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.”
And then, a perfect little Burning Man moment. Through the miracle of shuffle, the classic 1994 Miami party jam, “Tootsee Roll” by 69 Boyz — all bass and snare, children’s chanting and hoots — drops from the sound system like an IED, and the manager in charge, a broad-shouldered, muscular femme named Go-Go, screams, “Break time!” Despite the noontime rush, despite the coffee to be brewed, the workers immediately erupt into a dance party. As the 69 Boyz chant, “To the left, to the left, to the right, to the right,” the baristas and the dishwashers break it down, the runners leap onto the counter and shake their goddamn Tootsee Rolls. The customers are moving, too, lost in 1994. For four long, beautiful minutes, the Center Café is a little surprise party that transforms a groggy, overheated mass into a shining celebration.
When it’s over, the workers resume pulling shots, and the moment vanishes.
During the day, we sleep when it’s not too hot, or sit around under shade-cover listening to Arthur Russell at camp while in the distance the trance pounds. We talk, cuddle, laugh, get freaked out at how fucked up we got last night and wonder maybe whether we’re out of control. By 10 p.m., the throngs roam the city. Some cruise the Mars-like surface in extravagant Victorian steam engines straight out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Dragon boats overtake rolling cupcakes, strobing tricycles whip past gurgling fish cars. It’s like the trippiest state fair you’ll never see, Dalì’s dream fucking Disney’s nightmare, all glitter and glow. The biggest, loudest and most ambitious projects are on the Esplanade, the boulevard closest to the Burning Man.
On a big soundstage with a jumbo screen, contestants try their luck with Dance Dance Immolation — a riff on the classic video dance game Dance Dance Revolution. There’s one catch. Players are outfitted in silver fireproof body suits and head gear, and flame throwers are aimed at their faces. The music starts and the dancers try to keep up with the dance moves dictated by the video screen while ominous burning guns, locked and loaded, look to singe some noggin. It’s a blast to watch, mainly because there are some frighteningly excellent DDR players on the playa — and maybe they’ll get burned. As they perform their expert moves, the flames flicker from the barrel of the guns and the emcee taunts and ridicules the players. During a wicked competition between two rivals moving to the Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” a big, Gene Simmons–like fire burst blows and roars. One of the players reflexively steps back and dooms his next couple of moves, spawning more fire. Dance and burn, dance and burn.
The Burning Man, prematurely torched by a crazed playwright days before the scheduled Saturday immolation, is resurrected late Thursday morning. As the new wooden figure — now known as the Spawn of Burning Man — is hoisted into place by a crane, a gaggle of burners gather to watch. The soundtrack to the celebratory moment, provided, as is often the case, by the art car with the most dominant sound system, is not “76 Trombones” or “Revolution,” or even “Space Oddity,” but “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. As the dueling guitar solos wail and cry, workers bolt the Replacement Man’s feet into place. Perhaps a few centuries hence, when Burning Man has evolved into some sort of freakazoid religion, this moment will have transformed into a fable, and in ceremonies during national holidays the image of the Blessed Ronnie Van Zandt will be projected onto a grand Esplanade screen.
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Sunday night, 10 p.m. Silence. Shocking silence. It’s so quiet among the thousands that you forget how many of us are here. The man burned last night. Tonight the Temple of Forgiveness gets torched. Throughout the week, the Temple was an oasis of calm and peacefulness. While outside the big parties raged — DJ Dan played on Thursday, Paul Oakenfold on Friday — in the Temple people sat quietly, hugged, sobbed, caressed.
Now as the whole thing comes to an end, I think about the incredible shit I’ve seen here. There was the guy with dreadlocks and an acoustic guitar playing his instrument as hard as he could in the middle of nowhere, screaming his lyrics as though he were center stage Coachella, to a single, rapt woman who was dancing so forcefully to his song that I could feel the electricity a hundred yards away. For all I know he was covering Engelbert Humperdink, but who cares? It was just the two of them, locked together in song.
As I stand staring at the Temple, now engulfed in flames and looking like something from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, silence reigns. Total silence. Except for this odd, otherworldly hum at the far side of the crowd. It grows louder, from nothing into something, before it reveals itself as voices. But from where? Is it a recording? The moan rises into an Om-like chant, thousands strong, louder and louder, until I realize that it is the roar of Us, voices spontaneously rising into a screaming chorus like some nutty shit you hear about at voodoo ceremonies. The Yowl hits my section like a monsoon and passes over my head as I scream along. The noise gust rolls around the Temple like a thoroughbred around the far turn, farther and farther, then closer, closer, until it hits us again and we scream until we can scream no longer.
Driving back to L.A. on a gentle Monday morning at 4 a.m., half asleep and half electrified, buzzing and totally stoned as a cushion from the hangover of information overload, this magical, deep, glorious house music consumes the RV. It’s a soulful track, with gentle but insistent four-four bumps, a steady high-hat and a transcendent vocal sample of an opera soloist. The soprano voice flows out of the boom box like syrup, seems to guide me along the two-lane highway. The sky is dark, but the reflectors frame the road like I’m in a vintage video game slaloming down a ski slope. Lost in music, lost in the beats, alone while others snooze, my only company that music. Then, a deep voice echoes through the cabin: “This is Armin van Buuren, and this is A State of Trance.”