Some years ago, kiddies perusing the soft toy aisle received a lesson in discerning the abstract from the concrete. Someone had methodically removed teddy bears' fluffy innards, replacing the stuffing with hardened cement. Affixed to the concrete bears was the following label:
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. Hold on to me when you are sad, and I will weigh you down, but bear this weight throughout your years, and it will strengthen your limbs and harden your will so that one day no man dare oppose you.
The manufacturer listed on the bears' tags was Brutal Truth Toys.
Herb Caen may have noted this "sounds like something the nutty Cacophony Society would have come up with." Spawned in San Francisco in 1986, the society described itself as a "randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society." This was undertaken via "subversion, pranks, art, fringe explorations, and meaningless madness. ... you may already be a member!"
Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a hulking hybrid of a comic book, history text, and school yearbook, has just been completed by three of the society's former stalwarts: Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith, and John Law. A massive book launch celebration is scheduled for Friday night at the Castro Theatre — but none of the authors will attend. How cacophonous.
The release of a monograph documenting the society's history has touched off quarrels about whether that history is still being created; the Cacophony Society faded away around a decade ago, but there are still plenty of "beyond the pale" folks in this city engaging in "meaningless madness." But that's an internecine argument best left to insiders. For all the outsiders — San Franciscans who stumbled across Cacophony Society oddities who, perhaps, felt some elation to live in a city where these sorts of things take place — the book and its Friday bash offer a chance for retrospection.
In the San Francisco of 2013, sadly, there are things we can simply no longer do. In 2013, pranks initially intended as statements against mainstream society have long ago been appropriated by mainstream society. And the leap forward in communication technology — you may well be reading this on your phone, for God's sake — has made it so much easier to get noticed. But so much harder to stay noticed.
It seems obvious now: People need seat belts. "You just wouldn't organize an event today where you're moving 75 people in the back of a 24-foot box truck. We used to do that all the time," says veteran cacophonist Chicken John Rinaldi, the organizer behind Friday's Castro Theatre event. "I think we know better now how dangerous that would be."
John Law has lost count of how many times he ascended the Golden Gate Bridge. He and his fellow Cacophonists used to slip into the abandoned bunkers, breweries, and warehouses dotting the transitional San Francisco of yore. They'd spelunk through its subterranean networks or paddle beneath the wharves.
You can still try this. But abandoned buildings are rarer today than in a city still transitioning from its days as an industrial center — and security cameras are now ubiquitous. Attempt to mount a structure like a bridge and you'll likely be hauled off in an unmarked vehicle and find yourself elected Pride Parade Grand Marshal in absentia.
Cacophony events ranged from poetry readings in laundromats to protests of Fantasia due to Mickey Mouse's glorification of wasting water. But the group is best known for three innovations that got away from it as surely as those enchanted broomsticks got away from Mickey: Salmon "swimming" upstream during Bay to Breakers; the annual "Santarchy" swarms of inebriated Kris Kringles throughout the city; and a desert gathering called "Burning Man" which annually provides San Francisco with a glut of parking and a dearth of hula hoops.
The salmon run several years back was appropriated by liquor baron Bacardi as part of an ad campaign to convince consumers to go "swimming upstream" — by purchasing the wares of one of the world's largest distillers.
Santarchy started in 1994; Law recalls the utter discombobulation of San Francisco shoppers unable to fathom the notion of 30 rowdy St. Nicks; like the 1903 audiences of The Great Train Robbery who screamed in terror when an onscreen locomotive steamed toward them, a phalanx of Santas was something people simply couldn't conceive of at the time.
Now it's a meme. What was once a darkly humorous statement on consumerism — Santas flooded department stores and chanted "Charge it!" while handing out smokes to children — is now a frat party, a de-facto "Tawdriest Mrs. Claus" competition, and red-suited, vomit-encrusted saturnalia devoid of any meaning.
Burning Man, meanwhile, became Burning Man. It exploded into a worldwide phenomena, and, in the process, sucked all the oxygen away from the creative-artistic-weirdo community that Cacophony required to thrive. The society withered for a number of reasons — the Internet snuffing out a group bound by a boutique newsletter is hardly a surprise. But creative artistic weirdos devoting their time, money, and energy into projects for the remote, insular Burning Man community instead of here in the city was a death-knell. Burning Man became the child that devoured its parent.
But as Burning Man grows ever broader — becoming, in Law's words, "Disneyland for naked attorneys on ecstasy" — more and more creative artistic weirdos may stay here. Decamping San Francisco to travel, at great expense, to an environment racked by sandstorms and 110-degree heat is an odd thing to do, when you think about it. We all may benefit from future concrete bears or similar boundary-shattering bits of whimsy.
According to Rinaldi, it's happening already. "No matter how cool I think I am, I'm aware there are always cooler events, cooler art shit, people with cooler ideas that I'm not cool enough to know."
In the San Francisco of 2013, let's hope he isn't describing West Oakland.