To the people who thought up such intellectually zany flights of fancy as the first Saint Stupid’s Day Parade in 1978, bless you.
In the recent past, to the world at large, San Francisco had seemed a showplace for drugged-out libertines blissfully wallowing on each other in the mud at Golden Gate Park.
Well, as this transplant and nightlife reporter soon found out, biting cultural commentary in the form of performative free-for-alls is a tradition that runs deep in the Bay.
Even Philip K. Dick mentioned something about the First Church of the Last Laugh in his 1981 story Valis, after seeing the first or second annual St. Stupid’s Day Parade while out wandering in San Francisco.
Those who found the hippies a bit silly, and their over-sincerity a bit lacking, started new philosophies and faux cults and DIY clubs in the ‘70s and ‘80s: Like punk rock, but for doing stuff in general and not just playing music. For being weird together.
Tracing back the vines of such giants, the root sacraments and forebears of this serious silliness can be found in art movements like Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, Fluxus, Church of Subgenius, Discordianism, and Dungeons and Dragons … locally in the Wobblies, the Merry Pranksters, the Residents, Negativland, the Cockettes, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Suicide Club …
… and the First Church of the Last Laugh, who came out of both the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. With these groups, Bay Area weirdos of the Boomer generation engaged in educational improv street theater back in the day, as seen in the movie The Legend of Billy Jack. (Who knows, those clips might’ve been filmic tributes to the Mime Troupe anyway.)
So when you’re twentysomething me in 1998, and you’re used to just writing about rock’n’roll for the paper, and then you meet the organizers of the Cacophony Society, and then you go to the best and only April Fool’s Day parade you’ve ever seen, you might just toss aside all hopes of respectability rock-journalism to follow the truly feral kids deeper underground.
You might even stay there, existing in a carnival cosmos filled with surreality and sovereignty. It is a place you can live, no matter where (or who) you are.
On this assignment, a door opened up to me and showed a well-established … subculture? … I’d spend the next 20 years trying in my head to define. It’s been like hugging an octopus.
This was anything but sitting in a bar. It was exhilaratingly interactive socializing — IRL trolling, kind of. Twenty years later, it’s worldwide, and still doesn’t have a name (besides “cacophony” maybe), but “it” certainly didn’t exist a generation ago.
This new kind of tendency for humanity was soon to be recreated IRL and in cyberspace, in thousands of LARP communities and billions of instructional videos on Youtube — the act of gifting other people your time and experience, and maybe trying to make them smile and not take life so seriously. The element of surprise was a factor; this proto-flash-mob behavior struck me even then as the opposite of terrorism.
The definition may be amorphous but the message to Generation X was wide-ranging and clear:
Stop consuming and go make your own fun. Be imperfect. Laugh at yourself before they can laugh at you. Ride chaos like a lightning bolt. Etc. (I wrote about the subcultural importance of SF/Oakland’s freaks at the turn of last century already for the Burning Man website; if you’re interested you can read Tyler Durden Invented Burning Man.)
The Saint Stupid’s Day Parade 1998 was such a rush, watching regular folks cock their heads to the side like a German Shepherd puppy hearing a fart machine. And I was a new nightlife beat reporter dressed in boring jeans.
All my teenage life I’d idolized writing stalwarts like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, and hoped to grow up to participate in a subculture as zeitgeist-y and exciting as theirs, yet far less sexist and macho-seeming.
Teenage me fantasized about a high-octane world of wackiness where women actively participated instead of being either scenery, or a hangover mommy, or a target to be ogled from afar and/or gang-banged and forgotten.
And here it was! Literal cacophony. Equal-opportunity mayhem. You may already be a member. No adoring fans and no cocky performers. All together in the muck.
You want stupid?, said the leaders of San Francisco’s underground. We will show you stupid.
This is the fourth entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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