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After weeks of preparation, our gang assembles at the Navy Street house, as usual. We’re provisioned with food, drink, colorful outfits, blankets and—most importantly—our tickets. Loading into our decal-festooned cars and trucks we head out to the event space. Music blasting, singing merrily, we’re more than excited to see and hug old friends, make new ones, act crazy, and dance our faces off to blasting music under frenetic lighting. The ritual of obtaining tickets, getting ready, then getting to our gathering is as dear to our hearts as participating in the mayhem we love.
Sound familiar? Does this describe your camp every year on the way to Black Rock City? The scenario actually recounts an almost monthly celebratory tradition: going to Grateful Dead shows across the country during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and continuing into current times with the offshoot and spinoff bands.
There’s a myriad of similarities between Deadheads and Burners, though some devotees of each group shudder at the thought. Many of us who attended dozens, if not hundreds, of Dead shows now find community, purpose and release from the day to day in Black Rock City, at Regionals, and making playa art or volunteering with a team. And yet…
“I feel at Home here.”
“We take care of one another.”
“These are my people.”
“No one cares what I do in the ‘real’ world.”
“We’re free to be whomever we want to be.”
“I’m happier here than anywhere else.”
These phrases are as commonly heard in Black Rock City as they were at the Warfield, Madison Square Garden, or any of the 2,350 shows the Dead played over 30 years. Both cultures share a sense of common good and a desire to let go and have fun, and while there were no codified Principles for the Dead shows, most of Larry’s guidelines could be applied (though the parking lot bazaars at the Shows certainly weren’t decommodified).
Both the Grateful Dead and Burning Man started in San Francisco, California, with small gatherings before becoming international phenomenons with ticket scarcity. Both were created and led by intellectual, innovative and introverted artists, Jerry Garcia and Larry Harvey. The Dead played parties and clubs in the mid 1960s, and within a couple of years were selling out mid-size venues, which became giant stadiums in their last 10 years. Larry lit the first Man on Baker Beach in 1986, with a dozen friends, and by the late 2010s the Black Rock Desert held over 75,000 Burners. Both have cultural roots in earlier incarnations of radical thinkers. Burning Man evolved from The Cacophony Society, “a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.” The Dead developed its improvisational style at the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests. Tragically the immense crowds at the Shows led to the band’s downfall. Burning Man’s population in the Black Rock Desert is also limited.
Burners and Deadheads are way into their symbols. When we notice someone displaying The Man or a Stealie there’s an instant connection — at the very least a smile and nod, more often a greeting, sometimes a conversation and occasionally a new friendship. Our vehicles and T-shirts, jewelry and anything else that can be stuck upon, printed, or molded are festooned with one of the innumerable logos and symbols created over the years. Both organizations have huge archives filled with memorabilia, art, and “stuff”: the Dead’s at UC Santa Cruz, and Burning Man’s at their San Francisco headquarters.
There is, however, a key differentiator. At the Dead shows, you went for the music, surrounded by a carnival. At Burning Man, you go for the carnival, surrounded by music.
Jerry and the band, with their huge repertoire of entrancing songs, was the raison d’être we kept going and going and going. The Deadheads found indescribable joy and literally freed their minds engulfed in the sounds emanating from the stage. The set list was different for every show. They never played the same song the same way. We catalogued every song from every show, collected tapes (then CDs, then files) recorded by dedicated tapers, and analyzed practically every note. Many of us were monk-like in our knowledge and devotion. When they played our favorite songs there was nothing better in the world at that moment. Collectively we danced and sang and hugged, then afterwards discussed plans to go to the next Show. The carnival outside, hippies selling tofu burritos and tie-dye, was amusing and eventually got too big for anyone to handle. It was not the reason any real Deadhead went.
In Black Rock City, the giant sound camps and mutant vehicles, with their thundering EDM and spectacular light shows, are indeed a spectacle, with rapturous crowds hypnotically gyrating in a mass of dusty bodies. The raves are highlights for many Burners. A sizable number go to Burning Man just for the DJs. There’s also Jazz Café, Rootpile, the Philharmonic, and dozens of other camps and stages playing exceptional and varied music. Most Burners love to dance, but there’s much more—oh, so much more—to Burning Man and our community than just the music.
Now we can’t wait to rejoin our brethren in 2022 — to laugh, share, experience the ephemeral, and dance the night away in the dust.
Cover image of tie-dyed Burning Man flag at Pepperland, 2004 (Photo by James Ochs)