He’s gone deep tonight – as deep as you can before the trash fence suddenly appears in your headlights. He’s come to be alone. He’s come to get away from the thumping techno that still echoes even out here, he’s come to get away from the green laser lights that still soar just over head. If he turns around He’ll be able to see all of Black Rock City displayed in the distance like a mirage of heaven and hell, but he doesn’t turn around. He looks at the stars. Out here they fill the night sky.
It turns out he can’t get away from the music and the lasers and the city: they follow him to the stars. The only thing he can get away from, out here, is people. It will have to do.
He aimed for a spot in the middle of the empty desert, almost dead on 12 o’clock, where there were no red or blinking lights in the distance … no people visible, no one to be near. Just him and the stars … or as close as he can get. His lights are all turned off. Darkness is danger, but also privacy.
He opens his mouth and starts to sing.
Usually he starts with soft and lilting Celtic songs … He’s been carrying a song of lost love on his shoulders all week … but it’s a sailor song that comes out. Goodbye, farewell, I’m bound over the ocean. His voice carries: it leaps, something in the air is lifting it up into the night. Verse after verse pours out of him, song after song, as though the desert air is drinking the music. He can feel a tickle in the back of his throat … this dust is terrible on his voice … and he should stop. But he doesn’t. He sings another. And another. He sing the Mingulay Boat Song, an old favorite, a song of struggle towards homecoming …
… and something opens up in his throat …
… and the sound goes big. He’s sung this song a hundred times, but never like this. Round, robust, loud and beautiful – the kind of song that could lead a ship over the edge of the earth.
And for a moment it’s like he’s following the song, sailing through a sea of night, and his voice will carry out to the stars and they will really hear him. One little man’s voice, from all the way down here, will carry and be heard across this vast distance. He’s never sung this well in his life. It seems … possible.
What care we, though white the minch is?
What care we for wind and weather?
Heave her in boys, every inch is
Sailing nearer to Mingulay!
But of course it isn’t. The earth will keep his song, just like the playa is sucking the timbre out of his voice – he can feel his throat getting scratchier and scratchier and soon his upper register will disappear. He’s giving it his all, and that will be all he’s got.
It won’t be enough. The truth is it’s the stupid, stupid green lasers that will go out into space. It’s the stupid, stupid, thumping techno … carried by radio waves … that will travel forever. The very things he came out here to get away from will get where he’s trying to go, eventually reaching the stars that he sings to in vain. Even now, at the very best he’s ever been, they’ll never know he exists.
He sees blinking out of the corner of his eye as he come to the last chorus. There must be a bicyclist or two here now. They’re not moving, they must be standing still and watching him. He tries not to care. If he can just finish this chorus he’ll have … he’ll have … he doesn’t really know what he’ll have accomplished. But he’ll have sung like it truly mattered. Even if the earth will swallow it whole.
He finishes the last syllables. “Sailing homeward to Mingulay!” There’s no wind. Above him, the green lasers roam into the horizon. None of the bicyclists move. He doesn’t turn. How many are there? None of them speak.
He’s not ready to stop. His throat is raw but he’s not ready to stop. His upper register is gone, but he’s not ready to stop. He picks an easy melody, a ditty, an old religious lullaby – it’s all he can offer anymore – and opens his mouth again.
He repeat: “Allelujah … Allelujah … Allelujah … unworthy I to tend to thee.”
That’s all there is to the song. He sings it again. And again.
He sings it again, looking at the stars. “Unworthy, I to tend to thee.”
Eventually he has to stop. He turns back to his bike, grabs his water … and blinks
He is surrounded by lights. Red, white, green, blinking, headlights … a sea of lights stretching out along the trash fence, and in the distance more coming this way. Like comets. Like stars.
Someone he can’t see speaks, an old man. “I heard you all the way out from the Bijou,” he says, “and I had to come.”
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com