What the fuck is this,” asks Jeffrey, so high that he cannot see straight, his face a melting candle. By “this” I don’t think he means the chemicals he’s ingested, which he’s taken on prior occasions, albeit at lower doses. Nor do I take him to mean Grandma’s Living Room, the interactive art piece where beautiful people in costume are draped over pillows and rugs and whispering to one other in soft Californian, as the older woman we call Grandma rocks rhythmically in her chair, passing out candies.
No, by “this” I suspect Jeffrey means the whole mandala, the ineffable shitshow unfolding on the grounds of a dilapidated hotel in Northern California that some 700 of us have commandeered for a weekend of psychedelic art, theater, music, and hijinks. It’s one of a handful of secret parties thrown each year by an event production company I cannot name. The parties, let’s call them Clambakes, have earned a reputation as some of the most insane and creative in the Bay Area’s thriving psychedelic underground. Clambakes last anywhere from a single night to four days, and have taken place at museums, hotels, theaters, mansions, and warehouses. The crown jewel goes down each summer in a hidden valley in the Northern California woods.
With all the talk of the cultural decline of the Bay Area, here are happenings where disparate tribes gather in something resembling harmony: Oakland artists and polyamorous co-op dwellers priced out of San Francisco break bread with engineers employed by tech giants; libertarians who reminisce about the days when you could shoot guns at Burning Man find common cause with LGBTQ activists and starry-eyed socialists looking to tear down the system; doyens of the psychedelic sixties hold forth with cryptocurrency nerds who got rich off bitcoin before the bust.
“Hard to say exactly, Jeffrey,” I tell him, easing Strawberry Hi-Chews through the cracks of my clenched teeth.
I feel a surge of guilt. Here he is, visiting San Francisco for a weekend, to see an old friend from college, looking to catch up and have a good time, and this is where I take him.
Moments earlier, he was accosted by mute gyrating clowns in bras and fishnets, who, with their gestures, demanded he use his smartphone to sell shares of himself on the party’s human stock exchange. Winding down the halls, he peeked his head into hotel rooms where interactive art pieces unfolded in mad improvisational collisions: demented nurses performed exams on hapless patients; a robot printed predictions for the evening’s future on ping pong balls that people wearing capes and headsets placed in a lottery machine; sous vide steak was served to partygoers as they stepped over what appeared to be a dead body wrapped in a rug while a vampire in a coffin in the corner seized under the bright lights.
Here was a group whose antics hearkened back to the crazy days that both [the psychedelic science and Burning Man] communities would just as soon forget. This struck me as irresponsible, dangerous, and a potential PR disaster.
Jeffrey tried on a virtual reality headset handed to him by “Best Bi” employees, only to assume the real-time point of view of someone copulating in a room down the hall. (“It kinda makes you nauseous because they don’t keep their heads straight,” a man in pajamas remarked). He looked on in horror as partygoers dropped trou for the Late Baroque Butthole photography project (I’ll spare you the details). Down the staircase, past the digital tickers displaying shares from the human stock exchange, and into the Grand Ballroom, amid lasers and projections whose colorful geometric shapes fragmented across dancing bodies, the thumping bass rattled the tea cups from the tea bar and, I reckon, what remained of Jeffrey’s hold on reality. So I took him here to collect himself, to Grandma’s Living Room, where those having challenging psychedelic experiences can sit at the feet of an elder who has, to put it mildly, seen some shit in her time.
“It’s like, avant-garde art,” I manage. I think Jeffrey rolls his eyes at this, but it might very well be the drugs.
I want to say more, but words come hard and hoarse and hollow at this late hour. I want to tell Jeffrey that there’s something happening here, something of significance beyond what, to an untrained eye, would look like the exact Sodom-and-Gomorrah vision my old football coach in Texas has in mind four beers in at the bar, when he rails against those coastal elites in San Francisco doing their queer hedonistic liberal shenanigans and sticking doodads up their butts.
But what, exactly?