Remembering Larry: Playing with Words

I first met Larry Harvey in the summer of 1993, a few days after Michael Mikel invited me to Burning Man to publish the event’s onsite newspaper, the Black Rock Gazette. The meeting did not seem auspicious, at least not at the time. We met at Central Sign, the Oakland-based company that Michael owned with his partners John Law and Chris Radcliffe, a cluttered and cigarette-scented second floor walk-up. The three partners were all there, and they did most of the talking. But there was also this other guy, a dark-haired fellow with a Jimmy Stewart stammer, who didn’t seem to say much of anything that made any sense. In fact, I’m pretty sure I left with the impression that Radcliffe was the Burning Man guy, and that Larry was an employee of the sign company, only there because his desk was there.

Not long after, I got a chance to speak with him one-on-one, and found that he was far from inarticulate, but it still took a while before I came to think of him as the “Burning Man guy.” This is largely because Burning Man wasn’t really a Thing yet, just one annual event in the Cacophony constellation of events. We quickly became friends, finding common ground as fathers (our children are the same age), as members of the Cacophony Society, but mostly as independent thinkers with a shared passion for language and literature.

Our 25-year friendship was, among other things, a running book club discussion, and I can’t begin to count the titles we passed back and forth. There were the authors we both loved: Paul Theroux, Joseph Conrad, Lewis Hyde; and the ones we could never agree on (David Graeber, William James). He bent my reading list in his direction in some cases, and I influenced his in return. Of all the gifts he shared with me, the one I still treasure most is a small tin of book darts, the elegant little copper clips you can use to mark a page. It’s quite possible that I might have inspired this gift by returning one of his books with a dog-eared page. But that notion makes the gift all the sweeter, showing as it does the make of the man, who instead of coming to me with a problem, offered me a solution instead, in the guise of a gift.

Book Darts: “Hold that thought”

That quality of gentle influence would serve him well over the years, and is a reason why he achieved such a measure of success. In his recent remembrance of Larry, Mikel talks about his Tom Sawyer quality, and it’s an apt comparison. How many people walked away from a conversation with Larry so fired up about one of his ideas that they congratulated themselves for having thought of it? Of course it worked in the other direction as well – he was known for occasionally taking solo credit for a group idea. But even in those cases I don’t believe it was an ego thing. Instead, these pronoun shifts in attribution – from we to you or I – arose from that deeply collaborative state where egos are put on hold in the service of a larger creative good, and attribution after the fact is a bit of a chimera.

In an essay we worked on together many years later, we referred to that collaborative state as a sort of murmuration, where everyone is at once a leader and a follower, and no one in particular is in charge. At the time, coming out of two tours in the Air Force, it was intoxicating for me to find such a generous and inventive creative partner. Our friendship grew as we worked together on Burning Man’s early communications. We co-authored the Project’s community newsletter, Building Burning Man, and came to share the anonym Darryl Van Rhey, which Larry had invented to serve as his imaginary interlocutor before he had a flesh-and-blood writing partner. We worked on press releases and press kits and Survival Guides, and scripted the dark pageant in 1996 that became the event’s first art theme, The Inferno.

To call our working together a murmuration does not mean that we never argued. In fact we argued all the time – about books and authors, about the texts we were co-writing, about culture and politics and the future. And it was nearly always good-natured, more persiflage than peevishness. I can only remember a few times when Larry got genuinely sore at me, and it was never about my ideas or debating tactics, but only when it crossed over into the personal. Like the time I was moderating a discussion between him and Michael Murphy, the Esalen founder, and I stepped on the punchline of what seemed at the time to be an overly long and rambling joke about LSD. He was mad at me for most of a year after that, and in retrospect I can say it bled over into our other conversations. He was particularly obstinate about copy-editing our theme that year, Da Vinci’s Workshop, and put me through an excruciating line-by-line review of our final draft that included at least an hour of back-and-forth over the word “steampunk.”

Larry’s well-worn dictionary

In the winter of 1997, after the divisive 1996 Burn and a personal financial crisis that came from spending too much of my time on Burning Man work and not enough on the paid variety, I resigned from my role as communications manager. In attempting to argue me out of it, Larry went so far as to resort to flattery, claiming that it would take three people to replace me. This quickly proved to be false, as my duties were picked up by the more-than capable Marian Goodell, who did everything I did and quite a lot more (and in heels, as the saying goes).

Over the next decade and a half, my friendship with Larry was episodic. We would see each other on playa, or through odd run-ins like serving together on the advisory board for Chicken John’s farcical mayoral campaign. We continued to trade books: Putnam’s Bowling Alone, Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, Conrad’s Nostromo. And even when a year or more passed between encounters, it always seemed as if we were picking up our many-threaded conversation exactly where it had left off. So when Larry phoned me unexpectedly in late 2012, inviting me to collaborate on the coming year’s theme, Cargo Cult, it didn’t seem at all strange to pick up our creative collaboration again. We ended up co-writing the next six event themes, and through a preternatural process of Tom Sawyerism I found myself rejoining the Project as a year-round contributor.

One of the many stacks of books Larry left behind in his San Francisco apartment

When a journalist asked me what our process was like writing the themes, I told him that it generally started as a joke, turned into an argument, and ended with a hug. For instance, in 2015, the joke was “Something renaissance, but absolutely not Ren Faire. We don’t want a bunch of people in pirate outfits chewing on turkey legs and running around yelling ‘arrr.’” And with Cargo Cult, it had been “Let’s put the ‘appropriate’ back in ‘cultural appropriation.’”

Humor was a vital part of our process, and a cornerstone of our friendship. Larry was a profoundly silly person, and we were always joking – in fact we were reprimanded once for laughing too much in a meeting, and disrupting the bureaucratic process. He loved silly words nearly as much as he loved obscure words that might make me scratch my head. At one point he became semi-obsessed with the word “jiggy,” at least a decade after its fleeting moment, and kept trying to use it in sentences. He even proposed it as a motto for the Burning Man Philosophical Center: “Thinking is jiggy.” He collected words the way a crow collects shiny things, and loved to take them out and play with them.

As a boy growing up in Oregon, he used to stage plays with his friends, and I don’t think he ever outgrew his love for theater. Two of our themes, Caravansary and Carnival of Mirrors, were designed to involve interactive performance at the Man Base, and in both cases he joined the cast. In the souk of the Caravansary, he took on the character of “El-Ari,” a purveyor of precious bric-a-brac so valuable that no one was ever allowed to buy any of it. And in the Carnival, he channeled his inner freak as the theme invited, appearing, appropriately, as the Human Bookworm, “conversant in all the world’s literature because he has literally devoured it.”

The Human Bookworm, captured on video

When Larry suffered his stroke, I was in an airplane headed to a Burning Man event in France. Learning what had happened, and that he might still be conscious, I turned around and flew straight home. But by then the damage was done, and too devastating. He never regained consciousness, and we never got to say our goodbyes. No more silliness, no more arguments, no more talking about books.

Months after his death, I visited Larry’s apartment to help his son deal with the physical artifacts of his life. I was fine looking at the closets full of Stetsons and guayaberas and black jeans, and even gazing at his cremains; what sent me into a tailspin was seeing all the books.  Larry’s apartment might as well have been made of books, there were so many of them – on shelves, on tabletops, and stacked up against the walls. Books that I had recommended, or loaned to him. Books he had loaned to me, and gotten back. Books he hadn’t gotten around to reading yet, and never would. The long history of our friendship was there, writ small on book-spines, stopped like a broken clock at the precise moment the conversation ended.    

 

About the author: Stuart Mangrum

Stuart Mangrum

A member of the community since 1993, Stuart was a pioneer settler of Black Rock City and Burning Man’s first communications manager. He currently serves as education director for Burning Man Project.

28 Comments on “Remembering Larry: Playing with Words

  • DhammaSeeker says:

    That last line is wonderful. Hope to run into you one day. Thank you, Stuart.

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  • Will Chase says:

    Beautiful remembrance, Stuart, thank you.

    And for what it’s worth, that LSD joke really did need to be stepped on, I remember thanking you in my head at the time.

    (Luckily I was able to fend off Larry’s “insistence” that I describe the Burner Express Bus as “jiggy” to inspire ridership. Ha!)

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  • Doug says:

    Beautiful essay. The only thing left after a friend dies is memory. So glad you shared yours.

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  • Glenda Hibbert says:

    What a beautifully written commemoration about Larry Harvey. How fortunate you are to have such wonderful memories of him. How blessed we readers are that you shared your remembrances with us.

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  • Jan Nichols says:

    I only got to hear Larry once, but hearing him give the history of B.M. was a treat that I treasure. Thank you so much for sharing your story about a man that has touched every burner.

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  • Susan Bunny says:

    Is Larry still dead? Sounds like he came back to life and then died again. I have 2 cats. We’re going to have another candlelight vigil. When will this end? I’m running out of candles.

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  • Bunny Bunny says:

    This is tragic. We need to remember Larry Harvey at least once a week because Crimson Rose and Ladybee and Marian Goodell are so busy stabbing each other in the back for the BM gold ring. Let’s just remember Larry Harvey, please. And watch your backs, ladies;-)

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  • Andrew Johnstone says:

    Larry’s apartment was the physical extension of his mind. When we did the DaVinci Man Base, I had just returned from Florence where I threw myself towards learning all I could about DaVinci and figured I “had this licked”. At our next meeting in his apartment, next to his couch was a 3ft stack of books on Leonardo and the renaissance, an equal teetering stack was in the kitchen, all bookmarked and annotated. I felt so unprepared. His grasp was enormous and connections fired in all directions.
    He offered me a beer and pizza and all the shelves in the fridge were in a jumble at the bottom so I spent a few minutes putting it all straight… his priorities were elsewhere and his mind in a different century.
    We miss him so very much. Thanks Stuart.

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  • Dustin Fasman says:

    Stuart, thank you for inviting me to hang out with you and Larry a few times. The conversations were always memorable and suffuse with persiflage.

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  • Absinthia says:

    Thank you for a wonderful remembrance, Stuart. Thanks, Larry.

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  • Susan says:

    When did Larry die? I try to remember him every day but it’s starting to be like 9/11 and JFK. How often am I supposed to remember Larry? I have a job and a family and a cat and a dog (they hate each other, btw). I don’t know how much time I should spend every day remembering Larry. Can I donate money somewhere to relieve the burden? I love Jesus, also, but I get a break 6 days a week.

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  • Doug Fuller says:

    Really beautifully written, Stuart! This is a tender, thoughtful remembrance. Thank you for putting pen to paper. And it was great to run into you at the event late night last year and share a whiskey.

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  • OSC says:

    “In an essay we worked on together many years later, we referred to that collaborative state as a sort of murmuration, where everyone is at once a leader and a follower, and no one in particular is in charge. ”

    Thanks for this Stuart.

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  • Megan Miller says:

    Such a lovely reflection on life and friendship. Thank you for taking the time to write and share your thoughts, Stuart!

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  • Beautiful, just beautiful. As one who is new to BM, and who will not have the opportunity to know Larry personally, for all I have read and heard about him, I feel I may still get to ‘know’ him through his friends and disciples and how he affected you and how you keep his memory alive through your own living. Looking forward to learning and being more with my first burn and going forward.

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    • Jered says:

      They didn’t bury or cremate Mr. Harvey. His body is frozen in the basement at BMHQ. BMorg charges $50 for one hour alone with him. So you can get to know him and have a beer and tell your friends. He’s very well preserved and doesn’t look like a gross mummy or anything. You can take pictures, too.

      You can check Instagram for pics so you know you’re not getting ripped off. He looks good, but he’s behind glass – so don’t use your flash. He’s the reason why we are all still here. We need to remember him as often as possible.

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  • cLovis says:

    Stuart ,you are a delight of a human and fun to hang with . You should “go” to Burning man more .

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  • john curley says:

    I always used to go to Larry’s “press availability” in the middle of event week. In the later years, I’d attend kind of grudgingly, feeling like it was more a duty than an opportunity to hear anything new.

    I was wrong every time.

    Larry could take the most predictable and tired line of inquiry to unexpected, challenging, and ridiculous places. Sometimes he’d get in trouble for the things he’d blurt out, but mostly he’d take your question and open it up, look at it the way a diamond cutter might, revealing facets that you didnt know were there. He made you feel smarter than you were, because of his literacy and depth. I guess that’s a kind of Tom Sawyer-ism, too.

    What a wonderful piece, Stuart, thank you.

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  • Tutu says:

    I feel badly. Yesterday I completely forgot about Larry Harvey. I usually take time everyday to remember him. I’ve been dealing with other personal issues that have taken away my attention to remember Him.

    Is there something I can do to make amends? Is there some punishment that I can inflict upon myself for not remembering Him? I have a child and a lamb.

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  • Lazlo says:

    Thank you Stuart. A poignant and touching remembrance of a truly interesting fellow.

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  • robert b rogers says:

    Portland is my home and I was a commuting member of the SFSC. I was way outta the Bay Area loop. In 1990 John Law called and said, go to Gerlach and follow the flags. Having no clue what this was for, I of course, went. As the early years rolled by, my role evolved through Camp Engineer into founding Public Works and creating the Ticket Gate. I assigned these jobs to me because ALL the work was being done by John. I never saw Larry do any productive work. The first year that we had a proper two way radio system, we joked about giving “Swordfish” a radio that didn’t transmit because all Larry did was bother us, and we had a lotta work to do.

    At dinner in Portland Larry spoke of a planetary spiritual transformation that was just gibberish. No wonder he hobnobbed with Michael Murphy. I dismissed Larry as a fool. But I was wrong.

    As John says of the author of this piece, “Stuart was the wittiest person in The Cacophony Society.” And I am pleased to appreciate this story of your friendship. Well done Stewart.
    I have long needed a counterpoise to my reaction to Larry’s dissembling and appropriation of others creative product.

    While I find the hagiography of Larry impossible to reconcile with the shoddy control issues Larry exploited to alienate John. I did see in response to a one time threat of rebellion, Larry’s incisive, quick and broadly comprehensive intelligence. In the face of a nascent challenge to his primacy, he abandoned his mystical double talk and self interest, and offered a fundamentally necessary suggestion to his challenger. Larry was personal, direct and accurate. I was surprised and impressed and immediately respected Larry for this astute response. In that one brief moment I got just a glimpse into the deeper man. I believe Larry might have had much to offer the world had he not been so successful in tilting the playing field in his favor.

    Stewarts story extends a rich perspective that does me good to hear. I value Larry now. I never thot I would.
    Thanks Stewart.

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  • Theresa Duncan says:

    A beautiful remembrance that oscillates between the small gesture and the sweeping brilliance, between the generous and the obstinate, between the friend and the icon. Thank you for sharing such special reflections, especially the photograph of the well-worn dictionary.

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