This Sunday morning, 75,000-some rock fans are waking up in a field in rural Tennessee. Most will be caked in mud with a sunburn underneath, direly hung over, constipated from what doctors commonly term portajohnitis, and broke after plopping down $4 for every bottle of water over the past three days.
Oh, how I wish I were one of them.
This was the weekend of Bonnaroo, the biggest campout rock festival in America, and the one that most closely resembles that fabled hippie bakeathon known as Woodstock.
Like clockwork, Woodstock is being remembered yet again this summer with a 40th-anniversary bonanza, starting with a cute new megasized DVD set wrapped in a fringed leather jacket a la “Easy Rider.” When Rhino Records issues a grunge box set wrapped in flannel, I’ll officially declare rock ‘n’ roll a dead art form.
Woodstock’s legacy won’t be found in a box at Barnes & Noble. It’s out there in the fields of Bonnaroo and other festivals like it — in the poor, tired, hungry but still smiling faces of the people who attend them.
Thanks to Woodstock, half the fun at these festivals is seeing how ugly things can get. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of earning your stripes. Myself, I’d probably qualify to be a sergeant.
At Bonnaroo in 2005, I endured a deluge of rain on the final night before the Dead played one of its first shows post-Jerry Garcia. We figured the storm was Jerry telling his band what he thinks of them performing without him (sadly, they’re usually better now).
Wandering between stages and tents afterward, we waded through thigh-high mini-lakes. The next morning, I had to crawl under our rent-a-car in mud up to my shoulder to attach a chain from a John Deere tractor. The towing saved us from the eight-hour delays we read about afterward.
Bonnaroo was also my first lesson that VIP camping spots are not always a good thing. I wound up about 300 yards from where Buckethead and Primus played late-night sets (2-4 a.m.). Can you think of two more annoying acts to try to sleep through?
Something similar happened closer to home in 2006 at the 10,000 Lakes Festival, Minnesota’s answer to Bonnaroo, happening again this year July 22-25 in Detroit Lakes.
Beating the rush into the 10KLF site, we set up our tent in a then-empty VIP area and disappeared for the entire day. We returned to discover the “Official Budweiser Party Tent” about 50 feet from our lowly little tent, with a Vegas-like array of lights, nonstop hippie jam-band music, and loud, loud guests who partied until dawn. To this day, I loathe Budweiser, although that has more to do with my pretentious taste for beer with flavor.
I also attended the most maligned festival of modern times, Woodstock ‘99. Funny: The Woodstock marketers aren’t bringing up the 10th anniversary of that one, where three days of overpriced concessions, overflowing portopots and overheated metal bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn led to fans rioting and burning down the grounds. Free Love had turned into Expensive Chest-Beating.
My own experiences at Woodstock ‘99 weren’t so bad. Sure, I endured the overflowage. I bought the $12 mini-pizzas. I saw the fires lit everywhere. But that was all stuff I’d seen at other fests — just on a grander scale.
To this day, I contend the last Woodstock was underrated, especially the music. Heck, I even remember enjoying Limp Bizkit there (and no, I wasn’t on something, at least so far as I can remember).
Some of the ugliest festivals I’ve attended have been country music bashes.
The one country fest I have a lot of experience with is Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnics, which I covered for five years as a music critic in Austin, Texas. I equate the job to working as a war reporter. There would be bodies strewn all over the place, passed out from the ungodly heat and/or the Lone Star beer, while Willie’s convoy of buses and golf carts circled the battlefield. Amazingly, people always went away happy after Willie performed.
Some big rock fests avoid the trials and tribulations that have sadly come to define festivals. Coachella — the cool kid of the bunch — offers all the cushiness, cleanliness and fair weather you’d expect of a festival thrown on polo grounds near Palm Springs, Calif. The new wave of “urban fests” such as Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and Outside Lands are all held in city parks and don’t offer camping. Festgoers are gone by 10 p.m., after which they head to a hotel and get a cozy, Buckethead-free night of sleep. Cheaters!
My only story from Lollapalooza in Chicago two summers ago is when we decided to beat the heat for an hour one afternoon by walking a couple blocks to the Art Institute of Chicago, where the air conditioning was as godsent as the Marc Chagall pieces. It was a lovely experience, but I felt like a soldier gone AWOL.
Here’s hoping you Bonnaroo-goers had a truly nasty, filthy, painful weekend.