I have been meaning to sit down and write an article about pranks at Burning Man and how large they loom in our history, but someone whom I would have featured in that article decided to die this week. Paul David Addis, the man who burned the Man, committed suicide Saturday by jumping in front of a BART train at Embarcadero Station in San Francisco.
Whatever else anyone might say about him, can we all agree on “rest in peace,” please?
Addis was an old-school burner and part of the crew that built the Blue Light District, Burning Man’s first ‘village’ and the model for the tradition of villages to come. He studied Law, became a patent attorney, and eventually resigned the California Bar over what he considered a matter of principle.
In June of 2008, he pleaded guilty in a Lovelock, Nevada courtroom to felony charges of damaging property. He was sentenced to 12 to 48 months in prison and ordered to pay $25,000 in restitution. The property he damaged? In 2007, Paul Addis set fire to the Man almost five days early.
A lot has been said and written about Addis burning the Man. Any casual observer would find it easy to very quickly conclude that Addis was seriously disturbed, deeply criminal at the very least, and possibly even criminally insane. Certainly his actions generated a huge amount of rancor, but to what extent was his early burn a product of criminality and madness, and to what extent was it a coherent social and/or artistic statement. . . and was it relevant? More to the point, did Addis get what he deserved?
When the subject of Paul Addis comes up in conversation among burners, someone almost invariably brings up another incident that took place shortly after the ’07 burn, in which Addis was arrested in San Francisco. I have heard many minor variations on this story, but it usually rears its head as “I heard he got arrested for burning down a church.” This is typically greeted with knowing nods of understanding, as if it both confirms and explains everything.
What actually happened on October 28th, 2007, though, only clouds the waters rather than clarifying them. The ‘church’ was Grace Cathedral, the Episcopal Cathedral of the Diocese of California, and a San Francisco landmark. It wasn’t burned down, or even set on fire. According to the SF Chronicle:
Paul David Addis, 35, was arrested on the cathedral steps at 11:40 PM Sunday after officers were tipped off that someone intended to set fire to the Episcopal church, police spokesman Sgt. Steve Mannina said.
Addis was wearing an old ammunition belt that carried small explosives, Mannina said. He was booked on suspicion of attempted arson, possession of an incendiary substance, possession of explosives and possession of explosives with intent to terrorize a church.
A bomb dog was brought in to search the area and found no other explosives at the California Street cathedral.
Deputy Chief Morris Tabak said Addis had only a small amount of explosives.
“Did he have the capability to do substantial damage? Absolutely not,” Tabak said.
Tabak said police didn’t know Addis’ motive. “He said something about it was his religious right,” Tabak said.
According to friends of Paul Addis, Grace Cathedral was an important place to him, a place he liked to go, all on his own, perhaps in search of a sense of spiritual catharsis. The building itself is fairly magnificent; a perfect spot to feel the San Francisco wind in your teeth, maybe set off a few leftover fireworks to light up the night and stir your soul.
The police were called in because Addis reportedly said to a neighbor that the cathedral “isn’t going to be there anymore.” Pretty ambiguous as a threat, but the neighbor undoubtedly heard it in the context of Paul being embroiled in a court case in which he was being accused of arson.
It seems likely that Paul Addis might have said something about a “religious rite” to the police, not his “religious right.” We’ll never know what his intentions were, though. . . and we’ll never know how much of what he said to his neighbor and to the police were just a flippant put-on, and how much was serious. What we do know is that if he was serious, the police considered him woefully under-equipped for the job at hand, which seems uncharacteristic both for a seasoned burner of his vintage, and for a previously successful arsonist. If he was trying to burn down the monumental pile of flame-proof stone that is Grace Cathedral, then Paul with his meager backpack of fireworks was like a mad-brained gnat trying to knock over a bull elephant.
The police were called because Addis had a reputation as an arsonist, thanks to what he did at Burning Man, and they arrested him for the same reason. . . yet it is the knowledge of his arrest at the cathedral that, more than anything, seems to cement the idea in peoples’ minds that when he lit the Man up early in ’07 he was behaving as nothing more than an arsonist, a criminal, and possibly insane, when he has always claimed to be simply a passionate burner making a rather powerful and coherent statement about the event and the Org. The story of the one incident has fed into the other for years now, a self-fulfilling prophecy damaging Addis’ reputation and damning him in the minds of burners everywhere – perhaps unfairly – with abundant hearsay and scarce facts; an endless ugly loop of miscarried soundbite justice.
In the end, he pleaded no contest to fireworks possession and was ordered to undergo counseling and to stay away from the cathedral. . . but for Paul Addis, getting arrested at Grace Cathedral on trumped-up charges was just the beginning of the aftermath of the ’07 burn.
To this day, a lot of people – some of them very prominent in old-school burner circles – think that the punishment meted out to Addis for burning the Man was too harsh. Rumor has it that this is true even at the highest level of the Org; Wired Magazine reported that Larry Harvey’s reaction when he realized that his Man was on fire. . . was laughter.
The early burn, [Larry Harvey] said, will help show that the Man itself is “nothing but a wooden doll,” and that the event is really about the joint effort of attendees to create it. It will turn this year’s Burning Man into a “narrative of community and redemption” as the attendees get to see or assist in the public rebuilding of the statue, he said.
And yet, Addis has made statements numerous times to the effect that Marian Goodell, Burning Man’s Director of Business and Communications, colluded with Will Roger and others in the Org to both maximize his sentence, and to publicly misrepresent their own role in sending him to prison, which Addis says was far more significant than they are willing to admit.
In the film “Dust & Illusions,” Goodell states unequivocally that the sentencing was beyond their control. Since then, she has steadfastly refused to talk about Paul Addis’ sentencing. “It doesn’t do us or him any good to open that wound again,” she told the San Francisco Guardian in an interview. “We’re not going to discuss it.” But did the Org have a say in Addis’ sentencing?
When Laughing Squid published an account of Addis’ sentencing on June 25th, 2008, Don McCasland posted a long and scathing comment to the article three days later. McCasland opened fire with this volley of eye-opening information:
photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid
I was there in Lovelock last Tuesday to show support for Paul during the restitution and sentencing hearings. I was among the handful of people who were aware of the deal made between the DA and Paul’s public defender that if the amount of damage found in the restitution hearing was low enough, Paul’s charges would be reduced to a misdemeanor. Also among that handful were most of the BMOrg. Discussions were had with Marian, Andy, Harley, and others, letting them know that the power to send Paul to jail was, in fact, in their hands. They have been saying all along that they could not drop the charges, that this was entirely in the DA’s hands, but that was not so. They very much could have gone to court and had Paul’s sentence drastically reduced, not sent him to prison, and not made him a felon.
But no, come Tuesday Will Roger showed up in court with a stack of invoices. He and the DA went over them in the DA’s office before the hearing, and when they were finally presented in court, they totaled 30,000 dollars. The DA asked Will to go over them with him. Will stammered a lot, unsure of some of the items, unsure of why some of the numbers for the neon were on an invoice with gas, food, and lodging for volunteers, and some of the numbers for the neon were on other pages. When cross-examined by the public defender, he was entirely flummoxed about several items that were purchased on 08/17 or 08/22, both dates that were well before Paul burned the Man. But despite the defenders best efforts, knocking off the price of food, lodging, gas for volunteers, knocking off the price of a water pump, the judge stopped him and said “Well, counsel, I still don’t think you’re going to get it under five thousand dollars,” and cut short his efforts. And so they went into a hasty little sentencing hearing. Paul got to speak a few words and that was it.
Besides being sad and concerned for my friend, who needs help that he simply will not get in jail, I feel betrayed. Another close friend went to Marion last week before the hearing to plead that the Org help keep Paul out of jail. The discussion went here and there, but Marion said in no uncertain terms, “We do not want to send Paul to jail.” “We do not want to send Paul to jail. . .” really? Well, I have to ask then, why did the Org pad the invoices with items that could not be part of restitution, the food, the gas, the lodging, other durable goods, to the tune of thirty thousand dollars??? We were let know through a back channel that the Org was planning, in fact, to come with invoices around only 10k. This didn’t happen. Instead, after speaking with us about a compassionate course, they turned around and sent Will in to burn Paul as hard as they could.
To this day, Andie Grace’s official afterburn report for 2007 (http://blog.burningman.com/2008/06/news/after-the-07-burn-and-afterburn-07-news-from-bmhq/) glosses over the part the Org played in maximizing Paul Addis’ comeuppance:
In other post-2007 news, we’ve heard a report from Pershing County, where Paul Addis’s restitution hearing and sentencing were held yesterday afternoon. Addis recently pled guilty to charges related to setting fire to the Burning Man figure days early at last year’s event. At yesterday’s hearing, the judge found evidence beyond a reasonable doubt showing the damages were in excess of $5,000 and thus Addis was convicted of a felony arson charge. After hearing Addis speak on his own behalf, the judge sentenced him to 12-48 months in prison and ordered him to pay $25,000 in restitution.
I spoke with several people who knew Paul Addis about him, his suicide, and his history. One of them was Sean Kelly, Addis’ long-time friend and schoolmate.
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WHATSBLEM THE PRO: You went to school with Paul Addis?
SEAN KELLY: Yes, I met Paul in college in 1988. He lived a couple of doors down from the Op Ed of the college paper. I wrote for the paper. I inevitably met Paul because it’s college and you tend to hang out with people two doors down from your op-ed.
He was really smart, so we got along very well. We enjoyed a love of the baby that was the Industrial scene, punk, driving around aimlessly in South Florida and of course football. We both loved (and still do love) the Miami Hurricanes.
Even then Paul was Paul. He’d walk around campus with a fake pistol in a shoulder holster. As a Miami native I pulled him aside several times and directly suggested he not carry around a fake gun because Miami is a crazy place and cops and crazy people would see that gun, fake or not, and escalate.
WTP: You’ve characterized Paul as suffering from PTSD. Can you explain?
SK: Hurricane Andrew. Three people in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew were raped and killed by a psycho National Guardsman who was supposed to be in Miami helping. Paul’s friends, my friends: Ronnie, Gina and Andrew offered Steven Coleman a ride home from a bar as a favor because he was helping out Miami. . . and Steven Coleman killed all three of them, and raped two of them.
If you have ever flippantly stated Paul Addis should just get his shit together, know this: it’s hard to get your shit together when your friends get raped and murdered. Compassion is paramount for anyone with PTSD.
Few people know this about Paul. Flippant exclamations by people who have played it safe do not understand what pain he went through. He’s not some pampered idiot. Our world fell apart. Dead best friends. Funerals. Guilt. East Coast parenting “just suck it up” shit.
WTP: Sounds like a tight-knit group of kids.
SK: Yeah. This broke everyone in our crew. It broke me. When I do crazy shit, this is why. When Paul did crazy shit, this was why. Our friends at nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, our classmates, our bandmates, our PEOPLE were killed, and that fucks you up. . . BAD. It didn’t stop there, but the major damage was done.
Ronnie was the drummer in the first band I was in. Andrew was a UM Patio mainstay. Paul and I had classes together with Andrew; we shared notes. We studied TOGETHER. We partied TOGETHER. We’re talking about a community of maybe two hundred people in Miami and we lost three in a day.
WTP: What do you think was in Paul’s head the day he died?
SK: I strongly suspect he was bipolar and terrified of the effects the drugs would have on him. . . so he may have felt like he’d run out of options. The American ‘justice’ system doesn’t give a shit about rehabilitation; prima facie it is just plain revenge for fucking up. Until he wore that felony jacket he could have re-applied for the California Bar or at least worked as a legal researcher for good money.
WTP: Something to fall back on.
SK: Paul thought working in the legal profession was repugnant and I can understand why. We had a conversation about this maybe two months ago. But without that conviction, working Law was still an avenue out of being totally fucked. The felony conviction ended that.
Let’s not be naive. He didn’t want to do it. But it was a thing.
WTP: I see. The felony convictions banned him forever from the thing he could fall back on, and being on parole made it tough for him to get other kinds of work too, even at minimum wage.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about Paul Addis?
in an earlier prank, Addis hung some balls on the Man
SK: After the ’07 burn, I’m rolling into Gerlach and I see Paul in front of a bar. We hug. He tells me he did it. I say ‘what?’ He says he set the Man on fire early. I congratulate him. He tells me he just got bailed out of jail; I give him some clothes and money. We have some cocktails; I get him lunch. He’s psyched. He fucking burned you, whoever holds the sacred sacred, which wasn’t intended to be sacred anyway.
When you meet the Buddha, you must kill the Buddha. No matter what.
When you build the glass house. Stones will be thrown. Duh.
I loved this man and feel big pain. I am furious that I cannot direct hatred upon those without a sense of humor. You. Just. Suck. No matter how hard I wish for a painful death for you, one that matches what is now on your conscience, I do NOT wish the pain of your death on the ones who love you. So, you are spared my wrath but not my hatred. From Hell’s heart I stab at thee.
Paul’s death is on the conscience of others. Period. At worst, Paul should have done six months of counseling and paid restitution plus a little more for the egos that were injured. Let us remember the context of his controversial act and the absurd retaliation in the context of suicide. Simply stated: suspended misdemeanors would have allowed him to join the ranks of Bay Area patent attorneys as a last resort, as opposed to working at oil-change shops or running a cash register.
No one will argue this: he was a genius. What do you do with that when society, even your community, doesn’t want you? The streets of San Francisco are full of savants who have made mistakes. So, what do I think motivated him to end it? Loneliness and hopelessness. No one could hear him anymore.
For Paul, being ignored paired with hopelessness was probably equal to no more reason to live. It would be for me, too.
Many of his friends just couldn’t handle him. . . and life is complicated; the person putting you up may be in a custody battle, or on the brink of a layoff.
I think he saw a dead end.
* * * * * * * * * *
I checked Sean’s story. The Orlando Sentinel reports that Steven Coleman, a forklift driver in the National Guard, stabbed Ronny Quisbert, 20, a former student at Miami-Dade Community College; his roommate, Andrew McGinnis, 21, a communications major at the University of Miami; and Regina Rodriguez of Miami Beach, who was a week away from her 16th birthday. Rodriguez and McGinnis were raped. All three died of the wounds that Coleman inflicted on them.
Sean Kelly also indicated that he and Paul lost two more old friends from Miami in the three or four weeks leading up to Addis’ untimely death, one of them in a nationally-televised workplace shooting.
Patrice Mackey, another friend of Paul Addis’, also agreed to talk with me.
* * * * * * * * * *
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Tell me about Paul. How did you know him?
PATRICE MACKEY: He was a part of my extended burner family, the folks who started the Blue Light District in ’97.
For those who don’t know Paul beyond the 2007 event. . . he was one of those people who would probably be characterized as brilliant, but troubled. Lately the ‘troubled’ was more and more outweighing the ‘brilliant’ and finally got the last word in (which was often hard to do with Paul).
An interesting observation about the early burn of 2007. After it happened, I asked a lot of folks at the event how they felt about it. . . the main divide among people I asked was that folks who had only been attending for a short time (six or fewer years) were incensed. . . first- and second-timers seemed REALLY pissed off. Folks who had been attending for a long time (crusty old burners of seven years or more) thought it was funny or made comments to the effect of “somebody FINALLY did it. . . been waiting for that to happen.” Not sure what that all means, but there you have it.
Paul was a bit of an agent provocateur – he loved pushing buttons – sometimes going what most people would consider too far.
He was creative, inventive, inspiring, frustrating, annoying, caring, uncaring, and dangerous. . . sometimes all at the same time.
WTP: It makes me wonder. . . sometimes, when you are good at pushing peoples’ buttons and do it for art or fun or anything except profit and sex, really, some of them have a strong tendency to label you as mentally diseased.
And I wonder, too, to what extent Paul’s problems were a product of the two years he spent in prison. A bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, maybe?
But then I didn’t know him. How ill do you think he was, really? And did prison change him?
PM: Well, this was a very well-documented illness that was present well before both the 2007 incident and his incarceration. That being said, his incarceration did not help in any way, shape or form. Interestingly, back in 1999, Paul argued against the idea of Burning the Man early. Look at this e-mail:
From: CyberSatan [email@example.com] (Paul Addis)
Sent: Tuesday, March 23, 1999 10:42 PM
Subject: Re: premature burning
I love the idea of kidnapping the Man. Premature burning is a little
harsh–especially for all the newbie trippers out there who wanna see
the pretty thing on *Sunday* (or *Saturday*, as the Project sees fit).
Kidnapping, on the other hand. . .
Make no mistake, Paul was mentally ill. This was clear to his family, friends and local law enforcement (to name a few). As I said, prison didn’t help. From all indications from those closest to him, his illness manifested itself in cycles and over the last year the cycles became more and more severe. . . a number of close friends had closed off their relationship with him because of it, not because they didn’t want to help, but because they had done what they felt they could, and now were either afraid for their safety or didn’t want to be emotionally hurt by Paul when he was in a bad space.
As one friend put it:
“. . .one of the aspects that frustrated me so much with (Paul) was that there was a good chunk of time when I couldn’t discern when he was just in his gonzo persona and when he was really ill. It caused me to basically sever ties with him just because it all made me so uncomfortable.”
Paul was definitely struggling with mental illness. This had been going on for some time with, from some reports from friends closer to him than me, his cycles of highs and lows spiraling downward.
No one can know what was going through his head at the moment he decided to jump.
Paul, like all of us, did not fit neatly into any easily digestible soundbite. He was fascinating, engaging, challenging, smart, stupid, wonderful, horrible, cruel and kind. . . sometimes all at once. Always full bore.
* * * * * * * * * *
Like Sean Kelly, Patrice Mackey made me wonder: what was really going through Paul Addis’ mind when he decided to hurl his body into the path of a speeding BART train?
As I ruminated, I read. . . and I discovered that Addis was a huge Hunter S. Thompson fan, and the author and star of Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis, a one-man show about Thompson. When the news broke of Thompson’s suicide at his home in Colorado, Paul made an entry in a blog he maintained:
I could sit here and wax maudlin about Dr. Thompson and his self-inflicted removal from our every day reality. Fuck that. There’s already enough dopey-eyed drivel out there of that nature, and it’s the last thing that he would want. What we had in Thompson was a man who realized that death should be greeted with celebration rather than weeping and wailing, mainly because no one wants to hear that shit on their way into their new life. I mean, seriously, aren’t tears at a wedding or entry into a first-purchase home those of joy rather than sorrow (assuming the spouse and address are correct)?
To anyone familiar with Hunter S. Thompson’s mode d’emploi for leaving this Earth in February of 2005 (he shot himself in the head, like his hero Ernest Hemingway), this would seem to indicate that Paul Addis considered suicide a reasonable and viable option – a sane option – in the face of a life no longer worth living.
Amber King, another of Addis’ friends, helped me to explore that question further:
* * * * * * * * * *
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Did you know Paul Addis?
AMBER KING: Sort of. After the burn in 2007 I joined a support group he was in that consisted of real-life and long-time friends. We talked a lot on the phone and via letters when he was in prison. We all tried to make incarceration a little bit easier for Paul with gifts and money sent, and we all kept in touch with each other the whole time, too. I had little contact with Paul after prison, but phone calls and letters every now and then.
WTP: So what, according to Amber King, is the truth about Paul Addis?
AK: Oh, the truth is exactly what it is. The rambos who are insane about the ‘arson’ and ‘mental illness’ are stuck on their thing and that’s fine, except that nothing is ever that black-and-white. . . and the Man burning early was awesome.
WTP: Yes, I see what you mean. It’s too easy to just say that he was mentally ill and then attribute everything he did that we’ve heard about to that. It’s certainly possible that he was mentally ill and did the things he did that we’ve heard about for sound reasons. . . and even that he committed suicide as a calmly considered decision.
Where were you when the Man burned early?
AK: I was there, actually walking with my friends close to the Man, we were taking a shortcut to 2 o’clock to boogie a bit maybe. It was the eclipse and dark and lovely. My best friend Karpo smelled the fire first and we all made jokes about Monday being the best day to burn your art. . . and then we saw it was the Man and no one was there yet and one of my favorite BM moments ever was standing there next to the burning Man (with a ranger who was crying – seriously?) and turning to see the entire city coming towards us. On bikes and cars and on foot – it was really amazing (apparently folks stay home mostly on Monday?) – tons of bouncing lights and fire trucks as well. It was surreal and awesome and I remember being shocked, actually shocked at the pain and anger that was expressed. People were crying about the Man burning, a lot of them, it felt insane. As the crowd got bigger we eventually wormed our way out. The fire trucks got to the man ahead of the rest and the show was amazing. I’ve Ranger friends who were at 9:00 when Paul was ‘caught;’ he wasn’t going anywhere. The rage and pain that came from the Burning Man Org people and participants was entirely bizarre to me and many others. That night and that week it was so weird; I talked to people who were so furious and sobbing and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
I knew and loved Paul for what he did at my silly festival and also for who he was. I happen to be a psych nurse and if I were armchair diagnosing I’d vote that Paul was bipolar and had PTSD. . . but I wouldn’t diagnose and have enough years of experience and pain with mental illness to not have pat answers about any of it.
I spent many of the years since 2007 focused on Paul and I guess that I am still, strangely, shocked that folks are outraged about the early burn 🙂
So it goes.
* * * * * * * * * *
Nothing whatsoever about the strange case of Paul Addis seems cut-and-dried, when you look at it. Every answer opens a spate of new questions; every bit of spin and every opinion opens up a new controversy. Maybe Paul wanted it that way.
Quite a lot of what we might think of Addis hinges on whether or not he negligently endangered others when he burned the Man. Cacophony-style pranking has a clear ethic that presupposes that the prankster will only endanger him or herself, and Paul did claim that mantle at times when explaining himself and his artistic arson.
There were no injuries reported that were a direct result of Paul torching the Man, but at least one person, Detour Ginger, was injured as an indirect result of the arson. “I would have been safe and cozy in the DPW dispatch office that night if the Man hadn’t burned early,” she says. “As it was, it was all hands on deck, and I tore the ACL in one of my knees hopping up and down to get safety cones off of a flatbed trailer. That night changed my life forever, and not for better.”
Detour stops short of actually blaming Paul Addis for her injured knee, but still doesn’t feel comfortable with what he did or with the consequences for her personally. “Hey, the Playa is a dangerous place,” she wisely points out. “Read the back of your ticket. I know all that. . . but even so, don’t ask me to say that what Paul Addis did was OK with me.”
Did Addis put others in danger as a direct result of his actions? On September 1st, 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle had this to report:
Addis said his group of “operatives,” as he referred to his co-conspirators in Tuesday’s Man-burn, planned the event well in advance, and made efforts to shoo people away from the scene beforehand to ensure their safety. No injuries were reported – except for those to the Man.
Around the same time, a San Francisco Bay Guardian article quoted Addis on his response to those who say his early burn was reprehensible because it endangered others:
“Obviously a gesture like burning down Burning Man is very dangerous and very provocative. From my perspective, the No. 1 concern was safety. No one could get hurt unless it was me,” Addis said. Critics of the arson attack often note how dangerous it was, pointing out that there were a dozen or so people under the Man when it caught fire. But Addis said that he was on site for at least 30 minutes beforehand, encouraging people to move back with mixed results, shirtless and wearing the red, black, and white face paint that would later make for such an iconic mug shot.
Yesterday I spoke with a worker who was present at the scene just before the Man unexpectedly went up in flames back in 2007; he asked to remain anonymous, but I can tell you that he is not employed by the Org. What he told me is not conclusive in the least, but it does seem to conflict with Addis’ account:
“I was in the Man base just before it went up, and there were about forty people in there. About a dozen of them were sleeping. There was no effort being made by anyone to get people out. I left, jumped into the truck, and by the time we got two or three hundred yards out, there were flames visible near the Man’s knee. There was about a twenty-minute gap between what I saw in the base and when I first noticed the fire, so it’s possible that there was someone trying to get people out in that time, but I didn’t see any evidence of that. That’s what I saw with my own eyes; I assume there was a Ranger presence there, because according to legend, the Rangers spotted Addis leaving the scene and tackled him before he could get away.”
Once again, the truth is elusive, and nothing is cut-and-dried. I have no real conclusions for you; only feelings and opinions and unanswered questions.
I do not think that Paul Addis, though certainly troubled and atypical in his mental hygiene, was too deranged to control himself or to thoroughly understand the implications and possible consequences of his actions. I don’t think he meant to get caught setting the Man on fire prematurely, and I don’t think he was seeking attention. I think he genuinely recognized and objected to the displacement of the Cacophony-style pranksterism in burner culture by a much safer, more Establishment-oriented status quo headed up by people more interested in making money and safeguarding the existence of their organization than in preserving the wilder, freer, more anarchic spirit of Burning Man as it was in days gone by. . . and I think he has a point, no matter how you feel about how he went about making that point.
Did he have mental health issues? Yes, I’m sure he did. . . but that’s pretty common among people who are brilliant, and it isn’t a catch-all to explain every single thing a person does or says or thinks. I don’t think Paul Addis’ mental health issues had a great deal to do with him burning the Man early, and may not even have had much to do with his suicide.
I could go on, but it’s not my place to opine too much, and anyway I’d rather simply let Paul Addis have his say. What follows are quotes culled from various interviews with Addis, in which he attempted to explain himself. For those of you who do not understand, I highly recommend that you make a point of watching IN THE ZONE: THE STORY OF THE CACOPHONY SOCIETY when it is released in the US next month.
Paul Addis speaks:
I decided after 1998 it wasn’t worth it. Burning Man was only advocating social impact and responsibility in the name of its own self-preservation, survival and expansion, and I was not willing to be a part of that.
Burning Man in the period of 1996-1997 was the right place at the right time with the right minds. We had a great opportunity to put all of our hands on the wheel and really affect social evolution. We had a bunch of gifted people who had the chance to break the mold on a lot of things.
A lot of people were very interested in making sure the future of America was better than the past. We had lived through the Reagan years and the Cold War. We already knew what we didn’t want and had the opportunity to build a better place for ourselves and the future generations to come.
Burning Man was the perfect place but once it made the decision that its own survival was more important than its content or style, everything was lost.
Burning Man was losing money hand over fist through a series of bad decisions and a real lack of business acumen. They took a hit in 1997 that was almost fatal. That really cost the organization in terms of its fiscal stability and steady accounting and in that regard they had to do a mass appeal. And by doing that, they sacrificed everything. They took the edges off and they became the Alterna-Disney. You have a lot of people singing, “It’s a Small World After All” but just to a different mouse.
Burning Man has been nothing about the Burning Man anymore except for burning the Man. It has more to do with raising money than spreading the theory of community so we can all live together. The only reason the organization has reached out to the environmentalists is they were courting public opinion on the lawsuit filed against them, and they reached out to the most easily manipulated population they could control. That’s what Green Man is all about. Green Man is all about Burning Man getting the most green in their pockets.
Burning Man doesn’t accomplish anything anymore. What do we get out of Burning Man? Nothing. Do we get any leaders? We’re down to one Ramone and two Vitos and no one from Burning Man is stepping out. There’s no good music and only a precious few writers. These fourth and fifth generations of happy-go-lucky birds, what are they doing when they come back to the cities? Nothing. They go blow their wads for seven days at Burning Man and then go back to their jobs. They don’t do anything else for the rest of the year.
One, [burning the Man early] was a reality check. Two, it was a history lesson. It was, “This is why this started. Why are you here?”
A very good friend of mine, Chris Radcliffe, who was part of starting Burning Man, went four years ago. I called him when he came back and he said, “Paul, everyone keeps waiting for something to happen and it never does.” I think that is symbolic and really emblematic of Burning Man’s suburbanization of the underground and homogenization of the underground.
There have been people talking about pulling this prank for years. There was a person last year who told people to bring barrels of gasoline to pour on the Man. But there could have been people having their first LSD orgasm and they’d just be reaching climax when everything blew up around them.
I wrote an e-mail to the guy saying it was stupid, reckless and that someone was going to get killed. And then they ended up not doing it.
This could have been all for nothing. It could have made people think. I hope it has. That’s all the Black Rock Intelligence has wanted is for people to think for themselves, whether they’re in the streets, at Burning Man or in the ballot box. They don’t have to like us; the only thing the Black Rock Intelligence has ever wanted was for people to think about what they are doing. If they come back to the same place as where they started, that’s fine, at least they thought about it. But every once and a while you can break people out and there’s another free mind out there with a Socratic operating system in it.
We’re being programmed on every level: TV, radio, internet, advertising. It’s everywhere. We believe in the true promise of the American Dream and that should be for everyone no matter what. We’re jamming the program and allowing people the freedom of their minds rather than the programming someone else is trying to sell them.
That’s the most important thing. We’re not telling people what to think or how to think, just presenting alternatives and facts and everything else. Humor, that’s the best way to do things. We’re not out here to be preachers. But Burning Man has become just as nefarious a cultural programmer as General Electric or Disney.
You only need to look as far as Burning Man’s media team to see it’s like the Bush media team except with a different purpose. They exercise the same tactics to achieve the same results: to portray themselves in the best lights and to avoid negative media attention.
[People who are upset by the early burn] are entitled to their opinions. I can certainly understand their feelings on it, but at the same time, the newbies who go along aren’t from that same pranksterism and one-upmanship that used to be done at Burning Man.
So to them, the entire experience of Burning Man is a passive spectacle. To people who would say they are pissed off because the Man got torched, I say, “Why are you really out there?” If the burning of the Man means something, if it brings them some sort of cathartic connection, then build your own thing and burn it down. Don’t be a passive audience member. Cross the line.
This was not an act of vengeance, it was one of love. A love of the ethos that is fading at Burning Man. There’s no sense of spontaneity. No sense of “Fuck it. Let’s burn this down.”
The edges were coming off. It was apparent.
I’m not trying to reinvent the Man, or the event itself. I’m just reminding people of where it came from because there’s not a lot of talk about that these days. . . and everybody ought to have the opportunity to be a hooligan.
Rest in Peace.