Sometimes, the secret giants who shape counterculture lurk long in the shadows, causing greatness and drinking vodka. David Warren lived a very large life until age 71. In his time, he was a married encyclopedia salesman, a fire-breathing professional carny, a fuck-all-that hobo, and a San Francisco activist-turned-counterculture-catalyst.
Most importantly to Burning Man lore, David Warren was one of the four people who founded the Suicide Club, famous pre-cursor group to the Cacophony Society which invented Burning Man, among other things. (The other three Suicide Club founders were Adrienne Burk, Nancy Prussia, and Gary Warne.)
Bucking hard against the rodeo pen from the beginning, Warren grew up in Hayward, the black sheep son of wealthy parents who pulled some strings to ship him off to the Marines when he eventually faced jail time. After his stint in the service, Warren ran away with the circus, literally learning the trade of booth-barking, magic-trick-performing sideshow fire-eater.
Warren worked as a carny for a few years before he decided to marry, father five children, and sell encyclopedias. He and his wife volunteered for Jobs Corp and then Headstart, but he also got closer to his first love, cheap vodka. One night a horrible car accident happened, leaving Warren with a lifelong limp and cane-walk. He claimed to have died on the operating table, seen the bright light, and had all the near-death-experience highlights pull him to a deeper understanding.
Debt piled up after the accident, and months later, one night on a sales trip away from home, Warren stood alone in a hotel bathroom for five hours with a shotgun in his mouth. He couldn’t pull the trigger, so he walked out of the hotel and vowed never to do anything he didn’t want to do again.
(Warren was reportedly huge, strong, handsome, and larger-than-life — a “cross between W.C. Fields, John Wayne, P.T. Barnum, and Jimmy Swaggart,” according to one early Cacophonist. Like other countercultural supermen of his ilk — Neal Cassady, Hunter S. Thompson, etc — Warren left his family behind and behaved like a drunk in real life. But without glossing that part over, since we’ve all got flaws, we’ll just skip it, in favor of reporting on the ultra-warm, hilarious, caring, and bombastic human amazingness of Warren himself.)
Not long after David Warren pulled the shotgun out of his mouth, he ended up in the Seal Rocks area of SF, just after the great “Playland by the Sea” amusement park had been torn down. Warren had worked there some in the past, and now mounted a campaign not only to get that park back but also to preserve American amusement parks in general. He gained attention in a media blitz, began collecting Playland historical artifacts and oral history, became heavily involved in Ocean Beach restoration, and eventually was instrumental in saving and restoring the two windmills at the end of Golden Gate Park.
Warren’s attendant media coverage attracted the attention of Gary Warne, director of Communiversity, the free school attached to SF State. Together, the two started making history, initially collaborating on a “Save the Fake Rocks” campaign to repair the hundred-foot cliff face across the street from the Cliff House.
As Burning Man and Cacophony Society co-founder John Law remembers:
One day David noticed that a huge boulder outcrop directly across from the Cliff House had partially collapsed revealing wooden framing inside the massive phony hillside. It was a revelation – a metaphor if you will for the unsubstantial nature of reality. It really grabbed both men and the ensuing actions they mounted to “rescue, restore and honor our phony heritage” struck a note with the public. The largest action initiated was carried out by dozens of Communiversity stalwarts as they hung a 20-foot smiley face in the huge gaping hole.
This first official historical actual proto-Project-Mayhem prank inspired Warren, Warne, Burk, and Prussia to found a secret society for surrealist plebes called the Suicide Club, in the high-holy punk year of 1977. The Suicide Club mounted wacky adventures and surreal outings in order to cut against the status quo’s grain and entertain themselves (read Tales of the SF Cacophony Society or This Is Burning Man for more background).
That same year, Warren and Chris DeMonterey gained control of the Giant Camera at the Cliff House, along with the Musee Mechanique. For San Franciscans who don’t remember this conflagration of buildings, just take our word for it that it was magic.
Warren, as likely the only fire-eater in San Francisco at this time, also organized fire-eating classes at Communiversity. He once almost burned down the legendary Other Cafe comedy club during a particularly drunken show one night. The old wooden building was saved when two well-prepared Suicide Club members trained a fire extinguisher on the quickly-incinerating stage curtains.
After a decade of hijinx the group and its amassing followers would collectively find the Suicide Club a little too secret and exclusive, and they founded the Cacophony Society instead. Warren stayed involved. In 1989, he ignited the Man at Baker Beach by blowing 15 feet of fire after they doused the Man in gasoline. They repeated this feat at the very first desert Burning Man in 1990.
Vodka-soaked goofs and all, in San Francisco, carnival-trained Warren was pretty much Papa Fire, turning out a new generation of flaming performers. He is a Founding Father of Cacophony, who did a million things and lived, massive and rickety, like an old thrilling wooden rollercoaster.
Salute to you too, Flammo LeGrande, and rest in pleasure.
David died January 2, 2009, from pneumonia and other medical conditions.