Features | Festivals

Bonnaroo 2006, Pt. 1: The Unwashed Weekend: Hippies At Bonnaroo

By Clayton Purdom | 1 August 2006

I'm a tolerant guy. I've been to college; I understand systemic oppression and shit. I went through a socialist phase, and I try to acknowledge -- if not live by -- the unvarying truth that, you know, all people were created equal. And did you see how I wrote people and not men back there? I get this stuff. I feel; I care.

So if some kid is ever unfortunate enough to have me as a father, I think I'd be understanding about the occasional personality hiccups that accompany adolescence. It may upset my seed at the time, but there's really not much he or she could do to truly enrage me. No piercing would shock me irreparably, and no tattoo would mar our relationship. A serious drug problem would be met with understanding and help, not dismissal to a military academy. Problems with the law would net punishment but not condemnation. If my child was a misogynist, I would go to any length to remove the poison from his mind, but I would not reject that mind. If Michael told me he wanted to become Michelle, I would still love him, and I would continue to love him when he became her, in my tolerant, fatherly way. Even if my child went to the greatest lengths of depravity -- a murderer, say, or a pedophile -- my heart would be in shambles, but I would not shun my child.

But if that child came home as a hippy, that fucker'd be dead to me. Forever.

I should note that, by hippie, I don't actually mean hippie. Real hippies sold pot to our parents in the early '70s. The hippies I'm talking about are the ones still clinging feverishly in 2006 to the corpse of a dream no one ever had, part of a scene that celebrates solely itself, circlejerking on bongos, worrying about dreadlocks and carefully consuming enough healthy enzymes and natural proteins to justify their protoveganorganidiet. I'm being unfair, but fuck those kids, right? These are people that actually thought Dennis Kucinich could steer America fair. The counterculture, for all its radical progressive enthusiasm, is carried on by a gaggle of reactionary burnouts, freaky dead-eyed cultural exiles clabbering about how much better things were forty long gone goddamn years ago. The purity of that original idea was, like all great ideas, impossible to pick apart. The drugs, the music, the ceaseless fucking: it was all tied together to some vague ideal that someone at some point decided to call "free love." It seems cute in hindsight, but at the time it was desperate, heartfelt and necessary. That these scrappy, smelly, snooty posey-clad poseurs claim to carry that torch is an embarrassment.

Central to their problem is a ruthless adherence to two directly contradictory ideals. The first is an insistence upon absolute purity -- no pesticides, lattes with soy milk, "McDonald's is the devil," and so on. To justify these stances they quote books they haven't read, articles they skimmed when they were freshmen. The tendency springs from the humanist underpinnings of the original movement, from those that made the unique proclamation that war was, in fact, bad. Why should people kill each other, right? That humanism was already perverted by the time the veterans got back from the jungle to jeering mobs, but today the humanitarian cloth -- already proven too narrow to cover humanity -- is stretched, frayed and tearing, to cover flora and fauna, to preserve the bodily health of the hippie community. Which is all fine by me -- I'll take mine medium rare, but whatever. The problem is that the other hippie ideal is getting totally fucked up, chasing mad bong sessions with booze, loading the brain with chemicals and various poisons, blasting nitrous oxide for woozy wobbling sensations, tripping for days at a time in a constant quest for "a good time." Hippies use "being a hippie" to justify morality and hedonism at the same time. One ideal espouses holier-than-thou responsibility, the other feckless, giddy self-destruction. They've read Noam Chomsky, now pass the whippits.

Four years at a liberal college in the middle of nowhere has taught me to hold my breath when I pass the Croc-clad hemp set, if only because, yeah, they actually do smell, and they're kinda unabashed about it. Am I bigoted? Yeah, but it's not like these hippies have ever been oppressed, so I can't say I feel bad about my blanket rejection of them. Besides, they take one look at my kitschy t-shirt and pin me as the elitist indie snob I am, and we shoot mind bullets at one another from across Sociology class. I don't ever want any hippies as my friend, and they don't ever want me as one of theirs, and we can feed off this for hours. My name is Clayton Purdom, and I hate hippies.

And Scott Reid, CMG's noble, harried editor-in-chief, knowing this, sent me to Bonnaroo, a hipster match into an ocean of peace-loving gasoline.

*****

It wasn't supposed to be bad. Since the first Bonnaroo in 2002, the promoters slowly widened their scope, moving from the ultimate jam festival to a more indie-friendly megafest. By 2005, they'd learned to temper Dave Matthews and Widespread Panic headliners with Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon ones, and by doing so they'd begun giving more fans reasons to make the pilgrimage and exposing hippies -- those bastions of tastelessness -- to some decent music. Nevertheless, it was shocking that when the press announcement dust settled, Bonnaroo ended up with the best festival lineup in North America this summer: My Morning Jacket, Sonic Youth, Bright Eyes, Beck, and, holy-fucking-shit, the long-absent Radiohead. Bonnaroo had stopped dangling its legs in the water of respectable, non-jam music, and leapt right in, recruiting a list of bona fide indie superstars. A Common/Blackalicious/Lyrics Born triple bill promised to be the whitest blunt session in history. One look at the artist list and I was down. I expected, if not an even mix of hippies and, you know, normal people, to at least encounter a healthy smattering of logical persons. My suppositions were encouraged when an arch-hippie hanging around the coffee shop I worked at sneered, "I'd never go to Bonnaroo now." Fine by me.

But the soul-crushing length of the traffic jam to get in put me in bad spirits, and then a dusty red truck with a Grateful Dead sticker across the windshield pulled up next to my ride. "The cops confiscated all our weed," one of the two hippies moaned, getting out. He looked like a goat herder. "The pigs are total dicks in Tennessee." The other hippie in the truck was from Tucson, and punctuated almost every full subject-verb clause that came out of his mouth with the nonquestion, "right?" The goat herder eyed the plastic traveler of Black Velvet I was swigging from. "You're really going to town on that, huh?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said, grimacing from another shot in my post roadtrip victory binge. "I'm finta get hateful."

After a second, he laughed nervously. "Right," he moaned. "Hateful." The concept seemed distasteful to him.

They were there to see Phil Lesh, Sunday night's headliner. They did not like Radiohead, and on Saturday night, when I would return from the Radiohead show, ebullient and conversational, they would just be waking up from a nap, completely unaware. When I mentioned that My Morning Jacket was playing after the Tom Petty show, they said they were heading to the aforementioned hip-hop triple bill. When I said I didn't like any of those artists that much, one explained, "Well, I'm really into hip-hop, right," as if that explained that, and I was missing something. While I was sure they were Jurassic Five fans, I decided not to press the subject. I didn't know what exactly an angry hippie was capable of, but some sort of hex seemed like a very real possibility. I was determined to stay polite -- to start conversations, to be inoffensive, to observe. I was, after all, on assignment.

But my prejudices became harder to suppress as I headed down toward the stages. The path was lined with makeshift tents peddling baubles -- ornate bubblers, vegan gyros, Bob Marley t-shirts, etc. By the end of the weekend, this marketplace would literally be full of shit, the nearby port-o-potties somehow seeping through the ground and clumping to the bottom of my increasingly dispirited Doc Martens. This marketplace was a hotbed of unsanctioned, hoarse-voiced salesmen offering Jaeger bombs ($5), cups of melted ice ($2), and cigarettes ($5). Here was my first glance at the seething mob, and it galled me. My predictions were wrong; there was no quaint cultural mix here; there were hippies everywhere, crawling out of vans, inspecting stash holders, giggling, dancing, eating trail mix, everywhere hippie things all around me in a blurring, lamp-lit bazaar. I was the last sane man alive.

Such a gathering of hippies necessitated a mass confluence of the nation's drug supply, and, indeed, drugs were plentiful at Bonnaroo. The hippies, as I had suspected, would tolerate nothing less. Those that knew the proper steps could pick up any drug imaginable. The protocol was as follows:

1) Leave your tent.
2) Find a sweaty guy wearing a fanny pack.
3) Buy drugs from him.

I got offered so much random shit -- special K? people still do that? -- that by Sunday I was offering people crack, just as a logical extension of the illogical excess of the entire affair. Drug deals lined the main street, and in the desert of tents there were people wandering around with balloons of nitrous oxide, while others made no attempt to hide the hyped-up snorts coming from their tents, and sweaty fanny-packed men approached campers with acid, mushrooms, hash, blow, and, on rare occasions, some pot. Apparently everyone assumed everyone else was going to bring the weed, and it became something of a commodity, with desperate hippies walking down the main street demanding offers ("Who's got my headies? Who's got my headies"). Nevertheless, pot's acrid, skunky smell was ubiquitous, mixing with the kicked-up dust and forming a dense, sentient fog. Smoking pot was merely a formality; the contact buzz was unavoidable.

When I finally got offered a drug I had some interest in taking -- a decent-sized stick of opium, from a sopping hog yelling about yayo -- I snatched it up, and proceeded to smoke it with the honorable Matt Stephens and his crew. I was working on depleting the previous night's Black Velvet when some kid offered us mushrooms, and Matt's posse bought some, so I took some of that, too. We heard Tom Petty warbling half a mile away while we sat cloistering ourselves and following that second tenant of hippiedom, getting royally screwed up and giggling about it. We were waiting for My Morning Jacket's set, which started at midnight at the cutely named That Tent (counterpart of This Tent and The Other Tent). We waded through the throngs at quarter till in hopes of meeting Dom, but the thousands amassed at That Tent left no hope of this. The back of the crowd was far too far, so we pushed up and through, the mushrooms slowly wrapping from the back of my head around the corners of my vision, the opium a faint fuzz, and all of a sudden an endless compulsion to smoke cigarettes, to ground myself with nicotine while the enormous drug cocktail I was pulled the opposite direction. A tug of war ensued, and the mushrooms won.

When "Wordless Chorus" started, someone on the lefthand side of the stage started throwing tiny glowsticks -- hundreds of them, in fact, and they left long lines of luminance streaked against the darkness. I was hysterical. It occurred to me that I was very, very fucked up. Matt was on about the same page, and at some point soon The Fear overtook. "I've had enough of this, man," he said. "I gotta go." He and his friends left me on my own. What they left me on my own against was a seven-headed monster, a clabbering gnawing spitting hairy bloodthirsty infinite beast that ripped the audience to shreds. My Morning Jacket played for an hour and a half -- by the time they left the stage, I had already peaked on the mushrooms and come safely back down, and I was exhausted and covered in sweat and in awe, and the anticipation before the concert had turned into "Wow, this is everything I thought it was going to be," to "Christ, this is better," to "Is this the best concert I've ever seen?" to the absolute certainty that I was watching a great live band determined to put on the best show of its career. But shortly after they left the stage, something strange and holy happened: they came back out, and started playing again, starting with a few earth-shaking covers (The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Misfits) and then ceaselessly battering away until "Run-Thru" sent the few hundred remaining audience members staggering home at three in the morning. They played with the tightness of a great metal outfit, and the fury of the best punk rock, but with the dexterity and longevity of a jam band; it was a physically exhausting show to watch, and just being there required a mental toughness I had to summon from somewhere guttural.

Never before have I been confronted by rock and roll like that, not as something to live by or an idea to adhere to but as an actual physical act, sweated out, second by excruciating second, for over three hours. It was an endurance match, a challenge from the band: who can stay with us while we do this? When the lights came back on, after three hours, the audience had been silently pleading the band to both stay forever and to just fucking stop, to give up whatever vendetta they had against us and let us get some sleep. But they refused; Jim James (if that's what the singing head calls itself, I'm certain the name is some extraterrestrial in-joke) hopped between band members, whispering secret instructions, unrelenting, calling forth more demons. It was flawless. There was never a hitch, and the word "dynamic" doesn't begin to describe the thunderous spirit they conjured, like starting "I Will Sing You Songs" with miasmic patience and making painful logic out of the off-kilter Z experiments. I was tired; I was hot; I had done a lot of drugs. I wanted nothing more than to fall against the ground and rest, but I knew I couldn't. That My Morning Jacket set was bigger than me, and in a show of the type of gutless hyperbole I try to shun as a critic, I'll admit that I don't ever expect to witness music like that again in my life.

And here's the thing: they did it at Bonnaroo. During the scant intrasong banter, James would quietly thank the audience for coming out, and gush -- if momentarily -- about Bonnaroo. He would also claim that they had built the nearby Ferris wheel as a token of gratitude, but whatever. The set was too much. The band's affection for the festival was obvious.

It got me thinking.

*****

"It's a little early for a rock and roll show," Conor Oberst sneered earlier that day during his sun-baked set on the second stage. But as he paraded out guests -- a pre-ascension Jim James, an acoustic Gruff Rhys, uh, Gillian Welch -- he let down his guard. When he ran out of songs early, he thanked Bonnaroo for being the first festival to ever actually give him too much time. Eventually he'd recant his earlier surliness. "The tequila's working," he'd explain, but then add, quietly, "and the sun's working, and you guys are working."

Cat Power's electrifyingly fragile set followed the same odd arc. She came out late, the Memphis Rhythm Band buying desperate time, approaching the stage as a mess of nervous dances (the chicken walk, namely) and cringing hand twitches. She fussed with her bangs, got encouraged by the crowd, did five seconds of soul-buttering gyration, got discouraged, scurried back to the mic, kept singing; she checked the band, fiddled with the mic, smiled, frowned, looked around. The performance was a fiasco, to be sure, but impossible to turn away from, and for all Chan Marshall's vulnerability her band possessed an assassin's cool. The audience, literally terrified of hurting her feelings, clapped encouragingly after every song -- not just because the applause had a physical effect on Marshall, eliciting an unchecked (lovely) grin, but also because she seemed stretched above an abyss, and to sing with such smoky tenderness while walking a tightrope deserved an enthusiastic reaction. When the band left, and her allotted set time was over, she stayed on stage, miraculously comfortable, lulled away from her spastic insecurity. She seemed unwilling to give up the crowd she held so rapt. The desperate sexiness of her uber-minimalist cover of "Hit the Road, Jack" was worth sticking around for by itself.

Throughout the weekend this trend played out -- Thom Yorke joked, "Here's a new song you can all zone out to. But it's Bonnaroo, I guess I should expect that," but later enthused, "This is what we call a festival," and, by the end, even he joined in on the party, launching a few of the crowd's glowsticks back into the mob to riotous applause. It struck me that most festivals must suck for artists -- paltry set lengths to largely unfeeling crowds in sweltering heat, most of the multitude fuming over $10 brats and the $35 it cost to get drunk on flat Bud Light. The artists came to Bonnaroo expecting all that and worse -- and by worse, I mean hippies -- but all (except Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who just came off as dicks, and Dungen, who sucked) ended up expressing some earnest change of heart. What could account for this? What was Bonnaroo doing differently? It came down to two words: good vibes.

Believe me when I say that a little piece of me died in typing those two words, the most nebulous, heinous and overused in the hippie lexicon. Generally, hippies bemoan a lack of these vibes, calling in times of turmoil for more good ones and offering as the utmost insult that a person radiates bad ones. This always seemed, to me, the absurd height of the hippie's pseudo-belief structure -- not even as solidified in concept as karma (another abused notion, though), good vibes were like those "neutralizer" sprays that you buy and then spray in a room that smells bad, and what the spray does is not smell like anything, so then, in theory, your room smells like nothing, but actually it just smells like nothing and cat food. Vibes aren't real, but my wallet is, and stealing it does not make those nonexistent vibes wiggle positively or negatively, because they can't wiggle. Because they don't exist.

But at Bonnaroo, backed by the force of 80,000 unwashed believers, good vibes were real, if only because the hippies willed it to be so. The dude with the clipboard (if you were there, you know the one) always asked everyone to pick up trash and help keep the good vibes. Occasionally, this mere mention of good vibes would elicit applause -- a ridiculous reaction, right, but then people would stoop over to pick up the melting water bottles and cigarette butts. On a few occasions, swept up in the spirit of the moment, I even found myself recycling. That's some shit I don't just do; something was afoot. I came with a constant plan of caution, where to keep my wallet, where to stash my camera, etc., but this was moot: no one was gonna steal my shit. And if they tried to, someone would stop them. And if they succeeded, well, bad vibes on them.

At the time, it kinda made sense. Maybe it was just a lingering flashback from that feeble, ardent socialist phase, but by the time I woke up in a puddle of sweat on Saturday morning, my ears still ringing from the end of "Roll-Thru," I had lowered my guard. If everyone was there to get fucked up and enjoy the music, and everyone entered into that one general agreement -- that is, the proliferation of good vibes -- the weekend would be kind of perfect. If we stopped fighting and thinking about ourselves, and started helping one another out, our own situations would invariably get better, because instead of just me looking out for myself I'd have a crew of 80,000 doing it.

And it was right then, when I thought those thoughts, and I believed them, and I decided that for the rest of the weekend it would only make sense for me to just give in to that wide-winged spirit, that I, despite my kitschy t-shirt and no-care stare, became a hippie. A smelly, peace-loving, goddamn hippie.

It felt . alright.

*****

Musically, things went downhill after the MMJ show. Radiohead were, well, Radiohead, but my experience was marred by the braying, tone-deaf jackass behind me. It didn't matter though. Nothing did: Once I submitted to the hippie undertow, I had nothing left to do but enjoy myself and scoff at those that didn't quite get it yet, still flapping around at the water's surface. In fact, that's when I realized something horrifying and new had taken place: I could pick the real hippies from the poseurs. The fake ones that threw on a flowery dress and headed down to Tennessee were hopelessly out of their element, gathering in clumps and scurrying out of shows early for some dumbshit reason or another ("It's too hot," et al). The real hippies, like the sweltering hermaphrodite Sasquatch that wobbled next to me during (you guessed it) MMJ, were the closest to my mindset, foregoing any bodily need for total musical consumption. Did the drugs matter? I'm more apt to think that MMJ made the drugs good rather than vice versa (the astounding bootlegs support this case), but who really knows what made the moment(s) the finest in my career as a music fan? I was being dragged underwater; I couldn't make out the precise formation of the waves.

The Problem With Hippies, then, isn't so simple. I can't just flay the lifestyle; I emerged from the mud and fog of the weekend with nothing but a sheepish grin and a stomach full of fried chicken; the lifestyle worked beautifully for me. The real Problem is twofold.

Hippie Problem #1: They overextend the magic.

The spirit spread wide and blessed the Bonnaroo weekend, but hippies forget the immense headache of getting there, the machinations involved in making that dream happen. We paid lots of money, for tickets and food and gas and drugs, and that money came from weeks working our shitty coffeeshop/Sam's Club/school library jobs. Good vibes are expensive. Hippies seem to think that the success of a weekend like Bonnaroo means that we could live like that forever, but I don't have money to smoke opium and do mushrooms all year, and I can't finagle Radiohead and Sonic Youth to hang out and play forever. And I wouldn't want to live like that. Bonnaroo worked not as an example of how communal the rest of our lives could be; it worked as an example of how much fun a single weekend could be. Hippies miss this point and attempt to take that mindset out into the real world, where their bosses would just like them to take a goddamn shower but they can't believe what a square he is, how he doesn't "get it." The hippies are at fault in this scenario.

Hippie Problem #2: They have terrible taste.

Seems pretty obvious, really, but if hippies had good taste, the lifestyle would be somewhat worthwhile. Why, if one could choose between seeing Death Cab for Cutie, Cat Power or Robert Randolph, would anybody go watch Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder? "Seeing" certain members of certain bands -- all of whom are on a first-name basis with the fans, apparently, with whispers of "Trey" and "Les" abounding -- seemed more important than actually liking the band. Obviously, music is better live than recorded, but the idolatry heaved toward such tepid wankery remained unexplainable -- except, of course, by bad taste. Bands like Oysterhead suck unequivocally. Hippies like them because they don't know that they're bad, and this is because they have bad taste. They're not really into music that much; what they're into is being into music.

What Bonnaroo does, then, is expose these tasteless cultural sheep to at least some good music. I'm sure Blues Traveler got a good crowd, what with their harmonica-playing-fat-guy appeal, but I bet Beck's multimedia roboparty got a better one on the main stage. Perhaps the kindly bearded kid I discussed CYHSY with before the show ended up being a convert. I hope so. The promotion of good vibes was a benevolent gesture, but perhaps the greatest example of the Bonnaroo Gods' good will is their abundant willingness to turn hippies on to something -- anything -- of artistic quality. It's as if to offer a stick to the hippies sinking in cultural muck, the promoters first had to step in the mud themselves; this theory explains all the moe. on their boots. Maybe someday, through patience and understanding, hippies will see the light. Maybe someday they'll stop giving a shit about the Grateful Dead.

One can dream. For all my sermonizing and postulating, I'll admit that I'm still the same ol' hater. Do hippies still suck, Clay? Of course. But here's where I was wrong: there are different degrees and qualities of hippies, different areas of enthusiasm and expertise, different faults and pedigrees. Hippies are people, too, and they comprise a scene just like any other. Like we burn last year's bands and out-snoot one another, they cherish long-dead quasi-icons and refuse to intellectually engage one another, just agreeing to one another's points about Dennis Kucinich and the superiority of European culture and, I dunno, drum solos and enzymes and shit. Yeah, I'll still minimize them to make a joke. Yeah, I'll still shake off some bad vibes in the future. But to all the hippies I've ever abused, held my nose at, kicked, criticized, pointed at, or pointedly ignored, I'll not apologize, but I will offer this:

I "get it." Truce.