The Man, The Myth, The Legend:
The Piss Clear
by Adrian Roberts
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.
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
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!
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.
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
PC: If you decided to stop doing Burning Man,
would it continue without you?
LH: Yeah, I think
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.