What follows are several histories of the top-secret San Francisco Suicide Club, which specialized in urban topographic adventuring that is extra-legal but harmless to society. Early members John Law and Harry Haller were interviewed separately by V. Vale and Mal Sharpe.
John Law has been active in the Suicide Club, Cacophony Society, Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), and Squidlist. He lives in San Francisco, but regularly travels on urban explorations and adventures. Interview by V. Vale.
VALE: When did the Suicide Club start?
JOHN LAW: 1977. I was just an eighteen-year-old 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 people’s 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; he’s 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 eighty mile-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…