It took nearly 24 hours of unbroken sleep to recover from my Bonnaroocleosis. Like other workers, performers, and festicle-goers in attendance, I’ve been hacking up silty brown lung-dumplings and blowing whole coal fields of black boogers into rolls of tissue.
The annual Bonnaroo dust storm could be a preview of the world after a nuclear cataclysm, where those so privileged will wring their desperate satisfaction from tingling chemicals, sun-seared flesh on display, and the pulsating rhythm of pleasure machines, leaving pathetic Plebeians to pick through the scraps.
Once again, I had a blast under the mushroom cloud.
Monday, June 6
Say “Moo,” motherfucker
I’m late as usual to pick up Glen the Red, a fellow rigger who packed his camping gear and work tools hours ago. We hurtle down the highway to pick up our credentials at Manchester’s high school.
I ask the hipster behind the counter about the RFID tags that are now implanted in festicle-goers’ wristbands. He tells me the electronic chips are to weed out ticket fraud, but also to assist in the identification and removal of evil-doers.
I ask him if the information will be used for marketing demographics. With RFID readers carefully placed around the site, promoters should be able to see who goes to what shows, and for how long. This would render the profit pyramid with unprecedented accuracy. (How fitting that RFID technology got its start in cow-herding, warehouse management, and Apocalyptic propaganda.)
Clerky McClipboard tells me that demographic studies are under development, and that hopefully people will be able to purchase overpriced consumer goods via microchip next year. This is vaguely depressing—in an End Times kind of way—but not as depressing as the crummy Staff Pass he hands me. What happened to the premium passes?
On site, Gator is waiting to welcome us into The Grove, where we pitch our tents beneath gently swaying oaks surrounded by barbed wire. This is sacred space backstage, set apart from the turmoil and communicable diseases of the circus tent ghettos which house most festicle workers—the riggers, steel dogs, stagehands, security guards, and volunteer trash-scrappers. If you happen by The Grove, just assume that you are not invited.
Tuesday, June 7
What’s the difference between a rigger and God?
God doesn’t think he’s a rigger!
I love climbing the massive main stage in the morning. Seventy feet from the peak to the deck—a jungle gym for grown-ups. The steel truss sizzles your palms under the proscenium, the air is suffocating, the smell somewhere between a dusty old book and a bloody nose.
The up-rigger gig is the best job I’ve ever had. It has taken years—and plenty of patient teachers—to hone my craft. I’ve been dragged through the muck as a stagehand and I’ve lapped up the luxuries as a touring tech—nothing beats climbing the steel with the boys. We race to the top of the wire-rope ladder to drop in our ropes. We pull up the motor chains hand-over-hand, sweat pouring, muscles taut, until every motor that hoists the lights, sound, and video is ready to fly.
This art is pure. Bullshit has no place here.
The camaraderie is akin to that among pilots or soldiers, only scuzzier. Riggers literally depend on each other for survival every day. Success means you climb down, smoke a cigarette, and count up your cash. Failure means you fall to your death, or worse, you drop something and kill somebody below. I’ve heard people say they want to learn to rig for the money or glory, but that is absurd. There is only one reason to become a high-steel rigger—because you love it.
Dinner: Spaghetti with red meat paste
Wednesday, June 8
The Overzealous Douchebag Brigade
Most promoters appreciate riggers for their craft, but to Bonnaroo Rex we’re just another number—usually just a measly fraction. You have to take your liberties here, because nobody’s gonna just give them to you.
After the second day of work, I am told to drive out to some Lower Pleb Parking Lot a mile off site where my car is to be trapped for the duration of the festicle, vulnerable to thieves and vandals. We come to a checkpoint halfway, and drivers are getting shaken down by purple-shirt security.
Three fat bitches—two female, one male—tell me that it doesn’t matter if I am a worker or not, they have the right to rifle through my belongings any time they choose, which means they get to keep whatever they consider contraband—as in “I do what I wawnt, sucka!” It happens to everybody around here.
While many security workers comport themselves with decency and respect—and for you guys, the respect is mutual—there are plenty more who use Bonnaroo’s hypocritical anti-drug policies as an excuse to rampantly steal customers’ and workers’ drugs and alcohol, which they always pocket for themselves. That must be one hell of a party!
After being hassled by police all of their lives, these swarms of belligerent blubber-bellies are happy to take their turn behind the truncheon. Heavy-handed Nazi and Maoist officers probably had the same chips on their shoulders. Soon they’ll have chips in their brains, too.
My response to their dirty demands is simple. Hell no. I just turn around and sneak back into the Parking Lot of Higher Plebeians. Fortunately, these goobers are as unobservant as they are hostile.
Dinner: Sloppy Joes with red meat paste
Thursday, June 9
Howdy Doody, Crackerjack
The front gates open wide. Hordes of white kids pour into Centeroo like chariot-riding Aryans descending the Himalayas. Restless seas of unpigmented faces turning pink, the melanin-deficient massive, the Collective Caucasian Unconscious with one bleary third eye peering over the barricades. With few exceptions, the only people of color at Bonnaroo are either onstage or working backstage. Out in the crowd, the scene is whiter than Idaho. Diversity is a matter of bandanas and sandal brands.
People still refer to Bonnaroo as a hippie-fest, but that’s not true at all. The early years hosted the life-long nomads who followed the Dead or Spread, with a sprinkling of Rainbow Family heads, but those cats are long gone. Today the ‘Roo is a wash of generic, middle-class, post-hipster college kids.
Trucker hats and bikini tops. Gauged earrings and 80s shades. Chicks with fresh tattoos that probably cost more than your car, and enough drugs to fry a suburban bodhisattva for life. As unique as snowflakes that all look the same. Unformed and eager for an identity. Just like the online brochure said it would be.
Wait, what do you mean, me and my bland, black attire? I’m a rigger—Fuck you!
Thursday’s performance highlight takes place at the Eminem rehearsals on What Stage. Eminem is pallid and spastic, as usual, spitting irresponsible murderous rants (yawn) and slinging choreographed hand gestures that remind me of a frustrated tour guide trying to explain local history to mentally retarded vacationers. Lucky for us, the thudding bass beats shake the roadcases hard enough to have a water bottle race, like the old vibrating football board game.
My Orange Gatorade overtakes the Ocelot’s Fruit Punch by a hair! Now that’s entertainment.
Dinner: Red meat paste over lasagna
When night falls, I watch the fireflies try to seduce the long fingers of light beaming off the Bonnaroo arch at the main entrance. It doesn’t take much to get a simple organism turned on.
Friday, June 10
These monkeys be trippin’
There are confirmed reports of a stagehand getting football-tackled by security for voicing his opinion that they are overbearing assholes. Injuries were sustained. Talk about proving a point.
Later in the evening, I see Arcade Fire perform on What Stage. Their lyrics have conscience, which is more than you can say for most pop musicians these days. Just before the show starts, sky-divers are deployed and drop sweeping trails of blinking blue LED lights which spin down on little Whirlybird wings by the tens of thousands. The entire sky sparkles above us. Guess who cleans that up.
Dinner: Red meat paste, now with pasta penne
Speaking of conscience, there are two peculiar sculptures in the VIP areas. One is an intricate life-sized wood-carving behind Which Stage. It depicts two monkeys buzzing down the highway in a VW bus. The driver monkey is smoking a bowl with both hands off the wheel while the passenger sits on top, shielding his eyes with his paw as he stares off at something in the distance. The license plate reads INDIVIDUALS. How cynical. So what is the rider monkey staring at?
In another VIP tent across the venue, there is a wood-carving of a ship sinking into the soil with various treasures floating to the top. The ape-like masses watch with glee as civilization as we know it is sucked under the surface. Global warming, economic collapse, ethnic turmoil, rogue asteroids, nanobot plagues, nuclear annihilation, the wrathful hand of God. So many End Times to choose from. If you’re lucky, you might get your grubby paws on one of those treasure chests as it floats by.
Saturday, June 11
Sleep-deprived seekers of the Truth
Still awake after overnight load in. Muscles tired. Brain sizzling. Glen the Red, the Ocelot, and I have been awake for so long. We drink beer in The Grove. We schmoke well. Must take the edge off. I lay back for just a moment as the cruel Eye of Ra creeps up from the horizon.
On my back, they stand over me. The oak trees have never looked so green.
“Stop being a pussy, JoeBot,” they demand. “It’s time to walk.”
We wander to the far reaches of the ‘Roo. Out on the perimeter, past the pre-packaged VIP RV park, beyond the custy campgrounds and corn dog stands, we come across a Hare Krishna stall next to a glass pipe merchant. Wearing our best cop sunglasses, we grill these guru-lovers for the meaning of life.
It all boils down to devotion to God, to unbroken contemplation of Krishna, eating karma-free vegetarian foods, and chanting the names of their sweet Lord: Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna… Hare Rama, Rama Rama… Every act is holy, an offering to God.
“Even taking a shit in these God-forsaken porto-potties?” I ask.
“Yes. To cleanse the body is holy.”
Like most ascetic sects, the Krishnas are pacifists and sexual renunciates. As girls pass by, the incense-burners tell us that the only justified use of sex is to produce a child. All else is unholy.
In Hindu scriptures, Krishna multiplies himself in order to batter the wombs of every lovestruck village girl simultaneously, like that ‘Lil Wayne track where he sings: “I wish I could fuck every girl in the world…”—which includes your girlfriend, your grandmother, and your daughter, just in case you were wondering. But that’s the business of the gods. For Krishna’s followers, it is all about chanting and keeping it in your pants—forever.
“The only thing that matters is Krishna,” the sectoid explains. “All the rest—sex, drugs, the transitory pleasures—are mere illusion.”
I can’t argue with that last part. Still hungry for answers, we wander back toward the ‘Roo. We meet a group of Fundamentalist Christians on the way. One preaches through a bullhorn about the treachery of abortion and Darwinism’s justification of rape while the others hand out cheesy pamphlets. The kids walking by taunt these holy rollers relentlessly.
“Fuck you!” one yells.
“Evolution is proven by chemistry!”
“These guys believe that humans rode dinosaurs!”
One of the preachers approaches us. As it turns out, he’s a reasonable man. He used to work with high-steel riggers when he was in construction, so he knows a bit about our trade. After a long and rational discussion about the great problems of life, the temptations and tragedies of the flesh, the greed and the betrayal, I ask him, What is the highest good?
“To believe in Christ.”
How does that differ from the Krishna-lovers across the way?
Our preacher has no satisfactory answer, so we move on, throwing our senses into the endless barrage of ass and titties. Goddamn, so many blank expressions, fine asses, and jiggling titties. No wonder kids set themselves up to need abortions for the fun of it. My faraway girlfriend is perched on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, making this procession that much more pointless and painful. Love means so much more to me than this.
Mankind knows “there is always one wider than mine, always one tighter than thine.” To reach further than one’s grasp is the root of all suffering, until the apple is eaten to its core.
Back at The Grove, we blabber on. The culties and preachers have a point—transcendence is the only way to peace and freedom—but who would lay down his life for cartoons of Christ or Krishna? Cigarette butts pile high around our ankles.
God is everything and beyond, including our Selves. The true Path must allow one’s Self to thrive without trampling upon the Other. You eat God, you feed God. In the end we are all consumed. The world ends when you die, then Eden is reborn, the Fall is reenacted. Lifetime after lifetime, we grow the Self from the roots of the Whole, continually expanding like the Universe encompassing. Together, with Love.
Another empty beer can falls to the ground. We all look like hell. Another personal Apocalypse has dawned. Will sleep ever find us?
At midnight we see the most compelling performance that Bonnaroo has to offer. From the drowsy hills of Knoxville, Tennessee comes the white man’s answer to Prince, a paragon of headspun sexual indulgence and flamboyant, womanizing faggery. Out of the shadow of rednecks and UT frat boys emerges Fine Peduncle with a drum machine.
The songs are about one thing: fucking. Fine Peduncle loops his beats on the fly, and yet maintains a dominant stage presence, dancing to the rhythm, humping his mixer, stripping down to little red skivvies. The girls in the crowd are creaming, their boyfriends shuffle uncomfortably.
Two stage dancers accompany Fine Peduncle. One is a shambling pile of thrift store clothes with a beaver-tail for a dick, the other is a painted green frog lady with a gaping, ravaged anus for a vagina.
At the peak of the show, Fine Peduncle starts scrogging the frog onstage. Then the thrift store pile mounts the singer from behind, and I see a fractal metaphor for the Great Earthly Hierarchy in this unbroken chain of Muppet sodomy. We are all devious fuckers who continually get fucked. No one is innocent. Suddenly the audience is being covered in seedless Silly String jizm. Everyone cheers.
No one escapes.
Sunday, June 12
Another day at the office
Daylight comes and goes. Widespread Panic plays a three hour song. Their audience blows itself up with badly aimed fireworks. Everyone is high. The roadies wheel the band members offstage on dollies, still playing their instruments, and pack them into the truck one by one. They will still be noodling when the crew unloads them at the next gig and plugs their instruments in.
How do we keep working? Up the ladder. Down the ladder. Up the ladder again. The sky is turning blue already.
Monday, June 13
I rike a crawfish. Rook, it has a rittre craw!
9am. No rest for the weary. We drain can after can in The Grove, begging the gods for unconsciousness.
Suddenly a man appears across the way and crucifies himself on one of the circus tent air conditioners for nearly an hour. (We will assume) he is completely wonker-zonkied on those little orange crystals—derived from the South American ayahuasca vine—which have become so popular these days.
At the peak of the experience, DMT will often induce a sort of death trip. The user is completely detached from his body, and drawn through a curtain of spiraling colors into otherwordly realms. He is visited by angels, elves, or spirit animals in tuxedos. He is given advice, shown visions. While the sober religious seeker takes a number and spends his whole life waiting for God, this sweaty slobbermouth just cuts the line with a few puffs of sickly spiritual smoke.
A golf cart full of security guards pulls up to him. The driver says:
“You can’t have it all, sir. You have to give some of it to us.”
The psychedelic martyr cracks his eyelid and the security guards just drive away. Was that a reference to the DMT? The gusts coming out of the vents? Or were those purple-shirt angels descending to deliver a universal message of charity and cosmic balance to chemical Christ as he sheds his mortal bonds?
Sleep finds me thinking of those two people who died this year. The sun took their lives. Ten years of Bonnaroo, and ten souls sacrificed. It could happen any day, any time.
I wake up just in time for the employee crawfish boil.
Despite being a dress rehearsal for dystopia, I found true brotherhood at Bonnaroo. Nashville crew, Memphis crew, Atlanta crew, Chattanooga crew. We suffer sunburns together, build the steel together, get filthy together, mock and exploit the attendees together, confront security together, choke down red meat paste together, resent The Man together, explore the chemical reaches of consciousness together.
Now we eat tables full of crawfish and sing karaoke together. This is a fine reward from promoters who snub their workers like an ex-lover in a room full of fabulous friends. Now that her entourage is gone, she suddenly turns and offers a bottle of champagne. What can you do but accept the gesture graciously?
I read a quote on one of the video screens the other day:
“It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.”
On the surface it looks like clever propaganda to feed someone that you’re about to fuck out of something valuable. On the other hand, maybe Charles Sprugeon had a point. I look at my brothers’ faces smiling over steaming crustacean carcasses, and think, this is a slice of heaven.
I twist the head off of a little red sea bug, suck the spicy juice out, crack his decapitated body, peel his shell off, pinch his meaty gut out, and then eat it with a glob of his head fat. Best crawfish I’ve ever had. It doesn’t matter how much shit the hand-that-feeds throws at me—a killer crew party always leaves a good taste in my mouth.
Until next time…
© 2011 Joseph Allen
Arcade Fire — “My Body is a Cage”