“The Spirit of Wonka,” Spoono’s iconic day-glo art car, was being towed up the 6 o’clock Promenade toward the Man on Saturday night. The sun had just set, and it was a silent, lonely funereal passage in calm desert twilight.
Tony “Coyote” Perez had hitched up Spoono’s rig to the Volare, the beat up, sorry-ass excuse for a car that he uses to get around Black Rock City. There was no one else with him, save for Matt “Starchild” Deluge, who was sitting in the driver’s seat of the art car, where Spoono would have been, should have been.
Soon, a few hundred or so people would be gathering for Early Man, where crews get ready for the final push of the build by burning effigies – some beautiful, some poignant – a miniature version of Burning Man itself. The Transpo team had made giant fly-swatter. The Commissary crew had made a giant greasy spoon. There were three giant Choco Tacos.
When it was fully dark, Dave X called for a moment of silence to remember Spoono. And then everyone lit up extra large sparklers that glowed red and green.
It’s ironic that this city, known for its debauchery and mayhem, will so often have its throat grabbed by sadness.
Maybe it’s the kind of people who come here. They leave big legacies when they depart, but they might not be the associated with great achievements of state or commerce. Let’s put it this way: People will always be telling great stories about the characters who have swung through this town who were wild enough and tough enough to leave their mark. And Scott “Spoono” Stephenson was one of those people.
No one seems to know with any authority exactly when Spoono first appeared in Gerlach or the Black Rock Desert. Most people say his first job in the area was in 2004 at Bruno’s, the frontier town casino, bar and grubhouse that’s the main sign of life for 70 miles in any direction. He worked as a cook there, and might have had several stints, coming and going as his frustration level waxed and waned.
No one ever heard the story of where he grew up, or who his parents were, or if he had any brothers or sisters. It was as if his life had begun all over again, in that most familiar American story of re-invention, when he came to Nevada. The version of Spoono that took hold here might have been more wholesome, but no less strong.
There’s talk that his past was … checkered. That he had moved with rough people, in dangerous circles. But even then, he always seemed to find the center of things, and to camp there and watch.
Mathew “Starchild” Deluge is the person who Spoono listed as his next of kin on his DPW paperwork. Starchild is actually no relation – just a person that Spoono felt close to, after working long hours over many months during the Burning Man season and afterward. They spent many hours together on the work ranch down the road from the event site, telling stories, being in each other’s lives.
Starchild is a thoughtful, philosophic young man who has a fondness for art, the desert and making things. He’s a crew leader on the DPW, and on the Resto team that makes sure we’ve left no trace in the desert.
Most recently, Spoono would visit him in Reno just about every day in the offseason. They lived about mile away from each other. He’d come by, pet the dog, just be there.
Spoono was one of the people who helped Starchild recover from memory loss issues after he had his own health problems. “He knew more about me than I do,” Starchild said.
They were working partners in Burners Without Burners in the New Jersey operation, when a team went to help out after Hurricane Sandy. Starchild believes Spoono was originally from New York, so he had a fondness and familiarity with the area.
Starchild was talking about the effect that Spoono’s death has had on Black Rock City, even on people who didn’t know him that well. He said it was like their reaction to a clebrity’s death. “Their work affected them in such a significant way, you know?”
“He was as much a part of this place as Larry Harvey, or Will Roger or Coyote or Logan or any of us. He really was. And he became that by being useful, not by pushing his way in or sleeping with anybody. He was just the most capable person in the room. He was the guy you relied on.”
We wondered, with Spoono’s constant presence in his life, if Starchild thought of him as a father or a friend. “Definitely a friend,” he answered immediately. “He didn’t want to be a father. The responsibility of that, and then the disappointment of having your ‘kids’ disappoint you, he didn’t want to be that guy…. For himself and other people near him, he had high standards.
“He’s definitely the kind of asshole that we should all aspire to be.”
Starchild knew that Spoono liked to tell stories, and in the telling there may have been the slightest amount of exaggeration.
“But you know, most of us will never come close to, in our white bread, electric locks, electric windows air-conditioned world … but the places he’s been, he’s always been in the shadows of most of the big things going on music-wise, culture-wise. You know, if there were bikers out in the middle of nowhere, raising hell, he was there. … Just like he was here, he was one of the people who made it go. Without him it wouldn’t have happened the way it did.”
It’s hard to calculate how great an impact he has had here, even though he never held any high-ranking job in the Burning Man organization. At the time of his death, he was in his tenth year as a “runner,” making back-and-forth trips to Reno to pick up supplies for the event. All day, every day, back and forth across the 90 miles. A lesser person might have been crushed by the boredom and repetitiveness of being a runner for so long, But Spoono never seemed bored, and he never seemed to just be doing his job. It was likely that he was running a handful of errands for people on every trip. Pick up your meds. Pick up so and so from the airport. Go to the grocery store, even get your laundry done.
“They’d have to tell people not to ask Spoono for anything,” Booya was saying at his trailer site in the Ghetto on Thursday afternoon, the day he and P-Fluff discovered that Spoono was dead. “They’d have to tell them, ‘He has a job!’ … But he’d still do things.”
Spoono wasn’t a loud person. But you always knew when he was around. He had a hulking presence, because he was a big man, tall and thick. He didn’t have to tell the loudest joke or laugh the hardest or tell the wildest story to be noticed. He had a presence. And what was happening mattered more, just because he was there.
And Spoono had an edge. He did not like lightweight, superficial people. He had a profoundness that was simple and direct. It often wasn’t what he said; it was more of what he did, and how he observed you, that made him special.
He’d size you up. Take your measure. Decide for himself if you were cut out for whatever job you were tasked with. And if he found you lacking, he’d tell you, to your face.
And yet, he always seemed to be around when you needed him. TPR was saying that the day before Spoono died, he was making a run from Reno with what he feared was a questionable load. “So I pulled into the Nixon store,” TPR said, “and there was Spoono. ‘How you doing, buddy?’” TPR imitated Spoono’s voice. So he told him what was up, and Spoono told him he’d have his back as he returned to Gerlach.
It was always like that with Spoono. He could anticipate what you needed. He could find a place for himself almost anywhere, because whatever needed to happen, he could help.
It was like that his first years in DPW. In 2007, the crew that had built the city were left to fend for themselves when the event started. They weren’t allowed to eat in the Commissary anymore, because they were no longer working. And most of them were exhausted from having already spent three weeks in the desert.
“The Ghetto (the place were DPW workers camp) was a little more ghetto then,” Jenerator was saying the other day. That’s where she first met Spoono. The Hun and Jenerator told Spoono that if he wanted to get to know more people, he should cook for them. So he set up shop in the Ghetto for the hungry and nearly homeless.
“Those were dark days for the DPW,” Coyote said.
Spoono made them better, but it wasn’t always smooth. Somehow, the propane line to his camp kitchen stopped functioning. Spoono was convinced someone had cut it. The politics of feeding the Ghetto were thick, and Spoono was convinced someone had taken it out on him. He came roaring out of his trailer with a loaded .45 in his hand. “He was saying, ‘I’m gonna shoot the motherfucker who did this to me,’” Hazmat remembered.
“I think he was making sure that if someone did mess with him, it wasn’t going to happen again,” Starchild said.
Later in 2007, a bunch of Burners went to Mississippi to help with the cleanup from Hurricane Katrina (and the group eventually became Burners Without Borders).
“He was working some scab job in West Virginia when he heard” that a contingent was heading south, Tom Price, who was instrumental in founding both Burners Without Borders and Black Rock Solar, said. Spoono quit on the spot and headed off.
“I once gave him $120 and asked him to feed 20 people for a week,” Price said. “Didn’t bat an eye. … “He went and bought weed, slipped it to the loading dock guard at a salvation army supply depot, and filled his truck to the brim.”
But aside from all of these public acts, it was the private moments of help and support that cemented Spoono’s legacy.
Kelsey Owens is a young woman who has Spoono’s kind of relentlessness and grit. A few weeks ago, she visited the Temple of Promise crew as they labored in Reno to get ready for the build on the playa. She’s a veteran of big builds, including the Piers projects and Embrace. The Temple crew grabbed her on the spot.
So she had to scramble to get ready to spend a month or more in the desert. She
called Spoono for help, asking if he knew anyone who might have a trailer she could use.
He gave her his.
Some people said, in hindsight, that Spoono may have had an inkling that his time was coming near. He told some of them that this was his last Burn, that he had had one more Survey in him, but that was it.
But Starchild isn’t buying that. He believes that Spoono was just tired, and beginning to accept the reality that his tough life had worn his body down. “His body was paying for it now.”
He had been hospitalized for almost a month about 18 months ago, and many people thought he wouldn’t make it. But he did, and he came back last year, thinner, paler, maybe a bit more subdued. But he was back this year, bigger and heartier, but he was still ailing. He had gotten bad medical news a day or two before he died.
Spoono didn’t talk about his natural family, but Starchild said he had many families, many groups that he ran with for a time. But that this was the one he thought he could settle down with. “I feel like that’s what he was looking for when he found this place, a family that was worth it.”
In photography, there’s a term called dynamic range, and that’s the amount of light and dark that a camera can “see.” And the bigger the dynamic range, the more able it is to handle the darkness and the light. It strikes us that Spoono had huge dynamic range; when he was dark, he was very dark. And when he was light, he had the softest touch imaginable.
But Spoono had that edge. It was an edge born of dangerous people and sketchy places, with the possibility that every deal was going to go bad, that you were going to have to scramble to get out of there.
Spoono was famous in Black Rock City for, among other things, his beignets. Fresh, hot, delicious, always plenty of powdered sugar. And he’d make them appear anywhere, at the time that they would be appreciated most.
There they were at Survey camp in the chill predawn light. There they were the mornings after Early Man, as the cleanup crews put the playa back in shape. And they were there on random Sunday mornings, when he’d give you that little sideways nod of his head, and the corners of his mouth would turn up in a sly smile, like he was letting you in on a secret. Yeah, we’re gonna have some beignets Sunday.
The Temple of Promise crew made beignets the morning after Spoono died. Matt Schultz, the big-art builder who made Embrace last year and the two Pier projects in previous years, thought it was important that all the new people on the crew get a sense of who Spoono was. So he had everyone go outside and face the open playa and shout his name in unison, so you could hear it echoing down the desert.
“Spoono saved us,” Shultz said at Early Man. When they were starting the first Piers project, struggling to get money, struggling to get enough volunteers, Spoono would show up and feed them. Just when they needed it most.
So the Temple crew made beignets in Spoono’s honor. But with all the sweetness and affection of the gesture, they weren’t Spoono’s beignets. Spoono’s beignets were made from a 100-year-old starter given to him by his grandmother that he somehow had kept alive as he made his way around the country and Nevada and Burning Man and Black Rock Solar and Burners Without Borders and all the other stops on his hard-traveled life.
But those beignets may have died with Spoono. No one has been able to find his stash of starter dough, although the search goes on.
We were talking with Michael Michael on Saturday night about how many people who were at Early Man hadn’t even been born the first time a Man was burned, back on Baker Beach in San Francisco 30 years ago. Spoono will become part of the history of Burning Man, without ever having held a lofty position, or become a manager, or been decorated in any official way, ever.
But his values and his contribution go to the core values that have sprung up around the event. He personified the kind of hard-ass creative type, who have a longing for meaning and purpose, that could describe many longtime Burners. It might be the essence of what draws people back to the desert, even with the influx of the rich and the famous, even with all the newbies, even with all the hassle of getting a ticket.
Spoono was never any kind of woo woo New Age preacher, draping his actions in the ethereal language of the so-called enlightened. But he was caring, and responsible, and grateful. The old stand-bys. And he personified the values that Burning Man espouses – self reliance, community, giving. He was revered. His presence was a link to the long ago, to the rough and ready days.
Spoono found his place and his people here, and maybe he found himself here, too. He became the man that he had always wanted to be. Spoono’s whole reason for being here was a metaphor for the build itself; if he found that your plate was empty, he put things on it to sustain you, to nourish you, to inspire you.
And now he’ll never have to leave. The smell of morning coffee and getting an early start on the day will always remind us of Spoono. We don’t know yet where his final resting place will be, but we know that that his big, wandering soul will always be here with us in the desert, under the stars, forever.
More photos from Early Man: