It’s time to take a slightly different tack here at Burners.Me. Before the new voyage gets fully underway, I want to share with you some of my own journey so far. There are only 3 people who I know were here with me from the very beginning. One of them I met at Burning Man, and two of them I brought to Burning Man as virgins. I want to start today’s tale by telling you about how I lost my own Burginity, and how things developed from there.
The first I ever heard about Burning Man was on a mailing list. WIRED magazine had launched an online sub-brand, HotWIRED. This was back in the days when the entire advertising world was geared around print, TV or radio. Could a magazine exist in cyberspace and in the virtual world at once? Most people on the digital side of the Brave New World would tell you yes; in those days, most of the people from the “dinosaur media” Mad Men side would laugh in your face and then head down to the Gold Club for a 5-martini lunch with a Fortune 500 client and a juicy expense account…but I digress.
Sounds fun, right? It’s interesting that this “buck nekkid” from 1995 was still thriving almost 20 years later in this infamous 2014 Conan Shirt-Cocking incident:
Leslie Bibb would’ve been 20 at Burning Man 1995.
The next I heard of Burning Man was when uber-hip tech writer Bruce Sterling called it “The New American Holiday” on the cover of WIRED in 1996.
The links beyond WIRED and Burning Man went beyond skin deep. BM Founder Danger Ranger hooked up the network in WIRED’s first office. WIRED sort of spun out of Mondo 2000, and early burner John Perry Barlow was on the masthead of both.
In those days in San Francisco there was a social scene in the city around tech, but it was more like what you would see in New York or London. Well dressed people, black turtlenecks rather than hoodies, drinks but not too many, canapes and a house DJ, maybe a brief speech from the CEO. There was an intersection between the Web, advertising agencies, and big clients who had the budget to try something cutting edge.
My friend the Wolf had moved from Melbourne to San Francisco, and had a pretty good job at a place called LinkExchange. They put on a monthly event called DrinkExchange, which was a great way to network with other dot-com entrepreneurs. He had taken me to my first festival in Australia, 10,000 hippies camping in tents next to a river called ConFest. There was one generator at the entire event, a guy selling t-shirts with a single vinyl turntable going. He was causing much hippie hate for his sin of playing electronic music, but I was grateful for it.
We both read the WIRED article and talked about Burning Man. I couldn’t make it to San Francisco in September 97, I was working hundred hour weeks in my business in Melbourne. But he lived in San Francisco, so he and his wife packed up their tent in their SUV and headed in with their Aussie flag flying.
I spoke to him after, eager to know how it was. “Amazing!”, he said. “You have to go. You would love it”. That was enough for me, I was sold.
The next I heard of Burning Man was in the most unlikely of places. I had flown up to Sydney at the request of the Government, to talk about what Australia could do to remain competitive in the Internet age. The guest speaker at the workshop was a guy called Dr John Gage, the Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems. If you’ve ever had the pleasure to meet him, a lovely guy, true gent from the old school. I had met him several times before in various places around the world.
Sun stands for Stanford University Network. Like Google and HP, it spun out of Stanford University to become a multi-billion dollar company, staffed with former students and using technology developed in the labs there. In early 1998, they had a revolutionary technology called Java, which is still widely used today. Java meant developers could write their code for one type of computer, and it could run on any. Today it’s just “Internet”, or even “cloud”, it’s apps in your phone or you go to a web site. But back then, software for a PC didn’t run on a Mac. There were all kinds of competing operating systems and browsers. Sun had a vision to unify the Internet, and we were completely on board. The Wolf had been the President and Founder of the Australian Java Users Group, and my company Sausage Software sold the first Java applet on the Internet. We were monetizing Java before even Sun was, and because of that, we were well known to them and had a good working relationship. So John greeted me cordially. “How’s Adrian? Have you seen him?”, he asked, employing the Wolf’s non-Playa name which he preferred to use for business.
“I just spoke to him, he’s doing great!”, I replied.
“Oh! Were you at Burning Man?”, Dr John Gage asked.
I was stunned, but I tried not to show it. This is a grey-haired, bearded old dude, that flies around the world – probably in a private jet – meeting with Presidents and Prime Ministers and celebrities and thought leaders. And he knew about Burning Man?
“Oh, do you go?”, I asked, trying to be nonchalant.
He laughed. “No, but my son goes,” he replied. “Religiously. You should go. I think you’d like it”
In 1998, I showed up for my first Burn, not really knowing what to expect. It wasn’t like today “oh there’s art cars, people wear costumes, there’s gifting and when you get hungry just go to one of the food camps”. There was very little of that. Food camps? Maybe the neighbors were having a barbecue and would offer you a spare sausage, in exchange for a cold beer. There wasn’t any of this Ten Principles guff. It was Self Reliance – aka Survival – and Leave No Trace. There were a few people in costumes – dressed up freaks. But nothing you wouldn’t see walking down the street in SF. Money was frowned upon, but if a Ranger came around with a bag of mushrooms you probably wanted to have some cash at the ready. Everyone was friendly – we were all in this together. You could walk up to anyone in any camp, and they would gladly start talking to you. It was an amazing feeling of neighborhood, camaraderie, shared adventure and suffering. In terms of entertainment, it was a little light. Only a small handful of rave camps. However, these were spectacular, with gigantic art and aerialists and pyrotechnics. There were people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe.
Now don’t get me wrong – all this is still present at Burning Man today. And much, much more, and many more people. But back then, what I’ve just described was pretty much it. The Man stood on a bunch of hay bales. When it burned, people ran up to the fire and threw their own stuff into it. Trinkets to sacrifice, photos and papers, sometimes even buildings. All got thrown to the fire, we were all burning everything together. Shedding the stuff we didn’t need from the past, burning it in the fire, ready to move on.
I went with a buddy of mine from Australia, an aspiring amateur DJ. We both loved electronic music, and found enough of it there that we liked. We rented a car, the best one we could get from Hertz. A Cadillac. Burning Man only went for the weekend back then, there was no Temple burn. My memory is hazy but I think even the Man may have burned on Sunday. We slept in shifts, 3-4 hours at a time, in the car with the engine running and the A/C on. We didn’t need a lot of sleep!
We managed to catch a total of 1 gig from the limited program information we had. It was the founder of Burning Man, a guy in a cowboy hat named Larry Harvey, who shared a vision at Center Camp of what this thing meant. It sounded pretty good, and fit the vibe we were feeling, the cats we were grooving with, and whatever it was that someone somewhere along the lines of free shots may have spiked our tea with.
We both had the time of our lives, and vowed to return again. I made a new buddy, Johnny. We were sitting down and passing a joint around towards the end, talking about when we came back. The thought that we would make a huge art car or a complicated theme camp didn’t cross our minds – although there were a few examples of those things there, that wasn’t really The Thing. Burning Man was about getting away from society to a place of freedom, rather than exhibiting our art work and ingenuity to impress our neighbors.
Instead, we thought about comfort. Fuck sleeping in a car. We needed RVs. I wanted one with those mechanical pop-outs – we’ve never seen that type of technology in Australia or New Zealand.
“Next time we come here, we’re gonna have showers and beds and bathrooms”. We cemented our vision with a fist bump.
Since I first heard of Burning Man – before I even attended – I have only ever missed it for work reasons. And a lot of things happened for me between 1998 and the next time I could return to Burning Man, in 2001. When I finally could return, I had retired from the company I founded and sold about half of my shares before the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. I was bumming around the world, driving through Europe in sports cars, chartering jets, staying in Presidential suites, renting villas in Ibiza, getting bottle service at nightclubs, mingling with minor celebrities. The usual playboy stuff. Needless to say, I was having the time of my life.
I rented an RV. It had 3 slide outs. Johnny returned. The last time we had seen each other was three years ago, at Burning Man, dreaming over a joint about what our next Burning Man experience would be. I was pretty happy with my RV; how had he done? It turns out Johnny had one-upped me. He had bought a full rockstar bus, with matching trailer, on eBay. It had leather seats and crystal glasses…maybe even a chandelier. He and his wife and their cat Maverick had spent the last year driving around the US in it.
We high fived each other. Both of our dreams came true! The things we thought of at Burning Man, had manifested by the next Burning Man.
What could be next? If we came back for a third time, where would we go from here? Another joint was passed around. Dreaming. Then, it hit me…forget the entire side of the vehicle popping out to make it bigger. What if the roof slid out vertically, and created a second story? I shared my dream with my new friend.
“WHOA, DUDE!”, Johnny said, as he most definitely inhaled. “THAT’S LIKE TOTALLY RAD!”
I could tell he didn’t see my vision the same way. Constraints of practicality were clouding his judgement. I was determined to make it happen.
The next time I showed up at Burning Man was 2004 – coincidentally, the year the
Nine Ten Principles were announced. We were big in SF that year, or at least we thought we were! We launched Majitek at Java One at the Moscone Center that June. We threw a hipster party upstairs at the newly opened W Hotel – next door to the Museum of Modern Art and the not-even-dreamed-of-then St Regis, where I later spent 2.5 amazing years of my life. This time we rented the Presidential Suite at the W, decked out in resplendent purple. I hope it’s still the same today, haven’t been there in a while. These days, if I’m in that part of town you’ll most likely find me at Fang.
Our launch party managed to draw some talent, including Marc Benioff from Salesforce.com who was the kingpin of the town at the time…and still on the A++ list today; and Walt Mossberg, Wall Street Journal tech commentator and founder of Re/Code. Walt was pissed that in running from 10 hours of manning our booth at the show, to opening the doors for our free drinks after party, we kept him waiting 5 minutes. Fair enough, we could understand…Australians desire cocktails promptly also. He is probably used to companies built on other peoples’ money where the assistants have assistants, and the door bitches have door bitches. That’s still the preferred model today for most of these
flash in the pan hotshot tech companies.
Java one was in early June. Burning Man was in late August. What happened in between, to inspire me to return to burn?
Well, I was at home in Australia one day. I used to live on the largest private landholding in Melbourne, almost 300 acres. Mostly environmentally protected wildlife habitat. Sacred forest, but with a lot of subwoofers. The kangaroos loved the doof mate. The louder I turned it up, the closer they’d come to the house. They usually moved in packs of about 7-12. One big male, 2 big females, maybe 1-2 younger males…and the joeys. Little babies jumping in the pouches, legs scrambling in the air and tails flailing as mommy had to help scoop them in. I saw this every day, multiple times. But when the music was on, it was like the tribes gathered. Kangaroos would surround my house in every direction, as many as a hundred. I realized after years of living there, after-parties and pre-parties and actual parties that went for days, that some of these kangaroos had grown up their whole lives with this music. And then their babies were born the same way. Feeling safe with the bass. Connecting with the human in the place where those noises came from.
I should mention that this is probably the smartest home in the world at the time. I had a team of engineers developing custom software for the control of building systems. I have never been to Bill Gates’ famous lakeside mansion, but I have talked to people who have, and techs who work on it. I have never seen the inside of Paul Allen’s yachts, but I have done business with a guy who sailed around the world with him for 2 years as an on-board tech. Mike Markkula, the Apple Founder and Chairman of Echelon, was gracious enough to invite me into his home in Woodside. The home left mine in the dust (he has a 12,000 square foot theater that seats hundreds, taking the “home theater” concept to an extreme)…but he still had light switches. I only had touchscreens – in 2004. iPods were new. A large Asian tech conglomerate sent a team of their best smart home people out to the house to see if they might want to license our technology. We never got a deal, but the next week our slides were up on their web site. Minus our branding, of course.
So there I was, in one of the smartest houses in the world, thinking about ways to capitalize on all the goodwill we created at our bad ass after party and successful Java show. How could I make a bigger splash in Silicon Valley than a hipster party at the W?
And then on the TV running in the background I see something that stops me in my tracks. The Discovery Channel, content from the US. Will Smith’s trailer. A semi-trailer, the sides of it fully pop-out, but then the roof extends to make a second level.
My Burning Man dream came true again! What I envisioned, manifested before me.
I had an amazing travel agent. This was before I had a Black Amex – maybe before there even WERE Black Amexes. It was before the Internet disintermediated what was really a highly skilled profession. My lady Joanne was the bomb. She could get me ANYTHING. So I called her up, and said “get me Will Smith’s trailer for Burning Man”. And she did.
Time to Burn some money…
Thanks very much for the use of your trailer Will and Jada, if you are reading this. Glad to hear that Will is now a Burner. Thanks also to my dear friends at Anderson Mobile Estates who can deliver a home away from home anywhere in the world. I like doing business with good people, that’s what puts a smile on my face; you don’t get better than the Anderson family.
Will Smith chose not to take one of his fleet of these to Burning Man
That year, the Who/What/Where guide listed Paris Hilton. This was before she was well known as a million dollar DJ, or a leading light of Freemasonry. Back then she was mostly known for her sex tape One Night in Paris, which highlighted American innovation in night vision technology, combined with skill and enthusiasm.
Anyway, people put two and two together and made 5. Paris had a sex tape, the Burning Man gig guide listed her, and this crazy double story trailer was there. Obviously, Paris must be in the trailer! And so we had literal paparazzi waiting outside for us to open the door. The minute we walked out – and I had 4 girls staying with me, who mostly wanted to be topless – the cameras would be snap snap snap. Fortunately they didn’t even care about me, they were looking for Paris. But still.
Interestingly, the girls I was with that year and some of their friends who I met subsequently, seem to perhaps fit the profile of an Intelligence honey trap. One had a sister in the NSA, and boasted about having blackmailed a Senator in Washington DC. One turned out to be working for the Department of Defense. One’s Dad was a famous (or more fittingly, infamous) CIA fixer, who helped John De Lorean and Michael Jackson, and was well known in the UFO community. Another one’s stepfather was a high level Freemason in Kentucky. And another associate of this girl gang claimed to be descended from a famous civil war general. She also claimed that she had been raped by her former long term boyfriend. Without giving too many details away that might expose the identities of other victims of this spooky crew, it turned out that her ex was on the other side of the country with witnesses on the date of her alleged assault, while photos of her out partying that night in a different city were on her Facebook wall. I’ll leave it there, I’ve probably said too much already.
Suffice to say I was caught in a honey trap by this ring, who were operating at Burning Man and within the SF tech social scene. I wasn’t the only one – so were 4 other successful businessmen I know. Very smart guys. These lithe young sparkle ponies used the power of lies and allegations, combined with “no win/no fee” ambulance chaser lawyers, to prey on people who had only shown them kindness and generosity.
“Oh well, it’s the way of the world”, some might say. “Serves you right for being rich, you must have stolen that money”, say others. By this theory, it’s fine to take someone else’s bike at Burning Man. It’s about gifting, but if someone is rich enough to leave their bike unlocked, they must not care about it, so they must be gifting it to whoever walks by and their RADICAL SELF EXPRESSION and RADICAL SELF RELIANCE in the moment of IMMEDIACY means “gift me that bike!”
Alinsky was working out of UC Berkeley when he wrote this, with a young Hillary Clinton as his intern. He dedicated his famous book to “Lucifer, the original radical”. 3 of Burning Man’s Ten Principles contain the word RADICAL.
2010 was my most epic ever Burning Man, although at the time it was all unfolding it had the usual mixture of extreme highs and lows. I called up Ron Anderson to see about renting Will’s trailer again.
“I was just talking about you!”, his smiling voice said over the phone.
Although we had become good friends, we weren’t in touch that often. So this was a bit of a surprise.
“Your ears must have been burning”, he said, then laughed as he realized his own pun. “I’m here with two lovely young ladies who want to rent one of my trailers for Burning Man! I was just telling them about you”.
That led to me meeting Brenda and KP (hi ladies!), some of the many wonderful Burners who I have become friends with after spending time together in the outside world. They were organizing the Burning Man experience of a lifetime for an ultra-VIP client, a likeable guy who you’ve probably never heard of. I rented Ron’s “rock star bus” which must have had a nuclear-powered air conditioner and nano-technology blackout blinds. That thing was a cocoon.
We camped with Overkill and Villains & Vixens. This was my first experience being at a camp with an Art Car, in this case the Fish Tank. Great vehicle, friendly crew, if you see it on the Playa go and say hi.
Fish Tank at JuPlaya
The camp also had a chef and a private masseuse. Artist Hans Haveron – now appearing on Skin Wars Season 3, and winner of the Red Bull challenge at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art – was there airbrushing nude models. There was a line of nude models stretching outside his dome waiting for their turn, pouting at not being able to use their looks to skip the line. Artists from the Lucent Dossier Experience were in our camp, and there were theatrical and musical performances every night at dinner.
The chef and his team were cooking for about 80 people. We got a string wristband, this indicated to the chef who had paid in to the meal plan. As it turned out, about 76 wristbands had gone out, but they were feeding 90-100 people at each meal. This caused some big headaches for the kitchen in provisioning and rationing. “Sure, we would love to gift food to your new girlfriend! But that means one of our camp members who paid must starve”. This is the practical reality of Radical Inclusion versus Gifting.
The masseuse was gorgeous, and friendly, but also very busy. I put my name down for a massage, but I was perhaps #30 in the list. The reality of sticking around at Burning Man waiting for hours for something like that to happen is pretty impractical, and probably every person in the camp wants at least one massage. Imagine how tired the poor girl would be after 80 massages – doesn’t sound like a fun Burn to me.
Plug-n-play sounds great in theory, but once everybody hits the Playa, well – it ain’t the Four Seasons no more. It’s the same lines at the same stinking desert porta-potties.
I brought quite a big contingent of Aussies to the camp. About a dozen of us. The Wolf was with me, still burning after all those years. He brought a virgin. I had 4, including 2 of my best friends who had been hearing about Burning Man from me for more than a decade. They both finally caved in and decided to come at the same time, and both were in their element from the get-go.
After everyone arrived and got settled in, we were sitting around at the table. My friend Bree from Melbourne looked at me and said “so tell us about Burning Man Zos. We’re here. What’s so special about this place?”
I didn’t hesitate.
“Magic”, I said.
“Magic? What do you mean”.
“It’s simple”, I replied. “Wish for something, and then it manifests in front of you. This works in the real world too, if you have good karma, you can wish or pray for something and then you receive it. But there’s a latency of manifestation. The time between wishing and receiving could be quite high, although if you have good karma and are detached from the outcome, there seems to be less latency and things manifest much quicker”.
I paused. “Are you with me so far?”
Bree nodded, as did the rest of our group who were listening with keen interest. “Wish for something, and then you get it.”, Bree summed it up nicely.
“Exactly,” I agreed. “Well at Burning Man, that latency of manifestation disappears. Wish for something and it appears right in front of you”
Bree laughed in disbelief. “Well in that case, Zos…I want a pony!”. Everybody laughed. A pony! As if she would get a pony in the desert. Animals are banned at Burning Man, for starters. Let alone all the MOOP a pony could create. Ha ha ha, what a crazy concept.
Well blow me down if not *40 seconds* from when she said that, a huge black guy in a pink tutu bounced up. He was riding one of these:
“Oh my god!”, Bree screamed excitedly. “A pony!”
The gentleman had not said so much as a hello to us yet. We didn’t know if he even spoke English. But when he heard her excitement at the pony, he immediately grabbed the unicorn and gifted to her.
Bree’s first instinct was to refuse the gift. “Oh no! I couldn’t. It’s too much”. Good manners, that girl.
“It’s Burning Man”, said the unknown gifter. “Get used to it”. And with that he sauntered off, sans unicorn.
Well, Bree was kind of excited at this point. She wished for a pony, and now she had one. We set off for a walk to the Esplanade, to see the Man and the Inner Playa. Bree was walking/riding her unicorn, I was walking next to her. A guy bounced up, he had a unicorn too. “Hey!”, Bree said. She waggled the unicorn head at him in greeting. He waggled his back.
“It’s not right!”, he exclaimed. We both looked at him, puzzled. What was up with this dude?
He explained himself. “It’s not right that she has a pony and you don’t”. And he handed me his unicorn stick.
I checked my own reflexive urge to politely decline, and warmly accepted his gift with a big smile and a big hug. Now we were both at Burning Man, each with a pony. So far about 5 minutes had elapsed since Bree made her initial wish.
We walked a little bit further, and sure, we saw the Man. But we also saw a giant fucking horse!
Bree and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Ok Zos!”, she condeded. “I get it”.
Welcome to Burning Man.
Trojan Horse, 2010. Image: Sharona Gott/Flickr (Creative Commons)
photo: Peter Wardlaw
This has been my home for the last 3 Burning Mans. $19,000 on eBay. Whatever you take to Burning Man is going to get trashed, so why buy a fancy one?
When I had the vertical slide-out in 2004, I got to experience Burning Man from a whole different angle – literally. Get up above the rooftops of the RVs, and you can see a lot
of what’s going on in the city. I recommend including this in your camp plans, you don’t have to spend big bucks.Even just take a camping chair on top of your friend’s RV. You can see so much happening once you get a bit of height.
The last time I was at the Nevada Burn, 2013 Cargo Cult I watched the burn from way up high. This was also the first time I ever convinced one of my family members to come to Burning Man. My sister flew all the way from Bali, direct to the Playa. And we watched the UFO burn from on top of the Balanceville Art Car. My sister shoved fellow first-time Burner Susan Sarandon out of the way so she could take this photo with me:
Image: Peter Ruprecht
Burning Man is amazing and inspiring to me. It has inspired me to gift this blog to the community, thousands of hours of effort. Like most gifts at Burning Man, it’s not universally welcomed. Not everybody wants this gift. Fair enough; to each their own. I have not used this platform to promote myself or my businesses, simply to share my opinions and my research. I have invited anyone to come on and contribute, and many have. Thanks to all those Burners who have taken time to write guest posts, including Nomad Traveler, A Balanced Perspective, Toburn, Pantless Santa, Sandstorm, ShiftyFox, Halcyon, Rabbitt, AleXander, Buena Chica, Shift Pods, Jex, Damian, Jillian, Nick Heyming, Nicole Sparklecorn, Kestrel, Shaggy Dog, Jal Lee Mon, Ayahuasca, Joycebird, Dark Arps, Simon Yugler, Jill Marlene, Alex Mak, Beth Lillie. Sorry for anybody I left out! And thanks especially to Terry Gotham and Whatsblem the Pro who both have contributed so many great posts. I count 28 names there, plus my own – so it’s a little unfair to say that we only ever present one side of things. Anyone is welcome to write a guest post or comment.
Thank you to all the BURNILEAKS whistleblowers who have come forward to share information about what is truly going on. Our whole community owes you a great debt. Although we have not won the transparency battle, and in fact are probably losing it…it could have been so much worse. It still could. Burning Man for the Burners is something worth believing in. We do have the power.
Thanks to those amazing photographers who let Burners share their work with other Burners without kicking up a stink about it, particularly those who have personally helped me like Peter Ruprecht, Josh Reiss, Duncan Rawlinson, Eleanor Preger, Gilles Bonugli-Kali…and anyone who has ever shared a photo here or elsewhere on the Interwebz. Love your work, keep helping to share Burner art with the world.
I would like to give a massive thanks to YOU for reading this. Please don’t be shy about participating in the conversation here, we’re all in this together. Burning Man at its best is a shining beacon of hope in a technotronic age – that the basic goodness of the human soul is the natural way for us to be, and that The System of The Man in the Default world is not the apex of our civilization. The best is yet to come, and we have an opportunity and an obligation to create the best future we can possibly imagine for our ancestors to inherit.
Thank you for your participation.