Remembering Larry Harvey, Burning Man’s Resident Philosopher and Reluctant Icon

This solstice weekend, join us for storytelling and other surprises to honor Burning Man culture and Larry Harvey on the 35th anniversary of the first Burning Man on Baker Beach. To kick it all off, Andie Grace muses on her friend Larry, and what he might have thought of a documentary about his life and legacy. Celebrate with us by gathering your friends on Sunday to watch Larry: A Burning Man Story. Register for the free livestream on Kindling.

He never wanted it to be about him. 

Always the outsider, watching from a distance as the community he helped create grew and evolved, Larry Harvey was, if anything, an observer of people.

The man whose legacy is a community of radical participation and engagement was a lifelong student of the mechanics of community, of the moments and means that bring people together and allow them to connect and collaborate. But sometimes it appeared he experienced it all at a certain remove.

Those who knew him might agree that part of him would reflexively recoil from some of the lionization that sometimes came with his role as Burning Man’s philosophical leader. While he was always eager to talk about the cultural community and meaning of Burning Man in interviews year after year, he was nonetheless a private person in many ways, so it’s easy to imagine he might reject the kind of founder hagiography that comes with something like a biopic of his life.

Nevertheless, on the June 20 solstice, Burning Man Project will screen Larry: A Burning Man Story, a film by the Profiles in Dust team illustrating the life of Larry Harvey and the legacy he left behind. And as someone who knew him well, I actually think he would have shyly appreciated the tribute, just the same way that, at the end of his time on earth, he had come to see and understand the impact of his life’s work and humbly accept some of the attention and even adulation that came with being Larry.

The film is devoted to uncovering who he was. Many know him as Burning Man’s Founder. But as a young man he was a self-described “failure” at most things he tried — landscaper, bike messenger, and a handful of other scattered attempts at careers. His devotion to philosophy and learning combined perfectly with his playful nature and his appreciation for the sublime and the ridiculous. Eventually in the fertile setting of San Francisco, he would help create something bigger than he’d ever imagined. After thirty plus years, this autodidact eventually came to acknowledge the impact of his devotion to Burning Man and its reach around the world.

Larry loved nothing more than to sit with other thinkers and discuss the Burning questions so many of us have considered: what does it mean for so many to spend so much time and energy going to the desert and other Burning Man events? What is its meaning? Does it have one? What’s the underlying importance of this community we’re co-creating? Where is it going? 

Marian Goodell, Andie Grace and Larry Harvey in a photo booth

While over time there was much to be proud of, above all, he knew it wasn’t about him. He was known to say of Burning Man participants, “We make the hive; they bring the honey.” I don’t believe he thought much of being put on a pedestal, despite how often the press, participants and the world would try to put him on the tallest one around. In twenty-something years of friendship I never saw him quite grow accustomed to or comfortable about attention or fame for its own sake; the biggest reason he enjoyed being interviewed was that it was a chance to unfurl the contents of his considerable mind, not because he necessarily loved the attention on himself.

Larry talked with me about death a few times over all our years of friendship. In doing so, I never heard him reference his relative fame nor his legacy at Burning Man, really — he never mentioned how the public or history might remember him. Rather, he seemed to reflect upon his own eventual death mostly as it pertained to how it would affect his loved ones, his friends, his family. He always remarked how unfair it was to have your trajectory interrupted, how unfair to your dearest for you to suddenly disappear. This was his heart’s concern with dying.

He’d once told me he had heard about a process whereby one can be cremated and have their cremains turned into china dinnerware. Wouldn’t it be cool to have his body put through this process and used to serve a fine meal to his nearest and dearest, after which each guest could keep a setting?

Fanciful? Macabre? Perhaps. Thinking back, it’s a very Larry idea, one that hints at his irreverent wit and his sense of ceremony, and how they danced with one another inside his mind. 

And so as his friend, I can say, I think he would be pleased with this documentary paying tribute to his life. This is the story of who he was, and of his loved ones, remembering his impact upon them. What it isn’t is a history piece about Burning Man, but one cannot write about the history, the very source code of the thing without acknowledging Larry’s presence. I believe he’d appreciate the gift created by the Profiles in Dust team that traces his path to his legacy. 

To be sure, he was a human. A frustrating one at times, and far from without flaws.

And yet.

In later years, when the decades of struggle had given way to a professional operation he could view at a calmer repose, he sometimes settled into a whimsical role of playing the character of “Larry Harvey” a bit differently than in the decades before. He decommissioned his signature Stetson Open Road hat, throwing it into the crowd at a Regional Network Summit: “It belongs to you now.” He replaced it with a baseball cap, sometimes, hilariously, one bearing the logo of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration in the US). He would dress as a giant bookworm to present a speech. He donned a costume during the 2014 Caravansary theme in Black Rock City and theatrically embodied the persona of the proprietor of one of the shops in the Souk under the Man. His wry humor and sense of the theatrical was always present under his serious façade. These were among the things that made him easy to love.

Larry: A Burning Man Story streams on Kindling Sunday, June 20, available free or by donation. Get to know Larry Harvey as we knew and loved him, and uncover the personal story of the Man in the Hat.

Do YOU have a photo, memory, quote, or favorite story about Larry Harvey? Visit larry.burningman.org to share your Larry tribute with the community.


Cover image of Andie Grace and Larry Harvey (Photo by Keith Carlsen)
“I loved to walk up to him at parties and say ‘Hi, I’m Larry Harvey.’” —Andie

About the author: Andie Grace

Andie Grace returned to the staff of Burning Man in 2019 as a producer of strategic storytelling content. During her original tenure at BMHQ from 2000-2013, she was a member of the Executive Committee, managed the Communications Department, and helped oversee the early development of the Regional Network. During her seven-year hiatus, she co-founded an indie film distribution label, an indie video game label, and a creative coworking hub in Silicon Valley, but ultimately her passion for Burning Man and its cultural future pulled her back to the staff of the Project. She lives with her family in Berkeley, California.

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