Steve Heck is a thick Grendel of a man, with a long beard he hacks with a knife and ties off at the bottom. He can move a piano over a foot merely by smacking it with one hand.
He lives in a warehouse in Oakland. Plato would be amazed at how the Perfect Idea of clutter has entered the phenomenal world down this dismal Oakland side street. Heck inhabits two stories and a huge yard, and every inch except for a narrow walkway is cluttered with vehicles and wood piles and clothes and boats and engine parts and sculptures and appliances and magazines and lathes, everything Heck ever got his hands on, except the things that burned when his old house caught fire many years ago.
That fire imbued him with a calling. Heck had been a piano mover. His house was filled with so many pianos you had to walk over them to get through the living room. Suddenly he had hundreds of burnt pianos. He was seized by a compulsion to make something of his tragedy: the notion that nothing can leave his care until he has transformed it into art.
He makes versions of famous images out of any material at home: cracked porcelain, burned wood scraps, chunks of old books. He proudly shows me his Marilyn Monroes and an image recreating that famous picture of a Viet Cong prisoner being shot in the head. He's been fighting for years with city officials and landlords over his junk-besotted lifestyle. He feigns complete irrationality, so cops and code officials throw up their hands and give up. You'd call him insane with no compunction, if not for the intelligent lucidity with which he details his own obsessions.
Late in the summer of 1996 Heck had a vision of his burnt pianos in the desert. He had never been to Burning Man, the temporary city and arts fest that arises and disappears every year on Nevada's Black Rock desert playa, but he knew a couple of the event's organizers. He asked if he could bring his pianos and was told sure, bring 'em out.
So he brought them, and he dumped them on the desert floor. Someone drove by in a truck with some guys and asked Heck if he wanted to come with them for a hot spring soak. He went, and afterward they stopped in the town of Gerlach for dinner. Then they wanted to reload the truck with supplies, and Heck, who was desperate to realize his vision, rebelled. He stalked angrily away, no goodbyes.
Heck had paid no attention to how far from Gerlach the encampment was. So he walked. He hadn't drunk anything but rum since hitting the desert. As he arrived at the playa entrance around 12 miles from town, he flagged down a pickup truck. "I am sitting in the back of this pickup truck," he remembers, "and it starts to rain, and it feels like people were shooting me with .22 shells and I am so pissed at them…and I am thinking this is the worst experience I had ever had in my life."
Tired of dealing with the high-speed battering from the rain, he jumped ship. "Fuck it, I'm walking again," he says. "And I can see lights, and all of a sudden the lights disappear. And it's still raining. And I am wearing a wife beater T-shirt and a pair of shorts. No socks and these shoes I never, ever wear….And the winds come in, and through the dust and the rain I can see a car and I start running after it….And this is what I learned about perspective out there—it can be five miles away or 500 feet away and it looks the same. But I'm chasing that car and I see a train and run toward the train and I am way, way, way fucking lost. I take my shoes off and my feet are swollen and I can't get my shoes back on and my feet are bleeding.
"I wander and I wander and then I had cramps so I get on my hands and knees so the body warmth doesn't go into the earth. And I get up again and when I look up there are these two things the size of basketballs…like eyes….They are so intimidating and making this noise, like, 'EEIEEKK!' And they pass me and I am chasing them, and then they are following me, and every time I collapse they get closer. I am playing a game with these two giant floating heads and there must be some alien ship or something and they are watching me."
Deluded, dehydrated, mad, Heck wandered toward a tree at the edge of the playa, across the railroad tracks, and approached Trego hot springs. He walked over a section of earth that was a thin crust over boiling hot spring water, and his feet broke through the crust, which ripped back his toes and scraped blood from his shins. "And there is no one who can find me and there is no one who knows where I am," he recalls. "And there are 88 pianos dropped off in the desert and…a bunch of hippies who will beat them with sticks. I didn't think about my mom or my grandmother, just these 88 pianos.
"Finally the sun is coming out. I'm on knees and elbows, and the sun is hitting my ass, so I can figure out which direction I was going. At night, I had never seen so many stars. Everyone talks about tracking by the North Star, the landmark, right? Yeah, right. Well, the sun is coming up, and in a couple of hours I'll be fucking dead. And I see an RV. It might be 100 miles away, but I'm gonna find it and drink the damn toilet if that's all there is….This is gonna be the death march, and God help them on that RV if they try to run away.
"My mouth feels like a leather bag full of sand, my lips are bleeding, and before I reach the RV this little car is crossing my path….I'm making noises like, 'Araogaghrghrh.' I've got a knife in one hand and 300 bucks in the other, and I'm prepared to kill them if they try to drive away. They hand me water and I can't even feel it as I'm drinking it, and all I can say to these kids is, 'Don't be me, don't be me.'"
The kids brought him to Burning Man. With only two assistants and stacked boxes to slide the pianos up on, Heck built a structure, three pianos high and double thick, a sort of open cathedral of pianos.
Most of the pianos were already in various stages of collapse, burnt, their inner workings exposed. For days it became a giant meta-percussion instrument, with everyone plucking and banging strings and the pianos' bodies. It generated a constant resonant smack-boom-hum, and it was so much nothing you had ever seen before that it became an instant Burning Man legend. At the end, it burned.
Says robot artist Christian Ristow: "How could you possibly rationalize bringing ten tons of half-burned pianos out there?…Such a phenomenal personal vision. One of the most amazing things I've seen."