a giant alien on the right, a McDonalds gateway arch in the middle, plus a caption, ‘To Serve Man.’ In the center we put a life-sized, live-action animatronic Ronald McDonald with a giant Big Mac in his hand, perpetually pushing it into the face of a corpulent eight-year-old kid kneeling in front, like he was taking Communion. There was a live-action tableau on the platform in front, with the billboard painting behind it.
Our press release reflected the fact that we¹re supporting McDonalds in their 50-year effort to fatten up humanity, to better serve them to the aliens that are coming down!
V: Where do you get Ronald McDonald outfits?
JN: You can get a cheap red wig at a costume store. [Ed. note: Ron English and his wife Tarssa made Ronald costumes; BLF associates made their own, as well as three compelling ‘Hamburglars!’] Then you need white leggings and a red-and-yellow striped shirt. Our website might list stores where you can get these. I pre-wired the billboard, so all we had to do was put the dummy on a pre-set stand, plug him in, and he started punching the kid in the face with the hamburger.
V: What an idea–
JN: This was inspired by an old ‘Twilight Zone’ episode, ‘To Serve Man,’ [Episode 89] where these happy, friendly, aliens arrive on earth and start helping humanity. They have a book they’re reading, and a suspicious woman steals a copy and starts translating it. She finds out, to her horror, that it¹s actually a cookbook! This McDonalds hit was in the middle of the day, on a Sunday afternoon–Memorial Day, actually–near Golden Gate Park. There were a million people in the street, cops driving around, bicycles and cars constantly going by. We had a van with Viacom stickers on the sides (which is the company that owns the billboard). Four of us were working on the board, and until we put up the animatronic figures, nobody looked askew at us. Our ground crew was watching to see if anybody was suspicious, and if it looked like they were getting on a cell phone to call the cops, they’d try and stop them.
The hit was in a Cala Foods parking lot, and one of our spotters was inside the store. He overheard one person go, ‘Hey, do you think that’s an ad for that movie Supersize Me?’ He automatically thought it was a legitimate image, even though it was the most bizarre image you could conceive of. As a distraction, we also had about thirty people dressed up as Ronald McDonald–their job was to show up at the last minute and take away attention from us when we were finishing up the billboard.
So we finished, got into our van and escaped a few blocks away. We parked, put on our Ronald McDonald costumes and returned to join the crowd of other Ronald McDonalds. By this time the police had come; the CALA Foods manager had called ’em. The police showed up and couldn’t do anything about the billboard. The Fire Department came later and took down the two manikins. But they’d already been up for several hours, and we’d filmed the whole thing. Then the police put the manikins in a paddy wagon, but they couldn’t close the rear doors, so their feet stuck out.
Basically, the cops came, arrested Ronald McDonald, threw him in a paddy wagon, we filmed this and it became part of the feature film Popaganda, a film documentary about Ron English–the finale of which is the BLF and Ron English doing this billboard hit. It couldn’t have worked out more beautifully–the cops arresting Ronald McDonald was beautiful! For my money, this was the greatest billboard hit I ever heard of, because it was the only one that used live animatronic figures; the only one where we had an entire street theater piece using thirty Ronald McDonalds on the ground, and the police who showed up were part of the event. And we left a good bottle of Scotch on this Ronald McDonald billboard for the sign workers.
Now for me, the best pranks are whimsical and humorous. You could spray-paint ‘Fuck McDonalds’ on a billboard, and people who are already Greenpeace or Adbusters or anti-globalist types will nod their heads in agreement. But that’s like preaching to the choir. It’s the people who don’t necessarily think that way that I want to get to. I like it when people pause and look, especially if it’s confusing. There’ll be that second when they’re thinking, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ . . . a little glitch that makes people think about where they are, and question what advertising really is.
There is a ubiquitous, non-stop barrage of corporate advertising and imagery everywhere we go, and we need to yell back at ’em! There are many groups around the country who alter billboards, and we’re all just telling people, ‘Advertising is a language. You’re being spoken to constantly through these ads. But you can talk back to them! You can make it a dialogue. And you don’t necessarily have to climb on up and alter a billboard. So every time you see a Nike swoosh logo, in your mind you can change it to a dildo or something you find humorous.’ So in our billboard alterations, we’re simply having a dialogue with the advertisers…
The first Cacophony event in Portland took place in a gigantic abandoned Greyhound bus repair facility. People dressed in costume and did theatrical things.
Chuck Palahnuiak joined in ’94 and became good friends with Chuck Linville and Marcy McFarland, some of the Portland Cacophony organizers. I met him when we did the third Santa Claus event, which was in Portland. The first was in ’94 in San Francisco, the second one was in ’95 and turned into a mob scene‹several Santas were arrested, so we decided we wouldn’t do it again. (The thing about ‘annual’ events is that they tend to become too predictable and encrusted; often there¹s not a lot of creativity the second or third time you do something, and certainly not by the fourth or fifth.)
The third Santa event in 1996 took place in Portland‹that seemed like such a nice, quiet town. We advertised this in the S.F. Cacophony newsletter and Reverend Al, the Cacophony avatar of the Los Angeles group, put the word out. We ended up with a planeload of seventy Santas leaving San Francisco. One of the Cacophony members was a travel agent, Nancy Freiburg, who was also a member of the Bolt Action Rifle Club. Thirty more came up from San Francisco in Chicken John’s bus, there were thirty from L.A., and easily a hundred from Portland. So there were more than two hundred Santas altogether.
Somebody ratted us out. The Portland police contacted the San Francisco police and got the police incident report from our Santa event the year before. So they were prepared for us. They sent flyers to local merchants saying that Santanarchists were planning to trash the town, and the police may have even tapped our phones or were monitoring our emails. We got off the plane and were met at the airport by three officers of the Portland Police Intelligence Bureau. We said, ‘Look, we’re like the Elks Club. We’re gonna spend money in Portland. We’re not here to trash businesses. It’s just a fun event. We’re just a bunch of morons in red suits; give us a break!’ They ended up following us around for the entire weekend. There are a lot of stories because some of the groups split off and did different things. My group, which had about thirty people, decided to take a public bus to a roller skating rink near outer Portland, and there were two cop cars following the bus. There were cop cars following each group; they must have deployed fifty to sixty cops following Santas this weekend.
Then we took the bus to Chuck Linville’s house, who’s one of the main Portland organizers. He¹s also an Art Car guy, and works for the Post Office. We decided to see if we could ditch the cops. So the bus stops a couple blocks before Chuck’s house, and as soon as the door opens, everyone runs like hell and hides behind a wall. The cop car squeals around the corner, doesn’t see thirty Santas, and starts going two miles an hour, looking for us. Then we all jump out from behind the wall and go, ‘Surprise!’
All these Santas convene on Chuck’s suburban lawn, while four cop cars are parked at surrounding intersections, watching us. Finally, the cops start to realize that we¹re just partying; we¹re not some hardcore black bag anarchists. Some Santa girls are going up to them, asking, ‘Have you been naughty or nice?’ The beat cops are thinking, ‘This is a waste of time; why are we following these Santas?’
The culmination came at sunset, when all the Santas were going to meet at the giant Lloyds Center mall in downtown Portland, with this ice skating rink where Tonya Harding skated. By this time the police had been following all of us for a day and a half, and now there was a line of police cars parked, completely blocking our entrance to the mall. We tell the cops, ‘Look, we want to go into the mall and sing Christmas carols. Think of the wonderful image of all these Santas in your mall.’
They said, ‘The mall is private property. We don’t care if there’s two hundred of you; if you go in, we’ll have to arrest all of you.’ So all the Santas were despondent: ‘What are we gonna do? We gotta do something.’ There was a line of cops standing there in body armor and truncheons, so we formed a line and started singing ‘Jingle Bells’ to them. Then we yelled, ‘Merry Christmas!’ and turned around and took the train downtown.
To me, the Santa event in Portland was the greatest thing Cacophony ever did. The visual image of two hundred Santas facing a line of riot cops was amazing; nobody had ever seen that before. You’re messing with and subverting this commercial icon. We knew that the cops weren’t our enemy; they’re just working class Joe’s doing their job, which is protecting property. And having a phalanx of cops protecting a suburban mall from Santas who really weren’t a danger to them (they’re a danger to the symbol, but not the mall) I thought we pointed something out, there. It was a pretty brilliant moment, and it was fun…