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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.