A not so common look at the not so common festival.
by Phillip Fairbanks
Though the festivities didn’t begin until June, my Bonnaroo story begins in March, when I got my confirmation that I would indeed be receiving press credentials and tickets for the big show. In a way, here in early July, I’m coming full circle as I put pen to paper in attempts to capture some literary tincture of that magic something, that “temporary autonomous zone” that for four days in Manchester, Tennessee is known as Bonnaroo.
The first elements are preparation and anticipation. March through June were a whirlwind of consciousness expansion including, but not limited to, ingestion of obscure, legal herbs from the Oaxacan, Mayan and Aztec canon, shadowboxing, glossolalia, yoga and failed attempts at emulating the painfully intricate moving meditation of Master Li Hongzhi’s Falun Dafa. At about the same time, I was working on a sort of counterculture Tony Robbins, a la Tim Leary and Robert Anton Wilson that resulted in pages of maps, models, schemas, tips, tricks, mantras and insufferably incoherent psychobabble based on anchoring intense states for ready retrieval. Here I was treading on dangerous waters. My roommates at the time, who had dealt with this quasi-psychotic behavior since March had had enough by the time May rolled around.
Armed with new and activated knowledge, or as Bob Wilson deems it “neuro-somatic knowhow,” I didn’t let this snag steal the momentum of the movement, but consciously down-shifted at this point. Besides, after a frightening Salvia Divinorum experiment gone awry, it seemed high time to arc down my emotional parabola.
Being a small town boy from a rural area, having something as big as Bonnaroo breeze through once a year next door, so to speak, is a dreamlike experience. Being at times, a pretentious performance artist for an audience of one, constantly crafting an opus I like to call, my life, the annual festival down on the farm down the road is always an ordeal, a crucible and a rite, not merely a convergence of people, art, music and drugs (though these are typical cornerstones of many ancient ritual festivals as well). Needless to say I got no sleep Wednesday night and word comes that they’re letting folks in to set up camp so we head to Manchester.
I get dropped off Thrusday morning around 3:30 in the A.M. By the time sun comes up my tent is stilll unpacked. It’s hot and there are thousands of people surrounding me in every direction. I’m closed in. Bonnaroo has become overnight. A rush of adrenaline tinged terror wraps icy tendrils about me. I know that my notorious lack of direction will ensure that I will lose my site if I leave. After meeting Will and his group, I decide it might be safe to leave as long as I don’t get separated from them and lose all chance of ever rediscovering my campsite. Already I’m feeling that soft sadness that accompanies this small town boy’s Bonnaroo experience. It’s beautiful, like life, but like life its over before its begun, and I make sure to soak up every ounce of that weird tincture of emotions that infectiously spreads. Like Norman from New Jersey had corroborated earlier. The world is a strange and weird place.
I’m surrounded by people from everywhere, art and artists, dilletantes, dabblers, hacks and legions of seekers of fun and excitement. But I always found my people. They’re as important as any of the rest of the festivals myriad attractions which include but are not limited to live indie, jamband, jazz, blues and world music and films by Jarmusch and Lynch, debates on the green lifestyle and recycling. People like Fairy Hunter. I don’t remember her real name, but I know she told me she was part native American and she explained most of the cool people referred to her as Fairy Hunter. She was delightful, quoting Kerouac as we walked around searching for my campsite. I walked around on my invisible old man walking cane, the cantankerous ghost of William Seward Burroughs whistling like the breeze between my still young legs.
Being press for the show was an added treat. It afforded me a chance to meet up with (and use the same port-a-potty) as Zach from Dr. Dog. I chatted with a couple of “the Dogs,” about the festival experience and they agreed that it is nice feeling like you’re some part of the festival. I mean the media area included a batting cage and sandbox as well as hammocks and big screen tvs broadcasting the concert on the neighboring stage. The metallic taste of elitism filled my mouth like licking the bottom of a nine volt battery every time I stepped into the media area surrounded by scores of “real writers” and a fair smattering of fake writers like me. “It’s a blur and its great,” quoth Lewis Black under the press tent sitting next to Ziggy Marley. I had made it here at least. What else was next.
It was a tradeoff however. I kept losing my homeplace somehow. I’d lost my original campsite and by Saturday I’d lost my friends’ sites and my shoes as well, but meeting folks like Missy and M.C. from New York who’d previously met at Bonnaroo and were still an item or my three angels of mercy, Natalie, Katy and Sarah who fed me pretzels and pop tarts and sang Bowie and Tori Amos tunes with me and even extended the courtesy of letting me use their tent for the night. They were afraid of spiders. By Sunday I had given up. I was exhausted, broken, lost and ready to give in.
I resigned myself to sit in the shade amidst some trees passing. Suddenly I hear my name and its my New Jersey buddies. Norman equips me with his giant cowboy hat so that I’m not as hard to spot. The whole time I’ve been wearing my little brother’s prescription glasses, seeing as I had recently lost my own. (Long story.) I follow them on to Bob Weir’s Ratdog. They’re playing “Help on the way.” The world, and Bonnaroo by extensions, is a weird and strange place.
I follow them on to see the last of the shows. It’s that beautiful melancholy. The Roo is at its end again. Then its back to my campsite. Full circle. Norman tells me to keep the hat. He says just to think of him any time I wear it. I’m afraid to tell him that I’m not a hat person and that apart from always looking goofy, wearing hats makes me unbearably so. The next morning I leave the hat in the campsite and leave out to find my friend. When I eventually find him amongst the disappearing caravan of festival goers we share stories and watch as they head out again. From every direction they came. To every direction they go. I never found my campsite again and my notebook and sleeping bag, tent and cowboy hat were never to be seen again. I still think of him without the hat though.