[Originally published in the Knoxville Voice, 2007]
Back in 2002 I bought a ticket for kicks. I watched revelers kick up ten tons of dust, peddling dope and baring their breasts. After the last show, I hitch-hiked home with suburban neohippies in an RV. There were drugs and dreams of a new generation and two matching cold sores on mirrored corners of these two kids’ mouths. They were all so willing to share.
I was immediately struck by two notions: 1) that ecstatic communalism is a primal desire in the hearts of most young people, and 2) that ecstatic communalism can be sold for incredible amounts of money.
The second year, 2003, I started work as a low-level plebian for a Detroit-based labor pimp outfit who dealt in riggers and stagehands from all over the country. I worked Bonnaroo backstage, side-by-side with drunk bikers, certified psychotics, charred hippies from the old school, and inner city crackwhores. We were given All Access passes and stuffed into massive tents at night.
I don’t think the production manager had accounted for our ravenous sense of adventure. Chaos erupted everywhere as we all lost sight of those dividing lines between stage-crew, crowd, and artist. The promoters were extremely pissed and our labor company soon went down in flames.
That was probably my best year. I don’t think I saw a single set in its entirety, but I did get to meet Sonic Youth, drink with one of the lingering members of the Dead in the VIP tent, consume drugs like a fat kid in the lunch line, and crash stolen golf carts.
That weekend erased my place in the crowd and began my days of traveling the country, first as a grimy-pawed prole, then as a stagehand, finally climbing up to the world of rigging where I now spend most workdays a hundred feet in the air, swinging like a monkey, soaked in adrenaline and mopping up cash. I sold my soul for rock n’ roll, and all I’ve got are these local crew t-shirts!
Nowadays I see Bonnaroo from between a hundred thousand people on one side of the barricade, and umpteen million dollars on the other. I just snatch up my 100-dollar crumbs and go on my way.
These music festivals don’t look much different to me than Billy Graham’s Last Crusade in Queens, where millions of starved souls showed up to see an old guy talk about heaven on his supernatural microphone—or Kenny Chesney turning thousands of Bostonians into hillbilly impersonators dancing to fiddle-laced synthpop—or Jay Z hyping “big pimpin’” and “spendin’ cheese” to destitute kids in Detroit—or even the gay atheistic rock n’ roll Christmas Carol Choir down in West Palm Beach. A show is a show, a crowd is a crowd. You’re all a PT Barnum quote to me, and I am your willing slave.
I love my job. I risk my life up in the steel for you guys, risk killing people who trust me not to drop steel on their heads, traveling the country like an endless season of blue-collar Kung Fu episodes, just so I can watch you mongrels drool and hoot for tailor-made heroes, hypnotized by their high-tech prosthetics, the pretty lights and loud sounds tickling your senses while they soak up your money. For me, Bonnaroo is just another party in the irony factory; just another day at the office. You guys are only visiting.
The Bonnaroo quirk is its commodified communalism. It’s “The Summer of Love”, canned and tagged and out on the shelf. I’m amazed at how much a person is willing to pay to spend their weekend in a WalMart-furnished Third World shantytown, getting seared by the hot sun. Is this how you’re going to save the world from soul-crushing corporate aesthetics, bourgeoisie mediocrity, political corruption, and ecological collapse? By buying pre-tattered gear, eating drugs, and creating Middle Tennessee’s most prolonged traffic jam? Now that’s a revolution!
Don’t get me wrong, the line-up was incredible, so many great acts from so many genres, a pop-culture buffet to end all others. Tool’s high tech psychedelic epiphany stirred the heart, The Flaming Lips’ political diatribe sparked the mind, the ancient physical art of Knoxville’s lovely Gypsy Hands belly dancers got the blood pumping. It was a great time, no doubt. Still, festivals are not just about what is on stage; they are also about the crowd.
I don’t imagine that John Lennon or Jerry Garcia would be particularly impressed with the current incarnation of Woodstock’s anarchic abandon. Bonnaroo looks more like tie-dye on the wrong side of a cattle-prod than a flower-stuffed rifle tip. These are “good times” for the new millennium. Turn on, tune in, sell out.
I’m not completely cynical though. Maybe there is still hope for our parents’ free love dreams of Utopia. Maybe Rock n’ Roll is a spirit that can never die. Beneath the general milieu of a County Fair on acid, Bonnaroo left a lingering impression of young people who just want to get together and love life. I was honored to meet the occasional free spirits, the adventurers and couples in love, to see those random moments of friendship and kindness that keep me hoping that the nobility of the human spirit may be powerful enough to withstand the sharp blades of the cookie cutter. Perhaps some part of the soul survives the spiritual death of becoming another cog in the machine. It survives in kisses and jubilant toasts, it survives in a sincere sense of family shared by strangers lost in America.
I don’t have too much time to think about it though. My check’s in the bank and I’m off to the next gig. Hope you suckers had a good time. Now get back to work.