This summer’s biggest music festival through the eyes of garbage
Monday: Crash landing
I’m sitting in the dark in a yet to be used press tent pirating electricity and wireless as bugs crawl across my screen. How’s that for camping? It’s a few days ahead of the opening of the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. I’m here shooting a documentary on the greening of the festival and to also get small clips for the Web on DIY green strategies from the B Tribe on-hand for the jam fest.
To get here my doc partner Will Duggan and I arrive in Nashville and manage the best Mexican food east of Texas as we get lost in the farm country of central Tennessee. By morning we’re oriented: Manchester, population 9,442, home of a lot of small roadhouse buildings and one massive Wal-Mart. We get our passes at a converted gas station across the road before heading into the 700-acre site of Bonnaroo.
Roo has a rep for being a post-Dead, hippie-thon, something that was comically verified earlier in the evening. As you may know, Wal-Mart has an open-door policy for RVs. Anyone, anywhere in an RV can crash out in Sam’s lot, but little did they know that Drainbows, Crusties and good-natured bongo drummers also live the highway gypsy life. Thus was the scene on the parking lot perimeter: skinny dready folks, drum circles, patchouli, guys in skirts with bald heads and beards with signs reading, “I need a miracle.” We chatted up the cashier inside to find a good local dive for a heart attack meal (which gave us hives instead), and in passing wondered how Bonnaroo sat in this little corner of Tennessee. “My daughter wanted to go last year, and I told her, if you go, you have to wash your hair with that dog shampoo.” She went on to explain, in the rather good spirited manner of Southern hospitality, that every year the only product they run out of during the festival is lice shampoo.
It’s always good to have local agents looking after you.
(BTW, before anyone gets into a snit, Wal-Mart is the only shopping option in this region, one of the poorest parts of the country I’ve visited since I left New Mexico.)
In terms of fashion, I anticipate that this will be as far across the universe from Manhattan or Williamsburg as the Deathstar is from Earth. But this year amidst the jammy-type pot bands will also be Sonic Youth, Radiohead and Cypress Hill (OK, Cypress are kinda jammy and potty too). So far I’ve met some really awesome folks, mainly the Clean Vibes crew who are in charge of recycling. I can’t wait to videotape the two story high pile of plastic that will be a fraction of that which is deposited on the ground by the 80,000 plus that are about to pour in here like the Mississippi through a broken dike.
FYI, I love hippies. I just like to poke fun at their expense because someone in this world has to suffer for the invention of tofu. But I think it is wrong that our culture assumes that all things green are relegated to fatties and vegetarian soup kitchens at the Rainbow Gathering. Ecology needs to become punk rock, and not soon enough.
Tuesday: Growing a city
With the anticipation of 80,000-100,000 folks coming in this weekend, what I am witnessing is the most audacious, insane mega-project of temporary autonomy that I have ever experienced. It’s like a mini-military invasion of the groove army. I wonder if the locals feel like residents of Baghdad.
I immediately gravitate to Clean Vibes. This awesome tribe or recyclers serve as my underground escort for the following week as we document their monumental efforts to collect and sort the refuse of this temporary city, keeping in mind that garbage tells the truth of our society. With an estimated 600 tons of garbage produced by fans, the crew hopes to recycle at least 40%. The rest goes to WastAway, which shreds and sorts the garbage into gardening compost. As it turns out, cleaning up isn’t just a lowly job. As one of my Clean Vibes buddies tells me, “Pick up litter, start a revolution.”
Wednesday: Camera confessions
As I wander around with my video camera, the refrain, “Hey, camera dude!” becomes a mantra. I’ve come to realize that being a media person in our society is the modern equivalent of a priest. People are continually curious and desiring to confess their sins on tape. Warhol said the lens turns people on and off, and I find myself in a constant struggle to not colonize the space of others with my prosthetic eye. But you can always tell the performers and fakers from the people of integrity. Somehow my camera remains a skewed agent of verisimilitude, truth in the sense the Aztecs speak of regarding the obsidian mirror. Their god, Tezcatlipoca, AKA Smoking Mirror, is the Lord of Media, and as such, he is also a shadow demon of illusions. To access him, you use the obsidian mirror, but it will only reflect back to you that which is in your heart.
Bringing ecology to music festivals is a viral method for social change. Here we have a gathering of tribes, so-to-speak, united in their desire to have a good time and to participate in the ultimate transcender of history: music. It is a tight, little microcosm of the world. Educate them here on zero impact, and let them spread the word. Halleluiah! Granted, it takes time to convert power over to bio-diesel and the like, but the festival organizers are doing it one section at a time as many generators are cooking with French fry grease. Remember, it takes ten miles to make an oil tanker reverse course, and an area the size of Oklahoma for the most advanced fighter jets to change direction.
The grounds are a loosely controlled environment that has an element of feeding people into demographic markets and branding for companies like VW and Budweiser. As one person told me last night, in this society you are either a target or agent for change. I think it’s possible to be both. I’m optimistic that the festival’s small zone of conscious social change, “Planet Roo,” can help catalyze young people for expanded ecological awareness and be sponsored by like-minded corporations. I wouldn’t deny them that opportunity.
I’m nervous to be in the midst of the anticipated masses that arrive tomorrow. So far I’ve been in a calm bubble of vast, open grass fields that were once used for grazing cows. The murky sky has cleared for the full moon to rise above the dusty horizon, the days now long in the tooth, stretching towards the Solstice. The calm before the storm.
Thursday: Cheech and Chong remixed
Volkswagen is Bonnaroo’s official vehicle. Word in the tent city is that it’s also the official van of police profiling across our nation’s interstates. While VW successfully targets hipsters, it also remains an icon of drugs, rock and roll and hippie nomadism. Highway patrols across the Southeast are hip to this stereotype as well, and have been popping kids as they shoot their way to the festival. Meanwhile, here on the grounds VW has built a two-car garage in which bands play in the midst of demonstration vehicles (garage… band… get it?).
As for the showcase bio-diesel van that was on its way here (not sponsored by VW), it broke down in Albany. But it triggered a thought. If any of you are old and clear-headed enough to remember Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, the one scene that sticks with me is the van made of cannabis. Its smoking tailpipe gets the police officer so stoned, he can’t remember why he pulled the van over. With bio-diesel emitting a fast food-like smell, I wonder if highway cops also get the munchies while in pursuit newer vans.
Speaking of Cheech and Chong, the Roo organizers think it’s quite funny to fuck with poor kids who might be tripping out a little too much. There are over half a dozen stages, most of which have names like “That,” “Which,” “What,” “This,” and “Other.” Seriously folks, that kind of stoner humor works when you’re 14, but you are seriously messing with my sober mind. I’ve been here for almost a week, and every time I try to figure out the lay of the land, it’s like Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on first” routine. To make things worse, my pass has “Why” printed on it, and on more than a few occasions I’ve had some groovy kid yell at me: Why? Why? Why?
Speaking of stoners, I monitored (very casually) some of the trashcans and recycling bins just to see if people get the sorting concept. Even in broad daylight many have failed the basic refuse IQ test. The typical set-up is a cluster of six barrels with a board covering four of them. There are holes drilled out with labels so people know what goes into which hole (damn, there’s that “what,” “which” conundrum again). I’ve been wondering if high, drunk kids could get recycling, and clearly if their minds are scrambled by stage names, how are they going to know what hole to put things into?
But this contingency is covered. There are also nicely marked recycling centers with volunteers there to show people what goes where (damn!). Most people are quite happy to be properly trained. Out at the entry gates, the bodacious recycling crew, Clean Vibes, hand out green recycling bags to cars as they pull in. For every bag of recycling turned in, campers get a raffle ticket, the grand prize: tickets for next year. On a few occasions cars (many of which had one or two passengers), the drivers refuse to take the bags. I asked a Clean Viber how she felt about that, and she replied, “Sad.”
So far lots of guitar solos and noodling (yes, this is one thing I’m proud to say punk abolished from its palette). Even more entertaining though, are the wandering air guitar geniuses who strum along to the ethers and answer to Dead ring tones. I’ve been digging the smaller acts on the Solar Stage (the most clearly named venue yet), and mostly hanging with the Planet Roo folks.
The morning is bleached, the sky a foamy white, a breeze blowing out the stagnant sunlit air held down by oppressive dust. After a long night, the ground’s a patient mix of butts and trash, but the ever-diligent crew of recyclers, Clean Vibes, have this operation down so efficiently that people perhaps have it a little too easy. One contrarian thinks it would be a good idea to leave at least one stage area unclean for the duration of the fest so people can learn what it’s like to deal with their crap.
In all fairness, the citizens of the festival are good partners in the operation. As I write, I’m sitting in the Clean Vibes tent where people deliver bags of recycling in exchange for raffle tickets to win passes for next year’s fest. Many are eager to pitch in; meanwhile, over the PA before most performances a voice reminds everyone of their duty to recycle. Hopefully some new habits will carry over to the home planet.
In jest I’ve been a little over the top about hippies, guitar solos and space jams, partly to be consistent with the obnoxious literary voice of a middle-aged punk, partly to process my own relationship with my past. I’ll confess that at one point while in college I rebelled against punk and followed the Dead for about six months. It ended with a bad acid trip in which my dark, cynical voice emerged in judgment of the pathetic cocaine induced noodling of Jerry Garcia and his willing followers to cheer at the slightest recognition of a droll three-chord progression that would predictably guide the group mind into a boisterous cheer like party members at a Nuremburg rally. Yeah, not a great trip.
Friday afternoon started out a bit like that. Part of it was the alienation of being submerged by 80,000 people and a hammering Southern sun. The best thing that could be said about Tom Petty is that he cleared 50,000 out of the main grounds to make the village more manageable. I cruised the perimeter of the Petty crowd, witnessing flattened refugees of the “par-tay”. Dehydrated, burnt, stoned, crashed. Meanwhile Petty engaged in his own recycling as he played covers of himself in CD quality analog. Apparently people liked it. When I ask why, it’s because he played their favorite songs. The punk skeptic creeps in.
But that night I experience the heart and soul of Bonnaroo as it was expressed by a riveting, three hour set by My Morning Jacket (MMJ). Starting at midnight, the Louisville, KY rockers, engaged in a passionate love fest with the young crowd, jamming hard and tight in one of the best sets I’ve seen by a band in a very long time. MMJ are as close to the Southern rock frontier as I’ll get, but if there is such a thing as magic and alchemy in the interaction of five guys who love to play, they have it. Their sound is a sonically dense and textured stew as fine as a culinary master’s rich gumbo of freshly sautéed stock and herbs. If Petty was a Campbell’s soup version of himself, MMJ were a mom and pop dinner of Americana that can only be found beyond the strip malls and corporate enclaves of the interstate.
The band’s spatial harmonics are complex and varied, from tight, syncopated thunder strikes of heavy rock to delicate, space flight patterns from early Pink Floyd. Interspersed with covers from The Who, Stones and The Band, they filled their three hours effortlessly and energetically as a gift to their beloved fans. A rare occurrence in our world, music from the heart reaffirms the healing properties of the electric guitar.
MMJ’s fans also debunked my stereotype of the Bonnaroo audience. Here was a down-home, grassroots crowd of deep Southern rock steeped in the texturing of alternative and indie music. Compared to the New York hipster equivalent of the Village Voice’s Siren Festival at Coney Island, or So-Cal’s Coachella Festival, the kids here have a really mellow, comforting vibe. One guy who yelled next to my ear and saw me plug it in response, apologized profusely. The fashion is low-key to nonexistent. There is none of that affected cool armor separating people the way that I’m used to back in the city. Yes there is stoner vibe, yes there are hippies who throw their cigarette butts on the ground, but for the most part, this is one of the nicest groups I’ve hung with in a long time. The conversations flow effortlessly between all ages, classes and regions; it’s an easy going, laid back group that could teach us cosmopolitan urbanites a bit about the chill factor.
By 4:00 AM, when I finally crash, this temporary city glowing with its Ferris wheel and artfully designed lighting for optical tripping was a comfortable circus of late night revelry that would rival a weekend in the East Village.
Saturday: The press is slime (mold)
I’m very interested in biological models for media. If you know anything about slime mold (of which I know little), basically it behaves as individuals and as a collective, self-organizing organism depending on environmental conditions. If the slime mold is just chillin’ out with nothing to eat, it is a commune of individual organisms, each minding its own business. But in the presence of food, it gets the munchies and self-organizes into a higher intelligence (like an ant colony) to graze the fine delicacies of the forest floor.
At Bonnaroo (and the world over), I have seen like-minded behavior in the press corps. They roam for ideas and pics and when one is found (such as a clown or silly acid crazed freak), they swarm up to become a scoop hive. Sadly (for the photographers at least), it becomes difficult to find unique angles. Though the cosmopolitan hipster force field was pleasantly absent among the Roo throngs (who had little use for clothes or makeup in the southeastern sun), the exception was in the press area and backstage where electronic gadgets, shades and ‘tude were in abundance. The press was by far the stuffiest bunch south of the Mason-Dixon line.
The hippie quotient is much smaller than anticipated. I’m guessing the average demographic here is middle class, southern male, white, about 20 years old. There are plenty of young women, but for whatever reason, at the few shows I’ve caught the audience is largely male. I would say that most of my stereotypes have been blown away. First, unlike hipster festivals, Bonnaroo is musically very open-minded. The organizers, who have strong ties to New Orleans, have brought a huge crew from there to work, plus musicians such as Dr. John. Akin to New Orleans, here musical genres are like a diverse ecosystem. There is the jam band thing, jazz, rock, indie pop, whiner emocore, hip hop, electronica and so on. Though I’m not into 50% of what is here, there is plenty I do like.
Some highlights. I wandered into Cat Power’s set. I was surprised by how good she was considering the first time I saw her was like watching a drama queen train wreck. Backing her was a full gospel band that performed an endless, but powerful rendition of her anthemic “Love & Communication” from her latest album, The Greatest. Gomez were really terrific, dynamically maneuvering between loud explosions of percussion and guitar noise, to quiet country and blues infused melodies.
During Gomez’s set I had a small epiphany. Few recognize the contribution of country music to the greater cause of rock. If you listen to George Harrison’s guitar work, you’ll notice that his fingering, which is a signature of the Beatles’ sound, is straight-up back-roads, woodsy southern-style fretting. Most bands these days, especially from England, have unconsciously processed this sound. The trend of ‘60s infused pop psychedelia and Neil Young inspired guitar whaling combined with the steel-peddle of early ‘70s Pink Floyd is the pervasive motif of contemporary indie pop (Gomez, Super Fury Animals, Supergrass), all of which would not be possible without country music.
I’m sure you’re dying to hear about Radiohead. I started in the VIP bleachers but felt too disconnected; I find it very difficult to experience the music unless it penetrates my bones. Out there with 70,000 people, it is hardly the intimacy I loved about punk gigs when band and audience were inseparable. But rather than moan about it, I push deep into the comfortably spaced masses and place myself well in front of the soundboard. One of the things that soured my first Radiohead experience was the rudeness of the audience and the extent to which people made it difficult for me to move or see the band. During the set I had clear vantage for the two-hour set and elbow room to boot.
This is my second time seeing them, the first being at Coachella. By far this was a better, more evolved set, with Thom Yorke energetic, humble and not much talkative. The crowd was strangely quiet, due to its rapture. I heard reports of people crying. Eventually I ended up in a pit, not too far from the stage, in the midst of young people who would seem to have been born at the time of OK Computer’s release. Seeing a band that I have experienced very intimately through their recordings in a spectacle-like environment is kinda alienating. There were even some cigarette lighter moments that were actually quite beautiful, though many of us punk veterans would deride such acts in the past as silly, clichéd group-mind behavior.
Now for the music. At first I was underwhelmed. It didn’t seem like their energy got up to speed until the second set. There were few sonic spaces to get lost in. The hits were played flawlessly, but without a whole lot of variation. Jonny Greenwood’s soundscaping was truly awesome; I enjoyed all the little noise textures he added. Thom jumped around like an elfin monkey and playfully engaged the audience. Clearly there was some magic between the band and the throngs, but I wasn’t feeling it until the last three songs in which they finally hit some transcendental spaces. The band auditioned at least half a dozen new songs, most of which are disappointingly boring, almost Coldplay-ish. Two of them were very energetic, droney and more straight-forward rocking. Sad to say, but perhaps this is inevitable, the band sounds like they are married with children.
The real action came afterwards back in Centeroo where Dr. John emerged dressed like a swamp shaman, donning goatskins amidst a stage full of river spirit sculptures. He grooved like a loopy boat drifting through the bayou. Outside the tent were Mardi Gras floats with revelers decorated in glow sticks and other light-show effects fused into their clothes. Throughout the grounds are interactive sound and light sculptures that keep many of the young folks enraptured. It is a very sparkly, comfortable late-night scene with inebriated fans drifting around, but mostly harmless. Of course there were the refugees who collapsed sometime late in the afternoon, but never managed to get up from their spot on the grass. At night you really have to watch your step.
And then there is the trash. Despite the Herculean efforts of the recycling crew, it is a Promethean battle to deal with human waste. Earlier in the day, while out on a run in the camps we find plastic bottles full of piss, shit buckets and a dollar bill that someone wiped their ass with. Only in America.
Sunday: Sonic sunset
I was fortunate to have a pass that let me into virtually every nook and cranny of the grounds. Given that garbage and recycling was my camera’s focus, I found the artist areas notoriously unconscious when it came to sorting refuse. After the Sonic Youth show, I hung out with the band and got Thurston Moore to do a demo on tape on the proper etiquette of plastic bottle disposal. I first interviewed him in 1986 for my punk zine, Ink Disease, so we have maintained a connection since then and was happy to see that he still has ethics.
Before Sonic Youth’s set I had mentioned to Thurston that RJ Reynolds was distributing free Natural Native Spirit cigarettes in the so-called smoker lounge. Kim Gordon complained about Budweiser’s festival sponsorship, and I concur wholeheartedly. When it comes to beer companies, Bud is by far the most nefarious with its sexist advertising and chemical/GMO swill.
Onstage the first thing Thurston did was rail against the free cigarettes, but his words landed like lead turds. This is a very pro-smoking crowd and he sensed immediately that his comment did not go over well, so to save himself, he mentioned that he lived in Tennessee when he was a kid and it was a great place, blah, blah, blah. Quickly he let the music do the talking, and all was healed. The crowd responded enthusiastically, and during a highlight moment, the band produced an ocean of buzzing guitar noise. The rest of the set was pretty much all off the new album, which is sparse, poppy and perhaps their most minimal to date.
The set closed with my all-time favorite, “Expressway to Yr. Skull,” featuring guest vocals by Stephen Malkmus (ex-Pavement) who played awesomely in an earlier slot. It was fun, but didn’t end with the trademark decay off guitar feedback induced by mallets that I remember from my first SY show back in 1983, the show that literally changed my life. At 16 years old, it was a sublime encounter between the flow of electricity and guitar circuitry, the band’s open-tuning producing an astral projection of transcendental overtone magic that has kept me in orbit for nearly 25 years. Like your first joint orgasm, it leaves a permanent imprint on your brain’s chemistry.
It’s fitting that Sonic Youth close out the festival for me. The only other performance afterward on that Sunday was by Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and an all-star jam band, which I heard far away from the stage in the comfort of an open tent that sheltered me from an incoming storm. It was strange to hear all the old Dead tunes without Jerry’s voice echo through the camp. It was sad, actually, not only being aware of Garcia’s absence, but also that so many people still cling to that music (especially Lesh).
Later that night, back at my tent, my neighbors break out their acoustics and run through renditions of classic country tunes by Hank Williams and the like, focusing on darker ballads with haunting harmonies and minor chords. One of the beauties of Bonnaroo are all the regional musicians who play on the small and auxiliary stages. In particular I met tremendous people from Knoxville, TN. For whatever reason, that town has the raddest, nicest and freakiest folks around. I’ve got to get there some time and figure out what kind of swamp mojo they’ve got going down there.
Monday: Where’s my morning after pill?
I finally hit a wall. I crashed for 13 hours in the confines of air conditioning and a darkened hotel room down the highway from the Bonnaroo grounds. Somehow I managed to shoot hours of footage, catch bands, chill with new friends and blog, but come the morning after I flatlined in a garbage truck as I was out following the Clean Vibes crew on their day-after clean up run on the Roo grounds. Before my freefall, though, I witnessed acres upon acres of the big party’s mess: tents, coolers, camp stoves, chairs and other Wal-Mart detritus scavenged by Mexican migrants who live and work in the area.
The trip ended with a visit to an ancient Native American ceremonial ground, Old Stone Fort. The exquisite site, over 2,000 years old, is an elevated field that no doubt hosted the Bonnaroo of the ancients, probably in smaller numbers. Incredible waterfalls that roll off flat shale ledges with receding caves shrouded in vines and dripping spring water surround the site. Swirling pools with foot-long catfish and jumping trout jog images of ancient people swimming and bathing back when the water was fresh and uncontaminated. In small pools not yet evaporated at higher water lines are the rainbow slicks of road run-off from the previous day’s storm, a significant reminder of why we do the work we do: catalyzing our culture to respect and live in balance with the natural flow of the planet.