The Story of the Early Man

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The work crews setting up Black Rock City had a little get-together out near the Man last night, an annual gathering that has come to be known as Early Man.

It’s not an official thing, and it’s not on any schedule of Burning Man events, but everyone here knows that on the Saturday night before the gates open, it’s ok to take a time out and … burn some things.

It’s funny that we’ve been on the desert for three weeks now, and there hasn’t been much fire. There have been burn barrels here and there, because some of the nights have been chilly. But there haven’t been any big communal fires to gather around, but last night fixed all that.

Like so many things at Burning Man, the Early Man has organic roots. It was born of necessity, and now it has become one of the rights and rituals of the city.

The Early Man, aka the Early Burn, started in 1999, when Will Roger and Tony Coyote had finished their survey of the city, all centered around the Golden Spike, the exact spot where the Man would be built. But the problem was, in all that expanse of desert, and with no identifying markers, there was a problem. Tony tells the story:

“The next day I went out and drove around, and I couldn’t find the orange cone (that marked where the spike was). That was back when we had only one cone!

“And Will said well, we need more of a beacon, so we can find the thing, so Peter Mars back then was running wood shop, and he just put a couple of sticks together, and painted them dayglo pink, and put a triangular head on him … and that was our Man!

Tony Coyote
Tony Coyote

“And we set up the whole city, and then when the real Man showed up, we had affection for our Man, that it was the worker’s man, and so we said, well, we should burn him!

“And so that’s how Early Burn was born. Because originally, it was the burn for the DPW, the burn for the blue collar, the people that set it up, for the Rangers and for the Gate, and so it’s for the staff, essentially, because after that the general onslaught comes.”

People started gathering as darkness fell, because Dave X let everyone know that all the effigies would be set aflame at the stroke of 9 o’clock. (They are all burned at once for safety reasons – you don’t want people still wandering around in them when they might catch fire.)

Playground
Playground

The work lights dimmed and crew members put highway flares to their sculptures. Fireworks started exploding, and the burn was on. The fireworks weren’t huge, but they seemed appropriate. Because the crowd was small and intimate, the fireworks were enough to make you duck when the booms started happening.

There didn’t used to be so many effigies. In the early years, there was only one, and it was built by the Man Base crew, and the sculpture was always very … masculine.

“It was always some form of giant phallus,” Playground said.

She and others were getting tired of that act, and when she was working in New Orleans after Katrina in 2005, the inspiration came. Crews there would gather random pieces of flotsam that had been scattered by the storm – slot machines, chairs, anything and everything, and they’d make art pieces out it. And because the workers were from Burning Man, at the end of every week, they’d set the artwork on fire.

The New Orleans locals really loved it, and they really got into the spirit of things. “It showed them, who would never come here, a little bit of what we do,” Playground said.

And she brought the idea back to Black Rock City. “We said, ‘Anyone who wants to make art can burn it.’ And so it just grew.”

Some structures took longer to light than others
Some structures took longer to light than others

So in 2006, there were a bunch of art pieces at Early Man. “I wanted to be able to build something,” Playground said, “and I know that other people wanted to, too. … And the quality of art that comes out of it is just beauuuutiful.”

It really is. By our count there were 22  pieces last night, from just about every big group that has been working out here. There were exquisite pieces, like the giant clay pot stove from the Man Base crew, to the simple but still creative offering from Sweet Ride and the people handling the BLM station out near Point One – they made an upside-down trailer, recalling the havoc wreaked by the wind last week when a trailer was flipped.

The Temple folks had a sculpture reminiscent of the Temple itself, and there was a giant skee ball game and a ring toss, and even a working water fountain. There was enough great stuff that you couldn’t help but think that it was a shame to burn it all. Just like at Burning Man.

Coyote said, “It’s a staff party. It’s not really a DPW things, it’s for all the workers.”

And all of the crews got to take part. “It’s us, it’s the blue collar Burning Man,” Playground said. “It’s for us, and the actual Burning Man event is for everyone else.

“It’s the crew’s last chance to celebrate what we do out here.”

 

The mood was pretty happy
The mood was pretty happy

Notes: After the Early Man gathering, lots of folks went over to the Power Camp, where for the third year in a row that crew put on quite the after-party. It was the official opening of their bar (the Power Juice was quite tasty), there was a karaoke machine on the upper deck, and people made fine use of the swinging couch. … After all our weather woes, things have turned decidedly beautiful. All the lakes and puddles have dried up, and the days have been warm, but not too. The evenings have been sultry, but it’s sweater weather by the end of the night. … D.A. and his cleanup team were at the Early Man site at 9am sharp Sunday morning. From all reports, crews that burned effigies showed up to help with the cleanup. … The Décor crew has arrived on playa, and over the next few days they’ll pimp out the Center Café. … The heavy gear has all landed, and now the influx of trailers and big art camps is about to begin. It’ll be a lot more crowded out here starting tomorrow. … Power and shade crews are still working long long days to get everything that needs doing done. Pro tip: before you do anything, do your shade. … Tuesday is the day the Man’s legs will be raised up off the ground and his torso placed on top of them. The first try was Friday, but it was determined that a bigger crane would be needed. …

Overheard quote of the day: A radio call went out to Cowboy Carl: “Can we have a face-to-face?” “Sure,” Cowboy Carl came back, “if you don’t get too close.”

Some more pics from Early Man 2014:

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Deacon was feeling patriotic
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We asked Logan to give us his steely eyed glint, and he succeeded beyond our expectations. He was also photobombed nicely

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Incredibly, it was Just George’s first Early Man. “I’m not really very social,” he said

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“I don’t often look this dapper,” Shane said

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Matt Schultz, who’s building the Embrace project, and Ben (Bill Murray)

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And here are the art projects before they were torched:

 

About the author: John Curley

John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person In a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients, and I'm especially fond of shooting weddings. I'm also the editor at large of the Tasting Panel magazine, which is devoted to the beverage industry. I've also taught a bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on a (house)boat in Alameda, California.

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