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Freaks in the Desert

Page 4 of 6

Next, I set out for a giant, glowing ruby that shimmered like a mirage in the distance. It turned out to be a red gel light reflecting off several hundred compact discs strung together inside the frame of a skateboard half pipe. I noticed the Man had changed color from blue to yellow.

Scattered howls sounded across the city, all human. The moon was rising--an orange orb that sat low on the horizon like the gleaming eye of a horned god, lifting up the curtain of night with one finger to peek at his followers.

Maybe all the Satan shit was starting to get to me.
Over a PA that carried to most of the festival, the lead singer for the "Rock Against Rock" band Idiot Flesh was exhorting the crowd to "Sell your soul to the devil, give yourself to the dark lord," with all the fevered delivery of a televangelist. I saw several people carrying goat and cow heads on tall staffs, and a popular look at Burning Man was to stick two plastic glow sticks in your hat or hair like horns.

Finally, there was the ghoulish chorus to the northwest. What sounded like a coven of witches chanting "Devil's delight/Fire tonight" over another powerful PA was actually the climax of The Arrival of Empress Zoe, a "rock opera" staged on and around a three-tower castle made of rebar, wire mesh and mud. As I melded into the audience, menacing male voices joined the chant and the castle went up in flames.

The opera had employed more than 50 characters, many of them extras wearing animal masks and tails, who danced naked around a massive bonfire waving sticks and raising their arms to the stars as the castle burned and the chorus chanted.

"Devil's delight/Fire tonight." "Devil's delight/Fire tonight."
I decided that if Ralph Reed had been savvy enough to dispatch a Christian Coalition camera crew to '96 Burning Man Festival, he could have made a fund-raising video that would have had God-fearing folk everywhere scrambling for their credit cards. "My lord, Martha, come look at these deviates on the TV."

The castle burn was anticlimactic after the Seemen's Hellco tower demolition, and I left before it toppled. I tried to orient. I'd walked miles in random patterns, and didn't have a clue where my camp was. Then I spotted the fluorescent white glow of a tiny Kentucky Fried Chicken sign at three o'clock, and gratefully accepted Colonel Sanders as my savior.

The Burn
Ian went to Bartertown Sunday morning, and traded two bundles of sage and a joke for breakfast and a bowl of high-grade marijuana to see in the day. His joke went like this:

Q: What do you call a psychic midget who escapes from prison?
A: A small medium at large.
I munched a plum and got in the long line at the closest of several dozen Porti-Sans scattered around Black Rock City. Ian barked at the green cubicle through a megaphone. "We're not sensing any movement out here." I gave up and walked to Spiral Oasis, where Mark Pesce was presiding at a wedding. After the ceremony, about 40 people joined hands and walked in a complex spiral pattern around the bride and groom as they kissed, held hands and smiled at each other. I lazed over to the center of camp and bought an espresso at Atomic Cafe, where a nude woman in red-and-black body paint was chatting with a cop in uniform. "Hey, you guys," she called over to her camp. "This is the sheriff." The cop grinned and waved. I noticed that, for a gathering of this size, there was remarkably little trash on the ground.

A dust devil touched down and danced over the ten-foot-tall gas generator that squeezed out the juice for Black Rock City's rudimentary power grid. Last year's festival was disrupted by high winds and a rainstorm, but the weather at Burning Man '96 during the day was calm and hot. Like most people, I lay low during the brutal heat of the day on Sunday, staying under shade and drinking water. I made one afternoon expedition through the smoldering ruins of Hellco to the far southeast perimeter of the festival to see the "Piano Bell From Hell."

The Bell was 88 gutted, old pianos trucked in from Oakland and bolted together into a hollow oval by found-object artist Steve Heck. I picked a stick out of a kiddy pool full of striking devices and joined about 50 other people in banging on the rusted strings and wood. It sounded like the din of a thousand poltergeists.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse