Death and Ecstasy: The Rise and Fall of Burning Man's Original Rave Ghetto
The first man to ever play a DJ set on the playa discusses the moment that the festival lost its soul.
The moment in 1996 that Terbo Ted, first and last mayor of the Techno Ghetto, the official rave camp of Black Rock City, realized that his rave utopia was doomed was when the girl approached him. She was a typical California surfer chick: daisy dukes, flip-flops, except totally broiled both inside and out from sun and excess.
Her lips were cracked and parched. Yellow third degree blisters had formed across her lobster red shoulders, definitely the wrong attire for the merciless desert, Ted thought to himself. The wind had picked up as the sun set, replacing the scorching day with freezing night. Stacks of fliers that a crew of Los Angeles ravers had left on the ground now billowed across the playa like confetti.
"Do you have water?" she mumbled.
"Do you have food?" She asked.
Again, he nodded, increasingly alarmed that this young girl would not survive the night in her current state. Though every ticket to Burning Man had the phrase "YOU MIGHT DIE, and that's your responsibility," printed on the back, Ted began to wonder if that caveat would actually hold up in a court of law. As thoughts of her demise swirled through his head, she looked and him and asked:
"Do you know where I can find some E?"
At that moment Ted knew it was over. The camp he had worked hard to perfect for five years was falling apart. Word was, the narcs were taking prisoners, casualties were mounting steadily and the ravers were to blame. By the end of the weekend, one person was killed, three more people would be severely injured, and Burning Man's original "techno ghetto" would be just a memory.
Nearly 20 years later, electronic music remains a controversial topic at Burning Man, only growing more important as the EDM Festival scene has taken off in the U.S. As tens of thousands dressed in neon fur and little else ready themselves for a week of dust and debauchery, purists and organizers worry about Burning Man's soul. A special "Deep Playa Music Zone" has been instituted away from the main camp, and sound cars are warned about advertising lineups, lest Burning Man be confused with just another summer festival.
The tension between Burning Man's organizers and rave culture is nothing new. Burning Man's intertwined and at times, adversarial relationship with electronic music culture has dated back to nearly the beginning of its existence.
Let's travel back to 1992. Rave had been in full effect for almost a half decade in the United Kingdom, but for the Bay Area, it was experiencing its own second summer of love. As a member of Mr. Floppy's rave crew, Ted was involved in some of the Bay Area's earliest raves, thrown at the Flop house, a huge mansion and former brothel in East Oakland that had once been a favorite destination of the writer Jack London.
At the same the rave scene was exploding, another group of Bay Area artists, punks, and pranksters known as the Cacophony Society were establishing their own legacy in the Nevada desert. The group merged an annual San Francisco bonfire party for the Summer Solstice with its own "zone trip" parties. The event dubbed "Cacophony Society Zone Trip #4: Bad Day at the Black Rock" in 1990 would serve as the genesis for the Burning Man festival.
In the back of a local alternative newspaper, a good friend of Ted's, Craig Ellenwood, aka DJ Niles, a member of both Mr. Floppy's and the seminal industrial band Psychic TV, discovered a fortune cookie sized announcement advertising an artistic gathering in the desert. After calling the number listed, the group met Burning Man founder Larry Harvey and were invited to bring speakers and music to the desert.
"We went out there with a four-speaker sound system, it had no crossover. It had been from a punk band, one of the guys had died," remembers Ted. "We had one generator, a couple of black lights, a couple of cardboard things painted day-glo and not much else."
Like a rival tribe, the ravers were viewed with suspicion by the proto-Burners. Their camp, dubbed the "techno ghetto" was placed more than a mile from the main camp, next to the porta-potties.
"All these guys were very nuts and bolts, hands-on, artists, sculptors and that sort of the thing," says Ted. "Most of the core Burning Man people were 10, 15 years older than we were and they looked at us like we were bringing this pop consumerist culture out there."
Despite the exclusion from the main camp, Burning Man was a revelatory event for Ted and the others. The total freedom of the environment as well as the laissez-faire attitude of the playa helped form a transcendental moment for Ted as he played the first DJ set at Burning Man ever. Here was an event where everyone was supposed to be a participant; no one was supposed to be an observer.
"Basically it was the sound check. There was 10 miles of dirt in front of me and no one else there. We had the decks and we snorted some ecstasy off the turntables. I played a Jean Michel Jarre record," remembers Ted. "I wasn't even supposed to be playing. I was corralled into it as a roadie... I wasn't even on the flyer."
Though some in the original Cacophony Society viewed the new attendees with mistrust, they shared similar philosophical and political views. Both groups were influenced by the writings of anarchist Peter Lamborn Wilson, who under the pseudonym Hakim Bey advocated the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone as a way to escape societal control by creating spaces without rules and regulations.
The following year in 1993, this concept was solidified with San Francisco's SPaZ (Semi Permanent Autonomous Zone) sound system replacing the disbanded Mr. Floppy's as the main sound system at Burning Man. Each year brought more participants, larger sound systems and more milestones. In 1995, Ted played the first set ever recorded at Burning Man.
1996, dubbed The Inferno, was on track to be the most ambitious Burning Man ever. 8,000 showed up that year. Ted booked six sound systems for the Techno Ghetto, all to be arranged in an orbital ring, a mile long, with the sound systems facing out into the desert and the camps within. Ted and the other organizers arrived weeks in advance to survey the land and build a civic center.
"1996, the theme was HELCO and you got to be really careful if you have a themed event because it's sort of like a meditation––and that year was complete hell," says Ted. "Once we got to the desert, everyone threw the script out the window."
Michael Furey, an original Burning Man attendee and a close friend Burning Man's founders died in a motorcycle accident earlier that week, allegedly during a drunken game of chicken with a truck with his headlights off. The death had served as an omen for things to come.
Once they arrived, the attendees ignored the organizer's carefully planned layout and set up camps wherever they pleased. Cliques had developed among the sound systems and petty fights over porta-potties and fashion became the norm.
As the week went on, more tragedies occurred including three attendees getting seriously injured when an art car ran over their tent. As a Black Rock Ranger, Ted had a camp radio and began hearing the troubling calls for help come in over the air.
"The radio would go off, 'I have an emergency, you need to keep this channel clear. I have a partially severed arm from a vehicular related collision. I need GPS coordinates for a helicopter medevac. I need backup right away. This person is bleeding. I need help.' And you're like 'Holy fuck, this person's arm got cut off.'... Here comes the helicopter and it flies over the camp... all the girls are flashing their tits at the helicopter."
Police had also become a presence at the festival and dozens were arrested on drug charges that year. The strain began to wear on Ted and the other organizers. Larry Harvey hid out for long periods of time to escape the stress.
It all became too much for Ted. He, as well as a third of the other organizers, quit the event by the end of the weekend.
"It wasn't worth being associated with it. I didn't want to be promoting an event where people got arrested and killed. That wasn't OK. That was sort of a deal breaker," he says.
In press statement on their website, Burning Man organizers blamed the rave element for "a breakdown of civic standards and community created chaos." Sound systems over 100 watts were banned the following year. The police presence, which already had begun to increase, was magnified after the arrests and drove away many of the original anarchist and rave idealists. For Ted, it was an idea that had run its course.
"I had this amazing out of body experience DJing in '92," SAYS Ted. "It just felt like chasing the dragon. You get that original high and it's never quite as good as it's then."
Today, the festival is expected to attract more than 60,000 and is a very different place than the original event. Far from being a temporary autonomous zone, Burning Man is more like Disneyland. You can still die if you're not careful but there are lots of people there to make sure you don't. Sound systems are now an integral part of the scene. Ted however, who returned for the 2012 and 2014 festivals, is not impressed with its transformation.
"There's way too much music out there now. It's just this train wreck of unfortunate, uncurated garbage. It's like a city where you have 1100 nightclubs and you only need six."
Still he is proud of his contribution to the evolution of the festival. "I think it became an indelible mark on Burning Man. Someone pointed out recently that Burning Man didn't really grow until the rave culture was added and then it became something different and started doubling in size every year."
@dan_rtype can be found on Twitter, not the playa.