One version of the Burning Man experience goes like this. You’re riding from Los Angeles in a rented RV with three other dudes who have graciously offered you a lift to the Nevada desert. And what will the soundtrack be for the next dozen hours?
“Did you bring any Digweed?” someone asks.
Guh. It’s 2:16 p.m. on Sunday. Must the synthesizer washes, the never-varying beat — the cheese — start so soon?
Yes. Jason pops a CD into his jumbo boom box, a recording of an online mix show. “Hello, I’m Armin van Buuren, and this is A State of Trance.”
So it begins, the musical adventure that is Burning Man, where you can no easier control the sounds you hear than you can the sudden, unprovoked appearances of dangling nudist penises and bare breasts in so many miraculous shapes and sizes. For the next eight days, many different appendages will bounce to trance, as the rhythms (such as they are) gradually, relentlessly drill into my skull. The hearty, repetitive thump will put me to bed at night as it bends in the desert wind. It will wake me up like a rooster. It will kill my buzz.
To civilians, trance = Burning Man. But this is merely the most obvious take. For one week a year the desert floor, a naturally occurring woofer pumping 100 million watts, becomes the world’s greatest iPod shuffle. The sounds emanating from the playa at 2 in the afternoon when the heat grips like a vice, or at dusk, when Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” rolls from a car designed to look like a cuttlefish, or at midnight, are wonderfully varied and at times miraculous. At the festival’s peak — day five — a walk to the center of the 47,000-citizen temporary community yields something so beautiful, so shocking, so overwhelming that it’s difficult to comprehend: As far as the eye can see, sound systems have been harnessed onto art cars, trucks and buses, each loud and bass heavy, like Kingston, Jamaica, on LSD, pushing out tunes, fighting for aural supremacy, offering myriad notions of what constitutes “Burning Man music.”
Close your eyes and the beats tumble over each other like tennis balls in a clothes dryer. But attune the ear to single songs, and lo, what enters is a chorus of American music: the Stooges’ “Funhouse” at 2 a.m.; Tracy Chapman’s — no shit — “Fast Cars” cranked to 11; Pharoah Sanders’ massive free-jazz epiphany, “The Creator Has a Master Plan” offering musical reassurance. In the open-air carnival, each song rings true on some metaphoric level, snaps into place the moment it arrives (if you’re high enough, even “Fast Cars”). “Wild in the Country,” by Bow Wow Wow, “Your Own Private Idaho” by the B-52’s. Biz Markie doing “Vapors.” The music is everywhere. Few name bands actually play Burning Man, but with each turn down a makeshift avenue, a new opportunity to dance presents itself — “Clear” by Juan Atkins’ Cybotron, followed by Missy Elliott’s “Pass That Dutch.” The myth of Burning Man is that the music selection is limited to lame-ass trance and silly-ass drum circles. The truth is much more inspired.
The ice lines at Burning Man are nearly as legendary as the playa boogers and cocaine that encrust many of the 94,000 nostrils. It’s a dry heat here, but it burns, and aloe, ice and sex are the only remedies. People stand in the open sun, the smart ones pulling wagons, the dumb ones staring at the ground. Men and women are topless, a shirtcocker (shirt but no pants) standing next to a furry squirrel who’s just returned from a snog with a kitten. They all need ice.
And they all need coffee, which they can buy at the Center Camp Café at the bull’s eye of Black Rock City. The indoor/outdoor space, about the size of a grand Barnum & Bailey ring, is always abuzz, and music shoots at you from every direction. A band knocking out Balian gamelan music follows a man playing Mozart on the violin, hot on the tail of a Derek Bailey–esque free-jazz ensemble. It feels like a Middle Eastern bazaar crossed with a jumbo opium den and a post-orgy paradise.
Behind the counter, the dozens of volunteers serving five lines of groggy customers, each 30 souls deep, move like a marching band in formation, a fluid mix of baristas, runners, über runners and dishwashers humming with a determined consistency. The music is frantic and surprising, the perfect fit: the entirety of the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut, which infuses the air with a pubescent urgency. When “Gone Daddy Gone” echoes across the café, everybody — the tight-bodied punk chick, the dude with the visor, the mom on dishwashing duty — screams along: “I can tell by the way that you switch and walk/I can see by the way you baby talk/I can tell by the way that you treat your man/I can love you baby til it’s a crying.”