Everyone’s Unique Except Me: Why I Hate Magical Thinking

by Whatsblem the Pro

Ah, non-conformity. It’s what Burning Man is all about, right? I mean, aside from all the other stuff that Burning Man is all about.

getting shot with this hurts more than hollow points

Some people go through their lives (especially the part before they graduate high school) thinking “god, I’m so WEIRD, I’m not like any of these people around me.” The braver, better-looking ones tend to celebrate it openly, while the rest take varying amounts of time to blossom and grow into either a fabulous never-ending explosion of confident freakishness, or a stultified simulation of normalcy from which they never again escape, unless they do it in secret. That ramrod cop with the sour face and severe buzzcut who wrote you a ticket for a rolling stop? He’s wearing a pair of custom-made crotchless hot-pink Hello Kitty panties under his uniform. Your quiet, mousy, conservative neighbor with no friends who never takes you up on it when you invite her to weekend rave-ups at your place? You should see her FetLife profile. And then there are the crushed spirits; the faceless horde of never-rans, locked up in cubicle farms forty dreary hours a week, and mired in their own frustrated disappointment the rest of the time. Plugging away at mundane lives they never wanted in a world they never made, too beaten down to break the mold even in their most private moments.

As Burners, we’re free of all that. We tend to be pretty relaxed about our little idiosyncrasies, and each other’s. The Playa isn’t just a place where you can walk around with your junk hanging out; it’s a place where you can walk around with your entire personality hanging out. True, maybe not everyone will appreciate it, but you’re still entitled (within reason), even if you’re the most heinous shirtcocker in Black Rock City and you like to spend the entire week at the bike racks in Center Camp, sniffing Yellow bike seats and chimping off.

Conformity is a pretty effortless thing for those who are inherently non-freaky. Achieving and maintaining casual veneer of non-conformity is harder; there are so many points at which non-conformity eats itself, Ouroboros-like, and becomes conformist. You’re a weirdo if you go to a PTA meeting wearing a silver speedo, pasties, and moonboots covered in purple fun-fur, but on the Playa you’re just another glitter junkie in a vast sea of uber-colorful participants spectating each other. A lot of them look surprisingly alike.

“The Freaks Come Marching-In” – they asked Burners to draw self-portaits. Image credit Todd Berman

Fortunately, the conformity of wearing a costume to what is, essentially, a massive costume ball is not a type or degree of conformity that anyone can seriously decry as some kind of problem. Culture’s in your head, not hanging on your bones, after all. . . but there are ways of being conformist that are both terribly non-obvious and, by virtue of that insidiousness, terribly threatening to the very non-conformity that we prize so much. I know this may seem paradoxical; true non-conformity, after all, is effortless – helpless, even – and not forced.

Macy’s does not yet sell complete Playa-ready Burner ensembles for pre-fab sparkle ponies to insta-Burn in, so we don’t need to worry about that kind of very obvious conformity making inroads on us yet. It seems to me that the real threat, the most stealthy, most pervasive, and most dangerous form of conformity that we struggle with within that broad and deep wellspring of freaky creativity that is Burner culture, is magical thinking.

Maybe this surprises you. “What’s the harm?” you ask, and rightly so: it’s not like we’re an homogeneous cult full of zombie-eyed religious fundamentalists, bent on spreading and enforcing our magic-based dogma far and wide for the glorification of our imaginary friend in the sky. As long as our magical thinking is fundamentally different from the tired old Judeo-Christian fables most of us grew up rejecting, it’s all good. . . but is it really all that different?

I’ve personally come to the conclusion that the most common types of magical thinking are indeed very harmful, highly corrosive to our culture (to every culture), and disturbingly similar in their underlying natures. I find that, having thought it through a bit, I am now deeply offended by most examples of magical thinking, because so many of them boil down to the same very, very ugly reductio.

I’ll get back to that in a bit.

People sometimes ask me what I have against hippies and the Rainbow Family culture, because I do often mock and deride them, occasionally with caustic fury. Usually, I’m just going for the low-hanging fruit on the humor tree; in the aggregate, as an archetype, the hippie is risible as hell. He has a giant conceptual “kick me” sign hanging around his neck, like a skinny emo kid in a high school locker room full of jocks. The hippies had their own fun when the inimitably lampoonable Nixon was in office; now that the ’60s are over, it’s their turn, forevermore. Yep, hippies are easy to make fun of. . . and if you can’t find one to make fun of in the immediate vicinity, you can just pull all that hair and gunk and stuff out of the drain in your shower, and build your own.

It’s not that I genuinely hate them; I don’t, and it would be silly to hate them anyway, because as narrow a label as ‘hippie’ is, it still encompasses far too much cultural territory to cover with any kind of earnestly-felt emotion. Hippies, like most classifications of human, range from people I love and respect and cherish (oh my god, you guys, I’m so sorry about this article) to people I’d like to cut up and use as chum on my next fishing trip. Hopefully my digs and jabs will encourage them to take Don Miguel Ruiz’ Four Agreements to heart, with a focus on not taking things personally.

After the levity is over, ‘hippie’ becomes a pretty useful label when we start talking about different varieties of magical thinking. There certainly exists some percentage of self-identified hippies who are pragmatic, scientific in outlook, and well-grounded in subjective reality, but that percentage is small and atypical. . . so small and atypical that I would venture to guess it is dwarfed even by that tiny percentage of hippies who are useful and hard-working. In fact, it could arguably be said that one of the defining characteristics of a hippie is the tendency to enthusiastically engage in a certain flavor of magical thinking. It’s less well-defined (and requires less of a commitment) than the magical thinking of, say, the muezzin who calls out the adhan from the top of a minaret five times a day, or the magical thinking of a Catholic taking communion and believing wholeheartedly in the miracle of transubstantiation, but when you really deconstruct the beliefs held by a surprisingly wide panoply of magical thinkers, you may find that those beliefs all have certain things – terrible, awful things – in common.

Let’s take a look at a short list of magical thinkers from widely disparate parts of the spectrum:

* Christians who believe in a loving God who actively helps them through life

* The Dalai Lama, who believes that karma from previous lives determines one’s station in this life, and what pleasures and pains one will be subject to

* Theistic Satanists who believe that Satan sends them tests in life in order to spur their development as individuals

* Hippies who believe that “we create our own reality,” and that the world around us can be transformed by nothing more substantial than our own positive thinking

While these four forms of magical thinking are clearly very unlike each other, their similarity comes into sharp focus when we ponder their implications for people in extremis, especially helpless and undeniably innocent people in extremis.

Consider: If Jesus helps Tim Tebow score touchdowns, and helps Jennifer Hudson win Academy awards, and helps J. Random Christian get that promotion at work, why doesn’t He help babies who starve to death in Southern Darfur?

Christians who believe that God helps them through life must really think they’re awesome, to get all that attention from the Lord while those Darfurian babies go hungry and die. What could be more flattering? Tebow’s next touchdown is more important to the infinitely-loving creator and saviour of the universe than the needless and horrible suffering of innocent children.

The Dalai Lama, meanwhile, as a proponent of karma, believes that he is the Dalai Lama and therefore entitled to a life of wealth, luxury, privilege, and dominance over lesser beings because, hey, he was a really great guy in his previous lives, and that’s how karma works. Those babies in Darfur, on the other hand, are suffering and starving to death because they were huge assholes in their previous incarnations. They’ve got it coming! Fuck ’em! It’s just karma in action.

(Incidentally, for those of you who only question authority that doesn’t validate the things you want to believe, I highly recommend you take a look at Michael Parenti’s essay “Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth,” which may cause a scale or two to fall from your starry Eastern mysticism-clouded eyes.http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html)

To the theistic Satanist, thriving and prospering is evidence of being virtuous enough to overcome the tests one has been given. Darfurian babies who fail to thrive and prosper are just not good enough to pass the tests that Lord Satan sends their way, so they lose. Those losers, they should have manned up and shown a little spirit in the face of their adversity!

And those hippies who say “we create our own reality?” Wow, they must really look down on those stupid babies in Darfur. The unenlightened little fools are doing it wrong! They’re creating a shitty reality for themselves instead of one in which they live in America and have so much food to eat that they can afford to get all squeamish and hypochondriacal about wheat gluten and high-fructose corn syrup. Good thing for hippies that they’re so wise and enlightened, or they might be feebly swatting flies away from their malnutrition-distended bellies too.

There are other parallels. The hippie meme that says that thinking good thoughts at people is a valid way of helping them, for instance, is no different than the Christian habit of praying for people who need help instead of actually helping them. It’s a way of pretending that you’re doing something, so that you can absolve yourself of the guilt of just sitting there on your fat ass while other people starve to death. Oh, but quantum mechanics (very scientific!) says it works!

No, hippie, it doesn’t, and if you really knew anything about quantum mechanics, you’d know that. Here, eat this and be quiet

Like I said, the really dangerous kinds of conformity are the kind we can’t readily detect. . . conformity that undermines our uniqueness, both as individuals and as a culture, and fucks us out of our freedom to be entirely ourselves. In the case of “we create our own reality,” and other examples of the quantum mythology that hippies seem to love so much, it makes us huge douchebags as well, of the same stripe as Tim Tebow, or those idiots who spread the urban legends (see snopes.com) about virtuous young Christian women being saved from the imminent depredations of sinister inner-city thugs by the sudden appearance of angels. Oh, the angels didn’t swoop in when you got victimized? Fuck you, Jesus obviously thinks you’re worthless trash.

gun photo from Burningman.com

You wonder why I hate hippies so much? Well, I don’t really hate them. . . but I do look down my nose immediately and severely at anyone who pipes up with “we create our own reality” or any similar half-baked hippie/New Age/quantum mythology catch phrase, just like I sneer at evangelical Christians who try to tell me about Jesus as though I’d been living in a hidden vault in a secret cave under a giant boulder on Mars my entire life. If it’s someone I like, I try to educate them out of their blissed-out stupor and show them why their magical thinking is so offensive, and such a threat to any attempt to build an alternative world that freaks like us can live in comfortably. If it isn’t someone I like, I just point and laugh and shoot them with my mirth rifle.

Be offended, or grow and be better than you are.

Worst Rave Ever

Big Red, a larger than life punch buggy

Well, that’s what the creator of this video seems to think. He suggests listening to it on real speakers, not your laptop ones – having just tried that, I see what he’s talking about! Plug in the subs and crank it up. There is some superb Hi-Definition GoPro footage of art cars and art projects, including our favorite The Third Space (aka the Zip Ties). There’s also some shots from inside the DJ booth at Root Society


Sacred Cows and the Gift Economy

It’s a funny thing about humans: we have this tendency to glorify things that are traditional, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

Cows in India are a great example. Once upon a time, the Indians revered cows because they provided so much: milk, beef, leather, butter, urine for tanning, burnable dung for fires. They revered them so much that a cow became the appropriate gift to give a Brahman; not long after that, the killing of a cow in India became a crime equal to the killing of a Brahman.

Today, the very phrase “sacred cow” is a euphemism for “anything considered immune from question or criticism, especially unreasonably so.”

Burning Man has an ever-increasing accretion of traditions. Some of them are old enough now that their origins are a mystery to newcomers, who tend to perhaps take them more seriously than the dusty old-timers who started them. There has even been some serious talk out there in the default world about Burning Man being a nascent new religious movement. . . which is utter crap, of course, but it’s easy to see how someone might think so.

This tendency to attach an ever-increasing sense of sacredness to things just because they happen to be traditional is superbly illustrated by the recent flap over noise and the playing of “Free Bird” during Temple burn, which has been covered here in great depth. . . but that example is possibly a bit too obvious, given that merely calling a building a ‘temple’ will invariably draw some measure of sacred feeling to it almost immediately.

What about a less obvious example? We hear a lot of lofty talk about “the evolution of the cashless society” in connection with Burning Man’s gift economy, which is often spoken of these days in terms of something elevated. Certainly, many of us are rather militant in protecting it, and regard it as something not to be violated under any circumstances. How did it really start?

I give you now my own (fictionalized) take on how the gift economy actually came to be:

Thing A: “Dude, we should all come here every year and do this as an annual thing.”
Thing B: “Good idea!”

Thing A: “Great to see you again! Wow, there are a lot of people here this year.”
Thing B: “Yes, word gets around.”
Thing C: “Hot dogs! Getcher hot dogs here! Cold drinks! Only a dollar!”

Thing A: “Wow, there are REALLY a lot of people here this year!”
Thing B: “Yeah, I heard that some people are driving in from as far away as Santa Cruz!”
Thing C: “Hot dogs! Getcher hot dogs here! Cold drinks! Only twelve bucks!”
Thing D: “Chocolate-covered pretzels!”
Thing E: “I got t-shirts here! T-shirts for sale!”
Thing F: “Magic ass balm! Cheapest magic ass balm on the beach! Get it while it’s hot!”
Thing A: “This is getting annoying.”
Thing B: “I agree. I come out here to relax and enjoy the event, not to be descended upon by an army of hawkers and shit salesmen. Anyway, it’s inconvenient to carry cash around and count change when you’re this drunk. I think I lost fifty bucks earlier.”
Thing A: “Yeah, and I was going to take all my clothes off and let you check out my titties, but I need pockets so I can carry my cash.”
Thing B: “Goddamnit, that tears it! We should ban vendors!”
Thing A: “I’m down. Let’s make a rule that you can’t come here to sell stuff to people. Next year, you bring the hot dogs and I’ll bring the magic ass balm, and we’ll share.”
Thing B: “Deal.”

Thing A: “Holy shit, look at all the people.”
Thing B: “Yep. But no vendors.”
Thing A: “Care for some ass balm?”
Thing B: “Thanks! Have a hot dog! Oh, and nice titties, by the way.”
Thing A: “Why thank you, sir.”
Thing C: “WOW THIS IS AMAZING! Do you realize what you people have done?!?”
Thing A: “Um. . . we went camping and brought everything we thought we might need with us, plus some stuff to share with other people so they’d share their good stuff with us in return?”
Thing C: “NO! You have modified the barter system to create a cashless society! I have an elaborate theory about this, which I will now expound upon.”
Thing B: “You’re making a big deal out of it. It’s not a big deal.”
Thing C: “This changes everything! I might even write a book about it. . . it’s a revolution in economics!”
Thing A: “You do realize that I have titties out over here, yeah?”

Thing A: “Amazing how this event has grown.”
Thing B: “I’ll say.”
Thing C: “Wow, hi guys! It’s so groovy that people here recognize how evil money is! Normally I live under a bridge and eat out of dumpsters so I won’t ever have to touch that damned Satan-paper!”
Thing A: “OOooooookay. Um, want a hot dog?”
Thing B: “I’m actually a stockbroker.”
Thing C: “You are all my brothers and sisters and I feel our quantum interconnectedness opening up my chakras! We exist in a sacred realm of purity and love because we don’t use evil, wicked money!”
Thing A: “You’re kidding, right?”
Thing B: “Guffaw!”


The Story of the first Burning Man on the Playa

Recently we talked about the Lost Traditions of Burning Man, and linked to other stories discussing some of the more murky parts of the event’s origins. Here’s some more history for you: the story of the first time Burning Man went to the Playa, why, how, and whom.

Larry tells the official story here:

even the description of this video on YouTube offers a different version of events

Larry Harvey, 1990

The Burning Man of today evolved originally from an annual art party hosted by Mary Grauberger. Taking place on or around the summer solstice on San Francisco’s Baker Beach prior to 1986, the art parties had sculpture burning as a central theme. Then in 1986 Larry Harvey, inspired in part by Mary Grauberger’s events, asked his friend Jerry James to help him build an 8′ effigy to be burned on Baker beach. This event, unnamed at this point, continued annually until 1990 when, the effigy having grown to 40′, the police pulled the plug on the parties
climactic burn.
Meanwhile, Kevin Evans and John Law, of the Cacophony Society, were planning a similar event called Zone Trip #4 – A Bad Day at Black Rock in Nevada’s Black Rock Dessert. Harvey and friends, having nowhere to burn the 40′ effigy, joined forces with the Zone Trip #4 group and this was the birth of what we now know as Burning Man. The following clip contains footage of an earlier burn at Baker Beach and also the first burn to take place on the Playa.

Some other links on Burning Man history:

Check out this video from 1996, dug up by Da Bomb

Wow look at Larry and Marian! And check out the Burn Wall Street prototype, “Helco”. Note also how the Man in those days used to be lifted erect by ropes, once it got to the Playa.

Here’s some more footage of Helco and the Burning Man people having a pre-Burn event at the  SOMAR Art Gallery to promote soul-selling in preparation for the bonfire of spurting spirits in the desert. All these people are Virgins! This video, featuring Satan and his minions and their corporation “Helco”, will do little to dismiss the fears held by those who view Burning Man as Lucifer’s Birthday Party. For the rest of us it’s some fascinating history/nostalgia.

And here’s a further look back in time, to the first Cacophony Society event on the Playa in 1990, aka Burning Man in the Desert #1.


Cacophony Society Zone Trip #4 / Burning Man in the Desert #1, Labor Day weekend, 1990.
by Dean Gustafson
The first year in the desert: a personal historical account from its first drummer (anecdotal memoirs or rather a rant of reveries)

The drive there: Leaving with siblings Brian and Jill in Bri’s new burgundy Cherokee Jeep. Started out early with the rays of the sun over the Central Valley waking me up in the back seat. I thought of the landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (particularly aptly, “Morgenreise,” with subtle rays of colored light stretching out into the new day).

It was back in the days of no authorization by the BLM, or by anybody! We just went ahead, set up and did it. John Law was the most instrumental person in making this happen in the Black Rock Desert. It was called “Zone Trip #4.” It was really a Cacophony Society event primarily organized by John Law (and the “Black Rock Desert Rangers”) with the Burning Man as a later added feature… and what a fine feature it was! It was a lovely time, back before the days of huge insurance costs or worries of petty theft.

It was the only Burning Man to date in the desert under a completely full moon. There were around 80 of us camped in a place that may as well have been on the moon or further. Luckily we *did* bring enough water, thanks to the experienced informational organization of the desert-savvy John Law and Michael Mikel, to name a few.

At the black flag off of the side of the road beyond Gerlach, we turned to contact the tires to the playa in a state of complete surprise; it was like a cream-colored sea of flat desert earth! Driving on what seemed like an extremely wide, albeit dusty highway, with Steve Reichs’ “Music for 18 Musicians” playing on the tape deck— this was “Zone music,” we all agreed.

The scenery of mirages over such space, for an urbanite who’d never been out in such vastness before, enthused me immensely, truly exciting my interest levels; I fell in love with the desert right then and there.


We followed the road, which was none other than a layer of tire tracks dug into one another, leading to the camp… a mirage and a series of dots and a larger diamond shape floating on it. The diamond turned out to be the central parachute used as a source of shade. We saw about 25 vehicles so far; one was a Ryder truck. Jane Sommerhauser greeted us first, wearing a sun hat with an outrageously oversized brim.

Getting out of the Jeep, we saw a small, surrealistically-inclined gathering of Cacophonists hanging out in the heat with low energy in siesta weather, in the midst of a void of nothing but playa cracks, heat, and mirages. Croquet on bicycles, with parasols, diverse hats, a few in sheik outfits, and only one boom box. There were about 25 cars parked and camped by this time. If you didn’t know all those who were there already, you would meet them by the night of the Burn— who still easily numbered under 100 by then.

We were in a slow, hot, surreal day. I dared to walk out on the playa by myself a ways. When I got about 40 yards away from camp, I couldn’t hear a single thing other than my own bated breath and heartbeat. And a sense of being *completely* alone happens.
You can’t get that feeling in many places… there’s not even a tree, building, or car to compare your height to. Existential feelings strike, you feel in a void. It astounded my sense of space.

The birth of costumes in the desert: That afternoon, Louise wore a pink harem outfit with bells, M2 was in white sheik outfit. Brian looked quite the prospector in his coconut-shell pith helmet. I became yet another “Lawrence of Arabia,” using white sheets. Cool clothing for the desert clime; I understand why the Arabs designed their clothes that way (though it was far from authentically Arabian in my getup of hospital sheets and a polyester scarf, provided by my mother, who was always into making costumes out of thin air for us when we were kids on Halloween).

Sebastian Hyde & Kevin Evans made a radically fun t-shirt design for the event, of “Bad Day at Black Rock, Zone Trip #4,” depicting this great human skull on a snake body (I still have them all! from 1990-95). “Bad Day At Black Rock” was my Dads favorite film from the early 50’s, so we brought his VHS copy along for the big screen movie showing, which never happened.

A refreshing sight by mid-afternoon: the unexpected arrival of a gang of some of my good friends piling out of two vans! Smilin’ Joe, Jane, Ann, Lawrence, Mary, Brewster, Valerie, Aiko and Scott. We shared homebrew, music jam sessions on guitar and blues harps, and many first impressions of the desert. The temperature and surroundings made this a highly unusual gathering for us denizens from the Mission District.

A number of activities were forming in camp. A small brick oven for bread baking was being built, which was a focus on a traditionally feminine activity, creative and nourishing…. contrasting the constructive and destructive masculine force of the Man. The oven was constructed using simple bricks, but it had an organic sense to it, as if it grew from the ground up. Some bread figurines were made, mostly of goddess shapes, and they tasted good later on as pieces were passed around.

Fellow artists Sebastian, Kevin Evans, and Corey Keller were playing croquet from their bicycles; Louise had a tape of Fellini soundtracks playing on the boombox; Sesha was giving almost everyone in camp Swedish-Hawaiian massages on her professional massage table.

The communal siesta space was under a parachute as a shade canopy, and I was there off and on with different people to visit and share bewilderment with as we cooled our overheated selves. Around 5 p.m., Cacophonist Ronn Rosen began reciting some of his latest Dada poetry, and while he did so, a strong wind started to blow the parachute scaffolding down…as if Ronn’s poetry called the wind to arrive. Annie, Michael and I tried to secure the scaffolding, but it had to be taken down for the evening. The wind was steady all evening, keeping the camp in flapping tent mode all night long. The local ranger who came by said the winds should stop around 4 the next day, and his scheduled prediction was dead on— as if a huge fan had been suddenly turned off.

Now it was cool enough to comfortably move around and look at the stars, as spontaneous revelry thrived through the encampment. I took long walks into the desert night, which became spiritually charged as the cosmos were too fantastically apparent to ignore… like lanterns of vivid starlight you could almost reach up and touch. It wasn’t easy to navigate the heavens out there; the Dippers, Cassiopeia, and all major familiar constellations are drowned in a sea of more minor stars that are usually indiscernible in urban light pollution.
I walked back to camp to find the Burning Man ready to be lowered and then raised again. I set my Anchor Steam down and picked up the communal rope, and we heaved him up; a fun moment for all. John Law set up a ring of neon around the foot of the Man… the crowd was out there cheering it on, as it became splendidly illuminated.

There were a few wind surfers out on the playa zipping around under the rising moon. So surreal.

Sleep was difficult, in fact nonexistent, that night as the tents flapped ceaselessly in the constant wind. I had to get up frequently to re-secure the ropes.

Around 4:30 a.m. I got out of the tent and walked toward the sunrise, dressed in layers (with the white “sheik” clothes), wailing freely into the cool air… when the sun’s first spark rose above the horizon, its rays illuminated the playa with golden highlights… ah, but highlighting every little minute bump in the playa, with cool blue shadows on the other side of each glint of gold. The painter in me looked with amazement at this complex display.
Great way to start the day!

Later that morning at Trego Springs with a small crew of us, I can picture BM organizer Dan Miller applying playa dirt over his skin— the Zone Trip’s first mudman (in my recollection anyway)! Phil Bewley directed us there, looking for the “T” near the railroad tracks at the foot of Trego Peak. We had a good soak in the hot sulphuric mud water, and came out feeling great. Hung out with more arriving friends there, collected some animal bones along the RR tracks with Seb and Kevin, then walked back to camp. The cracks in the playa mesmerized me with their detail, microcosmic within the macro-space of the Black Rock’s minimal landscape.

More hot than most residents of SF can stand, but it was too cosmic to leave!

In the hot afternoon, bro Brian, Smilin’ Joe, and I went off in the Jeep to peruse the northern part of the playa. It looked like about five miles from camp to the Black Rock itself, but it turned out to be a whopping 12 according to time and the odometer! Such distorted perspectives of time and space were beginning to make me feel like this place was an amazing alternative to psychedelic substances.(which most of us were not into anymore by that time…the desert supplied enough “highs”! – and in an environment like that it was important to be moderate with the beer).

Things we saw there included old stagecoach remains from the last century, at the foot of the Black Rock itself, near the scalding-hot Black Rock Springs, and at the head of the historic Westward-Applegate trail towards Oregon. We ventured further north into another desolate valley, happy to be in a 4WD Jeep. This was some interesting historical terrain; I was also imagining epochs long gone… looking at what appeared to be wave shelves in the hills, of the shores of ancient Lake Lahontan , and maybe an oasis of greenery with fertile soil and long-extinct animals grazing in this now-barren land that could be another planet, except for the oxygen and the fact that there is a restaurant and bar an hour-plus away in Gerlach …and an architechtonic humanoid figure ready to be torched in a very human event.

Back at camp, the winds stopped around 4 p.m, just like the ranger said— as if someone turned off an oversized fan on the playa.


We hauled my old 1969 Apollo trap set out there, and I was determined to be ten drummers in one, especially after the missed opportunity to play before a blazing figure on Baker Beach. (I did love the sensation of playing on Baker Beach earlier that June for the failed burn, anticipating the towering burning figure shape, warming up to facilitate this spectacle with some seriously energetic polyrhythms on the summer solstice). After being asked by the main Burning Man organizer Larry Harvey to bring the drums out to Black Rock, I was honored and wouldn’t in any way miss out on this experience!

Just before sundown , Larry wanted me to generate some rhythms to alert attention as the Man was being fueled. As Dan got the crowd to lower and then raise the Man with the rope, I played some incidental percussion to heighten the drama, timing the flow of beats to the lifting,.. like drums beating in cadence to the rowers of ancient ships. At Dan’s request, I played a decreased grade of tempo as the Man was raised. The crowd that held the rope (almost the entire camp) was dressed in mainly formal wear as costume. Some, like John Law, effectively mixed western formal with Middle Eastern. Phil looked dandy in an all-white suit. Women wore beautiful dresses and evening gowns. This was an extravaganza I was glad to not miss! And the weather conditions were perfect.

Then with moon overhead, sky darkening, the Man was raised and ready… it was burning time. I changed into my tuxedo with tails.

The honorable David Warren (whom many know from the years he spent hosting the Camera Obscura at Ocean Beach), in his wonderfully theatrical style, lit the Man with flames from his mouth. I gave a drum roll, also at his request… it all had the drama of a circus act at that point. Floom! The Burning Man blazed from the leg up, and I raged with wildfire drumming— it was happening!

I played with the Burning Man blazing approximately 50 feet ahead of me, with hardly an obstruction, with the wild glow of high flames leaping into the sky illuminating and warming all around, complete with full moon just over the Man’s shoulder. I played with as much polyrhythmic power as I could muster until my arms and hands were strained with a fiery pain; I felt as if I were a burning man myself, the flesh-and-blood percussionist version.

People were enjoying this from all different angles, without too many barricades or limitations as to where and how one could roam and dance about the figure… luckily no one got hurt at this experimental layout. There were some other noisemakers too; someone (Sesha?) effectively banging a piece of sheet metal to make a shimmering sound. Brian added some fireworks that went off behind the Man. It wasn’t too long before the whole Man came crashing down, falling backwards onto the playa with a dramatic crash.
Eventually I broke the head of my floor tom and one of my Regal Tip 5A drumsticks.
I kept it up until after the Man had fallen and become a bonfire under the lunar light, stopping soon after I broke the bass drum pedal, (fortunately, the rest of this Apollo drumkit had durable Ludwig hardware), and I was exhausted. The bonfire of the Man burned on, with many after feeling purified by the intensity of it and then moving to the formal cocktail party organized by P Segal, the hostess of the desert cafe. Others lingered to slow down around the embers.

This was an exclusive core experience to be the solo drummer at the first event, giving added motivation to play my heart out and try to sound like ten drummers in one… and it seems I’m the only one who knows how that feels, as now collective group drumming has naturally taken over, and to great effect. (A different drummer each year should be allowed to have this role as an initiator for at least a few minutes of the burn alone— just for the experience.)

After I packed up my damaged and ravaged drumset, I quaffed a homebrew with friends around camp. The stout I made was one of the most refreshing tastes, signifying that time in particular, and I haven’t been able to get the same effect in a homebrew since.

Good friend Jane Austin had an oversized bottle of wine… I mean *oversized*, being half as large as she herself. Jane offered everyone in camp a hearty swig and there was still more left over! She called it “Latin Life-Juice.”

A small gang of us went to Trego Hot Springs and soaked blissfully beneath the light of the full moon in the cool air into the wee small hours, followed by lengthy staring into a mellowing bonfire. Contemplation time, after the extraordinary energy of the flaming sculpture many hours before lived on within us. And I felt my sore arms from the outburst of drumming energy I had expelled. It was windless, so back at the camp I slept soundly under Orion.

The next morning I got an extraordinary Swedish-Hawaiian massage from Sesha, the camp masseuse. A brokedown VW bug was being dragged into the U-Haul. The Burning Man had left a scarred patch on the ground, “kilning” some of the playa red, of which I saved a small chunk. Michael Kan dug the two small light bulbs out of the ashes that were the Burning Mans eyes, and later in SF brought them in a small replica head of the Man to one of the Cacophony society meetings, and they still lit up!
Leaving camp after saying many goodbyes, we had to contact the sheriff in Gerlach on the way out about two who were lost from camp. We drove back to the Bay Area feeling healthy, ending the summer of 1990.
No mess was left out there, impressing the BLM (which helped to get actual authorization for the following year). But I heard that one item was left behind, it was a small sphinx shaped hummus mold, used by P Segal at the cocktail party. I heard that it seemed too perfect to not leave out there to stand in its desert element.

There is still playa dust in the crevices of the old Apollo drumset… I hope some always stays there. It probably wouldn’t even if I tried painstakingly to remove it!

The idea of dressing up in formalwear in the dusty desert to the burning of an oversized wooden figure was very much a Cacophony Society type of involvement… especially during that phase of the group. I had my tuxedo with tails on as I jammed into the night. This was no mere neo-pagan ritual; there was much more of a sense of humor and a kind of surrealistic quirkiness.

I’m grateful for the encouragement that the main organizers of the event gave me to go gung-ho on the traps… it was indeed a standout “immediate experience” (so called as something special to be respected in the event above almost anything else). This was something else, and we were all in the spark of its realization… yes, this had to happen again, and bigger every time.

I’m still haunted by the beauty of that time long gone by as I write this. I imagine this is what happens after everyone’s first Burn and experience of the Black Rock Desert. And it could not possibly be repeated in the same way. Something about doing this event this way for the first time ever… real originality was at work here at this very seminal event, and I felt lucky and proud to have been part of it. For me, it was a grand birthday week!

And I have never have played the drums harder or wilder since.

-Dean Gustafson (from memoirs culled from my sketchbook journal of the summer of 1990, updated and dusted off for improved readability in 2000 and 2007)

This certainly isn’t complete, more names and memories will probably be added…

Party of the Year, Sodom and Gomorrah, or Both?

Jesse, a reporter for LGBT-friendly OursceneTV, brings us this entertaining video report on Burning Man, entitled “Sex, Drugs and Mutant Vehicles”.

OurSceneTV’s intrepid Playa reporter, Jesse Archer

You’ve heard the rumors. Now’s your chance to check out the craziness that is Burning Man! Each year, thousands flock to the deserts of Nevada, to create Black Rock City, a no-holds-barred party metropolis! That’s right, anything goes in this arid, hard rock habitat! No running water and no inhibitions, Burning Man is not for the faint of heart. Is this the Party of the Year, a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, or a little of both? You decide! OURsceneTV Hottie, and Burning Man virgin, Jesse Archer brings you the low down dirty on the annual funfest, exploring everything from Mutant Vehicles to men in body paint! What you’re about to see is real and brought to you in the comfort of your own home (hopefully, running water included) courtesy of OURsceneTV!

We report, you decide…

Gratuitous insertion of Kiki video, if you liked Jesse’s report you’ll probably love this.