cover_story (2006-25)

Jack Rentfro (left) and Jack Neely

“Bonnaroo!” For a word that’s not in the dictionary, it’s doing pretty well. People chant it from the tops of RVs; people wear it on T-shirts, paint it on their cars, and on their flesh.

Bonnaroo is, of course, the four-day music festival held in Coffee County, at Manchester, Tennessee. It is something to behold.

This year, the lineup of bands was more impressive than ever: Beck, whom some consider the musical genius of his generation; Elvis Costello, the punk icon who has remained relevant for 30 years without changing the soul of his music; Radiohead, the British neopsychedelic aeronauts; Tom Petty, the hitmaker of the ‘70s and ‘80s; Bonnie Raitt, Sonic Youth. Lots of younger, trendier bands, with intuitive names, My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie, Rusted Root, the Disco Biscuits, moe. [sic], Electric Eel Shock.

In previous years, I have thought of Bonnaroo as something you enjoy at younger, stinkier ages. Last year, I was surprised to hear some people my age were regulars, and suffered the first prickling anxieties that I might be next.

When we were young, the giant rock festival, the thing where kids sleep in the mud to see lots of electric rock bands, was a thing of the past. When we were teenagers, Woodstock was already a legend, something never to be duplicated. Altamont was also a legend, and a tragedy, and the sign there shall be no more big rock festivals ever. I saw Gimme Shelter at the student union. As kids, we knew what kids without sufficient adult supervision did. Put that many of us in one big field, give us some drugs, and some crazy music, and we’re going to start killing each other.

Altamont was the rock’n’roll version of Lord of the Flies . We would henceforward be content to hear rock music mostly indoors. By the time arrogant kids younger than we were, kids who’d probably never even seen Gimme Shelter , started going to rock festivals again named Lollapalooza or Lilith Fair, Jack and I had jobs and mortgages and responsibilities.

Out of nowhere, though, Jack wanted to go this year. He’s a little older than I am, barely old enough to have credibly fallen under the Hippie umbrella. (Last month he organized a very successful birthday commemoration for Bob Dylan.) We’ve been pals since UT Daily Beacon days, sometime during the Carter administration. We hadn’t made a road trip since a drive to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Georgia in the ‘80s.

We were going to Bonnaroo in 2006. Our working title for the tongue-in-cheek project was, “You Call That Music?” It turned out to be something different than the program we had in mind.

As the crow flies, Manchester is barely 100 miles west by southwest of Knoxville. By the recommended route via the interstate, which takes you through Chattanooga and dips into North Georgia, the drive is nearly 200 miles.

By state roads you can pick your way along the more direct route, which we intended to do, but we got a late start Thursday night; in the dark, and uncertain about directions, we wimped out and took the interstate. When we stopped for gas at Manchester, we found a filling station doing big business in pre-ruined straw cowboy hats. They would be the uniform Bonnaroo headwear.

We got there just too late for check in at the Will Call office, which was set up in a radio station called Fantasy 101 which was located in an old upholstery shop near downtown Manchester. It was closed until 7 a.m.

So, a couple of middleaged guys in a small-town parking lot at 3 in the morning. We parked Rentfro’s Honda Element next to the condemned ruins of a house behind the radio station, sat in the front seat and dozed. We weren’t alone. A few dozen kids around us didn’t have much use for sleep. Several of them had RVs with plates from Midwestern states, and presumably actual beds, but they loomed around outside, talking. They all had long hair, and some of the boys had beards. They looked for all the world like the hippies of our youth, and the music they blasted from their car stereos was Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. We should have told them to turn down that racket so we could get some shuteye, but we didn’t have the heart.

We had gone through the official channels to get press credentials. We filled out a form, had our editor approve it, then waited the two weeks. We were notified by e-mail by an excitable-sounding publicity organization called Big Hassle.

Bleary and dizzy with lack of sleep, we were the oldest guys in line on the sidewalk at 7 a.m. to get our tickets and press wristbands. We drove to the site.

There are some questions about the town’s origins. Manchester was established as the county seat of the newly formed Coffee County in 1836, but scant evidence suggests there was a place called Manchester, with a very early cotton mill, somewhere around there as early as 1791. The lore is that Manchester was named for England’s Manchester, in hopes that the waterpower would make it an industrial city.

But Manchester is most famous for something much older than that ephemeral cotton mill. Just a couple of miles from Bonnaroo is something called the Old Stone Fort. In the woods between the Duck River and the Little Duck, an enclosure of steep mounded rock and earth surrounds a 50-acre meadow. Over the years, various writers have attributed the weird heaps to the pre-Columbian Welsh prince Madoc, to lost tribes of Israel, even Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, who was somewhere around here in the 1540s.

UT archaeologist Charles Faulkner, who has studied the ruins, is convinced they’re all wrong. He says it was built by Native Americans 2,000 years ago, over a period of generations. He doesn’t know why they built it. Though there are spectral stories of careless archaeologists of former eras digging into the walls and finding human remains, there’s no positive evidence that anyone ever lived within it, or that it was used as a fortification. It remains a dumbfounding mystery.

But it was famous even 200 years ago, when a guy named Eastland ran the Old Stone Fort Tavern here. By some accounts, the town of Manchester evolved out of the businesses that clustered around the Old Stone Fort.

Rentfro and I went there and walked the cobwebby perimeter early in the morning, to give us some perspective. “Many a time Forrest and his boys had a time trying to cross the swollen Duck,” said Rentfro. He is the only person in the world who would have said that.

Pausing by a gorgeous green pool under a series of waterfalls in the Duck, he speculated about jumping into it after three days at a rock festival. “If the hippies find this place,” he adds ruefully, “they’ll ruin it.”

It slowly dawned on us that, after the application and the wait and final approval, that agents for a weekly paper in Knoxville deserve only the most minimal of press credentials.

Rentfro was disappointed, and getting hazardously cranky. “I’m ready to drive back to Knoxville,” he said. I believed him. Convinced he might drive away with all my gear at any moment, I walked around trying to find out who was in charge.

It was a chaos, like a regimental staging area in a movie about World War II: trucks, limousines, golf carts racing recklessly back and forth across the gravel and mud like jeeps. Logistically, in feeding 80,000 people, Bonnaroo is like throwing a war. Except quicker than most wars.

We went back to the press compound, and at some point, something turned. A woman with the press-credentialing organization took pity on us; she told us we’d have to leave the site, go to a Holiday Inn on the interstate, get a decal and some different wristbands, and come back.

“Okay,” Rentfro said. “But if this doesn’t work, I’m gone.”

It worked, but by the time we made it back, that camping area was full, and the scheduled press orientation was over. We camped in an area several hundred yards away called Overflow Guest Camping. Beyond our marginal “guest” status, if we had any special privileges, we never learned what they were.

Except for the distance, though, there wasn’t a better campsite in Coffee County. We parked at the treeline, Jack set up the back of the Element as a bedroom, and I pitched my tent back in the woods, near a creek bed. I fancied myself clever and bold.

Sleeping alone in the woods was not what you expect at Bonnaroo, but it suited me fine. By nightfall, though, a dozen more tents had popped up around mine, like mushrooms.

Volkswagen sponsors a “garage,” and, fittingly enough, every time I walked by, there was a garage band playing in the garage, and people playing basketball using the hoop. At the “Silent Disco,” dancers with headsets can dance to music no one else can hear; it’s said to be surreal.

Bonnaroo is set up in different regions; two large fields form natural amphitheaters; the biggest shows are there.

The medium-sized stages are called tents, even though they’re steel-roofed enclosures, each like a warehouse without walls. They’re named with an Abbott and Costello madness. This Tent is opposite That Tent. The Other Tent is over in the corner. The large, grassy amphitheaters are called the Which Stage and the What Stage—though most people, I found, called the What Stage the Main Stage.

It seems to be set up to baffle the stoned.

“Is Gomez going to be in this tent?”

“No, this is That Tent.”

“Which stage has Steel Pulse?”

“No, What Stage.”

“Well, what’s the stage the Nevilles are going to perform at?”

“That’s right.”

I never actually heard a dialogue like that. To a middleaged guy, the band names were nearly as bewildering. Oysterhead or Radiohead, Cat Power or the Cat Empire, Steel Pulse or Steel Train, Death Cab for Cutie or Deadboy and the Elephantmen. I’m told they all rock.

There were old familiar names, too, of course: seeing a name like Jerry Douglas or Ricky Skaggs or Bonnie Raitt in that list—or, heck, Col. Bruce Hampton, who used to have a regular gig in the Old City  —is a reminder of the festival’s admirable breadth. For music lovers of broad interests, Bonnaroo is unforgiving. Nowhere else in the world will anyone ever have to decide whether to see Oysterhead, Death Cab for Cutie, Cat Power, or the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the same plot of ground at the same time.

Friday afternoon the sun was nuclear.

People stood in the shade, every little scrap of shade available. Though you could get a good look at some of the performers from the side of the stage, some of the audiences under the industrial roofs were perfectly rectangular in shape. Elsewhere people stood in the shapes of tree shadows, as cows so sensibly do—and on this former cowpasture, did.

One of the familiar names was Robinella, the band that started out as sort of a jazz-inflected bluegrassy string band; I’ve seen them many times, and recently, but had never heard them amplified as a funky jam band. At This Tent, before a crowd of more than a thousand, Robin introduced a request, one of their best-known songs, “Man Over.” Robin said, almost apologetically, “We’ve been to this festival before, and back then, we were a string band.” And I thought they still were. When they played it, the song took me back to 2003. I felt old right away. I felt, like the cowboy hats with the obligatory curled brim, pre-ruined.

Standing close to thousands of sweaty people, with no obvious route of egress, is a talent we lose as we get older. That afternoon Bonnaroo seemed to offer me a choice of standing in the midst of sweaty drunk kids or shriveling in the sun. Somehow 80,000 people camping at Bonnaroo seems like twice as many as the 100,000 fully dressed people who sit politely and watch football games at Neyland Stadium.

Somewhere between That Tent and Which Stage, perhaps mad in the heat, sullen from lack of sleep, I wrote in my notebook, “Do we really need all these people?”

They were semi-clothed, some wearing glitter or henna paint, or crazy hair. Seeing so many semi-clothed people in a short time, I’m convinced that we’ve passed a milestone: Most people today have tattoos. So daring in my youth, an emblem of a biker or a prostitute or a stevedore, tattoos have become the approximate equivalent of the Lacoste alligator of the ‘70s. Even sorority girls have tattoos, if only in places you can’t see them except at Bonnaroo.

The unofficial symbol of Bonnaroo is the sunburned tattoo. If you took a swig of beer every time you saw one, you wouldn’t make it to the afternoon show.

Bonnaroo gives you an opportunity to marvel at the infinite variety of the human body, the diversity within the same species. At Bonnaroo, women try very hard to look naked. All women are proud of their bodies, regardless of their shape. Each knows she’s different enough from every other, in whatever regard, to draw attention.

There were several bands I wanted to see, Seu Gorge, Toubab Crewe, Ben Folds, World Party, but I stepped off site to seek refuge in my tent. A middleaged woman took one look at me and said, “We’re too old for this.” I went back to my cool, solitary home in the woods and took a nap.

Jack was at the camp. He was scowling and whopping suspiciously at the tall grass just outside the back of his car.

“Might be chiggers in these weeds,” he said.

Bonnaroo brings out surprising passions that are just under the surface. After a few shots of Delmore Scotch, Rentfro surveyed the field where we were camping. “I’m lusting for all this mulch,” he said. He keeps a large garden up on Powell, and sometimes sells produce on Market Square. “I’m halfway wishing I brought a rake and some bundling equipment.”

In the evening, Bonnaroo was less brutal than in the midday heat, more like a very hip county fair.

There’s a uniform, and it’s more involved than the pre-ruined straw hat. There may have been 20,000 people watching the Death Cab for Cutie show, I wasn’t the coolest one of them, or the drunkest or stonedest, but I was the only one who was wearing actual socks.

I saw them and Oysterhead, a newly reformed band featuring Trey Anastasio, former leader of Phish and a hero to many; Les Claypool, late of Primus; and Steward Copeland, formerly of the Police; and then Cat Power. Those three acts were all playing at the same time, actually, but it was easy to walk from one to another, and hear a few songs. 

At Yee-Haw’s booth—it became a sort of home base for several Knoxvillians—I was talked into seeing Bobby Bare, Jr., who played at the Troo Music Lounge. His father was a mainstream Nashville act from another generation, and Anybody, Jr., sounded like an attraction you’d find in an agricultural fair. But he turned in maybe the greatest rock’n’roll show of the weekend, with one crowd favorite, “Flat-Chested Girl from Maynardville.”

“You’re missing Tom Petty,” he kept jeering, and we were. Tom Petty was just down the hill, a four-minute walk away, on the same ticket. People cheered each time he mentioned it.

“Bobby Bare Jr. is way better than Tom Petty will ever be.” At the moment it seemed, at least, plausible.

The Petty show was still going on. So many people were there he was visible only via Jumbotron. It was like a giant drive-in movie with no cars. Stevie Nicks, idol of my youth, showed up unbilled and sang a couple of duets. At least, it sounded a good deal like her.

It was another instance of people in the back being the headliners. People couldn’t see the stage, and judging by their casual conversation, didn’t care that much for the music, but still they understood that it was important to be there. As, for some reason, I did. A boy was holding his girlfriend in the air like a flag and talking to someone else on his cell phone. “Can you see me? Can you see me?”

When you’re around obnoxious people in real life, you can always console yourself that sooner or later they’ll be going home, and you can believe that their home is far away from yours. Bonnaroo offers no such assurance. They’re all staying. Perhaps near you.

The industrial “tents” seemed oppressive in the daytime, maybe because they remind me of long-ago warehouse jobs, but late at night they were something different. My Morning Jacket, a band I’d never seen before, was weirdly transcendent at That Tent after midnight. Opening with a recording of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from the 1940 Disney movie, Pinocchio , the band boarded the dark stage lit by camera flashes, then put on a show of melancholic, country-tinged psychedelia that went deep into the night, and somehow blended with it. I don’t remember going back to the tent. But I must have, because there I was.

Before the day’s music started—mercifully, never before noon—I had a look around the one part of Bonnaroo that my colleague had disdained as “some sort of Fellahin village”: the Third World. It’s the biggest part of Bonnaroo in terms of sheer acreage.

I’ve not seen anything like it since a train trip to Mexico City years ago. Thousands of variegated tents, as far as the eye can see, many with flags: Pirate flags, South Carolina flags, British flags, Grateful Dead flags, Ohio State flags. More than a shantytown, it was a shantycity. It is delineated, insofar as possible, with numbered “streets” and “avenues,” like Manhattan.

At 11 in the morning, the Third World marketplace is abuzz. A whole raft of makeshift shops form a sort of village known as Shakedown Street—named, naturally, for a favorite Grateful Dead record. They’re selling breakfast, tie-dyed shirts, and liquor. “Five dollar shots,” a woman chants beside an open cooler. “100 proof Vodka.”

Another looks almost professional. “Mixed Drinks, Shots, Five Dollars. Screwdrivers, Bloody Marys, Pina Coladas.” It doesn’t look like a fun job. Some are here because they have money. I wonder how many are here because they need money.

Just when you think you’re in the midst of Adam Smith capitalists in dreadlocks, another shop announces: “Free Liquor / Donations Accepted / All Proceeds Benefit the GDC.” An apparently obscure charity.

There’s recorded music everywhere, of course, heavy on the Grateful Dead, some Pink Floyd. One couple seems proud that they have a Simpsons’ soundtrack.

The dividing walls between the camping areas and the performance areas invite graffiti. One caricature of a balding guy in a tie says “I Don’t Understand You Kids.”

It’s not the unfamiliarity that’s so surprising, but the familiarity. Rentfro and I are plenty old enough, older by 25 years than the median attendee—but many of the performers—Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, Aaron Neville—are older than we are.

Almost all the iconography of Bonnaroo is from our youth or even childhood. The plywood fences are stenciled with images of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin, the young Mick Jagger.

The recorded music played at the main stages between bands leans heavily on Bob Marley, the Doors, even the Jackson Five. When their classic, “I Want You Back,” comes on, a girl shrieks, recognizing it a second before I did. From the looks of her, she probably wasn’t born until more than a decade after that song was a hit.

The live music, even the music by new, trendy groups, like moe. [sic] and Death Cab for Cutie, are eerily familiar, many of them featuring long guitar solos, an affectation my generation thought we’d buried forever.

And one popular shop touted “’60s and ‘70s Authentic Vintage Clothing.” It might be a fun exercise to take photos of Bonnaroo and juxtapose them with color photos of Woodstock, and have people guess which is which. Besides dreadlocks on whites, fashions are close enough to pass.

Discerning a Bonnaroo crowd from a Woodstock crowd would be much easier if you showed a moving image. Styles of dance have changed more than the music or the fashions. The dance that’s au currant today looks, through 48-year-old eyes, like kids making selections from an invisible ATM while trying to balance on a log.

The most shocking thing I witnessed all weekend was when the lead singer for Cypress Hill shouted, “You gettin’ stoned with Cypress Hill in Nashville right now.” It wasn’t that he assumed I was getting stoned that annoyed me, so much as the fact that he thought we were in Nashville.

Their great advantage over older folks is that they don’t have kids their age.  Fortunately for daddies, there was one local joint, a barbecue called Prater’s, that sold $4 pork sandwiches.

I’ve been told that some of these kids in dreads are known among their peers as Trustafarians. These aren’t representative of all kids: Bonnaroo attendees represent no cross-section of America. As a few other attendees and vendors remarked to me, Bonnaroo attendance seems to come from a strictly defined demographic. They’re young adults, few under 17, few over 35, and they’re not just predominantly, but overwhelmingly white.

It’s a curiosity hard to ignore. Though many of the musical acts are black, ranging from reggae legends Steel Pulse and Damian Marley to hip-hopsters Blackalicious, to blues singer Betty LaVette, to New Orleans funk legends the Neville Brothers, to international acts like the Refugee All Stars of Sierra Leone—you could spend the weekend watching only black performers with few breaks—there are very few black attendees at Bonnaroo. Even at the racial-minority acts, minority representation may not be more than one percent.

These aren’t segregationists here—I believe the mega-rock camping-festival phenomenon doesn’t want to be almost all white. But, at the moment, it just is. The proportion of people who have tents at home and any desire to use them may be similar. Sleeping outside in a nylon shell for voluntary, recreational purposes may just be one of those things white Americans do.

Almost as if to balance the fact that few moral rules are strictly observed at Bonnaroo, time is observed with anal strictness. Each act begins right on time, and ends right on time. There are no exceptions. We hear about the musicians’ temperament, when they appear in a club two hours late for a 10 p.m. show, we hear that’s just the way musicians are, and there’s no changing them.

But somehow they’ll get themselves in line for Bonnaroo. They’re blowing their cover.

At Bonnaroo, the audiences get to be the careless bohemians. We spend much of the day roaming freely over the ruined grass, idling into one show after another. For those who’ve spent weeks of their mortal lives just waiting for a band to show up in a club, it’s a kind of revenge.

Trying to catch the end of Dungen, just because I’d promised somebody I would, on the way I heard a harmonica and thought, “That sounds a lot like Blues Traveler.” And I glanced to my right, and it was, except the guy’s skinnier now. Then Dungen, then this English, not Mexican band, Gomez. Then back to the main stage in time to see Elvis Costello play the big stage at 3 p.m., with New Orleans keyboardist Allen Toussaint and the Crescent City Horns: an especially earnest and pointedly political show mostly about Katrina relief (“Broken Promise Land”), as well as some of Toussaint’s songs, with few of his old favorites until the end, when he did a rapid succession of those two-minute barnburners from Get Happy .

Rentfro had a wild hair, and bought a kilt. He said he was “going regimental,” and I would have preferred not to know what that means. He found an occasion to yell at some boys playing hackeysack. “You’ll never make a living that way,” he said.

Later, on the same stage, Beck appeared, drawing the same giant Tom Petty crowd. The big screens showed not Beck but, turning the tables on something or another, a puppeteer’s puppets aping Beck. Some found it clever—after all, they say, you come to hear a band, not see them—others found it annoying, maybe a little insulting.

Those in the back were not paying much attention, but spreading out blankets to sleep. It was a phenomenon at all the biggest shows. Many come to Bonnaroo not to hear the music, but to sleep near famous people.

Then, after a segue in the Kat Nap Cafe by Phil Pollard and his Band of Humans, Radiohead. Then Dr. John. Then Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk. Then it was 4 a.m. Then, as a masquerade ball was letting out, this techno dance thing craned up under another roof. I didn’t have any interest in the monotonous throb of the music, but it was an interesting spectacle to watch. The gradual lightening of the sky took me by surprise.

Though the prevalence of drugs is not as universal as I’d been told, the smell of burning marijuana is as common as the smell of patchouli, and many were smoking out in the open, even from shared water pipes.

Security is not obvious; some staffers wear shirts that say SAFETY. And some guys riding horses around the periphery may have been cops. But that weekend, the need for police within the grounds was not obvious. Drunk driving would have been logistically difficult and, moreover, pointless (“Hey! Let’s get out of here and go to Tullahoma!”); some vandalism, like graffiti, was overlooked and even encouraged; there’s only so much trouble you can get into in a meadow.

I spoke to a conservative-looking elderly gentleman of Manchester about what his neighbors think about Bonnaroo, and what it brings. “We know it happens, to some extent,” he says, of drugs. “It’s hard to really control it. I assume the economic impact is so much that we just tend not to be as strict.”

This particular local looks around at what these kids are doing and thinks it’s mostly a good thing.

Other places around the world might post some conventional signage: something like No Alcohol Beyond This Point or $50 Fine for Littering . At Bonnaroo, the sign says “Help Drunky the Beer Bottle Find His Way Home.”

However, Friday evening, when a young attendee was killed just outside the compound when he wandered into the front of Ricky Skaggs tour bus on the highway, word didn’t make it around. The Bonnaroo Beacon doesn’t have an obituary column. Most of us didn’t hear about the incident until we returned to Knoxville Monday morning.

“Ready to go three days without showers?” say all Bonnaroo veterans. They say that just to weed out the riffraff. As of this year, at least, there are showers at Bonnaroo, and most of the folks I knew showered daily. Some more than once. Shower stalls were set up like portapotties in all the camping areas, though they were easier to get into in Guest Camping. In the Third World, I saw a line for the shower about 50 people long, each standing with a towel and soap.

I actually did go almost four days without a shower, just to say I did. Others may have been more troubled about that fact than I was.

What sort of bands are those? The only word that applies to all of them, other than human (which may not completely apply in Beck’s case), is Bonnaroo.

And a slew of Knoxvillians, Leslie Woods, The Rockwells, Mitch Rutman, Tim Lee, artvandalay, Gypsy Hands, Hector Qirko, Phil Pollard and his Band of Humans, some of them getting more respect than they do on a regular basis at home. If they were here in part because they knew Ashley Capps, their fellow Knoxvillian who happened to start this Bonnaroo thing, they didn’t cause anybody to wonder what they were doing there. They’re well-connected, maybe, but they’re also Bonnaroo quality.

Rentfro, who had wanted to leave early, was still there Sunday afternoon. He’d gone missing for a while, not answering his cell phone, rumored to be at This Tent or That. I found him, sitting with his cane, listening to Mitch Rutman, and grinning.

Sorry, it’s all too much to write about. I saw most styles of music at Bonnaroo except anything that might require an actual orchestra. It would be too hot too wear tuxedos, anyway. And I don’t doubt I missed something. AC’s most subversive intention seems to be to broaden the musical horizons of America’s youth. And, judging by the popularity of such a flabbergastingly wide variety of bands at Bonnaroo, they’re succeeding.

After leaving the site, though, the real world was a shock for some. During the weekend, I-24 was dotted with cars pulled over, bummed-out kids sitting in the grass, their stares illuminated by flashing blue lights.

Rentfro left much happier than when he arrived. After the first morning’s misunderstanding, he had only one unpleasant experience. In the unisex showers, he walked in on a group of women, apparently performers who thought it had been reserved for them. “Except for that, I can’t believe how nice everybody was,” he says. “I didn’t even see any fights.”

The place must look very strange right now. They say they take down almost everything, even the industrial steel roofs.  They say that, contrary to rumors, it will be back at the same spot next year.

Like Old Stone Fort, archaeologists may one day surmise there was never any great violence here, nor anyone actually living in these meadows. It was used, they will say, for ceremonial purposes.

Kvetching to Bonnaroo, or, “You kids call that music?”

This trip started out as comic shtick: how funny it would be if Metro Pulse , the voice of Knoxville’s hip young bohemian and entrepreneurial crowd, sent a couple of middle-aged guys into the middle of what is today’s Woodstock. A really nice, safe Woodstock that was close to home and where we’d have some cachet for knowing the dude who imagineered this wonderful madness. 

Neely and I had it all figured out. The story would write itself. It would start with a description of us stocking up on sundries and personal products at Walgreen’s and then looking for a two-for-one deal on a couple of Rascals so we wouldn’t have to actually exert ourselves by walking to shows, assuming we could find one we could tolerate. There was a bit stolen from Used People , where the two old guys argue about the best route to take. 

Hell, we didn’t even have to go. We knew what we wanted it to be like. We even took “old man” props for a photo: two guys in golf hats, Bermuda shorts, boat shoes, white socks and gigantic, over-the-glasses sunglasses sitting in chaise lounges outside our RV camped at Bonnaroo. We’d have some old-fashioned highballs or maybe cans of Ensure in hand and we’d spend the entire weekend grousing about the damned kids and their music. We had all the one-liners filled in: “Young lady! Put some clothes on!” If we exerted ourselves at all, it would be to try and recruit members of the Future Old People of America. Or start a mah jongg tournament. All our reports would be about napping and complaining about the food and the lack of a Midway.

Yeah. It’d be a riot all right: AARP Riot Mars Bonnaroo. The problem with the joke was that Metro Pulse bought it.

Neely can speak quite well for himself. For me, it began like the crack of the Zen master’s staff over my head (the tribulations of the first day with ticket and credentials, screw-ups and concomitant lack of sleep) followed by one transcendent moment after another. And it wasn’t all about the music, though I am pretty sure Radiohead might be God or at least a minor deity. And I finally got to see the living flesh of Bob Marley in the form of his son, Damian. And I am reminded of an especially poignant lyric of his: Once a man and twice a child/and every thing is just for a while. —Jack Rentfro

They Were Legion

And so we now come to Bonnaroo Music Festival, two crow’s miles from the buried, tree-grown ramparts of the Old Stone Fort. The ley lines from that ancient celestial observatory take us to a new kind of solstice celebration. Where in the blistering, blinding heat of the lower Sequatchie Valley of Tennessee, like a biblical movement of nations across the desert, scores of thousands abandon themselves to a sixth year of musical plenitude.

They set up their sprawling encampments and live cheek-to-jowl for four days of Peace, Love and Understanding, their millions of steps raising a dust cloud to the heavens. A sandal-shuffling, blond, dreadlocked human-swarm, half-naked, wearing their logos and tattoos, eschewing animal skin for hemp and partaking of communion at every opportunity. For they were safe from the predations of the armies of Egypt, though their charioteers roamed the perimeter. They were blessed; and they knew it. The plain was full of their wanderings from tent to tent, stage to stage, gyro stand to arepa cart and thence to beer booth to slake their thirsts and thence to port-a-johns and finally casting their micturations upon the ground without modesty, but, only because I really had to. Quite often. 

Yea; the New Lost Tribes covered all that could be surveyed by the eye. For they were legion. They all spake kindly to one another. And the men and boys of them were not caused to grope nor become full of Spring Break wilding when their eyes set upon a scantily clad maiden; not to say that the hook-ups were not myriad. This movement of people, surely the largest to pass through these mountain passes since Rosecrans drove Bragg from Tullahoma to Chattanooga, is different from those forefathers who gathered here in large numbers to smite each other hip and thigh. For surely almost every man, woman and child among this host are against a new Pharoah’s war in the desert.  

Saturday:  A crowd roars with the Band of Humans, the explosively joyful noise making the walls of their tent stage billow in and out like the sails of a ship. All of these, Bacchanalian and Apollonian alike, drift onto the Serengeti of Tennessee to join a great gathering of the tribes at sundown. These next primates—a million, it seemed—became quiet and huddled with loved ones and strangers, nodding in quiet supplication. Beyond them in the distance, a beat pulsed from the monolith of This Stage where Jumbotrons flickered ethereal multiple images of Radiohead.

An evolutionary event horizon is underway. New ley lines are being drawn. —Jack Rentfro