By: Sam Houghton
Muslims wander across the desert to Mecca and pray to their god; Americans load up big cars with grills and tie-dyes, rip across the country and drench themselves in decadent music festivals.
They transcended like giddy Army Officials storming a beach: swarms of Jeeps and mini-vans slugging over the mud in a mad fury, tires spinning, horns blowing, adolescents hollering, to get through the gates. After sitting in a cramped car for 24 hours, the mere sight of a gate is enough to make a grown man salivate from the lips. Peace, free love, good music and good drugs, four days of absolute freedom with nothing in the way but a couple of emaciated, bearded freak volunteers waving orange flags.
It is Thursday, June 10, 2010, the first of four beautiful days amidst insane heat, huge crowds and total anarchy, where nearly 80,000 glossy-eyed Americans flood the Great Stage Park, a 700 acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee. It is home to some of the best music that challenges and even justifies the very principles of our fine nation. It is the 9th annual Bonnaroo, one of the world’s largest music festivals.
Inside the gates, people with their cars and their tents are packed in like refugees. The sheer volume of campers looks surreal – majestic even. From the solitude of my campsite, things are relatively peaceful. College dudes with no shirts and multi colored headbands occasionally yell out an obscenity here and there, maybe grilling burgers or corralling a caravan of cars; chicks with loose-fitting clothing and floppy boobs parade lightly through the different paths, one every so often in the nude; old men with pony tails and toothless grins stand in tie-dye aside their grill-less Broncos; middle aged folk with their infants dance to the far off noises with closed eyes and strange smiles; hipsters, dressed down in tight jeans and bright orange sunglasses, strum green ukuleles in the shade of massive oaks. There are people everywhere, all huddled together sharing a strangely happy vibe. It feels good to be a part of it.
Today, there are a few indie bands starting around four. I can hear one them off in the distance, over the hordes of cars. It is probably Neon Indian, a couple of hipsters from my part of the country, fellow Brooklynites just beginning to carve a nice spot for themselves amongst the computer button pressing, new psychedelia that has become popular these weird days. The heat is too heavy to move out of my blue LL Bean camp seat so I sit here, trying to get a grasp on how I might gather the energy to watch all the bands that will be playing in quick succession over the entire weekend until early Monday morning. I began to understand why the South has a different moral stance. The heat and humidity forms a gel-like mold over the entire body, bearing down against your brain and chest with maximum pressure. It’s impossible to think, never mind move. God is not nice in these parts.
According to local correspondents, a 29-year-old will die from the sun. The local newspaper, the Tennasseean, reports that some 400 more a day will suffer from some sort of heat related disease inside the numerous medical tents. A good 70,000 will be severely soar, diseased, bloated, bowel-y inept, and all around spent come Monday morning.
Bonnaroo is nothing less than a marathon – an endurance test. Over 100 bands play, and most, if not all, are quite talented and highly regarded in the real world, never mind the vast, pretentious music world (to name a few: Jay Z, Phoenix, John Fogerty (pictured), Little Stevie Wonder, the Kings of Leon, the Black Keys, and on and on). On top of that, six might be playing at once on the ten or so stages. To catch all of them is impossible. To catch a few greats in a day is plausible but left only to those naturally selected.
The only way to survive an event such as this is with careful preparation and sheer dedication… supplies are often necessary for the sort dedication that will get you to the highest possible peak of a musical festival. It is strange that the most popular drugs of Bonnaroo make you feel airy and light, leaving you frayed around the edges and utterly lazy and useless, watching colorful lights on the Ferris Wheel, drooling and physically useless like an aged Stephen Hawken. You can’t possibly wade through eight hours of dead heat like that. You’ll collapse within the first two hours of a legend like Fogerty and wake up in a grassed field, alone, dry as a prune, burned like an Alzheimer’s turkey roast and foaming at the mouth. If you were stone cold sober and drank water on a steady routine, at least eight bottles a day, with some shade here, you could catch a few hours before you collapse.
What you need are uppers and a clear head. When you wake up in the morning, which will inevitably be early because your tent acts more like an oven than a sleeping chamber, immediately start sucking on oranges and ice to mellow you out; perhaps bring a solar shower if you can get your hands on one. Eat a big breakfast full of protein and vitamins to keep you energized throughout the day, fill a jug with pure xanthine, six bottles with ice, a pouch full of your preference of speed, dip yourself into an abyss of sun block, cancer be damned, strap on your walking boots and starting humping it through the campgrounds to the band shells. Sadly, most people here are not dedicated to that sort of intetraverted trip, but are here more for the scene. Music is second to the actual things floating by. We are, after all, a visual generation with life wafting easily by on computer screens from the confines of a comfy chair.
But there are many faces to Bonnaroo – people with all different motivations. From its origins, the festival was for the jam band freak, the purebred hippy: groupies of Phish, moe, and the String Cheese Incident type bands. They boom across the landscape in orange vans for entire summers, hitting every festival possible, their license plates reading from California, Tennessee, Montana, and everywhere in-between. They bring kids, dress them down in tie-dye frocks and daisy headbands and then continually dance like loose-limbed zombies with twisted smiles. They must be recluses the rest of year, still recovering, or perhaps ignorant from Bob Dylan’s memo that the times changed, still trying to grasp onto the hopes of the Haight/Ashbury 60s scene, hiding from the evils and harvesting small farms in their backyard while eating weird tofu products and yogaing with the rising suns. Naturally, they are good people, just radically different than the average American and perhaps a little slower, mentally, from the wear and tear. Some of them weren’t even alive when Jerry died, but are now engulfed in a protective shell of grandpa’s fantasy world of nostalgia. But they are very nice people, naturally, and they do bring the best drugs. You can always trust hippies because their existence is based solely on the idea that humans can do good.
As a result of Bonnaroo’s extremely lax security (in Centeroo, where all the stages are held, there is absolutely zero security), drugs flow like candy in Wonka’s Lab. The steady bass line to the festival, besides the constant streaming of bands, is the murmuring advertisements from dudes walking around with back packs calling out: “Doses… Molly… Headies… uppers… coke… K…” Inevitably, as reputation got out over the years, Bonnaroo attracted a new breed of incomers: college kids and their post college, intellectual kin, along with some top notch white trash, all following the good drugs. Weeks before Bonnaroo, they began growing their beards and quit the barbershop routine. Maybe they’ll rent an RV or plead for mom’s mini van, either way, they come in large caravans swilling numerous cases of Natty Ice and flasks of cheep whiskey. By the second day, they are burned to a strawberry-red, except for a white, clearly cut out shade where their wife beater once was and a thin white strip where their tie-dye head band once was. By day three, they are passed out on a beach chair outside their tent or holed up in the infirmary, mentally fucked and confused. It’s a typical college weekend taken to the highest extreme, hands down the ultimate party – a rare excuse for the complete drug binge.
For the majority of Bonnarooers, the music is mere background, an opportunity to listen to John fucking Fogerty while wrapped in a Dashiki tie-dye dress and subdued to a happy drug coma sprawled out in a field. It has become a vacation from the ego, a chance to be a hippie for the weekend, to wallow in neon lights, glow sticks and everything else groovy, then go back home, go back to the day job, to the suburbs, eat some anti-bodies, take a shower, detox, get some sleep and remember Bonnaroo, weeks, months, years later as that place in the back of the heart where you know that there is something right and good about America.
And who can blame them.
While I was parked under the shade of a tall tree, waiting in a thick line to fill up my water jug, I overheard a discussion from a few Bonnarooers. It wasn’t so much a conversation as a shouting match, but it happened around a large patch of mud. With the masses trying to tiptoe around it, a traffic jam formed at the only small patch of grass left. One young fellow, after a short few frustrated moments, promptly charged right through the thick of the mud, demanding in a loud voice: “Where is everyone’s Woodstock spirit?”
About two steps in, he slipped and fell square on his face. Everyone, including the young fellow, began laughing. Another fellow, red in the face with his shirt off and cup of beer beautifully balanced, started charging through the mud right behind him. He gave the man a hand and said: “You’re right. Where is everyone’s Woodstock spirit!? This opportunity only happens once a year. Come on you pansies! It’s only mud!”
With the mud dripping down his face and grinning like a school boy, the first fellow got to his feet and declared: “I need more drugs!”
“Make way for this man, get him some water,” some one in the crowd said. A path was cleared
The man with a beer in his hand, overcome with emotion, said to no one in particular: “Only one weekend out of the year we can celebrate our freedom like this… only once a year.”
He was met with wise nods of affirmation.
With the mud now cleared from his face, the first fellow threw his arms up in the air and hollered happily, “Give me more drugs!”
Promptly thereafter, a young man with blond dreadlocks down to his kneecaps, beaming a weird, bewildered smile, wandered up to the scene, like a gnome or a spirit bounding out of a tree. He was holding a cardboard sign reading in bold sharpie: “Divine Moments of Truth,” with D – M – T written in bold.
And so it goes at Bonnaroo.
What do all these people do during the week? Are they insurance men and landscapers, perhaps investment bankers and social workers and autoworkers? It seems they are all caught up in some sort of wicked pattern: work hard, party hard – the American way, the only way we know how it’s done. Some are better than others, but we’re all in together, struggling at what often seems like cogs and bolts in the great machine. We sit at work all day, grinding it out or shoveling shit, trying to get one step ahead, stepping on our neighbors whenever getting a chance… and always breaking our backs.
We found a ride with a guy named Charles on the Bonnaroo community website, a 36-year-old New York City businessman married with two kids. He explained that Bonnaroo would last; days, weeks, even months later he would still have that swagger, still be high off the Bonnaroo buzz. When the kids are screaming and his wife is nagging, he could cope. He could do more than just cope, he could exist with some kind of confidence that what he was doing was somehow right.
To be continued...
Editor's Note: The photos of Bonnaroo used in this article were taken by Drew Litowitz from CoS.