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The Man, The Myth, The Legend:
Larry Harvey
The Piss Clear Interview
by Adrian Roberts

Two weeks before the start of this year's Burning Man, event creator Larry Harvey graciously agrees to meet with me for an interview in a Lower Haight cafe in San Francisco. At first, I don't even recognize him -- why, he's not wearing his famous hat! After ordering our lattes, we sit outside on the patio, where the 53-year-old Harvey, a relentless chain smoker, can enjoy his favorite vice.

Two hours and a dozen Camel Lights later, I've taken him to task on all things Burning Man, including his salary, his hat, and his ego. He takes every question in stride, answering ever-so-diplomatically in his trademark, rambling style. It is a thoroughly enjoyable interview.

PISS CLEAR: It's widely-known that the first Burning Man, an eight-foot tall effigy burned on Baker Beach in San Francisco back in 1986, was inspired by a particularly devasting break-up you had with a woman. Is this true?

LARRY HARVEY: Yeah, it's true to a degree. People seek in the origins the germ of the thing, the myth that tells you what it means. But in a way, that's a little like locating the beginning of the Mississippi River, where it's some little trickle up in Canada. At the time, [the break-up] wasn't on my mind. I didn't come up with that [origin story] until like, six years later, when a journalist for Outside magazine asked me, 'What was in your mind at the time?' For the first time, I delved just a little deeper and said, 'Well, you know, actually that probably was one of the main motives.'

PC: So burning this figure of a man was your art?

LH: I'm not really an artist. I have a lot of aesthetic ideas that I've created, but I'm not really an artist. I'm more of an impresario. It was just an image that sprang up in my mind, and I did it. And what I style now is radical self-expression. That's what I do.

PC: At what point did you realize that you were going to do this every year?

LH: The resolve to do it, the inspiration to do it -- when we were destined to do it -- was at the moment when all these people we didn't know, all these strangers suddenly doubled our numbers on the beach. And that was moving, that was inspiring.

I think if it had been a little more like a closed party, or an installation or performance at a gallery, it would never have gone anywhere after that. We would have done something else and moved on. But it was spontaneous and inspiring, the response of all these folks. And they immediately began participating! This woman ran over and grabbed the Man's hand. And then this hippie was there, and he started playing a song on his guitar about burning. And in the circumstances, it was very moving! And I didn't know either of them!

And so there were two historic firsts there, the doubling of our numbers and the participation of people who didn't necessarily know one another, but through that participation, connected.

PC: What were you doing before Burning Man really took off? In other words, how did you pay your rent?

LH: Well, I only paid it sporadically! I did a bunch of things. Before we started this thing, I was a bicycle messenger -- an old bicycle messenger! I drove a cab for a while. I got into landscaping. It was the kind of thing that bohos do. You know, I'll tell you the truth, I never really wanted a normal job. I never could do it very well. The only thing I ever wanted to do was what I absolutely had to do. I wanted to realize some kind of vision -- I just wasn't sure what it was! But by 1990, I realized what I wanted to do. I wanted to burn this big giant thing in the desert. It's gonna be big!

PC: At what point were you actually able to start making a living doing Burning Man?

LH: I didn't get a complete year-round salary out of it until '98.

PC: What's your salary?

LH: Well, it's not vast. How can I answer this? I'll say this: I've got the top salary. I'm probably making more than I could anywhere else, because I probably couldn't get a job anywhere else. What am I going to do? What, direct an art gallery? Uh, no. I'm sorry. And that would be the closest approximation, I guess.

But the people I work with, our senior staff -- twelve people who receive salaries -- they are making from one-third to one-sixth of what they'd be making if they were applying their talents in the normal world. And we don't have a health plan.

PC: If you decided to stop doing Burning Man, would it continue without you?

LH: Yeah, I think it would.

PC: So you'd be able to pass the reins of control on to someone else?

LH: Of course! I have a few goals in life. One is to see my kid grow up to lead a good life, and the other is for this to endure beyond me. Between the little man and the big Man, those are my two big passions.

That's kind of the goal, really, to get to the point where it wouldn't need me -- and it's getting there. I mean, it can be a little frightening to walk away from it -- and I don't very often -- and then come back to find that things went just fine without me. In a way, you're proud, and in another, you're nervous!

PC: What exactly is your role in the Burning Man organization? I know that many people think that you're simply a figurehead by this point.

LH: That's not really true. I have a whole set of specific responsibilities. I'm in charge of the art department. I write a lot for the Project. I have a keen interest in supervising the emergence of the city plan. But I also supervise the board, too. I'm a diplomat. I deal with a lot of politics. There are a lot of politics.

And I work very closely with [Maid] Marian, who is not only the Mistress of Communication, but she also functions in part as a kind of CFO, watching the money. We're really like a non-profit in our structure.

I have some prestige with my peers. And I can argue a lot -- if I really set my heart on something, I can get my way, or if I'm against something, I can stop it. But I've never exercised power that way. So when there are staff disputes, I'm the one who can come in and resolve that. I wrangle people. So that's why I'm called the director.

PC: What would make you stop doing Burning Man?

LH: If it became apparent that it was impossible to create a city that would achieve the goals we had in mind. If we knew that the numbers would overwhelm it, and there was nothing we could do about that, I wouldn't want to do it.

PC: What are the numbers? What's the cap?

LH: I'd say we're at it.

PC: A lot of people think that where Burning Man is at right now is already too big.

LH: A lot of people think that the first year they came was the Golden Age.

PC: Well, that's always the case. Going to Burning Man is like taking Ecstacy. The first time you do it is always the best, and you keep doing it again and again, trying to relive that initial high -- but it's never as good as your first time.

LH: It depends. My first year was not the best time. It's uniquely memorable as a kind of starting point of inspiration, so that's valuable. But my best year -- and this is why I'm still doing it -- is always the year that I'm in. And I fully expect that this year is going to be the best yet.

The first year you come, it's like there's this complete, effortless, narcissistic gratification, mystically provided. It's a dream! And that's really wonderful. But the more you come, the more difficult it is to achieve that spirit unless you make an effort. You have to invest more into it, in order to get something back. So what I've found is that the people who will tell you that it's a good year, and don't pine for the past, are the people who are doing something.

This year, by our Theme Camp staff's reckoning, there are 11,400 people involved in some way in creating a theme camp.

PC: So what's up with minorities in Black Rock City? How come there seem to be so few non-whites here?

LH: Burning Man caters to white folks for one primary reason, and that's because they're the most privileged and richest members of this society. They're also the most disconnected from one another, because of their consumer clout -- because they can live without any relation to anyone else.

Now if you're poor and a member of what we call an ethnic minority, it also means that you network. It means that you're connected to family in a way that white folks aren't, necessarily.

PC: Not to completely generalize, but do you think that white people come out to Black Rock City to create a community that they wouldn't otherwise normally have?

LH: You bet! To find roots, and to find a sense of relation to other people. If you're in the 'hood, and the uncles and aunts and cousins are all around, you're in this network, this community, you have all that stuff. But a lot of white folks are sitting at home with their catalog furniture and wondering what it's all about. And so [Burning Man] has a more immediate appeal. Spiritually speaking, the white folks are needier, even though materially, they're much advantaged.

It's an odd thing -- in Black Rock, you say that everyone's white. Although it's hard to say, because a lot of them are blue or green -- I mean, literally. But I've always found that when I look at the video afterwards, I actually see more black people than I thought. So I think it's budging a little bit, but just at the margins, I admit that.

PC: What year would you consider to be Burning Man's least successful?
LH: I can identify the hardest year, the most stressful year: '96. That's the watershed year.

PC: The Medevac year! Every night there were Medevacs flying in to rescue someone who was hurt. That was the year that killed the magic for a lot of people, I know that.

LH: It had an effect on us. It galvanized us with a vision of things that we were going to change. The cars. The guns. There came a day when we realized that we were a city, and that we had to be civic. And there's nothing wrong with being civic. I live in a city, and I like civility.

PC: Yeah, '96 was the last year of Burning Man being a sprawling free-for-all.

LH: It was a very interesting year. There was a lot of internal struggle.

PC: That was the last year that John Law, one of the original Burning Man organizers, was involved. Why did he end up leaving?

LH: I think, most fundamentally, his vision of it -- his aims -- were not the same as the rest of the people who were organizing it. I hesitate to speak for him, but my impression is that he wanted it to be an anarchist underground outlaw event, like this Mad Max fantasy. It was the punk credo, "fuck shit up."

I had never wanted it to be that. I never did! People say, 'Hasn't Burning Man strayed from its original aims and principals?' Well, they weren't mine!

PC: So you always wanted Burning Man to be more organized than it initially was?

LH: I always wanted it to be a city. I love civic planning.

PC: It's like "playing city," instead of "playing house."

LH: Yeah, I like that! That's exactly what it is.

PC: Where do you camp in Black Rock City?

LH: At First Camp. It's the first camp on the playa. It's [Department of Public Works Director] Will Rogers' camp, really. It's in the keyhole. And I will confess, that it's the best fucking view in the city! But listen, if it were just me, I probably wouldn't claim the spot. It's Will's. He has every right.

PC: Well, he built the damn city! On to more personal matters: are you still dating Maid Marian?

LH: Yes. When I see her. We talk everyday, and we get together two or three times a week.

PC: So what's up with The Hat?

LH: Well, it's a costume, in a way. The whole hat thing is complex. First of all, I wear The Hat in memory of my father, who wore the original. That hat, which is a Stetson, would be formalwear in Nebraska. And he was a cowboy from Nebraska. And I kept it for years, and in 1990, I found it in a hat box. It's the only thing I had from him. And rather than keep it as a relic, I wore it. And then I just kept wearing it. So in that sense, it means a lot to me. I admired my father a lot.

Beyond that, there's a certain utility in it. It's possible, in a crowd, for me to take my hat off and just slip out and leave. Because I disappear. So it's a way of creating a public persona. Contrary to popular belief, when I'm at home, I don't always wear my hat.

PC: You've basically created, out of nothing, an annual ritual that could conceivably go on forever, and keep growing and growing. Doesn't that feed your ego a bit?

LH: Well, it's really funny in a way. On one level, it's really gratifying, right? I'm a major celebrity in my community. But I can walk around the corner, and then I'm just a guy standing in line for a loaf of bread. So let's not deceive ourselves.

Within our little world, I'm a celebrity, yes. But I'm actually a shy person. I'm like a lot of people, who work hard to do things in the world -- but I'm continually at war with myself about my own worth and haunted by the suspicion that I'm nothing at all. So I've got to manifest something to make sure that it's not true.

PC: Last question: do you piss clear?

LH: Generally, I do. About three years ago, I started to dry up, naturally. Like the playa itself. So now I have to drink a lot of water everyday, or else I'll have real problems. So I drink water all the time.

2002 Piss Clear
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