It is Monday late morning, and after hauling an RV rented from Chicago (36 continuous road hours and twice almost running out of gas with our paltry 200 mile per tank range) we've arrived on the first official day of Burning Man. Anxious to join our friends who were granted early arrival passes to begin the construction of our camp, we're delayed by three hours. Undeterred, we take in the festive atmosphere of hundreds of cars, vans, RVs all in the same situation. The party has begun as music blares, people hug, girls dance on top of vehicles and the ever-present dust blows over everything.
I leave my vehicle in the hands of my travel partners in gridlock to wander up to the will call station to claim my ticket. In typical Burning Man style, will call has sound bumping, stories of long travels and even six or seven out-of-luck burners praying or meditating that the universe will provide them with a magical ticket. "Wait, they don't love you like I love you," Karen O sings as I step up.
Wheeling into the city and finding my home with our fellow Bad Advice Bears around 2:45 and Guangzhou, it is a joyful arrival and reunion with friends. A few toasts, tokes and PBRs later, the assembling of our camp continues. The 40' circus tent that is our communal area has been erected, as has the skeleton of our 30' geodesic dome that will house our club for the week. About the only thing completed is our Bad Advice Booth, in which we dispense free bad advice to anyone who needs it. (Think Lucy from Peanuts. If Lucy was dressed like a bear.)
And then, out of nowhere, the storm rolls in. Unusually temperate and cooler than usual, the wind picks up, with ominous dust clouds approaching from the north and west. Rain starts falling, and our usually stalwart circus tent starts to collapse from the shifting of winds. Every member of camp—plus a few friendly neighbors—rush to hold up support beams as the 4' rebar holding the ropes begin to bend and uproot from the gale force winds. And the rain begins to fall. Hard. Rain on the playa is rare. I've only encountered it on a handful of times in my six previous trips to the playa.
Reaching its saturation point rather quickly, the water begins to turn the ultra-fine sediment to clay. Walking, biking and driving are now a complete impossibility. We manage to pull a couple trucks around to anchor the corner ropes under duress, and work to pound in any extra rebar with demolition hammers outfitted with ground rod driver bits. As soon as we succeed in stabilizing our tent, the storm ends and, in the waning rays of the sun peaking through the clouds, the largest, most vibrant double rainbow I've ever witnessed materializes over the half-built city. Lieutenant Dan-like fist-shaking and defiant challenges to the sky give way to spontaneous cheers heard from unseen thousands in the distance.
By nightfall, it is now possible, again, to walk around without building inches of sticky clay on the soles of your shoes. And believe it or not, there are parties to be had, and barely functional sound camps test out their systems to the delight of those who've waited all year for this week. But burnt by the exertions of damage control and a long, long journey, I bed down for the night, enjoying the distant cries of joy and ever-present rumblings of bass...
It is now Tuesday, and more arrivals come by the hour. The main tasks include covering our dome, adding the signature bear ears and snout to said dome and getting the sound system/DJ booth ready to rock. We have official parties set for the following two nights, and the new fun addition to our camp this year—a full size ball pit with enough room for 15 adult children—has suffered some damage from the previous day's storm. The DJ stage and booth need to be built into the inner wall of the dome, which has a window cut out for the DJ to peer out to the outside, rope-lit dance floor (complete with linoleum animal Twister squares).
Arriving on my bike with scant minutes to spare (it also didn't help that my glasses broke and in my haste, I had glued my finger to one of my lenses…thankfully someone at camp had nail polish remover), I plugged my playa-proofed laptop into Serato and needed to play my first track internally, as the RCA on the left CDJ was faulty. I had been told that the booth would have both CDJs and 1200s, but hey, it was Tuesday night, and like most camps around the city, things were functioning as best as they can. For the uninitiated, 8:00 PM might seem like a strange slot to be excited for. But here, anytime, anyplace, there are souls who are ready to have it, and despite the full day of work, it was thrilling to play on such an enormous system.
Although the lighting and pyrosphere were still under construction, I was able to make out the silhouetted form of many bear hoods—my campmates, decked out in Bad Advice Bear costumes, had made it out to support. As my set ends, I climb back down from the booth and hear the next DJ unceremoniously slam out of my closer—an acid-laced DJ Pierre remix—into heavy, heavy dubstep. Welcome to Burning Man.
Wednesday morning comes, and the time-bending principles of the playa are in full effect. Feeling like I simultaneously have been here for five minutes and five weeks, the city is vibrant. More arrivals, more visitors and more...well...everything. It is 3:00 PM, and I dart down the street to 3:00 and Florence to play the happy hour at Darwin Fish Tank, a camp residing inside a giant fish, complete with spray misters over their dance floor and margarita bar. Showing up a little bit late for my two hour set, I find a welcoming and fun crew already having it. The booth itself consists of a pair of CDJs and mixer on a shelf under what appears to be a bar to shield the equipment from the spraying hoses. The jogwheels are so crusted over with playa that I have to physically grip the wheels to turn them—about par for the course at Burning Man.
Feeling the juice from playing the incredible Nexus system the night before, I begin slamming tech house down the throats of the partiers with mixed results. Someone requests that I perhaps slow it down a bit, and after an initial defensive reaction of feeling like my right to the Burning Man tenant of "radical self-expression" is being trampled, I realize that perhaps he's right. Pitching down to an eclectic set of hip-hop, nu disco and '80s oddities, the crowd is back on its feet and living it up.
The surrealism of playing in a giant fish to a crowd of semi-clothed partiers under spray misters comes to a head as an attractive, pixie-like brunette sings and dances along—topless—to "Goodbye Horses." Rewarding myself with ample pulls of Jameson, the party goes on as I play well past the end of my timeslot, working in everything from Krazy Baldhead and Montag to Egyptian Lover, Richard Cheese, "Apache" and, of course, "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish." Never-to-be-fulfilled promises to meet up later with my new friends are made, and I head back to camp to fall down for a few minutes...
What time is it? Where am I? What is that pounding on my RV door? Of course, it is already 9:00 PM, and the first artist for our Wednesday night party, San Francisco-based controllerist Moldover is here to play. And so it begins. Our annual bash isn't until Thursday, but tonight is our preview. Rocking his custom console and triggering spastic samples and familiar cuts is a welcome departure from the heavy dubstep and pounding 4/4 that dominate the music at Burning Man. As the night goes on, DJs come out and play wonderfully, with DJ Dayhota, Jacques the Ripper and the Temple Monkey most noticeably rocking our camp. But the placement gods—who had us listed at a 3:00 intersection, actually had us placed in the middle of the block near 2:45. Being away from a main spoke has repercussions, and despite our vast camp improvements, we don't seem to have the same draw this year. A couple of DJs miss slots, claiming later that we were hard to find...
It is now Thursday, and I am resigned to the fact that my planned article for RA might not be coming together. Truthfully, I've been working. Having planned and worked countless hours to actualize the trip and make sure our sound was sufficient has left me trying, desperately, to relax and have some carefree fun, some of which was probably not very legal. And in these moments, I hear the voice of a certain late Gonzo counter-culture hero echoing in my head: "...had I really come out here to
Thursday night's big party goes off without a hitch, with the likes of Striz, Radiohiro and San Francisco's infamous Brass Tax crew pulling up in their artcar (a mobile boat) complete with DJ DingDong in a sailor outfit. Our dance floor never reaches full tilt, as the draw of the ball pit and incredible sound and lighting inside the dome claim many. And with so many attractions abounding elsewhere, our own camp mates take trips to explore the alluring city or deep playa wilderness. But providing the environment and rocking those who came and stayed, the party rages on until dawn. Starting at 5:00 AM, I play my scheduled sunrise set until I literally can't go any longer. Powering down in the beautiful daylight of the morning, there is stirring in our kitchen, as pancakes and bacon waft through the air.
And now it is late morning on Friday, and I finally get a moment to grab my photographer and hit the playa for full discovery. We first stop on the outskirts of town to The Cleu, a camp that gives out wonderful pendants and offers group "brain-washings." Located on the furthest-most street from the heart of the bustling city, the Cleu is as quiet as you get in Black Rock City. Escorted into their dome, we are instructed to stand with our fellow brain-washees in a circle, standing outward shoulder-to-shoulder, and to close our eyes.
Lester Bangs once said, "The first mistake of art is to assume that it's serious." Well, aside from the hokey granola-crunch philosophy at hand was the simplest, most entertaining group activity I encountered on the playa this year. A team of brain-washers walked silently around us in circles, spray misting us and clanging apple shakers that resonated at different minor keys, hiding their motions as they began to chant their mantras to us. Theatrical and whimsical, the overall effect was one that made it hard to keep a straight face, as the washers whispered, cooed and sternly spoke in a variety of voices about the universe and your inner being.
Deep playa art tour was next, and there were all the astonishing and underwhelming sights to be seen. The grandiose and the tiny, the sacred and the profane...and now, heading out, next, to find some big-name DJs to interview and photograph in the daylight, another dust storm hits… There is beauty in these white-outs, as costumed people and installations materialize out of nothing, then disappear, again, with the silty playa audible as it blows sideways over your body. These are the small moments in beauty that are impossible to explain to those who have never been. As I bike back to camp to ponder my next move, I encounter some friends who are heading back in the other direction to Distrikt, the largest day club in the city.
Some 20 minutes later, we arrive. Located on a bustling corner of 9:00 and Florence, there is an increased police presence not seen before on the playa. Cracking down on underage drinking, I am unable to get a drink at the bar—who carries ID on the playa? I turn back to witness the complete mayhem of perhaps a thousand revelers dancing their hearts out as dirty house beats boom from an impossibly large rig, complete with a balcony of what seem like extras from a Christina Aguilera video circa "Dirty" and Mad Max spraying power washers over the impossibly amped crowd. But I am out of water, can't get a drink, and am need of some downtime. Too tired to dance, I sit on my bike to witness this insane spectacle for another 30 minutes before biking back home.
I could tell you about the rest of my week, the crescendo of Friday and Saturday night madness (the giant effigy known as The Man burns on Saturday night), and the contemplative moments of the Temple burning on Sunday. (The temple is where many leave messages and items behind to commemorate lost loved ones or things in their life that they wish to be burned.) But honestly, I've been indulgent in this rare first-person perspective for just one reason—to explain the real experiences of Burning Man, of which art and music and the very DJs you worship have, perhaps, the best venue to express their art, despite all the trials and tribulations performing in that environment involves and why it is all worth it to me, just a regular schmoe.
Truthfully, I missed many opportunities to experience incredible spectacles of sound and vision this year. And I completely blew my assignment. But I hope my weekly recap shows the difficulties in any planning on the playa. No phones, no internet, nobody has the time, everybody is in the moment. I'm not the same person I was in 2002 when I first came, wide-eyed and thirsty for this wonderful and challenging place. But my responsibilities, actual or perceived, took precedence over many other pursuits for me. Feeling that I owe my pursuit of my passions in DJing and writing to that first year, which showed me things that seemed impossible—the scale of art, the lengths in which people dedicated their lives to creating whatever their hearts desired, for no monetary gain, for only the reason of self-expression and the enjoyment of others.
Now, a self-proclaimed crusty veteran, my joy lies in the incredible growth my group of ordinary folks from all over the country have been able to create an adult playground for the enjoyment of others. But like the Man, himself, I am burnt. So next year? Apparently the plan is to pool our resources away from building that wonderland and going mobile, constructing an artcar to take our bad advice and party wherever we see fit, with a sound system, DJs and room for our entire camp to go renegade, make our own party on the open expanses of the deep playa to greet the sunrise or commandeer other camps and not have our events and traffic dependent on the placement given to us from the good folks in placement. We're taking the ball pit with us, too.
And who am I? Oh, just another everyday person doing what I can to make it happen for the sake of just because. And, by the way, I heard Wolf + Lamb was mind-blowing on the fantastically rigged Robot Heart art car. And the Martin Brothers destroyed Nexus. And…and…and…perhaps you should just check it out yourself.