In this light, Burning Man is partly the story of a half-dozen eccentrics—an unemployed landscaper (Larry Harvey), an art model (Crimson Rose), a struggling photographer (Will Roger Peterson), a dot-com PR gal (Marian Goodell), an aerobics instructor (Harley Dubois), and a signmaker (Michael Mikel)—who made good. Less charitably, it’s the tale of a group of slackers who grabbed hold of the one thing that brought them notice—and, eventually, a paycheck—and have ruthlessly ridden it for all it’s worth. The truth contains elements of both, of course, but one thing’s for sure: it’s never boring.
IN THE BEGINNING: 1986–1989
Before it drew thousands of determined pilgrims to the Nevada desert, Burning Man consisted of a small group of friends torching an effigy on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Was it a summer solstice party? Guerrilla art? Or, as legend had it, one man’s attempt to exorcise his heartbreak?
LARRY HARVEY (co-creator and executive director of Burning Man): My friend Mary Grauberger had done a celebration down on Baker Beach for years. In 1986, she’d decided not to do it again, and I thought we’d recreate that, but in our own way. I really wasn’t an artist. I was hanging out with these famous latte carpenters, all of whom, in their spare time, were writing novels or painting pictures or playing music. I think Jerry [James] may have asked me to repeat my statement on the phone so he understood what I was telling him: “Let’s burn a man on the beach.”
JERRY JAMES (co-creator): There wasn’t much more to it than that. Larry called me and asked, “Do you want to build a figure and go burn it for the solstice?” OK, sure.
FLASH (born Michael Hopkins, Burning Man jack-of-all-trades): Larry and I met on a double date. I was dating the daughter; he was dating the mother. He was smart and didn’t see the mother after that. [laughs] But I remember thinking: Whatever happens on this date, I like this guy. Later he tells me he’s going to do some ritual on the beach. Everyone had their thing. You helped on their thing, they’d be there for yours.
JAMES: The first one was just a little stick figure. Scrap wood from Flash’s mother-in-law’s garage, I think. I started by crafting a rib cage with dimension to it and trying to figure out how to do a head. So, a pyramid shape.
JOE FENTON (member of the Black Rock Rangers, Burning Man’s security team): I didn’t go to the burns on the beach, but I did a paper about them for a college course on the anthropology of festivals. Larry told me very specifically that the figure was an effigy of his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his son. He told me he wanted to burn her out of his memory. He moved off that soon afterward. I guess he figured it wasn’t very politically correct, and now that idea is actively suppressed.
FLASH: Of course it’s a woman! Look at the hips! It freaks people out when I tell them that, because they’re so serious about it now. They’re on their journey to the sacred. But what does it matter? The Man is what you need him to be.