I'd seen plenty of photos of Burning Man but nothing prepared me for the first time I walked onto what Burners call the Playa. As I gaped at Midway on Mars, a pinky-brown girl naked but for a huge pair of goggles rattled past me on a yellow bicycle and said 'Welcome home, brother.' Strange as it may seem, I did feel right at home.
In the 1970s, growing up in the East of England, I spent several of my teenage summers going to what were called Albion Fairs. There was precious little neon at an Albion Fair and, instead of a vast expanse of white dust, we had acres of mud and bruised grass. It was also too cold for mass nudity. But Albion Fairs offered us adolescents a taste of live and let live woolly-jumpered anarchy which, of course, we sneered at until the 1980s dawned and we saw how lucky we'd been.
At Burning Man I really did feel like I'd come home to a spirit of festival that had lain buried for over 40 years.
As I walked back to my camp, my brain bursting, I heard 'Heroes' drifting across the desert. The soundtrack to Burning Man is relentless round the clock EDM so it was a shock to hear Bowie. But throughout the Burn songs from what us long in the tooth fans would call his golden era played night and day.
Once I got over the surprise, I began to wonder why Burners young enough to be my children loved Bowie so much.
The myth of Bowie is that he was constantly changing but if you've listened to him for over 40 years, the remarkable thing is how much he stays the same. He may have mutated from Starman to Lazarus but he's always celebrating the strange, mysterious other. And this is as potent as it ever was.
It was telling that the music I heard wafting through the heat shimmer was late 70s Bowie, before he decided he was going to be Dave from Brixton and embrace the ordinary. Today's rockers are horribly dull - think of Puppydog Grohl - and EDMers are notable for their total absence of personality. Who'd put a poster of Kygo on their wall? Even now, Bowie's look is leagues ahead.
So it's probably not surprising that, apart from the fact that the best of Bowie adds up to some of the finest pop ever, Baby Burners turn to him. Like all great pop, Bowie's always different but the same.
But there had to be more to the Bowie Burning Man connection than that.
Memory Of A Free Festival
Maybe it's because Bowie's embrace of everything futuristic has always been more utopian than dystopian. Even when he was singing 'Five years, that's all we've got' it sounded like he looked forward to the impending chaos. And his loving of the alien is thoroughly rooted in hippy optimism, perhaps because Bowie had no doubt that he was part of the coming race. (I wonder if he still does.)
Although Burning Man revels in its hardcore dustipunk reputation and Burners enjoy promoting 'radical self-reliance', for me the experience is much more about radical kindness and welcoming strangers. Like the wide-eyed inclusiveness of Bowie's 'Memory Of A Free Festival', it's a little bit silly but genuine nonetheless. I have never felt safer than I did at Burning Man.
As Bowie turns 69 this week, I salute his undiminished power to include us in his mystery.