There is a question I have feared to answer: if I had been alive at the time, would I have gone to Woodstock? It’s easy to give the answer you would like to be true for these sorts of things, isn’t it? It’s easy to be like “duh, I would be there before you could say ‘Jefferson Airplane and I both want somebody to love, we both need somebody to love, we would both love somebody to love’.” It’s easy, yes, but is it true? I didn’t know. Here is what I did know: I knew that I love taking showers. I knew that I love drinking my coffee in the morning. I knew that I feel sometimes an irrepressible need to follow rules. I knew I am not in love with the idea of looking at the poop of strangers whenever I enter a portable bathroom. I knew that I run out of social power and require long sips of solitude to get some life back into me. I knew that my sense of direction is the worst in the history of humankind and that I get easily lost while driving which may have prevented me from ever finding the field. I knew that if I don’t eat at regular intervals, I become a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a teething honey badger with a salty hangnail.
Those things I knew, but would I have gone to Woodstock? It haunted me to find out, because more often than not we’re not completely the person we want people to think we are. I have my answer, finally. I have Bonnaroo. Finally. If you’re not familiar, Bonnaroo is a festival that’s been around for just about a dozen years now. Four days every June, the sleepy hamlet of Manchester, Tennessee becomes a sleepless celebration of art, music, positivity, and Hamageddon the huge mechanical smoke-breathing pig (it’s real and it’s awesome). The first time I heard about Bonnaroo was in an interview with Robert Plant, who played the festival several years back. The article didn’t give me much to work with, but my imagination conjured images of a mud-soaked field filled with sweating and rambunctious college kids trying to stay upright in a daze to the amorphous jams of Phish. I would bet the weight of Hamageddon (still real, still awesome) in bacon that very scene has happened at least once over the many Bonnaroos since 2002, but it is such a limited, judgmental, colorless vision compared to the real deal. As we waited in line to enter the gates for the first time, we were greeted by high fives from folks cut from every kind of cloth there is. And everybody was just so happy. Music festivals could be pretty sketchy places—there’s lots of people carrying lots of cash and valuables, and lots of people ingesting things that interfere with good choices, but the people behind this one did a lot of things very right. Bonnaroo has developed a culture and a code with which to preserve it; the Bonaroovian ways are beautiful ways—the best of them is the gentle commandment to “radiate positivity.” Let me tell you a little about living at a music festival. First, if you are a plebeian like we were, you will be living in a tent city. Your idea of a tent city, as mine was, might be a cluster of like forty tents, right? That seems pretty metropolitan as far as campsites go. This tent city stretches as far as one can see, and keeps 80,000-90,000 people safe while they sleep or try to or try not to. I use the term cray-cray sparingly, but this place is cray-cray. In a really great way. Obvi.
Tent cities are hot. Unless you opt for the cheaper “tent only” campsite, you are allowed to park your car right next to your site, and here is where you can pick out the newbies from the truest and bluest faithful returners who have learned hard lessons over their years coming to the farm, as it is lovingly called. On our row of Camp Luke Skywalker (our section’s actual name), there was a pickup truck that people slept in under the stars, sans blankets, sans walls, sans a care in the world. There was also a different truck with a generator and a long silver snake that tubed air conditioning into their tent. Others spent time and effort decorating and enclosing a living space between tents and vehicles with tapestries, artwork, and flagpoles with inflatable animals at their top. We always found out site because we knew we were between the orca and the flag with the weird stabby demon skeleton stabbing a heart. After two days, that seemed like a pretty natural sounding address, actually.
Every section of every camp is near a free watering station (that got disconnected three times during our stay, but only briefly), a medical tent if you run into trouble, and a long row of portable toilets. We were told the camp had some showers that cost seven bucks to use, but we never found them. We never looked too hard, because you know what you can do with less than a gallon of water heated only by the sun on the roof of a PT Cruiser? You can get clean enough to not feel like Swamp Thing. And that was good enough for us. I won’t subject you to what becomes of a portable bathroom after being used by many dozens of people and left to bake in the Tennessee sunshine for many hours, but I will tell you that Leslie once returned to the car where we were cooling off and the smell of humanity at its most human clung to her clothes for a little. But don’t get too stressed out–they cleaned them a couple of times a day and they weren’t so bad for very long. Also, you adapt pretty fast. In about the span of a day I realized that Purell and some soap and water and a once over with a baby wipe (which everybody recommended we bring along) will get you feeling okay again. And you let go of a lot of the pretense we build up around cleanliness. I used my hands to eat, knowing that the dark lines under my fingernails contained questions that science did not want to have to answer. I also used those hands to give and receive at least—AT LEAST—300 high fives. It could have been a lot to bear, but once you stop thinking about what you look like and start looking around at all the good things going on, it honestly gets hard to not radiate positivity. People come here in groups, and to help keep each other together, it’s pretty common to see people walking with long poles topped with something easy to spot from a distance (e.g. a huge cardboard cutout of Mrs. Doubtfire, or a stuffed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle who sort of pulses his arms to the music if the staff holder thumped it to the beat). It was like small clans within a tribe, each with a totem that was an inside joke or a favorite thing or just a beautiful bunch of glow sticks. Before this post hits the 1,500 word mark, I should get to the music, I know. Okay. Here are the highlights, for the sake of brevity, which I hear is the very soul of blogging. Brandi Carlile. I had never heard her before Bonnaroo, and she played right before Robert Plant, so I got to the stage early and was front row of the non-VIP section for both shows. Brandi Carlile was on fire—playing Bonnaroo was a dream come true, she told us. But she didn’t really have to. Her raw, gorgeous enthusiasm for playing on that stage was radiating so hard it was probably visible from space. She rocked out her alt-country roots rock for ninety minutes, and I have never become a fan of someone faster. “Keep Your Heart Young,” a song inspired by John Prine, will be on my desert island mixtape for the rest of time. And she made me cry at least once during a song she wrote for a high school friend of hers who committed suicide. Their friendship had gone wrong right before he died, and this was her way of saying I’m sorry, and of saying I chose not to call you a friend then and it was stupid and I would be so lucky if I could just call you my friend now, even though you’re gone. I would be so lucky to call her my friend, but at least I have her music and her lyrics. Every song of hers was a highlight, basically. She killed her set so hard that its cousins probably felt it. Brandi Carlile, you are officially the prom queen of Bonnaroo because I voted for you ten million times. Robert Plant. This is the third installment of my Robert Plant concert goings, and while nothing will ever top the time I caught him and Allison Krauss in Nashville, he’s always a good time. His age is showing, but his spirit remains a golden—if gentler—god. He and The Sensational Space Shifters played through a bit of the Led Zeppelin catalog. Going to California was gorgeous. Whole Lotta Love crawled and sprawled its way through a medley of blues songs like Who Do You Love (which I do love, incidentally). He joked, he strutted, he closed with Rock and Roll, and I have little doubt that, while I believe three is the magic number, that the best things actually come in fours. See you soon, you old hound dog. Mumford & Sons. Ah. We stood in place at the front of the crowd for almost seven hours, and being about 150 feet from the band was worth all the sweat, tired and sore legs, burst blood vessels, and people passing out around us. They are Mumford & Sons—easily my favorite band of my own generation. They rocked through some tracks for their new album, reeled through so much of their old albums, and closed the show with a group jam with Hozier, My Morning Jacket and others to “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Like Brandi Carlile, they were on fire for being at Bonnaroo. Especially during the concert’s climactic performance of “Dust Bowl Dance,” my favorite track from Sigh No More, during which a shower of sparks reigned down on the stage as Marcus Mumford kicked over his drumkit and the rest of the band shredded on their instruments and the entire crowd lost their minds. I would stand in the heat all over again—they were as good as I could have hoped. Other highlights: a line-along screening of Back to the Future followed by a real Enchantment Under the Sea dance of 50s covered played by Nashville band American Hotel; a screening of The Goonies, preceded by a Q and A with Corey Feldman (that’s what I said); Hozier’s set (I still don’t know how to say his name, I confess); Alabama Shakes; riding the giant Ferris Wheel at night; $9 slices of Spicy Pie Pizza; the fact that you could plug your phone into a charging station and leave it for hours, come back to it, and it would be just fine because everyone was looking out for each other’s stuff; a bacon flight purchased near Hamageddon (I just checked and he remains real and he remains awesome); a couple that got engaged beneath a giant parachute like the kind we had on the best day of gym class in elementary school; glow sticks everywhere; the joyful cries of “Bonnaroooooo” wherever you go; being told “I love you” by two strangers; being checked on by a stranger when I stopped to stretch my back after Mumford & Sons because it apparently looked like I was having a bad trip (if only he knew he had approached to the two tamest Bonnaroovians in Manchester); seeing all these things with Leslie; everything; everything; everything. I will be back. Me and Manchester will be reunited. Until then, radiate.