Bonnaroo 2006: Day One (previously unpublished)

It’s getting so I really hate to fly, which is too bad because I used to be one of the rare individuals who truly LOVED to fly in airplanes and I felt like I was part of some cosmic balance where my giddy delight at flying offset some greater number of people who dreaded flying. But flying in jumbo-jets now, on most major airlines, is becoming something that my dignity can’t bear. Like, my human dignity. I mean, riding a Greyhound bus across the country has always been a terrible and shitty thing, but you did it because it was cheap. The end. That was the only reason to take a Greyhound bus, unless you were trying to have an “experience” of America or some shit, and I guarantee you’d get over THAT idea about halfway through your second day. But flying on airplanes has always had a certain grace, or at least it deposited you at your destination with your grace intact. Whatever you brought with you would remain with you through your flight.

But no more. I was directed to the self-serve ticket check-in line, and when I got to the head of the line a Northwest Airlines employee was there to help guide me to the next available kiosk. She was tall for a Filipina, and then I realized that she had either recently been a man or was still substantially a man beneath her make-up. She checked my ticket and then said, half under her breath, “Do you need a secretary?” Her expression was totally deadpan, and her accent was just complicated enough that I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. “Do you need a secretary?” she repeated, and I laughed and said, “I’ve never been asked that at an airport before. Is Northwest providing secretaries now?” She responded, without changing her expression, “I could come with you.”

Whoa. “Let me think about it,” I said.

Checking in at the kiosk I realized that I had been assigned a middle seat on an almost completely full flight, and being a large-sized person I pushed the button requesting another seat assignment. There were only two window seats left available, but Northwest charged a 15 dollar surcharge for their window seats, payable now, non-refundable. It’s like the ultimate in nickle-and-dime bullshit. But I paid it, imagining the torment of a five hour flight squeezed in the middle seat was worth fifteen dollars to avoid. When I boarded the plane and made my way down the aisle, my horror grew as I realized my window seat was on the far side of a three-hundred and fifty pound woman who, quite against her will, was spilling over the armrests on both sides. She wore her hair in beaded braids, under a doo-rag, with a flat-brimmed baseball cap perched jauntily to the side, and once we all got situated, (with me literally biting my hand in anger and frustration at having paid fifteen extra dollars for this seat, she put on her headphones and began rapping not-quite-silently along with her CD. I infinitely prefer silent rapping to audible rapping, but even before the plane took off it was obvious that she had world-class bad breath, and that her silent rapping was really just an action of puffing out a constant stream of bad-breath clouds through the whole of the flight. All this on top of the fact that only a hundred-pound child would be comfortable sitting in a regular airplane seat anymore.

I landed at gate B-30 in the Memphis airport and in the walk to gate B-10, which wasn’t really that far, I passed a karaoke bar where a black guy was crooning some smooth R&B, and then a ways down another bar with a gal singing and playing “Ticket to Ride” on the guitar. My impression of airport bars is that they are places where people go to get drunk fast, and not generally places where people go to do open-mics, but maybe the world has changed that much. For my half-hour connecting flight to Nashville I was again booked to fly in the middle seat, but this time made no attempt to toy with fate.

I rented a mini-van and drove down to the Bonnaroo site to check in and collect my press credentials. The first thing I noticed, a thing which was inescapable, was the fact that everyone else involved in the check-in process, both the other VIPs and every member of the staff, was some or other variation of Southern Hippy. They are a distinct breed of hippy, quite different from the Hippies we have out West, and pretty darned different from the uptight hippies of New England. Southern Hippies are “it’s all good” hippies, and I watched in amazement as the check-in staff, who were clearly exhausted form a long day, maintained a friendly, patient, and mostly helpful attitude through the whole process. Any comparable music festival in New York, LA or Seattle would be staffed by insolent and sarcastic fiends, so it was a pleasant change to collect my press passes from a girl who just sort of laughed cheerfully at everything I said.

I got directions from another young hippy dude, who had to put his finger over his tracheotomy tube to speak, and those directions sent me winding down a couple of country roads before I finally found the correct entrance to the festival and was guided into my parking/camping spot by my golf-cart driving press coordinator. It was only then that I realized that I had been duped into sleeping in the minivan for the four days of the festival, parked out on the grass behind the mainstage with a motley assortment of vendors and other dingbats who all seemed better prepared than I for a weekend of camping. My press dude loaded me into his golf cart once I was parked and we caromed around the festival site which was already teeming with shirtless, college-age “dudes” and their Rhiannons. The rest of the year this seven-hundred acre cow pasture was home to cows, presumably, but in the ultimate example of pissing off the neighbors this particular farmer found a way to supplement his income by renting out his farm to 100,000 people. Imagine the guy who owns the adjoining seven-hundred acres, and how freaking livid he is.

So, driving slowly through the throng I was struck by a few observations. First, no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of American youth, but at the same time gatherings like this pretty much disprove the Hobbesian “man is basically evil” assessment of human nature. I mean, any time you can unscriptedly attract that many people in the prime, trouble-causing ages and essentially turn them loose in a huge field with no real restrictions on how much alcohol and how many drugs they can consume, one would assume that it would be an orgy of rape and violence, but the truth is that kids in these situations usually police themselves pretty well. It can’t be down to the fact that they’re hippies, because everyone knows that hippies are actually the most frustrated, violent, misogynist, and repressed group in youth culture.

Eventually our golf cart rendezvoused with a couple more carts full of journalists, including some folks from Spin and a camera crew from CNN, and our convoy screamed around kicking up dust in search of a “improvisational” moment where a certain New York neo-folk band, apparently just strolling around the festival grounds playing acoustic shows for the kids, was going to stroll over in front of the CNN camera crew and create a “happening”. We arrived at the meeting place and piled out, a group of twenty journalists and the publicists who love them, and waited for the band to arrive, also in a golf cart, to set up the folly that they were out walking through the crowd playing to whomever gathered. It was boring and, once the whole scripted thing was underway, most of the journalists and publicists stood around talking to each other about the music business.

Since this was the first official day of the festival the truly massive crowds were still arriving, so rather than use up all our “out in the crowd” energy we hightailed it back behind the fence into the production area and everyone split off into different camps, headed to their hotel rooms off-site. When it was first proposed to me that I come to Bonnaroo, I was informed that the hotels were some distance, some many miles from the concert site, and that all the real “action” was happening in the camping areas that surrounded the press compound. This is where the bands are staying, I was told, and the party rages all night. I was dubious even from Seattle, trying to picture some distant festival in the Tennessee hills where a couple dozen famous bands all CAMP together behind the stage, but the folks at my record label turn the tables on me and asked, repeatedly, “We thought this is the type of stuff you love to do?” “You’re not going to miss out on all the INSANITY by going back into town to some motel room, are you?” All this type of shit that, admittedly, I was susceptible to. “Well, it all sound like a croc of shit to me but, when you put it like that, hell no I’m not going to go back to some motel like a grandma.” Which was playing right into their hands.

I think their main concern, like with all record companies, is that they didn’t want to pay the money to put me up in a hotel. So as the assorted other, more prominent, press people and the chain-gang of publicists all waved goodbye and pulled away in their Suburbans on the way back to the hotel about a quarter mile away, I trudged back to the field where my mini-van was parked and surveyed the situation. I had no blanket or pillow, and the mini-vans these days are designed to be so multi-purpose, to appeal to so many slightly different demographics, that they are a miracle of how marketing-based design can triumph over usefulness or comfort. In the Dodge dealership it must be quite a selling point that the rear seats fold back and over themselves so that they’re flush with the floor. See, busy mom, or small grocer, or suburban soccer coach, when you’re not hauling seven people comfortably, you can fill the back with groceries, or lawnmowers, or whatever. The only problem is that in order to have the seats fold down into the floor, they had to be built out of injection-molded plastics that made them about as comfortable as coach-class airline seats. So after twenty minutes of struggling to find a position where there wasn’t a hard plastic broadsword digging in my back, I realized that the only way I was going to be able to sleep was like a lawnmower, or a bunch of groceries, on the unpadded floor of the van.