Why We Return: The Memories and Magic of Bonnaroo
  • TUESDAY, JUNE 17, 2014

  • Posted by: Don Saas

Strange memories on this nervous night in..." West Virginia. 15 hours ago, I woke up in the baking Manchester, Tennessee sun. Whether it was the searing heat, the agonizing physical discomfort, or the call of nature to seek out the biohazardous porta-johns, it didn't matter once I rolled out of my condensation-soaked sleeping bag and stepped out of the mud-caked tent. It was finally time to leave Manchester. It was time to leave Bonnaroo.

Why do we go to festivals? Why do we pay hundreds of dollars to roast in the sun, to sweat buckets through every pore of our bodies, to ruin clothes, to wreck out feet, to spit in the face of proper hygiene? Do we want to meet girls? Do we want to do drugs? Or do we simply want to worship at the temple of rock & roll (and pop and hip-hop and EDM)? What is it that makes the bone-weary exhaustion of Bonnaroo's 30-minute treks from campgrounds to Centeroo or Coachella's hellish desert heat worth it? And there's only one answer. The singularity of our strange memories.

You know you can't hold me forever
I didn't sign up with you
I'm not a present for your friends to open
This boy's too young to be singing the blues


A knight gilded not in armor of steel or chainmail but a gem-encrusted, sequined long suit belts out the chorus of the title track to the record that turned him into an icon, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John pauses to mug for the audience. You turn to the girl to your left. She's a friend. Let's say you met her waiting for Cut Copy the night before. You're both shooting the same band. You hit it off immediately, but like a cruel Joss Whedon twist, you have one day, and you'll never see each other again.

So, goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can't plant me in your penthouse
I'm going back to my plow


Sir Elton's performance intensifies. His voice has deepened over the years, and he harmonizes with an audience providing the original timeless melody. The playful, unintentional physical contact with your new friend brought on by the teeming throng of humanity surrounding you becomes less unintentional and more flirtatious. Signals are being sent. Vibes aren't just being emitted. They are exploding like the fireworks that would light up the What Stage sky later that night. The sparks are flying not just between you and your friend but between tens of thousands of other music lovers united under the banner of a legend whose music will live longer than most of us.

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I've finally decided my future lies
Beyond the Yellow Brick Road


She caresses your arm and you freeze. The high of Bonnaroo melts and floods into a torrent of neuroses and self-doubt and caution. Do you take the risk? What if you're misreading everything? If you take the risk, what's your next move? What happens if you make any wrong decision any step of the way? And as you think too much, the moment passes, and the vibes are gone. You finish a seismic set from one of rock's most important figures, walk back to camping, hug, and say goodbye.

It's a downer ending. I know. I've never been able to nail the climax of stories, especially if I'm the star of the show... but those stories are why you go to Bonnaroo. We love music because whether we like it or not, songs become inextricably linked to our most personal and intense memories. What was the first song you slow-danced to? ("Truly, Madly, Deeply." Trust me, I'm embarrassed.) What song do you most identify with your last ex to the point you can't hear it without thinking of him/her? ("New York City"/They Might Be Giants.) We all have answers to those questions and countless scores more. Ask about any focal point of our lives, and there's a band or song that fills the background of that aspect of our past.

And Bonnaroo gives you the opportunities to craft those memories with the musicians we love in our direct presence. The music isn't background or subtext to the memories we make. It becomes the very core of the experience. 2014 marked my third trip to the farm. I've danced in the rain as Tom Petty spilled the story of a girl from Indiana named Mary Jane heading out for her last dance. Tears have inexplicably formed while thousands around me experienced the same tear duct breakdown while Bon Iver flowed into "Holocene" and all our emotional defenses shut down. I've seen Kanye West get tens of thousands of people to scream "Fuck the press!" as I desperately pray nobody notices my green wristband and camera. I've seen the former frontman of a genre-defining rock band (David Byrne) unite his powers with one of the most important women in rock & roll today (Annie Clark) and shatter all preconceived notions of either's stage prowess. And, I experienced all these memories in one place (if not quite at one time).

Those aren't memories we let go of easily. The next time I hear "Stronger," I'll expect the song to stop in the intro so that Kanye can launch into a tirade against his imagined crucifixions. I won't be able to hear "Skinny Love" without being able to remember limping to my car after Bon Iver's festival-defining performance because my feet had been totally devastated by ill-fitting shoes and countless hours on my feet. "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" will always bring memories of the beginning of night, the Which Stage, and feeling enveloped by a simple but beautiful synth melody. You can't get this type of immediacy and intimacy outside of the festival experience.

I could go to the record store, and buy AM. I could pull up a Youtube performance and watch Arctic Monkeys slide their way through "Do I Wanna Know." But that doesn't match being five feet away from Alex Turner, watching him sashay around the stage like Mick Jagger's better-looking, illegitimate pompadoured son. You don't get the first-hand experience of watching him momentarily forget to be a glammed out 1960s showman only to remember and immediately put his hands and clap with a perfectly framed duck face.

I can stream After the Disco from Spotify, but that isn't the same as catching a glimpse of the sprouting gray in James Mercer's beard and then suffering from the existential dread of the realization that Oh, Inverted World is over 13 years old, and that there are people at Bonnaroo who were babies when that record was released (if you need me, I'll be crying into my sheets at the ever-present spectre of death and old age).

After the disasters from Friday, I was prepared to write off 2014 as the year that Bonnaroo's high-tide broke. To invoke the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson and mourn the moment where the spirit and love of a true American musical Mecca disappeared beneath the wave of Molly, ill-advised EDM, and corporate greed. And while Bonnaroo may still have its problems (the ever-increasing size of the VIP areas without regard to press or general festival goers is a gross testament to rampant capitalism if there ever is one), Saturday and Sunday brought me back to the fold. Elton John's set may have even surpassed Paul McCartney's from last year which almost seems to be a metaphysical impossibility. My skepticism towards Arctic Monkeys was washed away in a sea of Alex Turner charm, and strong sets from Broken Bells, Capital Cities, and Little Dragon filled out the rest of our last day.

Six months from now, I'll be listening to Elton John. Tom Petty still hasn't left my regular rotation after last year's set. In fact, he's gotten far more play than co-headliner Paul McCartney in the months since (thanking the memories of dancing in the rain). I'll hear "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Elton's voice will rise into "You can hold me forever." And I'll remember a look. I'll remember a smile. The "ooh's" and "aaahs" will hit. I'll remember a touch. The piano will hit the major chords. And I'll be back on the farm, in my head, lost in the sea of music and a girl.

That's why I go to Bonnaroo, and it's why I'll be returning for years to come.

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