Launch week for burner season

Blissdance photo by Luke Szczepanski, an image from my book.

Burner season has begun in the Bay Area, kicked off by this week’s announcement of $550,000 in art grants being awarded to 44 projects by Black Rock City LLC. Some of the biggest grants are going to artists familiar to readers of my book: the Flaming Lotus Girls, who are doing a project called Tympani Lambada; Peter Hudson, whose latest stroboscopic zoetrope is called Charon; Charlie Gadeken, who is building Aurora; and Marco Cochrane’s crew, which is following up last year’s amazing Blissdance with an even biggest sculpture of the same nude model, this one dubbed Truth and Beauty.
Yes, truth and beauty, two of my favorite things. The default inscription that I’ve been signing on the hundreds of books we’ve sold have been:
Speak Truth
Seek Beauty
Create Art
With lines connecting the verbs to the nouns in various combinations. I’ll be signing a lot more books in the coming weeks as I kick off my own seasonal project: regular bookstore readings of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. The first one is this Wednesday, March 30, at Laurel Book Store, 4100 Macarthur Blvd, Oakland.
The next night, I’ll be headed out to Treasure Island for a $50/head fundraiser party for Huzdo’s Charon, which involves the “final spin” of his beloved monkeys, Homouroboros. His crew is also doing an ambitious Kickstarter fundraising effort to bridge the gap between their art grant and what the project actually costs to build – as is Cochrane’s Truth and Beauty crew, which based out on TI.
Then the next day, there’s the kickoff event for the Burning Man regional summit over at the Bently Reserve, where I’ll be hanging out for a bit at D’Andre’s table of revolutionaries to discuss my book. And that night, I’m headed over to DNA Lounge for the premiere of Roccopura: The Misadventures of Pancho Sanza, a circus rock opera written by Gooferman front man Boenobo the Klown and performed by the indie circus crews that I also featured in my book.
Yup, buckle up everyone because things have begun.

The Tribes of Burning Man progress report

A crazy week that included two awesome events – combining readings and discussions with many of the luminaries who appear in the book – seems a fitting way to end a huge month since we launched The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.
So now, as I take a deep breathe, it might be a good time for a progress report. We don’t know total sales figures yet, but I can tell you that I’ve personally signed, addressed, and mailed more than 100 books that were ordered through my website. And Amazon has sold and sent even more, giving us a strong and sales ranking that peaked at 5,320 on Feb. 18, the day after my rocking launch party.
While Bay Area residents bought more books than anyone, as we expected, there have also been strong sales in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Austin, and New York City, and even several buyers each in Australia, Austria, England, and Canada.
We’ve picked up some good press coverage so far, including great reviews in the Bay Guardian and New Times, a review and Q&A on Alternet/Killing the Buddha, a saucy interview (and video) on the popular Sex With Emily podcast, and a nice mention by Scott Beale on Laughing Squid. My Amazon reader reviews are here, so check them out and add one of your own. More reviews and press coverage are coming soon, as well as video from my events at Project One and the Westerfeld House.
I’m booked for several bookstore readings, including March 30 at Laurel Bookstore in Oakland, April 8 at Books Inc. in Alameda, April 14 at the Stanford University Bookstore, April 20 in Maple Street Books in New Orleans, April 23 at Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans, May 11 at Books Inc. in Mountain View, May 19 at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, and August 11 at the San Francisco Main Library. Check my Amazon author page for details and look for the announcement of more Bay Area readings and trips to New York City, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Luis Obispo, as well as at least a couple more parties in San Francisco. It’s basically me and my publisher doing promo, just two guys, so whatever you can do to help facilitate more events, contact me at to let me know. And if your favorite bookstores aren’t yet carrying the book, tell them to order it from our distributor IPG here.
Finally, I wanted to close with the great review that the Black Rock City LLC wrote and posted to the Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter a few weeks ago, which I was both touched and overwhelmed by considering it caused a surge of book orders overnight. Thanks again to Will, Andie, Marian, and the rest of the Borg’s publicity team.

The book launch party for Steven T. Jones’ new book “The Tribes of Burning Man” was flush with Burning Man community, including many of the real-life people featured in his book. If you’re interested in an exploration of some of the various cultural sub-groups that Burning Man has spawned, collected or inspired, as well as Burning Man’s cultural outreach efforts, this book is for you. You can pick up your copy on Steve’s website here:

Described as a chronicle of “how Burning Man is transforming American society,” Jones’ “Tribes” includes full reprints of his immersive series of reportage for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which covered the activities of several core Burning Man “tribes,” from the Flaming Lotus Girls to Burners Without Borders…in the book, Jones takes up his pen to round out the story of the community connections between some of the sound art camps, creative communities, cultural criticisms (BORG2, anyone?), and philosophical highlights of Burning Man’s history.

Add in a healthy dollop of his own experiences at the event rounding out his assessment of Burning Man — to Jones, this is no mere week in the desert, but a cultural movement moving far beyond the playa. (We couldn’t agree more.) Check it out and let us know what you think!

Watch out, SF, Gray is on the way

Scribe and Gray at Syd and Sam's wedding, photo by

My loving and lovely sister, Kim, just told me that she’ll be coming up from San Luis Obispo for the second of two cool Tribes of Burning Man events I’m hosting this week, joining me, Larry Harvey, and a bunch of other burner luminaries in the legendary Westerfeld House for a very special evening.
So in her honor, I’m posting another chapter from the book, the story of her last days as her old sense before she blossomed on the playa into Gray, a committed burner who sees the myriad possibilities of life.

Through my Sister’s Gray Eyes

I went into my seventh Burning Man feeling a little jaded and over it, despite all the work that I’d been doing on this book – or perhaps because of it. Burning Man was consuming most of my waking thoughts as I wrestled with what it all means, with the big takeaway to tell you all.
Plus, how excited can anyone really be over an annual event, at least since we stopped believing in Santa Claus? The excitement just stops coming as naturally, the enthusiasm becoming something that needs to be deliberately summoned. Everything eventually becomes routine, even the edge, and I had been dealing with Burning Man way too much in 2009.
But then my only sister, Kim Williams, came to town a few days before we planned to drive to the playa together for her first burn. I saw the coming burn reflected in her wide eyes and that old twinge of anticipation began to form in my gut. I couldn’t wait to drive onto the playa with her.
She was excited but nervous, not quite sure what to expect but open to the experience. I really hadn’t been playing it up too much, preparing her yet trying to keep her free of expectations, the best way to do it. But she seemed to know that she was in for a life-changing experience and her spirit was infectious. Just six months after separating from her husband, unsure what the rest of life had to offer her, Kim was in the ideal position to get her head split open wide by Burning Man, letting it inform her understanding of the future’s myriad possibilities.
San Francisco was buzzing with Burning Man preparations, which almost seemed connected to the heat wave that peaked on Friday night, August 28th, when the 80-degree temperature at 10 p.m. lent an aura of unreality to normally foggy San Francisco. We still had two days to prepare and our bags were already packed with costumes, so we pedaled our bikes around the city, just playing and partying and feeling more free together than we had since childhood, when we’d play with the neighborhood kids until long after dark on summer evenings.
If Burning Man really were a cult then I’d say the gods were with us, lining the planets up in our favor, pointing the way toward our destiny in an alternate universe. I cut work short so we could ride our bikes to the pre-parties for that day’s monthly Critical Mass bike ride – another first for my sister, who hadn’t ridden bikes much since she was young. The ride included hundreds of decorated bikes – fake fur, electroluminescent wire lighting, disco balls, and an endless array of other geegaws – that were clearly bound for the playa, their riders exchanging giddy grins and offering, “See you out there.”
The ride wound its way into Golden Gate Park, where the sprawling Outside Lands concert festival was underway. Pearl Jam was headlining on the main stage later that night, but when a group of bicyclists stopped to smoke a joint across from one of the fenced concert stages, we realized that the walkway across the street afforded a perfect view of the stage and was directly in the soundscape. And the hugely popular and fun band Thievery Corporation – which would find added significance at the close of Burning Man that year, as I spent my final night dancing my ass off to the Thievery Corporation DJ, who was attending his first burn – was about to go on. That serendipity seemed like an unofficial start to Burning Man and we all danced and smiled, marveling at the good fortune that seemed so strangely normal in our little rock star world.
But Burning Man hadn’t really begun, and our list of things to do was long. My new Mohawk needed to be dyed red, Kim and I were going to get manicure-pedicures (my nails red, hers gray, another choice that picked up psychic significance along the way), we had several random supplies on our lists, and we still needed to buy all of our food and water for the week. Of course, by then, the water sections of every grocery store in San Francisco were emptied of large containers, as were many of the stores along the road to Black Rock City, as we later discovered when we finally settled for gallon jugs rather than the 2.5-gallon size favored by most burners.
We peppered our preparations with periodic cocktail stops, and our conversations grew deeper and more significant, even as our mood lightened and the anticipation mounted. Kim was juggling dating a few guys at the time – two of them significant – and doing a pretty good job at maintaining her independence with them, even as they pushed for commitments and expressed concerns about what she’d do on the playa. Male jealousy can be a scary force of nature. I’d been encouraging her to remain free and was a little bothered by her suitors’ forcefulness, as was she, and we seemed to really connect with the issue over sangrias and tapas on the night before we left.
“Don’t let them force you to make decisions that are either black or white,” I told her. “It’s okay not to know what you want right now. You can embrace the gray.”
“Yeah, embrace the gray,” she said, smiling beautifully and seeming to be looking all the way to the Black Rock Desert 360 miles away.
“You know,” I said, lighting up with inspiration. “That should be your playa name: Gray.”
“Ooooohhh, yeah, Gray, I like it,” she said. And her random choice of metallic gray nail polish earlier in the day suddenly seemed significant, a confirmation that we were onto something. She flashed me her nails and a conspiratorial grin. Kim was Gray, an identify she assumed in that moment, effortlessly identifying herself by the new moniker for the rest of the week.
We raised our glasses in a toast – Gray and Scribe were leaving for Burning Man the next day.

Mutaytor and Tribal Love, curing what ails me

Even though I feel that flu everyone has been getting coming on, I’m still feeling pretty good as I listen to Mutaytor’s awesome new album “Unconditional Love,” plan an upcoming event at the historic Westerfeld House where that album was recorded, and bask in a great review of my book that came out on Burning Man’s Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter this evening.
I’ll be doing a full review of Mutaytor’s album for the Bay Guardian later this week, and I hope to see you all at the party on March 11. But in the meantime, I thought I’d share another chapter from the book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, this one starting on page 223. Oh, and if you’ve already read the book and liked it, please consider writing a reader review on the Amazon or Barnes & Noble websites, or wherever you think it might help spread the word.

Playa-born Mutaytor Keeps Rockin’

Mutaytor might be the ultimate Burning Man tribe, an eclectic group of Los Angeles-based performers who came together on the playa more than a decade ago, forming into a band that’s like a traveling circus that evangelizes the burner ethos and culture everywhere they go, just by being who they are: sexy, scruffy, wild, warm, colorful denizens of the counterculture.
Mutaytor is perhaps the most popular and iconic musical act to emerge from Burning Man, a group whose spirited performances on and off the playa reflected and helped to shape and define the culture that birthed them. And if that’s not enough cultural cred, many of the two dozen members work for Burning Man in various capacities, from building Black Rock City with the Department of Public Works to forming the backbone of event’s regional network in Los Angeles.
My path has crossed Mutaytor’s many times, from watching them play at my first Burning Man in 2001 to joining them on the burner-dominated Xingolati cruise ship in 2005 to later being invited in March 2010 to watch them record their fourth album, “Unconditional Love” in the sprawling Westerfeld House, a Victorian mansion on San Francisco’s Alamo Square that is the legendary former home to such countercultural figures as Satanist Anton LaVey and members of the Manson family to noted ‘60s promoter Chet Helms’ Family Dog Productions and the band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
The house is now owned by Jim Siegel, a longtime Haight Street head shop owner and housing preservationist who did a masterful restoration job, showing a striking attention to detail. Siegel owns the Distractions store on Haight Street, one of the few walk-in outlets for buying Burning Man tickets, and became a friend of the Mutaytor family in 2004.
Although the dancers and other women who perform with Mutaytor weren’t at this recording – Siegel said they usually prance around the house topless and lend a debaucherous energy to Siegel’s house – he still loves the energy that the band brings when it invades his house: “It reminds me of my hippie days living in communes.”
Buck A.E. Down – a key band member, singing and playing guitar, as well as producing and arranging their songs – said the album and accompanying documentary film is Mutaytor trying to build on a career that began as basically a pickup group of musicians and performers on the playa.
“We’re a total product of that environment,” Buck said of Mutaytor’s musicians, dancers, acrobats, fire spinners, aerialists, thespians, producers, culture mavens, and facilitators of the arts. “We’ve been underground for 10 years and have a voluminous body of work.”
Mutaytor tapped the lingering rave and emerging Burning Man scenes with a mix of electronica-infused music and performance art to develop a distinct style and loyal fans. “So, between that and Burning Man, we developed just a ravenous following.” With this built-in fan base of burners and ravers, Mutaytors was able to start getting gigs in the clubs of Hollywood, San Francisco, and other cities that had significant numbers of people who attended Burning Man.
“We became a very recognizable and tangible part of that culture,” Buck said, noting that burners sought out Mutaytor to plug into the feeling of Black Rock City, if only for a night in their cities. “What we were able to do is provide that vibe.”
Christine “Crunchy” Nash, Mutaytor’s tour manager and self-described “den mother,” said that Larry Harvey has been very encouraging and supportive of Mutaytor, urging them to essentially be musical ambassadors of the event and its culture. “That’s one thing Larry said to us is I want to do this year round and that’s what we’re doing in LA,” Crunchy said. “Most of the people in the band have been going to Burning Man for more than 10 years.”
Buck added, “We’re like the Jews, the wandering Jews,” which totally cracked up the group, but I understood what he meant, particularly as he went on to explain how the burner tribes are scattered through the world, but they retain that essential cultural connection.
Particularly down in Los Angeles, where the Mutaytor crew regularly works and plays with other Burning Man camps, from the Cirque Berserk performers and carnies to longtime members of my own camp, Garage Mahal, Crunchy said their extended tribe really is a year-round, active community of burners.
“It really is like we are there in LA and we just pick up and move to the playa,” she said.
Crunchy said they have family-like connections in San Francisco – to such businessman-burners as Jim Siegel and JD Petras, who both have sprawling homes where the band can stay – and in cities around the country that have big, established Burning Man tribes, from New York City to Portland, Oregon.
“It’s the movers and shakers of the San Francisco community and others that have allowed us to survive as we’ve tried to make it,” Crunchy said. “It has made traveling so much easier because we have places to stay at many places we play.”
Buck said that was essential to their survival: “You take that kind of culture away from Burning Man and we would have broken up a long time ago, or we wouldn’t have even formed.” Just as Mutaytor is rooted on the playa, its members also wanted to root this album in a special place and immediately thought of the Westerfield House.
“There are just places where stuff happens, just certain environments that are special places,” Buck said, noting that Mutaytor is made up of musical professionals – from session players to sound guys at venues like the Roxie and for concert tours – who have three recording studios at their disposal among them, but they chose to do the recording here because it felt magical and personal to them.
“We had an epiphany on the road and decided we just had to record it here,” Buck said, adding how well the decision has worked out acoustically. “Rather than just recording the band, we want to record the house. That’s how we’ve been miking it up.”
Each room on the group floor was filled with musical instruments and recording equipment, and Buck said excitedly that they have been resonating with this 150-year-old building: “We’re getting some of the best tones.”