Larry Harvey Speech, 1997

Hualapai Playa, Nevada
August 30, 1997
Many thanks to Hans Sagan, who as part of his master’s thesis transcribed Larry’s speech below.

Ranger Patrick (Patrick Gavin Duffy): We’re here to introduce the founder and organizer of the Burning Man festival, Larry Harvey. The Burning Man festival, as you know… or as you may or may not know, started in San Francisco on the beach, 12 years ago, with an eight-foot structure that was burned in an impromptu fashion, and has… turned into what you see now. It’s moved three times, this is the third move… first time on private land, and with the changes have come all kinds of complications and interesting developments.

We think we have a beautiful city here, a city of art. And… I’m very happy here. This is my second home, it feels like. I live in the Bay Area, like many of the people that come here do, and… as does Larry… and without further ado, I’ll just bring him on, and let him tell the story as he knows it, and he knows it best.

[ applause ]

[ Hail to the Chief! ]

Larry Harvey: Hi folks. I ‘m going to hydrate while I speak, just as an example to everyone.

[ and smoke! ]

LH: and smoke.

[ laughter ]

LH: So I’m going to start with the first question I always get, and that’s about how this began. The story is that one day in June… of course you’ve all heard the story about my girlfriend, and that’s gonna be written on my tombstone, no doubt… and it’s true, actually, I did, I had a heartbreak, I had a mid-life crisis, lasted unconscionably two years… I got tired of it. And… in fact I’ll enlarge on that story.

If you’ve ever had a heartbreak you know it’s the anniversaries that’ll kill you, you know, the sentimental anniversaries and the height of this relationship… you know, I’ve forgotten her last name… [ laughs ].

[ laughter ]

LH: But at the height of this relationship we’d gone down to Baker Beach, and an old friend of mine had a little solstice celebration she did. It was nominally pagan, although with a certain San Francisco twist. I remember she had a little boom box, that was a… electronic shamanic drum, it was the most soulless instrument I’ve ever heard. And it was making these mechanical thuds around the fire, and they dressed a couple mannequins in polyester, piled them on a couch and threw it into the fire.

[ cheers, applause ]

LH: And I thought “This is my kind of solstice celebration.” And I’d taken my girlfriend down there, and her son was doing something only a fourteen year-old would invent. He was saturating the sand with gasoline, and then taking a burning stick and writing in fire. So I knelt with my lover and we wrote in… yeah, you get the picture…

[ awww! ]

LH: … and it was supremely romantic. And so two years later, having thought of this morning and night for a couple of years I woke up and it was the solstice, and I thought “I’m tired of this.” So I called up a friend and I said “Let’s… let’s burn a man, Jerry.” And he asked me to repeat that statement.

So we went over and we made this man out of scrap lumber in a basement in Noe Valley, and it looked big to us, it was two feet taller than we were.

about this photo

And then we hauled it, we called a couple of friends, and there was about twelve of us, and we hauled it down to the beach and we soaked it with gasoline, because we didn’t know any better at that time. And… because gasoline as you know… we use diesel now, gasoline’s very volatile, and when it flamed up, it was like a second sun brought down to this earth, it was just… it transfixed us, but… that’s where the story begins, in fact.

Because at the moment it was lit, everybody on that beach, north and south, came running. That beach was a little like the form of our city now, with its two embracing arms around the void of the playa here. And suddenly, our numbers tripled. And I looked out at this arc of firelit faces, and before I knew it I looked over and there was a hippie with his pants on his head and a guitar standing there, materialized out of the murk. And he started singing a song about fire. Now I’m not exactly a hootenanny kind of guy, but it seemed like the thing to do, and we started singing.

The next thing we knew, a woman, impetuously, ran at the figure, and we had the urge to stop her, but it was too late. The wind was shunting all the flames to one side, and so she ran up to him and she took him by the hand, and stood there. And I think Jerry still has a souvenir photo, and you see the little hand down in the corner of it, holding his hand.

That was the first spontaneous performance, that was the first… that was the first geometric increase of Burning Man. What we had instantly created was a community. And… you know if we had done it as an art event, people would have come, and come to the gallery or something, and said “It’s very interesting, perhaps a little derivative, what are you going to do next?” And…

[ PGD enters frame, offering LH an empty aluminum can ]

LH: What are you doing?

PGD: Cigarettes.

LH: Oh thanks. Yeah, that’d be great, if I tipped the ash and burned up!

[ laughter ]