Interviewer: “How did you hear about the Burning Man event?”
Jerry James: “Well, how did I hear about it? [slight laugh] I didn’t hear about it, I started it. So . . would you like to hear the story . . .?“
Jerry learned to work with stained-glass in Boise Idaho, joined the local union and started to do construction in Idaho in commercial spaces. His hippie outlook conflicted with his union peers, so after a few years he began doing residential carpentry. And then made the move to San Francisco in 1981.
Jerry James was associated with Dan Richman, with whom Larry began work in the mid-1980s. Larry and Jerry both had similar aged children and quickly became friends. Jerry and Larry shared taste in films and books, and Jerry was impressed with Larry’s deep knowledge of literature. When Larry developed the idea of burning an effigy on the beach in 1986, he called Jerry, who agreed to help.
The figure of the man was built by Jerry with some help from Larry in the “dismal basement garage” of Larry’s ex-girlfriend, Ellen Into (daughter of Whittaker Chambers) the day before the solstice. There were no plans and limited tools. “I don’t know why I didn’t bring tools” Jerry once quipped. The Man’s construction involved triangles to provide depth to the effigy. (Note, Jerry dismisses ideas that it was a woman, noting simply that we referred to the figure as a man).
On a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, Jerry and his son, Larry and his son, Jerry’s girlfriend and Larry’s girlfriend Ellen were joined by Larry’s roommate Dan Miller, and three of Dan’s friends. Together they dragged the eight-foot man to Baker Beach. Dan later confided being embarrassed as they dragged the Man to the far north part of the beach. They doused him with a gallon gas, and ignited it.
In 1987 and ‘88 Jerry and Larry repeated the man build process, with better efficiency and increased size of the effigy. The Man in 1988 took months to construct as it approached 30 feet tall. Jerry and his construction manager Mike Acker (pictured) did the carpentry, with the help of some of their carpenter friends. The project was becoming increasingly time-consuming, but Jerry was enjoying the work.
1988 also marked, however, the beginning of the end of Jerry and Larry’s close relationship. Jerry noted:
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.
Despite the strained relationship, Jerry and Mike agreed to work on the Man again in 1989. The night of the preview party, the Man was complete and stretched across sawhorses in the garage it was being constructed within. In attendance at the event was Ann Hatch of the Capp Street Project, a significant arts organization. Capp Street would later give Burning Man the grant that funded the Ft. Mason Project.
In 1989, members of the Cacophony Society were monitoring police radio and were prepared to signal any police interest in the project. When they began to raise the man one of the leg joints Jerry had constructed failed. He crumpled on his butt with his head slumped. There was no practical way to fix him, so he was left seated and burned in place.
The police arrived as did a local news crew that did interviews, with Larry doing much of the talking. A part of the interview can be seen on the video.
By 1990 Jerry no longer wanted to be involved in building the Man, noting that “a couple of weeks after Burning Man ’89, Larry betrayed our personal friendship in a way that broke it forever.” Larry’s roommate, Dan Miller, stepped in to build the 1990 effigy. Jerry later recalled the disintegration of his close friendship with Larry:
When Larry and I started the [Burning Man] project, we were inseparable friends. … the last three [events] at the beach were a lot more demanding. I guess there was a lot of pressure and stress on us, and it stressed our relationship. Some things happened that really challenged it, and that was why I withdrew from my primary role in 1990. Then I kept bouncing in and out various roles over the years. So there was some unfinished business there that we both made certain attempts to address over the years. There was a time in the early ‘90s when we had put all that away, and Larry and I were on more positive terms. I don’t know why that changed again, but life is complicated.
For 12 years Larry and Jerry didn’t speak.
Larry’s involvement in Burning Man was limited over the years. However, in 2018 he was moved by design of Galaxia, that year’s temple.
“When I saw Arthur’s Galaxia, I was floored by the beauty and complexity of it. Having been a builder all my life, I certainly appreciate building anything that’s curved versus something that’s rectilinear,” Jerry says. So he sent the following email to Arthur Mamou-Mami, the temple’s architect:
Dear Mr. Mamou-Mami,
Hi, my name is Jerry James. I built the first effigy on Baker beach. I’d like to be part of the temple.
When the first email went unresponded to, he resent it. The architect apparently missed the first one, but when he saw the second one was in disbelief. Once the authenticity of the email was confirmed Jerry was invited to join the project. He found the work so inspiring that he broke the 12 years of silence and called Larry.
“It was surprisingly moving — at least for me. I don’t think he really had issues with me so much as I had issues with him. There was clearly still love in the picture that late in the game when we had our last conversation.” Jerry noted. They agreed to get their families together for a meal. Two days later Larry suffered a stroke and entered a coma from which he never awoke. Jerry visited him in the hospital, gifted him a temple medal and said his goodbyes.