Burning Man 1986

The Story Behind the First Burn

Jerry James recalls Larry Harvey calling him up the day of the summer solstice in 1986, as asking whether he would be interested in burning an effigy on Baker Beach. Jerry agreed.

The effigy was built by the morning of the solstice by Jerry with some help from Larry in the “dismal basement garage” of Larry’s ex-girlfriend, Ellen Into (daughter of Whittaker Chambers and Flash’s mother-in-law). They had little light and virtually no tools, and “cut” the wood primarily by just breaking it. Jerry created depth to the effigy by building small triangles for the rib cage and upper legs and nailed some boards to the head to create hair or a crown. The entire project took a few hours, according to Jerry. Note:, we refer to the first burn as an effigy, not “the Man” because the creators of it typically refer to it as an effigy for the first year and as a man in subsequent years.

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Jerry, Larry, their two boys (Tristan and Jeremy), Larry’s girlfriend Ellen, Jerry’s girlfriend, Larry’s roommate, Dan Miller and three of Dan’s friends dragged the eight-foot figure to Baker Beach, They brought it to the north end of Baker Beach. There the ten of them had a family picnic.

At dusk the man was ignited. Jerry emptied a full gallon can of gas on to the effigy and set it ablaze. The gas burned brightly and quickly (in future years they would use slower burning kerosene).

Larry recalls that “then the most significant thing happened:

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Strangers ran and joined us. Suddenly the crowd doubled or tripled. The Man was near the waterline, so the people formed a half circle around him and they too were delighted by the flaming humanoid form. It was darkening toward night, as I recall. I could see everyone’s face lit by the flame. We were moved, as one is moved by the enthusiasm of strangers for something you’ve done. … And then a woman I didn’t know ran up and held his hand - the wind was blowing the flame all in one direction. Just as a lark. She was touching it as if in awe of it, but also companionable, like it was something you could lean against. — Ah participation!” “And a guy played a song about fire, improved it on the spot. … In that instant, that gift - it was moving.”

Larry went on to note the significance of the participation of strangers “Those acts of impulsive merger and collective union were what made it so special. I’m very much of the conviction that we would never have done it again if those circumstances had not happened and helped us be so moved by what we’d done.”