MANCHESTER, Tenn. — A paper lantern propelled by a live flame floated out of the crowd into the night sky, as I stood on a hill looking down on a swarm of people packed before the main stage at Bonnaroo. The scene was speckled with banners—a concert-going trend that seems to have been around for some time based on the large number of representatives, but something that certainly began long after my more frequent concert-going days had ended years ago. Littered throughout the crowd were poles adorned with flags, placards and balloon figurines, tilting and bouncing with the music. They ran the gamut: Elmo, Bill “the Butcher” Cutting, sock monkeys, horse heads, a Simpsons donut accompanied by an inflatable phallus, Lionel Richie dressed as Waldo (“Is it me you’re looking for?” he asked), Beaker, Hillary Clinton mid-banshee scream, even Left Shark found himself lazily swaying above the fray not far from the, uhh, KFC logo?
The banners floated with the music and I began to think of the dystopian army of marching hammers from The Wall or, better yet, Game of Thrones bannermen—yeah, that’s right. I would ride with Beaker, I thought, because the orange-haired lab assistant muppet had always held a very special place in my heart. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel Beaker would exhibit certain flaws as a commander of men and there was a good chance I would end up dead in a forest, starved and alone. In all likelihood, Elmo would be the smarter play. Elmo with that big grin; Elmo the Indomitable. Elmo would crush those loyal to Lionel-Richie-dressed-as-Waldo at the Battle of Wookie Foot while Elmo himself would eat Richie’s skull with his enormous gaping maw. The house motto: “Hi. I’m Elmo.”
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Hi. I’m Stuart, a 34-year-old father of two and a Nashville native who until this year had never been to Bonnaroo. When Bonnaroo began in 2002, I wasn’t living in Nashville. After I moved back, I always talked myself out of it, because I figured I didn’t want to spend four nights camping and it’d be a waste of money if I didn’t spend four nights camping. Now, friends who might have gone with me in the past gave me answers like, “Sure thing. Let me get back to you,” when I asked them if they had any interest this year. I was determined, however, to do it primarily because I was tired of seeing social media posts about it. Call it a necessary entry on this native Nashvillian’s bucket list. I bought a ticket the first day they went on sale.
About six months later, I still had no one to accompany me. Thus, I was planning to go early Saturday morning, party by myself all day, sleep in my car Saturday night, and drive back Sunday morning, which sounded terrible and would have been. Then, two weeks before it was all scheduled to happen, I was randomly having a beer with an old soccer-playing buddy of mine, Reed. He insisted that I join him and some of his friends. I obliged.
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SHAMANS AND SHARTS
On stage was a white man about my age wearing sunglasses and dressed in a multi-colored dreamcoat with a beard and an enormous mass of hair. He was playing the guitar while dragging out the line, “We are … the inn-o-va-tors. They are … the im-i-tat-ors.” He was Jim James of My Morning Jacket. I knew the song, because I was familiar with the band. I thought at the time that some people can’t necessarily pull off that line. In fact, after seeing the same band perform at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville several years ago and after James brought out a cape and danced around during an encore, I had doubted him and maybe doubted his abilities. But now, all that doubt crumbled away like $10 buffalo flavored bits of chicken mixed with broccoli rabe from a greasy paper plate (a Bonnaroo staple for some, like me). I thought he most definitely could, because, for lack of a better phrase, he was “bringing it.”
I also thought about an idea that Chuck Klosterman posited in Killing Yourself to Live of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke as shaman. The legend is that when writing Kid A Thom Yorke was suffering from writer’s block and would take one line of lyrics, scratch it on a slip of paper, put all the slips in a hat, and then randomly pull them out to write a song. Out of this ritual (and, of course, much time, energy, effort, and outside input), Radiohead created Kid A. Klosterman’s theory was that one could listen to Kid A and read it as an accidental prophecy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which would happen approximately a year after its release. There was nothing clear and obvious, no money shot—and by “money shot” I mean ‘Money’ shot, i.e. Dorothy opening the door to Oz (and color) while the first few bass beats of Pink Floyd’s “Money” start up—but, in hindsight, certain parallels in the album are a little disconcerting: beginning with “Everything in its Right Place” through the “National Anthem” (the attacks) and so on. Klosterman’s theory was that Yorke was a modern-day shaman or medicine man and who created a prophecy through his ritualistic writing process. No one, of course, could interpret his soothsaying at the time, but, in hindsight, Yorke was a visionary.
And I thought Jim James and others—say, Sturgill Simpson, whom I had seen earlier that day—could certainly be considered seers of a sort. Maybe they weren’t predicting world events, but they were their own type of visionary: Sturgill, wearing New Balance and khakis, singing badass old-school country songs to a new audience; or Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes, certainly a musical genius at the very least, who seemed to be operating on a different plane than everyone else; or even Tears for Fears, whom I had seen the night before. They wrote a song that would stay relevant for 30 years, conducting an orchestra of thousands of enthralled fans in 2015.
Wait. Did I just say Tears for Fears were visionaries? Have I mentioned the weed yet?
My Morning Jacket transitioned into “Dondante.” I glanced behind me at that point and noticed an older couple sitting on the ground. I had seen them before but, like so much else at Bonnaroo, the image had skittered past while my brain took its time processing what it was seeing. They looked to be in their 70s, both skinny with grey hair, and both were wearing matching yellow jumpsuits. On both suits was written one word, the name of a website: Shart.com. (For the record, I haven’t been to that website and don’t plan to go and you shouldn’t either.) Yes, shart. Shamans and shart at Bonnaroo.
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Let’s be clear before we get too far gone in bizarre musical theorizing: I actually don’t really know much of anything about music. I am a fan of it, of course, and, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a Roger Waters’ bust tattooed on my lower back, in color, but I have no specialized knowledge, no inside scoop on bands no one has ever heard of, and I don’t play any musical instrument.
I can remember during my freshman year in high school that for some reason I had gone to see 311 on a school night at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym. My buddy Charlie asked me about it the next day. I said “I had fun” and nothing more. I didn’t say, for instance, “311 fucking killed it, y’all, they were sick.” Charlie, though, promptly replied with something along the lines of “like you know anything about music.” Thanks, man. Things boiled over three years later on high school graduation night when a heated debate broke out over the merits of our high school chorus versus the jazz band. Charlie said, “You all just sing sailor songs.” I retorted, “Y’all are just noise, man.” It was intense.
So I’m not a smug music snob and what that means, here in the Music City, is that when a popular band comes into town, I don’t mysteriously end up with decent seats on the eighth row at the Ryman and then act coy about it. Instead, I fight and lose to the bots like everyone else. And so I can’t really provide much critical musical analysis of the bands I saw at Bonnaroo, but I can say that I like artists who seem like visionaries—probably mainstream visionaries, but visionaries nonetheless.
And it doesn’t take Ben Fong-Torres to tell you that when Tears for Fears were covering Radiohead’s “Creep” late Friday night, that was a good place to be.
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BOOKBAGS AND BEER
I was staying at a house about a quarter of a mile from Bonnaroo VIP camping down a Manchester, Tenn., street in a quiet Manchester, Tenn., neighborhood. The farm belonged to the parents of my friend Reed’s friend and, apparently, Reed and others had made it a tradition for the past 10 years to stay there, crashing on an inflatable mattress in the sun room or in an RV or tent in the yard, and go to Bonnaroo. I was happy to join. We spent most of the day at the house, playing basketball and drinking beer. Then after a five-minute four-wheeler trip, we were dropped at a gravel crossroads on the side of Bonnaroo away from the main entrance. In one direction was VIP camping. We would go the other way down a roadway flanked by trees.
A good general rule for Bonnaroo—Rule No. 1—is simply to act like you know what you’re doing. For instance, to even make it to the house off Exit 114, I had to drive past a few Bonnaroo volunteers who were screening cars for VIP passes. The volunteers were almost exclusively young people wasting away under the inevitable beating of the oppressive Middle Tennessee sun. When I drove up Friday midday, one fellow attempted to instruct me that I needed to drive to Starbucks and catch a shuttle in a vendor van. I said, no, I’m going to stay with someone who actually lives here. He didn’t quite get it. So I said again: I am a personal friend of people who live on this street. Oh, they live here? Shoot, go for it. (I was later told “resident” was the secret word.) Then, when I ran into a second volunteer further down the road, he tried to point me again to detour and follow vendor vans to the venue. I just waved him off. Trust me, bro. I’m going this way. OK, you’re good, he replied.
At the gravel crossroads, you do the same thing: give whomever you see a salute, keep walking. (Are we supposed to have VIP passes?) The gravel road to the left is a significant thoroughfare populated in equal measure with heavy trucks and golf carts full of people. As a van conjured up dust in front of us, my friend Reed and one of our festival-going compatriots, both of whom were veterans of the experience, referenced “Bonnaroo Lung”—a mixture of dust, port-a-john air freshener, and whatever you happened to be smoking (intentionally or unintentionally) the night before. We passed an entry point for artist buses on our right before an unnamed entrance directly next to the Which Stage (one of the bigger, open-air stages) appeared with people now moving rapidly in every direction. Always act like you know what you’re doing and walk confidently past anyone at the gate. If you happen to be holding an open beer in your hand at the moment, act like that’s supposed to be happening as well and, if you happen to be lugging a bookbag full of beers, act like you’re supposed to do that too, because beers ain’t cheap inside.
I read a story about a blogger’s experience at Bonnaroo and he was running with this idea that Bonnaroo is so corporate, bro, and is really just a mechanism to shill $10 beers to idiots wearing pine cones or walking around in thongs. I thought that take was a bit harsh, because, I mean, cheap beer? What’d he think this was, The Masters? I’m really not sure how in this day and age in America one would expect a wholesome and pure scene where it was all about music and radiating positivity and no one was trying to sell you anything at all. In fact, hold on, I think it’s worthwhile to take a moment to appreciate the $10 beer here in America. Sure, our society might operate on $10 beer, but you know what it doesn’t operate on? Corruption, i.e. stealing government money to buy yourself a gold umbrella or get an apartment for your cat or soliciting bribes in order to hold a sporting event in a Martian wasteland. In fact, I’ve been proud of America recently. America’s been bringing it. Sure, we still have plenty of our own problems, but I think it’s safe to say that you are far, far more likely to get busted for being a corrupt low-life in America than any other country and, for that matter, by America if you happen to be in any other country. The more I hear about the way the world actually operates in so many other places, the more I appreciate the ability to buy a $10 beer in a field in Manchester, Tenn., while singing “sowing the seeds of love” to all who will listen. You wouldn’t think it’d be that hard to have a functioning society, where people can get their shart on without anyone bothering them, but it seems that not many places actually do it that well.
And, in the end, I didn’t come to Bonnaroo for the Jim Morrison posters, I came for the scene (and for Tears for Fears). And a scene there was.
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SLAYER AND SWEETWATER
A little after My Morning Jacket finished up, some of the main television screens flanking the stage, like a benevolent HAL supercomputer, started to broadcast a public service announcement: “Remember to take time to eat dinner.” Remember to eat food, Stuart; it will help keep you alive. OK, Hal. Good point.
Although Mumford & Sons would be coming on relatively soon, we decided it was pivotal to make the trek across town to see, you know, Slayer. Wait, did I mention the weed yet? Because it’s worth mentioning. Rule No. 2 at Bonnaroo is that, if you own a t-shirt emblazoned with Nicolas Cage’s face or a cat wearing a space helmet, you should wear it. Rule No. 3 is that if you don’t smell weed, you are probably in the wrong place. I would say that it is actually more abnormal not to smell weed than it is to smell weed. If you happen to notice that you don’t smell any weed, you should check to see if you’ve wandered into a neighboring cornfield in the nude or, else, are asleep in a ditch.
Another observation: I thought it fascinating how many people were simply lying on the ground, comatose or asleep, at all hours of the day, all over the park wherever you happened to be. At times, it seemed like one-third of the population of Bonnaroo consisted of nonresponsive humans, positioned side-by-side on the ground. When I was stepping over these bodies on my way through the ever-growing crowd at the main stage, it started to become comical, as if the people on the ground were doing this for my benefit. Thus, I had to meander through a maze of these logs and hope not to slip on one and go tumbling with them, dragged down into Lethe, never to return. Also at night, it seemed like Hal, the beneficent Bonnaroo god, spun the wheel of the entire complex like a Gamemaker, so that nothing was in the same place that it was in the sunlight or the previous night. Suddenly, the walk that previously took us to a Tears for Fears t-shirt vendor now took us to the giant Bonnaroo mushroom fountain—and, oh wait, there’s Slayer.
Slayer was packed, though, and each member of Slayer somehow had a distinctive face that seemed to burn in the satanic glow of their stage lights: the skinhead guitarist who never stopped violently jamming for the 30 minutes we were there or the lead singer who made no expression whatsoever and just growled in a deadpan deadman monotone or the other guitarist rocking the “Kill the Kardashians” t-shirt who looked like he might have just come from a biker brawl. It became apparent quickly that even Slayer was bringing it.
We returned to Mumford & Sons not long after, but Reed has a wild aversion to the band and so we didn’t stay long. His reasoning involved Mr. Mumford’s barfing on stage at the Ryman some time ago or else something about an acoustic house band in hell. Actually, I’m not sure what he said. Things were hazy at that point. After a few catchy tunes, we started to make our way back. Our host picked us up not too far outside the gates and we cruised the half-mile in the pleasant night air. Back at the house, there were plenty of others still up and about, including one couple from Chicago who had bypassed the shows entirely to watch the Blackhawks in Game 5. They were very jovial and we capped the night off with a few Sweetwater 420s. They put on the Ramones. I tried to get my phone to catch a signal to stream the 1983 video of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” but we could only get the first few bops and then, after a long wait, a line or two. We started to sing the first three or four lines—all those faces—and, for some reason, it was hilarious.
I have no idea where Tears for Fears ranks in the canon of 1980s prog rockers or, for that matter, what prog rock is. I do know I felt compelled to listen to “Mad World” that night and still do now. Most music I enjoy seems to inspire something. It inspires me to want to drive a little faster on my way home from work last week (“Hardest Button to Button”). It inspires me to put on Side D of False Priest by Of Montreal and let it just repeat itself again and again when I’m getting ready in the morning. It inspires me to stop and think, wait, did Sturgill just say, “I don’t have to do a goddamn thing but sit around and wait to die?” because that’s an amazing line (“Living the Dream”). It inspires a 34-year-old at his first Bonnaroo to flop around dancing like an inflatable muppet swaying in a non-existent breeze when My Morning Jacket starts those first few beats of “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Part II.” And, in the end, “Mad World” and the rest have already scratched out a long groove on the slowly rotating memory of my trip to Bonnaroo and all I saw there.
Stuart A. Burkhalter is the author of Catawampus: The Fertility Process from a Man’s Perspective, which was named a Finalist in Foreword Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. Stuart is an attorney and lives in Nashville with his wife and two daughters. You can read his previous J&T essays here.
All photos courtesy Getty Images and Burkhalter