Tonight I’ll be hopping on a red eye flight to New York City for the East Coast leg of my book tour for The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. I must confess that I’m giddy with excitement, and to stir some anticipation among New Yawkers, here’s a recording of one on my recent presentations.
Tomorrow night starting at 8 pm, I’ll be doing a book launch party at Cafe Mezcal (86 Orchard Street) with the folks who will be putting on the Figment festival this weekend, a cool event that I profile in the book. Joining me on stage will be a couple characters from the book: Figment’s Not That Dave and Rev. Billy, the passionate pastor of the Church of Life After Shopping and the Church of Earthullujah.
On Sunday, I will have the distinct honor and high privilege of being canonized into Billy’s churches during ceremony starting at 7:30 pm in his church and performance art space at 80 St. Mark’s Place. In between those two events, I’ll be speaking Thursday at 6 pm at the Columbia University Bookstore and attending the Figment festival on Governor’s Island along with a couple burners and friends who I’ll be staying with: Jax from Temple of Flux and Manhatten from Garage Mahal. Thanks also to Wylie from Shadyvil for helping make this trip possible.
To set up my trip and explain one of the big motivators that drew me there, I’d like to share a chapter from my book about how burners responded to the Hurricane Katrina and the wreckage it left on the Gulf Coast in 2005, a chapter in which I introduce Billy.
Redemption and Projection
By burn day at the end of the week, Burning Man’s leaders – those with Black Rock City LLC and just the leaders among the random burner tribes – had developed a strategy for responding to the disaster on the Gulf Coast and it was publicized by word of mouth and through Black Rock Information Radio (BMIR, 94.5 FM).
Food, money, and supplies that could be used on the Gulf Coast were collected from departing burners, and some even blazed a trail for a more direct response. Matt Lindsay, a Temple Crew member from Seattle, helped spearhead an effort to drive supplies and equipment from Burning Man to the Gulf Coast, and was joined by his father, Phillip Lindsay, whose Seattle construction company he worked with.
The encampment they and others created would become an inspiring nine-month cleanup and rebuilding effort. It began mostly with the builders who had already focused on creating and breaking down Burning Man, including the Department of Public Works and the Temple crew, but would eventually draw more than 100 volunteers and spawn the group Burners Without Borders.
But first, burners came together on the playa in a special event on Sunday afternoon, promoted heavily by BMIR and led by folk singer Joan Baez (who had attended Burning Man several times) and the anti-consumerist collective Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.
Billy Talen is a performance artist and political progressive who had adopted his alter ego of Reverend Billy, the charismatic, Jimmy Swaggart-like leader of a church devoted to critiquing hyper-capitalism. He had been doing some street-level political satire and small theater in San Francisco in the early ‘90s when he found his calling.
“My mentor and teacher, the person who talked me into this was himself a priest, not a preacher, and his name was Reverend Sidney Lanier,” Billy told me when I visited him in New York City. “He took me out to lunch and he told me, ‘I’m not too sure about your play, but you have a prophetic note in your voice.’ And he said, ‘We now need a new kind of American preacher.’”
Lanier convinced Billy to use his theatrical skills to sound the alarm that there was something deeply wrong with the country – something at the intersection of political, economic, and religious power – and so he talked to Billy about his vision for Reverend Billy and led him to Times Square.
“He brought me to New York and he placed me in front of that Disney store and he left,” said Billy, who began to preach, “Mickey Mouse is the anti-Christ! I want you to take that little tourist family and go back to Iowa! These are sweatshops products on these shelves, children. This Disney-fication of neighborhoods, it’s the devil monoculture!’ So, my theme hasn’t changed much in these 10 or 12 years.”
But there have been some key events in the development of Reverend Billy and his group that turned it from a performance piece to something like a real church. The first was the 9/11 attacks, when they counseled and consoled affected New Yorkers, and the next was their decision to come to Burning Man in 2003, where Larry Harvey and others wanted them to be a part of the Beyond Belief theme that year.
“I got a call from Larry. He carved a Broadway-sized stage in the Man. And I started to get phone calls from burner friends saying, ‘You don’t know what this is. Say yes!” Billy said, noting how reluctant he had been to attend. “All my friends went, but I was like contrary Woodrow, and I’d say, ‘Fuck all of you,’ and I was going to the Aleutians or something. I was always a contrary guy, and I’d say, ‘You’re all just a bunch of lemmings going to the desert, I’m going over here.’ And I’d go to some other place. But we got talked into it and it changed our lives.”
Most newbies are profoundly affected by their first trip to Burning Man, but for Billy and his crew, the event went right to the core of what they were about, transforming them as they dealt with the usual playa adversity (“In the choir, everyday someone would faint and everyone else would save that person and take them to the medical tent.”) and forging permanent ties to the event.
“We became a church at that point. We became a community about collective conscious and radical self-reliance. We became much closer,” Billy told me. Why, I asked him, how? “It’s the weather, it’s the beauty, it’s somebody running toward you in a fluorescent bikini and combat boots. Everything is extreme but it becomes ordinary after awhile and then you’re in the dream state,” he said. “We were transformed by our week on the playa. There were 43 of us that came out together.”
Most of that group has been together ever since, working together on new and ever more creative ways of bringing the ethos of the playa back into the world, something that Billy says has always been at the center of his connection to Burning Man (whose Black Rock Arts Foundation has helped fund some of the church’s tours, performances, and the 2007 film about them, “What Would Jesus Buy?”).
“That was the message that I worked out with Larry Harvey back in 2003: What about the other 51 weeks of the year? Something very strong and honest and magical happens here and we have an obligation, don’t we, to see how it can manifest in our communities. When Katrina happened in the middle of the week, that was supposed to be our year off, but the Bests gave us their bus and said you can come out to the Temple on Sunday night, so before the Temple burn, and Joan Baez magically showed up and got on the bus with us.”
They spoke of love and connection and redemption and transformation, and they sang – together with a large crowd of burners – “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Amazing Grace.” And the Temple burned that night and soon everyone went home. Well, not everyone.