Jerry James "In the Beginning"

In the Beginning

Jerry James

From Playa Dust: Collected Stories from Burning Man, collected stories by Samantha Krukowski.

1986, Burning Man #1 21 June.

It was the summer solstice and the day Burning Man was born. Larry Harvey and I were close friends. He called and asked if I was interested in building a figure, a man, to burn on the beach to mark the longest day of the year. We decided to meet that afternoon at a garage in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. A friend of Larry’s owned the garage and while he had an old table saw and some scrap lumber there weren’t any other carpentry tools around—a dull handsaw, a motley collection of finish nails—not much natural light either. Cutting and assembling was going to be a challenge if we built the figure there. But I was a carpenter by trade and Larry was doing some landscaping so I figured we’d work it out. Larry and I became friends around 1985.

I’d come to San Francisco from Boise, Idaho in 1980 and Larry had come from Portland, Oregon a few years before. Larry was six years older than me—I was in my early thirties. We both had young sons. Larry had a good rap, and was deep into all kinds of stuff like Freud, Kohut and Conrad. I’d been reading Celine, Bukowski and playing Bob Marley and Captain Beefheart. He and I read Nostromo with friends, and hung out with Dan Richman, who introduced us and often had people over to play music, get high, get laid. When Larry and I went to the Noe Valley garage, he was reading The Golden Bough, an anthropological work that referenced the history of burning effigies. He had already attended a few solstice events on Ocean Beach that involved burning a variety of objects. So there we were, in that dim garage, talking about how to build a wooden figure with seriously limited resources. We planned to build it right then and get it to Baker Beach by sunset. Rather than aiming for a two-dimensional stick figure I went for volume.

I shaped a rib cage out of the leftover wood and made an inverted pyramid for the head. I made triangular legs and stick arms and fastened them to improvised hips. I stapled burlap inside to approximate skin and to hold kindling. The effigy ended up being about eight feet tall, primitive, but it clearly represented a human form. We loaded it onto my small pickup on its back, feet off the tailgate, its shoulders angled up on the cab. We headed for Baker Beach. It was about 18:00 when we got there, sunny, but the wind was coming up. We got the figure off of my truck and I took some photos of it leaning against a hippie school bus. Then we carried it to the north end of the beach towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

Halfway there we unexpectedly ran into Dan Richman, heading for the parking lot. We paused to say hi and kept on going. Dan was also a builder. He looked like Brando and played flamenco guitar. He had finished his day at the beach and wasn’t interested in joining us for the burn. Within ten minutes we were positioned facing the rock face rising at the end of Baker Beach. We planted the effigy with its back to the Pacific. I had formed the base of the legs into sharp points so we could force it into the sand and keep it standing. It looked at us; the lighthouse at Point Bonita flashed a rhythm.

A few friends showed up, we drank beer, ate, laughed and felt the wind increase. The sun gave up and the sky became dark like the ocean. I reached as high as I could and doused the figure with a gallon of gasoline. I lit the burlap and the thing went up—we had an eight-foot fire. Some strangers came over, one with a tambourine, another with a guitar. There was chanting—“burn fire burn”. The chanting seemed kind of weird to me, but it also brought a somber tone to the event. Somebody held the effigy’s arm while another person took a photo. I took shots of the fire. I wish I could say I felt we had started something larger than ourselves, but I didn’t. I had no thoughts about repeating the build or burn of the effigy. But Larry and I talked about it, the day after, a month later, and did decide to do it again the next year. Who knew that two years later Rob Morse, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, would write about three guys preparing to burn a three story tall sculpture on Baker Beach?

1987, Burning Man #2

My girlfriend Maria and I were getting past some major turmoil and were living together in a worn-out mansion on Capp Street with three roommates. It was a groovy place with a couple of fireplaces and a lot of forgotten stories. There was a deck out back that was sometimes sunny and that was framed by the adjacent buildings. The second man was built there. As the solstice approached, Larry and I began working out the design details. Larry suggested we incorporate crossed horizontal members to provide shape and volume. The backbone was made of fourby-fours as were the leg and arm bones. Two-by-twos and two-by-fours were set perpendicularly across these bones and miter cut at the ends. We finished the arms with stair stringers so they had a zig-zag profile. Larry and my roommate Sigmar decorated the figure by painting a triangular crown including yellow lightening bolts angling off its brow. This time the effigy was about 12 feet tall and the assembly was still pretty modest. It took a couple of weekends to build it. When we got the man out to Baker Beach on the solstice, it was foggy, windy and cold. About 35 friends and acquaintances were there—we had spread the word. Some people brought flowers, food and drinks. The vibe was similar to the year before—spontaneous, relaxed, not too serious, a glorified family picnic. After the fire I had a sense this might be a ritual, and that we would do it again.

1988, Burning Man #3

I’ve been a carpenter or contractor most of my life and I’m often struck by the ‘pop’ that happens when a design manifests and all of the pieces fall into place. That pop happened for me during the build of the third man. Larry wanted to make the figure and the burn bigger, to enlarge the experience. Early design conversations focused on a 30-foot tall figure. To erect and burn something of this scale on a public beach with the help of a large, unrehearsed crowd before the police stopped us was a challenge we recognized—and one that needed the help of some magic. I can’t tell you why I decided to keep going, why I engaged a project that called for increasing commitment, sacrifice and risk without tangible reward. The first two burns were a lark. What was the intensification about? Looking back on the third burn, I’m very glad nobody got hurt, because the scale of the thing had definitely created a potentially dangerous situation. I had the unfortunate tendency to adopt certain friends as father figures. I did this with Larry. He read a lot, expressed ideas with confidence—I looked up to him. Admiring and trusting Larry turned out to be a weakness that would later take its toll. We built the man in a garage in the Lower Haight that I rented for the storage of my construction gear. It faced south onto an unusually wide sidewalk. The garage was a great space to work. There was a medical center across the street. Being able to work in that space was part of the reason I decided to keep working on the build of the man. I dig wood, building and collaboration. I was designing and constructing something very unusual, hanging at the shop, moving the project forward.

A few months prior to the solstice, Larry, Mike Acker and I had breakfast and then went to the garage. Mike and I were partners in Acker & James Construction by then. When we started to discuss the design of the man, Larry became surprisingly aggressive and was antagonistic towards some of Mike’s suggestions. He tried to control the build much more than he had before. As Mike and I worked, he’d mostly stand, hands on hips, telling us what to do, or fiddle around over some minor detail, cussing the tools as he worked. Actually, I was accustomed to Larry wanting to have his way. If I arrived at his apartment to pick him up and he was on the phone, he’d stay on it. He’d take forever to get ready. He’d forget where he put his cigarettes or lighter or sunglasses. To be around Larry was to accommodate him.

In 1997 I had to advise him on getting a picture ID so he could fly to New York for a show on Burning Man that I produced at CBGB’s. He was like a child in some ways, and that part of his personality was strongly evident in the build of the third man. The design of the third effigy was the basis for the one still in use today. And it was clear, as soon as we started, that this one was not going to be a friendly little statue. At a 30-foot scale, there was a need for true structural integrity. And it would need to fit in my 20-foot long shop while we built it. It had to be constructed in modules. We fabricated the legs, torso, body, arms and head separately, and planned on transporting them to the beach and assembling them there. The arms were hinged so that they could be raised once the figure was standing. Larry made some bamboo lanterns and copper strips that would act as wind chimes, all of which would later be located in the pelvis. Mike made a tube filled with fireworks that would be placed inside the head. We stapled burlap inside the lumber frame that would hold newspaper and soak up the kerosene that we would use to ignite it. The thing got so big we had to build parts of it on the sidewalk. Sometimes the torso or a leg would be on sawhorses, other times the whole figure was assembled across it.

That spring, as we spent every weekend for months working on the figure, we began to call it the Burning Man. It was trademarked a couple of years later. Mike and I were not informed about that huge development in the history of the project. The day of the burn we met at the garage and loaded the components of the Man onto my primer-grey ’74 Dodge pickup. The torso went in the truck bed first and then we put the 20-foot long legs up on the lumber racks along with the arms. Tools, guy wire, rope, kerosene, hardware—it was quite a load. Actually, it looked like something from a gypsy caravan. Driving across the city, I was nervous that the authorities might stop us. The sky was grey and a marine layer hung over the ocean as we approached the beach. I parked on Lincoln Boulevard at a cliff above the northeast end of the Baker Beach, trying to maintain a low profile. We were closer to our burn spot than when we had parked in the parking lot in previous years, but the bad news was that we had to carry everything down a steep trail.

My anxiety spiked once we parked and started to unload. We had few volunteers to help expedite the unloading, move and set up of the figure, but any cop who happened by would have seen us. Luckily we got everything down to the beach without incident. We arranged the Man’s parts on the sand and worked to fasten them together. The Man was assembled lying on his back. Some of my builder buddies arrived to help. I was the only one with any tools though, except for Mike who had a few—this was not good. More people arrived and soon there were a lot of volunteers. Despite their generosity, their help yielded mixed results. They didn’t know how the thing was put together, they didn’t know how it would be erected, they hadn’t been at the previous burns—even my carpenter friends weren’t sure what to do. People, a lot of them strangers, kept arriving. Cameras rolled. Burning Man was now a public event and all eyes were on me as I scrambled to get the man together. I stayed focused on the assembly despite my fraying nerves.

Time was going way too fast but simultaneously everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. It took a couple of hours to assemble the Man. But then, it was time. The plan was to lift him in the way a tall extension ladder is lifted at a construction site, though this was a very tall and unusually heavy “ladder”. One person “foots” one end of the ladder and another lifts the opposite end while walking towards the “footer.” As the Man lay flat on his back we had tied a thick rope with a pulley to his solar plexus and the rope extended out beyond his feet to a stake in the sand.

The crowd were to lift up the Man’s shoulders until they could lift no higher and we were to then engage the pulley to lift him the rest of the way into the vertical position. We had incorporated plywood baffles like a snow shoes at the ends of his legs that would be anchored in holes we had dug in the sand. On our first attempt the stake holding the pulley failed and nearly impaled the crowd of volunteers—and me, too. In those moments of terror I managed to get people out of the way before the figure slammed down onto the sand. We decided to abandon the pulley after that and just use the rope, with half the crowd straining against it. We lifted the shoulders. Everybody on the rope shouted, “PULL, PULL, PULL!” and against all odds the Man went up! As I saw the figure standing I felt as though an enormous weight had dropped away. After months of work and planning the Burning Man stood looking down on us. I believe everyone there experienced a moment of real transcendence then.

At some point a reporter tried to talk to me but I was too busy for an interview and asked them to follow up later.

We paused and had a smoke. There was a guy banging a gong, some others blowing horns. We were pretty sure the authorities were going to show up, especially given we were on the US Army’s Presidio Base and we hadn’t asked for permission to do what we were doing. We figured if we got caught we’d explain to our fellow inmates that we had been arrested for art. It was a cold night and it was very windy. The crowd’s attention was focused on the Man and the crashing waves were loud and big.

We had soaked the burlap before we raised him and then we started the fire. The wind was so strong it intensified the burn. Large chunks of newspaper and burlap, some flaming, took to the air. Eventually, a charred figure remained. I tried to finish it off by starting a campfire at the base. Someone else climbed the Man and tried to ignite the torso. That’s when the cops arrived. There were four San Francisco City cops. As Larry and I tried to hide in the crowd, I realized the cops were shaking down the guy with the gong and stepped forward.

Two of the cops were talking like we’d just robbed a bank and the other two were friendly. After a few threats and negotiations they left when we promised we’d knock it down, finish burning it and go away. We released the guy wires that held it up, let it crash to the sand, sawed it into sections and made a massive bonfire that burned more quickly than expected. After that, people split. I was seriously hung over the next morning but I was so in awe of what we had accomplished I went back to the crime scene to see what was left and pick up any souvenirs. I also wanted to leave the site clean and safe. I found screws, nails, bolts and charred wood chunks and tossed them so they wouldn’t find their way into bare feet. A writer from Focus magazine called soon after and I put him in touch with Larry. I was working full time and Larry was unemployed. It seemed logical to ask him to arrange the interview for us. He went on to do the interview without me, and referred to Mike Acker and me as his “cohorts”. My trust in Larry was waning.

1989, Burning Man #4

Despite the increasing friction with Larry, I agreed to build the Man the next year. I built shelves at a friend’s place out by City College in exchange for the use of her garage. The design was the same except I built each leg in two parts to make it easier to carry them. We also went out to Marin and collected truckloads of willows to weave into the figure. I bored holes into the lumber and pulled the willows through and over the burlap in a crossing pattern. The night of our preview party, the Man was complete and stretched across sawhorses in the garage, softly lit by cheap work lights. Someone said that Ann Hatch of the Capp Street Project, a significant arts organization, had arrived.

Burning Man was getting noticed. When we headed to the beach we had more help than ever before including members of the San Francisco Cacophony Society who monitored the police radio and were prepared to signal us when the authorities were headed our way. It was sunny and unusually warm. There were 500 people on hand. We assembled the Man as we had the year before, but when we started to raise him one of the leg joints I had constructed failed. He landed on his butt with his head slumped, resting on his chest.

There was no practical way to fix him so we tied off the guy wires and left the Man in a sitting position. I felt like he looked—dejected. We got word that the cops were on the way, so we started the fire. A lot of police arrived quickly, as did the local news. The cops milled through the crowd, not really approaching anyone. Larry and I started an interview with the reporters—Larry spoke eloquently and I turned into a deer-in-the-headlights. A couple of weeks after Burning Man ’89, Larry betrayed our personal friendship in a way that broke it forever. Months after that, on Labor Day weekend, I attended a wind sculpture festival produced by Mel Lyons in the Black Rock Desert.

Mel had once shown Larry and me footage of a giant croquet game he’d performed there using wickets made of white pvc pipe and six-foot diameter rubber balls. He drove around in various vehicles knocking the balls through the wickets. The piece had been covered by Sports Illustrated and shared the spirit of many that would appear at Burning Man when it moved to the desert. When I went out I carpooled with friends and took a small cooler of deli food, a six-pack, and a sleeping bag. Fortunately, the weather was good and it was mostly hot and still for three days. The directions on the invitation to the event were spare—travel the edge of the playa for five miles, find an old tire, head to the low point of the mountain range to the east for seven miles.

We navigated that flat, cracked clay until we saw encampments. There were about 70 people and several trucks straight out of Mad Max. Being with a small group really allowed me to experience the size, the quiet, and, with the mountain ranges surrounding us, the sense of being in another world. Mel had designed human-scale chess pieces on wheels that blew about the desert floor.

1990, Burning Man #5 In 1990

I no longer wanted to participate in the build of the Man, nor the organization of its transport and installation. Dan Miller, Larry’s roommate, stepped forward and built it at the shop of a sound company. I visited the build but felt completely alienated. So many people, so many faces. I was torn since I had been the architect of the Man since its conception, but I could no longer work with Larry. I did want to participate in the burn though, and I was one of many who arrived at the cliffs above the north end of Baker Beach to send pieces of the Man down. The cops arrived while I was involved in hauling the components down the cliff. Remarkably, they agreed to let us build our sculpture if we would then remove rather than burn it. But this time was different—there was blood lust.

The crowd chanted our agreement with the authorities might jeopardize the next Burning Man. Later that night the arms and head ended up in my garage, the torso and legs went to a vacant lot that someone loaned for the preview show. A few weeks later that vacant lot got gentrified and the torso and legs disappeared. In 1988 I had sought out the San Francisco Cacophony Society to ask for their help with Burning Man, having read about them in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The Society was composed of a group of free spirits who put together events consisting of culture jamming, costuming, exploring, and pushing the cultural envelope.

Though there was no beach burn on the solstice in 1990, the Cacophony was planning a Zone Trip to Black Rock Desert on Labor Day, and that is when Burning Man was first sacrificed in the desert. I made several unsuccessful attempts to reclaim a place in the Burning Man project over the next five years. Politics held sway. I built a few more things for the event—including the main stage at Center Camp in 1996. Resigned, I attended as a tourist several times which quickly led to boredom. In 2006 I returned to help build the Temple.

2007, Burning Man #21

On 27 August 2007, Todd Freeman—a close friend and carpenter—and I were helping with the Temple build once again. We were there before the event was open to the public. That night there was a full eclipse of the moon that transformed it into something that looked like a mauve weather balloon floating 300 yards above the playa. We were really high and sitting on Todd’s tailgate drinking warm tequila at 3:00. It was balmy.

A bus of ravers rolled up and paused to shake booty. There were a lot of bunny suits. We heard someone shouting “the Man’s burning”. It took a few minutes for us to rally but we hustled out and saw that the Man was indeed aflame. As we came to learn, Paul Addis, tortured man that he was, had set the Man on fire early in order to protest the direction that the owners of Burning Man had taken. That, as a for-profit corporation, they had compromised Burning Man values and that the event had become largely a giant rave. After being immediately apprehended, the owners of Burning Man went to some lengths to show that the damage done by Addis was of sufficient value that he be charged with nothing less than a felony. He served 13 months for his crime. Sadly, he took his own life shortly thereafter.

Over the years, when my history with Burning Man came up in conversation, people occasionally thanked me. I felt humble and proud when they did. I also felt angry that I was robbed of the opportunity of contributing further. Time and writing this essay have helped me unload this burden. I’m lucky to have met some wonderful people through the acquaintances I’ve made through Burning Man, including my wife. I’ve enjoyed and struggled through many experiences at the event with some of my best friends; I’m encouraged by some of the directions Burning Man has taken and disappointed by many others. I have now been absent from Burning Man for six years, my longest stretch by far. Regardless, having worked as a builder since 1975 I can honestly say that I have never built anything as challenging or rewarding as the Burning Man for Baker Beach in 1988.