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1986 to 1996


There is, of course, the founding myth: the story of how Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James burned a wooden man upon the beach in San Francisco on June 21, 1986. Many stories now embroider this initial act: accounts of Larry's broken heart, his vanished love affair, his allegiance to his father—a self-made man, a carpenter, and the original bearer of the famous hat he now wears. Myths, however, are important because they represent the first and founding form of things. They are the seeds out of which things grow.

Larry's desire to burn a man had personal precedents, but it was by a spontaneous impulse and through an immediate act that Burning Man was born. By deciding to burn a man, Larry and Jerry not only invented the man, they also engaged in the first recorded form of what we now call "radical self-expression." They asked no one's permission, they recruited friends to help them, and they created the man as a gift. Viewed in this light, ulterior motives seem beside the point. The fruit and kernel of a gift, as Larry now tells people in speeches, is in its giving—and this first burning of the man is an excellent object lesson.

In the instant that the 8-ft tall figure was ignited, people scattered all across the beach came running. Within moments, a circle of fire-lit faces had formed, strangers who had gathered to witness this image of a man on fire. The first recorded doubling of Burning Man's community had occurred. Inspired by its instantaneous accessibility, a woman rushed forward and held the man's hand as the wind pushed the flames to one side. Another stranger, wielding a guitar, began to improvise a song. Already the gift had begun to bear fruit.

As they stood there in this circle of their newfound friends, Larry and Jerry were so inspired that they decided to repeat the act, to reconvene the here and now of that moment on its anniversary in the coming year. Without even thinking about it or intending to, they had founded a ritual.

Much of what Burning Man's has become is certainly contained in those first moments on the beach. But when we seek the meaning of a thing in its origins, and especially when we mythologize people and their motives, we are often misled. It is possible to find the 'source' of a river in the farthest stream that feeds it. The mighty Mississippi, we are told, begins in a trickle. But we know its flow is generated by a watershed, a great network that consists of hundreds of tributary streams.

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Larry and Jerry continued to work on the man every year, enlarging it and perfecting its form, but many others soon joined them. Jerry's friend, Mike Acker, a sculptor and part-time carpenter, soon joined them, and Larry's friend and roommate, Dan Miller—who today supervises the building of the figure and directs its erection in the desert—was recruited to create a pulley system to raise the sculpture's arms.

As Burning Man became more intricate and steadily increased in size, a group of carpenters began to coalesce abound the task. As friends told friends and they, in turn, told other friends, a small army of volunteers was created. Help was needed to transport the figure, to stuff it with flammables, and to carry the dismembered pieces of its one-and-a-half-ton bulk to the beach. Because Burning Man was gift, and because everyone's help was instantly welcomed, resources from many far-flung sources flowed into the project, and other organized groups began to contribute. Members of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a network of urban pranksters and artists, began to help in 1989 and became instrumental in founding Black Rock City in the following year. [For more of this history, read Larry's lecture, La Vie Boheme.]

By 1990 Burning Man had begun to attract a crowd of hundreds of people. It had also attracted the attention of the authorities, in this case members of the federal Park Police who represented the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Park regulations in force at that time limited beach burns to 3 X 3-foot campfires. Burning Man, now grown to his present-day stature, loomed 4-stories high, and this embarrassing discrepancy did not go unnoticed.

On the trip down to the beach in 1990, individuals bearing Burning Man's arms and head and the bulky wooden footings that were used to anchor him securely in the sand encountered a uniformed motorcycle policeman. In the circumstance, guerilla anonymity was no longer an option. A discussion ensued, a shift supervisor was eventually alled in, and everyone reasoned together. To his credit, it should be noted that the officer in charge was a fair-minded man. Confronted by a beautiful sculpture, and surrounded by a crowd anticipating its erection, he began to relent. A deal was struck and cemented with a handshake. Participants might erect the giant statue, he informed the organizers, but it could not be burned. This confirmed an adage that was common at that time in underground art circles: "It is often easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission."

In retrospect, this impromptu agreement, spontaneously arrived at on the beach, also signaled the willingness of Burning Man to cooperate with government officials. It taught us it is possible to seek out common sense agreements with those who charged with enforcing the law, and, even when the officer retreated, the organizers remained true to their word. Hundreds cheered as a line of 40 people slowly pulled the man upward, a piercing shout rang out as its arms were pulled upright and over its head. Then a profound silence ensued. The organizers gaped at the surrounding crowd. The crowd stared back. Suddenly a second, harder lesson was at hand.

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It is a remarkable fact that, during the early years of growth on Baker Beach, not one of organizers or workers who toiled to create the man ever asked what it meant. They had sweated to build it. They had toiled with the weight of it on their shoulders. It felt so fully saturated with their effort and the force of their imagination, that no self-conscious meaning or attributed symbolism seemed necessary. Everyone was a participant, and wholly engrossed in the work. Nor had anyone really noticed, during this same period of time, that an ever-enlarging crowd of spectators had appeared: an anonymous throng with cameras in hand, The people dedicated to creating Burning Man numbered in the dozens, and their well-wishers and friends amounted to several dozen more. But the many hundreds, who now surrounded the statue on that night of June 21, 1990, had invested absolutely nothing in this process. They had come for a spectacle.

As the organizers milled about, irresolute, huddled between the legs of the man, it gradually dawned on them that they possessed no means of speaking to the crowd. No one had ever thought to bring bullhorn. Attempts were made to tell the crowd that the Burning Man, against all expectation, wouldn't burn, but lone voices were drowned out. This anonymous throng of bystanders, charged with emotion, expected a sudden release.

First one and then another voice was raised. "Burn him!" someone shouted, only to be taken up with greater emphasis by someone else: "Burn the FUCKER! Burn the fucker NOW!" Soon entire choruses erupted, as individuals, emboldened by the angry mood, rushed forward, lighters in hand. At its height, someone finally grabbed Larry, clamped both thumbs on his windpipe, and had to be peeled off him.

A flame swallower finally placated the mob, as organizers hastily lowered Burning Man and removed him. But everyone involved was shaken. What had gone wrong? A few weeks later, Larry and Jerry conferred tête-à-tête in a restaurant booth with Michael Michael and John Law, leading lights of the Cacophony Society, and it was decided that a change of venue was in order. Plans were laid to transport the sculpture to the Black Rock Desert during the Labor Day weekend. A space so vast and flat and utterly denuded seemed the perfect place to burn a giant man.

In the meantime, the torso and legs of Burning Man were taken a gated lot in downtown San Francisco. Strapped to cyclone fence, they were left there for safekeeping. Plans went forward to transport the Man during the Labor Day weekend, but three weeks before departure, it was discovered that a new tenant had occupied the property where Burning Man was stored, and had prepared it for use as a parking lot. Before anyone could act, he'd ordered the sculpture's framework cut into 8-foot lengths for use as curbing.

Undeterred, Larry procured a loan to purchase new materials, and he and Dan Miller redesigned the construction process. Parts were coded, mass-produced off an assembly line, and teams of volunteers worked night and day to rebuild it. With 20 minutes to spare before the rental truck arrived, the reconstructed figure was complete—ready to be hauled away to the desert and destroyed. The delicious irony of this was lost on no one.

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The move to the Black Rock Desert represented an epochal change. Survival camping was a challenge. In a very real sense, everyone perforce was a participant. A pilgrimage was now required to reach the home of Burning Man, and he resided in a consecrated space, a place apart and separate from the ordinary world. The desert had enlarged the scope of human struggle and intensified involvement. It had restored the spirit of Burning Man and the community that had grown around it. Most importantly, beneath its sentinel presence, a city had begun to form.

Stay tuned for: BLACK ROCK CITY, The Years of Struggle. In the meantime, however, scan the timeline and Louis Brill's account of the First Year in the Desert.