I am not here to apologize or pardon myself. Instead I’m here to let you know what has bothered a lot of people for over two years: why I played “Free Bird” at the burning of the Temple of Juno.
In his wonderfully written essay, “Building the Temple”, John “Moze” Mosbaugh explains just how seriously Burning Man takes the Temple. Moze states that there is a “sacredness, solemnity, a sense of remembrance, grief and renewal.” This is an essential juxtaposition to the high intensity of the rest of Black Rock City, providing an “emotional nexus” as Temple creator David Best called it.
When I first stepped foot into the Temple of Flux in 2010, I was floored by the energy washing over me. Never, even at a funeral, had I ever felt that magnitude of emotion. The power of the space is very real. Many Burners have arrived at the thought that the Temple should always be a quiet space for remembrance, celebration and contemplation of life and death. I’m totally supportive of that idea. But I want to explain that it wasn’t just a “Play some Skynyrd!” moment that propelled me to blast “Free Bird” during the 2012 Temple burn.
It was more than that.
The Department of Public Works (DPW)
If you aren’t totally new at this, you probably already have an opinion about the Department of Public Works. There are many such opinions. Regardless of what yours is, you know these motherfuckers WORK. DPW formed in ’98 and have been busting ass since. A lot of them spend half the year making sure this thing goes off without a hitch. They live and breathe playa dust. I personally know quite a few of them and have tremendous respect for the work they put in so we can all enjoy the city we love for a week. They sometimes get a reputation for being intimidating, especially if you’re a sparklepony, but these kick-ass men and women deserve nothing but praise for what they do.
This brings me to Joseph “Jello” Carroll. Joey was a member of DPW known for pushing others to “take stock and try to be better people.” “Never Betray” was the man’s motto, which was emblazoned in ink on his neck, but backwards, so that while looking in a mirror, he reminded himself to always be true to his moral standards. This man is part of the reason Burning Man is what it is today.
His hard work and dedication resonated with me, even through I never met him before his tragic passing due to a hit-and-run before the event in 2012. I have a friend who was friends with Joey and was distraught about the situation, which lead me to realize how important one person can be to so many, even without them knowing the person. This friend of mine happens to be a member of DPW as well. On the night of the Temple burn, this friend came to me with a proposition: Would I honor Joey by running the mixer on the back of a DPW truck with a single monitor to play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” at the apex of the burn?
I was conflicted, to say the least.
I fully understood the gravity of the emotions surrounding the Temple. I knew this could cause waves, though admittedly I never imagined it would get to where it did. I had never seen this friend in such an emotional state and realized how much this meant to them. I also realized they were not the only one grieving heavily over this loss. I would do what I believed would honor this man in a way I was told he would have appreciated. I would disrupt the Sacred Silence in a way that would inspire emotion — one way or another — in thousands.
As we loaded up the gear into the truck… I was nervous. What would be the consequences of disrupting the last 11 years in honor of one person? “Fuck it. This is Burning Man. Shaking things up is expected, right? Right…?”
Evidently I was sensing what was to come.
Lord Knows, I’m to Blame
When we arrived at the Temple that fateful Sunday night, there was a multitude of sounds, far from silence. As the preparations were made, I thought to myself, for a Sacred Silence, this night is alive with noise. I heard “Ave Maria”, some Bob Marley, a little ambient and some electronica. Some of it didn’t stop as the flames started to rise, and I realized the perceived silence has a lot to do with perspective and where you are stationed around the Temple. It’s not a small area. As we reached the apex, with my friend screaming “We’ll miss you, Joey!”, I started nudging the fader up as those guitars started wailing. Suddenly…
ALL FUCKING HELL BROKE LOOSE!
Within moments there were people rushing to the source of the Skynyrd, one of whom was a member of David Best’s crew. My friend met that person and quickly explained who this dedication was for. That individual, whom I do not know, realized quickly this was no trivial playing of some classic rock. This was for someone special. He was met behind the truck that another DPW crewman and I were in. Within a moment of that meeting, a fellow Burner decided to jump into the back of the truck. He angrily slammed the laptop lid shut to try to cut the music, but the computer was set up so that nothing happened upon screen close. This infuriated the Burner, and he proceed to grab the laptop and throw it at my chest, exclaiming “FIFTY THOUSAND PEOPLE ARE GOING TO RAPE YOU!” No joke.
I think his estimate may have been a bit off, as I doubt 50,000 of the <60,000 or so people present that year were actually at the Temple burn. I also don’t know how many viewing the Burn could hear the song, but never had I heard such a terrifying concept thrown at me. Especially not from a community such as ours. But like I said, Burners take the Temple seriously.
Anyhow, the other DPW member in the truck with me took it upon himself to chest bump said rape-threatener off the back of the truck as the love-of-my-life came running from a different truck next to us and pushed him back as she jumped on the back of the truck. Feisty, that one. I’m screaming at the original instigator of the entire situation, “WE NEED TO FUCKING GO!”
He jumped in the seat, put the beast in drive, and we lurched out of the little nest of animosity around us around three minutes into the eight-minute song. We headed slowly toward the Man’s smoldering remains. I noticed three or four people on bicycles chasing us, evidently caught up enough in their anger to stop caring about their grief. By the time we reached the ashes, there was only one rider left. She got off her bike to chastise us at the fire and realized she was alone. After a brief “You shouldna done dat, because Sacred Temple”, she takes off. I don’t think my adrenaline stopped for an hour.
After my head cleared, and I re-evaluated the situation, I realized that regardless of what anyone would say, I had just made a lasting impact on the Temple burn and Burning Man itself. Little did I know it would go on to be talked about around me for years to come. I’ve heard Burners I didn’t know talking about it. Sometimes I chime in, sometimes I keep my mouth shut. I’m not looking to get raped, after all. If any of you 50,000 are reading this, I’m sorry I ruined your night. My perspective on it is, if you can’t overcome some music during this time of grieving and loss, then you need more than the Temple to help you let go. The ephemeral and ever-changing nature of the Burn causes things like this to happen. Should it become a norm? Definitely not. But I feel it was ultimately appropriate in the situation, regardless of the negativity it received.
I also want to say that I have heard many people say the song was perfect for their moment, even though they didn’t know Joey. I threw the dice, saw where they landed, and am happy I did it. Would I do it again? No chance in hell. Would I disrupt something else in as intense a manner in the future of Burning Man? If I get the chance, I probably would. We’ll see. After all, what the fuck is the Burn if it becomes ordered? Some people seem to think it is heading in that direction. Well… I guess that makes me an agent of chaos.
So that is my story. It has been slightly explained in a post on BoingBoing, but I wanted to clarify my side of things. I just wasn’t brave enough to put it out there until the would-be rapers have calmed their fury somewhat. Thanks for reading. By the way, I was naked when I typed this. Just FYI.
by Forest of Arizona