The Baker Beach Years: 1986 to 1990
The first burn occurred on Saturday, June 21, 1986 - the summer solstice. However, the idea for building an effigy and burning it on Baker Beach started some time before.
Larry Harvey had been in a funk for nearly two years. He was facing financial challenges, as his landscaping business failed to gain traction. There was also the failed romance with Paula Peretti. Larry’s long time Alamo square roommate had been dating a woman who went by Chrylu, whose roommate was Paula. Larry began dating Paula, with some apprehension. He believed that falling in love with Paula would be a mistake, and their relationship was unstable from the start. Nevertheless, on the summer solstice in 1984, he took her and his son Tristan to a Baker Beach solstice gather at the peak of their happiness. He recalls remembering that he had “said to myself, 'Don't look at her that way.' And of course I did. And I felt my soul seep out the corner of my eye."
A short time later the relationship ended on an ugly note. This, combined with financial challenges and a general loss of direction, contributed to a nearly two-year funk for Larry. He noted that “It was two years since we broke up, and I still lived with that pain every morning. I'd wake up and feel fine, and then I'd be looking at my books and I'd remember her, and then I'd be ruined.”
With the approach of the painful two-year anniversary of the summer solstice with Paula, Larry decided to try to erase the memory, or at a minimum get out of the house with purpose, and used the idea of burning the effigy as a means to accomplish this. He called up Jerry James and suggested building the effigy and burning it on Baker Beach. Jerry agreed and the two set about building the first man.
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 and Flash’s mother-in-law). Jerry, Larry, their two boys and four or five others dragged the eight-foot man to Baker Beach, doused him with gasoline, and ignited it.
At dusk the man was ignited. Larry recalls that “then the most significant thing happened (as reported in This is Burning Man):
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.”
By 1987, the Man grew to almost fifteen feet tall and took a couple of weeks to build. Jerry was living on Capp Street, and the man was built on his back porch. Larry suggested they incorporate crossed horizontal members to provide shape and volume. The backbone, legs are arms were made with four by-fours. 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 Jerry’s 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 straight forward, according to Jerry James.
Larry’s brother Stewart and Stewart’s family drove down from Portland to join in the celebration. Stewart and his son recall being initially reluctant to come to this celebration that Larry was so enthusiastic about. But once in attendance, both we aware that they were participating in something meaningful and important. They vowed to return the following year and did.
Unlike 1986, where Jerry James didn’t initially give much thought about repeating the experience until several months after it occurred, in 1987, Jerry also reported immediately feeling that the experience might be come an annual ritual. Larry Harvey was similarly minded, and soon after the 1987 event, the two were looking toward planning the next event.
By 1988 the man was around forty feet, approximately the same size as the current man without the base. The design of the third effigy was the basis for the one still in use today. Jerry James wrote about the construction:
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.
By 1988 Larry was nearly obsessed with the annual event. Irritated that some had compared the beach burn to the movie Wicker Man, Larry decided he needed to create a name for the event: Burning Man. So in 1988, the event was first officially advertised as “Burning Man.”
Logistics of building and raising the man grew along with his stature. The first attempt to raise the Man on Baker Beach failed when the pulley being used to raise the man popped out of the sand and the Man came crashing down (see video below). The plan was to lift him in the way a tall extension ladder is lifted at a construction site - one person “foots” one end of the ladder and another lifts the opposite end while walking towards the “footer.” The crowd were to lift up the Man’s shoulders until they could lift no higher and then a pulley system would lift him the rest of the way into the vertical position. However, the stake holding the pulley failed and nearly impaled the crowd of volunteers as well as Jerry. The pulley was abandoned, and instead the crowd was enlisted to just pull on a rope to help lift him. This strategy worked (against all odds, in Jerry’s opinion). The Man, already pre-soaked with kerosene, his legs and body stuffed with newspaper and wrapped with burlap skin was ignited. The flaming material blew away, leaving a charred, but still standing man. After some brief police interaction, it was agreed that the Man could be knocked down and then burnt on the beach.
An amusing side note, all captured in the video below: Jerry remembers trying to blend into the crowd with Larry. The police started to hassle a guy playing a drum “You’re over here banging the drum, you must be in charge of this…” Larry and Jerry then come forward and negotiate the deal with the police to knock down the man and burn the rest of him on the beach.
The man burn in 1989 was the first publicized by the Cacophony Society, and was covered by local television. The burn didn’t go as hoped: His support beams were not thick enough for his weight, and he cracked, fell to his knees, head sagging. They had to burn him in a kneeling posture. Despite the mishap, the TV coverage was positive and upbeat. This coverage encouraged Larry, to the point of obsession, and he repeatedly watched it and other films of the burns.
During this period, however, cracks began to show in the relationship between Larry and Jerry James. By 1990, James would distance himself from the building of the Man.
By 1990 the crowd was so large that many attendees took to crawling along the bluff overlooking the shore to see the show. The crowd was between five and eight hundred strong; estimates by those there vary. The police arrived and wanted everyone to leave. Dan Miller, who had become one of the Man’s builders, decided to negotiate a deal with the police: to raise the Man but not burn him. This was the first time Larry remembers really becoming acquainted with John Law,
Law became the spokesperson for the faction that advocated burning the Man anyway. He was confident that the police were just making the required show of authority and wouldn’t be back. “That would have been a real underground move… Burn it and get away with it". Larry later recalled. But Larry insists he gave his word, and his father’s ghost would smite him if he went back on it. In other re-tellings, Larry has also noted that those advocating for the burn had no skin in the game… no consequence if things went poorly.
The only fire on Baker Beach in 1990 was Nel Friedman was spinning fire, and David T. Warren was also back doing his fire show with a donation can at his feet.