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Naming the Unspoken Thing

Inside the Bay Area’s craziest secret underground parties

Illustrations: James Clapham

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 Nana’s Living Room, the interactive art piece where beautiful people in costume are draped over pillows and rugs and whispering to one another in soft Californian, as the older woman we call Nana 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, 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 Nana’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?

It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out since attending my first Clambake four years ago. The scuttlebutt at the time was that there was a new band in town, who saw themselves as heirs to the Bay Area underground prankster lineage of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, the Suicide Club, and the Cacophony Society. As the rumors went, everyone dosed at the same time, and pranks and theater figured prominently in the proceedings.

I was intrigued. At the time, psychedelics were starting to gain mainstream acceptance, but in a narrow context as psychotherapeutic aids to personal transformation. The psychedelic science community, in its bid to turn psychedelics into legal medicines, disavowed anything that smacked of recreational use. And Burning Man, which had long carried the prankster flame, had lately lost touch with its origins, as its bureaucratic apparatus grew to meet the needs of a 70,000-person city of increasingly wealthy and pampered attendees. Yet, here was a group whose antics hearkened back to the crazy days that both communities would just as soon forget. This struck me as irresponsible, dangerous, and a potential PR disaster. It also sounded like a hell of a good time.

But the curious can’t simply show up to a Clambake. For all intents and purposes, Clambakes do not exist. They aren’t advertised or promoted on social media, and community members are forbidden from posting any personal photos of the events or using any identifying language when discussing them in public. Newcomers have to be invited by a member of the community who’s been through the ringer and can vouch for the virgin’s capacity to keep cool. This sponsorship model, borrowed from the Bay Area sex party scene, helps weed out the creepers and faint of heart. If the friend you invited can’t hang, you can’t either. (The Clambake founders, artists, and participants who agreed to speak with me for this story did so on the condition that their real names, and the names of the events, not be used).

There are no spectators at Clambakes. Everybody participates. And I don’t mean “participation” in the watered-down sense that’s thrown around at Burning Man these days.

I received an invite from a friend who was deep in the pudding. Being a responsible journalist, I figured I’d go strictly as an observer, a Tom Wolfe in a fur coat who’d mutter “Hmm, yes, how very interesting” and scribble notes into a pad. The benefit of hindsight allows me to fully appreciate my naiveté. Ah, to recall how forced and awkward I was at that first party; an Alice in Wonderland-themed masquerade in a mansion outside of San Francisco, trying to get the skinny on what this was all about from a six-foot-tall hookah-smoking caterpillar, as Alices of all shapes, sizes, and genders did headstands on a vibrating massage chair while taking hits of DMT from a vape pen, at least according to a friend who says he saw it.

There are no spectators at Clambakes. Everybody participates. And I don’t mean “participation” in the watered-down sense that’s thrown around at Burning Man these days, where you’re expected to put in your time building the infrastructure before you can boogie. I mean, like, you’re a part of the madness, whether you want to be or not, and it’s going to get real weird, and it behooves you to roll with it and do your part to make it weirder.

Each Clambake has a theme. This narrative plays out over the days of the event, and ultimately demands resolution. Members of the community contribute art projects that speak to the theme, crafting an immersive and artfully-consistent sensory world, or container. When it’s humming, the container, coupled with the boundary dissolution of the psychedelic experience, allows Clambakers to suspend their disbelief and become characters in the play. There is no fourth wall.

Clambakes are examples of an emerging artistic discipline called immersive experience design. “Participants in experience-driven events are encouraged to find unique solutions to the challenges they encounter while interacting with the narrative,” writes Freddie Nelson, Clambake’s Creative Director, in a manifesto on the subject. “In this way, each individual can contribute to a shared story of the experience, as every action carries a meaning.”

The Clambake themes are often satirical and absurd, playing on archetypal myths and facets of the zeitgeist. In one, the hero’s quest for the fountain of youth is recast as a debonaire chain-smoking madam’s search for an elixir of immortality to help her woo a mop with which she’s fallen in love. In another, the sorcerer’s apprentice becomes a biotechnology corporation whose nature preserve has run amok with mating unicorns.

Some parties pit participants against each other in warring factions, and often end in a reconciliation. Breakfast cults battle over the proper way to cook the day’s most important meal in their quest for the Holy Skillet; a mathematician and a baker unite to stop a giant pie from crashing into Earth; two gurus advocate two opposing approaches to self-help (think Deepak Chopra vs. Tim Ferriss), only to realize that inner peace comes through utilizing both of their methods.

“We’re rehashing what are just classic themes of reconciliation and growth,” says Billy Spice, one of the Clambake founders.

Some themes are explicitly political, satirizing greed, capitalism, money’s influence on art and politics, and the police surveillance state. At a Clambake a few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, a wall was surreptitiously constructed over the course of the evening that cleaved the party in two and prevented partygoers from crossing its border.

“It’s hard to do political satire for a community that’s mostly in line with similar political values,” Nelson admits. “But what we can do is create more empathy for those who are struggling with those politics. The Wall was an empathy-building interactive piece of art where, for once, as a mostly-privileged white audience, you could feel the smallest, most microscopic taste of what it was like to be told: ‘No, you can’t go here. Why? Because we said so. Because we created a construct that says you can’t.’”

The first Clambake, thrown in 2013, was a humble affair compared to what came later. Billy Spice, then in his late twenties, had long reminisced about a graduation party he threw during the halcyon days of high school in New England: the Bam Shake Clambake. He wanted to throw a follow-up — but bigger, weirder, more… Californian. He enlisted the help of Harry Mac, an event producer in his late twenties that Spice knew from Burning Man, and Amanda Duke, a psychedelic risk reduction activist who spent years studying, participating in, and observing underground communities.

The curation of the initial community was deeply intentional. The 600-person seed list was a who’s who of the Bay Area psychedelic and arts scenes, consisting in equal parts old guard and new, aboveground activists and underground troublemakers. The description of the event on the invites was intentionally vague so as to lure the more adventurous.

Some 200 people decamped to a hidden valley surrounded by rolling green hills for the Bam Shake Clambake. For much of the weekend, there was little to distinguish it from your average campout music festival — although the giant makeshift slide that sent partiers careening down the hillside at unconscionable speeds was certainly a nice touch. The only hints of a prank to come were signs placed around the property on Saturday that read 11:11. Nobody seemed to notice the half-buried alien spacecraft hidden under camouflage netting.

Five years of Clambakes have resulted in a whole mythic universe that teems with monsters, clowns, cult leaders, and despots.

As day turned into night on Saturday, and folks started coming up on their various psychedelic concoctions, a crowd began forming around the main stage. A band played improvisational, atmospheric music as a shirtless man in fish-scale leggings ranted stream of consciousness nonsense into the microphone. At 11:11 p.m., a throng of people in alien skin suits made their way through the crowd, carrying an ornate golden ark covered in psychedelic patterns and the words “Don’t Panic”. The aliens brought the ark to the stage. The ranting man opened the ark, revealing a totem that would serve as the mythic emblem of the community going forward.

Those sober few in attendance found the proceedings campy.

“Yeah, it wasn’t designed for sober people,” Spice admits. “It was designed to specifically exclude sober people.”

Indeed, those who were deep in their psychedelic journeys had their minds veritably blown. As they stumbled from the main stage, things around the property had changed, providing sufficient evidence that perhaps aliens had landed after all. Not the least of which was a UFO sticking out of the ground.

While it was only intended as a one-off, the Bam Shake Clambake was enough of a success to convince the Clambake founders that they might have tapped into something unique among the West Coast festival scene. Most festivals tend to place music at the center of the experience. At the Clambake, it was art and theater. Over subsequent parties, each one vying to top the last, the community grew organically but deliberately, eased along by the sponsorship invite model and what Spice calls “fight club marketing.” These days, over 1,000 people attend each event, and tickets, which cost between $200–300, sell out within minutes.

“In Fight Club, you’re not supposed to talk about Fight Club but it keeps growing, ‘cause people talk about it even more,” Spice says. “So, even though no one mentions the name of our events or the locations of our events on social media, they drop so many hints because they’re so excited about it that people naturally become intrigued.”

Five years of Clambakes have resulted in a whole mythic universe that teems with monsters, clowns, cult leaders, and despots. Each event features winks and nods to past ones, inside-jokes that only seasoned Clambake veterans will find the slightest bit amusing. There are Clambake newspapers, zines, and even an oddly-addictive strategy card game. The tone is consistently self-parodying — not just of Clambake mores and traditions, but of the larger culture of privileged liberal progressivism in which Clambake is ensconced. A horoscope in one Clambake newspaper placed outside hotel rooms like a copy of USA Today is typical: “Taurus: Inflamed disagreement over what the ‘A’ stands for in LGBTQIA will result in a sudden loss of all the social justice points you’ve accumulated via witty call outs and public self-crit.”

“I think that the community is establishing its own sort of culture, that it’s forming its own identity, that there’s an emerging archetype,” Spice says. “How do I put it: it’s like a ‘techie-futurist-hipster-queer-artist-entrepreneur’… thing that’s going on. It doesn’t have a word to quite describe it yet.”

One of the more unique aspects of Clambake culture is an emphasis on a multigenerational community. Along with the DJs, aerialists, and microdosing biohackers is a healthy quantity of gray-haired elders.

“In traditional tribal societies, elders play a key role in keeping the young hotheads of the tribe in check, and settling conflict, and creating a culture of caring for each other,” says Amanda Duke. “We’re attempting, in our own way, to replicate some of these traditional values.”

At one of the early Clambakes, while gathering my bearings at the tea bar, I noticed an older man in a white suit next to me who looked like a grizzled Luke Skywalker. He must’ve been at least in his seventies, and was rocking back and forth, sweating, assailed by visions I could not see. I struck up a conversation with him, concerned he might be in over his head. After entertaining a few superficial volleys of small talk, he stopped mid-sentence and gave me a compassionate yet firm look, like “I’ve seen things in my astral travels you wouldn’t believe in a million fucking years, bub. But thanks for checking in.”

Once, as twilight turned to rosy fingered dawn, after another night of madness, I spoke to one of the mute twerking clowns who had become a fixture on the scene. Breaking character, they told me that before going to Clambakes, they’d always struggled with questions of race, identity, and sexuality as a queer person of color. Becoming a clown, they said, allowed them to be the person they truly felt they were. Clambakes provided them with the container to play without fear of judgment or reproach.

It’s one of the merits of a party whose context is theater — you can shed one mask to try on others, and experiment with alternative identities, thought patterns, and ways of being.

“Most folks live their everyday lives within the same patterns,” Nelson says. “They get up, they go to work, they do their thing, maybe they go on vacation, maybe they get married, maybe they have kids someday. They follow the traditionally laid out path of the Western world of late-stage capitalism. Rarely do they get to ask themselves: is this what I really want? I think one of the most effective pathways to asking yourself what you actually want in life is play and exploration of other types of yourself.”

At a Clambake, you might find yourself doing things you never thought you would before, like eating live mealworms off a naked woman in a raised garden bed. You might rediscover your creative side, and fashion guns out of cardboard and don a ski mask to rob the cardboard pawn shop, only to return later in plain clothes and say you found all this stuff on the street, how much can I get for it? You might learn how easy it is to be a rabid cult member. You might transcend what you thought of as your limits, as I did in a small way once, when I brushed aside anxiety that years of therapy could not quell in order to meet a stranger’s kiss. Or you might be more brave, and find yourself participating in a spontaneous thirty-person orgy.

You might discover that this is not your thing at all. Many have. After all, social interaction on psychedelics is hard enough without a deliberate blurring of the lines between what is real and what is not. A friend who got locked out of her hotel room at one of the parties while high on LSD recalls how she tried in vain to find members of the hotel staff to help her. Each person she asked thought she was doing a bit. “I can help you find what you’re looking for,” she remembers one person saying. “But I can only do that while tugging at your ear, just so.”

Paradoxically, it’s an all-consuming focus on safety by the event producers that allows things to get so wild in the first place. For starters, no alcohol is sold or served at the events (although one can bring in personal quantities).

“By any measure, alcohol is the most dangerous substance in terms of potential for injury and conflict,” Duke tells me. “By discouraging alcohol use, we have changed the social environment of our gatherings.” Tea houses replace bars as social centers. This decision means that Clambakes make far less money than they could have otherwise.

While there’s no alcohol, psychedelics of every kind, from the usual suspects to a veritable alphabet soup of research chemicals, are readily consumed. The Clambake organizers don’t provide the drugs, but a third-party service offers anonymous on-site substance testing, following the pioneering examples of DanceSafe and the Boom Festival in Portugal, where drugs are decriminalized.

“The presence of the opioid crisis, and especially the contamination of counterfeit pharmaceuticals in street drugs with powerful opioids like fentanyl, has created an ethical imperative to provide this kind of testing,” Duke says, “and reduce the possibility of accidental poisoning or overdose due to adulterated or misidentified substances.”

“There is planned art and there’s unplanned art at our events… We just hope that by creating a shared culture of respect and values, people will bring that culture to those unplanned experiences.”

An in-house volunteer security squad does the rounds throughout the events, making sure that consent is being respected and that those who are too high get the support they need. Nana’s Living Room, where a guide versed in psychedelic harm reduction and therapy talks trippers down, is one such support system.

That’s not to say that problems don’t occur. Boundary dissolution is a double-edged sword. Sexual assault has long been rampant on the festival scene, and it happens here too. Clambakes have dispute resolution protocols to deal with assault and harassment should it occur. If someone is found to have harassed or assaulted anyone, they’re banned from the community.

Duke admits that the infamous 30-person orgy at the Bam Shake Clambake from a few years ago — when the dueling gurus decided to make love and not war and inspired their cults to follow suit — was a challenging experience. “There is planned art and there’s unplanned art at our events,” she says. “That was a piece of unplanned and spontaneous art. In that particular event, I’m relieved to say that we did not receive any reports from people who felt violated or coerced. We just hope that by creating a shared culture of respect and values, people will bring that culture to those unplanned experiences.”

“People who create problems will be held accountable,” Nelson agrees. “And because they’re being held accountable there’s an increased perception of safety. With an increased perception of safety there’s greater permission given to those who want to explore the edges of creativity and consciousness. If you do not have the privilege of permission to explore those edges, you’re bound to just recreate the same patterns you’ve always seen in society.”

There are two dominant tropes in psychedelic culture these days: the psychotherapeutic trope of psychedelic science, and the sacred trope of transformation you see at visionary hippie festivals and ayahuasca retreats. In both, there’s an implicit goal of using psychedelics as medicines to lead to healing, transformation, and integration. The prankster path is neither of these things. There is no stated goal. As such, many in the psychedelic science and visionary communities are quick to dismiss it as having no value at best, and being incredibly unsafe at worst.

But there is, paradoxically, a point in not having a point, a meaning in being meaningless: it enables Clambake to exist as something akin to a cult or religion, without having to answer to the name.

“They keep the meaning empty for a reason,” Erik Davis, an author and scholar of California counterculture, tells me. “Because it allows multiple meanings and multiple possibilities to come around, including ones like, ‘Oh it’s just an excuse for a big party.’ Well, what is just a party? I think on the surface it’s just a party. It’s fun. It’s hedonistic. It’s erotic. It’s silly. It’s dangerous. Exuberant. Unexpected. Confusing. And that’s fine. That’s wonderful.”

“But I’d say that there are deeper dimensions of the profane, if you will. You could see it in the Merry Pranksters, you could see it in Burning Man, at least for a while, and you can see it at [Clambake]. But it’s hard to figure out what to do to, because it’s a paradox. If you state it as a value: ‘We’re gathering not just to party and press buttons and goof around and get silly and sexy, but we have these deeper goals, we believe that in drawing people together or not knowing what’s happening that there’s a kind of magic of spontaneity that’s actually very sacred’ — The minute you do that, the minute you say anything, you destroy it. It’s what you don’t say, but can experience — that’s where the juice lies. And as soon as you say it, or make it a protocol, or a value, or idea, then it becomes religion and it’s bullshit.”

On some level, the Clambake founders understand this paradox. Much of the camp, satire, and fart jokes are attempts to hedge against the party’s deeper implications.

“How fucking stupid can we possibly make this so that no one ever takes us seriously?” Spice says. “If you ever tried to create a story about this being a religion or a cult, before you know it, you’re going to be babbling about pies and ‘Sasquatches’ and people worshipping cast iron skillets versus Teflon pans. The level of absurdity that we’ve created in Dadaism and in the art makes it almost impossible to talk about. Like how can you possibly take us seriously if you start thinking about it? It’s nonsense!”

So far, the fart jokes are doing their job. And the founders, by deliberately staying in the background, are avoiding the temptations of charismatic authority. But the risk of codifying what Tom Wolfe called the Unspoken Thing is always there.

“None of the great founded religions began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea,” Tom Wolfe writes in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1969). “They all began with an overwhelming new experience […] the leader did not offer his circle of followers a better state hereafter or an improved social order or any reward other than a ‘certain psychological state in the here and now.’”

That is, ultimately, the reward the Clambakes offer. They do so at a time when their very existence must be kept a secret — from the authorities, who consider the actions of many of their participants illegal; from mainstream society, who considers their behavior strange; and from other psychedelic subcultures, who consider their methods irresponsible. And they might continue to do so, so long as they don’t take themselves too seriously. So long as they don’t try to name the unspoken thing.

Update: Some of the pseudonyms and anonymizing details in this piece have been changed following publication. Another sentence has been updated with language to reflect greater accuracy that the drug testing is conducted by a third party, not event organizers.

Editor, The Long Now Foundation. Stories in OneZero, GEN, LEVEL, Timeline. Say hi:

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