I miss my Bonnaroo. No not the Bonnaroo I mentioned last year in my "I hate Bonnaroo" coverage of the 09 festival, I'm talking about that magical summer of 02 when I and a bunch of other crazy people who had a friend in the know made it out to the Manchester farm for the inaugural bacchanalia that would eventually grow into the marketing monster that today exists. Yes, the first year of Bonnaroo word was spread primarily through the dreaded (pun intended) hippie hempvine but now that the 10th anniversary approaches "brand Bonnaroo" has become the type of flavor-of-the-month institution that relies on slogans and such, so I've come up with a couple myself. Fell for MTV? Well you'll totally fall for Bonnaroo. Bonnaroo: enjoy the commercial.
Oh, and Bonnaroo really is a flavor now. A flavor of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. No joke. But there's more. Every page in the booklet is packed with ads attempting to be hip. Canon's here to show you how to take pics like a concert photographer and Garnier Fructis wants to help you "rock your style." Jansport invites us to "Discover Freedom" but then adds a trademark logo to remind us not to feel to free with their corporate intellectual property. And how's this for non sequitur, "to fuel your creativity, Wheat Thins will be handing out free samples and providing a cool, relaxed environment perfect for snacking." That's right, Wheat Thins, the creativity fuel. But don't worry if you get too amped up on Wheat Thin-influenced flights of imagination, just head down to the Twix Take-a-Pause lounge.
I understand that capitalism makes for strange bedfellows, and that if we want to put on nice and fancy festival it helps to have the big corporate types invest, but it'd be nice if a line could be drawn somewhere for common decency's sake! And I'd keep my opinions to myself if they were mine and mine alone, but they're not.
Enter one of our heroes, Kellie Doe from the little town of Dahlonega, Georgia. I was feeling slightly forlorn and lost, prematurely mourning the loss of my old friend the old Bonnaroo. This new Bonnaroo for me was emblematic of this 21st century New World and as such I withdraw, retreating to the sidelines to study the stream of festival-goers as they pass me making notes. A girl passes, and I ask her what she thinks of “the circus” and what her connection to this “circus life” is. Kellie is obliging and joins me on the bank to chat about how the festival has grown. Remembering the original 'Roo and thinking back on the incrementally increasing corporatization of the scene I'm reminded somewhat of the classic horror film “The Blob.”
I mention my disappointment at the direction the festival seems to be heading and the toll that changes in lineup, etc. have had on the ambiance of the festival and the people it draws. Kellie agrees that this year a large bulk of the crowd seem to represent a “rush to be in, wear the tightest jeans, listen to the latest coolest band.” A familiar rotten smell wafts through my nostrils. Could this be the stench of that vortex of youth ruination MTV.
No, of course not. The “official” story is that all those “Bonnaroo to be bought by MTV” stories were all so much paranoid rumour, but this year when I noticed a new logo on the Roo shirts “The Spaceman Cometh.” The cover sigil being that of a cartoony astronaut strangely reminiscent of an old nemesis of mine, the MTV. I wouldn't go so far as to say that MTV is now in any way connected to the festival proper, but I'm certainly not going to go out of my way to say I personally believe it isn't.
Also, the booklet mentions hippies. Practically promised hippies. As for me, I met very few folks at the show who might even know who the Rainbow Family are. One of which, however would be my Pennsylvania friend, Pebbles. Pebbles had that nappy dread and the big backpack that just screams to a southeastern authority figure “Search me, please!” We'd met somewhere at some tent and I introduced myself as I did throughout the festie “Hi, I'm Salem K. I'm with Spacelab. Please remember our name and go to the site so that maybe next year we can bring a photographer!” Pebbles later caught up with me as I was wandering confused through the human sea.
“Salem K. It's me! Mind if I tag up with you?”
We make our way with no where in particular in mind. At one point we are met by the local mounties, the mounted horse cops who serve as on-site security. Pebbles is asked to remove his backpack and must leave it on the ground to head back to campsite where he's left his band.
“Can't I take my bag with me,” Pebbles asks.
“You just leave it there,” replies the horse cop. “You really don't want us to search that bag, so just leave it there.”
Mixed messages. On one page of the booklet is a catchy mad libs style fill-in-the-blank letter that leaves open a spot for what was taken to relieve pain from too much insert activity here. Meanwhile later in the fine print we're reminded that drugs ruin everyone's time at a festival. Lip service to the issues important to the original dreaded (no-pun intended) hippies makes a presence even if Dead-inspired musicians and a large body of unwashed communalists do not. The booklet even reminds us to purchase a permanent Bonnaroo water bottle to “be part of the solution.”
Yes, things have changed. The old vibe is gone, even campground etiquette has changed. In the past years of Bonnaroo you could stop by practically any tent introduce yourself and make yourself at home. Something was definitely changed in the group dynamic this year, an insular attitude. A friend of mine who also made the show called it a “Dave Matthews Band” vibe, a frat boy party kind of thing that's just not my kind of madness.
There were however notable exceptions, in addition to our heroes Pebbles and Kellie, there were also the friendly folks within the picket fence. These guys seemed fine inviting scruffy looking, slightly dubious characters like your humble narrator, Salem K. and Tommy Luv, native of Betelgeus. Then the two attractive young ladies showed up. There was a noticeable air of disgust in the girls at the scruffy alien and 23rd century anthropologist posing as music journalist who were present. Noses wrinkled they overlooked us as much as possible while asking our kind hosts if they knew the location of drugs. Tommy instantly pipes up that he has them in possession but that perhaps the ladies should continue their quest because he's not interested in serving them. Chagrined they make their way. At this point Tommy and I reminisce about the old days, remembering how much easier it was to scare these sentient bipedals in past centuries.
After the disappearance of the snobby chicks, Tommy and I reminisce about centuries past, always trying to fit in here at the margins of society.
As much as I was ready to hate the environment, there still were some genuinely awesome people in attendence. Like our heroes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I took note immediately because Harrisburg was the home of Vitae Bergman, author of Agva, which I received a free copy of years before, ostensibly to assist in promotion of the book. Sadly, as I told the Pennsylvanians, I still don't feel I have earned the free book seeing as I haven't done promotion one for it to date.
But the jerks from Murfreesboro, TN encapsulate the new Bonnaroo attitude. After being attacked for being poor and wearing pants too large for me, I was told it might be better if I just left; I did. Leaving their "private space," I wandered just a few feet away to be greeted by a group of cool guys from Tennessee who offered companionship and beers. Pointing to the jerk-infested green ten fifteen feet away, I thank the cool guys for representing TN with pride without being elitist asses.
In short, Bonnaroo is evolving. As for if it's heading in the right direction, it depends on your personal preference. For me, seeing as I've got so much history with the fest, I've to at least check out the 10th anniversary next to year and see how full circle it comes in a decade. But without some drastic atmospheric changes, I might find myself looking for some awesome no name festival spread by word of mouth, you know, like Bonnaroo before it blew up.