Larry Harvey: The Burner We All Knew

[Editor’s note: The following is the Beacon’s contribution to the Global Celebration and Day of Gratitude for Larry Harvey]

By Mrs. Lucky

A fox knows many things, says the Greek poet, a hedgehog knows one big thing. Larry Harvey was a hedgehog. Alone among the promiscuously creative polymaths who founded Burning Man, Harvey stayed loyal to the big picture. He molded the rituals and tended the principles. He was earnest.

“Most people would have dropped out when Burning Man just seemed like a piddling daydream,” observed artist Mary Grauberger, who knew him at the beginning. “But he was sure of it, and he was right.”

Grauberger, quoted in Brian Doherty’s 2006 book This Is Burning Man, built and burned sculptures of shore-washed junk on Baker Beach in the early 1980s. Though her art was an inspiration for the first Burn, she claims she never looked for fame. “People seem to need Burning Man, and they come from all over the world,” Grauberger continues, “But I know it’s hard on Larry’s health.”

This summer, the festival’s status in the American psyche is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. In late March, at the gala opening for “No Spectators, the Art of Burning Man,” Larry Harvey climbed the red-carpeted stairs of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. He’d left behind his Stetson, and his cap from the Empire Store. He had one hand on the polished brass rail, the other on the arm of a willowy woman in a graceful gown. Tiny horns peaked through the crown of her long, salt and pepper hair. It was a remarkable ascent for a man who described himself as “an outsider in every sense of the word.” At the top of the steps, Larry and his lithe friend paused before entering the Grand Salon, studying the stick figure that started it all.

Harvey was dating the daughter of a former Soviet spy when the first Man was built in the basement garage of her San Francisco row house. About as avant-garde as a garden trellis, with all the artistic sophistication of the guy you draw in hangman, the icon is so simple you can get it across with three pieces of duct tape. This was how he wanted it.

Of the 10 principles of Burning Man the idea of inclusion was nearest to Harvey’s heart. It set him at odds with the other principals, who held a more raw vision. A 2007 article in the Black Rock Beacon details the troubled transition of the original triumvirate into a corporate structure. Between the charismatic Danger Ranger and the elusive John Law, it seems Larry Harvey was chosen to wear the mantle of leadership because he had the least to lose.

As a kid Larry Harvey planned to change the world. He got a slow start. He was 30 before he earned a living. He had a knack for attracting supportive women. He lived with an elementary school teacher. She won the bread. He took the bus to the public library to feed his mind. He worked as a bike messenger, and with a cadre of latte-carpenters, but described himself to Doherty as destined to head Burning Man, “a job for which there was no applying and no standardized curriculum to prepare for.”

A kind of a cosmic juggler, what Larry Harvey made was plans, not for portable potties and ticket sales, but for grand themes and big ideas. None more than the elaborate Burn Night ceremony styled Release the Man: herds of fire spinners, processions of cassocked torch bears, and tens of thousands of voices chanting “burn the Man.”

Interviewing him was like trout fishing. You cast your questions into his stream of consciousness. You’d get bites on Kant and Freud. But ask about the first Burn or the movie Wicker Man and you’d get skunked. He would come by the Black Rock Beacon camp. We’d brush the dust off the least broken chair and put it at the edge of our shade structure, where he’d puff his cigarettes, ashing carefully into the container he’d brought. He was the only one who didn’t get shit for smoking at the Beacon.

Some years he’d give us the scoop on the next year’s theme. We’d make it front page news, because at the Beacon we’re hedgehogs too.

Just days after his Smithsonian triumph, Larry Harvey suffered a stroke. Lucid in the first days of his hospitalization, he was visited by one of his first buddies in San Francisco. “You’ve done what you came to do,” the old friend told him. After several unresponsive weeks, Larry Harvey was released.

One thought on “Larry Harvey: The Burner We All Knew

  1. Excellent article! When I got to the last paragraph and read: “You’ve done what you came to do,” I almost lost it. My first impulse was to clobber that “friend” for possibly causing Larry’s death, but a few moments later, I realized that there’s no justification to punish someone for telling the truth. Larry Harvey certainly has accomplished what he came to Earth to do. He has changed the planet forever, and that beat goes on and grows on.

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