"So in 1992 I picked up a flyer from The Cacophony Society which was this underground org in San Francisco that did flash mob type things and weird art prank projects. At the bottom was a blurb about an event they were doing called Burning Man. I was part of an underground rave called Mr. Floppy’s Flophouse in Oakland and was a DJ and VJ. I thought what a cool thing to marry up with!
I arranged a meeting with Larry Harvey and he invited me over to his kitchen and I pitched him the idea of bringing a sound camp out to the playa. He thought it was a great prank and that things had gotten a bit complacent at Burning Man. He warned me that a lot of the people may rebel against amplified music but that we should set up exactly one mile from center camp and do our thing. He gave me a stack of tickets to sell for $20 each and I sold about 30 of them. Honestly, we couldn’t give them away - it was too far for people, nobody had heard of Burning Man and the self-reliance part of it was something new to people.
Anyway, I was living with Terbo Ted in an artist warehouse and he and I made the flyer, got a sound system together, made some decorations and promoted it on Haight Street and at underground raves. Again, we only sold 30 tickets. We rented a Ryder Truck that Paradise Visuals projected Tripp’s computer graphics on and Ted did a sound check, forever giving him the title of first DJ at Burning Man. I played under the moniker DJ Niles and also on the bill was Synthesis Dave, B.R.A.D, and Goa Gil. Burning Man back then was only a few days over the Labor Day weekend and there were less than 500 people there total. We played day and night for the whole thing.
So, I took a 20-year break and went back in 2016 by myself. I’d recently battled colon cancer and wanted to go back and ritually rid myself of all the emotions that I carried and celebrate being alive. It was mind blowing to see how it had grown. The vibe was the same but exponentially bigger on every scale. The art, the sound camps, the size of the thing... I met up with Ted and we had lunch with Larry Harvey at First Camp and reminisced about the old days and talked about the future, the Fly Ranch and a permanent presence on the playa. It didn’t feel like 20 years had gone by sitting there with those guys!
Then in 2017 I went back with my spouse and I DJ’d a set near the trash fence. For a spontaneous set we had many more times the people than at those early year parties. I met so many people of all ages that thanked me for our contribution and told me stories about how they in turn were inspired to create and told me what they’re up to. It’s amazing beyond words to think that a seed that I planted has inspired thousands of people to carry it forth."
I don't know about you, but I love the fact that the first EDM camp at Burning Man was partly there because Larry thought it'd be a funny prank to pull on burners. It's funny in and of itself, and funny in an ironic way because of how dominant EDM is on the playa now.
As I mentioned above, I followed up with some questions, to which Craig generously provided his thoughts.
Dr. Yes: What'd you think when you first got to the playa back in 1992?
Craig: In 1992 when Ted and I arrived on the playa it was about 11pm at night. There was no gate road. No gate. We were told to pull off the highway at around a certain mile marker and head east until we saw a lightbulb on a tower. We drove around for about two hours trying to find that tower.
In contrast, coming back in 2016, I could see cars heading to and coming from Burning Man about 100 miles out on a county highway in Oregon so the first thoughts were about the gate, entry and thinking about how long the line may be. I'd read horror stories over the years but I wasn't there on the first day so it was very streamlined.
That leads me to infrastructure differences. Night and day here compared to the early years and like any community that grows, the infrastructure has to be built to support it. I was 100% impressed with the efforts that Burning Man Org and all the volunteers do out there each year. I took some time to find where I was going to pitch my tent (I've never and never will rent an RV to go to Burning Man, just not my thing.) I found some friendly neighbors and set up, and introduced myself. I immediately thought that while more mainstream people may be there these days it's still people that want to be there and for the most part people are there to share, to learn, and to come away with something whether it's an experience, a new love, or shedding some baggage and in those core ways I found it's remained the same. Then the sheer fucking scale of the thing blew my mind. As far as sound camps go, Mayan Warrior was extremely impressive.
Dr. Yes: I thought it was interesting to learn that Larry had invited you guys to come as the first sound camp partly as a prank. Did you view it mostly as a prank, or did you guys just like DJing and thought it'd be a great place to turn it up to 11?
Craig: We were mostly in it for the music but I have to admit I'm a huge fan of pranks. I grew up listening to punk rock and am a DIY sort of person. I was in a psychedelic techno band at the time called Psychic TV and one of the Cacophony Society members was trying to arrange for the whole band to play - that was the initial lead in to the meeting with Larry Harvey, but the whole band couldn't be there so I pitched Larry on having a rave camp (I've never liked the term rave but that's the nomenclature). We called it a sound camp or party. I'm an adventurer and outdoorsperson also so remote places interest me. Shortly after Burning Man in 1992 I left for India and lived and DJ'd in Goa India for 6 months which was amazing. 1992 was a very inspiring year and full of personal growth and change for me.
Dr. Yes: Did you pay much attention to Burning Man and its evolution in the 20 year gap where you weren't going? (Congrats on beating cancer! Fuck cancer!)
Craig: Until the year 2003 I was still living in the Bay Area. I stopped attending in 1996 but still knew many many people going each year and they'd come back and regale me with stories. I also watched the online stream in most years, watching technology grow and get better which interestingly enough is a core of Burning Man now. Burning Man could have only ever have evolved out of the Bay Area. It's a strong hub for the arts, technology, and counterculture. In 2003 I moved to Hawaii for 12 years and logistically to do Burning Man how I like to it it was too difficult. I didn't want to leave the ocean for that long is the short answer!
In 2016 I moved to Vancouver B.C. and looked on a Google map and figured it's only a 22 hour drive. I'd just battled colon cancer and had a lot of appreciation for being alive and also wanted to go out there and breathe any remaining anxiety, and negative stuff out and leave it there. So while 1992 was an amazing year for me, 2016 was a difficult one. I figured go back and if you I could connect the two I can create a change. Synchronicity or coincidence is a huge thing I pay attention to. In 1992 Ted and I turned on the radio after it was all over when we were driving off the playa and this song came on. It's by Marty Stuart and it's call Burn Me Down. The lyrics sounded like they were tailor made for us to hear at that moment. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59Hih1d5T24 I found the song on youtube last year and had a laugh.
In 2016 coming back home a song by Band Of Horses came on the radio (big fan of just listening to the radio on roadtrips) and it was called The Funeral. In a way and in that moment that song rang true to me. I felt like I'd had a bit of a funeral for myself.
Dr. Yes: It's interesting that you say you felt like the vibe is the same, just on a different scale. There's a lot of cynicism out there about Burning Man among veteran attendees, and it's refreshing to hear your point of view there. Was there anything you didn't care for about the brighter, bigger Burning Man of today vs the mid-90s?
Craig: I dig it all, even the sparkleponies.
Dr. Yes: The first Temple wasn't there until 2000. Did you visit the Temple the last two years upon returning to the playa at all? What'd you think?
Craig: I know, that's something I was curious about for sure. My dad had died a couple years before in an accident and he was always very involved with Burning Man. He loved hearing the stories each year. I wrote his name on the wall. He would have liked that I think.
My first trip to the Temple was intense. I wasn't prepared for the heavy grief that was being expressed and took a while to understand and appreciate what is happening there. Terbo Ted has a directive to take some of my ashes and mementos to the Temple after I pass on. I think it's a beautiful place to let go and remember people.
Dr. Yes: This is a potentially controversial question, but since you DJ'd at least partly as a prank, how would you feel about people 'trolling' the Temple burn via music? (Famously, this happened several years ago, though it was ostensibly to honor someone. It upset a lot of people, and made some people go 'fuck yeah.')
Craig: I wouldn't have done that. While the event is about radical self-expression, people should have empathy to understand grief and silence. There's plenty of other nights to make as much noise as you want.
Dr. Yes: All-time favorite experience at Burning Man in the mid-90s?
Craig: Going to the Fly hotsprings in 1992 after the event to wash the dust off . We were chased off at rifle point by a rancher. We were only a handful of people with the pools to ourselves. In 1996 there were hundreds of people in the pools after the owner found he could profit off letting people in. Now that Burning Man bought The Fly Ranch I really look forward to see what happens out there. It's part of Larry's legacy and vision.
Dr. Yes: All-time favorite experience at Burning Man 2016-2017?
Craig: Taking my virgin wife to experience Burning Man for herself. She's heard me tell so many stories that she wanted to go check it out. Also in 2017 this synchronicity happened. We were biking in the deep playa and there was an art installation of the golden record that was on the Voyager Spacecraft. I biked right up to it and realized I had the same symbol on my shirt. This surprised tons of people that came at the same time. One woman proclaimed loudly, "This is the magical Burning Man shit I was trying to tell you about!"
Dr. Yes: It sounds like you knew Larry at least somewhat well for awhile. Any thoughts on how his passing might affect the future course of Burning Man?
Craig: I imagine this will be a special year out there with lots of tributes. I think The Man should have a Stetson on. I believe Burning Man will carry on fine as long as the Trump administration doesn't start getting too scared of 70k people all gifting, learning, and enjoying themselves. We should understand that this administration isn't a friend to free thinkers. [Dr. Yes: A-fucking-men to that.]
Dr. Yes: Will you be on-playa again this year?
Craig: You never know. I'm going back to my mid-1990's plan that if I'm meant to to go I'll be there! I'll be in Southern Oregon camping and looking for rare gems so I'm not far away. Anyone have a spare ticket?
Thanks for taking the time to reminisce and give us your thoughts on Burning Man generally, Craig. See you in the dust!
A two part set from 4 am on Labor Day that Craig performed as DJ Niles in 1996 on the playa can be found here as part 1 and part 2.
Craig's trash fence set from 2017 is here.
If you want to learn more about the history of Burning Man, start here.
I'm Dr. Yes. I run this site, lead a theme camp called Friendgasm, and make Burning Man videos. Just say yes, folks, and help keep Burning Man weird!