Bonnaroo 2008
Manchester farm; Manchester, TN

Stamina and the general nature of humanity are two topics that wouldn't go away during my three days at Bonnaroo. Stamina is the easy one. Just how much can one endure at a fest like this? How many hours without sleep? How many different types of drugs, music, junk food, dancing, comedy, even just standing around can the body tolerate before going into total shutdown? I really wanted to make it to the late-night sets. I wish I could have grooved in the rain with My Morning Jacket at 3 AM or sat on the lawn in front of the What Stage watching Kanye West’s set just before dawn broke. But I just couldn’t do it.

Enter the nature of humanity. This topic is something my cautious ’Roo companion (we’ll just call him Malkmus) and I returned to repeatedly during our Tennessee experience. Does goodness define humanity with some shitty individuals thrown in, or are humans just miserable creatures with few shining exemplars of kindness and warmth? During those three days on the farm, I witnessed some of the most depraved and thoughtless acts I’ve ever seen. But I also met and talked with some genuinely fantastic people. So which is it? Can it be both ways?


{The Journey}

We left Maryland on Wednesday morning. Both Malkmus and I were in good spirits. Two old friends on a road trip, getting time to catch up away from the hassles of work and the time constraints of everyday life. Car loaded with non-perishable food, we took our time getting to Tennessee, meandering down the Skyline Drive and stopping for greasy meals recommended by that Roadfood book. It was a relaxed journey of bonhomie, as I recounted tales from last year’s Bonnaroo. We stopped for a night in a Motel 6 in Athens, Tennessee, getting in one last night of rest before heading out to the campground.

{The Author Steps In}

All right, I know none of you give a shit about what we ate, what we listened to in the car, or what we talked about. Who am I kidding? Cut to the chase! All right, for those of you who care only about the salacious details, the next few sections are for you!



“Christ, no one smokes pot anymore!” That seemed to be the common complaint of the various festival-goers. True, drug dealers prowled the campground, peddling all kinds of shit, but as the scent of marijuana floated in the air, only the harder stuff appeared to be on offer. Mushrooms, acid, ecstasy, DMT, even opium mixed with readily available alcohol. The guy in the tent next to mine spent more time counting his money and pushing his wares than listening to music. Bonnaroo as business. Whereas pot can make a place into a communal den of peace, this abundant harder business really set the tone. The peace and love ambience I had experienced the year prior had been replaced by the frequent patrols of mounted police, squabbling over drugs and theft. In fact, this theme segues nicely into the next subheading.


Peace and love, man. Bullshit. When I realized my campsite would be a five-minute walk from Centeroo, I was ecstatic. On the popular message board Inforoo, members refer to a certain section of camping as BFE (I believe it’s Butt Fuck Egypt). The walk from BFE to the stages could be as long as 45 minutes. So when I pulled into Camp Darth Vadar and saw Bonnaroo’s signature Ferris Wheel just up ahead, I thanked my lucky stars and clicked my heels. Malkmus, a ’Roo Rookie (I know, horrible), was too busy sweating to care.

Once all the effort of setting up camp abated, I was able to survey my neighbors. First, the guy right next me, a truck driver from North Carolina, was a stand-up dude. Patient and kind, we spent a few hours jawing over the course of the weekend about trucks, steaks, and music. The others, now. Besides the drug dealer, we had Shauna and Dave nearby. Each evening was domestic violence night for these two. Among the best lines -- “Dave- I just want to get high.” “Shauna, you’re falling asleep.” “Go fuck Greg.” “I don’t love Greg.” “Shauna, get back in this tent. You’re naked.” The knock-down-drag-’em-fight eruption happened over heroin. Shauna wanted to shoot it. Dave wanted to sell it. I wanted them to shut up.

The worst offenders in our site were the ravers. Each morning at 5 AM, they pumped their car stereo to the max with the shittiest techno you could think of. For those of us who came back from the concerts at 2:30 AM, this dance party was less than appreciated. I blame my inability to stay up for some sets squarely on these motherfuckers. But whatever, at least they had fun.

The scariest incident, however, happened on Saturday evening. The truck driver and I sat out having a discussion when an undercover policeman took some kid down 15 yards away. I honestly think all the kid did was solicit him for pot. The cop pinned him to the ground with vigorous force and beat him. All the kid could do was apologize and scream. You get the picture.



Besides the copious painted boobs, the only other thing of note occurred as I packed up my tent. A girl got out of her tent and bent over. No pants on.

{Rich vs. Poor}

Each year, Bonnaroo offers up general and VIP tickets. To be a VIP, all you have to do is spend some money. Since I had a media pass, I had to stay in the general campground but had access to a special “guest” area in the back. Some major differences: shade, free water, clean toilets. That isn’t to say the festival neglected the johns in the general area. It’s just the populace was so big, there weren’t enough pots to literally piss in. Malkmus claimed he heard “Mother of God” more than once from an unsuspecting potty entrant. But the dichotomy was real. Pay up and be treated better. I know it’s the way the world works with capitalism, supply and demand and blah blah, but this is Bonnaroo. This is a make-believe playground to retreat to and forget about the “real” world. But fecal matter is real and so is violence. Whenever I stepped back from the airy guest area of hammocks and free barbecue meat and into the general camping area, I couldn’t help thinking of pre-Jacobean costume dramas where the rich ate from the finest crystal and the groundlings fought in the street over a piece of bread. But hey, for a few bucks more you don’t even have to think about them.

{A Pause}

Now I feel better. There was plenty of good stuff as well. Last year, my girlfriend commented that she liked the fact that rather than SECURITY t-shirts, the staff sported the more friendly SAFETY designation. Each and every staff member I solicited for help or advice was outgoing and willing to assist. It was clear the Bonnaroo bosses wanted festival goers to feel welcomed. I’ll give them that. A large festival is also a plum opportunity to meet people from all over the country. Once you found the ones not interested in talking about shrooming, rolling, and drinking, you can hear some fun stories about music and other regions of the States.


{The Shows I Saw}

Okay, here is a blow-by-blow of what I saw. Last year, I was more gung-ho about seeing complete sets. This time I treated the festival as a smörgåsbord. The interesting thing is no one’s experience could possibly be the same. There was just too much to do, so many variables that even though American festivals are becoming more and more homogenized (Jack Johnson is headlining most), the individual can still make each day special. Here we go.

{MGMT}: I really dig this Bowie dance-pop duo. The short set comprised most of their Oracular Spectacular album. Though they suffered from the common bass-too-loud, vocals-too-low festival malaise, songs like “Weekend Wars” and “Electric Feel” felt even more electric than the album versions. Set closer “Kids” brought the crowd to thunderous applause.

{Battles}: The coolest thing about this set was the giant cymbal suspended what seemed to be two feet over the rest of the set. These guys have the tight math rock tempos down to a science, and keeping a crowd entertained with no discernible lyrics is a commendable feat. “Atlas” was a standout.

{Vampire Weekend}: It’s crazy to think the closer for Thursday night only has one album. But it’s a good album, and Vampire Weekend played it safe as they remained faithful to the LP versions. I started to get tired as the set wore on and bailed out. At least I got to hear “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”

{The Swell Season}: I stuck around for the entirety of this one. Holy shit! Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova provided the set of the weekend. With songs primarily taken from the film Once, this set was touching and rocking. There were two or three times when I felt chills as Hansard’s tiny body shook to force out such big notes. Van Morrison covers “Into the Mystic” and “Astral Weeks” helped flesh out the set and a surprise inclusion of The Pixies’ “Levitate Me” helped keep even the snobbiest of hipsters entranced. Fantastic stuff!

{M.I.A}: Only got to catch about 40 minutes of M.I.A. (supposedly her "last gig ever.") Rather than greet the crowd, she came out bitching about too little bass and too little mic. I hate the sounds that party favors make on New Year's Eve. She seemed to blow on a big one every few minutes. Loud, incoherent, and sloppy, only her dance moves saved this one from being a total waste. By the way, I love Arular and Kala. The most telling moment is when cardboard cut-outs of M.I.A. and other generic CK models hit the crowds in a faux crowd surf. The crowd’s evil urges came to life as these guests were torn asunder. Art imitating life?

{Chris Rock}: Rock started off with an incisive topical set about the political environment that quickly devolved into a tired diatribe about differences between black and white, men and women. I heard all this stuff on the Richard Pryor box set. The most shocking aspect was the unapologetic way he urged black men to go for white women once they were rich enough. Something about the topic made me uncomfortable, especially in a crowd where 99.9999% were white. I don’t know, it felt unoriginal. But he did have some keen insights on jobs vs. careers. Malkmus especially liked the rim job jokes. But what the hell, he was opening for Metallica.

{Metallica}: I can’t take them seriously. After the melodramatic Ennio Morricone intro and the explosion into “Creeping Death,” I kept thinking about Lars crying over making a mint on his paintings in Some Kind of Monster. I made it through two songs. The crowd loved it. “Master of Puppets” and “The Unforgiven” sounded good from my tent.

{My Morning Jacket}: This set ran from midnight to almost 4 AM; I made it for about 70 minutes. These guys put on a good show, but it was raining and cold. They concentrated mainly on tracks from Z and Evil Urges during the first of two sets. Also, a whole host of R&B covers from James Brown, Bobby Womack, and Erykah Badu peppered the set. Great way to end the night. Too bad the ravers and their crappy music sapped me of the stamina to enjoy this good music. Fuck you.

{Louis C.K.}: Malkmus loved this guy. I couldn’t deal with the scat humor. So I left. He’s clearly talented.

{Against Me!}: Another kick-ass set. These guys pumped a lot of energy into 50 minutes. Tom Gabel can write trash metal tunes with a hook. I don’t normally go for this type of stuff, but these guys got me. I felt like I was watching a band, not a corporation like Metallica. Highlights: anything from New Wave.

{Iron & Wine}: I like the Shepherd’s Dog. I think it’s impossible to expect Sam Beam to keep pumping out hushed, acoustic weepers. But, although Woman King was a bold new direction for him and his backing band, the 10-minute jam workouts live did nothing for me. He didn’t even touch an acoustic guitar until the stunning closer of “The Trapeze Swinger.” Even “Upward Over the Mountain” adopted Beam’s new fascination of Afro-Cuban beats. Sounded good, but bored me a little.

{Sigur Rós}: I took a nap from 10 PM to midnight and then lined up for the 1 AM set of Sigur Rós. I love these guys. The set was amazing. They kicked it off with an inspired version of “Svefn-G-Englar.” As the soaring noise of the bowed guitar met the kick of the drum, the music transported me away from the druggies and the heat and the musty un-showered masses, and I imagined myself in a glacial wonderland taken from the band’s film Heima. They followed it with a beautiful rendition of “Vaka,” where only some technical difficulties marred its splendor. Everything else seemed to work. The backup strings of Amina and the marching band sounded great; Jonsi has a sweet voice. The band also got to showcase a few new songs from its upcoming album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. Malkmus and I only made it for 70 minutes. I was really sad to walk away from this one.

{Kanye West}: Dear Kanye, thanks for changing your set time from 8 PM to 2:45 AM. I really wanted to see your show, you bastard. During his performances, Kanye likes to project critics’ denigrations above the stage. Then he just stands there and shakes his head. You’re more than welcome to include this one, Kanye.

{The End}
5:55 AM,. The rave starts again. I decide it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. As I’m disbanding my camp (Malkmus is sleeping), all my drugged-out neighbors just stare as I sweat in the already sweltering morning. But a stoned girl walks into my camp. “Can I help you?” she asks. I am touched, but before I can answer, she turns to talk to someone else. Finally, she turns back and asks, “Anything else I can do?” I just smile and shake my head. At least the intention is there. She picks her away around my tent, unsteady on exhausted feet, and vanishes into the sea of tents behind us.

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