Thursday, April 26, 2018


Polaroid photo by Tony Diefel [11th Jan 2009]

This post began as a book review but now also serves as a tribute Larry Harvey - artist, philanthropist and the co-founder of Burning Man, who, at the beginning of this month, suffered a massive stroke and subsequently died on April 28th, aged 70. [update]

The legend of Burning Man begins with a romantic night in 1984 when Larry (aged 36) and his then girlfriend and her teenage son went down to Baker Beach on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, a public beach northwest of San Francisco within site of the Golden Gate bridge, to celebrate the summer solstice. According to an account in the Wallpaper:
'A friend of Harvey had dressed mannequins in polyester, and thrown them into a bonfire while a boom box beat ‘mechanical thuds’ around the flames. [My girlfriend’s] son was doing something only a 14-year-old would invent. He was saturating the sand with gasoline, and then taking a burning stick and writing in fire. So I knelt with my lover and wrote [in the sand] – it was supremely romantic,’ Harvey explained at a 1997 speech in Nevada. ‘And so, having thought of this morning and night for a couple of years I woke up on the solstice  and I thought “I’m tired of this.” So, I called up a friend [Jerry James] and I said ‘Let’s burn a man, Jerry.”
Larry and Jerry built an 8ft effigy out of scrap lumber and, on the summer solstice [Saturday June 2nd 1986], with the help of ten friends, hauled it down to Baker Beach, poured petrol over it and set it on fire. A crowd of some 35 people suddenly turned up to watch. Legend has it that one woman ran forward and held the effigy's hand. Harvey recalls: 'I looked out at this arc of firelit faces, and before I knew it I looked over and there was a hippie with his pants on his head and a guitar standing there, materialized out of the murk. And he started singing a song about fire...That was the first spontaneous performance, that was the first geometric increase of Burning Man. What we had instantly created was a community.'

The Burning Man became an annual event for the next four years and each year, the effigy and crowd numbers got bigger. In 1987, it was 15ft tall and 80 people showed up. In 1988, 200 people watched as the 40ft Man was set alight. The giant figure was charred but didn't collapse so had to be sawn up and burnt on a bonfire. The following year, the legs and the pelvis of the 40-ft effigy collapsed and it was burnt in a semi-erect position, watched by 300 people. Finally, in 1990, the Golden Gate Park Police decided that it would be unsafe to set light to the Burning Man as it might start hill fires in the surrounding landscape. The 350-strong crowd quickly turned into an unruly mob. As a compromise, the police agreed that the statue could be built not but burnt. Harvey and his collaborators realised this was the end. The BM was dismantled and put into storage.


There things might have ended had it not been for members of the SF Cacophony Society. Who they?

According to Wikipedia it was started in 1986 by surviving members of the now defunct Suicide Club of San Francisco. They describe themselves as "a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.” 
Cacophony has also been described as an indirect culture jamming outgrowth of the Dada movement, and the Situationists
One of its central concepts is the Trip to the Zone, or Zone Trip, inspired by the 1979 Film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. [See Previous Posts]
One of their main tenets is enshrined in the phrase 'you may already be a member' which means you  can self-designate your membership. The anarchic nature of the Society also means that any member can sponsor an event. 'Cacophony events often involve costumes and pranks in public places and sometimes going into places that are generally off limits to the public.'
The single best source of information on the group of the book 'Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society'. Unfortunately the book is available from Amazon, AbeBooks and other websites but the cheapest price is around $350! In the absence of that,this website is a good source. The puff for the book [see right] reads:
'A template for pranksters, artists, adventurers and anyone interested in rampant creativity, 'Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society' is the history of the most influential underground cabal you’ve never heard of. 
'Rising from the ashes of the mysterious and legendary Suicide Club, the Cacophony Society, at its zenith, hosted chapters in over a dozen major cities, and influenced much of what was once called the underground. The Cacophony Society’s epic exploits radically changed the way people live and play in the world. The group inspired Chuck Palahniuk’s 'Fight Club' and Burning Man and helped start pop culture trends including flash mobs, urban exploration, and culture jamming. A large-format, full-color, hardbound homage to this protean group Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society' is packed with original art, never before published photographs, original documents and incredulous news accounts.'
 Again according to Wikipedia, Cacophony member Michael Mikel attended the Baker Beach event in 1988 and publicised it in the Society's newsletter 'Rough Draft' [pictured above] in 1989. That same year Cacophonist Kevin Evans and other members attended a wind sculpture event in the Black Rock desert near Gerlach in northern Nevada, organised by a creative collective known as Planet X.

This inspired Evans to suggest, in 1990, a Zone Trip on Labour Day, publicising it as "A Bad Day At Black Rock' after the famous Spencer Tracy movie. According to the Burning Man chronology, they invited 'the architects of the wooden construct along for our voyage to the bizarre setting, making it the biggest, most elaborate piece of firewood - a glorious conflagration.' Incidentally three weeks prior to the event, the Burning Man was vandalized being 'reduced to kindling by chain saws, the result of an accident'. The figure was rebuilt in San Francisco with two hours to spare before being transported to desert and destroyed.

Photo by Douglas Rawlinson. See website:
Jump to the present day, the Burning Man now attracts some 50,000 people who for a weekend live in Black Rock City pictured above, built in the middle of the dry lake bed ten miles from the tiny town of Gerlach. The fact that the weather is extreme and dust storms are common has not put people off coming.

Details of this year's festival [Aug 26th- Sept 3rd] are at this site: ] The 2018 theme is 'I, Robot' [named after the sf novel by Isaac Asimov].

It's not only the Man that gets burned. Each year there is a magnificent temple constructed. This too is also burnt to the ground at the end. Thanks to The Building Centre's newsfeed, discovered that this year's festival will feature a huge spiralling temple made out of a light coloured timber.

‘Galaxia’ is designed by French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani of Mamou-Mani Architects and is inspired by the swirling structure of the cosmos. Galaxia celebrates hope in the unknown, stars, planets, black holes, the movement uniting us in swirling galaxies of dreams,” Mamou-Mani Architects explain. “A superior form of Gaia in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Galaxia is the ultimate network, the fabric of the universe

These two books are the first and the latest to be published on this remarkable event  and they complement each other extremely well.  'Burning Man' was published by HardWired (the publishing arm of Wired magazine) in 1997. It focuses mainly on the people, many of whom are taking advantage of the 'clothing optional' rule. These wild early years are powerfully captured in large full screen images with some foldout pages. Copies are still available on the internet at a good price.

Photos by Barbara Traub (left) and Kevin Kelly (right)

Shot by Ny Guy  in 2014, 'El Pulpo Mecanico by Duane Flatmo and Jerry Kunkel'
'Art of Burning Man', which has just been published by Taschen, is a revised 2nd edition of a sumptuous photo collection by Ny Guy, a Canadian photographer living in London. Guy attended Burning Man every year from 1998 to 2014 and his book is a distillation of the 65,000 photos he took. The book focuses almost entirely on the creative structures - custom cars, giant machines, art installations - and pyrotechnics that make Burning Man such a feast for the eyes and senses. See more at the book's website and at Guy's site.

There is a long and detailed entry on Wikipedia here

The main Burning Man site has a complete list of published books and a detailed chronology of the Burning Man's history and the 10 Principles that guide the events' ethos.

There's lots of Burning Man video footage on YouTube. These are a couple I enjoyed:
Burning Man 2017 from above - drone 4K by Matthew Emmi.
Burning Man 2017 Hyperlapse by Mark Day

Great article in Wallpaper: 'How the art of Burning Man ignited a cultural movement beyond the desert' by Jessica Klingelfuss. Stunning pictures.
'In recent years, there have been murmurings among purists that the festival’s DNA has been altered too much, becoming a magnet for celebrities and influencers, as well as earning a reputation as a networking event for the tech elite (Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos have all attended).'

Monday, April 23, 2018


Published by Strange Attractor Press

The Generalist first briefly met Shirley Collins in 1969 when she came to play at a folk club we had set up in Worthing. We reconnected in 2005 in Lewes when I discovered that she was one of my neighbours. She gave me a copy of her wonderful book documenting her travels to the southern States of America with the folk song collector Alan Lomax which is reviewed here:
 Over The Water and Over The Road

By this time Shirley had made tentative steps towards singing again after a gap of nearly 40 years. Then in 2016, this site was one of the first to announce the fantastic forthcoming release of a stunning and magical new album Lodestar. Post contains extracts from Stewart Lee's brilliant sleeve notes. See: Shirley Collin's Lodestar. This was followed by a review in Shirley Collins2:

Running alongside the plans and recording for this album, work was already underway on a documentary 'The Ballad of Shirley Collins' which I got to see last week. Directed by Rob Curry and Tim Plester, with sound recording by Ludovic Lasserre and camerawork by Richard Mitchell. Happily this is not a sterile BBC4 run-through of Shirley's recording career but instead a much more creative and magical exploration of  Shirley's life and times. The film is layered with material from different time periods and places. Lewes and Hastings feature as does the South Downs and the southern USA. Shirley is a wonderful narrator and story-teller of her own life and her remarkable recent flowering means the film ends in triumph over adversity. It's now out on DVD in a package with the CD soundtrack.

Photo by Brian Shuel
The Lewes screening was also a launch event for Shirley's new book 'All In The Downs' [published in a finely produced and illustrated form by Strange Attractor Press] which I have been under the spell of for the last five days. Its a window into a lost world. Shirley paints wonderful word pictures, is very open about her personal affairs and has so many great tales to tell - including a sweet meeting with Jimi Hendrix. 

The period when she wasn't singing is remarkable in itself. It was long struggle to keep the family afloat and she worked in a variety of jobs - including at a Job Centre, the British Museum bookshop, an Oxfam shop and for a London publisher's agent (during which, incidentally, she typed up the manuscript for Len Deighton's The Ipcress File).

Shirley is widely known to be not only one of the great singers of English folk songs but also as someone who is hugely knowledgeable on their history and background in a completely non-academic way. She has had many years of touring word and music evenings that enlighten and inform. Her love for the subject and the singers of the past is palpable.

Her style of singing is focused on presenting the original song in its original form without stylistic additions, in clear, beautiful and authentic renditions. She says in the book that when she sings these songs, many of which have been passed from singer to singer over hundreds of years, she feels as if they are standing behind her. These were, by and large, workers and labourers whose names and importance would not have been recognised without the efforts of impassioned song collectors like Shirley and the Copper Family.

The South Downs captured her imagination from childhood but it was in the 1970s when the spirits of the downland worked their magic and inspired much of her work. She writes movingly of her sister Dolly who was both a music arranger and sensitive player on an ancient form of pipe organ. Her death hit Shirley hard but their work together is happily fully preserved and available for posterity.

Shirley has, in recent years, been showered with Honours, including the MBE, but she remains totally modest and down-to-earth, overjoyed to be once more presenting the music she loves so much. Her musical collaborators are first-class and have lifted the presentation of Shirley's musicality to an even higher level. She has also acquired a huge band of admirers who see, in her remarkable life story, a strength and integrity that has earned her the soubriquet of the Queen of British Folk. Shirley's substantial collection of recorded works is a testament to her dedication and passion for bringing the old haunting tunes and stories of these lands back to life. Her warm words and her belief in the presence of the spirits of the land and nature are an inspiration to like-minded folk and an encouragment to younger generations at a time when we need to reconnect with our roots.