A writer, artist, comedian and performer, Reverend Al Ridenour is the hyper-imaginative founder of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society and The Art of Bleeding, a performance art group. He was interviewed by V.Vale.
VALE: Your name, Reverend Al, is kind of a prank, unless you really are a reverend–
REVEREND AL: I am a reverend, but the prank preceded the actual credentials. Picking the name has to do with the very first prank we did with the L.A. Cacophony Society. Our target was UFO Expo West, set at a hotel by the airport where a couple thousand UFO fans and followers would gather. We invented an underground, extraterrestrial-oriented church. I chose the name Reverend Al because while ‘Reverend’ sounds dignified, ‘Al’ sounds ‘back alley’ . . . and besides, it’s good to have a catchy name! It helps people remember you.
V: The surrealist Benjamin Peret often dressed like a priest, but would then curse and swear at people on the street–
RA: When wearing my collar, I’ve actually gotten out of a speeding ticket! I got my credential from the Universal Life Church. Although I became a Reverend semi-satirically, I’ve actually performed weddings for luminaries like Michael Mikel–that was fun. Also, it can be a kind of tax dodge–that is, if you actually run a church, although I never got into that. Supposedly, if you’re a minister you can get discounts on airlines, too.
V: Wow. What did you tell the cop when he stopped you for speeding?
RA: I told him I’d just gotten an idea for a sermon, and since I didn’t have a pen, I had to rush home and write it down. When I told him I was a Universal Life Church Minister, he didn’t recognize it as a denomination. I think he didn’t want to be busted for persecuting some minority, so he just let me go. It was a good moment!
I’ll wear the collar out sometimes. It seems appropriately inappropriate, depending on where I’m going. I think of it as an experiment, or that dreaded word, ‘performance art.’ Sometimes I’ll be downtown in some scuzzy neighborhood and get asked where ‘the mission’ is, and I’ll try to direct them. I do what I can to fulfill the duties of a cleric.
V: Well, there are so many shepherds and flocks these days, it’s impossible to know where all the pastures are (or whatever they call them).
RA: Today, I don’t know that I would pick the same name–that happened fifteen years ago.
V: ‘Reverend Al’ sounds a little shady–it’s barely acceptable. But ‘Reverend Bud’ might not be–
RA: You probably wouldn’t let your kids go on a camping trip with a Reverend Bud! Anyway, at this UFO Convention we distributed some flyers that promised the arrival of the Space Brothers. Our group, the Brotherhood of the Magnetic Light, had come into the possession of a South American religious icon: a figure of Jesus that functioned as a homing beacon to UFOs. We were going to be demonstrating it at a park near the convention hotel.
After distributing our flyers, we made our way down to the park–actually, a grassy knoll overlooking the beach. We unrolled a roll of tinfoil and made a 200-ft long cross on the ground, weighted down with flowers and incense. We scattered walkie-talkies that made a weird feedback noise. So we had a kind of show ready for people when they showed up.
A bunch of people came from the convention, and a few were immediately wise to us, like one person with a camera who was making a documentary on UFO hoaxes. But a few ‘true believers’ also showed up. One person on crutches seemed to be waiting for his healing from above. Looking at him, I almost felt bad–I did feel bad, but in a fun way.
I had written out a ritual, so we followed it, stopping to drink some sacramental wine now and then. We set off flares, and finally launched a hot air balloon that looked like a massive spaceship. Unfortunately, it got caught in some downdraft and landed on the Pacific Coast Highway and got hit by a car. This was actually a very dramatic setting, right on the ocean, and the wind was howling. Nearby a little family was having a picnic at sunset. We were unrolling all this foil, putting this gigantic cross on the hillside. Suddenly they freaked out, shouting, ‘A park is no place for Voodoo!’ and quickly left. So that was the inaugural event and the christening of the LA Cacophony Lodge.
V: That’s brilliant.
RA: We did another prank at the same UFO convention. This was at the height of the ‘alien abduction’ craze, and we distributed flyers equipped with a little plastic bag with an address card (addressed to us), a wet nap, and a leaflet that explained that the bag was for an extraterrestrial sperm bank. Why? Because these aliens seemed obsessed with our reproductive habits; apparently they wanted our DNA reproductive material, so perhaps we could eliminate alien abductions by providing the aliens with sperm. We left them all in the men’s rooms, and there were a lot of lonely-looking people eyeing those bags and the wet naps . . .
V: Did you say a ‘wet nap’?
RA: The wet napkin was for cleaning up afterwards, after you make your donation in this little ziplock bag. I kept going in the men’s room and leaving them on the urinals and they kept disappearing. We also left them on other people’s tables, and it was fun to see who would notice and who wouldn’t notice that they were giving away space jerk-off kits.
The scary thing is, we did receive a handful of sperm mailings that I have to say I failed to open–they weren’t adequately refrigerated, anyway. And I didn’t have the postage for Alpha Centauri . . .
V: Tell us a brief history of L.A. Cacophony–
RA: The Los Angeles lodge was really active throughout the Nineties. Our catch-phrase was ‘Experience beyond the Mainstream.’ The heart and soul of what we did was the pranking and the sidewalk performances–the guerrilla theatertype stuff. We also did other events that involved going to the ‘Well of Weirdness,’ and renewing our own personal resources. Like, we’d go visit some old Folk Art guy out in the desert with a ranch wall made of old saki bottles. We did sort of ‘field trips’ to the fringes of society.
We had events where we made ‘cement cuddlers’: plush teddy bears that we filled with cement and left on the shelves of the Toys ‘R’ Us stores. [laughs] So, sometimes we made stuff, sometimes we performed, sometimes we went places. We scorned commercially-manufactured ‘recreation’–actually, that would become fodder for our own entertainment. It was Do-It-Yourself fun for losers and outcasts with a creative bent . . . . a social club for people who considered themselves outsiders, and who valued the contributions of outsiders, for good or ill, in our society.
V: I’m still trying to figure out the principles of punk rock. Of course, D-I-Y is one, but I think one of them was from Groucho Marx: ‘I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member.’
RA: No one needs a group more than outsiders! We have a kind of inborn biological need to herd, and as repellent as that notion is to some of us, we still want to have fun. People do like to congregate, so L.A. Cacophony served that function. The people that we drew in had such low tolerance for other human beings that for some weird reason it kind of worked! They enjoyed each other’s company, and the sort of rarefied atmosphere that we created: a world of unreality.
I enjoyed the creative aspects: writing the prank flyers, making the props or the fake Jesus icons, whatever. But I didn’t have a social network of people that I enjoyed being with, so Cacophony helped with that. It helped a lot of people cross-pollinate: bringing together people who liked to play with fire, and build robots, and do special-effects makeup. We did some cool stuff, once you raised that banner and saw who came. It was a good mixing ground.
V: It was a kind of think tank.
RA: Yeah. The thing that sort of reassured me was that often people would leave in disgust! Maybe they came thinking we were ‘hipsters,’ but we would never quite fit that. It was always off, and sometimes awkward, with some people obviously deeply into their own strange interests. So I was always reassured when certain types of people would never return; I felt like Cacophony was still adhering to its original purpose.
V: Well, it’s hard to keep a bunch of weirdos, outcasts, and outsiders together–which is what punk did for awhile.
RA: But it’s great to have a larger pool of people, because people can surprise you with what they can do, or what they bring to it. And even if you hate some of the people, it’s a lot better having 150 people dressed in Santa suits at one time than having twenty-five really great people dressed in Santa suits! Sometimes there’s a quality in numbers– some stunts worked better with a lot of people, and it’s good to throw a wide net. Several hundred of us convened at the Portland Santa event, where the police showed up in riot gear. I set myself on fire there, as a Santa covered in fireworks! That was memorable.
I remember renting two buses for Santas who were all drunk by ten in the morning, walking into the Great Western Gun Show, the largest gunand- knife exhibition in the country. There were maybe a hundred Santas milling around, looking at handguns and knives. We got a lot of good stocking stuffers there…