More than 30 years after Larry Harvey and Jerry James built an eight-foot-tall figure out of wood and set fire to it on San Francisco’s Baker Beach to mark the night before the summer solstice, Burning Man has become a massive, pricey event for arty hipsters, wannabes, and, of course, a troop of well-to-do trend slaves and voyeurs. The changes from that modest first night in June of 1986 have been considerable, starting with location: the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, a.k.a. the Playa, where the extravaganza happens every Labor Day weekend or thereabouts with a week-long build-up.
This world-renowned congregation is honored for its post-punk Mad-Max-in-Fairyland sensibility (including participants in apocalyptic, science-fictional, or fantasy-inspired garb), spectacular impermanent installations, tribal theme camps, and weekend-survivalist camaraderie, but a case can be made that it grew out of something that seemed pretty damned innovative at the time. That would be the Anon Salon, which brought together a community that would go on to foster various clubs and recurring, celebratory events in S.F., New York City, and Los Angeles — with an influence that can still be experienced today.. Larry Harvey was an Anon regular back in the day, as were many of those who attended that first ritual immolation on the beach. That ain’t no coincidence.
THE SALON AND ITS SPAWN
It kind of makes sense that the Anon Salon was launched in San Francisco, where the Be-Ins and Love-Ins took place in the psychedelic 1960s. It grew out of art openings at the late and lamented 20×20 Gallery on Howard near 9th Street. Someone got the idea of bringing in DJs to play music for dancing after the usual closing time. Drinks were served, people mingled and shook booty to the beats, and a splendid time was had by all. These openings were so much fun that they mutated into monthly soirees known as Anon parties, each with a specific theme and décor, plus performance art — often interactive — as executed by a tribe of creative staffers and volunteers, usually in costume.
Early on, this visionary crew was like a collective with many voices, but eventually it had de facto leadership by Joegh Bullock, Marcia Crosby, and a handful of other artistically inclined entrepreneurs who would go on to shepherd a bevy of Anon-related events in the years to follow. The vibe they all fostered was rebellious and gleefully underground, so it seemed logical to follow Larry and company from the Anon to the beach on that Saturday night in 1986 and bask in the warmth and firelight from a flaming effigy that would eventually symbolize a phenomenon.
In addition to moving from the gallery to a multi-room space on 9th near Folsom and running for almost two decades, the Anon Salon generated a host of offshoots, including Science Club, the Sub Club, and an avant garde performance space called the Climate Theater. There have also been more extravagant one-offs and annual events, such as a yearly Halloween bash and the New Year’s Eve celebration Sea of Dreams, both held in more spacious venues, and the How Weird Street Faire, which still happens downtown once a year in broad daylight. The common thread has always been a passion for the artistic with an inclusive, participatory atmosphere and creativity in presentation.
THE BURN TAKES HOLD
Anon vets went on to found their own art-embracing nightclubs, led by the still-vital DNA Lounge. It’s also known among the cognoscenti that Anon inspired the ever-changing ’80s nightclub Area in New York City. Two of Area’s masterminds were frequent Anon attendees who took note of the latter’s mutating themes and décor, adapting the concepts to their own Manhattan club space. The Anon Salon itself has been defunct for many years as its directors went their separate ways. But the most high-profile thing that the Anon begat was and continues to be Burning Man, which begat its own offspring events, as one might expect.
Take, for example, the 4th of Juplaya, a smaller warm-up in early July that takes place on the same plot of land in the Black Rock Desert as the full-bore Burning Man. And there are the Decompression parties that happen in San Francisco (and presumably other locations) post-Burning Man, attempting to reproduce a scaled-down back-to-earth version of the big blowout in an urban space that plays host to performers, art installations, and the usual unusuals in costume, enlightened (one might expect) by any means necessary.
After all this time, the virus has spread hither and yon, manifesting in numerous big-city and rural conclaves, one-offs or recurring, presumably minus the gigantic conflagrations. I am very partial to Space Party, which happens a few times a year, usually within a space nestled in the still-rough-and-tumble Los Angeles warehouse district. True to its name, Space Party — the creation of the 20-something brother and sister team Miles and Maya Crosman — is galactic in its vibe. It offers live bands with an emphasis on funky improvisation, techno-savvy DJs, interstellar-themed environments that include a chill room, and cosmically-costumed performers intermingling with similarly-adorned patrons. The journey runs all night until the wee hours of the morning, when the voyagers emerge into the dawn and return to their lives on Terra Firma.
Whether or not the intent is to reproduce the Burning Man sensibility in a warehouse, Space Party succeeds on its own merits. It’s big fun, and it’s manageable. The next one, dubbed Keyzo’s Hangar, is scheduled for September 14 in L.A., a couple weeks after a certain gathering has gone down in the Nevada desert. I know which one of the two I’m attending, and it won’t require sun-block or a canteen.
Full disclosure: I was an Anon devotee, even serving as a disc jockey at the Salon on occasion. In all the years since then, I’ve never been to the Playa, although I’d happily drop by something like the proto-Burn that happened in San Francisco back in the day. There’s no denying the comparative convenience of moonlit beach bonfires followed by breakfast at Denny’s as opposed to a confluence of sun-baked, moonscape-dwelling space cadets, dust devils, rainstorms, and traffic jams on otherwise desolate highways, with a dining choice between campfire grub or MREs washed down by whatever isn’t too overheated to drink. I guess I just prefer my joyful, wacky celebrations to be a little more contained, like the good old Anon.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on “Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast,” via GABnet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster