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…

18 comments on “The Story of the first Burning Man on the Playa

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  13. ’96 was my first burn – and radically different from today’s almost theme-parky sense of organization.

    Sprawled all over the playa, no rules, no streets, little order. They had just banned guns, but this was the year that an artist died motorcycling around in the dust and two people were badly injured when a car ran over their tent.

    The directions we got were “Go to a trailer by the side of Highway 447 and the guy there will sell you a ticket and give you directions.” When we buy our tickets, the guy says “Okay, you got a compass?” “Yeah.” “Okay then drive due north for 10 miles. When you hit the 10 mile mark, turn left, go west for a mile or so and you should run into it.” And run into it we did.

    Here’s the article I wrote about it for the Los Angeles Times:

  14. “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.”

    THIS!!!!!! This is why I love Burning Man….surrealistic quirks and humor!!!
    Great post!!!

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