E53
Burning Man Live | Episode 53 | 06|08|2022

Sweaty Dynamite: The Dave X Story

Guests: Dave X, Stuart Mangrum

When dynamite is aged the wrong way it gets sweaty with little crystals that can cause spontaneous explosions.

Dave X. Man of fire, bacon, and “the ponytail of approachability.” An enigmatic shaman of fireworks, flame effects, and deep thoughts, his stripper name is Sweaty Dynamite. His spiritual calling is to bring joyful, fiery experiences to the masses. His secret weapon: a thick binder. Huh? More on that later.

Could one man be a hippie and a redneck, and in charge of Fire Art Safety in Black Rock City, and also fill the role of Cake Marshal for Burning Man Project? Yes, yes he could.

A pyrotechnician, a peaceful perturber, and a Burner from days of yore, he bestows his teachings upon Stuart Mangrum. Pro tip: Each of our episodes ends with a bang, especially this one.

Burning Man Staff: Dave X

Burning Man Journal: Dave X

ShitDaveXSays.com

Transcript

HEATHER K WHITE: Meet the people who make Burning Man happen, beyond the desert and around the world. The dreamers and doers, the makers, shakers and innovators, the artists, activists, freaks and fools. Burning Man LIVE

STUART: Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Burning Man LIVE. I’m Stuart Mangrum. My guest today is, oh my god, in our virtual imaginary studio we have one of the best known, least known, behind the scenes unsung heroes of Black Rock City. He’s the head of the Fire Arts Safety Team. His stripper name is Sweaty Dynamite: Dave X! Welcome, Dave.

DAVE: Hey, how are you guys doing today?

STUART: Just having some fun counting down the days to finally going back to Burning Man in Black Rock City. I know you’re probably excited about that too.

DAVE: Yeah. I mean, thank goodness. We were getting into a really dark place over the last few years. We haven’t seen so many people on so many levels, but the Burning Man community felt really far away and a distant hope off in the horizon, but it feels like now we’re crossing that horizon and we can see it. I can feel it. The spreadsheet is open!

STUART: The spreadsheet of possibility? You were literally far away. During the pandemic, you moved from San Francisco to where?

DAVE: I moved to Southwestern Wisconsin in a place you’ve never heard of. 

STUART: I understand you have a lot of traditional neighbors, there’s a lot of Amish folk now in that part of the …

DAVE: There’s Amish folk and fishermen folk. I’m right on the Mississippi River, so I learned about ice fishing. The place is filled with bald eagles. There are so many bald eagles here. In San Francisco we have pigeons, but here we have bald eagles. Yesterday, I was driving, it was like out of one of those velvet paintings. An eagle came, it swooped down, grabbed a fish out of the Mississippi, came up over the road.

Another eagle came to try to grab the fish and they had one of those claws-out moments right in front of my car and then flew off into the distance. I was like, whoa, America!

STUART: That’s a lot of America right there. It was hard not to see a metaphor in that. 

DAVE: It felt good. Felt good. You know?

STUART: Let’s talk about going back, and what you do. A lot of our audience, I’m sure, are not even aware that we have a Fire Arts Safety Team?

What are the components of that and, what are the teams that you work with, and what do you guys do when you’re out there?

DAVE: It’s hard to be a person involved in the front of that, I prefer to be behind the scenes, like a stage manager. That’s where the work can really be done. But I feel like the the use of fire at the event, from its most basic form, getting cozy around a campfire, the community building aspect around a campfire where you meet and talk to people, to the huge spectacles where you’re not even really sure if if you’re in extreme danger or not. But it’s only the illusion of danger that we want to have there and not actual danger.

So the role of the Fire Arts Safety Team is to take, usually what’s a never-before-done, impossible plan, and figure out how to make it possible and this side of safety. But I believe there should be the feeling of danger because when you feel that you survived something dangerous, there’s a chance for transformation through this kind of experience. It’s like, ‘whoa, I barely survived that.’ But behind the scenes, there’s some little stage managers and wizards making sure that you’re just this other side of safety, and not in the danger zone.

STUART: How did that even come to be? Because I remember. We’ve been going out there almost as, probably the same. What was your first year?

DAVE: ’92. 

STUART: So you have a year or so on me, but you know what I’m talking about. Back then, there was, there was just fire. I mean, a perimeter was people running through the fire.

DAVE: it was self-defining. It was, if your clothes were smoking, you were too close.

STUART: Right. Or if you filled up that oxy-acetylene balloon and it was set off by a static electricity spark from your shirt, and you burned everything from your chin to your groin, you are too close to the flame effect, right?

DAVE: There were some lessons we learned real early on. I think that, you know, like you saying we’re all mischief oriented in the beginning of the event, and any work that we did was to try to justify the mischief and make it seem reasonable in some way. As the time went on the facade of us using reasonable talk to explain an unreasonable behavior kind of gave way to the behavior becoming somehow more reasonable through us constantly talking about how we’ve made it safer, it by default became safer, and we became greater and greater in our understanding and knowledge about those things to make them safer.

I think in the beginning it was a desire to just keep doing it and say whatever we needed to say to keep going, but in saying it, then you kind of accept the responsibility of making the things that you said true. For the first years, the illusion is good enough, but then after that, they come with a list and they say, “Didn’t you say you were doing this, this, and this? We’re not really seeing that.” And then you gotta do it.

STUART: Has there been a cascade of irresponsible behaviors that have led to more and more regulation and more and more safety protocols? 

DAVE: There certainly was. I remembered the, I’ve told this story probably other times that people could see it anywhere online, but I think the first thing where really the light bulb came on for me was: I was working with Jim Mason in the ICP project, the Impotency Compensation Project, which were giant pressurized liquid fuel… like a super-soaker turned up on end and squirting straight up.

The inherent problem with those was that all the fuel that went up, gravity brought some portion of it back down, raining down fire, and the machines would then be engulfed in fire. But our standard safety protocol was simply to put them out with the fire extinguisher and then continue shooting them. 

So you’d have a period of fire coming out and a period of extinguishing the machines from being on fire and then more fire and then more putting it out. Well, the second day we were running that, not having much experience, the powder in the fire extinguisher was stuck in the valve overnight. And if you have a powder fire extinguisher and you’ve used it at all, it’ll be dead by the next day. So the next day when we fired these things up to run the fuel out, the fuel came raining back down, standard practice, put it out. Except this time the fire extinguishers are empty, or dead, and it couldn’t be put out.

During that time we had a hired fire department, very professional, but their model was to put out fire. They were hired to put out fire. They saw these giant machines on fire. They come screaming up, and it’s over pressurizing, liquid fuels bubbling out of it. But the last thing we wanted to do is squirt it with water. I said, “Hey, it’s liquid fuel under pressure. Whatever you do, don’t squirt water on it”, but they pushed us out of the way and immediately squirted it with water, spread liquid fuel everywhere, the whole site’s on fire. Now they’ve wet the playa surface so they slipped in their boots, and now they’re shooting the hoses up in the air and it’s like the Keystone fire department had arrived. 

But they finally got the fire out with some dry chemical fire extinguishers. And the next day I was back over at the camp and some law enforcement officials and a local fire official showed up. Now this is so long ago, I couldn’t name names or departments or agencies, but some folks showed up at the camp with a binder. 

They said, “Son, what has happened here? Describe to us the situation last night and what happened with your accident?” And I’m thinking, “Uhoh, I wish I hadn’t been here at this camp.” They weren’t even my project, but I was just standing there working on them to try to salvage pieces off the burned one. 

I’m like, okay, I’ll just be honest. I’m not clear if they’ll understand it. But in any case, I made a description of what it was. They’re making notes and drawings. At the end of it, he slapped me on the back and he said, “Well, you Hollywood guys really know how to have fun. We’re going to go back and build one of these.” 

And a light bulb went on. And I thought, “Oh, this guy thinks that we’re professional Hollywood special effects folks out here, and this thing was just a quirk that it went wrong.” And I knew that we had a limited time to become the people that they thought that we were, before they realized that we weren’t the people that we were projecting ourselves to be, and that they’d try to regulate us in some way, not based on knowledge or information or a problem even, but just based on their gut instinct. 

So I had a limited timeframe to become that person, to get the certifications, to get the training, to bring in others, to be able to then by the time they were really becoming aware of the possible dangers there, to have places and processes and mitigations in place that that would allow us to continue to do this within the rules.

And I also learned the power of the binder. The very first thing I did was get my own binder. I’d go to the copy room and just get all the unclaimed copies, punch holes through it, and then put a schedule on the top. And when they’d come up and say, “What in the world are you doing here?” I would go get the binder and I’d break it out. And I’d say, “Well, it’s 9:00 PM; dynamite toss. It’s right here in the binder.” And they’d say “Oh, it’s in the binder?” and I’d say, “Yeah, we got all the documentation here. Look how thick my binder is.” And they were “Okay! You got a thick binder. We’ll just, we’re moving on. Thanks.” So, never forget the power of the binder. 

STUART: The power of the binder. The power of the spreadsheet. I understand. But I’m still trying to get my arms around how you got into that role, how you became the guy that you are now? I mean, back up a little bit, how did you get to Burning Man in the first place in 1992?

DAVE: The fact of the matter is, I’ve really never really lived a normal day in my life. I was adopted when I was young in a little bit above Chicago. My parents brought me up in suburban Illinois, and that was fairly normal — not forgetting there are interesting things there — but both of my parents passed away by the time I was about 21, and I was basically feral from that point on; traveled with the Grateful Dead, you know, living in parking lots and school buses and vans, and just traveling around. I ended up in California, hippie communes in the mountains, and then eventually the warehouse lifestyle in San Francisco. And that’s where I stumbled on Burning Man. I’d seen the pictures of it at Fort Mason. There was a brief exhibit of it floating on a barge at Fort Mason, and I saw a picture of it. And then I saw The Rough Draft in the Rainbow Grocery that Michael Mikel used to put out. 

STUART: Cacophony newsletter, that first one. You saw that one?

DAVE: Yeah. I’ve been picking that up for awhile. It was like a zinger, you know, there’d be, the shelves of all the flyers for the raves and stuff. And then there’d be this Rough Draft thing, you know, like “Formal wear tour of the sewers,” “We’re gonna swim upstream during the foot race in San Francisco,” just crazy ideas.

And then I saw this “Camping at Black Rock,” and I loved the desert, I loved camping, and I loved art and fire. And I thought, this seems like a winner. And it was $10. And I said to my friend, Charlie Gadeken “We should go to this thing.” And he said, “How much is it?” And I said, “It’s $10.” And he said “$10 to camp in the desert! No way!”

I chipped in an extra 10 bucks, and for $20, I mailed Larry and we got a couple of tickets and off we went.

STUART: Where did that $10 go? It was gilding the toilet seat of Larry Harvey, even back then.

DAVE: I think it went right into his Swiss bank account.

STUART: Straight off shore, baby. Oh wow. Okay. Let’s go back to that learning journey. This is just amazing that you just stepped up and said, “All right, I’ll go get a pyro certification.” And now you’re a licensed pyrotechnician. You still do shows. Tell us about what that other career has turned into for you outside of Burning Man.

DAVE: I don’t think I stepped into it thinking I wanted to get into this, but I just wanted to ensure that we could keep doing dangerous stuff at Burning Man and not be blocked from it, so I think all this knowledge came in that. And then, I’ve always enjoyed making creative projects, like slide tape presentations back when you’d match music up with slides on the Kodak carousels, you know, and then video as it came in and different artistic things.

So I like creating events and experiences, enabling experiences, and I think fireworks and fire can really affect people in some great ways, and some really great experiences and memories are around fireworks and fire. Fireworks is so deep and inherent for us. You go to see a firework show and you can see little babies looking up and enjoying it, and the family with the picnic and everybody out, and even grandpa who’s lost all his words and memories is still kind of gazing lovingly at the stars with the baby with the same look on their face. Everybody kind of loves that experience. I love that feeling of bringing that experience.

And nobody knows who you are. They don’t introduce the pyrotechnician at the 4th of July, and he doesn’t come out and take a bow, and it’s not a public figure, but you know that you did it. You’re like a secret shaman behind the scenes invoking these experiences and memories for people. So the fireworks thing has always been really strong, like creating an experience and memories for people. I love that.

STUART: So what’s the best show you’ve ever helped put together?

DAVE: There’s so many that are great. Sometimes hand-light ones, where I get Vets to come out and help me light the first shots.

STUART: Ooh! Like Concord 4th of July? I’ll never forget that. That was so much fun.

DAVE: And it’s so important for those folks. Again, they don’t get a lot of respect in their hometown sometimes, and to be able to light the 4th of July show for a Vet is a big deal. Whether it’s a recent Vet or an old timer. I’ve lit one where I’m not sure that Vet made it another year, and that was a big deal with his family, and his grandchildren all came and watched him push the button. And then I had a woman who was just fresh from Iraq and kind of a little, you know, needed to do something and celebrate herself. 

STUART: Wow.

DAVE: So I love that we can offer that kind of impact. 

The best show, I think, would be the Golden Gate Bridge, 75th anniversary. There were so many pyrotechnicians involved in that. It was by a group called Pyro Spectaculars, and they had been there for the 50th anniversary. And one of the touching parts is that grandpa of the family of the Sousas had done the 50th anniversary. And then he was there for the 75th anniversary and it was still his family’s company. I think that that was huge for him.

My favorite part of that: In a fireworks show, you have to have somebody who has eyes on all the fireworks, no matter how big the site is. And we were on the whole length of the bridge, and no one person could keep an eye on all the fireworks down the bridge. So they had to stagger licensed pyrotechnicians along the bridge every few hundred feet who could kind of keep an eye on their area of control. And just by random chance, I ended up directly in the center of the Golden Gate Bridge, on the roadway there. 

We had 20 minutes to shut down traffic, and shoot the fireworks and then pull them all back in, and get the show together really quickly. So we’re all staged on that sidewalk. At one point it’s time to do the show. They stopped the traffic. It gets really quiet on the bridge. I put out the fireworks and they shut out the lights on the bridge. And then it was quiet and dark on the Golden Gate Bridge, which is nothing that I’ve ever seen before. And, you know, your senses are really keyed up during a firework show because of the danger and what’s going on. I could hear the noise of the bridge moving slightly in the wind, like a creaking, and little tinking of wires underneath the bridge, there were clanking along. I heard the voice of the bridge!

I don’t think that in my lifetime again, I’ll get a chance to hear the voice of that bridge in that quiet, in the dark moment. Firework show started then, with the foghorn on the Golden Gate Bridge, going off in a long, you know, if you’ve ever heard it, it’s like a deep uuuuuuuuuuur. And then the lights coming on the bridge and the fireworks started; just a shudder of pleasure went through me as we did that show. We have minutes to do the show and get off the bridge. There were probably a million people on the Bay there watching the show and nobody could drive anywhere. It’s just a cluster jam. And I lived very close to the bridge. I just walked right home. It took me about a half hour, and I was back in my house, wash my hands. Another good day.

STUART: Dave, you were part of our artist exchange program with the Las Fallas Festival in Valencia, Spain, that crazy, gigantic, wonderful fire art festival that’s like nothing else on earth. What was that like for you?

DAVE: Well, to give you an overview of the fires there in Valencia, every little neighborhood has an effigy of some kind. And if you imagine the tight cobblestone brick streets, and narrow buildings in Europe and Valencia, it’s like if you had, you came out of the 7-Eleven and somebody had built the Burning Man right in front of the little street in front of the 7-Eleven, and then burned it in front of the 7-Eleven. And that goes on everywhere…

STUART: There are like 500 of those.

DAVE: And they all burn on this burn night simultaneously, and with fireworks in every neighborhood. Each neighborhood has taken great pleasure in presenting their neighborhood as a highlight, with a firework show, with a burn, with a kid’s project, with competitions to see who’s got the best one in town.

And it’s like, if at Burning Man on every intersection of every road, there was an effigy and we all burned it on Saturday night too. That’s kind of the feeling there in Valencia, with weeks lead-up of fireworks and displays and bull fights and offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary there and parades through the streets. It’s endless stuff. And it’s very similar to us. It’s a city that’s celebrating fire, as is Burning Man. And it’s natural that we would have this relationship back and forth.

STUART: You actually came back from that trip with a new tattoo. What’s your tattoo?

DAVE: Yeah, yeah. I got mascletàs, or masclettes.

STUART: Those are the little hanging bombs, right? The hanging compression charges.

DAVE: The hanging flash powder, high energy flash powder.

STUART: That they have thousands and thousands of ranked up in sequence to give you five minutes of insanity

DAVE: Yep

STUART: In Las Fallas, I understand, they have some different styles of pyro over there.

DAVE: Yeah. And I’m hoping as we go forward with different projects at Burning Man, that we’ll incorporate some of those pyrotechnic styles. Here in America, we’re really used to the pyro musical…

STUART: Yeah.

DAVE: …and it starts out with some classic rock, in its most basic forms, When the Lights Go Down in the City by Journey is the classic one for the Bay Area, and then you get music and fireworks that accompany and accent each other.

But I think a lot of times in Valencia, there’s not as much of a desire to use any music. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any musical show that I ever saw there, but the rhythm of the fireworks detonations and the rhythm of the colors and the streaks going up creates its own musical soundtrack and there I think they work more on the rhythm of creating high points and low points, and then a climax at the end and even a few sub climaxes after that, where the rhythm is the tricky part. It’s almost like a flamenco dance of explosions and pyrotechnic effects.

That was one of the things that I’ve learned there, is not to rely on the music to dictate the mood of the firework look, but to have the fireworks speak for themselves.

STUART: That’s so true. The percussion really becomes the music. The Mascletà, yeah, this is super hard to describe without listening to it. I was just back in Valencia a month or so ago, and I made this recording, which I think I actually sent to you, Dave, just to taunt you. The terremoto, you know, the earthquake at the end. It sounds something like this. 

Yes.

DAVE: And then the Mascletà is not even really meant to be that visual. Although there is some visual…

STUART: It’s not. It’s daytime fireworks, which seems completely wrong to the American mind. You wait until it’s a dark night, then you blow stuff up. They do it in the afternoon at 2:00 PM, right?

DAVE: That’s the lunch, that’s lunch fireworks for them. It’s like the sandwich, the Masceletás. It’s like a pyro sandwich. One of my most powerful memories of that is, you know, we’re a sister city with Valencia and the folks who worked with us there have gotten us these passes where we can go and experience the fireworks up close.

I remember one time I went right up to the pyro cage there where they were doing this Masceletás, one of my first times there. The older gentlemen who were running the show. And my gut is telling me I’m really close to these pyrotechnic devices. And, I said, “Hey, I put in these ear plugs, you know, is this the time I put in the hearing protection?” And they gave me a look like ‘I’m not clear why you would need that son. Are you fragile in some way that you would need that?’ And so I’m like, ‘Okay.’ I remember the fireworks started going off and it was clearly in the range of hearing damage. My eyeballs going in and out of my head like speaker diaphragms, and I thought, “Well, this can’t be good for my eardrums either.” And I had to like jam my hands in my pockets and kind of make a conscious effort not to pull them out and cover my ears.

Not only were those guys not wearing hearing protection, but they’re literally like smoking cigarettes at the display, watching the display. Things are a little bit different. Now, I’m not saying that it was unsafe. I’m just saying that they do it in a different way there. I think they’re more living in the moment rather than thinking “When I’m 80 I won’t be able to hear anything.” 

STUART: They do have a different outlook on safety generally for that event. One of the most charming things for me is seeing small children with their parents being given one firecracker at a time and lighting them off, and all the pop-up firework stores, and all that. They’re not as litigious of a society. I think that might be it. We, on the other hand, yes, constantly have to keep upping our game. And, nowadays, what’s a Burn look like? What’s a Burn event look like? I know we have fewer of them, but we still do have large open burns out in Black Rock City.

How do you staff something like that? How do you create a perimeter, for instance, for the Man Burn that keeps people safe?

DAVE: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that we’re burning less physical number of projects. I’d say our numbers have stayed fairly the same, but we are looking for projects to more think about… for instance, if you build a giant project like Catacomb of Veils, there is an assumption right off the bat that you’re going to burn this thing. If you think about taking it apart, one screw at a time, how many days did it take to put that up? You can only imagine the reverse is prohibitive. I could see that people would think the easiest solution is just to throw in a road flare and be done with it. But if you think about all the logistics that go into holding the perimeter, the staffing, the fire department, the Rangers, it’s actually quite a big project.

The amount of smoke that we’re putting out in a time when there’s already a lot of smoke in the area. So I think we’re more asking artists now when they want to create something giant, to think outside the box or to think outside the burn, so to speak, and think, is there another thing that I could do with this giant project so that I don’t have to burn it?

Or have I maybe made this too big? We’re not starting with the assumption that it’s going to be burned. I’m not against big art. I loved giant Catacomb of Veils. I just wish that there was another option besides always thinking that if it’s big, then we’re going to burn it to get rid of it.

I’m the burning guy, but I still rather figure out a different way to reuse these large projects.

STUART: Yeah, it does seem lazy sometimes, doesn’t it? You just don’t want to take it home. 

DAVE: Not lazy, but it’s just, we’ve trained ourselves to think that it’s going to burn. When you think of something giant and you’re going to build it, you don’t think, how will I get it home? You automatically think it’s Burning Man, I’ll burn it. We got to get outside of that box of… the burning is important. It’s the first word of the event.

STUART: Is the name of the problem? Should we change the name?

DAVE: The name is not the problem. The name is the transformative aspect of the event, and that’s what we’ve got to keep. So we got to figure out how to just do it more effectively and more efficiently.

STUART: I remember back when we had the CORE Projects, we had all the Regional groups build small burns. I know that that turned into too much to be able to handle those perimeters. Right? 

DAVE: Yeah. 

STUART: Too many simultaneous burns and not enough people to stand around them. 

DAVE: … 32 of em, at one point … it was the most burns at a single time.

I had to go up on a giant boom lift way up above the Man so that I could look down and see all the perimeters all at once over Black Rock City to be able to call that. But as part of our tradition at Burning Man to do the impossible. I remember when they suggested that we should do this. I said, “That’s completely impossible.” And I think they ordered me an extra box of pens and some colored printer paper. “Get on with it.” I said, “Okay, we’ll do it.” We do manage to figure out how to do the impossible with some pushback, but, you know, we did it.

STUART: Well, I know that we’ve had to change our perimeter approach a few times over the years. And in 2017, there was an incident when a man managed to evade all of the perimeter security people and committed suicide by running into the burn. I know that almost kind of put the kibosh on burns at all that year for a while, and ended up in a, well, definitely in a rethinking of perimeter security. What was the result of that? And how do we build a perimeter around the man burn that’s safe enough?

DAVE: It’s very sad, and I feel super bad for all the folks who knew him and were his friends. When we have a large population in a big city, like we do at Black Rock City, the 80,000 people we have there, you’re going to get a lot of real life situations. In any population during that duration of time, things are going to happen that you want to mitigate, as a city.

This is one of these situations where, when something happens and you have to immediately learn. I assumed that we were very prepared for that kind of thing, but folks are gonna figure out ways to get through all of your resources. The important part for us was to come together as a group, to get more people to come help volunteer for a perimeter, to change the messaging around the perimeter, too, where if you’re seeing that your friends are upset or need a little bit of help to interact with them before it becomes a problem. That there’s some responsibility on our parts internally to also be very diligent for folks talking about things that might not be very good for the community. So to self monitor ourselves more and to then have more folks volunteer for the perimeter.

One of the things I also learned is: originally when folks would put together a perimeter for their particular art piece we’d encourage them to wear matching something, so that they could be identified as perimeter people on there. But that turned into all kinds of costumes, and if somebody is in a ladybug costume with a flashlight and you’re riding up on your bike and you don’t speak any English and you see her waving the flashlight, you’re not sure what message she means. She may be saying. “Hey, the margarita machine is over here, come on over,” or “Ride your bike right through here, sir.” The messaging is unclear, but orange vests are a universal message. When you see somebody in an orange vest waving a flashlight, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak. The message is pretty clear that they’re delivering you a message of some sort of safety importance. So to get everybody in orange vests, I think was a big step forward too. The guy in the ladybug suit is not as effective as the person in the orange vest.

STUART: So did you actually place the world’s largest ever order for international orange safety vests? 

DAVE: No, I’m sure there’s other people who use more than me. But again, it’s another line item in the budget. I had a few hundred when we needed them already. And now it’s just a standard budget item in there.

STUART: I just remember from that year, that after that terrible incident, the authorities at first, we’re not going to let the temple burn the next night, and that we put the call out and rallied, God knows how many, extra volunteers to make a perimeter that was actually almost touching hands all the way around the thing.

DAVE: Yeah. It was great. And everybody understood why. There was no pushback. It was just, let’s get it done. There was some question about not doing it, but I just tried to like noodle through what would happen if we did that. And first of all, I don’t think that they would have let us burn it later. A lot of people would have tried to stay after the event to wait for its unscheduled burning, which would have caused all kinds of Exodus problems. And if for some reason we couldn’t burn it at all, what do you do with all those offerings and stuff that are inside the temple? The moral conundrum there is staggering.

Do we dumpster it? Do we burn it a little at a time in some sacred way? What would have been the plan? And for the BLM, it was a simple thing: Either burn it or don’t burn it; the repercussions meant nothing to them.

STUART: Yeah.

DAVE: To us though, it would have been an incredible moral challenge on what to do with all that stuff. You know, that may eventually come up sometime if there’s a weather situation, like let’s say weather rolled in Sunday morning and rain for three days, what would you do? I’m not clear what we would have to do, that’s a conundrum that we may one day face.

STUART: With a couple of dumpster loads of people’s precious cherished memories. 

DAVE: Yeah. I mean, to even phrase it as a dumpster seems somewhat offensive. I think I would have to be there with a burn barrel and just kind of sacredly burn it one item at a time until it was all gone, and then distribute the ashes. It would become… I suspect it would make me crazy, that I would be there in the rain burning stuff long after everybody left.

“Where’s DaveX?” 

“He’s still burning stuff by the Temple.”

STUART: crying and burning. 

DAVE: Yeah. Crying and burning.

STUART: So let me go sideways here. One of your other semi-official duties in the Burning Man organization is, you are Burning Man’s Cake Marshal. What’s that all about?

DAVE: The Burning Man Cake Marshal is a unique role. It’s a tradition that’s been passed down I’m sure in many offices. A lot of folks have the standard office birthday cake day. But our office is pretty big and there’s several offices now. And to do a cake day for everybody’s birthday would be really difficult and also seem like rob some people of glory. Where on Monday you’re like “It’s Cake Day!!!” whilst on a Wednesday, you might be like “Here’s a cake.” It seems like it would just be unfair. So we bundle all the birthdays into one day, the first Monday of the month, where we can really celebrate all the birthdays as a whole, maybe talk and reflect on what birthdays mean in general, how important people are to us, and then provide some cakes, pies and quiches.

STUART: An egg cake, yeah.

DAVE: So that we have sweet and savory. 

And then I like to ramp it up with maybe different themed ones or like we have State Fair themed Cake Day that we do around 4th of July, where we have animals brought into the office by folks from the 4-H, and we could pet animals and chickens, and then there’s games and crafts display area. It’s like a little State Fair in the office. So much so that it even attracted the attention of the State and County Fairs Association. And I went and did a little talk to the Fairs Association about the commonality between Burning Man and State and County Fairs.

And there is a commonality if you think about it, because state and county fairs are there to highlight the works and stuff that people are doing in their community. And they’re basically like blank format for presenting works in those local and country areas to the community as a whole.

And Burning Man is the same sort of palette where it’s our community presenting to each other as a whole.

STUART: Yeah, I can see it. It’s participant driven. It’s basically a container for people to come and bring whatever they worked on throughout the year; their projects. 

DAVE: For the church lady to get up on stage once a year in front of everybody in the community and sing. I support it.

STUART: If Burning Man’s a State Fair, what state are we?

DAVE: State of madness, for sure.

STUART: So, um. Speaking of birthdays, you and I have both had a few, Dave. I was looking at the wonderful little website that our friend put together that’s called Shit Dave X Says, which I will definitely make sure that the URL gets put into the show notes people, cause you’ve got to go through this. 

DAVE: I’ve got to figure out how to monetize that. I need like t-shirts or bumper stickers.

STUART: Yes, just Shit Dave X Says hashtag whatever. But one of the things you said there is, “I just hate this impending old age shit.” How is the specter of the Reaper affecting your life? What’s ahead for you as you head into your fiery golden years, Dave?

DAVE: We’ve been on so much Zoom now with the pandemic I’ve been noticing the graying of the Zoom windows. There’s a lot of graybeards and gray hairs on folks. And what we said when we got involved with this in the nineties, I didn’t even predict old age as being a possibility or much less than I would somehow be involved with Burning Man all the way through into my graying. And I’ve seen others ahead of me go gray with this.

There’s a natural cycle of this that we can try to follow. When we were younger and we first started this as the Cacophonists that we were in the beginning, it was impulse. It was just gut. We just did it. There were crazy things to do, and we did them.

Later on, we got kinda good at doing those crazy things, and people look to us to help to do crazier activities, and we were the old diehards of doing crazy stuff, and we helped to nurture these things, and we became really good at it. 

So first we were like amateurs acting on impulse. Then we became kind of functional at what we were doing, this madness. And now, as the madness is getting even more evolved and we’re getting older, I think our roles are to teach all the tricks that we learned in community organizing, which is always difficult, stuff like this, to pass on the skills, but not get in the way of the future.

If I had come into Burning Man and tried to project all the lessons that I’d learned from Grateful Dead tour, like I’m Mr. Professional Hippie here, it’s how you do a temporary city or whatever, much like we had every time we set up for a Dead tour, I would have not been well received. I was flexible and I’d had some lessons to bring in, but I tried to listen and learn.

As we’re pushing forward Burning Man culture we have to be careful that we don’t create a container that limits its growth. It’s just that we’re providing a base of support underneath it so that it can grow. If they need the grandpa diehard to come and help burn something that I’m there to, to come and do it. 

But that I’m not saying “Here’s how you young kids need to do it forever, going on with Burning Man.” We need to just provide a stable base for them to do whatever, because the dreams that we had that became Burning Man were so off the charts, if you had told some old geezers back in the days, “Here’s what we want to do”, they would have been skeptical and maybe held us back.

We never asked for any permission, we just did it. So I hope that the young folks don’t ask me for any permission, they just do it. And then I come help them try to support their dream.

STUART: You’re so right. We never could have planned any of this. And if we had, we would have been wrong.

DAVE: We would have been dead wrong, yeah. I’m glad we had the chance to fail and screw up and then, and rebuild it.

And that’s the great thing about Burning Man. And, and on Dead tours. Every city that we went to was like a new chance to rebuild and reorganize. And every time we set up Burning Man again it’s a chance to reorganize and correct mistakes and set a new direction as we go forward. So thank goodness for the temporary nature of it.

STUART: I know you have been moving into teaching for a while. You teach classes or before COVID anyway, you did flame effects? What sorts of things fall under the category of flame effects?

DAVE: So the three categories of fire that we have at Burning Man are Flame Effects, and they’re generally mechanical in some way and use LP gas through various piping systems, valves, regulators, different mechanical systems to create a flame using propane for the most part, although there is some liquid fuel.

Open Fire is wooden structures that are lit on fire, like Catacomb of Veils, the temple, various wooden structures that are lit on fire. Burn barrels that are using wood, things that are just simply lit on fire, and it goes from being lit on fire to ashes. That’s open fire in some form, whether it’s candles, burn barrels or these large wooden projects. 

The third category is pyrotechnics, and those are fireworks, like are at the Man base and at various firework projects that we have.

And sometimes a project might contain all three, where they’ll have flame effects throughout the week, and then those are removed. And then the structure is burned with an accompaniment of fireworks. There’s different people within the FAST team keeping an eye on those different categories, with expertise in those fields. 

STUART: I see.

DAVE: Originally when we were working with artists and they’re working on their flame effects, there were a lot of really common issues that we would find whether it was wrong hose types, the use of hose clamps, but getting the word out was kind of difficult to, one by one, try to spread the word. So my friend Propaniac and I put together a class to teach folks about the pieces and parts. 

STUART: We’re talking about propane proofers, specifically, right?

DAVE: Yeah, mechanical devices that make fire. 

STUART: So if I just tie like a long piece of steel wool to the end of my kite and light that on fire, that’s not a flame effect?

DAVE: Not a flame effect. In fact, then we would actually be kind of hazardous within Black Rock City, but I encourage you to do it at home.

STUART: It’s so cool looking anyway. Or how about if I take balls of steel wool and set them on fire and blow them around with a leaf blower? Not a flame effect?

DAVE: No, not unless there was some machine maybe to feed the steel wool into…

STUART: But if I modify a vacuum cleaner to snort up lines of Cremora, and light them on fire and blow fire out at the top of the vacuum cleaner that looks like a giant nose, that’s a flame effect, right?

DAVE: Yeah. Yeah. An inefficient flame effect, but yes. 

STUART: Okay. But anyway, back to propane poofers, yes. It’s kind of complicated to get all the hardware. Right? And you’ve been teaching this for years, right? 

DAVE: Yeah, I am. We’ve had over 1200 students across the U S and abroad that we’ve taught the class.

The thing then is those students then become the folks who go on and then espouse the virtues of using the proper pieces and parts. So it’s become kind of self-supporting and we don’t have to do as much educational stuff. I hear people repeating back things that we’ve taught in the class, many people removed from the people that we actually taught.

So it’s good in that way. 

STUART: Ripple effect. 

DAVE: It is, you know, it’s interesting…

STUART: Just to drop another Grateful Dead song title into the conversation. Did you notice? I said, ripple effect, Dave…

DAVE: Yeah, a great Grateful Dead reference there…

In that class, we not only teach the flame effects, but then we have a build day to follow up the classroom part where we build something from scratch, and we get to go through the interesting community dynamics of a scratch-built art project, The students will throw a bunch of metal on the floor, we’ll look through, come up with a concept, and then start working in groups towards its completion. 

And you get to see all the group dynamics of a community art project at play there. So one group gets ahead of the other group, and then all of a sudden they have to go back and realize that they got too far ahead and may have to change the design.

And then some people drill down into a little decorative thing and waste two or three hours making a bandana button for the thing that it didn’t really need.

Then I get to point out, “Do you think maybe we wasted time in that?” And so there’s all these group dynamics that get taught about doing an art project as a group, besides just the flame effects. I always try to work in community-building work wherever possible, you know, like a Johnny-Fire Community-Seed.

STUART: I’ve witnessed that happen at a lot of gatherings that I’ve been to, and I’ve seen you do it with, uh even just how to build something that you’re going to burn as a fire ritual.

Some sort of community build thing and then, at our staff retreats, at leadership conferences, at all of that. I remember you even pulled one off at Esalen for our staff retreat, even when they were under a really big fire restriction. I think we still managed to burn a little something in their fire pit. Is that true?

DAVE: Yeah, absolutely. I love Esalen. It’s meant a lot to me over the years. I love that place. And I love working a ritual. You know, when you do a big meeting, oftentimes there’s a time which you’re just kind of dawdling around and stuff, and if you have a project that we’re all working towards as a group to culminate on the last night of the event, mimics the event cycle of our event.

STUART: of Black Rock City.

DAVE: Where you work as a group in your camp to set stuff up, you’re all working towards the burn day and eventually going home. And so using that same timeline within a, a retreat event mimics what our people already understand from our event, that the culmination will then be a burn event or a burn ritual of some kind. And the uses of fire in ritual are so vast that the fodder for creating rituals is endless really. 

And I try not to use too much appropriation stuff, grabbing cultural rituals wholecloth out of different people’s culture, cause I find that that could be a little disingenuous, but there’s so much room to create rituals from scratch that are meaningful to our culture without scavenging things from other cultures.

STUART: And sometimes rituals may have served their purpose. Is it true that you are single-handedly responsible for destroying “Meatless Mondays” at Esalen?

DAVE: There seemed to be a shortage of bacon, and I saw that there was a great amount of spiritual growth going on in there, but sometimes as an outsider, you could see the impediment to the group with great clarity.

When I woke up and I went to breakfast there – my mom always said, if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it. So I’m not going to say anything here. But I did have to go into town and gather all the bacon in the little stores and the little gas stations in Big Sur, and I might’ve caused the bacon shortage in Big Sur, but I did ensure that there would be adequate bacon at Esalen.

I think in the end, everybody there really enjoyed it. And I could see the energy levels and the vitality come back in people’s faces… Really like, sometimes you got to educate the educators, you know?

STUART: So bacon is a superpower. I’ve heard that you, actually, your hair has a superpower. What’s the Ponytail of Approachability?

DAVE: I don’t know. I got this pony tail here and I’ve had it forever. But sometimes I feel like the ponytail has served me in many ways. Sometimes people they see the ponytail and they think, “Uh-oh, here we go, simpleton hippie’s going to talk to me about saving the whales or, you know, whatever thing that he’s going to talk about,” but they don’t know that actually inside I’m super duper smart, and eventually I will overcome them because they’re underestimating me. So the ponytail has been like the Ponytail of Underestimation, which has helped me in many ways.

I think you’re more approachable with the ponytail, but in some places you’re not. Like I could tell you in Southwestern Wisconsin that it creates some kind of confusion here. They’re not sure if I’m like Ted Nugent, or who I am here.

STUART: Did Ted Nugent ruin the ponytail for honest hippies everywhere?

DAVE: No, no.There’s so much variation within the long hair community. It’s funny because in San Francisco, I just felt like Mr. Normal Guy. Old guy with gray hair and a ponytail in San Francisco, is just your standard citizen, but in different areas I’d definitely stick out a little bit more.

In general I’m a fairly approachable guy, and I’ve lived in all different worlds. I am kind of a redneck and I am kind of a hippie too, you know, but I try to stay in the middle as much as I can and not be too extreme on any particular edge. I understand everybody.

That’s super important at Burning Man because we’re a blank palette that invites everybody to come in, and if we can’t understand different sections of our own community, that’s our own loss. So to be a bridge between all the communities can’t be a more important task.

And it’s a world that I literally live in. It’s not that I just talk that way because it’s my job. It’s actually kind of who I am as you’ve seen on many occasions.

STUART: Yeah. 

DAVE: I don’t take any guff from rednecks, and I don’t take any guff from hippies.

STUART: Tell us about the time that Wavy Gravy called you a dick.

DAVE: Wavy Gravy, and all the folks up at the Hog Farm — a very famous, long-standing commune in Northern California and community group — would have an event called the Hog Farm Party and it was on Labor Day weekend. You know what else is on Labor Day weekend? Our event.

And as it started to grow in popularity, we’re starting to pull people away from the Hog Farm event. Eventually it became very difficult for them to sustain that event. The folks were coming to Burning Man instead. I think it got to a point where they had to stop doing that event. So if I fast forward a few years, I’m over at the CELLspace, doing an event with various clowns and buffoons.

I’ve had many interactions with Wavy Gravy that I’m sure he doesn’t remember over the years. Probably every hippie has, you know, he’s kind of a hippie icon.

Wavy Gravy, he’s the ‘don’t eat the brown acid’ guy from the Woodstock movie. 

STUART: Right. 

DAVE: So he is there and we’re talking, and I’m cleaning up after the event and it’s like, “Hey, you know, what do you do?” And I said, “Oh, I worked for Burning Man.” And he just stared right in my eyes. He’s like, “You’re a dick,” and he wandered off. And I’m like, ‘Huh, that’s kind of sharp.’ But then somebody explained to me that Burning Man had broken the Hog Farm party. But, you know, as a badge of honor, I’ll wear Wavy Gravy calling me a dick. You know, I’m sure there’s a limited list of people he’s called dick, or maybe not, but I’m on it.

STUART: So I’m going through “Shit DaveX Says” and there’s a couple of things I just want to… did you really say this? Did you really say “If I have to go into the hills and gnaw the throat out of a wild boar, I’m going to do it.”?

DAVE: I did say that. Again, it was tied to a shortage of bacon. 

STUART: A bacon shortage. Okay. How about “Don’t throw empty propane cans into the fire. That’s dangerous. Propane cans are for shooting with road flares at the gun range.”

DAVE: Well, that’s right. And, it sounds like a ridiculous statement, but I will tell you from experience over the years, that people throwing those little green cylinders or other camping cylinders into like a campfire used to be considered a kind of funny thing.

But because of the numbers that I’ve seen of this over the years, I would say literally 50% of those end up with somebody being struck by a piece of metal from those little cylinders blowing. They’re meant to just come apart and not explode so that there’s not shrapnel, but in the coming apart the bases fly off, the tops fly off to relieve the pressure. My good friend got struck in the eye with one, and the only thing that saved her eyes, she had glasses, but it mashed her glasses flat to her face and gave her a giant black eye. 

And in all those situations, I’d witnessed the cans getting thrown in, shook my head and thought, “Geez, don’t throw cans in the fire.” But then at Burning Man, I had to make a statement to folks like “Let’s not do this anymore,” but that was back in the day when we had a shooting range out by the Frog Pond, and the Frog Pond…

STUART: Yes. Frog Pond, one of the many natural springs that surrounded the arid dry waste of the Black Rock Desert. 

DAVE: There was a shooting range out there. And so what I like to do with those propane cans, and again, don’t try this at home kids, is to take them out by the gun range, put a couple of road flares in the ground near them, and then shoot them with the rifle and let nature take over, and watch the results. 

But, so that’s why I’ve taken it from a ridiculous amount of danger into like the five or six layer of of danger, and let’s stand a little further back. I’ve mitigated the danger slightly.

STUART: Well, I can’t approve of any of that except to add that those little camping bottles don’t work there either because when you hit them, they will turn into basically a big propeller of death. They will split along the seam and go flying in whatever direction. So leave the little camping bottles, just dispose of them properly, please. Put them out in the recycling,

DAVE: Yeah. And all of that is insane behavior, and that I would never do in real life. So.

STUART: Neither would I. Let’s channel our desires into other things like…

DAVE: And again, I’m not advocating I’m not like a gun nut and saying, everybody should go out and get a bunch of guns, but there are fun moments. And it’s a weird part of our early Burning Man culture too. Things like the Car Hunt were the things that made people realize that the Black Rock Desert would be a place where we could hold an event like Burning Man out of the eyes of too much regulation in order to get up and going. And any place you can hold a car hunt is a good place.

STUART: Or play a game of croquet with cars and giant balls. Yeah. There was a lot of that kooky stuff going on out there, all right. So what are you most looking forward to this year?

DAVE: Just getting back and having everybody there again, I feel like that community was skipped for two years, you know, we’ve all been in slight isolation in different ways during the pandemic, but the group of us coming together in our autonomous city hasn’t happened for so long I feel like we really need that, and I need to do the rituals that I do, and be with my friends to perform the rituals. 

STUART: Are we going to burn a Man?

We are definitely going to burn a Man. I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a temple too. And I’m shooting for a little over a dozen burning projects in total as usual, and we’ll be burning them. Because it’s Burning Man.

STUART: if people want to volunteer typically, there are some spaces available for perimeter safety, right?

DAVE: Yes. The burn perimeter support. You get to that through the volunteer area of the website. There’s a perimeter support group in there.

STUART: Cool. People can probably show up at places like the V-Spot on playa and volunteer for shifts while they’re there too, right?

DAVE: The V-Spot and also The ARTery. They can find out what different projects are burning. First of all, there’s a burn schedule there. And then they can also sign up to help out with some of those burns, which is needed.

STUART: It’s needed, and it’s actually fun. I’ve found. I’ve seen a lot of fire, what’s different every time is looking at the reactions of people. It’s just like watching a burn from the best scene in the house, but not looking at it. Right? Turn your back to it, and look at the people, looking at the burn. It’s pretty magical, really.

DAVE: If we didn’t have the community support to do those perimeters, the other option would be fences. If this was a municipality and they didn’t have folks to volunteer and do a perimeter, they probably would just put up an eight foot chain link fence the whole way around it and call it a day. But that would just be ugly and get in the way between you and your burny pleasure. We don’t need a chain link fence. We just need people with a kind look to say, “Please, don’t go past this line.” 

STUART: Don’t hurt yourself. Thank you. All right. That’s about all the time we have, but gosh, Dave, thank you so much for coming on the show and spending some time with me, man.

DAVE: You’re welcome. And I look forward to getting us out on the playa there, and to sharing all this stuff that we have. Yeah. From one gray-beard to another. 

STUART: Just to keep doing it while we still can because every burn puts us one step closer to the great whatever.

DAVE: Yeah, the big burn in the sky. 

STUART: Enjoyed it. We’ll talk later.

DAVE: Bye!

STUART: So we’ll probably lose everything about ———.

DAVE: That’s Burning Man of the old days.

Maybe we can leave in those references to unsanctioned ——————— of the past. Oh my God. That was just a real eye-opener for me, Dave, when I learned that ——— was so —————. It seems so unlikely.

DAVE: Oh, it’s beautiful when you —— —— ——— and stuff. 

STUART: Oh, well. A boy can dream.

Burning Man LIVE is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project produced by a small but determined army of humans, super-humans, cats, uh, but no robots; no robots were used to produce the show, in our highly unusual unorthodox underground podcast studio at an undisclosed location.

I want to thank everyone who helped put this one together. Thanks as always to Michael Vav, our magnificent story editor and technical whiz. Thanks to producer Andie Grace. Thanks to Molly V, to kBot. Thanks to Heather White for voicing this week’s introduction. SQUIRREL! 

If you want to join in the thank you parade and send your appreciations or your notes or whatever, you can always drop us an email live@burningman.org. We actually read them and sometimes they even end up on the show in one way or another. 

And of course, if you find a little extra change between the couch cushions and you don’t know what to do with it, you’re always welcome to go to donate.burningman.org. Slip us a buck or two. Burning Man Project is a nonprofit. We do this for love. We love doing it and we love you. That’s it for our show this week. 

And well, thanks, Larry.


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