Russell Brunelle (russellb) wrote,
Russell Brunelle

Burning Man's middle years

Once again, from Brian Doherty's book This is Burning Man:

The Vegematic of the Apocalypse, as everyone affectionately called it, was a long drill, mounted on a pair of rusty metal tractor wheels around six feet tall. It also sported a fire cannon, capable of spitting flame jets one hundred feet or more. While experimenting and putzing around, Mason managed to ignorantly come up with the standard old-fashioned design for military flamethrowers. The drill was a relic of the Stanford / New Guinea sculpture garden, meant to dig deep, narrow holes for sculptural supports to rest in. The machine's look of decrepit rusty decay ... combined with its unprecedented and utterly unnecessary destructive potential, made it an archetypal toy for mid-era Burning Man, the epitome of the oft-mentioned Mad Max vibe....

"You can't stop the music" is a belovedly campy phrase for dance-music devotees. On Burn Night in 1997 - the moment when the devilish, anything -the-fuck-goes atmosphere at Burning Man reaches almost palpable density (maybe it's just the smoke from all the fires) - Mason decided to test that maxim, using the Vegematic of the Apocalypse.

"I pedaled the Vegematic around for five hours that night," Mason remembers, "having very loaded, very tense confrontations with the owners of various artworks as to what our interaction with said artwork should be. It's fun riding on the Veg, which inevitably attracts a very rowdy, screaming mob running alongside. It's obviously the most dangerous thing out there, and it can cause tremendous problems if everyone thinks you're some methhead who wants to destroy everything.

"Of course, in reality we are reasonably nice, taxpaying citizens. I didn't intend to really burn anything down. But the crowd wanted everything burned down. We did shoot down a weather balloon, and we did burn a giant duck. I had three hundred people following me, chanting 'Burn the Duck!'

"But the best part was when we rolled into the rave camp."

I was there. Not even one-hundred-foot flame jets could sway the DJ. He had been flown in that day from Goa, India. His mission was to groove the crowd, and by Vishnu, that crowd was going to groove. He stared, arms crossed, at the gang of circus freaks, sweaty bike mechanics, and dust-caked cheering hooligans who had dared invade his sacred space, the mini-area where his people swayed and slid and jerked and elevated themselves to the beat he laid down. But right now most of the dancing had stopped, as the nervous ravers stepped back and gaped at this freakish device, simultaneously ancient and post-apocalyptic, rolling heedlessly through their densely dancing bodies.

At the end of its drill snout, the Vegematic sported two rusty saw blades, attached by loosely fastened chains. They rattled menacingly when the machine churned its drill bit. The Vegematic's followers were chanting: "Led Zeppelin! Led Zeppelin! Led Zeppelin!"

It was a sharply defined clash of cultures - peach-and-unity ravers conjuring up a communal vibe based on music and pleasure versus the grease-monkey mechanics who built their weird, scary destructive devices and rolled them around shooting one-hundred-foot-long flames for the sheer exhilaration of watching the fire arc, of feeling its pummeling heat, of seeing the darker smoke smudge the dark night sky. It had been a rampage of pure mindless release, until Mason and his marauding band heard a real target in the distance - this rave camp, projecting its mellow dance culture out into the vast night. Now, Mason thought, the Vegematic could perform a genuine public service - stopping that damned electronic bompbompbomp.

Meson pedaled the flamethrowing nose ten feet from the DJ in his elevated booth. It licked small flames from the snout, a restrained threat of infernos to come. Hadn't the DJ seen them out there, toasting flying objects ninety feet up? Didn't he know what the machine was capable of?

Still, he just stared. Was it a glower of defiance, or merely the sheer self-confidence of a man who knew that his crowd and the vibe he was creating were just too vibrant and energetic to be stopped? I suppose there is no standard pat reaction for confrontations with giant pedal-powered flamethrowing drills.

The rowdies stared at this electronica-playing hippie who stood his ground in the face of this machine of absurd, pointless destructive power. And they knew they'd met their match. With grudging respect, the Vegematic gave ground, its crew broke ranks, and Mason pedaled it slowly around, away, and back into the chaotic night, dotted with fires small and large and jammed with running, whooping crowds of mysterious purpose, or of no purpose at all.

As its nose rotated, the Vegematic's kinetic energy was turned to its most vital use: powering a margarita-filled blender back within reach of its driver. The Vegematic, this ferocious mobile flamethrower, was also the world's most dangerous drink blender.
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