August 29th, 2001 was the fourth day of my one and only journey to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, which was an unbelievable eye/mind/soul-popping event that was laden with unimaginable stimulus input every single moment everywhere always. I won’t say that attending the eight-day festival changed my life, but it definitely confirmed a lot of things that I had long-wondered. Arty things, bohemian things, fringe things, wacky things, life things; basically that the world would indeed be a much more interesting, engaging, and entertaining place if everyone just tried to have a great time all the time in a purely unselfish way that attempted to simultaneously supply the same thing for everyone else.
Just as I had always suspected.
When I reflect on Burning Man I can’t help but ponder how I came to be there. It’s a rather remarkable set of unlikely coincidences* that I think is pretty hard to believe. Let’s see if I’m right:
Sometime back in the early ’90’s I was flipping through an issue of Rolling Stone magazine when I read a little sidebar feature on some artist gathering in the desert somewhere. It was just a blurb, maybe seventy-five words long alongside a tiny photo of a costumed man juggling. “Hmmm,” thought I, flipping the page and promptly forgetting about it. I didn’t think another thing about it for years.
Fast forward to a random Thursday in late August of the year 2000 (my research has nailed it down to Thursday, August 31st). For some reason I woke up wondering about that little blurb from years before. The world had advanced into the internet age by then so over my morning coffee I did a search and discovered that the event was called Burning Man, it was a week-long thing that happened in Nevada in late summer, and as I sat there reading it was ongoing, in the middle of it’s fourteenth annual run. “Hmmm,” I thought again, this time upgrading my interest by adding: “I should go to that someday.”
Finishing my coffee I walked to the corner and picked up Ottawa’s entertainment weekly, The Ottawa Xpress (that’s how I know it was a Thursday, the Xpress came out on Thursdays and I always picked it up as soon as it came out). Back at my apartment I read through the rag, ending at Rob Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology column that ran on the back page. My eyes went straight to Capricorn where I read the following entry:
“Capricorn, I strongly urge you to go to The Burning Man Festival next year…” Can you believe that? Like, can you believe that?!? I couldn’t.
But honest to Ganesha, it’s true. I swore then and there that it was all too much and that I would definitely go to Burning Man the following year, and I did. And here I am telling you about it. Pretty hard to believe huh? To make it a little more believable I should point out that I later discovered that Rob Brezsny is a long-time BM attendee and during the Burn itself he uses his column to urge all of his readers to attend the festival. Had I read any of the other horoscopes that Thursday morn I would have noticed sentences like “Virgo, I strongly urge you to go to Burning Man…” and “Leo, I strongly urge you to go to Burning Man…” but I didn’t read them (how Capricorn of me), and I ended up with one, single early-bird ticket to the 2001 festival (pictured).
And man-o-man, I had a good time.
I guess the only thing I found lacking at Burning Man was music. It’s not a music festival at all. Of course lots of Camps play music but it was almost all electronic music and most of it was not at all my cup of tea. I did find a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band and there was always good music (and good drinks) at Funk Camp, but probably the most musical enjoyment I had was when I hooked up with a roaming bluegrass band for a few days. We even got booked to play at a Camp one night where we were well-paid (overpaid even) in food, drink, and appreciation (I love avoiding the middleman).
Center Camp was a wide, airy, arty, beautiful coffeeshop and ice depot that marked the geographical and social centre of the festival. It was run by the Burning Man people themselves and I believe it was the only place that actually officially booked music. It was all solo acts with no singer/songwriters allowed – which was perfect for me as both an audience member and a performer – and I was honoured to be pre-booked for a slot. Back then I think I was pretty much at the top of my guitar game and I practiced really, really hard working up my hour-long set. It was a whole lot of fun to play; as a matter of fact I remember it as one of the most relaxed, comfortable sets I’ve ever played. Existing as I was amid the Burning Man world, everything about audience/performer relations was turned inside out and I loved it. I remember really, really taking my time and if you’ve ever seen me play (or met me) you’ll know that is very uncharacteristic. I felt like I was performing from inside a lava lamp. I recently came across my setlist, which amazes me. ’Twas as follows:
Girl Asks Boy (Bill Frisell)
My Favourite Things (arranged by me)
The two Bach violin partitas that I knew at the time
Satin Doll (I used to know the Joe Pass version note-for-note)
Stairway To Heaven (not that Stairway To Heaven…it’s a solo guitar piece I wrote shortly after I discovered that song titles couldn’t be copy-written)
Deli-Religious (another solo instrumental of mine, this one with words that aren’t ever sung)
Rain Song (Led Zeppelin, played without vocals)
Little Martha (The Allman Brothers)
CC Rider (the Mississippi John Hurt arrangement)
Love Me Tender (instrumental version again arranged by yours truly)
Autumn Leaves chord-melody jam
Little Wing jam (I would just play the intro and then solo over the chords until my time was up)
I distinctly recall two of my Camp-mates in the audience doing interpretive dance along to my set. They were really, really great and to me they stole the show. I loved it so much.
But then, I loved most things about Burning Man.
*I have a hard time believing in coincidences, or rather, not believing in them. To wit: Let’s say you are in a chapeau shop in a back alley somewhere in Uganda and in the very next shop your best friend from grade five is poking around looking for a new pair of shoes. What are the odds?!? Two best friends who haven’t seen each other in thirty years simultaneously standing in two adjacent shops in the same dark alley in Uganda?!?! Now let’s say you both step out of your respective shops and walk away in opposite directions, never noticing that the other was there. Would it still be a coincidence?
Is coincidence an unlikely coinciding of things, or is it only considered a coincidence if the coinciding is noticed? Basically, does a coincidence have to be acknowledged to exist? Maybe the dime that is in your pocket right now was in my pocket last week. Coincidence?