Cookin’ with steam: Welcome to Bonnaroo, where the heat will pick your bones clean and the music is a constant

Jun 20, 2006 at 9:01 pm

I awoke suddenly to a sadistic burst of sunlight, rays lashing my face like a hundred tresses of a moose-hide whip, a dull pain in my stomach, pouring sweat through a white T-shirt flecked with mud. Briefly I considered my watch: 8:30 a.m. How? I wondered. When did this inferno begin? How long have I been asleep? Was I drugged by some confused hippie, unable to distinguish a party from a felony? Why am I in the back of this black truck, on top of all these blankets?

The heat-prompted confusion had altered my thinking considerably, and I began to wonder if I’d somehow been shipped to the Third World, sold to work for peanuts as the errand boy of some guerro. About the same time the anger washed over, I realized I was covered with a fine gray dust, some kind of powder that had begun to mix with the sweat all over my exposed arms and legs in a potion not unlike still-wet concrete.

Surroundings were visually indistinguishable; the din of low, lazy conversations quickly became an auditory force. A bruise had developed on my hip for no known reason, and several dime-sized purple marks dotted my left leg, a clear indicator of the presence of grass-dwelling parasites. As I became upright, my thinking shifted at once to the roaring agony of a sweat-headache laced with dry mouth, extreme fatigue and inexplicably tight leg muscles.

My associate — henceforth known as E. Roger Coswell for reasons of anonymity — snored loudly beside me while heaving his legs at some figment of his dreaming imagination. I know he’s a heavy sleeper because we’ve known one another for some time, so I can accept this fact as if the affliction of restless rest is my own brother’s. However, if this weird jabbering act goes on much longer, I remember thinking as a bead of sweat temporarily blinded my right eye, I will be forced to interject.

As I rose to limp toward the port-a-pot, the terra became clearer. Nearly tripping in holes and divots from cars, my gait must’ve looked like some feeble attempt to leave physical therapy before the treatments were over. With back aching and heart beating hard through veins in my head, I tripped my way to the plastic shit canister for another dalliance with the Great Stink, another 30-second sauna, while my brain worked overtime to hold down whatever mess of partly digested weirdness might be swashing around in my stomach. From the ether came an awful noise, the clatter of funk-reggae-fusion reaching intolerable decibel levels, bumping so hard the plastic toilet cage seemed almost to rattle. Within five minutes it was gone, replaced again by the indolent babble of hundreds of people I have never known.

There is nothing on the planet that logically explains why 80,000 people would converge on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn., in this catatonic summer heat — except a rare form of pathological behavior concerning the habits of live music consumers. Psychologists have debated the effects of music on the human psyche for nearly forever, but generated very little of relevant conclusion. My associate Coswell, though not a medically licensed professional, opined early into this three-day monument to the conceptual Love Fest that people can just get down with anything being played live before them, no matter what it is, and that the very atmosphere of a place like this — where 80,000 people are expected to dance and drink and do drugs and love one another for no reason other than to do it, and in fact one of the country’s largest annual music festivals is there not only for them but because of them — offers just the right seduction to get them in the mood. Coswell is a smart man. Somewhere in the morning-rot canals of my brain his theory swam around, gaining legs. I wondered if I am this kind of person, all the while pouring three-quarters of a gallon of grocery-bought spring water down my seared throat.

Coswell and I were given confidential directions for avoiding the infamous traffic jam-up well in advance of the festival. This is a key component of generating positive reviews of an event that requires each participant — fan, performer, journalist — to abandon things like a small room with running water and something to scrub the filth from your body. You must make the journalist comfortable so he/she can concentrate on the real story, the music. The idea is as conventional as working from 9 to 5, wearing underwear or shaving your body hair in regular intervals. It works in politics, too. It’s called “framing the issue.”

And it works for one simple reason: We are creatures seeking comfort. I will say — nay, write! — on the record right now that it was fantastic burning down some back-country road in mid-afternoon with the windows low, screaming about those poor rubes who paid $200 a ticket to wait in a car line for hot, restless hours of agitating anticipation, only to come out at the main entrance, right in front of everyone. I remember the traffic agony well: It happened to me last year.

The press check-in was at the nearby Holiday Inn Express, in one of those superabundant concrete shopping paradises that exist mainly to fulfill the expressive spending practices of highway travelers. The heat was hot, as the old America song goes, and thousands of cars limped cautiously along the roadway, which was packed full of mildly confused foreigners.

The Holiday Inn doubled as the artist check-in. I’m pretty sure I saw Lee Ranaldo, the Sonic Youth guitarist. My fan-boy scoreboard registered a comfortable “1.”

A lackey had to follow me to my black truck, where he carefully applied a sticker to the windshield. The boy, who must’ve been a teenager, said he was from Atlanta, which is apparently not a long distance to drive. He’d been given a free ticket to perform this task over and over, this placing of the parking sticker so as to ensure its proper display.

On the approach he was visibly dismayed by the sudden appearance of Coswell, whose head was pitched slightly through the truck’s open passenger window. In the boy’s defense, Coswell already looked haggard: His prickling start of a thick beard vaguely resembled the abrupt personal defense system of a porcupine, and his hair had been tussled by extreme road wind for the better part of an hour. He was smoking a long Marlboro and making suspiciously quiet inferences on a cell phone. I kept my sunglasses on so as not to make eye contact.

There was no press pass in Coswell’s name, and I knew inherently it was best to take this sticker and make a quick burn for the press camping plot. But I couldn’t resist one question:
    “Why do they send you out to do this?”
    “Uh, I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I guess —”
    “They don’t trust the press to properly apply a parking sticker?”
    “I don’t really, uh, you know I’m just a volunteer.”
    “I don’t blame them. Or you. This is a vile bunch of sweathogs. Cover your hair and eyes.”

    I plunged down the clutch and turned over the engine, following the lackey’s directions to the press-only campground. At the entrance was a man with brightly colored identifying clothing. He checked the window sticker and noticed my gold media armband, nodding me a gleeful, understanding welcome. Then he demanded to see Coswell’s.
    “He has this one,” I said, yanking his ticket from between the seats. “This should get him in. Where do we camp?”
    “What’s that?” he replied, referring to the ticket. His ignorance seemed bizarre.
    “It’s a ticket to Bonnaroo,” I said. “This gets him in. Where can we set up our operation?”
    “He can’t come in here. You can, but he can’t. You have to drop him off up there, at the next exit.” The man pointed north. I could see in his eyes we weren’t progressing. Meanwhile, I noticed a pool in the short distance.
    “Dammit,” I said grimly, jamming the gearshift into reverse. “Thanks for your help. We appreciate it.” A gentle massaging of the cop mentality will curry favor in almost any situation. We are self-interested, carnal beings. There are precious few things more valuable than having a cop on your side.

    One highway exit north, the pair of young volunteers working the entry point for the big field, where most of the 80,000 people camp, were impressed by the gold armband and let us and our supplies — two large coolers, two cloth folding porch chairs, a weekend supply of bread, turkey, cheese and peanut butter, a box of granola bars, four gallons of spring water, one case of bottled spring water, and 30 cans of Budweiser — in with no problem, but not before asking if I’d seen anyone from big magazines like Rolling Stone.
    “Of course,” I lied. “We’re all friendlies here.”
    The extent to which Coswell and I set up camp was to lay three thick blankets in the bed of the truck and toss a pair of pillows toward the cab. We set up the chairs and opened beers.

    The resting period didn’t last long enough. We were on assignment, so I loaded a pocket with pen and notebook and we headed for the shallows, as it were, the aptly named Centeroo, the place where the music pipes in.

    Judging by the sheer amount of illegal substances being consumed in the wide-open air of a single plot of land, Coswell and I figured to be embarking on some bit of subversive American history. We found the stage where Cat Power (Chan Marshall) played with the Memphis Rhythm Band behind her. The pairing was exquisite, with the generational gap entirely unnoticeable. It sounded like good, clear radio, and Marshall pranced around the stage, trying awkwardly to connect with the crowd, something she’s not particularly known to do. In fact, the songwriter has been known for her adversarial relationship with certain crowds. Marshall was briefly living outside herself and her public persona, and the resultant performance was as powerful as any there, despite the fact the sun was still out, which is what made it hard for Coswell to really dig in.

    We meandered to the “What Stage” (all Bonnaroo stages have stupid names like “Which Stage” and “That Tent” and so forth), where we found Oysterhead, the trio of former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, former Primus bassist Les Claypool and former Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. Claypool, known for wearing weird clothes, donned a purposefully pathetic Elvis costume, and in a highlight-reel moment, played a customized banjo strung with bass strings. I turned to Coswell in a particularly revelatory moment.

    “You know, it’s funny, Stewart Copeland’s two biggest musical projects have featured prominent bassists,” I remarked, making the weekend’s only reference to Sting. “It’s some kind of rhythm-section complex.”
    He hesitated a moment. “That’s an astute observation.” He looked satisfied.
    Just then a nearby crowd of young men started whooping.
“No beer has ever lasted long around me,” one said proudly. Coswell and I shared a roll of the eyes and laughed it off, pulling on our $5 beers like the joke wasn’t also on us.
    Soon enough came the first of two major day one highlights: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The Great American Songwriter, as I’ve been calling Petty for the last two weeks in a very public attempt to raise the ire of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen (among other) fans, confirmed that he can still swing it. He played everything you want to hear in a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show.

    “This is going to be a damn hit parade,” I said to Coswell.
    “I don’t want anything else.” He lit a cigarette and chortled loudly.
    Indeed, the crowd undulated with tunes like “Free Fallin’,” “Last Dance With Mary Jane” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” The latter prompted the crowd’s loudest backing vocal, the Let’s roll another joint line. Coswell shot a dirty glare of anticipation as the band rolled into the chorus.
    “Make a note that I’m displeased,” he said. I did.

    On the march to “That Tent” for My Morning Jacket’s fourth Bonnaroo performance, Coswell and I came upon a genuinely bizarre spectacle: a small stage set among the festival’s commerce section, essentially the outdoor mall, packed with about 20 people. Dancing. Naked. For what we could tell these were perfectly normal festival-goers, perhaps clinging desperately to the notion that previous festivals offering the same low level of human aggression can still exist in the midst of today’s war climate and generally self-obsessed celebrity culture. We tried to enjoy the random act of nudity without thinking of such heaviness, but it was fleeting. But soon after our arrival, self-consciousness kicked in at the group level, as everyone slowly re-robed and stepped away from the stage. When no one booed, I remembered fondly that we weren’t at a NASCAR event.

    As expected, MMJ was blistering. They always are. Very few can understand how the Louisville band musters such extreme energy night after night, and why would they? Every modern-day acquisition of popularity and attention can be attributed to a curiously strong burst of energy, and most people don’t have it.

The funk-reggae-fusion music so terribly detrimental to the wee minutes of my morning recovery period subsided into general bustle as I tried to remain calm, guzzling water from a gallon jug and leaning on an elbow. For at least 10 minutes I stared at nothing in particular, thinking about the piece I was there to write, how to properly jostle Coswell to make him stop snoring, where the group of twenty-somethings that had pulled into the space next to ours had gone the day before and why they hadn’t returned, how the guy a couple rows down could cope with sleeping in his car — ephemeral thoughts of a pre-coffee daze.

    Meanwhile, the mass exodus from the camping area to Centeroo had begun at a surprisingly early hour, considering music didn’t start until after noon. People were brushing their teeth while others strode down the gritty gravel road, most scantily clad and caked in sleeves of sunscreen, carrying backpacks and jugs of water. I ate a cold apple from the cooler.

    By the time I finished, Coswell was up and moaning about walking to the port-a-pot and, more generally, the heat. His arms already bore a slight pink burn. I drank more water, acutely aware of the importance of staying hydrated.

    When he returned, Coswell told me he’d just encountered some loon offering to sell him a roll (ecstasy).[img_assist|nid=1867|title=Jim James/Robert Randolph press conference|desc=|link=|align=right|width=200|height=138] Not 15 minutes later, a washed-out neo-hippie approached the truck offering an “early morning special.”
    “What the hell is that?” Coswell demanded loudly as I shooed the man away, as much to protect him from Coswell’s aggression as to put an end to his line of questioning. I’m predisposed to decline anything coming from a tweak at some obscene hour of the morning. Coswell and I agreed the man seemed to be on some kind of all-weekend special.

    Standing upright in the truck bed prompts a fleeting bit of thought for the size of this spectacle. The camping field is so vast and expansive that you can almost be fooled into thinking you’re seeing the curve of the Earth. It’s a genuinely spectacular sight, with unending rows of vehicles and their people, tents and grills and mosquito nets. We regularly make quick friends with people we’ll never see after the first moment of conversation; the randomness of it all is something rare and beautiful in the programmable social climate of today, perhaps the only living remains of the once-proud counterculture the original hippies represented. These days, peace signs are commodities on necklaces and shirts for sale at grossly inflated prices, and the banging of bongos in groups means less that you’re united in a front against oppressive political forces than the one-lane concept that you’re sharing a drug or musical experience with singular meaning.

    It’s an indication what the hippies — and environmentalists, for that matter — have never been able to overcome: so many are self-caricatures, simple-minded burnouts in tie-dye and patchwork whose high-water mark is the fact that they publicly consume illegal drugs. There is no flagrant defense of a cause other than to slack, which is where they begin to parallel the other mass youth collective assembled for Bonnaroo: indie rockers.

    The festival’s organizers made a clear attempt at crossover with this year’s lineup, which included Sonic Youth, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Cat Power, Ben Folds, Devendra Banhart, Andrew Bird, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Matisyahu, among a slew of more hippie-inspired crews like Rusted Root, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Medeski Martin & Wood and moe. The true crossovers were more the big names, like Elvis Costello (who played with recent collaborator Allen Toussaint), Tom Petty, Beck, Cypress Hill and, of course, Radiohead.

    Mixing indie rockers with hippies is to attempt to marry projected aloofness with downright earnestness, and it is an unholy union indeed. But the tension I anticipated wasn’t there. Is it naïve to think people actually dropped their guard for a weekend, particularly at a well-established hippie hangout where the indie guys and gals were invading for the first time en masse? If Radiohead’s ethereal performance Saturday night could serve as a representative sample, then the answer is yes. It seemed all 80,000 of us were at attention for a three-hour trample through old and new material (well, not much past OK Computer). Somewhere around mid-set I wandered off into Centeroo just to see who was around — the emptiness was eerie. The only other band performing was a group of youngsters called Artvandalay in the Budweiser tent. There were no lines and there was no sign of congestion. Much like the insistent mixing of sworn cultural enemies, the whole thing was simply surreal.

    Coswell and I spent an obscene amount of money to produce the buzz required to cogitate the previous paragraph — I even accepted the outlandish ATM processing fee to retrieve more money for more of everything, a decision only made when one is already in the depths of a binge. Back at the truck, we destroyed a box of food, purchased for $26, which included a gyro, two ranch-chicken wraps and a hulking plate of cheesy fried potato chips.

    “Elvis Costello’s just so silly in his old age,” I said, stuffing my face.
    “No shit. Remember the Predator-blood guy?” Coswell was referring to an incident, during the Radiohead set, in which his blue jeans were doused with the liquid filling of a broken glow stick. Upon seeing the splatter, someone behind us barked, “The Predator is bleeding!” to the great amusement of those around. We had a laugh of short nostalgia. The sleep came easy.

I awoke Sunday to the relative calm of a sunless sky. A cool breeze skipped over my shoulders as I sat upright for a sip from the water jug. Coswell was snoring and rolling around in a mess of covers — he seemed exasperated, even in his sleep.

Coswell and I were whipped, robbed clean of our spirits. It didn’t help that the third day of this trip was a Sunday, commonly associated with such things as professional sport, laziness and general fatigue. By this time — and without the assistance of street drugs — your constitution is so riddled with bullets and burned at the edges that you can hardly muster the energy to cope with the grim reality of having to wait five long hours to see your favorite band, which in this case was Sonic Youth.

    Coswell and I didn’t make it for Sonic Youth. We couldn’t stick it out. Sitting at the truck for two hours trying to burn up some time — there wasn’t much happening of interest in Centeroo in the early Sunday afternoon — did nothing but increase the wear. We are not festival people. We do not accept random forms of music thrust upon us with the vigor most of these people seem to possess. We are picky, selective. We cannot tolerate oppressive heat for three days, not when the promise of a shower, a clean toilet and a solid meal hangs over the horizon like that first vision of land for a deck crew lost at sea.

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