I Have Been to Bonnaroo, and Lived to Tell the Tale

Around midnight on Wednesday, June 10th, just past the Tennessee border at Bristol, a stopped line of cars stretched over the horizon line. But this stopped traffic jam differed from most: in amongst the impassive truckers, the drivers and passengers of these stopped cars were partying. They were also nearly all in their 20s, dressed in ragged, summer clothes. Their cars had license tags from across the 50 states. Though none of them knew each other, they wandered in and out of the stopped traffic, laughing, shaking hands, sharing cigarettes. Car stereos were cranked, beers were cracked, kids danced in the median, in the emergency lane, on the roofs of their own cars. An unknowing observer might think this midnight traffic jam was the best, most hilarious thing these strange motorists had ever seen. What could explain this peculiar occurrence (and why would so many people, for that matter, be traveling into Eastern Tennessee)?

One word:  Bonnaroo.

These motorists were all Bonnaroo attendees, Phishheads and hipsters on their way to Manchester, still a good six hours’ drive South. At 7:00am the next morning, the campsites would open and all of these kids would be there. For them, the party had already started, right here on I-40 behind a tipped semi in the middle of the night. And me, my roommate, Sara, and her boyfriend, Chris, were right there in the midst of them.

I am not the sort of person to attend a music festival. In fact, I am the sort of person to go to some trouble to avoid attending a music festival. In the case of Bonnaroo, however, I had every reason to go. My good friend Emily lives in Manchester, Tennessee, and was able to get the three of us free tickets, and offered to put us up in her house. We would not have to camp in the crowded campsites, or wait in any of the myriad long entry lines. My roommate’s boyfriend, Chris, is the sort of person who would go to a great deal of trouble to attend a music festival, particularly Bonnaroo, and my roommate, Sara, is the sort of person who would happily go to a music festival if other people were going, and I am the sort of person who will join my friends for an adventure especially if it doesn’t cost me anything and everybody else takes care of all the arrangements, so there you go. My four-day Bonnaroo adventure had begun.

[Incidentally, if I may digress for a minute, Sara and Chris are from upstate New York and Long Island respectively. Neither had spent any substantial time in the American South (Florida doesn’t count), and had never been to Tennessee at all. The first thing they pointed out, as we drove the rather isolated stretch of road from the interstate to my parents’ house, was the sheer number of churches we were passing. This would prove to be a theme throughout our trip. I had known I’d grown up in the Bible belt, but not until it had been pointed out to me with fresh eyes was I sufficiently impressed by the sheer volume of churches on every block in Tennessee. There are thousands of them: Baptist, Methodist, Adventist, Presbyterian, Evangelical, Echolalian, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, Church of God, Church of Jesus (plus a spicing of Catholic, Mormon, Lutheran) — not to mention all the Firsts, Seconds, Thirds, Southerns, Orthodoxes, Reforms, 2nd Days, 7th Days, Juniors, Once-removeds and so on and so forth splinterings of each of these. The South is indeed incredibly diverse in its offerings of traditional, white Protestant churches. If you were to do a church crawl, you’d be passed out on grape juice and oyster crackers before you’d made it out of your own neighborhood.  End of digression.]

Thursday

As we approached the tiny town of Manchester, we saw a policeman with a sign directing Bonnaroo traffic to the shoulder. Obediently, we queued up in a long line of cars stopped there. I phoned my friend to see if this was really necessary, and she directed us to continue on several more exits. As we drove to the exit where she’d said she’d meet us, we passed four other exits, each with a traffic barrier up, and at least a hundred cars stopped in a line behind it. These were festival attendees waiting to be admitted into the campgrounds. We felt very slick to drive past them all.

We met Emily in the parking lot of the Manchester Seniors’ Center, and she led us to her new house – an enormous three bedroom with two huge porches on five acres of land for the monthly rent of freaking nothing. Us New Yorkers wept.

‘Do you want to go see my new puppy?’ Emily asked me, while Sara and Chris got situated.

Emily has never been a dog person. She likes cats. We’ve had long debates verging on arguments about this, so I was surprised and delighted to hear a dog was in the offing. Her next door neighbors’ Boxer had mounted their Great Dane, and a litter of puppies resulted, and Emily had her pick of the four that were left. We went next door to look at them. There was shit all over the yard, and kibble all over the porch. The Great Dane was the size of a small pony, and very affectionate. The runt of the litter, Pee-Wee, and Freckles, a gray polka-dotted male, ran up to jump all over us. Two black puppies remained on the porch, one lying across the kibble pile, the other peering suspiciously at us. Emily was trying to make her mind up between Pee-Wee and Freckles. Her neighbor told her she had a day to decide, because they were taking them to Nashville on Saturday to try to sell them. Then, Freckles stepped in some shit and flung it around on us, so we left.

It was time to prep for Bonnaroo.  Emily took us all to the special tent where each of us was outfitted with a neon green and hot pink fabric wristband, and then Emily led us to a place we could park without having to wait in the insane line at the main gates. Sara and Chris wanted to go straight in to Bonnaroo, of course, but Emily needed to wait to meet up with her little brother and his friend, who were getting in later. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not really a concert goer, normally. I was moderately excited about seeing a few bands I actually had some familiarity with, but none of them were playing Thursday, so I decided to wade in rather than dive, and thus spent my first night at Bonnaroo with Emily, her boyfriend, Jason, her brother, Michael, and his friend, Jeff, drinking margaritas on the porch of a nice Mexican restaurant (strangely attached to a seedy strip motel) in Tullahoma. I don’t remember what was playing on the speakers, but I think it was a mariachi band.

Friday

Okay, Friday!  Bonnaroo day, for real this time.  I woke up with a will, slathered myself in sunscreen, put on my hat.  Sara and Chris were making bacon, eggs and toast for everyone (minus Emily, who’d had to go to work). My friends were pretty speedy that morning, anxious not to miss certain things at Bonnaroo, and the three of us were soon driving to the staff lot. Chris was working two nights at the festival (he shoots music events for a living, mostly), but hadn’t managed to get his staff wristband yet, for complicated reasons. He did have his parking pass, though, and hoped that would be enough. It wasn’t. An unsympathetic skater girl at the entrance flat denied us – everyone in the vehicle must have staff wristbands to enter the staff lot. We parked in the back field again, and hiked up through the fields and into the sprawling camp grounds.

Bonnaroo camping spreads for miles in every direction. No matter how crowded you imagine it might be, it is shockingly moreso. There were tents and RVs in every direction, with tarps arranged into impressive compounds, there were oily hippies everywhere, teenagers, middle-aged heavyset guys, trailer trash, hipsters, college kids, so on and so forth times a billion. Also, an unending supply of white boys with dreadlocks or Afros. We wound our way through the sprawling campsites, and at each turned corner, a new limitless vista of RV roofs and tent peaks and Porta-pots rolled out to meet the sky. Above it all were colored balloons with numbers to try to let you know where you were, and there were also street signs erected at intersections (1st and 2nd style, familiar to NYers), but none of this was really of much help. The ground was packed dirt and mud and the sun was bald and scalding.

Sara and Chris had gotten caught in a horrid downpour the night before. It began around midnight, and was accompanied by a fierce wind that drove sheets of rain into your eyes and blinded you. They’d had to fight their way back to the car; they’d thanked their stars they’d brought trash bags to wear. Bonnaroo is legendary for its storms, and nearly every year, it is a mudpit by the second day. You are advised to lose your shoes and get filthy, as it’s really impossible to walk otherwise. We got lucky, however: the Thursday night storm was the only one we’d see that weekend. Still, it was semi-muddy, and by the time we reached the main gate, I had flip-flop-flicked mud stripes up my calves.

When we reached the main gates, we glommed onto a mob of people that was slowly oozing its way through the checkpoints a good stretch ahead of us. The sun beat down, the crowd pressed around me. I began to think there was really no way I could do this. I thought I’d have to go back to Emily’s and stay there, and began to be amazed at my inability to make it through even the initial entrance to what was meant to be a four-day 24-hour marathon of fun. I was wearing a tank-style sundress with a bra-top tank top under it, and flip-flops, a half-bottle of SPF 55, and a small-brimmed sun hat, and sweat was pouring down the backs of my legs and puddling up in the dirt. I have this problem, especially in summers. Apparently, at least 95% of my body’s total sweat glands are located along the bottom curves of my butt cheeks. There’s no way to win with this, loose skirts and pants alike each presenting their own drawbacks. Sitting down, however, is worst of all. I need an antimacassar for my ass.

So, I was soaked, hyperventilating and claustrophobic (I tend to panic in crowds, which makes me extremely unsuited for things like living in New York City, and attending Bonnaroo), but I had committed to this experience, so there was nothing for it to remain upright until I passed out. Eventually, I got to the gate, where a youth glanced into my purse and waved me through.

It took me some time to get my bearings, but eventually, I determined that Bonnaroo is arranged in three complexes.

An eagle eye view of the grounds.
An eagle eye view of the grounds.

The main gate gave on to the field leading up to the main stage, What Stage, which is the biggest, and has the biggest field in front of it. To the right of mainstage is a long line of food vendors; along the back of the mainstage field is a long line of Porta-Pots and a misting tent; where these two lines intersect is entry into Centeroo. Centeroo has a mushroom fountain at its middle, which at sporadic times throughout the day, spouts a muddy font of water from its top for folk to bathe in.

The refreshing fountain.
The refreshing fountain.

There are more food vendors and Porta-pots, there’s stations for refilling water bottles, there are souvenir stands.

Food vendors.
Food vendors.

To the left of Centeroo (if you’re facing it from What Stage) is Which Stage, the second biggest stage, with a medium-sized field in front of it. On past Which Stage and Centeroo, the Cinema Tent is off on its own a ways to the left, and then there are sort of two fields with This Tent and That Tent on opposite sides. In between these, there’s a little adobe hut serving as a Post Office, and the Comedy Barn, and these head back toward a relatively empty area that features a ferris wheel, a Silent Disco (where everyone dances with head phones), some sort of tent always playing metal, The Other Tent and a few picnic tables. Between This Tent and The Other Tent, there’s a big empty stretch with a lot of sculptures around – fireflies on long sticks whose butts light up, big egg things hanging from a tree, a cutout castle, a metal dragon, a giant metal snowman full of fire that can be ignited by jumping on him in the right way, and also in the midst of all this, a little burlesque stage off to the side.

Fireflies, with ferris wheel behind.
Fireflies, with ferris wheel behind.

This is probably not a very clear or accurate description of the Bonnaroo grounds, but it is accurate in that all of this is sort of a hodgepodge of similar sites – tent, stage, Cajun food, funnel cake, line of Porta-pots, tent, Porta-pots, installation, frozen lemonade cart, repeat – and it’s too confusing and bothersome to orient oneself, really – I adopted the system of just wandering until I ran into wherever I was trying to be.

We first lined up at the back of the crowd in That Tent to see The Dirty Projectors. I had no familiarity with this band at all, I couldn’t see anything, and I have to hear something multiple times before it makes any lasting imprint in my mind, so I can’t really tell you anything about the band, other than that I liked them at the time (this shows you about how good a Bonnaroo correspondent I am going to be – Rolling Stone, here I come!). David Byrne came out and joined them for the final song, and I don’t remember that, either (mostly because I couldn’t see any of it). What I do recall was that when we first tacked ourselves on to the back of the crowd, we were maddeningly close to the shade cast by the tent, and I felt it was a matter of personal survival that I worm my way into that shade. Luckily, the crowd kept moving up by stages, as people left the tent for other acts, so before long, we were under the cover, and I felt a lot better about everything, despite still being packed firm as brown sugar.

The Dirty Projectors.
The Dirty Projectors.

We caught about the last half hour of The Dirty Projectors show, and after that, Chris wanted to see the Don Hertzfeldt show at the Cinema Tent.

Don Hertzfeldt is the animator whose short, Rejected, was nominated for an Oscar awhile back. If you have not seen Rejected, google and watch it now – it’s great. Chris is a big fan, and played it Wednesday morning before we left, and I thought it was hilarious. Hertzfeldt is a master of Kafka-esque humor; his films are full of simple characters neutrally experiencing the myriad unpleasantnesses of life, plodding through repetitive banality, only to be blindsided by meaningless and inexplicable chaos and horror. Chris is such a Hertzfeldt fan, he was even wearing his Rejected T-shirt.

Incidentally, I feel like there’s some joke about how it’s lame to wear the T-shirt of the band you’re going to see to their concert, but I think now that this must be outdated humor – there were all kinds of people wearing T-shirts of the bands they were seeing at Bonnaroo, and I doubt these folks would fail to be hip. Of course, perhaps it’s now cool to wear the T-shirt of the band you’re going to see ironically. Or, maybe these people were attending the shows of other bands at the same time as the band on their T-shirt was playing! Wouldn’t that be hostile? (I don’t have any T-shirts with bands on them, but I do have one with David Bowie’s face on it.)

We headed over to the Cinema Tent, and Chris got in the short line, while Sara and I went to refill our water bottles. The line at the refilling station, however, wasn’t moving at all.

Long ass water line.
Long ass water line.

Eventually, we noticed various other lines forming perpendicular to the one we’d originally gotten on, so we gave up on the water bottles and went to stand in the cinema line, where Chris had befriended a couple of stoned boys from Florida who both looked like stand-ins for That 70’s Show. We all stood there in the line and talked for a long time. It was still extremely hot. After we’d stood there for awhile, a tiny freckled orange-haired girl passed out and started seizing from the heat. She came around and seemed alright (though very embarrassed) and was led into the tent for some ice water. Then, a giant foam Butterfinger came around handing out mini-Snickers.

No, just kidding! They were mini-Butterfingers, of course! We all refused them initially, but when the Butterfinger told us they were cold, we all took them. At long last, the rope was pulled back, and we all filed into the dark, heavily air-conditioned cinema tent, which had rows and rows of folding chairs facing a screen.

We watched all manner of Don Hertzfeldt films. I enjoyed them, but then I started to feel really light-headed, even just sitting there in the air-conditioned dark. I ate a ProBar I had in my purse, and felt better. Don Hertzfeldt opened a Q&A after the screening (and after that, Chris managed to get his T-shirt autographed), but I cut out at that point, because the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were performing at Which Stage. I really love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and was especially excited for this show. I am dimly aware that maybe the Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren’t cool anymore, is that right? Or perhaps they’re just thought of as really white, I don’t know. At any rate, I love them, and I really like Karen O’s voice and style and think she’s bad ass. When I arrived at Which Stage, I saw a little stand of bleachers that not many people seemed to be occupying, so I thought I’d sit on them, but they were for VIPs. As far as I can see, this is an excellent reason to spring for VIP tickets – people in the bleachers were actually able to watch the shows at both the stages (although I don’t think they had any enhanced vantage point in the tents). Otherwise, Which Stage was a packed, frying pan of a field. I started out relatively close to the stage, by the area where the cameramen perched, but so many people ended up pressed in on top of me that I had to withdraw. I was verging on panic attack again, and anyway, I couldn’t see anything, so there was no advantage to being closer. I have never been in a packed mob trying to see something up front without some six foot dude slipping around me with a polite ‘Excuse me,’ only to stand right in front of my face, as if I were standing there for some purpose unrelated to the performance onstage.

Right as I was planning my escape, Emily called and said she was to the left of the bleachers, so I fought my way back through the crowd and then all the way across to the right of the bleachers, which was no little trouble, let me tell you, and after I’d realized my mistake and fought my way back across to the left of the bleachers, I at last found Emily (and Jason), and we proceeded to squint at the stage. Very far away, a tiny Karen O was cavorting in front of an enormous blue eyeball. She wore a kimono, which she eventually dropped to reveal a romper and what appeared to be yellow striped tights. For some songs, she put a white drapey shawl-thing on her shoulders; other times, she took that back off. I think it was the wrong venue for this band, really – the music overwhelmed the vocals, and Karen O seemed to be struggling to fill up the space with her voice and her dancing. It was kind of stressful to watch, and I didn’t feel included at all, so before the end of the performance, we left in search of beers, shade and arepas.

Karen O, with eyeball.
Karen O, with eyeball.

One of the main problems with Bonnaroo is that the great amount of musical acts they are able to offer by running five stages simultaneously means you are bound to have to decide between many bands you really like. Nearly all of the bands I actually knew something about all seemed to overlap. I would have liked to catch Grizzly Bear – I have heard a couple of their songs and liked them – and I could have caught the end of their show, but I was sort of burnt out on concerts by this point (having seen half of two). Instead, we rode the ferris wheel. We stood in a brief line with a dad and small boy. The dad told us all about himself without prompting (this turned out to be true of many Bonnaroo attendees), and told what he obviously felt was an impressive story about his earlier visit with a woman (whose name I didn’t recognize, but who was obviously one of the musicians performing at the festival) who he’d gone to high school with, and who’d come out of her dressing room to say hi to them in — ‘Tell them what she was wearing, son?’ ‘A bra!!’

The ferris wheel yielded an eagle-eye view of just how vast Bonnaroo’s camping grounds were. These photos are all of different directions:

Camping...
Camping…
...and more camping...
…and more camping…
...and yet more camping...
…and yet more camping…
...and three guesses.
…and three guesses.

The Bonnaroo attendance was around 75,000 this year. Manchester’s population is less than 10,000 (related side-note: if you google ‘Manchester, TN,’ the Bonnaroo website is the third result, after the city’s official web page and its Wikipedia entry; this is especially entertaining, because the Bonnaroo website does not have ‘Manchester’ in its title or description).

When we alighted from the ferris wheel, the sun had more or less set. Emily was torn between seeing Lucinda Williams and Ani DiFranco; she settled on Lucinda Williams, which I was happy about, because I could go with her, whereas I probably would have had to find something else to do if she’d gone to see Ani. I’d never seen Lucinda Williams before, but really enjoyed her entire set at This Tent, although again, I have no memory of it now to describe it for you. I can report, however, that she wore a black tank top and a black cowboy hat, and her muscly arms clenched at the guitar in the way of all cool folksinger chicks. I know this, because there were a great many mud puddles in This Tent, forcing large gaps in the crowd which increased visibility. Emily and I had had several $6 beers by this time, and toward the end of Lucinda Williams, we had to pee most desperately. We held out, though, and made a mad rush for the Port-a-Pots once the set had finished.

The Port-a-Pots are one of the more unpleasant Bonnaroo experiences. It was entirely necessary to use them multiple times each day – even if you opted not to drink beer (which is not something I can commit to when I have long periods of unoccupied time in close proximity to beer), you had to stay hydrated in the heat, so there was really no avoiding Port-a-Pot usage, and they were indeed foul. We learned after the first day to bring our own tissue packs, as TP was often out, and to bring Wet Wipes, as the hand-washing stations were not adjacent to the Port-a-Pots in any way and were sometimes impractical to get to immediately – and you did want to clean your hands immediately upon exiting, even if you didn’t touch anything but the door handle. I am forever grateful to my mother for teaching me to hover from a young age, ensuring muscular thighs and reliable balance that will enable me to emerge unscathed from any foul bathroom situation. Of course, the ideal thing is to have a penis.

Port-a-pots.
Port-a-pots.

The Beastie Boys were headlining Friday night at What Stage, so we headed over there to meet up with all our friends. What Stage was already impassibly crowded. We crawled along the edge of the fray, by the food tents, and hovered there, dancing back and forth to avoid the converging streams of travelers with giant plates of fried potatoes and ketchupy hot dogs and slopping cups of beer, and Emily called her brother. He and Jeff were in the thick of it, and suggested we fight our way out to them, which we weren’t really sure about. Sara and Chris met up with us, and we expressed our reluctance to penetrate the crowd (or, really, to listen to the Beastie Boys). After hovering there for about half a song, we headed out into the now deserted other quadrants of Bonnaroo and Sara spread a sheet she’d brought out on the ground. At some point, Chris left to go get ready for his shift (he was shooting Public Enemy and then Paul Oakenfold, from midnight to 4:00am), and Michael and Jeff joined us (they weren’t overwhelmed with the Beastie Boys), and we drank a great many $6 fresh blended fruit drinks mixed with $0 vodka, and really had a merry old time.

At some point, we all split up, and decided to go wandering around. Sara, Emily and I found a performance of some sort that went into intermission just as we arrived. We spread out our sheet and watched some women in striped thigh-highs and bustiers and a couple of giant, fat guys with affected Cheech-type accents ape a sort of Weimar-era circus act type thing, where different performers reclined on nail beds, and then piled bricks and women on top, and that sort of thing.

A lot going on here.
A lot going on here.

Then, there was some hula-hooping, and soon after, Emily, Jason, Sara and I left. When we got back to Emily’s, I took a badly needed and tremendously appreciated shower, ate some trail mix, and collapsed into bed. Chris and the boys wouldn’t get back until well after daybreak.

Saturday

‘Oh, fuck,’ was my first thought upon waking Saturday morning. ‘I have two more days of this.’

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the concerts or anything. It’s just that I was quite sure I wasn’t interested enough to sustain this for two more full days. I suddenly felt extremely foolish for deciding to attend a four-day concert in the first place (however free the tickets). I am not a concert goer. It’s never once occurred to me to go to a concert without a friend extending an invitation. Before Bonnaroo, I had been to one Tori Amos concert, two They Might Be Giants concerts, two Indigo Girls concerts…and I’m pretty sure that’s it. And at least two of those weren’t so much concerts as they were free summer outdoor events. Bonnaroo 2009 is the most concert I’ve ever gotten in my life thus far!

Luckily, there was quite a lot of fooling around the house to be done before we made our way back to the festival grounds. First of all, Emily and Jason had settled on Freckles, and brought him home. We sat out on the back porch playing with the puppy, who was already 28 pounds at 12 weeks, and had paws the size of clay pigeons. He also had the loose skin and knock-kneed awkwardness of all puppies and kept rolling adorably off the porch and then straining at hopping back up, like a little kid coming out of the deep end.

What's that, Freckles?
What’s that, Freckles?
Oh, you are too much!
Oh, ha, ha, ha, you are too much!

He also took every opportunity to make a break for his childhood home, inconveniently located right next door complete with mom, dad and remaining siblings. Emily wasn’t quite sure what to do about that, but decided that when we left, she would put him in a horse stable she happened to have handy on her massive property.

Also, Sara made French toast for breakfast, and Emily cooked bacon in a pot. I did not know such a thing was possible, but you can just cut the bacon in half and throw it in there.

Eventually, it was time once more for Bonnaroo. I rode with Emily, Jason and the boys, Sara and Chris having gone on ahead. We parked in day parking this time, as the massive lines had only persisted for the initial days of the festival, and so we had a shorter walk. The line at security was far shorter today, as well, likely because it was nearly 5:00pm by this time. Apparently, Jimmy Buffet had made a surprise appearance at noon that day, but we’d all missed it.

Emily wanted to see Jenny Lewis at That Tent. I called Sara, who had spread her sheet out at What Stage and was waiting to see Wilco. When I reached her, she was in a great spot just behind the scaffolding where the cameramen were, the fencing around which scaffolding even provided a small scrim of shade. The sun did not feel as intense, and it was nice sitting there, with a beer and a bit of personal space. Eventually, Wilco played, too, and they were really good. Um…fast? I don’t have a damn clue how to describe music, frankly. Why am I even writing this?

Wilco
Wilco

One thing I was really disappointed about was the relatively chill atmosphere at Bonnaroo this year.  I had heard so many tales of bad acid trips and other drug-related freakouts, and I was really looking forward to seeing some crazy shit go down.  No luck, though.  We did see this dude dancing at Wilco, though:

Woo!
Woo!
Oh, yeah!
Oh, yeah!
I love you, Phish!
I love you, Phish!

From 7ish to 8ish, both Elvis Costello and The Decemberists were playing, and this was a tough decision for me. I ended up wandering by Elvis Costello (at That Tent), who Emily said played an absolutely rocking show (she was up front for the whole thing), but for the couple songs I caught, he sounded particularly hoarse, and looked sweaty and uncomfortable, and it started to make me feel stressed about things.

Elvis Costello.
Elvis Costello.

I then went over to This Tent, where The Decemberists sounded really awesome. I have some awareness that The Decemberists aren’t supposed to be cool anymore now, either, is that so? I don’t know. I guess I have a great fondness for super-white bands that were hip exactly 2.5 years ago. Anyway, I haven’t heard much of their stuff since Picaresque, so I don’t know if they’ve added new members, but the woman was singing a lot more than she usually does, and she sounded fantastic – it also sounded like maybe there were additional women singing? I don’t know; as usual, I couldn’t see the stage at all. I actually quite like Colin Meloy’s weird, HomestarRunner-ish-sounding voice, but I know a lot of people hate it, so maybe he’s trying not to dominate the vocals so much anymore. They also seemed to have a ton of really awesome visual things going on – I saw lights, and the tops of various props and things, and maybe costumes? – but I’ll be damned if I could find any spot to catch so much as a glimpse, so eventually, I gave it up and wandered over to the field and sat there for awhile, just listening and thinking.

I assert my personal space, pissing off some girl.
I assert my personal space, pissing off some girl.

Before long, I started to feel lonely and worried, so I called everyone trying to figure out where I could meet up with someone. Luckily, Emily and Jason were eating, so, as I was starving to death, I headed over to where they were, at a picnic table by the ferris wheel. I inhaled a giant mound of red beans and rice, topped with a barbecued chicken skewer of at least two chicken’s worth of chicken, and immediately felt stuffed and remorseful. Sharing the picnic table with us were a chubby, long-haired couple from some Midwestern place, and the guy was quite stoned and happily monologuing about their trip and what all they’d seen so far.

‘Are you talking with your mouthful?’ interrupted his girlfriend. ‘Here, take my plate.’ They wandered off through the misting tent.

By this time, it was 8:30 or so, and almighty Bruce loomed ahead. Frankly, the three of us were ready to leave. Emily apologized several times throughout the trip for being such a party-pooper and wearing out on everything quickly, but I was massively relieved she had finally aged to my usual level of constant exhaustion. I’ve never been an endurance partier; I’m more of a social sprinter. I don’t think I could have made it had I had to spend a full, round, four days of solid, participatory Bonnaroo attendance.

But anyway, even wet blankets have to see Bruce Springsteen. Well, not ‘see,’ of course, but ‘be within earshot of,’ at least. We headed over to What Stage, which was Beastie Boys Part Two. Sara still had her spot she’d had for Wilco earlier, but we didn’t see how we could get over there. Michael and Jeff joined us at this point, and we added ourselves to the edge of seated people, which kept encroaching further and further into the pedestrian lane by the food stalls. We then spent a good thirty minutes getting stepped on and waiting for Bruce to appear. Some giant, bald, blue collar guys flopped down in front of us. Two of them immediately laid down and went to sleep, but the third (wearing a flesh-toned Spandex shirt, camouflage shorts and a bandana) struck up a conversation with us, about how he slaves all year for the man, just waiting for Bonnaroo, where he can cut loose and just enjoy himself, talk to people, be outdoors. He then sampled a bottle of coke and Peppermint Schnapps that one of us was drinking, and was very impressed. ‘Y’all are wild!’ exclaimed dude. ‘I like y’all, y’all are crazy.’

Bruce took his sweet ass time about coming onstage. He finally started around 9:30 or so, and we stayed for a few songs. I didn’t recognize any of them. I happen to be very familiar with the Tunnel of Love album – in fact, I could probably sing all the songs on it from memory right now. The reason is that Tunnel of Love was one of two tapes my dad possessed when I was a kid (the other being Bonnie Raitt’s Love In the Nick of Time), and we would listen to it on a loop whenever we took a car trip somewhere. Other than that, however, I am only familiar with the big Bruce hits everybody knows.

Bruce Springsteen, and his E Street Band.
Bruce Springsteen, and his E Street Band.
A closer view of Bruce.
A closer view of Bruce.
Bruce, after the crowd thinned out some.
Bruce, after the crowd thinned out some.

To me, Bruce sounded really old and tired and raspy. Sara and Chris report, however, that he played an amazing set, and that it was really long, and in the middle he opened it up to requests and just played whatever people wanted for, like, seven songs.

But I didn’t see any of that, because, as you’ll surely be shocked to hear, Emily, Jason and I left after two songs. When we arrived back at Emily’s house, we found that Freckles had escaped from the stable and returned to the bosom of his family. I had another thoroughly satisfying shower and went to bed.

Sunday

Sunday morning, I awoke to find Emily and Jason once again acclimating Freckles to the porch. Freckles’ dad, the boxer, had followed them back and was standing around suspiciously, scrutinizing his son’s new gig. Once he’d decided what he thought, he lifted his leg and pissed all over the grill. Freckles’ new owners, meanwhile, gave him a giant red meat bone and were vigilant in refusing dad access to it, and that was pretty much all it took for Freckles to rearrange where his loyalties lay. Shortly, the neighbors came by with the mom and two of the siblings, and Freckles pranced around with his bone, displaying everything he’d managed to come into. The puppies turned on each other, suddenly rivals. This drama, with its underlying implications, would have been depressing, except it was enacted by puppies, so it was fucking adorable.

Sara and Chris had not gotten in till after daybreak again, but they’d managed to stop by Wal-Mart, and when they got up, they made pancakes and bacon. (Yeah, that’s right, bitchez! We had bacon three mornings in a row, cause that’s how we roll.) We did try to get moving relatively quickly that morning, because Emily really wanted to see Erykah Badu at 3:30, and Chris wanted to enjoy his first day not having to stay focused and alert to work at midnight. We had a frenetic time getting out of the house, with people running in and out. Emily and I started to leave, then she forgot her wristband (which, by the way, a word on the wristbands: they were meant to be irremovable, but as soon as we got them, everyone else started tugging at theirs so that they could get them on and off. I, on the other hand, tugged mine as tight as it would go, and so was stuck with it all four days. The tails of it were pretty long and between the mud, and the puppies, and the Porta-Pots, and the spilling beer, and the breakfasts with syrup, I was really ready when it finally came time to cut the damn thing off.), so we went back, and then Michael and Jeff were almost ready, and then we might as well take Jason’s truck, and so forth. Eventually, we were on the way, and well before 3:30, Sara, Emily and I were on Sara’s sheet at the same general spot as before, waiting for Erykah Badu to appear.

Today there was no shade, and it was very, very hot. I had worn knee-length denim cut-offs for some reason, and they were soaked with sweat. The sun was so intense, I found it necessarily to reapply my SPF 55 before the concert had even started. Bonnaroo is a very communal sort of festival – you’re offered all kinds of things by those around you, and are supposed to reciprocate in kind. By the time my 55 got back to me, it was empty. Still, the sun. Still, no Erykah. Her band and back-up singers came out one by one, and finally, she appeared, in sunglasses, skin-tight jeans, stilettos, and a hoodie with the hood up. I got heatstroke just looking at her. This time I actually could see the stage, which was a new experience for me, but I still can’t describe the music, although I do remember it, being somewhat familiar with Erykah Badu. Anyway, she was great, to the point where the concert seemed really short to me, which is saying something, as all concerts seem interminable to me, even if I’m really enjoying them. I had actually intended to cut out early, because Andrew Bird was playing at Which Stage, and I’m a big fan of his, but we still managed to catch a few songs. I have some vague awareness that Andrew Bird is recently cool, yes? Which makes me really proud of myself, because I have liked him longer than most people. I saw him open for The Magnetic Fields at a concert at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music (hey, there’s another concert I forgot about!), and thought that he was great. I also liked The Magnetic Fields a lot, but I’ve since gone off them because I read an interview where Stephin Merritt talked a lot about how the lyrics to songs shouldn’t mean anything and none of his do. Which, I know that most music fans don’t really care about lyrics, but I am a verbal person, and I really listen to lyrics. And the thing is, whether you do or don’t care about them much, if you’re a musician and you do choose to have lyrics (you don’t have to have them at all, and lots of bands mostly don’t have them), then shouldn’t they be necessary? Why would you put anything in your music that you don’t really want there? If you are going to have lyrics, commit to them at least is all I’m saying. Anyway, I think Which Stage was too large a venue for Andrew Bird; again, I didn’t feel included.

Andrew Bird.
Andrew Bird.

After that, Emily was ready to go. Phish was headlining that night – we had missed them on Friday and we liked it so well, we thought we’d miss them again. I kind of wanted to hear Neko Case, though, so we headed over to This Tent, where Emily and Jason got involved in a game of frisbee with some folks, and I chased the moving shade. Michael and Jeff joined us shortly, and after awhile Neko Case started to play somewhere over behind the mob of people, but we were pretty much depleted and we left.

And that, more or less, was my Bonnaroo experience. I enjoyed it, although I think I personally would have benefited more from one solid day of bands I really liked, as four days was just too much for me. And I would have liked to be able to actually see some of the bands. But if you want to go to Bonnaroo, I definitely would recommend getting free tickets. Also, a lot of people camp around the festival site, but I would recommend staying in a giant, comfortable nearby house with hot showers, a washer-dryer and a puppy. That’s what I did, and it worked out really well. Also, I’d suggest having a big breakfast cooked for you every morning, because it really helps get you through the first half of the day. Just a few suggestions.

Au revoir!
Au revoir!

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