Flame On

This new book relates Burning Man's fiery conflicts, collaborations

More than any other book about Burning Man—the annual art show-cum-rave event that takes place in the Black Rock Desert of Northern Nevada, drawing more than 50,000 participants—Steven T. Jones' The Tribes of Burning Man seems to capture both the gritty essence of subsisting on the playa, and the abstract battles being waged for the soul of the most significant U.S. countercultural gathering.

I've perused many Burning Man accounts (including Brian Doherty's excellent This Is Burning Man), but Jones' work reads the best in terms of investigation, description and breaking down parts of the entire extravaganza in a way that can be easily processed.

Sure, the book has issues. It's too long and could've benefited from a strong editor. (Seriously, a prologue, foreword and introduction—all written by Jones?) Its structure lacks a novelist's eye, as Jones has a journalist's tendency to break apart and compartmentalize issues within a broader narrative.

But these are quibbles when weighed against Jones' wealth of insider information. He's a burner (more accurately, an embedded, immersed journalist) and a champion of free-spirited bacchanalia. He's also unafraid to both address and value others' criticisms and articulate his own. In other words, he's an honest, sober guide.

That said, I almost trashed the book in disgust after reading one of many scenes, sprinkled throughout, designed to make the reader feel present at Burning Man. Jones (playa name: Scribe) wakes up on the first day of the 2004 event to spoon his girlfriend, and then gets up to pee (he tells us how to draw a dinosaur on cracked sand with urine) before—barf!—putting on a kilt. TMI, dude.

Gradually, though, I realized how important these details are in conjuring the overall texture of life on the playa, where considerations like constant hydration and vigilance against MOOP (Matter Out Of Place, a burner term for litter) are always at the fore. Jones, an editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, initially resembles your garden-variety San Francisco alterna-nerd (no car, rides bikes), but the more he reveals about his Burning Man involvement, the more the reader understands what a complex, layered human being he is.

He listens to and learns from his fellow burners, absorbing their real expertise. The most fascinating moments are those Jones spends building the Angel of the Apocalypse sculpture with the Flaming Lotus Girls, a crew of "female-dominated" metalworkers whose membership includes guys, Jones among them. The group's struggle to collaborate and succeed in the face of personality conflicts and technical challenges could make its own book.

Ultimately, The Tribes is a tribal history, with Jones delineating the various factions competing—consciously and unconsciously—over (re)defining what Burning Man means and how to balance the event's ever-growing appeal with its more-or-less overt mission to become a New City on the Playa. The tensions between Burning Man founders Larry Harvey—who runs Black Rock City LLC, affectionately known as The Borg—and John Law, as well as the failed uprising led by Borg2 and artist/bar owner Chicken John, are clearly, if not dramatically, elucidated. The punks versus the hippies, the metalheads against the ravers, the pure artists opposed to the social engineers, the cops and authorities who now hang out—it all makes for a fascinating tug-of-war.

The fact that this all plays out against the horror of Dubya's second term is something Jones keeps returning to, with worthwhile results. The government's failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina inspires Tom Price to create Burners Without Borders, a charity response which did millions of dollars of debris removal for Mississippi residents. There are other unique stories roiling across the aughts, including the odd saga of Paul Addis, a Hunter S. Thompson impersonator who ignites The Man early in 2007 to protest the event's mainstreaming; the act earns him a two-year prison sentence. Then there's an appearance or two by Reverend Billy, a New York-based anti-consumerist performance artist, as well as interviews with several electronic-music artists.

Jones doesn't completely make the case that Burning Man is shaping or has shaped the counterculture—whatever the term means. But there's truth in what he says about the event "shaping tens of thousands" every year. If enough of these people can, at some point, change the uncreative, destructive course this country is currently on, more power—more fire—to them and to Jones.

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