Remembering Larry: A Man for Our Time

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey’s passing, we remember the Man in the Hat by sharing articles, audio and videos from friends, family and co-conspirators. Here, Burning Man co-founder Danger Ranger shares his memories of the early years with Larry and insights into a intellectual, collaborative friendship that spanned decades.

I met Larry Harvey in 1988 when word of an upcoming summer solstice bonfire bubbled up thru my network of friends in San Francisco. That fire sparked a collaborative friendship that continued over the next three decades. 

Our relationship varied from close to combative, but it was always deeply intellectual. On Sunday mornings I used to bring donuts over to his place in the big apartment building at the top of Alamo Square. He would make a pot of strong coffee and we would sit at his kitchen table for hours discussing the meaning of all things. His place was always in disarray because he valued ideas more than things. 

He shared these ideas with the passion of someone with a lonely heart. Occasionally he would pause and tug on his earlobe; it was like he was shaking loose some deeper thought that needed to get out. I came to have a deep understanding of this incredible man. It’s a story that can be told in his own words.

A young Larry — look at that face!

“I grew up on a farm in Oregon, an adopted child, with one sibling, and parents the age of all my peers’ grandparents. We lived in isolation from the people around us, and it was always a struggle to cope with as a child. The heart can really expire under those conditions.”

I learned much about his childhood and his motivations. I came to realize that Larry was doing Burning Man in 4th grade… just without the Man.

“When I was a kid in the fourth grade, I wrote plays,” Larry said. “We had this great teacher who was always talking about your creative being. He was the first adult who ever told me that I should do what I wanted to do and that I could define the terms of it out of a creative impulse. So I started writing plays. Then I’d recruit the actors. Then I’d get people to build scenery and produce these shows in our class and then we eventually took it onto the stage and did it before the other classes.”

Larry had a way of drawing you into his projects. It was like a ‘Tom Sawyer-helping-me-paint- this-fence routine. He was also always thinking big.

“I was 12 years old when I was fascinated by Mesoamerican architecture,” he said. “When other kids were dreaming about doing plane models, I was doing models of Mesoamerican pyramids. Yeah, my ideas had a somewhat grandiose aspect. They all involved out-scale kinds of things. They all involved social connection, connecting people together. ‘Cause that was a thing I wanted to do since my family was very, very isolated.”

In dust — and mud — we trust: Larry in 1993. (Photo by Danger Ranger)

During the early years of Burning Man, we had long conversations about esoteric and philosophical subjects, and how they might apply to the world around us today.

“We live in the most self-conscious society in the history of mankind. There are good things in that, but there are also terrible things. The worst of it is, that we find it hard to give ourselves to the cultural process. We watch projected images of others being and doing, which isolate us from our innermost needs, because we are not involved personally being, doing and becoming connected to other people around us. We substitute the attainment of material objects for the experience of being.”

As Burning Man grew, we began to realize the importance of it all.

“We have become a nation of posers, “ Larry mused. “It’s not a life that’s lived or shared, but an imitation of life, a kind of commercial for self.”

The desert was where Burning Man took root and flourished. It became a city and a community.

“Well, it seems to me, that all real communities grow out of a shared confrontation with survival,” Larry said. “Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere goodwill. They grow out of a shared struggle. Our situation in the desert is an incubator for community.” 

And each year the seeds of Burning Man spread beyond the Black Rock and took root in other locations. 

“I think it has potential to grow into a global movement, frankly,” my friend said. “For that to happen, we have to figure out a system of governance that basically protects the values of the movement in the same way that the city boundaries, and the Rangers, and other institutions protect the integrity of our municipality in the desert — same principle.” 

Today, Burning Man. Tomorrow, the world! Larry in 2010. (Photo by Danger Ranger)

Larry found himself leading a movement, along with all the responsibilities that come with it.

“Leaders don’t take things personally; you just can’t. You just have to put yourself aside. People don’t imagine that. They think, ‘Geez, I want to be famous,’ but whoever imagines the responsibility? No one ever imagines the amount of moral obligations that come with it. But what we’re doing is so socially connected that you can’t escape it. You couldn’t even lead it if you behaved that way ‘cause no one would follow you.” 

He left us with an incredible legacy.

“As you get older, you begin to realize that, if your name is out there, you learn what the limits of that are, and the limits are very personal,” Larry shared. “It doesn’t change your person. You’re still the same person, which is just me. On the other hand, just the knowledge that everybody knows your name… the idea that I don’t want to die. It’s a delusion. When I die, I’ll be dead and I’m an atheist so I know that’s the end. I believe that, it’s my faith. I find that a useful faith.”

Thank you, Larry.

Top photo: Larry Harvey and Danger Ranger in 1996. (Photo by Barb Traub)

About the author: Danger Ranger

Danger Ranger

Danger Ranger is Burning Man's Director of Genetic Programming. Some claim he possesses near borderline supernatural powers, including the ability to bi-locate and appear at two places simultaneously. In 1992 he founded the Black Rock Rangers. He also created the first Burning Man mailing list/database, produced the first issue of the Black Rock Gazette, established the Burning Man Archive, and drove the first art car to the Black Rock Desert. Michael functions as the guiding light of San Francisco's famous Cacophony Society. His Silicon Valley career began with Fairchild Semiconductor just a few years before it gave birth to Intel. After 1984, he served as a robotics consultant to Apple Computer and later engineered the rise (and fall) of Jasmine Computer Systems. Always riding the edge, he contributed to the Mondo2000 house in Berkeley and wired Wired Magazine's first office in San Francisco. His wide range of experiences includes having been a combat veteran in Vietnam and a federal fugitive in the United States. Other past activities include involvement with the machine performance group Survival Research Laboratories. Throughout the year, M2 lends his guidance and wisdom to navigate Burning Man into the future.

14 Comments on “Remembering Larry: A Man for Our Time

  • DhammaSeeker says:

    Thank you, Danger Ranger.

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  • Dork Magic says:

    Thanks Danger Ranger

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  • Justin says:

    The best thing Mr. Harvey did was to learn from the happy anarchists who brought him out to the playa, and then package the experience into a week-long holiday for normal people. He was a king of commodification. We owe him so much, but now he’s dead.

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  • Harley Hansen says:

    A fitting tribute and remembrance.

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  • Trilo says:

    Very good stuff. Thanks for that.

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  • Cherry kitty says:

    Larry has always been a inspiration for me to get things done. I’m sad I didn’t have the pleasure of thanking him in person, to just shake his hand and say thank you for all you do and have done. He showed me that hope for a better world is out there somewhere and it’s heart is BRC. As long as burning man exists, there will always be that hope and inspiration for others to see the light.

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  • Matt says:

    “We watch projected images of others being and doing, which isolate us from our innermost needs, because we are not involved personally being, doing and becoming connected to other people around us. We substitute the attainment of material objects for the experience of being.”
    Nothing has taught me more about the “experience of being” than Burning Man.
    Mahalo Larry!

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  • Kitty Ferrari-Vortex says:

    That top pic looks like a still from ‘Fear and Loathing…’ with Larry in the Hunter S Thompson role, obvi. I never saw that perfect pearly smile (although my good friend at UCSF dental school had been more than willing to contribute to one), so it’s harder to recognise him in later shots – often minus the Stetson – but he sure looks happy in ’em. Thank you Larry. A life well lived and shared. #BadHatLarry #grateful

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  • Mykola Kotliarenko says:

    Thank you, Danger Ranger

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  • Stuart M says:

    Great piece Michael, thank you for this.

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  • Rita Volkland says:

    Thanks, Danger Ranger for a lovely tribute and bringing the burn to the desert. What you’ve been instrumental in creating means so much to so many. <3

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