Happy Birthday, Larry

People still ask me: “What do you think Larry’s theme would have been for Burning Man this year?”

Oh, come on … if I knew that …

I can talk about his process, I can talk about what he paid attention to … my god, I miss those long conversations … but I can’t imagine what Larry’s theme would have been precisely because he was a genuine visionary. The real deal.

But I can tell you what the theme should be for his birthday. And it’s not “Larry the Visionary.”

Too much time spent hailing Larry as the Great Visionary — even though he was one — implies that perhaps you should be substituting Larry’s vision for your own. And that’s poisonous to what we’ve tried to make. It’s why Larry spent the last several years of his life deliberately undermining his own iconography. He saw how important it was that his presence not be blocking your vision.

His willingness to do that — to be a human being rather than an icon — was one of the cornerstones of our friendship.

At the first Black Rock City after we’d met, Larry kept inviting me to visit him in First Camp. I usually avoided First Camp, but I wasn’t going to be the kind of asshole who says “Oh, no, I can’t visit you at your camp because I’m too much of a cool Cacophony style Burner to go there …” so I stopped by a couple afternoons. He welcomed me, told me to pull up a chair next to him, and we talked.

Or we would have, except that people — often complete strangers – kept making a beeline for him. First Camp is open. People can just walk right in. And they did. Mostly they just wanted to say “Thank you.”  “Thank you for creating this, for being an inspiration, for everything you’ve given to the world.”

Check out Out of Nothing, Everythinga wide-ranging series of interviews that showcases the thoughtfulness, humor, and humanity of Burning Man’s late founder and original instigator in the format he loved best: intimate conversation with a trusted friend.

Individually, they were lovely moments. But day after day, I saw them take up his whole afternoon. So that he couldn’t even have other conversations.

Finally, one day, in a moment between grateful visitors, I said “Hey, I want to ask you a personal question.”

“Certainly,” Larry said, nodding eagerly.

“Exactly how much of your life is spent holding court?”

He went quiet. “It’s very important,” he said, somberly, “to have friends who know you for who you really are, and prefer to talk to that person instead of your public image. If you don’t have a way to have the kind of conversations that can only be intimate … if people don’t have a way to reach you with what’s really on their minds … then you risk becoming a parody of yourself.”

Photo by Scott London

Since his death, there has been a tendency to canonize Larry. To make him “Saint Larry.” He wouldn’t have wanted that. “Saint Larry” is a parody of his humanity. Larry was a strange and isolated man who used art and creativity to build a community of participation and gifts.  Maybe — before I knew him – that went to his head. How could it not? But by the time we met, he was putting artificiality aside to do what we all come to Burning Man to do: be more himself.

Burning Man is always at risk of becoming a parody of itself. Larry helped us avoid that by refusing to jump on his own bandwagon. He was far more interested in talking about the honest experience you were having right now than about the hypothetical ways Burning Man could save the world.

I don’t know what his theme for this year would have been. But for his birthday … really, whenever you think of Larry … focus less on the brilliant visionary, and more of the man whose flawed authenticity reached out to your flawed authenticity, so that they could play together.

For Larry’s birthday, give someone an artful and creative way to express the honest experience that they are having right now.

It’s what he would have wanted … and it was him at his best.

The Harveywood sign in Black Rock City 2010 by Steven Clark. Photo by Andy Pischalnikoff

Header image from Jim Urquhart.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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