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Death at Bonnaroo

Reflections on the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, an exercise in excess control

Looked at one way, it was hour one at the 2010 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. It had barely broken noon and the temperature was climbing past 90, as close to 100,000 concertgoers set up tents and awaited four days of peace, love, and music. Naturally, the drugs weren’t far behind. By my count it was a quarter past twelve when the first dealer stepped up to our turf.

David Matthew Sloan, or Matt, as he liked to go by, helped me put up a tent and declined the drugs, but looked at me and joked, “That’s a good sign.” I’d had a more difficult time getting directions to Wal-Mart a few hours earlier than I had finding drugs; unfortunately I wasn’t looking for any. “Or a really bad sign,” I said to Matt.

I had just met the 29-year-old North Carolina native 10 minutes earlier, and now we were going to be camp-mates. I, and seemingly everyone else, tend to make friends quickly at Bonnaroo, in part the only thing separating us for four days is a little bit of mesh and nylon.

This was my fourth Bonnaroo, and I’d learned the hard way that, contrary to what your parents might have told you, being surrounded by dealers isn’t the best thing you could ask for. My first time down to the festival in 2006, I wound up dragging an aluminum bat from my trunk when a seller who couldn’t quit refused to put down the nitrous tank from which he was offering hits right outside our tent.

Matt cracked a smile at me as we propped up the rain-fly and turned to unpack the coolers. I prayed for no more hippie baseball or piles of drug-drenched balloons accumulating outside my nylon shelter.

Buffalo-born Pat Wilson of Weezer
Two of the estimated 75,000 in attendance

Looked at another way, it was hour 27. Though the festival was just kicking off, it had been more than a full day since I let two strangers from the internet climb aboard my fender-bended Buick in Alexandria, Virginia, to come along for the ride in exchange for a few tanks of gas and company as I traversed the Smokies, a marathon trek that all of the Waffle Houses this side of the Tennessee River couldn’t fuel. Matt had seen my post and extended an email, asking that I lend a ride to his friend. Now there we were, in a compound of Coleman tents and sleeping bags, among strangers and strange, strange drugs with street names I hear only at Bonnaroo.

As I approached my 30th hour of no sleep and tried to recover from the Sublime sing-along the two women in my car had coaxed me into earlier that morning, what is and what isn’t started to blur. The tent had been erected, the air mattress inflated. At Bonnaroo, sleep is nearly impossible without the aid of the narcotics that are practically disposable given the abundance. As the hour hand inched closer to one o’clock, the sun seemed to shimmy that much more and bake the earth. I was hot, cranky, and surrounded by a drove of sweat-drenched campers.

I’d sworn the last time was going to be it—that 2009 Bonnaroo. I’d driven all night from Pittsburgh only to have my tent flooded on the first night and spend the remainder of the week sleeping in my car. The lineup this year had me reconsidering that vow, though: Les Claypool, Ween, Weezer…my eighth-grade self would go into shock if he’d known such a roster would be possible someday, his own personal trifecta of quirky alternative coupled with a hundred other groups of practically every genre. Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, and Dave Matthews topped the bill this year, with the Melvins, the Avett Brothers, Steve Martin, and dozens of other names peppering the tie-dyed tapestries all over the festival grounds. I’d be kicking myself if I passed up on this one.

Reflecting after the fact, I’ve changed just as much since my first Bonnaroo as I have since eighth grade. Nonstop music for four days quits being so appealing once you come to a time in your life when you need your beauty sleep. Am I too old for rock and roll? Debatable. If Bonnaroo has taught me one thing over the years, it is how to handle quantity. Here, excess is unavoidable in every way imaginable, and if you can’t take the scorching heat or the nonstop rave stages that’ll have you up all night in a boiling sweat no matter how far away your tent, Bonnaroo might not be for you.

I was envious of my new friend Matt, who came equipped with far more Gatorade than me, along with a cooler the size of my tent, two grills, shade tents, and a collapsible lawn chair that would give an Ottoman throne a run for its money. This was his fourth Bonnaroo, too, he told me. I’d heard that he had been rallying for Dave Matthews Band to close out the festival for ages and that, though I was going to be hitting the road on Sunday night in time to avoid DMB, this was a dream come true for the guy.

Once properly hydrated and with a few hours of shut-eye, Bonnaroo is manageable. Almost. It’s the overabundance of everything that starts to freak you out. The novelty of the pot stench lasts about as long as the low-grade buzz, and outside of the occasional shaded tent, escape from the scorching Tennessean sun is hard to find. Water is priced at just double of what it goes for in the grocery stores, and the food selection is surprisingly not atrocious. Vendors run the gamut, from deep-fried gator to jalapeno veggie corndogs. Ten-dollar make-your-own-burritos seems a tad facetious, however, and I accidently paid that same price for a vegetarian stir-fry that was short two of the ingredients listed on the dry-erase-board menu. The majority of concertgoers opt for the general admission camping option, priced a few hundred bones cheaper than VIP credentials. Unfortunately, depending on luck of the draw, you could face a mile hike to the main stage from the campground. On the walk back Friday night, one attendee said to another, “I feel like I got beat up by a retarded elephant.” “Yeah, dude,” another responded, “we all got beat up by that elephant.”

Excess is hard to escape. Once you can deal with it, though, you can worry about the music.

Bonnaroo began as a jam band festival nearly a decade ago, pulling in acts from the scene that has seemingly mass-reproduced in the void left by Jerry Garcia’s death. Promoters realized that once they tied themselves in with the hacky-sacking hippie culture, diversity was the key to something big outside of that culture’s pigeonhole. If it hadn’t been for Radiohead, Beck, and Elvis Costello, I never would have made the first trip back in 2006. Mixed with a long weekend of camping and a few coolers of booze, and they had me hook, line, and sinker.

The sun got hotter and the drugs showed up more frequently as the weekend progressed. Though the festival offers three high-capacity tents as venues for some acts where the audience can be shaded from the sun, catching a headliner, especially with both your eyes and your ears, means playing hard. On the second stage, Regina Spektor played Sunday afternoon as the temperature cracked 95. This of course led to indulging in over-priced ice cream, and those that couldn’t offer a temporary cool-down were left with few options other than admitting defeat. In front of the same stage three hours later, I met two teenage girls who had been sitting against the barricade for 10 hours to see a 90-minute set by French rock group Phoenix. They had only what water they could carry in from the campground, and everything they put into their bodies was going to have to come out somehow. It was going to be 12 hours by the time Phoenix was finished, but urinating (or even more hydrating) was out of the question for them. An hour earlier Ween had done 90 minutes on the same stage and guitarist Dean Ween had nearly drowned in the monsoon of sweat that trickled off his brow. He trucked along, throwing back beers, fighting to keep his Strat as dry as possible during a rendition of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” Had the performers working the day-shift at Bonnaroo had it as bad as the delirious flocks that sat in puddles of sweat to see them? Hardly, but it didn’t seem like it could be all that fun.

Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips
Les Claypool

To catch only the groups with twilight sets would be ideal, but unless you’ve got an RV—or even a nearby motel—sleeping past seven in the morning is out of the question. By nine o’clock, every soul at the site is up and about, starting a new day of wandering the field for food that won’t break the bank (the dollar grilled cheese man has been my go-to guy four years running) and eventually making it to Centeroo, the heart of the festival, where the music happens. Looking at a map, this sliver of land is really just a fraction of the compound, encompassed on almost all sides by acres of camping, where people inch along on hours (or minutes) of sleep during the day before being re-energized by caffeine and amphetamines and whatever else come sundown to catch the acts with the longer time slots that’ll go all night. If you don’t want to sweat half your weight, those are the acts you need to see, but without the right substances, making it from sunup to sundown is nearly impossible. It took great pacing for me to see the Flaming Lips do a full performance of Dark Side of the Moon at midnight one evening, and if that hadn’t been one of the festival’s major selling points for me, I would had been long asleep by that point.

By Saturday evening I had fit in as much as I could take musically, knowing that Sunday meant Ween and a race to the highway to escape Dave Matthews. I managed to make Weezer and Claypool fit into my schedule, completing the trifecta of Little Andrew’s Musical Legends Come Alive. Aside from subjecting myself to Rivers Cuomo doing a few synth-driven pop tunes and a Lady Gaga cover, it all worked out pretty well—Claypool even closed with a cover of my second favorite Rush number, “Spirit of Radio.” I’d seen the smaller, more accessible acts that I hoped to catch, and, with minor exceptions, loved them all. Lucero played harder at one in the afternoon (albeit while singer Ben Nichols threw back whiskey cups) than I’d ever seen them do in Buffalo, and British singer/songwriter Frank Turner turned to ferocious a cappella arrangements after his acoustic couldn’t keep up with him, winning a new fan in me.

Sunday morning was sobering to say the least. I was brushing my teeth on the hood of my Buick when I caught a stranger, a small white fellow in a goatee and glasses, pacing through our campsite. “Is this Matt’s place?” he asked me, the only person not knocked out hard still by rolls, shrooms, molly, and everything else in that gargantuan galaxy of designer drugs that are so abundant and confusingly named. Hesitant to point out the tent of my sleeping campmate, I spit out my toothpaste and tried to reason with the fellow, who I figured was here to settle some sort of score. Maybe Matt broke into the vodka the night before and got too wordy with him at the Jay-Z show. The guy looked concerned yet calm, but irate is hardly ever an option early in the morning at a place that breeds compassion and friendship.

“Matt got into some stuff last night, man,” the guy said. I knew it.

“Matt’s dead. Matt got into some stuff and he died last night.”

It was nine in the morning and I was the lone soul awake in a compound inhabited by a dozen of the deceased’s closest friends, and I’m just a fool from the internet.

We scraped our nails across the nylon sheaths of each camper’s temporary home and whispered through the rain-fly to try to wake people. I paced, and sat, and paced some more. Eventually I made it back to Centeroo, not knowing much more what I could do, at least not until the sheriffs showed up at our site to scrape Matt’s Honda Element with a fine-tooth comb and inquire about every last incident from the night before. Remarkably, I’d hit the hay at 10 that evening, sacrificing Gwar’s late-night set for my first eight hours of sleep in god knows when. I hadn’t known an air mattress could stay inflated so long.

Matt never saw Dave Matthews close out Bonnaroo, of course. “We all have to go home today, but Matt will stay at Bonnaroo forever,” one of his pals said that morning. From backstage, I surfed the web for news reports, and heard that a 29-year-old man had collapsed and died that morning, suffering a core temperature of 108 degrees before being pronounced dead. Initial writeups blamed the heat for Matt’s passing, yet note, of course, that the results of a toxicology examination could take weeks. I was taking down my tent on Sunday night after Ween when a skinny fellow in a thick Southern drawl yelled if I’d been there to see his brother dead. Matt’s brothers had driven all day to pack up his things and drive his car back home. I apologized for their loss and swore, yet again, that this would be my last Bonnaroo.

On the internet, people are rallying on the same message board where Matt found me for more water fill-up stations and better first aid to avoid another incident next year. They weren’t there after the sheriffs had left on Sunday to hear from his friends how Matt had done three heavy rolls of ecstasy and another dose of molly, pure MDMA, and that he was shaking, sweating, and grabbing people while at a show in Centeroo. That he had been acting weird for a while. Matt had been overdosing and slipping away for who knows how long, and now Matt was dead and I was alone on the hood of my car, with my tent packed up, listening to goddamn Dave Matthews on Sunday night. The news reports don’t talk about Matt racing to his tent to get his wallet after telling one drug dealer on Friday, “Man, I’ve been waiting two days for you!” and they don’t talk about the bag of mushrooms the cops didn’t catch when they went through his stuff.

We didn’t talk about Matt on the way home. We didn’t talk about the grand time we’d had, either. We talked about the heat, and the long days, and how this year was it and never again. It was the same talk I have every year, about the excess and insanity of Bonnaroo, though this year its pinnacle wasn’t a tale of a pantsless chap running amok through the big fountain in Centeroo. This year we knew the worst thing we saw was the rummaging through and packing up of our dead friend’s grills and tents and coolers, and we silently acknowledged that as we drove past the Waffle Houses into the Smokies and away for another year.

Will it take another eighth-grade nostalgia fest next time around? It’ll take something, all right.

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