The Man Behind Burning Man

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ANDY FREEBERG FOR TIME

He is not one of them. They are naked bongo-playing blue Smurfs proffering gang massages and, in the hindsight of photographic evidence, looking like a bunch of dorks. He is sitting alone on a couch in the middle of the desert, face hidden under a cowboy hat and aviator sunglasses, teeth like a colonial graveyard, chain-smoking unfiltered Camel 100s in the 98[degrees] heat and talking about the ancient Greeks' concept of public space. When the Internet took his bonfire and turned it into a horde-gathering weeklong event that generated headlines all over the globe, Larry Harvey could have become many things: cult leader, millionaire, party promoter. What he chose was urban planner. We all dream differently.

Harvey, a San Francisco bohemian, started the tradition 14 years ago as a punk-pagan celebration on a San Francisco beach and moved it to a lifeless desert northeast of Reno in 1990 when the S.F. beach patrol kicked him off. Since then, he has nurtured his festival into a lengthy ritual that this Labor Day attracted 30,000 campers to its mix of art, raves, nudity and spirituality. In the process, much has changed. Harvey has driven out some of his original anarchy-loving partners, instituted streets and rules (no guns), and now controls much of the art through $250,000 in grants. He is the director of a limited-liability corporation that oversees the festival's $4 million annual budget. He is the mayor of the wildest city the West has ever seen.

Larry Harvey may be the first truly pragmatic utopian. "The problem with utopias is that they are based on some theory of human nature," he says, as he is joined on his couch by a topless woman, a punk called Chicken John and a transvestite glam rock star named Adrian Roberts. "Static utopias based on a priori notions are doomed to failure." Surprisingly, utopias where you have to bring your own toilet paper work just fine.

Because he wipes away Black Rock City each year, Harvey is able to plan civilizations based on how people actually interact--at least when they've got a week's vacation and a lot of money. His goal is to free people from passively consuming mass-marketed culture; the Internet, as he sees it, offers a medium through which to re-create communities. "People are culture-bearing beings, but culture is not going to break out where people are anonymous and thrown together in a mass," he says. "Cultural activities could disappear because they have been siphoned off to mass culture." Harvey, a self-educated college dropout, talks a lot about William James, agora, public squares and preaching civitas. Only he makes it interesting.

Harvey was raised in Portland, Ore., in a house built by a carpenter father who moved West during the Depression, running from the same swirling dust storms that are bearing down on Harvey's city as he speaks. He wears the same style of Stetson his dad wore, and his eyes tear up when he talks about him. "He was the most honest man I ever knew. So upright he never managed to make money," he says.

Harvey also never managed to make money, getting by with just enough odd landscaping jobs to pay for his tiny San Francisco apartment. Three years ago, however, he started to support himself from Burning Man entrance fees, which now range up to $250, and Harvey has plans to entice Silicon Valley millionaires into sponsoring its art and providing for spin-off festivals. He is also preparing a manual to distribute to anyone who wants to build his own Burning Man. "This will be Rome to the colonies," he says of his Nevada experiment.

It's already happening. On Memorial Day weekend, Austin, Texas, drew 500 people to its third Burning Flipside; San Francisco has a single-night party every month; and there was a burn under a bridge in New York City earlier this year. Now Harvey is talking to people in Japan and Europe who are intent on organizing their own festivals. "I'd like to change the f______ world, and I think we've got a good shot at it," he says as a beautiful woman in a tight shirt who calls herself Zen Paradise places an ashtray at his knees. Frederick Law Olmsted never inspired that kind of devotion.

Harvey says the wooden man who is burned toward the end of the week doesn't signify anything. But as it was at the first Burning Man, it is the symbol that attracts the crowds. "That first man was just 8 ft. tall, and it was enough," Harvey says. "Something bigger than they are--that's all people need. It's at least enough to inspire a leap of faith." As if on cue, Maid Marian, his girlfriend and a partner in the LLC, starts tearing into a shirtless, bearded man, screaming and cursing at him for authorizing $30,000 for a satellite uplink. They approach Harvey for adjudication, the bearded guy pleading his case. "I don't have time for this now," Harvey says without looking up. They walk away, calmed. "It's a primal symbol," he says, picking up where he left off. "A metaphor for our own fragile life."

For several years Harvey has dismissed the rumor that he burned the first man because he was mourning a romantic breakup. "Everyone wants a founding myth," he says, with a dry laugh. He takes a drag off the Camel in his shaky right hand and then, perhaps remembering his father's honesty, backtracks and acknowledges that there is some truth to the story. "It was two years since we broke up, and I still lived with that pain every morning. I'd wake up and feel fine, and then I'd be looking at my books and I'd remember her, and then I'd be ruined." He, his girlfriend and a 12-year-old boy had once written in fire with lighter fluid on the sand at Baker Beach during the summer solstice--the same time and place where he held the first Burning Man. "It was right out of the cinema," he says of that day on the beach with his girlfriend. "I said to myself, 'Don't look at her that way.' And of course I did. And I felt my soul seep out the corner of my eye." It is convincing and heartbreaking and real and perhaps a lie, but it doesn't matter. Religions have been built on far less.