Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Mud by Richard Von Busack (1995)

Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Mud

The elements clashed at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
Richard Von Busack was there.

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To some who had previously attended the Burning Man festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert--a dried lake some 100 long miles from Reno--this year's event was a watershed. The question was whether the annual Labor Day Weekend encampment, centered around the ritual burning of a four-story-tall wood and neon sculpture, was going to be the next Lollapalooza. The quiet paganism of previous years has become a roaring party, 4,000 people strong, covered by the New York Times, CNN and Spinmagazine.

This combination art camp and survivalist expedition was larger and posher than last year, and had electricity to burn. A ten-foot tall portable generator, humming malevolently like the mechanical alien in 1957's Kronos , supplied a genuine power grid. It wired up a huge public address system, a thirty-foot radio tower, blender drinks, and an impressive zoetropic neon sculpture by San Jose's Dennis Borawski.

But electricity can be a mixed blessing, and a flat, dried mudflat carries soundwaves well--if the band sucked, or if the ravesters played their anxiety-attack provoking music until 5 in the a.m--there was no way to escape the din short of tunneling into the lakebed until mud stopped your ears.

The best musical moment was San Francisco's Polkacide show Saturday night. God must not like single-entendre songs such as Polkacide's "Wiener Dog Polka" ("such a spunky little pet"), because the 12-piece band ended up opening for a vicious thunderstorm. This almost Venusian lightning show was one of several meteorological events, along with gale-force winds and Oklahoma-quality duststorms, that reminded the partyers that nature was boss of the Playa. Mud surrounded three sides of the camp, the results of record rainfall, and organizers went without sleep pulling the cars of idiots out of the muck, despite numerous warnings of the road conditions.

None of the above convinced the more foolhardy Burning Man attendees who mounted a scaffold to awwwright! the lighting. "Why not just give them a Kaiser Wilhelm helmet and a pair of rubber boots and be done with it." one observer grumbled, but none were immolated, strangely enough; maybe lightning is saved for the divinely inspired.

Once the Black Rock Desert had weathered its little tantrum, it was clean, clear and ravishing again.

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It was practically Sunday in the park to check out the crowd at McSatan's burger stand and Art Car Camp; not only filmmaker Herrold Blank's "Oh My God, a VW rigged out with all-weather plastic daisies, an illuminated globe and a portrait of Che Guevara. (Blank's car is so distinctive that he was once, he claimed, requested to leave a Southern town before sundown by a representative of the KKK.) Another highlight of the camp was "Love 23" a station wagon bristling with hundreds of plastic toys affixed to the chassis with marine-grade silicone glue.

And on Friday night there was an even more memorable sight: a string of toy chemical lights attached to a kite and sent aloft to sway a hundred feet above the desert. When I went over to look at it, the somber tones of Dead Can Dance was playing softly on a portable tape player, and a woman was pointing out the constellation Andromeda to a pair of children.

The Burning Man tradition began several years back as a solstice ritual on San Francisco's Ocean Beach, and later relocated to the desert for more space and less police interference. Despite the legion of spectators attending a fest whose original motto was "No Spectators" the event will possibly never become overrun; it's remote, dangerous and weird in a world where people prefer the convenient, safe and predictable.