With the supreme lights of Bonnaroo darkening with distance I drove eastwards towards home. I leaned back in my seat – stretching a hunched back from miles of festival traffic – and said to my very asleep co-pilot and tent-mate Cam, “So we survived … that must count for something, right?”
These weren’t the words I expected to first escape this beaten body after our six day excursion into Manchester Tennessee. I’d imagined a veritable soliloquy of memories and songs as intertwined tapestry defining our immediate hours of departure. Stories of camping next to our rather attractive neighbors – Hay and Elk – from New Jersey (whose wardrobe consisted of bikinis and string bikinis and whose vocabulary enjoyed a manner of speech largely vulgar in nature), or the mornings waking to big Mike’s honks, snorts, and squirts courtesy of an advanced case of sleep apnea. I expected talks of the extreme heat of the Bonnaroo badlands, the long days of ninety plus temperatures with ninety plus humidity and zero, zero, clouds on the horizon. I thought discussions of the crippling mud comprising the vast majority of our campsite, shin-deep dark brown goop defining the pocked landscape. I wanted to remember together the water of our camp – hot fluid rotting with sulfur, the smell of hardboiled eggs left baking in the trunk of a black car for four weeks during the height of a record breaking summer – which we were expected to drink and shower in.
Mostly, however, I wanted to remember the music. The face-melting, mind-altering, skin-tingling music that defined our days of Bonnaroo. We heard it all: from Wu Tang to Lumineers to Paul McCartney to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros to Reptar to The Tallest Man on Earth to Billy Idol the festival raged from noon to five in the morning every single night.
But alas. Cam was asleep and I was congratulating ourselves on a job well done of enduring an experience I now consider (as I sit, clean and fragrant, in air conditioning) to be life changing. So if you want to realize Bonnaroo through my eyes then read on. Else pick up the Times and enjoy a more conservative review. This was a social experience understood through my lens as a twenty-one year old.
* * * * * *
We arrive at Coffee County High School at noon Tuesday. There are forty-eight hours until the first act kicks off in The Other Tent miles down the road at Centeroo. Cam and I have been driving since first light hoping to receive prime camping reserved for volunteers of the festival. The deal: work eighteen hours and receive free admission to Bonnaroo, three meal tokens inside Centeroo, and unlimited free showers. The catch: we sort trash for those eighteen hours.
I am less than concerned about the rigors of such tasks. I am a dirty, base creature.
So it’s with an air of nonchalance I wait with the thousand other volunteers to receive directions to our campsite and my volunteer shirt – comically brown for Trash Talkers, my title for the week – and jaunt back to the car with Cam stating that this week shall be “better than karate and sex.” Only little do I notice the heat of the morning and the thermometer reading ninety four, a mean temperature for the time. But what the hell – we crank the air-conditioning up once more, blare Alt-J’s Breezeblocks for the fourth time that seven hour drive, and roll down the highway to Bonnaroo.
We get lost, a seemingly impossible task considering there’s but one entrance into the festival grounds … and we’ve a map provided by the high school. Cam, my fearless co-pilot, directs us to the opposite edge of Bonnaroo and after much discussion with a variety of jovial, coherent, and functionally literate carnies determine we must make a large circle around the festival’s perimeter to find ourselves in the appropriate campsite.
As we drive I’m astonished by the size of the grounds. Hundreds of acres reserved for what I hear to be 150,000 excitable festival denizens. Centeroo itself, which we see briefly along our drive, comprises but a fraction of Bonnaroo but will soon house the masses crammed to see the shows. We drive in silence, enjoying the unpopulated scenery.
We make three smart right turns and find ourselves in traffic. Ah-ha! This seems right. The line moves slowly but time rolls by as we people watch. There are dolls and the grunge. There are hippies and then there are hippies who try too hard to be hippies and come off as nasty long-haired tie-dye wearing folks with one arm heavy with jewelry and the other bending at the elbow so they can smoke a fat joint.
This was only the introduction to the Bonnaroo drug culture.
I come to understand why the line is moving so slowly. There are security guards checking each car. I can’t imagine they’re looking for drugs. Anyone who snuck anything in could pop a baggie inside a sock inside a clothing bag inside a duffle bag and there would be nil chance it’d be found. When we’re searched the guards performed a rudimentary rummage through our trunk and with impatience checked our front compartments asking if we (1) had any glass, (2) had any drugs, and (3) had any weapons. I replied no to all three, although I lied – we snuck a jar of pickles in – and were let through. As I drove by I was astonished they didn’t have a pile of guns, knives, drugs, and pickle jars stacked up next to the security station. Oh wait. No, that wasn’t what I felt. It was something more along the lines of “I could have snuck in fourteen pounds of marijuana and they’d never have been the wiser.”
I come to find out that’s something of a theme for the week, but at the moment I’m concerned with my car making it through the field to our campsite. Remember how I said it was muddy? Holy cow, it was muddy. I took the high ground and made it safely to our site but saw many a tire spin without purchase in the thick murk. We hoot, holler, and get the car unpacked. I come to enter an intensely negative relationship with the heat as we set up camp, and these poor vibes continue through the next five days.
With our tent pitched, pantry unpacked in the trunk of our car, and beer on ice we set about meeting our neighbors. To our left there’s Elk and Hay, whom I’ve already mentioned and will certainly become an important part of this story for they were our best friends on the trip, and to the right there’s Tay, a lone traveler from South Carolina who popped with infrequency in and out of our camp after developing a fling with a bronzed man four rows over. Big Mike, who I was unaware at the moment sounded like a choking water buffalo while sleeping, is next to our Jersey girls and has the setup. A big tent, a blowup mattress, foldable chairs, a table, a large tarp, a blue party tent for shade, and immediate access to his trunk for the pounds of salted chicken and pork on ice. As I look at mine, Jersey, and Tay’s tent sites I realize there’s a distinction between first-time festival goers and the seasoned ones. The seasoned ones know what they’re doing and have prepared for it. I will come to fully understand this throughout Bonnaroo as I eat a dozen peanut butter and honey sandwiches and fight the sun with a baseball cap and sunscreen.
With camp set there’s nothing else to do for the remainder of the afternoon. Cam and I make a go at entering Centeroo but are thwarted at the gates by the ‘Croo Guroos who are supervising the volunteers responsible for polishing the finishing touches necessary to open Centeroo by noon on Thursday. So we turn around, complain about the heat, and drink the afternoon away with Hay and Elk as the crowds continue to roll slowly into Staff Lot B, the rather boring name for an exciting group of people.
That evening I dare to shower. Having not yet experienced the smell of sulfur in the water – Cam and I brought four gallons of filtered water in a rare show of intelligence – I was indignant at the offensive odor filling my tiny stall and chalked it up to a nasty flatulence courtesy of my showermate one stall over. It’s not until the next morning when Cam and I have managed to drink four gallons of water in under twenty-four hours and are forced to choke down the Bonnaroo supply that I realize that the smell from the shower is coming from the water supply and not my showermate’s wet cheeks.
As I walk back wet, perhaps nastier than before, slipping through the mud I hear a gaggle of familiar voices. “Byron!” they call and I look up. It’s four of my teammates from high school cross country with whom I’d fallen out of touch. Zak, Peter, Bran, and Andy are sitting at their campsite passing around a joint and have extended the courtesy of letting it burn while catching my attention. I walk over to say hi robed in my towel and mucky boots, promise to be back, and return to my camp where I discover Cam fast asleep in our tent with Elk and Hay asleep in theirs. I change, grab a handful of beers, and return to the XC team. We stay up drinking beers and reminiscing the runs and the races and the days when perhaps life was a tad simpler under a parent’s roof. Around us the party is raging – four separate groups of people wander into the soft glow of their tiki torches and ask for boomers (magic mushrooms), MDMT (ecstasy), bud (marijuana), blow (cocaine), acid (LSD), and when we’d emphatically denied all requests, albeit somewhat less convincingly when asked about pot because one stoned friend giggled without cessation, laughing and saying ‘no man, no.’
By midnight they’re anxious to explore the grounds and I’m anxious for bed so I take my leave, brush my teeth, enjoy the sounds of the thousands partying and playing music. I drop into a deep sleep …
And wake at seven in the morning having sweat out all the beer from last night.
It’s hot. I groan, understanding at long last what a lobster feels as it’s boiled alive to grace the plate. Cam is still sleeping and seems rather unconcerned with the rising temperature. Big Mike certainly doesn’t mind. He’s snark snorking away atop his mattress in the shade. I sigh, rise, and find lace up my shoes for a run. Big mistake. It’s impossibly hot for the day and I stumble along, hungover and dehydrated, for seven miles before collapsing back at the car, contemplating if I should make my way to a port-a-jon or just poop next to the Jersey vehicle and blame a vagrant from last night.
The morning is spent wondering what else I can blame the innocents for – I drink the remainder of the water, eat all of the Chips Ahoy, and drop our roll of Wet Wipes at an ill-timed slip of the hand while standing over a port-a-jon. It’s eleven, Cam is still asleep, and I am burnt. I have a coughing fit next to our tent and moments later Cam wakes up and so do the Jersey girls. Company at last. We sit around talking about – take a guess – the devilish sun and general lack of shade at our camp. Staying outside of our tents for fear of cooking ourselves we bear the weather with towels and tarps and music. I introduce Hay and Elk to Tallest Man on Earth and Reptar while they alternate such artists with Top 40 singles and John Mayer. I don’t find this a fair tradeoff. Mid-afternoon Cam and I roll into Centeroo to visit the campgrounds and secure some fresh water.
You want to talk about organized chaos? Let’s talk twenty hours before Bonnaroo opens to the general public. There are thousands of vendors, volunteers, and staff whirring around shouting and pointing and smiling and scowling and hammering and tying and digging at their various posts. Cam and I are out of our element – two scantily clad individuals staggering around in the heat with four empty gallon bottles strapped to our packs – and are sternly ushered out of Centeroo by a burly security officer in the purple shirt reminding us that unless we are a pre-Croo volunteer then we’re not allowed within Centeroo. Curses. No fresh water for us.
Sulfur water it is! Well … beer then sulfur water. We fill two gallons, dump four tea bags in each, shake them and let those two sit on ice for an hour, and while we wait we drink the High Life and think about cooking a sure to be tasty fare of baked beans and instant turkey chili. We find that beer makes the Earl Grey sulfur water taste reasonable considering the strife of the day and glug the two gallons down over the course of the evening. And thus it’s with a full gurgling belly – either the sulfur or the beans or the turkey, who knows – I find myself enjoying a sunset looking over ten thousand cars. That’s right. Over the course of the afternoon the general public has been rolling into Bonnaroo and filling the remaining campsites of exciting names like Oddjob, Pussy Galore, Goldfinger, and James Bond. I, too ensconced in the earnest games of flip cup with my new eight best friends including Cam, Elk, Hay, Mike, Mike’s Girl, Spencer – a motorcyclist from California, Matt – a motorcyclist from Toronto, and Rudi – a Philadelphian sporting a green St Paddy’s day shirt reading Keep Calm and Shut the Fuck Up, didn’t realize the coming crowds until the field was full.
And perhaps it was the beer or sulfur in our belly or the campsite excitement revolving around the first day of music beginning tomorrow but I find it difficult to sleep and so does Cam. We walk over to the XC tent and spend the next three hours leading a music circle to our right through the lyrics of a handful of songs of which they knew no words and hardly the chords. I beg the question of why attempt a song that no one can play and am met with response by a heavy lidded and unfathomably high ukulele wielding aspiring musician from New York whose contribution to the circle consists of inconsistent C chord strumming. He says quite slowly, “For the Love, man. For. The. Love.” And then he falls asleep, ukulele in one hand, blunt in the other. His friends seem far less concerned with the state of their friend than with the burning blunt and rush to remove it from his grasp lest it drops to the ground.
Cam and I leave shortly after the Love comment, share a good laugh at Joe – a friend of the XC crew who I will meet off and on throughout the festival because he never once remembers me – who had fallen asleep cross legged, head in hands, atop Peter’s Xterra.
I fall asleep wondering how Joe will feel in the morning.
As it turns out, pretty good. When I wake he’s stumbling around Staff Lot B with a cigarette and a stiff rum drink, an early start to a big day. He introduces himself as Joe, Hi Joe, and off he wanders to vomit onto a fence.
I take another run and finish it to the sounds of jeers. Sexual slurs are tossed out by the bros with the ‘Bama caps filling their red cups with liberal (hah!) amounts of Wild Turkey and I’m accused of being a dirty cootersniffer by a gaggle of heavyset older gentlemen in RV camping protected by fencing and numbers. Six sat transfixed by the crackle of bacon sizzling in a pan while three more took it upon themselves to jeer at the campsite’s honorary cootersniffer. These rude fatties would come to play an entertaining roll in our nightly walks home.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Back at the tent Cam is up – surprised? Me too – and applying sunscreen while Hay and Elk are dolling themselves up for the coming rigors of the day. Our Jersey girls have volunteered to work the Silent Auction, which in their words comprised of mostly “sitting around on our asses and collecting sheets of paper with big numbers on them.” How Cam and I drew trash detail I’ll never know.
We eat and listen as the rest of camp wake up. It starts as a rustle, the sound of tents unzipping, and then comes as a rumble, the vibrations of a thousand voices. By noon the grounds are rocking – thick smoke wafts from tents and beer cans crack with reckless abandon – and the Mounties are on patrol. That’s right. Mounties. On big beautiful horses. They patrol up and down the rows and those less clandestine law benders are given a stern lecture by a squat man on a big horse. They’re largely unintimidating but do have wicked stories. A blonde braless yoga instructor and I chatted with one Texan Mountie about working Waskarusa – a music festival in Ozark, Arkansas – and he enjoyed informing me that the mud at Bonaroo was mere pig play compared to what he endured one state west.
Cam is off to talk trash and the girls are off in pursuit of hard drugs so I meet up with the XC crew. We decide to roll into Centeroo together. Well, after the last of the case is finished off. I decline, knowing that I’ll be on my feet in the heat from afternoon till night asking folks to sort their trash before dumping it into compost, recycling, or trash.
The line at Centeroo is monstrous. Eighty thousand people are lined up waiting to come in. We discover the opening of Centeroo has been pushed back an hour due to unforeseen difficulties that I never became privy to. What we did know, however, is that we did not want to wait. Thus we took a walk down Shakedown Street – the hubbub of activity outside Centeroo – and enjoyed the manager of a food truck selling all vegan fare drumming up interest by loudly promoting the upcoming “anal ring toss” over the truck’s intercom.
Our crew departs quickly, no one wanting to be the hapless soul called upon to drop trow at the earnest behest of this vendor. We’re then accosted by a woman selling glow in the dark earrings who, when we informed her that no guys in the group had piercings, offered a free ear piercing provided we purchase the largest of her earring collection.
Sick of the crowds uninterested in the expensive products pushed on Shakedown St. the team makes the decision to return to camp to smoke, drink, and take all their bagged ecstasy and transfer the crystallized drug to dissolvable capsules. I, having nothing better to do than watch my friends smoke, drink, and handle MDMT with the utmost casualness, follow along.
Pandemonium. Where did Peter put the ecstasy?
Turns out he was blackout the night before and, charged with safely storing the drugs, put them somewhere and woke up forgetting he was ever involved in hiding it in the first place. After a frantic turning out of the Xterra the molly is found in the medical tray beneath the Band-Aids. Crisis averted. What would have happened had Peter not found the two hundred dollars – four grams – of ecstasy I do not know but it would have surely put a damper on their entire weekend, a concept I find balanced between amusing and depressing.
I watch with vague interest as the capsules are brought forward, opened, and filled with point two grams each. Questions arise: when to take the molly and how much to take at one time? They all plan on Friday but there seems to be dissension within the ranks. Andy wants to do it all at once during Pretty Lights, Bran is going to make it last from Paul McCartney through Pretty Lights to Animal Collective. Zak has no say in the matter – he’s going to drop acid and figures at that point there’s no reason planning out his night. I leave the four and head off to my shift.
When I arrive at the Clean Vibes tent I collect my brown Trash Talker shirt and begin my shift I am assigned the artist compound. This means, according to my boss lady that “I best be on my fucking A game because if I don’t make the bands making the music happy then you’ll make the masses unhappy which will make me unhappy and when you make me unhappy you are out of a ticket to Bonnaroo. Capiche?.”
So with the threat lodged deeply in the front of my brain I’m carted behind Centeroo to the compound where the bands, friends of the bands, and exclusive VIP members go to relax before and after shows. It’s a green grassy plot with tents erected for shade. There are vendors lining the small field and I come to engage in frequent eye contact with a knockout blonde with Garnier Fructis who is without question out of my league. Beautiful hair bouncing, shining from lavish applications of an affordable yet fragrant shampoo and conditioner, she makes the moon eyes in my direction. Thus emboldened I have the audacity to inform the rockers and sockers that all Bonnaroo cups are crystallized corn syrup and are thus compostable. In fact, the only items entering the landfill are cigarette butts and candy wrappers. The highlight of the afternoon comes when Allen Stone, who is performing that night, is saunters up and flicks water on me, claiming that I “best stay hydrated my man or you are going to pass out in this heat.” Things are looking up … between Allen’s interest in guiding me through a heat stroke free afternoon and the occasional looks at the Garnier stand I feel rather studly.
My confidence falters only later in my shift when my Garnier lady, now done with work, comes over to inform me that thought my head looked funny and was concerned I’d dented it earlier in life.
I’m pulled just before nine and am taken back to Clean Vibes where I check out, receive my meal token, and am reminded to be back tomorrow morning for my seven o’clock shift. Yeah yeah yeah. I hustle out to catch the last song of WALK THE MOON and look for Cam, who promised me before my phone died snapping a picture of Alt-J tossing a banana peel in my compost bin that he’d be at the show. They finished with a favorite I Can Lift a Car but I reflect later it should have been I Can’t Find a Cam for in my naivety I had imagined it easy to find a friend within a crowd of thirty thousand.
No dice. I wait for Alt-J alone, alternating time spent looking for Cam (who’d said he’d be front and center for the show) and watching a freckled ginger eat an entire bag of molly in ten minutes. What was once two grams – he’d informed me with a proud nod when I was caught staring – is been scooped out little by little with his right index finger and rubbed along his gum line until only the finest granules remained stuck to the inner baggie lining, an easy fix once the baggie is turned inside out and sucked clean by his prying lips.
He soon asks to move up closer to the stage. I push him through and lose him in the crowds. Cam is somewhere in there as well but as I make a move towards the stage the lights dim and out steps the rising demi-Gods in the indie music scene. Alt-J draws a crowd of forty thousand and the party rocks for a full hour as they play. Time stands still for the show but once their last song ends and they walk off the crowds disperse and I’m left with a decision: ALO with “Special Guest,” Allen Stone, or bed? I check my watch. It’s near one and I’m up in five hours.
Bed it is.
I walk the long trek back to the tent alone, am called a Fag-o-tron 3000 by the big boys of RV Row. My immediate desire is to defecate on their fence but have neither the hutzpah or the energy to step up to the plate. I shake my head and continue on, their jeers ringing as I continue down the road. Cam is waiting for me back at the tent and we apologize for not meeting up. I wipe my face, brush my teeth, and wonder if Allen Stone is spritzing any water on the crowd as I lay down to sleep.
The last noise I hear is Big Mike snarfing two tents over.
When I wake it’s ten before six but fear it’s past eight. The sun has stolen the treeline and the day is warming. Damn this Tennessee weather. The camp, woozy from a late night, is quiet. I rise, dress, eat two peanut butter and honey sandwiches – the seventh in three days – and begin the trek towards Clean Vibes. My head throbs with the dull ache of dehydration, a consequence of drinking no water upon my return to the camp.
Not that I wasn’t thirsty last night. Our gallons of sulfur water, ripe from a day in the heat, had exploded in the cooler.
I arrive a few minutes before seven. There are three others sitting on the ground, oozing airs of despondency. The tent is closed. “They’re not here,” a sunburned man named Kevin informed me. He looks truly upset at the circumstance so I pester him not and spend my time eating an almond a minute – seriously – before my boss rolls up in her ten seat golf cart, heavy dreadlocks waving with the speed, unconcerned that I’ve eaten twenty-seven of my forty-two almonds.
No apology for her lateness, just a grunt when I check in with the seven o’clock crew. “Your ass is bout to be placed in staff catering. They’re assholes in staff catering, ya here?” Her New York accent is thick this time of day. “Just do your job and sort their trash when they don’t listen to you.”
And off we go, zipping through the abandoned Centeroo grounds littered with trash. I see a crew of forty brown-shirted Croo members and ask Alice – boss lady – who they are. “Early crew!” she says. “They get here early, pick up all the trash inside Centeroo before the crowds come, and are off by 1:30. Killer on your back though.” They move as a flock of birds beating their wings together, swooping down to pick up a cup before bagging it and moving on to the next item flipped carelessly onto the ground.
As we pass through I count fourteen people passed out in the grass. One made it near our road before lying down peacefully outside the lone Bonnaroo Salon. Another is facedown and drooling underneath a picnic table. Four are propped against a large tree outside of This Tent and the remaining eight are scattered in the fields, dressed in various colors and clothing, like eggs on Easter Sunday. I wave to a security officer sitting calmly outside the Salon as we pass by. It’s as if he’s guarding the small woman asleep at his feet.
“Hey Alice,” I ask. “What happens to the people who sleep here?”
She barks. “They wake up wondering where they are. It’s all good. They’re safe here and we’ve security patrolling all hours of the night. Happens every night of Bonnaroo, every year. Just wait for the Tom Petty concert on Sunday. Monday morning they’ll be passed out everywhere.” She peels out of Centeroo and takes a dusty road towards staff catering.
She drops Kevin and a tall smelly volunteer named Scott whose malodor I endured the entire trip over off at short term catering with a threat similar to mine yesterday before taking me around back to long term catering. I am to be placed with the “compost pros,” Alice explains. Long term staff catering are the folks who have been at Bonnaroo since before June and have been through the rig and roll of compost-recycle-landfill. Looks like I drew the long end of the stick this morning.
I’m introduced to Chuck and an Aretha Franklin look alike who has a name but I don’t hear it because I’m singing R-E-S-P-E-C-T with extra ampere in my head and am too embarrassed to ask again. Chuck’s got a best of Elton John album rocking over the speakers. I can tell these six hours are going to go by quickly.
And quickly they do. Chuck and I jam to Elton, the new Timberlake album, and a little bit of Animal Collective in preparation for tonight when they play in the wee hours of the morning. Midway through my shift breakfast ends and I have an hour and a half of picking my nose before lunch begins. I busy myself double checking the compost – a thankless task – and then working my way slowly through a yoga sequence to release my tight low back. Chuck is gone during the break but Aretha, who is charged with keeping the catering gate closed until lunch opens, mmhmms and uhuhhhs her way along my sequence and I find these mutterings as close to solidarity as I’m to get while surrounded by six trash cans.
Lunch comes with a bang and I’m back to work. Alicia, bless her, collects me thirty minutes early and I make it for the entirety of the Reptar show. Never have I seen a collection of artists more excited to be on stage. They bop and pop their way through the songs, guitarist, singer, and keyboardist taking long solos to rock ass across the stage. The crowd digs it, cheering especially loud when the keyboardist – sporting a purple speed suit and a side ponytail – keeps beat while hopping behind the band by beating a tambourine atop his head.
I meet Cam back at the Clean Vibes tent – he’s got a shift that afternoon – and collect the car keys from him. We plan on meeting for Paul McCartny at a water station right before the show’s to start. I tromp back to the tent, feeling rather good. I’m two shifts down and have a big day of music ahead of me.
Back at camp I clean up the mess left by the sulfur water, near choking from the smell, eat another – gads – peanut butter and honey sandwich and wash it down with cold Raman, and go over to the XC tent to hang with the boys. Joe’s there – “Hi, my name’s Joe. What’s yours?” – and after introductions he informs me he’s “never been this fucked up for three in the afternoon.”
A skinny guy with a mop of black hair named Steve in the tent over perks up. “Three in the afternoon? No way! It’s gotta be, like, noon or something. I’ve never been this messed up for noon.”
I tell him Joe’s right, it is three. Steve attempts a whistle. “Far out, man.” Then he lapses into silence, busy rolling a big J.
Bran and Zak laugh at Steve and go back to asking Joe what it was like on mescaline last night. My eyes widen. Mescaline, ladies and gentlemen, occurs naturally in peyote but is synthesized for recreational use. It’s immortalized as Johnny Depp’s drug of choice in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and involves a six plus hour hallucinatory trip similar to that of LSD or psilocybin mushrooms.
Joe has somehow managed to remember that he was offered a hit by some fun-loving Danes down the row and in his words, “I wasn’t not going to do mescaline, right? So I took one hit and then was told I’d taken two and then I tripped balls and saw elephants and kaleidoscope shit for the rest of the night.”
With eyes of wonderment and intense, sincere congratulations I leave Joe and the gang to return to the music. Zak and Bran tell me they’ll try to meet up later – but remember Bran’s going to roll and Zak’s gearing up for acid so who knows if our paths will cross – and Joe raises a cup of seventy percent vodka thirty percent water in salute.
As I walk back to Centeroo I pass the porkies behind the fence and am not wrongly accused of smelling like dog shit. I begin to wonder if these men ever leave the comfort of their camp to listen to the music and then realize I hold no interest in finding out.
The remainder of the afternoon is filled with music. Of Monsters and Men and Grizzly Bear carry me through early evening. For the Wu-Tang Clan at the Which Stage I climb a tree and capture the festival’s biggest dance party on camera.
A side comment about Wu-Tang. They’re great. It’s true hip-hop. A posse of eight core members – most notably Ghostface Killah and Raekwon – and a handful of others affiliates, they bop around on stage, commanding the crowd with their music. The best news of the show? A Wu-Tang 20th anniversary album. Get pumped.
I meet up with Cam once he gets off work and, having snuck an entire fifth of Fireball whiskey into Centeroo, begin drinking heavily as we push our way through the crowd of eighty thousand for Paul McCartney. Cam chatters excitedly about hearing Paul’s sound check. “Lot’s of Beatles tunes, brother.”
And lots of Beatles tunes he played. Paul hit all of the highlights: 8 Days a Week, Eleanor Rigby, Hard Day’s Night, Hey Jude, and a dozen others. We worry when the first song left Paul huffing and puffing his way through a wheezy “BONNNAROOO!” – the man is seventy one, after all.- but he plays for a full two and a half hours, including two encores that end with the last three songs of the Abbey Road melody. Cam and I, who finish the whiskey an hour into the concert and are processing the sauce lining our bellies, dance and sing our way through the show.
Get this. Out of the tens of thousands we bump into Elk and Hay. They’re headed to XX who are playing at the smaller Which Stage. We follow, half drunk and full of ourselves. Cam’s taken to screaming Golden Slumbers to the hapless souls passed out against the fencing between the What Stage and the Which Stage. The XX are a bunch of real snoozers. Elk confesses she falls asleep to them. Hay is nodding off and makes the decision to walk back to the tent for a full night’s rest.
We urge Elk to tag along, ditching the XX for ZZ Top across the field. They rock from midnight to two and we stay for the whole show. With thirty minutes left two Elvis impersonators, one thin and one hefty, flank Elk and begin singing – I shit you not – Burning Love while running a straight comb through gelled black hair. Skinny Elvis is wearing an all white suit with red sparkle stripes. Pudgy Elvis is sporting a glittery gold suit with black fringes. Cam and I are losing our minds. I’m pushing Elk to dance with Pudgy Elvis and Cam is back-to-back with Skinny Elvis singing Blue Suede Shoes.
At the end of the ZZ Top show they depart for Pretty Lights, attempting to bring Elk with them. Pudgy Elvis pulls Elk in close and whispers “I’ve got two and a half confessions to make. I’m not Elvis and I’m not from Memphis. My name is Paul and I’m from Michigan. Come with me.”
Elk manages to withstand such honey smooth attraction and sticks around for Animal Collective. It’s packed like sardines, if sardines wore animal masks. Someone wearing a plastic horse head whinnies his way past. Cam slaps him on the butt, yelling “HYAH!” All around there are stoned, rolling, drunk patrons to good music. One – I place him at sixty by the bald head, wrinkles, and white goatee – man is so deeply under that he is physically unable to open his eyes, content to stand and nod his head slowly up and down, following the general rhyme of the beat. By three a.m. we’re tired of the tight quarters and duck out for the tail end of Pretty Lights.
We are sidetracked by a mostly naked hula-hooper wielding two light-up hoops. His crack shows beneath sagged shorts and his hips swing in the most provocative manner, an invitation to any willing member to hop into the action. Elk is particularly transfixed, and while I’m not sure she is the hooper’s target market I imagine he’s at least flattered by her open appreciation for his skill. He’s hooping, I come to realize, to Pretty Lights.
I also come to realize that Pretty Lights is a guy and a computer. Oh. And a lot of speakers. And lights. It’s an elaborate operation. We stay for two songs – he ends up playing until dawn – watching sinusoidal red beams wave into blue hyperbolic curves arcing along the tree line as the beat drops before tracing geometric patterns on the ground and then strobing hot white light to the sound of thump thump whump thump. Flash flash flish flash. Something like that.
Cam confesses he’s entering hangover mode. I’m getting there. Elk is still watching the hoop go round and round but we’re able to convince her to walk home with us. I’m of the opinion only dirty and regrettable memories occur after four a.m. in Centeroo.
As we walk back I ogle the golf cart taxis and wonder how much one would cost to catch the last mile home. Cam doesn’t think. He acts, racing after a taxi and hopping onto the back seat seconds before it stops in a huff at the Taxi Cab center. A driver who witnesses Cam’s daring dash yells from the safety of his cart “Don’t do that! Don’t EVER do that!” Pause. “Not cool man.”
Maybe you had to be there, maybe not, but the remainder of the walk home I chide Cam for picking his nose. “Don’t do that! Don’t EVER do that!” I give him the last rites for walking in a puddle of water. “Don’t do that! Don’t EVER do that!” I inform him the darkest circle of hell awaits for stealing a roll of toilet paper from a port-a-jon as we pass by. “Don’t do that! Don’t EVER do that!”
And thus, with Cam and I giggling harder than a couple of lads with a bad case of the farts we retire in our tent, leaving Elk to wonder what kind of people she’s managed to tent next to.
As it turns out, two hungover kind of people. I hurt Saturday morning. Dehydration drives a man to desperate measures and I drink the sulfur water straight from the source. Vile. The remainder of my morning is spent wondering if my stomach hurts from the Fireball or the water. It takes the mind off the headache but it’s not until I run, bearing again the smorgasbord of hoots and hollers and crude slurs – today I’m told, in fine Louis C.K. form, to go “suck a bag of dicks” by the fenced in fatties … at least I know their material isn’t all original – that I begin to feel human once again. Lunch is dollar fifty Wal-Mart chow mein and, that’s right, peanut butter and honey sandwich. I wash it down with more sulfur water, burping rotten eggs all the way to Centeroo. Elk and Hay are off working the Silent Auction so Cam and I see if the XC boys care to join us for an afternoon in Centeroo. We’re anxious for The Tallest Man on Earth but have heard good things about Lord Huron, the act before Tallest Man is set to perform.
The first thing I hear when walking up to the Xterra is “Work up in the medical tent at eleven … at night.” My mind falls on Joe and wonder if his “most fucked up Friday” got the best of him. It, in fact, did. This is why our heroine of Bonnaroo wound up with an IV in during the Paul McCartney concert last night and is sprawled out belly-down next to the tent, drooling softly into the grass.
We fail to garner any interest in walking in so early to the festival – our friends have beer to drink and pot to smoke away a wicked MDMT hangover – so Cam and I grunt and brunt the heat towards potable water and live music.
Lord Huron is the truth. I know nothing about them other than their music inspires me to greatness and their sound is a mix of Bruce Springsteen and Grizzly Bear.
My intense affinity for the band sours Tallest Man’s show, which I was perhaps most looking forward to coming into Bonnaroo. A short brooding Swedish man, Kristian Matsson said perhaps ten words to the crowd of thirty thousand, played his set, and left. I, upset with his connection to the crowd, am later placated by a friend who informs me that’s how all his shows go. Get over it, Reese, and enjoy the music. Already I am being spoiled by great musicians who happen to also be great performers. Alas, the life of a needy listener. I forgive you, Kristian.
Cam and I stick around for Dirty Projectors and their sexy trio of female singers – I’m rather transfixed by the older keyboardist – and are blown to bits by their closing song Useful Chamber, which featured seven minutes of shredding and singing worthy of a far larger audience than the ten thousand who witnessed such a display of mind-altering awesomeness.
Thoroughly worn out from standing we sit in the grass and eat a fine dinner of PB&H sandwiches and raw Ramen. I sleep, waking an hour later to Cam slapping my cheek, telling me the Lumineers are coming on in five. Elk and Hay have found us and they’re already moving with the crowd towards Which Stage.
I’m starving and tell my friends the exact extent of my hunger, complaining the Ramen and sandwich did nothing to tide me over. Hay reaches into her purse and hands me a cookie. Cam, indignant that I’m the lone baked good recipient, demands equal action and for his complaints receives a cookie as well. I eat the cookie in one bite. As I chew I notice an earthy quality in the taste and after swallowing I ask Hay how she made them. “With weed,” she says.
Ah. Great. I’ve been drugged. Not that this is my first time experimenting with edibles … my previous (and singular) encounter came sophomore year of college when a friend called me up and asked if he could use my kitchen. We never ate a brownie, just the batter, and the night peaked with me vomiting in the backseat of my roommate’s car at a Wendy’s drive thru. While cleaning out his car the next morning I swore off edible pot – brownies, cookies, butter, and tea – and remained strong through my remaining undergraduate days.
But here I am. Ten minutes to blastoff listening to Ho Hey with sixty thousand Bonnaroovians. Cam – at first upset with the girls – is already giggling in hysteric clumps at their chicanery. I let the vibe ride and figure there damage is already done … no sense in worrying about what I can’t fix. So I dance and sing and enjoy the gentle numbing of my legs and the lightness of my head. Nobody drug tests an unpublished author so what do I have to worry about with the music playing?
The Lumineers end their set to raucous foot stamping and whistles. They’re the true headliner for the night since Mumford & Sons had to drop out of Bonnaroo because of severe illness with their bassist. Jack Johnson is playing in their stead. He played as a special guest during ALO’s late night jam session Thursday night and was asked Friday morning to step in for Mumford. I imagine the conversation between Bonnaroo officials went something like this: “Shit. Mumford’s out. We need a headliner for Saturday.”
“… Jack Johnson’s in town.”
“Has he put anything out since Banana Pancakes?”
“Screw it. Call him up.”
Jack Johnson puts on a great show. We sit in the grass, proper stoned and dreadful thirsty. The four of us drink six liters of water in thirty minutes and, unable to bear the crowds, tromp over to the food trucks for a snack and a respite. I wait in line alone, fixated on a spicy curry with basmati rice and extra pepper sauce. I use a meal token, collect my steaming bowl, and inhale the curry in under forty seconds. I wander around the picnic tables looking for my crew and find them asleep in a field behind the trucks. R. Kelly is coming on – we’ve debated at great length how many times he will threaten to pee on the first row – in a half hour. Billy Idol, whom I grew up rocking to, follows R. Kelly and is the one act left in Bonnaroo I truly want to see. For the life of me, however, I see no possible avenue that will keep me awake and functional for the two hours left to Billy.
So I rouse Cam, Hay, and Elk and we make our way home. Hay begins talking about all the food she’s been hiding from us: cheezeballs, Pringles, spicy cheddar queso, Tostidos scoops, and melted Reese’s peanut butter cups. It’s all I can do to not stop and salivate. But, being capable of only one task at a time I continue walking and fixate solely on the sensation of a warm melted Reese’s filling every tastebud with the explosion of a chocolaty peanut buttery orgastic spectastic.
The food never stood a chance. We decimate it with systematic precision. Elk orchestrates the whole affair, laying out a five course feast with which we tackle out appetizers – cheezeballs and Pringles – first, followed by the main course – chips and queso – and then finish with dessert – the Reese’s. Cam and Hay fall asleep midway through the bag of chips so Elk and I step up to the plate with our big sticks and polish it all off with little regard for our tummies in the morning. I plan on leaving Cam a Reese’s but remember only after I eat the last cup.
I fall asleep with the bump of R. Kelly behind the trees and chocolate smeared all over my face.
When I wake I’m uncharacteristically full. Cam – who is working the morning shift – has taken the keys to the car, thus rendering me incapable of basically anything save for lacing up my muddy running shoes, putting on a pair of old dirty running shorts, and running sockless into Centeroo to find him and my keys.
It takes me four miles to find Cam and work off the post-cookie haze but once I find him and my keys I’m ready for another day of music. I ask Cam when he wants to leave – tonight and beat the crowd but miss most of Tom Petty or tomorrow and fight the traffic – and we decide on tonight.
I return to our camp, give Hay a hard time about drugging us to which she shrugs and makes little apology for a good time, and set about taking down camp. I’m not the only one with such an idea. All around folks are breaking down tents and folding up tarps. I realize our campsite isn’t much with just a plot of grass to sit on … it had much more character with a tent and chairs and a cooler.
My lunch consists of a final bag of chow mein. I eat, say bye to the XC boys – they’re sticking around for the night and I likely will not run into them while volunteering today – and run into Joe on my way back to my car. Joe introduces himself, commenting on what a bummer it is that we didn’t meet until the last day of Bonnaroo “because you look like a lot of fun to party with, bro.” I agree, slap his back, and say goodbye to Joe forever.
Then, putting on my now stiff from sweat brown Bonnaroo Trash Talker staff shirt I trek into Centeroo for the last time, ready for my last shift sorting trash, hoping I’ll at least be stationed near some music.
Talk about luck of the draw. I’m placed at the crossroads of What Stage and Which Stage. I can see Which Stage and when they’re not playing can hear the What Stage. That’s why Sunday is my favorite day of music – I see Delta Rae, The Sheepdogs, and Edwarde Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and hear Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Kendrick Lamar. It’s six hours of sock rocking tunes and I’m stuck smack in the middle of it all.
Location, location, location. While I am fortunate enough to be a part of the music today i have to work my tail off. Let me explain. As I’ve mentioned hat Stage holds eighty thousand people while Which Stage can accomodate sixty thousand. Bonnaroo officials have enough sense to stagger the shows so attendees can see most of each big show. For example, Macklemore plays his show at 3:30-4:30 on What Stage. The Sheepdogs come on at 4:00 and play till 5:15 Then while the Which Stage crew is preparing for Ed Shrape at 5:45 Kendrick Lamar plays from 5-6:15 (double check times) after Macklemore.
This means that there are anywhere from fifty to one hundred thousand people walking between What Stage and Which Stage as the next act is set to begin. There is one road leading directly between these stages and my trash station is on it. I bag and sort more compost in an hour than in my previous twelve as a Trash Talker. It’s intense. People don’t want to listen or are so in their heads they simply cannot hear my words. Frustrating initially, I accept this for basic human nature and get over myself. By four I’m tired, having been on my feet without sitting for over five hours now. I begin keeping a mental log of all shirts that amuse me in some capacity. Here are my favorites:
Tits Clits or Bong Rips
Alcohol & Party & Molly & Sluts
Don’t Make Me Bitch Slap You
Will Tesselate for Alt-J
Bro Bro Bro Bro FUCK Bro
Rudi stumbles into me right before Edward Sharpe plays, eyes redder than the devil’s dong, a big goofy smile pasted to his lips. “You want a smoothie?” he asks. “I gotta get a smoothie, man. Princess needs one.” He points to his shirt, a drawing of Princess Lea, one hand pressed onto her bun - if she’s listening to the beat - and the other hand spinning a record atop a lobotomized R2D2. I assure him I’m well taken care of, that my final peanut butter and honey sandwich is enough to carry me through to my meal token coming in two hours, and off he wanders, offering hi(gh) fives to anyone within a ten foot radius.
The Magnetic Zeros put on a great show, the highlight for me coming when Edward steps into the crowd during “story time” and, upon asking if anyone has a story to tell one girl screams into his microphone “TURN OFF THE PHONES! TURN OFF YOUR PHONES FOR THE LOVE OF EDWARD!” As it turns out, the Zeros didn’t have a public service announcement in mind for story time and asked for another story. At this precise instance a man pushed me out of the way of the trashcans and puked his soul into the compost, the sounds of his retching drawing out the story of Saul, a young cancer survivor.
My immediate surroundings, more impressed with my new friend’s environmental concience, cheers louder for Ser Puke-A-Lot and my doubly soilded compost than for Saul, who is now up on stage with Edward and his band.
My shift ends with my bagging the puke and tossing it to the side for Clean Vibes to pick up. I’m replaced a few minutes to seven and gladly depart, exhausted and smelling of all manner of trash.
Back at Clean Vibes I sign out once more, collect a meal token, and am ensured a full refund on my Bonnaroo ticket. I leave the tent with a certain sense of satisfaction. No, wait. That’s just hunger.
Meeting up with Cam we feast on pizza and chili cheese fries before working our way back to Which Stage for David Byrne - lead singer of Talking Heads - and St. Vincent. Somewhere around eight p.m. I lose my mind and begin dancing with a broken tent pole, earning a comment from one man on a self-proclaimed “bad trip” that he “wants a trip like that.” It’s more entertaining to maintain the illusion of hallucination than confess to this bug-eyed fellow that i am sober as a bird and am merely ready to be driving home. David Byrne ends with a rousing rendition to Burning Down the House and we are then shuttled forward like packed rats to What Stage for Tom Petty.
Elk and Hay, coming down from rolling, find us at a water station and explain the merits of hard drugs for Kendrick Lamar. We shuffle together into the What Stage field, working our way to the back for an easy exit. We’re all trying to leave tonight and figure we might as well leave together. Elk and Hay plan on popping an Adderol before their fourteen hour drive home. Cam and I will settle for coffee, but i suppose it’s all basically the same.
Tom Petty comes on right when I feel the first raindrops splashing against my shoulders. The weather had been flirting with storming all afternoon but held at bay until the sun went down. Now, with the rain falling and the music playing we watch Tom and his band of merry Heartbreakers shred out. He seems drunk to me - his words slurring between songs as he talks to the audience- but he can play a mean song. The cool thing about his is that he sounds - even thirty years later - exactly like his album.
We leave after Free Falling, soaking wet and ready for the comfort of our cars. There’s a long line of traffic out of our campsite - we’re not the only ones with aspirations of beating the masses - and those waiting in line to leave honk and slap hands with us as we pass by. Even the fenced in fatties, whom i am unsure ever actually made it to any shows, are packed up and gone, their only tangible gift to Bonnaroo a collection of candy wrappers and half eaten sausages left scattered around their campsite.
Back at the cars we say our goodbyes, Hay and Elk working their way up north while Cam and I head south. The music that brought us together is also the reason we’re breaking apart. Once the music stops all that’s left of Bonnaroo is mud, heat, and trash. Best leave with the sounds of American Girl softly filling the camp.
And so we leave Bonnaroo, leave Manchester Tennessee, and point our noses West - to a civilization that time has touched - to air conditioning and down pillows and sulfur free water. But I miss Bonnaroo. The music, sure, but especially the people. It’s a different breed out there. A different world filled with happy like-minded inhabitants. So next year, if you get a wild hair and want an experience, sign up and go to a music festival. You may come back with a new point of view. So what’s mine, you ask?
Keep calm and shut the fuck up.