Recollections of a burning minstrel
by Eastside Chuck, Funk Camp
Logically, the Black Rock Desert is no place for a working musician. The alkali dust eats away at a saxophone's pads and the rampant dehydration makes it hard for a flutist to work his lips into a functioning embouchure. Incessant, bland trance techno threatens to wipe away any sounds the aspiring playa minstrel attempts to contribute to the gift economy. Yet, while donning the green leisure suit that I stole off the singer in my old band, I may have become the hardest working saxophone player in this here mandala of a village known as Black Rock City.
I realized my true role in the Burning Man ethos way back in '00 when I first heard the rolling funk coming toward me through the glint of sequins and disco balls. My bandmate Minky and I remembered somewhere in the back of our disoriented brains that we had been invited to jump up on the Funkmobile to sit in for a couple of tunes. Sure, what the hell! As I crawled up on the flatbed to the opening strains of Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough,' I locked eyes with EZ, one of the original Funkettes. She had the look of someone who had been on this Funkmobile driving around the desert for as long as the millions of years it had been there. We jammed with the rolling funk unit, then hopped off so we could scurry back to the Center Camp Cafe to play our set of Eastern European French gypsy jazz for the strung out, coffee sippin' Burners.
I have played odd-metered rock sets in state-of-the-art large-scale sound tents, only to wake up the next day to help tear these tents down before the desert wind did it for us. I have sat in the shelter of a large aqua-green RV with a bunch of colleagues, drunkenly hammering out oddly-instrumented versions of 'Crazy Train.'
Early in my career as a Black Rock ringer, myself and some of my oldest friends resurrected an old band we were in. Known as the Japonize Elephants, we threw Zozzy's percussion set of frying pans, cheese graters and spoons into a Radio Flyer wagon one cold rainy night, and hacked through our half-forgotten circus bluegrass tunes commando-style. We set up by the Faces sculpture, providing a soundtrack for the flaming tears by playing a short set of music for the apocalypse, before packing up again to do the same thing in a different location. We ranged all over the playa, till the mud encrusted wheels of the wagon could not roll any longer and our instruments became so moist that we could not make them work anymore. I'm fairly sure I lost my fucking mind with joy.
It was the 2001 burn where I realized that I was actually gigging on a regular basis. The Funkmobile played a wedding gig at the Chapel in exchange for some plywood. We were two hours late, but we played the gig anyway. It's playa time, right? The presiding authority requested that we hold the music to a low volume so the happy couple could hear the vows. When the dusty ceremony was over, we played 'Let's Get It On' by Marvin Gaye.
I had a wild sort of bread and butter job as a quasi -egular house band member at the Acid Cabaret, backing up Oi Goons with underwear drooping off their asses, spoken word sessions, and battling MCs as the wind howled outside. It was a hellishly fun quagmire.
Last year, I played a jazz trio gig at the Dice Club on Burn night. We showed up with heads full of whatever, slugged some absinthe, told the pie-eyed band struggling to play jazz standards to hit the highway, and launched into a windy, dusty version of the Police's 'Walking On The Moon.'
Every year, when I return to the world, confused, dirty, and fizzle-fried, I take my dust-encrusted instruments to the repair shop to make sure they still function. The instrument man's eyes widen when he sees them.
"What happened to these axes?' he wonders aloud. "What happens out there?" I wish I could accurately sum it up for him, but I reckon, my fellow citizens, that that is our little secret.