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Larry Harvey, founder and leader of Burning Man, dies in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO -- Larry Harvey, an Oregon farm boy who lit a wooden skeleton on Baker Beach in San Francisco, igniting the cultural force that is Burning Man, died Saturday.

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Sam Whiting
, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- Larry Harvey, an Oregon farm boy who lit a wooden skeleton on Baker Beach in San Francisco, igniting the cultural force that is Burning Man, died Saturday.

A messianic figure known for wearing a felt Stetson and smoking Marlboros, Harvey was the founder and guiding light of the annual Burning Man bacchanalia in the Nevada Desert, which attracts 70,000 campers the week before Labor Day.

Harvey, who last appeared in public March 29 at the opening of a Burning Man art exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., died after suffering a massive stroke on April 4. He was 70.

``We resolutely held out for a miracle,'' Marian Goodell, CEO of the Burning Man Project, said in a statement. ``If there was anyone tenacious, strong-willed and stubborn enough to come back from this challenge, it was Larry.''

He was surrounded by family members in San Francisco when he died peacefully Saturday morning, Goodell said.

What started on the Summer Solstice, 1986, with maybe a dozen people torching an 9-foot effigy at the beach has grown into a year-round $30 million-a-year enterprise with 70 full-time employees at its San Francisco headquarters and satellite art events everywhere.

As chief philosophic officer and Burning Man project president, Harvey was plain-spoken and good-humored about the spiritual command he held over his disciples, who call themselves ``burners.''

To the end, he designed and scripted the annual art theme, and when he gave his annual keynote address on the playa, he was listened to with deep rapture.

``People out here build whole worlds out of nothing, through cooperating,'' Harvey said in 1988, during a speech in which he encouraged the burners after an early Burning Man festival to go back out into the mainstream and live each day as if they were still in the desert.

``We've been civilized from the beginning,'' he said. ``In the desert, it's a baroque city like Paris or Rome.''

Burning Man takes place the week leading up to Labor Day, in a mystical and completely temporary metropolis called Black Rock City, which probably functions better than Paris or Rome. There is a street grid, neighborhoods, a police force, competing daily newspapers and radio stations, cocktail parties, dinner dances, and high opera.

As the event has gotten more mainstream and ticket prices more expensive, an unavoidable class system has evolved. Silicon Valley millionaires are the middle class, just like in San Francisco, and billionaires at the top of the heap are in luxurious motor homes with generators cranking out the air conditioning.

Harvey's own camp, named First Camp, was original and understated, with 70s-style RVs. The toughest invitation to score at Burning Man is for the nightly dinner at Camp One. The meal is prepared by a celebrated chef and guests sit at long tables, with Harvey in his hat usually at one end. Everybody is expected to pitch in. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was supposedly spotted there last year washing dishes.

It is all part of being a participant. There are no spectators at Burning Man. For the price of a ticket, which ranges from about $200 to $1,200, you are expected to be part of the show. If you need an introduction to Burning Man, the San Francisco Public Library carries 18 nonfiction titles and five documentary films on it.

``Larry could be lovable and ornery all in the same sentence,'' said Chip Conley, founder of the Joie de Vivre hotel chain and a Burning Man board member. ``Often, his brilliance was more subliminal and profound than most people could fathom.''

Harvey was born Jan. 28, 1948. In a 2011 interview with The Chronicle, he said he and his brother Stewart were adopted by parents who moved west from the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl. They settled on a farm outside Portland, Ore.

``In some sense, I was raised in the 19th century,'' he told The Chronicle. ``As a child, I craved sophistication and culture. My parents didn't know what to make of me.''

Harvey served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, stationed in Germany doing clerical work. After his discharge, he briefly attended Portland State University on the GI Bill before moving to San Francisco in the 1970s.

He married Patricia Johnson and they had a son. Harvey supported them by working a series of jobs he described as ``romantically menial,'' while pursuing performance art projects with groups like the Cacophony Society.

In the early 1980s, Johnson and Harvey separated and he moved into a rent-controlled apartment on the first floor of a mid-rise unit on Alamo Square. It was here that Harvey, who had worked as a cab driver and bike messenger, got the inspiration to call up a friend, Jerry James, and state simply: ``I'm tired of this. Let's burn a man, Jerry.''

They built the effigy in a Noe Valley shop and trucked it down to Baker Beach. With a crowd of about a dozen friends, they doused it with gasoline and torched it.

``When it flamed up, it was like a second sun brought down to this Earth,'' Harvey said, in a 1997 speech. ``It was just ... it transfixed us, but ... that's where the story begins, in fact.''

Within two years, the Man was 40 feet, nearly as tall as it is now. They posted fliers and Harvey officially named the effigy and the event Burning Man.

``We didn't worry about getting a venue or asking permission. We started out guerrilla. We were illegal, going down to the beach to burn this thing,'' Harvey later said in a lecture at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. ``And we depended for our resources, not on grants and not on sponsorship and not anybody's funding, but on our own communal efforts undertaken together.''

The event grew year by year until, in 1990, 350 people came to the beach to watch the 40-foot sculpture burn. Also on hand was a park ranger who refused to let the torching happen. The sculpture was loaded back onto a truck and driven out to the Black Rock Desert, a lava field north of Reno, where the first burn happened over Labor Day Weekend.

Harvey designed the effigy and wrote blueprints from which the Man has been designed and built every year, before it burns to the ground on Saturday night. Once it goes, everything else that will burn is also torched, and the festival finally ends on Labor Day.

Black Rock City experienced growing pains like any other city. There were fatalities. There were battles over the ever-rising ticket prices. There were arguments with the Bureau of Land Management over land use. There were lawsuits. Black Rock City moved around before settling down north of Gerlach, in Washoe County.

Harvey always enjoyed the flames, the chaos, the anarchy, the noise, even the heat and wind and rain on the playa. Once he described how a roller rink operated until 3 a.m. and the disco music had just died down when an artist started work on an ice sculpture.

``I was trying to get some sleep at 4:30 in the morning, and the chain saw woke me up,'' he said. ``I wouldn't exchange that for the world.''

In 2013, Burning Man became a limited liability corporation then evolved into a nonprofit, as it expanded, with sanctioned Burning Man events across America and into 50 countries. This year it made inroads into Russia.

``Larry surfed the cultural zeitgeist for more than three decades,'' Conley said. ``He and imagined what life would be like if artists ruled the world.''

According to a recent tax return, Harvey was paid about $200,000 a year but he still kept the rent-control apartment on Alamo Square, where he lived alone. He was always of the people, friendly and talkative with his neighbors. His only visible change was when he finally retired the Stetson Open Road. It had been the style of hat his father wore.

``I'm in territory today I could never have imagined,'' he said in 2011. ``I'm 63, and I finally don't have to justify my existence to my father.''

Harvey's survivors include his son Tristan and his brother Stewart.

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