Chapter 3: A Night at the Opera

Coyote Nose: Stories of the wild ’90s and the formation of DPW from Burning Man’s first storytelling fellowship recipient, Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet, Superintendent of Black Rock City.



“Hello — I’m from KTVN Channel 2 News in Reno, and we’re here to film some of your performance. I am told that Pepe Ozan would be around here. Are you him?”

A news lady from Reno stepped out of the darkness with her camera crew and approached Pepe. Aliens from another planet would not have been as shocking. We all stood stunned as the dead fish of the outside world slapped us in the face. And there she stood, standing there with one hand on her hip and the other holding a channel 2 microphone. Did she just step through a rip in the movie screen? She was wearing a Nancy Reagan white skirt suit, her news hair sprayed into a perfect blonde coif over a face that was nothing more than a phony smile under cakes of makeup. It was the panty hose and patent leather high heels that unnerved me the most. It was so obscenely out of context along with the ogling camera lens. It was like our creepy uncle had just showed up.

It was Saturday night, and the lingam castle had been packed with the several cords of split hardwood that it would take to make the fire hot enough and melt the wire mesh underneath the mud, and collapse the towers. The performance was about to begin and the edifice would soon be a cracked clay furnace torching from within. Several large bon fires had been lit around the perimeter and a huge crowd was gathering. The earlier burning of Helco had already commenced and people were hungry for more. The Entrance of Empress Zoe in our City of Dis was to cap off the evening and fire lust was everywhere.

Pepe stood like a rock with his arms folded over his hairy chest without any acknowledgement of the fidgety news team. He said nothing.

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure if you heard me,” the news lady persisted, “but we’re from channel 2 news out of Reno, and we would like to put your show on TV. Are you Pepe Ozan? I was told that this was your show.”

Without turning his head, Pepe gave her a brush off with his hand and said,

“Go away! I cannot talk to you right now and you cannot film this performance. It is forbidden!”

The news lady’s face twisted into confusion. I was expecting to see cracks forming in the makeup mounds on her cheeks. She had not come all this way for this! I was imagining her chief editor at a morning meeting in the newsroom.

“I want you to go up to a place called the ‘Black Rock Desert’ this weekend. I want you to cover this strange new event called ‘Burning Man’. We might be able to use it for a closing human interest story.”

I could see her checking into the motel in that ghost town we passed on the way in, then assembling her team for the adventure of being ‘on location’. Burning Man was just starting to jiggle the media web back then as a ‘curious gathering in the Black Rock Desert’, and the low hanging reporters were being sent out to drum up a story that could be used on a slow news day. And now she was here ‘on location’, and getting denied. Her phony smile became a genuine grimace. There was nothing in her playbook on how to handle someone that didn’t want media exposure for his or her show. Didn’t everyone want to be famous? But she was a reporter, and was going to get her story, so she stepped up her game.

“Mr. Ozan,” she said, “we came all the way from Reno and had a difficult time finding you. If we like what we see, we were going to feature you on the evening news. This is a great deal of exposure!”

“I do not care at all if you like what you see, nor do I care about exposure. In fact, having your cameras intrude upon this performance will seriously disrupt its meaning.” Pepe was becoming extremely annoyed. “Again, I forbid you to film this performance! Now please take you cameras and go away from here!”

“Mr. Ozan…”

That was the last he allowed her to speak. He snapped around and faced her for the first time. She froze in his headlights.

“The only way that I will allow you to film is for you to take off your clothes and enter into the performance naked. Then you will have full exposure, and you will be the news. Do you understand me?”

She stood there with her Maybelline mouth hanging open and her ridiculous Channel 2 microphone dangling in her hand. I thought I saw one of her camera crew stifle a laugh with a snort. I guess being naked on the evening news was more exposure than she could handle. We started closing in on her like puss around a splinter and the news lady and her team vanished as quickly as they had come. I had finally found a world that understood that ‘reality TV’ was moronic. There really was no such thing. The only way to truly experience Pepe’s opera was to be in Pepe’s opera. He was my new hero.

I had spent most of the day at Pepe’s camp readying for the night. I had become a regular visitor there, and for good reason. It was a beautiful camp with beautiful people doing beautiful things. Paradox and his girlfriend Tierza were our silky hosts and the welcome was always warm. Tierza was sweet and lively like a little pixie, and would flutter the camp with fun. No one could be angry when she was around. It seemed like I had always been a part of their world. BRC was working to warp yet another perception — the illusion of time. The last four days had been stretched into some sort of Mobius time loop, and like a dream, we seemed locked in the forever of now. Even the goat was becoming a good friend. Turns out it was a she, and her name was Mephistopheles after the satanic character she was to play in the opera. She was the mascot of the camp, but her heart belonged to Steffanos, the dashing actor that was to play the High Priest, (also named Steffanos). Even though he was a tall and handsome Greek specimen that killed it in a loincloth, he was gracious and humble, without a shred of arrogance. He had come from a rural childhood and had been the only one to notice that Mephistopheles was over engorged with milk. The poor thing was in misery. He took her and held her head with his knees and milked her dry. He told me that he suspected that the goat had fallen in love with him because she wouldn’t leave his side, and would give milk only when he milked her — which was every day. Another girl in the camp knew just what to do with that goat’s milk. We’d sit like Persian royalty on lavish pillows in company with Mephistopheles, while partaking in fresh baked bread topped with fresh goat cheese and curds, drinking wine and eating dates.

“I thought it took months to make cheese,” I had said.

“This is ‘Chevre’ cheese,” the girl replied. “It only takes two days to make.”

I would think of these times when I would be back in San Francisco tipping into my neighborhood bar where the regular frumps were still sitting on the same barstools telling the same bar stories. I had been to the edge of the planet and back, and these guys hadn’t budged an inch.

“How was that dead man burning thing that you went to, or whatever it was?” One was sure to ask. Most hadn’t even noticed that I was gone.

I would just nod my head and say,

“Fine! Great! Had a good time.”

How could I tell them what it was really like?

The day of the performance had been a roiling sea. The inevitable conflagration of the cocks of catastrophe was drawing near and there was still a great deal of work to be done. A high point of the day had been when the hardwood delivery truck showed up. Pepe had been nervously watching the horizon all morning for it. It was understandable for the opera would be ruined without it. Finally an old beat up panel truck belched in on squeaky breaks, fuming out the camp with black diesel smoke. A local rancher was driving the load in from up in the canyon where there was still some trees left. He was craggy, and sliver haired, looking to be in his late sixties and wearing a sweat stained cowboy hat. He had on a shabby button down cowboy shirt, Wrangler jeans, and boots that he was probably going to die in. The look he had on his face was curiosity mixed with primal fear — his wide eyes being magnified even further by thick smudged glasses as he regarded our freakish bunch. Pepe’s army of gargoyles immediately jumped on the truck and started off loading the wood.

“What the hell is this?” was all the rancher could manage to say as he handed Pepe a receipt.

“It is an opera depicting Dante’s Inferno that we are performing tonight where we are going to burn the lingams of Satan.”

Not sure if he knew what a lingam was, but the rancher literally flinched at the word ‘Satan’ as if he had just been jabbed in the face with a fork. When the wood was offloaded, he snatched his money and clamored back into his truck with no time to lose. Then he drove out of there like a bat out of — well — Hell. Pepe wore a wide grin as he watched the dust drift off the fleeing truck. It seemed the fucking with people was one of his favorites. He was a self-proclaimed atheist and would love to jolt people who were slumbering under a blanket of blind faith. He was going to get in there and wake them up, if he could — even if it was one person at a time. There would be those who would get a glimpse of Pepe’s opera that night that would confuse the ‘performance’ to be an actual ‘ritual’. A few members of Pat Robertson’s 700 club did just that, and only after seeing just a few minutes of the show, (yes, they were there), took the horrific news of paganism and ‘Devil Worship’ back to Mr. Robertson who then devoted an entire show of his to prayer for the lost souls of Burning Man. Good to know someone was looking out for us, I guess.

The last of the twilight sank behind the Granite mountain range as Pepe’s heinous lingam castle was set at Hell’s gate. The camp was filled with the nerves of opening night as the cast was getting into character. Pepe had enlisted Jason’s magic brush as many were to preform in the nude, and most costuming was revealing. I sat fidgeting around in my ripped up diaper swaddling and watched as we prepared ourselves for a journey into Hell. Paradox was going from person to person, grabbing them and shaking them into the characters that would be populating the nine levels surrounding the burning boners.

“This is not a pretend world!” he shouted. “We all must enter into the Hell of our own creations and actually feel the sins that we were condemned for!”

The rehearsals had been arduous. We spent hours marching around and around those towers with Pepe’s bullhorn prodding us like cattle.

“Ok, let’s try it again. The arrival of Empress Zoe has to happen at the climax!”

It had been two hours in the heat of the day as I poured sweat into that fucking latex bug mask. It was like some kind of medieval torcher device. I was again thinking of why couldn’t I have been in the ‘Lust’ level of hell? ‘Gluttony’ was starting to look pretty good too. I was getting added slack from Paradox’s brother all day as well. He was still feeling burned and had it out for me.

It was time for the show. One by one, the cast emerged from their camps in full costume. It was a bizarre mix of Goth meets Broadway Theatre where death makeup was mixed with sequin and gold lame fabrics. Each level of Hell had its own theme with customized body painting. The gluttons had huge mouths painted on their bellies. Greed had wanting eyes covering their bodies and were led by a mosquito stilt puppet that thirsted for blood. Lust was a cast of sexy women and a few well-built men, some dressed in fetish wear, and some completely nude — all of them body painted. There was a group wearing convincing cockroach costumes scooting about — not sure which level they belonged to, but they were realistic and creepy. As the performance approached, so did the reality of our trek into Hades as the lead characters started to appear. The demon priests were wearing golden conical helms with matching shiny robes. The Graces of Hell had high silver headdresses that flared out making them look like bishops on a chessboard. And then came Steffanos, the high priest. The extra care of Jason’s brush made him look savage. His features, which were chiseled to begin with, were now highlighted with black and white strokes. He wore beautiful hand woven robes with white horns protruding from his forehead. His large Greek nose had a white line down it with red lines over his brow making his eyes look sinister. His entrance stilled the camp as he leaned his head back and belted out a baleful laugh.

The next character to emerge was Justin as The Empress Zoe, herself. She was dark haired and beautiful — a buxom girl with the features of a princess. She was wearing a high crown that looked like it was made of knife blades and a black studded collar with little else under a white fur robe. As she walked by, her robe parted a bit and I noticed she was wearing a strap-on dildo. Then I remembered the part of the story where she was hermaphroditic and the dildo was to be a featured part of the sex act. Pepe had covered all the bases of showmanship.

Then Satan, himself came into the room. Or should I say was led in. It was Mephistopheles, the goat, in full costume and ready to play her role. A woman looking like she just stepped out of Christ’s manger was leading her on a leash. The woman was wearing a tattered scarf over her head with a torn frock and sandals, adding an unexpected biblical flare to the scene. Mephistopheles had also been body painted, was wearing black studded leather, and had a great set of black horns on her head. For a moment I was reminded of the little dog, ‘Max’, that pulls the Grinch’s sleigh. Out of context, a goat with fake horns and wearing a biker jacket might be considered laughable, or even stupid. But just like the cookies and milk, the experiences of BRC are boosted through the amplifier of circumstance. We had shed our minds of mediocrity and had filled it with the blood lust of a trip into Hell. Strip malls were a billion miles away. We were ready to go.

The twilight was gone and I was sitting cross-legged in a corner of the camp nervously waiting. I’m not sure how much time passed before I realized that Oliver, the charcoal-eyed man who had given me the Niacin on that first day, was sitting next to me. We had become good friends over the last few days. He stared at me for a moment, as if he were searching.

“Have you ever read any Carlos Castaneda,” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, “I read The Teachings of Don Juan a few years back.”

“Do you remember where he describes the spirit that lives in the Peyote plant named ‘Mescalito’?”

“Yes, I do”

“According to the Toltec teachings taught to Castaneda by a Yaqui Native American shaman, there are spirits that live in ‘power’ plants — we know them as psychedelic plants — and some of these spirits will acquaint with you if you let them. Mescalito is one of those spirit guides that you can choose to follow, or not. Or better put — if he chooses to let you follow him. The bum trip you had the other day was too many power spirits that you weren’t ready for. The timing was forced and you were out of balance from the start. But some power plant spirits can be enlightening if you let them. Even in Dante’s Inferno, Dante had a guide that led him down through Hell. His name was Virgil. Here is your Virgil — acquaint yourself if you wish. He can guide you through this Inferno.”

He handed me a small baggie with a mushroom cap in it and was gone.

We paced the camp as we peered over to the far side of the city where an enormous crowd was gathered around the tower of Helco. The bitter yawns of the mushroom cap were starting to take affect soon after I chewed it, and my vision was improving. You could see many plumes of fire blowing from the flamethrowers of the monstrous contraptions that had been built for the occasion by the Survival Research Laboratory (a close cousin of the Cacophony Society). They all had the industrial look of war machine terminators sent here from the apocalyptic future. They were amalgams of hydraulics, axel grease, and sharp shit the size of machetes mounted on mechanical arms that looked like they were pulled from earth moving machines. They would snap and chomp while the flames shot out at you laterally. There was no need to create a perimeter.

There had been talk all week about the stunts leading up to this burn including John Law actually climbing the sixty foot gas soaked building to light it with a road flare, then zip-line off the top as the whole thing exploded. That burn became a legendary event in Burning Man history, but there were no thoughts of legacy in anyone’s minds on that night. It was just unbridled locomotion in the desert. We sat in Pepe’s camp and listened to the jet roar of cheers as the flames of Helco burned high enough to light the mountainsides.

Fire-lust has always been a feature of mankind. It’s a direct tap into the fiery origins of life itself. Our psyches follow that tap into a prehistoric memory that was the original blueprint of chaos. Helco was a small city let to burn, inciting the crowd as they watched fire consume building after building on purpose. You could feel the core of the gathering becoming unstable and dangerous as they bought into the lunacy — like the whole thing was about to blow.

The time had come. Helco was now nothing more that a heap of coals and the Reno news crew had been swatted away like a bug. Everyone was ready for the next burn fix, as the crowd made their way to the bon fires of Pepe’s Hell. Lit torches and random flames burned everywhere, and the steady pummel of drums never stopped. The grade B movie set of rehearsal had been transformed. What was mesh and mud this afternoon was now the altar of Satan. The cast was in place, their characters as real as the emotions that were driving them. I, too, was getting caught in the moment and was starting to feel actual rage. The mushroom of Virgil was guiding me away from my fears and splashing this world with the vivid paintbrush of psychedelics. The eyeholes of the latex bug mask were fairly small, but I was still able to take it all in as Pepe leaned his head back, stretched out his arms, and let out a bellow to start the show. It was like opening the iron gates and letting the lions into the arena! The high priests that were carrying long staffs that had flaming demonic symbols atop led the precession. The demons of Hell in their tall bishop’s hats followed them as they twirled like the Dervish. A prerecorded sound tape started that was an amalgam of clatters and clanks of bells and gongs, while agonizing moans and screams of the damned souls resounded, demonstrating the agonies of the underworld. Then came the forsaken populace of the nine levels of Dante’s Inferno as we wormed through the crowd in the fits of our appointed sins. We circled the lingam castle several times as the intensity increased with each pass. Everywhere I looked there were powerful images — some that were scripted, and others that were random outbursts. Gluttony squirmed by us with their horrible gaping mouths on their bellies, and I saw a blonde dominatrix that was painted and pierced throughout. She was half exotic dancing, half crawling through the dust while carrying a bucket full of blood and gore. Reaching into the bucket, she would pull out the bloody chum and take exaggerated bites, smearing the gore over her face and letting the blood drip down over her breasts and body. Turning in another direction I saw a bald naked man wildly contorting himself in a tantrum of hysteria and dragging a box trunk around with him in the dust. Every now and then he would drag the trunk into the crowd and shut himself into it. After a few moments, he would pop back out in a fit of terror scaring the shit out of everyone. He would then grab the rope and rage on dragging his trunk behind. Nobody knew who he was or where he came from. Was this performance art? Who could tell the difference and what did it matter? Each level had its own improvisation that depicted the evils of Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery.

Then the sound track stepped up to horns blowing with chorus chanting as the drumming got louder and faster. It was the arrival of Empress Zoe. As scripted, we all fell to our knees and bowed deeply. The gargoyles continued to heap more and more wood onto the bon fires, as they grew almost too hot to bear. The drumming grew frantic matching the increasingly haunting sound track. I looked up from my crouch and beheld the magnificent Minotaur, (half man half bull), lugging towards me with arms outstretched. He was clad in a leather yolk and pulling an ornate metal chariot. In the chariot was Empress Zoe surrounded by her lustful naked minions. I instantly recognized the linebacker build of the Minotaur — it was Will. He was wearing a hideous mask of a bull that had piercing horns protruding out two feet on either side of his head, and was painted in the boldest strokes of Jason’s brush yet. He bellowed out a huge roar as he leaned into the yolk, digging hard to pull his burden. Virgil’s psychedelic guidance was blurring the lines between worlds as I was realizing that reality can be what you make it. I was convinced. I was in Hell.

The Minotaur pulled the chariot around and around the lingam castle as the lust of sex rose with the horror of Hell. Many had climbed into the chariot engaging in a pantomime of orgy that was becoming real with the Empress Zoe at the center.

The opera was nearing a full hour when the Empress was brought to the steps of the lingam castle surrounded in flame. A fire had been set directly underneath the platform where the High Priest stood encircled by his demons. The Empress stepped down off the chariot and faced the fires. Then she reached into her robe and tossed the Casiksi Diamond into the fire, (which was a lump of magnesium that burns with a blinding flash and was mixed with black powder). The resulting explosion temporarily engulfed the actors on the platform in a mushroom of white flame. Cast and crowd alike let out a nervous shriek, as it was clear that we were playing with some big fire and the danger was real. Steffanos confessed later that the magnesium flash burned most of the hair off his legs and arms. When the smoke cleared, the fire under the platform was three times the size and flames were now starting to lick up around the platform’s edges. Then I heard a familiar east coast laugh.

“Ha ha ha! You better watch it! The fires of Hell are real! Ha Ha!”

It was Flash. I turned to see him standing there. He was wearing a red suit with shiny silver lapels, red shoes, red socks, and his face and beard painted in red. There were two red horns coming from his forehead, and I would have not been surprised to see a red forked tongue darting out of his mouth. This was Papa Satan. He lifted his arms and twirled off into the crowd.

Steffanos then came down the steps of the platform to retrieve the Empress Zoe. She bowed to him and shed her robe revealing the substantial dildo to the crowd. He grabbed her and carried her up the steps Lois Lane style as flames burned all around them, and when they got to the platform, they engaged in vigorous sex acts of many kinds as the demons of Hell in their bishop’s hats and golden robes came in with torches to light the hardwood within the lingam towers.

Meanwhile, the frenzy of the nine levels never lost intensity with the opera coming into its second hour. The towers quickly caught, and within minutes were thirty-foot blast furnaces. Jet flames were shooting out the top of the towers sending sparks into the heavens while the demon faces on the sides glared out with eyes and mouths of flame. The clay covering the lingam castle started to break up into a mosaic of glowing cracks as flame licked out of them, making it look like a barren planet about to explode. As the flames crackled to a white hot flash point, I noticed that the wire mesh of one of the towers was glowing bright orange, and I could see it buckling as the metal became molten. Paradox, who was painted white, and was the lone angel of reason in this world of demons, saw the tilting tower and rushed the stage, waving his arms to warn the actors. They saw the impending peril and clamored down the steps, and within moments after everyone got off the stage, the tower crashed down where the cast had just been in an explosion of flame and sparks. The crowd erupted into a huge roar as Lucifer’s mouth opened from below and devoured the lingam castle, one penis at a time. That was a fucking close one, I thought! This was the first time that I experienced genuine fear. The performance had lost all control and the pin had been pulled on the grenade of fire lust. The frenzy was becoming a mob.

I heard a whisper from inside my ear. It was coming from the spirit of the mushroom cap – the power plant of Virgil.

“Don’t be afraid. The fall of these towers is a metaphor of this Inferno of Burning Man. The city has grown with the arrival of many who are less experienced in the ‘Art of Danger’. They are following our perilous ways as we become responsible for them. The weight of their arrival will topple the city like that tower. Fire lust wishes to consume itself, but if we cap the explosion, it can become an engine that can drive a communal movement. But first we shall have to watch it fall.”

Paradox had saved the lives of the actors. He had become liable for them.

From here on out, the City of Dis became a whoosh of chaos. The fallen towers had opened the gates and mayhem flooded in. It was then that I collided with Jackrabbit, Paradox’s brother. We stood for a moment face to face. He knew it was I. I will never know the real reason, be it impulse or animosity, but out of the blue, Jackrabbit swung on me with a right cross sucker punch and clocked me on the jaw dropping me to the dust! The punch spun my bug mask around, leaving me blind — the eyeholes somewhere on the backside of my head. I got up and the next several minutes were spent in a full tussle with this man, one hand parrying off the blows and the other frantically trying to spin the mask back around to line up the eyeholes again. Why didn’t I just take the mask off? I shall never know. Was breaking character out of the question? Either way, I hadn’t been in a fight since grade school and all reason was gone. I was loosing badly while trying to gulp for air and only horking up dust as we mashed on. We both hit the playa, the fight becoming a squirming wrestle match. I finally got the mask around to where at least one eye hole lined up, and all I could see were the looks of disbelief on the faces of people wondering if this was real or staged. I, myself, was unsure.

“There really fighting,” I thought I heard a girl squeal.

I was true. I was dropping to a new level of Hell that I hadn’t bargained for. Virgil wasn’t going to whisper me out of this one.

And just like that, it was over as quick as it started. Jackrabbit got up off of me and vanished into the mayhem like a dust devil.

Up next… Chapter 4: Inferno

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About the author: Tony "Coyote" Perez-Banuet

Tony

Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet has been coming to the desert to build and strike Black Rock City since 1996. A professional musician for over twenty years, Burning Man culture was an easy shift for him. He co-founded the Department of Public Works of BRC in 1998 and has been the City Superintendent ever since. Known as the "Bard of the Desert", telling stories around the campfire is among the things he does best. He has been blogging under the moniker of “Coyote Nose” for many years, and he is Burning Man's first Storytelling Fellow.