An attempt at autobiography:
I was born in Southern California. My father is an engineer who was among the first to make and sell carbide machine parts on the west coast. In 1954, he started his own machine shop and company (Carbide Products). I also have a brother, Gary, who is six years younger and very active in outdoor sports such as kite boarding, wind surfing, snow boarding and scuba diving. He now runs my father's business. Unfortunately for my dad, I grew up completely disinterested in machines.
A chronic asthmatic from the time I was 18 months old, I spent many of my early days in the hospital under an oxygen tent or getting midnight adrenaline shots from my father. From early on, I was flooded with fantasies, visions, fears and had difficultly in school. To help me breathe, I imagined some strange but helpful flying insects "aerial termites" and cut them out of construction paper with pencils for antenna (aerials). I hung them around my room on transparent nylon line to replenish the air. Unfortunately my asthma persisted.
In my mid-teens I was sent on a multiyear stint at CARIH (Children's Asthma Research Institute and Hospital) in Denver Colorado. CARIH was a Jewish run charity that housed chronic asthmatic kids while they were treated. A very peculiar place CARIH was, many of the residents seemed to have problems other than asthma. There was a boy in the dorm who liked to torture and hang cats. Another from Alabama would dress a toy robot like a hooded KKK member and send it after the black night attendant. Our "house parents" seemed to have little experience with asthmatics and would leave after their closet was smoke bombed or any number of other pranks. I myself was tormented by the "cool kids" for several months until they moved on to the next initiate. I was never accepted into the ranks of the "cool kids" but instead forcefully resigned to the "freaks" in the dorm. Though traumatic, I now consider CARIH to be a case of what I call creative trauma. Unlike most traumas that close someone down and limit their horizon, I consider creative trauma a way of shocking the senses into a new way of seeing. It can open someone up by shattering expectations. Much later when I read about the Surrealists, I made the connection of what they were doing with art to be inducing creative trauma. It seems that part of growth, especially in the realm of creativity, is to lose security.
From my early teens on, my parents listened to a right wing preacher from Houston Texas named Bob Thieme (pronounced theme). He would often give sermons in his Marine uniform – a very pro-military guy. He had a "tape ministry" whereby groups in other areas of the country would gather to hear recordings of his sermons. My dad had several tape recorders around the house that would broadcast the voice of Thieme railing against the United Nations, welfare recipients or the pernicious influence of the Beatles. Seeing him in person was an odd experience, his devoted followers scribbling notes in the margins of their Bibles while Thieme came up with acronyms, code words and diagrams written on an overhead projector. Though I never became interested in Thieme's brand of Christian fundamentalism, I did become interested in the tape recorders and spent many hours rearranging sounds recorded on tape. I did this a few years before hearing avant garde tape music at the local library which I instantly fell in love with. The recording interest continued and later lead to my making audio diaries in 1985 (one of the most rewarding things I've ever done).
My only friend in high school with an interest in experimental music was Scott Kim (who is now The Puzzle Master ). He also had a super 8 movie camera and we collaborated on some film experiments as well as completed shorts. At the time I was also interested in music composition while studying piano with composer Eugene Hemmer, but gave that up completely after leaving for college and pursuing my film interest.
Though asthma has been a burden much of life, it kept me out of Vietnam and possibly saved my life. My number came up in the draft and after passing my induction physical, it was determined that my stay at CARIH in Denver gave me the status of 4F (unfit for duty).
Though CSULB was mainly a commuter college, I ended up living there in the dorms and made some extra money pushing audio visual equipment around (essentially what I do for a living now). It was at college that I discovered art films and had a wonderful and unorthodox creative writing teacher Bill Jaquith, who shockingly died an early death from a back flip in a parking lot. Bill also used cassette tape recorders to comment on his student's writings. During my time at CSULB I became the Associated Students Film Commissioner and organized after-school film screenings. This film program I called The Screen Door and included the strangest and most experimental films I could find. Among other projects was a weekly radio program Dadalight, several plays and a few super 8 films. I was in a production class planning my next film Birth Mark when a couple of police officers snatched me away and told me I had 45 minutes to vacate the dorms. My performance in an earlier class of a poem, Throne, shocked and upset so many in the class that the cops were called.
This poem created a bit of controversy at CSULB and led to my ejection from the college (thrown out). For awhile afterward I lived in Long Beach, staying with friends and trying to find work at the decrepit local amusement park NuPike (it was an off season -- they weren't hiring). A bearded hippie man with a harem raised his hand solemnly and said "move to San Francisco, they'll understand you better there." Thinking about it, I decided to follow his suggestion.
In 1976 I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area by bus. The bearded guy had also mentioned I should go to Project Artaud which I did upon my arrival in the city. There was a dance workshop in the big factory room (Artaud was an artist's collective built in an old can factory). I asked the dancers if they knew where I could stay that night. Surprisingly (at least thinking back today it's surprising) a lovely woman took me home with her. She was living at the Postural Integration Institute located in the city's western addition. The Institute was based on Freudian renegade Wilhelm Reich's techniques. Reich believed the orgasm had curative properties and that by sitting in a special box of wood and metal, healing "orgone" energy would improve blood and body tissue. That first night in San Francisco I slept on a foam pad next to an Orgone box. From a closed therapists office nearby, I heard a female patient screaming and crying at the same time (it's possible she was having an orgasm), People who lived or worked in the building were often nude. I knew I was in a different place.
Though I was dirt poor and often ate leftovers at cafeterias, my first year in San Francisco was an exciting adventure. It was a very trusting time. People would open their homes to strangers as "crash pads" that were organized through the Haight Ashbury Switchboard. After staying at a couple of social service residences that tried to help you find work, I landed my first big job as dishwasher at the Nob Hill Residence Club. They gave me a tiny concrete room in the basement to live in while I worked there. My friend Chris DeMonterey worked at a window display company and one evening brought over a store mannequin of a woman. For fun I set it up in the kitchen so the cook would get a laugh when entering for breakfast. Instead, the guy was so scared and upset by the mannequin that he got me fired.
Those days I enjoyed wearing masks on the back of my head and challenging people to "explain yourself!" Having a fascination for hats, I altered a few including one with clear tubes of colored fluid going around and another featuring a baby doll emerging from an army helmet (the "infantry" helmet). I wore these things everyday along with capes, robes — whatever struck me as symbolic and interesting.
How I first learned of the Circus of the Soul bookshop I'm not sure, but one afternoon in 1977 I happened by the small storefront in San Francisco's Inner Sunset neighborhood. Gary Warne ran the place which was the social hub for the Communiversity, a free university — well, not exactly a university since anyone could teach a class on anything they wanted and the only money that changed hands was for printing up the catalogue of classes. There were also film screenings in the bookshop and meetings of the dreaded Suicide Club. The group proved irresistible.
I sometimes used places explored during Suicide Club events for my Dream Excursions Communiversity classes. Since high school I've had a keen interest in dream symbolism and used the Communiversity format to lead some dream groups. Because I didn't have any qualifications or experience I was a perfect teacher for a Communiversity class. Determined that the groups should be dreamlike, we met in abandoned buildings, caves, swamps or snuck into places like cages in the San Francisco Zoo at night. My technique often involved theatricalizing dream scenes. For instance, in the abandoned Harkness Hospital, we created "Frankenstein" dreams in the operating room – combining dream scenes from a number of people and performing for others in the group who took the place of interns, watching from above.
Often I wonder what would have happened had I never performed Throne and instead stayed in Long Beach — would I have a film career of some kind? Would I have ever made it to San Francisco? Obviously, moving to San Francisco was not a wise decision for someone interested in a film career. Having an aversion to commercialism, I refused to work at film labs and production houses that made commercials. Unfortunately, most of the paying film work done around San Francisco WAS making commercials. And as much as the Suicide Club was a great creative outlet, it also distracted me from my film making and writing. Even so, I did manage to finish a few short films, sometimes using Suicide Club members as actors. I also finished a novella, Humanaut, a science fiction satire about NASA raising a baby in a weightless orbiting sphere.
The summer of 1978 found me working for Circus Vargas which was then an old fashioned three ring tented circus that traveled the west coast. They refused performers who used safety harnesses and had a real circus band and a midway sideshow with a sword swallower, contortionist and a menage of exotic animals (camels, qnu, and yak). No less than 18 elephants were in the show for the Grand Finale. Pay was horrible and the workers slept on wooden planks five high in cramped hot trucks. Preferring the outdoors to the smokey trucks, I'd take my hammock and find a local cemetery to hang it up for the night-- far more quiet and peaceful. Sometimes I slept in the big top with my hammock strung over the center ring. I worked for Vargas until succumbing to a nearly fatal asthma bout which landed me in an emergency room in Washington.
Before returning to SF, I visited my girlfriend who was touring the country as an exotic dancer. We rondevoued in Santa Fe New Mexico during the Christmas holidays. Carla (now known as Cleo Dubois) is someone a thick book should surely be written about. She's now married to self-styled shaman Fakir Musafar who is a pioneer founder of the "modern primitive" subculture and a long time proponent of body modification, tattooing, piercing and using rituals of pain to attain spiritual understanding.
At the time Carla had not yet released her inner sadomasochist but had done various things with the Suicide Club including staging a burlesque review at the abandoned Follies Theatre (now the Victoria on 16th St in San Francisco). We took a vacation in the Suicide Club hearse before I joined the circus.
Another woman I must thank for company and inspiration was Marcy Muray. We met in the late 1970s at a film screening organized by Joegh Bullock (another person I've been long in touch with). Unfortunately for me, shortly after we became close, she moved from San Francisco to study film making at UCLA and had a successful film editing career. Among so many things that I'm grateful to her for, my interest in bowler hats grew out of Marcy's giving me one as a present back then.
In 1979 Gary Warne of Communiversity started another project, The Gorilla Grotto. An ambitious concept, this "adult play environment" combined a bookshop, movie theater and cafe. In the very back was a giant playpen full of pillows (for pillow fights of course). Each evening, a completely different activity would take place. There were trips to unknown destinations, sexual experimentation, music performances, weird films and an assortment of games. Some events were goofy, others serious or political. Guest speakers and guides kept each weeks lineup interesting.
Unfortunately the Gorilla Grotto closed its doors in 1981. The bookshop sales couldn't pay the rent and the cafe proved difficult to maintain. By this time however, I had gone back to college to learn 16mm film production and was less involved with Gary and his activities.
At San Francisco State University, my two completed 16mm projects were Light Fixture and Limboid. The latter film was paid for through a student loan which took me seven years to pay back (and the source of headaches and a lawsuit in dealing with a particularly awful collection agency). To view clips from my work, go to the "Films" section. Though Limboid was run on public television and Light Fixture received a prize at the Palo Alto Film Festival, no film related career resulted from these efforts. A stretch of major depression set in, enlivened only by an intense affair with a young beauty, Maureen McGowan.
In 1985 while reading a ITVS newsletter suggesting producers concentrate on children's programming, I came up with my first "commercial" idea; a surrealist adventure show for kids based on dreams: Two magical trickster twins Willy and Nilly live in a strange treehouse on the outskirts of town. The treehouse appears to be a part of the organic growth of the tree – it's branches sprouting from the walls. Whenever the local children have puzzling or scary dreams, they visit Willy and Nilly who lead them through "branch tunnels" from inside the treehouse to recreated dreamscapes where the kids learn how to be creative with their inner worlds.
This show, Dreamtree, seemed like a sure fire hit and I traveled to Los Angeles to convince producers of its value. Well, nearly everyone I talked to liked it and equally thought it impossible to produce. In Hollywood, originality is a burden; only on rare occasions does an original idea see the light of day. So until this day, "Dreamtree" has yet to be seriously considered. There may be a show like it in Europe but I haven't heard of it.
A long-time association with David T. Warren and San Francisco's Giant Camera Obscura (near the Cliff House) was wonderful but couldn't pay the bills. My sporadic temp job hopping finally petered out, and I was desperate for money. On advise from friends John Law, Bill Kostura and others with experience, I jumped into a new lifestyle: being a nighttime cab driver for Luxor in San Francisco. I worked at this way too long (8 1/2 years).
In 1986 some of the old Suicide Club crowd were itching to do more group activities. Two women, Elaine Affronti and Jean Moshofsky, created an event "My Dinner with Gary" inspired by the Louis Malle film wherein Andre Gregory describes being willfully buried alive. Gary Warne had died a few years before at the young age of 35 from a heart attack. Elaine and Jean created a Halloween memorial event for Gary whereby people filled out their wills in a law office and then were trucked across the Golden Gate Bridge at night to Kirby Cove for their own personalized funeral service. Afterwards they were placed in a closed coffin, and left alone for 20 minutes. Yours truly, as a robed man with a lantern, removed the coffin lids and escorted the newly resurrected to a cylindrical brick tunnel leading to a nearby beach. The event was plagued by technical problems (for example; the pallbearers didn't realize how heavy filled coffins could be and resigned their post) but it proved to be a kick start for a new group, The Cacophony Society .
Unlike The Suicide Club which depended on secrecy and stealth (for good reason), the Cacophony Society often reveled in publicity. A colorful character, Michael Mikel, who loved to dress in a fez and patterned outfits became an early public face of the group. Longtime friend and Suicide Club member John Law joined with Michael, Rob Schmitt and many others to pull off some pretty remarkable events, among them the continued billboard alterations (as The Billboard Liberation Front ). Formal dress parties in bowling alleys and laundromats were combined with more challenging projects such as "Kill your TV" where 500 televisions were systematically smashed, burned and dropped from rooftops. News of these endeavors spawned new Cacophony groups in various cities (most notably Los Angeles). Though the Cacophony Society's antics often made the news, there was one event that topped them all and continues making history: The Burning Man .
While Burning Man had been a yearly ritual for Larry Harvey, Jerry James and others at San Francisco's Baker Beach since 1986, it was only when the Man was moved to Nevada's Black Rock Desert that the event took on mythic proportions.
During the Summer Solstice in 1990, the Man (who had grown every year along with the crowd) reached 40 feet tall. Before the annual conflagration was to take place, police descended on the ritual and forbid the burning of the Man. Kevin Evans and John Law convinced Larry and Jerry to take the Man to Black Rock during Labor Day weekend because no one would stop them burning it there.
The Cacophony "zone trip" to Black Rock involved about 100 people in a car and truck caravan. We drove out on the flat surface of the desert playa until it appeared we were in the middle of the vast dried lake bed and set up camp. The wooden Man was assembled (or as Larry put it: "re-membered") soon after and John Law's lighting made the figure a beacon to find our camp at night after a journey to the local hot springs. John and a few others had been to Black Rock before but to most of us, it was a revelation. Judith Iam was the first to make a video documentary of the burning. People made flimsy camps that blew to pieces in the persistent wind, dust got everywhere – it was wonderful!
I helped with various things in the early years of Burning Man; with Tracy Swedlo on the desert fashion shows, with William Binzen's large format photographs, with the first pirate radio station – hosting a program of experimental music called Mobia's Trip. In 1994 I became the first "lamplighter," tending about 36 lanterns that were hung on newly designed spires by Larry Harvey. This bit of public service grew every year as a lamplighter ceremony began to solidify, helped greatly by the tireless assistance and advice of Kimric Smythe. By the time of my retiring from leading the Lamplighters in 1999, there were over 700 or so lanterns with 60 volunteers needed every dusk to put them up. Since that time the Lamplighter operation has grown even more and now includes a Lamplighter Village, kitchen and lounge.
Along with Burning Man and Cacophony events I was starting to work on my own projects again. The stories Wreck Tangle and Turn Coat were both written with intent to film them. Both exist in short story and screenplay form. The story form was to create a more emotionally evocative reading while the more clinical screenplay was to be used as a map for shooting. It was in 1993 when auditioning actors for roles in Wreck Tangle that I suddenly realized how expensive filming that story would be. I froze in my tracks, astonished at my own foolhardiness.
That year, on my 40th birthday, I decided to jump out of a plane to confront my fear of heights. Being a tandem jump, it wasn't that risky but still proved to be a "center of the hourglass" experience for me. Since that time, I've tried to do something meaningful every birthday.
Turning to video tape in 1994 (a medium I'd always disliked for its inferior picture quality, like many other film snobs) I wrote a simple story that could be shot quickly and inexpensively on Hi-8 video with a friend's consumer camera. It was titled Lorett at a Loss and proved to be a much more prolonged and difficult project than I ever imagined. I used those around me as actors; the girl Lorett was played by a friend's daughter, Larry Harvey played her father, etc. The result didn't please many people but for me it revived my interest in composing music.
I had gotten to know Richard Marriott of the Club Foot Orchestra through Nik and Nancy Phelps. Richard introduced me to MIDI and prompted me to buy my first computer in 1993 (like video, I never took to computers until then). Suddenly that whole other area of early creative interest, music, came flooding back into my life. It was amazing — I could write something and hear it played back right away! I spent days arranging some early pieces written for piano in high school to the BIG sound of a full (desktop) orchestra. I'd be embarrassed to play this stuff now for people but back then it had power over me. The soundtrack for Lorett at a Loss gave me a good excuse to indulge myself in the MIDI universe.
Shortly after completing "Lorett," I was hired by Kimric Symthe to help in the Brisbane office of Munday and Collins , a company that supplies projection and audio equipment for meetings and events. It was great to be freed of cabdriving. Though I hoped for years to get free lance film work while driving cab, it never happened and my health was going downhill. My spare time at Munday and Collins was spent on new creative pursuits.
I started taking formal music theory courses after work at San Francisco City College with Jerry Mueller. The first impetus for this was to write more interesting soundtracks but later developed into a fascination for writing concert music. Concert music takes you on a journey similar to film with all it's dramatic contrasts and evocative moods but devoid of explicit visual pictures. The audience makes their own pictures by intently listening to the piece. It is NOT background music. Never having an interest in formulas, I strove to write original material.
I was shocked and dismayed that the young people in the classes didn't take to avant-garde experimentation but instead sought the safe and predictable. In my ideal world, the young should always be seeking new and untried things. Still, it was an engrossing time and I ended up writing a few concert pieces. Even so, I didn't consider myself a "real" composer – largely because I wasn't compelled to write everyday (or even every week). Though I hoped writing and recording music would be easier and cheaper than making movies, it really wasn't that much cheaper since in order to hear your work played well, you need to find decent players and pay them for rehearsing the material. As I've often been dissatisfied with the public performances, my output has declined in turn.
Shortly before my taking music courses, I decided to learn an acoustic instrument. Again through a confluence of circumstance the instrument of my choosing was the accordion. Here's how I remember it happening: Kimric Smythe bought a couple of "Hero" accordions – little Chinese jobs that sounded and played like harmonicas. Kimric wanted these as props for his Burning Man pirate camp. He tried learning a few sea chanties and I began to play around with them as well. At the same time a friend, Susan Dunsany the space lady who wore a winged helmet and played accordion on the street, needed to have her instrument tuned. I offered to take it to the guy she bought it from, Orlando MeniKetti who had a shop at 21 Grand in Oakland. While having this larger accordion around, I fell in love with it's sound and the experience of strapping on the instrument which became like a pair of artificial lungs. Kimric and I both became interested in these things. Kimric bought a pawn shop accordion for $50 and fixed the bass buttons himself, leading eventually to his present job as the accordion repairman of Smythe's Accordion Center . For me, the instrument suggested some new music and I was determined to write some serious concert music for the instrument (unaware at the time that it had been done before)
Another film project, Turn Coat, like Wreck Tangle was also snuffed in the bud when a friend who worked on independent films came up with a "modest" budget of $60,000. By this time, I had made the deduction (based on years of painful experience) that most other people just weren't interested in things that fascinated me. Though Turn Coat would have been a timely and powerful film, I knew that no one besides me would contribute any money toward making it. I again gave up that project and settled for the short story version. For my latest excursion into movie making I determined to do something that would accomplish two things: (1): To provide a learning experience in digital editing. (2): To incorporate my interest in music. What I chose was to make a documentary on accordions: Behind the Bellows. Aside from a quickly done super 8 movie of the Communiversity in the 1970s, I'd never made a documentary and slogging through hours of material gave a good experience in home digital editing (lab time would cost a fortune). I did a bit of research and found out that nobody knew of another documentary on accordions (my chosen instrument!) so I had my goal. My biggest problem is a general dislike of "talking head" documentaries. In order to accept my own project, it had to have certain visually stimulating images. The documentary is available for purchase in DVD form directly from me (email for details).
Continuing my interest in accordion lore, my new movie project "Quondam" features an fictional accordionist who literally and figuratively "misses the boat" (a cruise liner that he performs on for money) and instead embarks on a dreamlike adventure in a curious carnival museum. The literary novella version is HERE.
This website should give you a broad overview of my projects. The "Stories" section contains both HTML and PDF versions of my major fiction work. In the "Films" section you can view short clips (if you have a Quicktime 7 plug-in). "Music" presents complete recorded versions of many of my pieces. "Photos" at present only displays a few old photographs (will expand greatly in time). "Links" are a few interesting websites including many that I visit often. The "News" section announces new (or relatively recent) additions to the website. The site was designed by myself with the generous technical expertise of Vicki Morawietz. Thanks for your reading time! Any comments or corrections welcome.
– 2006 Steve Mobia
Return to Steve Mobia's HOME PAGE