Features | Festivals

Bonnaroo 2009, Pt. 2: The Springsteen-Reznor Contrast

By Eric Sams | 13 July 2009

I’ve spent a little over three years now—the last three—discovering with astonished bemusement how I’m apt to react to circumstances of extreme stress. The reactions have ranged from not atypical nervous habits (I incessantly pull out hair from the crown of my scalp one coarse, ruddy strand at a time), to fever dreams (I missed the exam!), to full on dementia (like the time I snapped out of a journey to the middle distance to find myself standing on my bed vacuuming the sheets). And now preparation for the bar exam has me obsessed—obsessed—with the concept binary of success and failure. I interpose it everywhere. I cannot see an item, person, or set of circumstances without unconsciously swaddling it in preconception and tucking it into its designated slot on one side of the hyphen or the other.

See, I shouldn’t have gone to Bonnaroo. I didn’t have time for Bonnaroo. And not in the neo-yuppie, self-aggrandizing, “OMG-I’m-so-busy” Twitter post kind of way. I have a very specific Biblical Plague descending on my head on a very specific day with an inexorability that floods my veins with a saline chill. I feel it now, as my rapidly numbing fingers type this sentence. I am not prepared. I will not succeed. I will fail. I apologize, Clay, for misleading you. I cannot accompany you to Bonnaroo this year.

So imagine my surprise at finding myself in a traffic jam on a dirt road in Manchester, bumping Cam’ron’s venial “Curve” and finishing the last of my fifth McDonald’s sausage Mcmuffin of the day. I don’t eat McDonalds. I was smoking a Pall Mall Blue. I quit smoking two years ago. We were pungent and sticky with sweat even before entering a 72-hour stretch in which thoughts of a shower were laughably quaint. The arthritic tape recorder I had packed to capture Clay’s and my effortlessly cogent witticisms came up broken just as we pulled in amongst the brood of overly excited townies staffing the security checkpoint.

“This is fail, kid.” I could not tear the thought from my vibrating skull.

“Nah. Curve, trick.” Cam’ron spat at me, contemptuously unmoved by my wankster hand-wringing. One of us was going to have to drastically change our outlook on shit.

That the rest of my Bonnaroo comes to me now as a single bright-gray, boozy, experiential mélange—until the moment when we pulled out and identical panicky thoughts staged a comeback with renewed strength—is evidence that it was I who gave in. And the jittery, ticklish worm of exhaustion still inching up my spine to its home at the base of my skull speaks to the depth and violence of my plunge. I mean, I had a Malcolm Gladwell book in my backpack, for God’s sake.

Certainly, snatching thin minutes of sleep at a time from the sweltering blanket of a Tennessee June will kick a ragged hole through just about any neat dichotomous worldview you’ve got set up. Especially if it’s one that your diseased brain has foisted upon you as a frantic levee against tsunami washes of information. Bonnaroo is not about information. There is none to be had, none desired, none that could add meaning to the shuffling, log-jammed voyages from stage to tent to car to corndog and back to stage again. Without information there can be no evaluation. Bonnaroo knows this. Its planners, secreted away in the intergalactic void of some sepia bygone age, recognized the maelstrom they had created quadrisecting the barren expanse into four fatuous hippie obfuscations: This, That, What, and Which. Each statement an inquiry, and vice versa. Somewhere Bud Abbott and Lou Costello roll mournfully in their graves.

Clay, who has attended before, will tell you that the “spirit” of Bonnaroo, for good or ill, has a lot to do with that specific plot of Manchester acreage. For my part as a noob, I can say this: I have absolutely never been a part of an event so conducive to and so inextricably interwoven with the use of illicit drugs. It wrongfoots you. Or at least it wrongfooted me, immediately. What was this, this open-air drug bazaar? An embarrassingly conservative faction in me leaned toward slotting the phenomenon immediately into the “fail” side of the ledger, but it wouldn’t fit comfortably there. It was, in an odd way, an unqualified success, audacious and efficient. But the vacant smiles of those calmly stumbling to and from the sweaty, leering peddlers stopped me from classifying it in the “success” camp. Like so many other things at Bonnaroo it was just happening, unremarked upon, unchecked, and unaided.

And that, as they say, is the thing; the lit M-80 embedded directly into the fulcrum of the teeter-totter in my brain. How can one measure it? How can one classify it with any confidence whatsoever? It is simultaneously too much and too little. It is an awkward amalgam of culture and counterculture where the goals of neither are advanced, or even acknowledged. It is a society in miniature with no social imperatives that somehow functions nonetheless. Nothing agreed upon; nothing debated.

Because you certainly don’t succeed at anything during Bonnaroo. You don’t fail either. Or at least that’s unquestionably the way it seems, even though you’re clearly and constantly doing both. It’s the heat and the mud and the music and the miasma of weed smoke and the throngs of flotsam gliding by on the nonexistent breeze that raises bumps on the skin of your arms that makes it impossible to tell which is which at the time. Then from that congested bottleneck spring the open pastures of “who-gives-a-fuck,” and things begin to crumble hilariously around you. It is to this point—walking back to your car after the Beastie Boys set in a light rain, waiting for your accidental dose to hit—that you were intended to arrive; and you will get there; and it will not take you long.

Once you’re past this point, the fact that Bonnaroo is a gathering ostensibly dedicated to the proliferation of music seems strangely incidental. But upon sober reflection the syllogism is blindingly obvious. Inevitable. As much as we don’t like to admit it as critics, music’s principal offering is the Great In-Between. The Blessed Subjective. That subjectivity only multiplies when you jam so much music, so many musicians, and so many devotees and hippies and scenesters and quasi-journalists into the tall grass of a space the size of several football fields. Don’t want to hear Andrew Bird? Start walking to another stage. That piercing whistle will die out soon enough. It will dissipate in the frequency of a gaggle of barely-clad 20-something-ettes collectively reliving each spastic ramble of the Dillinger Escape Plan set. There may not be something here to please everyone, but there’s definitely something here to please everyone who showed up.

With that groundwork so carefully laid, the process of attraction and avoidance is so basic, so intuitive, that you can hardly fail to be pulled along by the simple gravity of your tastes. Conversely, having navigated your course (mercifully escaping all but a few eardrum-puncturing bars of butterfuck from the Choral Reefers) you can barely consider yourself a success. You just do it, almost with out realizing that you’ve done it. You do it because you’ve hit and passed the point where you stopped asking questions about this shit.

And this primal, unfettered emphasis on just being at Bonnaroo is what made what I’ll refer to as the “Springsteen-Reznor Contrast of ’09” so jarring both at the time and in retrospect. I don’t need to spill much ink on the Springsteen side of this contrast; Clay has more than ably described the scene. I’ll say only what every other person present would say if they were being honest: I personally witnessed Bruce Springsteen play music, but I did not attend a Bruce Springsteen concert. The previous sentence doesn’t mean to me what it means to Clay. To me, it means only that at some point during all that sweaty flailing a single word was raucously reborn in my consciousness, 100-feet tall, tumescent and radiant with neon light: FAIL. It was clear that Bruce and the gang had come to rock this crowd, and there’s really only one word that accurately captures that intent being met by throngs of people literally sleeping through your set. That word is fail.

Immediately after (read: during) the Boss debacle, Clay and I departed for greener (read: more shadowy, dissolute) pastures, heading over to where a crowd had already gathered to await the NIN show. This crowd was large. It had amassed over an hour-and-a-half before the show started. It had amassed while Bruce “fucking” Springsteen continued to strive mightily and in vain 400 yards away. And there were so many reasons why that soft, white nothing of cynicism and indifference should have raised itself up and lumbered across that 400-yard expanse. After all, as Clay has accurately observed, that nothing was us. Then one of two things happened, and I’m honestly not sure which one. Either people legitimately shook off their lethargy and got hype for the actual experience of Trent Reznor’s laser light show, or Trent’s cheesy nihilism harnessed that big, dumb, self-awareness and used it as the source material for a kind of joyously pointless fury.

Like I said, I can’t be certain, but I tend to think it was that second thing that happened. Even though our reactions to those two performances were diametrically opposed, I don’t think our attitudes changed in any material way in the hour or so between shows. I don’t think it was us who changed at all. We were simply exposed, in a short period of time, to a tandem of musicians who had both become seminal for very different reasons. Bruce wanted us to believe in something, to experience his Boss-ness collectively. I shit you not, the motherfucker asked us to “build a house of love.” Trent did not ask us to believe. Trent did not ask us for shit. Trent was content to watch us throw ourselves into one another.

We did this because, though we were standing in a crowd, we were not a crowd. We weren’t anything. I spent all my time shoving myself away from the guy in front of me or the girl to my left, creating a space for myself and being shoved in turn by those attempting to do the exact same. I can tell you there were no houses being built in front of that stage. Not of love or any other material. If anything we were struggling against each other, and Trent was well pleased with this result. That’s what we were supposed to do.

“This is my house of love, you sweaty, ironic-beard-sporting shitbird. Get the fuck out.”

I’m not sure exactly what this means; the fact that we respond so much more strongly to dissociative stimuli. I only know that it’s true. There can be no stronger evidence for the phenomenon than the Springsteen-Reznor Contrast of ’09. Clay may be right. These may be the presenting symptoms of a lost generation. There certainly does seem to be a self-canceling aspect to the broad diffusion or our opinions. We’re on every side of every issue. It may have seemed so at the time but looking back I’m not sure Bonnaroo was solidly in either camp: Springsteen or Reznor. Our varied reaction was the function of one asking us to commit to something—to join in service of it—and the other one not giving a fuck. We aren’t success. We aren’t fail. We aren’t Springsteen or Reznor. We are the hyphen in the middle.


“Smith,” your children will not call you father. You have not made honest dealing a cornerstone of your life, nor even a stumbling block, and the remaining scores of years left to you will serve only to publicly display the yield of such black deceit. You will draw your last breath in the company of strangers. Strangers who will sigh deeply before expending the effort to proffer you aid. You are a fraction of a man, and I pray fervently that we meet again someday so that I might survey the shuffling trail you’ve made from that moment to this, and view stretched out before you the same shuffling trail toward a blank horizon where lies, implacably, your ignominious demise.