Early Man-Man: proto-Burnin’ Dude builders & inspirational catalysts

In this one time at burning man by summerburkesLeave a Comment

If you’ll notice, talking to most of the elders of the Burning Man tribe, they put emphasis on the third syllable of the name of our weirdo company picnic. “The burning MAN,” they say, with a “The” at the beginning each time. All the rest of us say “BURN-ing man.” So that’s how things used to be different right there, is the early Cacophonists emphasized the event’s syllables differently.

That’s how you can tell an old-timer: They were there when “The burning MAN” was the only thing going on at “BURN-ing man” besides a sculpture or two, some buckets to poop in, and a bunch of people shooting guns or drinking or dragging each other around on tarps behind pickup trucks.

Just a statue and some surrealist freaks hauling junk. That was it.

Cacophony Society members invited Jerry, Larry, and the Burning Man out to their "Zone Trip Four" in 1990. Miss P Seagal, founder of Center Cafe and doyenne of Cacophony, stands with the Man. Photo stolen from BrokeAssStuart.

Cacophony Society members invited Jerry, Larry, and the Burning Man out to their “Zone Trip Four” in 1990. Miss P Seagal, founder of Center Cafe and doyenne of Cacophony, stands with the Man. Photo stolen from BrokeAssStuart.

Old-timers also know the other originator of the Burning Man sculpture besides Larry Harvey, Jerry James, designed and built the Man almost singlehandedly in the four years it was on the beach (1986-1989). Not to say Harvey didn’t do anything, but he definitely wasn’t the lead builder, since he was more of a thinker-type than a carpenter-type person.

So, factually, Jerry James was the co-founder of the Man’s design as well as first lead builder. James paid for the materials and everything out of his pocket, for the first years. Carson Duper and Bill Nolan also helped build the Beach Man. In ’91, Jerry James backed out for various reasons, and first Dan Miller and then Chris Campbell took over as main Man builder.

The guys initially started building the Man at the shop where Dan Miller worked, called Sound on Stage, in San Francisco. Then they moved operations to Campbell’s house in South City. Miller was the main helper in Man-building from the beginning, instrumental and around in the first place because he literally lived inside the closet in Larry’s apartment. Miller took over as lead Man builder in ’90-91 (because Jerry James left) and then Campbell from ’93 or ’94 to ’99 or 2000.

After burning a Beach Man for four years, the cops famously told Harvey, James, Miller, and the guys they couldn’t burn their fifth one on the ocean that Summer Solstice in 1990. It was Danger Ranger, John Law, Kevin Evans, and Sebastian Hyde’s idea to ask those “latte carpenters” then if they wanted to bring the wooden figure to the San Francisco Cacophony Society’s latest outing, called “Bad Day at Black Rock,” which was to take place in the desert. This would mark the Cacophony Society’s fourth “Zone Trip” outing, as opposed to their usual pranks and culture-jamming events locally, and surreal weekend excursions to Southern California.

the first Burning Man t-shirt. so dark, & very not ravey or smiley, no?

August 1990, right before this event, the Burning Man was stored on 11th Street in that parking lot near Slim’s – and the parking lot owner cut up the legs with a chainsaw one night when nobody else was around. The Man had been completed and then destroyed, basically – Jerry James had secured a parking spot and they had packed the Man into one space because that’s all the money they could afford to front. But the legs were sticking out, into the next rentable space. So dude cut ‘em off.

“Ya gotta understand,” John Law says, “we were so fuckin’ broke it was retarded. So getting just one parking space to put the Man in was kind of typical.” The carpenters then had to repair and rebuild the Man, on 4th and Bryant at the American Neon Sign Company, where John Law worked as a sign hanger. [Oh, the stories. They were all scroungey dirtbags like us. -ed.]

As the cabal of carpenters gathered to make the central sculpture, Cacophony Society adventure-seekers had discovered the star of the show: The Black Rock Desert. Cacophonists also marveled at the nearest cowboy town, Gerlach, and its hard-livin’ cowboy bars — since not only sparse desolation but also general lawlesness happen to be two hugely enticing qualifiers for potential Cacophony tableaux.

Planet X Pottery
, the country-Nevada oasis-home of John Bogard, hosted art-freaky land-sailing events on the then-flat desert hardpan. Bogard, Mel Function, and the rest of the Planet X crew are very important precursors to Burning Man. (Bogard now helps run the KLAP, which we recently featured on the Burning Blog.)

art by Kevin Evans, from the book “Tales of the SF Cacophony Society”

Meanwhile, in the run up to the Cacophony Society’s infamous invitation to Harvey and James to bring their Man out to the desert for Zone Trip #4, William Binzen was creatively birthing Desert SiteWorks.

Inspired by the vast moonscape of the Black Rock and the energy starting to build around the new annual desert pilgrimage, Binzen began to compose a philosophy of life lived as art, crafting intentional community. After years of planning and working to conceptualize his ideas, Binzen produced the first Desert SiteWorks at Black Rock Spring in 1993, right at the foot of the ancient-volcanic-cinder-cone promontory which juts out into the north end of the playa and gives the desert its name.

Many of the initial “Intentional Art Community” ideas in the Burning Man pantheon of admirable ethics were inspired by Binzen. He was a serious student of art and weird culture, and would write these massive missives via email and send them to Larry, who intellectualized and expanded them into Burning Man’s intentional community hoo-hahs. So, salute, Mr. Binzen. Great photos.

Kimric Smythe was the first pyro guy to make the Man flashy and bangy. He was also part of Survival Research Laboratories machine art group, as well as the makeshift Cacophony subgroup who put together the infamous Drive-By Shooting Range and Car Hunt, back in the days before idiots they didn’t know started showing up and acting too crazy for the guns to come out anymore.

Scott Ficus became Smythe’s partner in Man-splosion pyro, and together they did all the pyrotechnics for the Burning Man statue, as well as building mortars, and blowing up so much serious shit that it’s probably not wise to rattle off their more explodey accomplishments in this fearrorist environment. Incidentally, among many other things, Smythe and his also-pyro father are early Junkyard Wars stars who repair accordions as well.

“Not just another overly-educated mob,” as we read on a handmade fauxtest sign at a St. Stupid’s Day parade once.

Kevin Evans and Sebastian Hyde started the first-ever Burning Man theme camp, where they acted like natives from somewhere, made up a language, and bartered with clay money. Photo stolen from BrokeAssStuart.

Kevin Evans and Sebastian Hyde started the first-ever Burning Man theme camp, where they acted like natives from somewhere, made up a language, and bartered with clay money. Photo stolen from BrokeAssStuart.

So how was the Man lit, after Smythe and company packed him full of goodies? Crimson Rose, the eventual LLC member who became leader of the Fire Conclave, arrived in 1992, the third year the Cacophony Society was throwing their now-annual Zone Trip out there. But there are three Desert Man years before that:

Year one, the Man was lit by Suicide Club and Cacophony Society founder David Warren, who caught his face on fire blowing a 12-foot stream. Warren had also lit the last Beach Man on fire in 1989, blowing a 15-foot stream. (More about trailblazing [haha] fire performer David Warren in a minute.)

Year two, the Man was lit by literally the first fire-twirlers at Burning Man if not in this era’s Western festival world, in its present “modern tribal” incarnation anyway.

“It wasn’t a thing yet,” John Law says, “when these two women lit the Man on fire that way. Their names are Nell Friedman and Teresa Dynaberg. They were circus performers with Make-A-Circus and friends of mine. ‘We wanna do something!,’ they said. So they made things to twirl fire with and they twirled fire.”

“Year three,” Law says, “Bobby Gellman and his girlfriend both lit the Man by shooting burning arrows into him. Gellman was the second drummer at Burning Man after Dean Gustavsson the first year. They had full drum kits. There were no bongos yet.”

You heard it here, folks — fire-twirling, a mainstay of neotribalism and interesting GenX / Millennial parties, was (re-)invented by two circus performers at the second Black Rock Desert Burning Man. Fire-breathing was always a Burning Man tradition as well, handed down from an actual carny named David Warren (see below). And bongos were not welcome or interesting to this most punk rock of baby events invented by punk-rock new wavers raised on Mad Max.

The Man who enflamed Early Man.art by Kevin Evans, from the book "Tales of the SF Cacophony Society"

The Man who enflamed Early Man.
art by Kevin Evans, from the book “Tales of the SF Cacophony Society”


Sometimes, the secret giants who shape counterculture lurk long in the shadows, causing greatness and drinking vodka. David Warren lived a very large life until age 71. In his time, he was a married encyclopedia salesman, a fire-breathing professional carny, a fuck-all-that hobo, and a San Francisco activist-turned-counterculture-catalyst.

Most importantly to Burning Man lore, David Warren was one of the four people who founded the Suicide Club, famous pre-cursor group to the Cacophony Society which invented Burning Man, among other things. (The other three Suicide Club founders were Adrienne Burk, Nancy Prussia, and Gary Warne.)

Bucking hard against the rodeo pen from the beginning, Warren grew up in Hayward, the black sheep son of wealthy parents who pulled some strings to ship him off to the Marines when he eventually faced jail time. After his stint in the service, Warren ran away with the circus, literally learning the trade of booth-barking, magic-trick-performing sideshow fire-eater.

Warren worked as a carny for a few years before he decided to marry, father five children, and sell encyclopedias. He and his wife volunteered for Jobs Corp and then Headstart, but he also got closer to his first love, cheap vodka. One night a horrible car accident happened, leaving Warren with a lifelong limp and cane-walk. He claimed to have died on the operating table, seen the bright light, and had all the near-death-experience highlights pull him to a deeper understanding.

Debt piled up after the accident, and months later, one night on a sales trip away from home, Warren stood alone in a hotel bathroom for five hours with a shotgun in his mouth. He couldn’t pull the trigger, so he walked out of the hotel and vowed never to do anything he didn’t want to do again.

(Warren was reportedly huge, strong, handsome, and larger-than-life — a “cross between W.C. Fields, John Wayne, P.T. Barnum, and Jimmy Swaggart,” according to one early Cacophonist. Like other countercultural supermen of his ilk — Neal Cassady, Hunter S. Thompson, etc — Warren left his family behind and behaved like a drunk in real life. But without glossing that part over, since we’ve all got flaws, we’ll just skip it, in favor of reporting on the ultra-warm, hilarious, caring, and bombastic human amazingness of Warren himself.)

Not long after David Warren pulled the shotgun out of his mouth, he ended up in the Seal Rocks area of SF, just after the great “Playland by the Sea” amusement park had been torn down. Warren had worked there some in the past, and now mounted a campaign not only to get that park back but also to preserve American amusement parks in general. He gained attention in a media blitz, began collecting Playland historical artifacts and oral history, became heavily involved in Ocean Beach restoration, and eventually was instrumental in saving and restoring the two windmills at the end of Golden Gate Park.

Warren’s attendant media coverage attracted the attention of Gary Warne, director of Communiversity, the free school attached to SF State. Together, the two started making history, initially collaborating on a “Save the Fake Rocks” campaign to repair the hundred-foot cliff face across the street from the Cliff House.

As Burning Man and Cacophony Society co-founder John Law remembers:

One day David noticed that a huge boulder outcrop directly across from the Cliff House had partially collapsed revealing wooden framing inside the massive phony hillside. It was a revelation – a metaphor if you will for the unsubstantial nature of reality. It really grabbed both men and the ensuing actions they mounted to “rescue, restore and honor our phony heritage” struck a note with the public. The largest action initiated was carried out by dozens of Communiversity stalwarts as they hung a 20-foot smiley face in the huge gaping hole.

Suicide Club & Cacophony Society inspired Project Mayhem ... Screengrab from Fight Club movie's first Project Mayhem prank: also a towering smiley-face. Coincidence?

Suicide Club & Cacophony Society inspired Project Mayhem … Screengrab from Fight Club movie’s first Project Mayhem prank: also a towering smiley-face. Coincidence?

This first official historical actual proto-Project-Mayhem prank inspired Warren, Warne, Burk, and Prussia to found a secret society for surrealist plebes called the Suicide Club, in the high-holy punk year of 1977. The Suicide Club mounted wacky adventures and surreal outings in order to cut against the status quo’s grain and entertain themselves (read Tales of the SF Cacophony Society or This Is Burning Man for more background).

That same year, Warren and Chris DeMonterey gained control of the Giant Camera at the Cliff House, along with the Musee Mechanique. For San Franciscans who don’t remember this conflagration of buildings, just take our word for it that it was magic.

Warren, as likely the only fire-eater in San Francisco at this time, also organized fire-eating classes at Communiversity. He once almost burned down the legendary Other Cafe comedy club during a particularly drunken show one night. The old wooden building was saved when two well-prepared Suicide Club members trained a fire extinguisher on the quickly-incinerating stage curtains.

After a decade of hijinx the group and its amassing followers would collectively find the Suicide Club a little too secret and exclusive, and they founded the Cacophony Society instead. Warren stayed involved. In 1989, he ignited the Man at Baker Beach by blowing 15 feet of fire after they doused the Man in gasoline. They repeated this feat at the very first desert Burning Man in 1990.

Vodka-soaked goofs and all, in San Francisco, carnival-trained Warren was pretty much Papa Fire, turning out a new generation of flaming performers. He is a Founding Father of Cacophony, who did a million things and lived, massive and rickety, like an old thrilling wooden rollercoaster.

Salute to you too, Flammo LeGrande, and rest in pleasure.


Follow Summer Burkes on Twitter.


Related posts by this writer:

Early Man: Proto-DPW

John Law and Last Gasp announce a Cacophony Society history book

Raw Story: You Can’t Meet the Billboard Liberation Front

Cyclecide presents The Loaded Warrior

It’s a Cacophony Spring! Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society book release events in May 2013

Look who’s in 7x7SF Magazine

Chuck Pahlaniuk, John Law, and Cacophony Society at the California Commonwealth Club

‘Carnival Cosmology’ by Gary Warne (Cacophony’s founding document)

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