I often find myself trying to explain to people the things that make Bonnaroo so amazing; why I’ll do whatever it takes to get myself there every year. “Trying” is the operative word here; trying to extoll the virtues of this adult playground; trying to put into words what keeps me coming back year after year; why I refuse to take off the wrist bands when the festival is over; why it’s impossible to sleep during the days leading up to the festival; and why it’s so damn difficult to leave the farm on Monday, when its all over. It’s frustrating for me, because I never feel like I quite capture the essence of the festival in the way that I want to. I can tell people what the festival is all about and what makes it different from other festivals, like Coachella and Lollapalooza, but it never really seems like it does the farm justice. I feel woefully inadequate to convey to the unknowing masses the sheer beauty that resides in Manchester, Tennessee. That oasis, which remains relatively dormant for all but a single week of the year, when it comes alive for 80,000 people, who travel from all over the country (and beyond) for the opportunity to spend 4 days on those hallowed grounds. Even talking to other Bonnaroovians is difficult, and it becomes clear that there isn’t any single Bonnaroo experience that tells the whole story. There are shared moments, of course, that all those who pass under that arch can attest to, but like all other festivals and experiences the like, there is no one way to do Bonnaroo, and certainly no way that is the right or wrong way. All I have is my Bonnaroo experience, an intensely personal experience that to a large degree I share with my girlfriend, who has been going with me for these 3 years, and to a slightly lesser degree with my Bonnaroo family, an ever-growing, ever-diversifying group of the most amazing people in the world. It’s an awesome feeling to know that I can have such a unique and personal experience in a place that holds nearly one hundred thousand people. Maybe I’ll never be able to convey my feelings in a way that is satisfactory. Maybe that’s ok.
For me, it started in January of 2013. I was living in Australia at the time and my friends there told me about this annual festival that they all went to called Big Day Out. It was a one-day, all-ages festival with about 60-80 bands playing at more than 10 stages throughout the grounds. It was a huge undertaking to traverse the massive grounds, but I got to see a ton of great acts. It was my first official festival. When I came back from it, I started looking at the lineups for festivals back in the US. When I saw the lineup for Bonnaroo I immediately told my girlfriend about it. After some discussion, we decided that it would be a new adventure for us. While she had been to Coachella some years before, the idea of camping out for 4 days in Tennessee together, listening to new music, and making new friends was exciting and new. Not only that, but the lineup was split into two categories: the newer, hipper, indie acts, which she was really excited about (and which were mostly lost on me) and older, throw-back acts that I was giddy as a school girl about. While she looked forward to acts with names like The National, The XX, Grizzly Bear, and Cat Power, I was going nuts over Tom Petty, ZZ Top, Wu-Tang Clan, and Nas. It was all about the music for us and there was something for each of us. We strategically planned for the festival to fall at the tail end of a long, marathon road trip that would take us through more than 20 states over 3 weeks. By the time we got there, we were worn out and had already gone several days without showering. I don’t know if that gave us a leg up on other festival goers, or if that just made us the stinky kids for the first day or two.
I suppose that I should take a step back and say that before we arrived in Manchester, I contacted the one person that I knew went to Bonnaroo every year. I asked if she was going this year and if she wanted to hang out at some point during the festival. She did us one better. She said that she camped with some of the best people on earth and that they would gladly welcome us into their group. We were stoked to have some veterans who could show us the ropes, and a friendly face to help us navigate the grounds. So, we met up with this posse before going into the grounds. Most people were driving in together from Minnesota, but there were others coming in from Texas and Florida, and probably other places as well. There was a hidden swimming area along a river in Manchester, just outside the Bonnaroo grounds, that everyone seemed to know well that served as a meeting place. Showing up, the two of us immediately felt like we were crashing a family reunion. Everyone seemed to know each other and the group was much larger than we had imagined. I counted about 15 or 16 people. As soon as I found my friend, she made sure we were introduced to everyone and we immediately became a part of the family.
That first year of Bonnaroo was amazing. I learned what it meant to do Roo with this crew. It didn’t matter that it was our first year, or that we didn’t know anyone. There were at least 5 other Bonnarookies in the group that year, and we found out that almost no one knew everyone in the group. It was a rag tag group, full of best friends, family members, casual acquaintances, and the ubiquitous friends of friends. We fell into the latter classification. The next day, even more people showed up. These folks didn’t drive down, but rather flew in and either rented cars, or showed up with whatever they could carry. In total, there were about 25 of us that year. Like I said, there were lots of us rookies, all wide-eyed and unassuming, ready to get gobbled in Centeroo. The rest were a varied group of vets, from the 2nd and 3rd year kids, all the way up to the grizzled and war-tested, who had as many as 8 Bonnaroos under their belts. They treated their Bonnaroos the way children progress in school, telling us that they were going into the 8th grade this year. It was one of these veterans who had given the group its name. Some years before he had decided that meeting for shows would be easier if there was one common location at each of the five stages where their group could go to find one another. Some groups at Bonnaroo chose to carry totems or fly flags, but this group decided that if you just went to the back left pole at each stage, you’d be sure to run into anyone from the group that was at the same show as you. From then on, this group of friends, strangers, and family called themselves Back Left Pole.
With so many people in one group, it’s important that everyone contribute in their own way. We are a family after all. There was a lot of useful knowledge that I gleaned that first year, from how to approach the port-a-potties, to which people not to buy drugs from; from which stands sell the best pizza, to how to sneak contraband into Centeroo. Some people played music and set up sound systems at our camp site, some people cooked and shared food. For my part, I tried hard to be the guy. If you needed something and couldn’t find it, then I wanted to be the guy who either had it or could get it for you, whether it was a knife, a zip-tie, or a ham sandwich, I wanted “David probably has that” to be a common phrase around camp. Before entering the farm, we also stopped at the liquor store and filled a 5 gallon jug with enough booze to drown an elephant. That first night, before any of the music had even started, we made friends of the Back Left Pole crew by getting as many of them as drunk as humanly possible. There were many people who could trace their Thursday morning hangover to our blue jug of booze.
My girlfriend and I spent a lot of the first year on the farm by ourselves. We wandered around Centeroo, wondering how this place had existed for so long without us knowing about it. It just felt safe. When I say safe, I mean that the people around us all seemed like friends, even though they were all strangers. We talked with many of them and found out that they were indeed friends, if only from the moment we started talking until the moment we finished and went our separate ways. Even just the fact that it was so comfortable to talk to people we didn’t know was an insane concept. Outside of Roo we all live in a world where we do anything and everything to put up barrier between us an other people. on the streets we wear sunglasses, partially to block out the sun, but also so that we don’t have to make eye contact with strangers. We listen to music and read books on the bus/train, because god forbid we actually make human contact with someone we don’t know. But, at the farm all of those barriers, both perceived and actual, are removed. There is almost no one that you can’t just approach and start a conversation with. We’re all here for the same reason; to have fun and forget about the real world for 4 days.
Also, we all seemed to share a common distaste for authority, especially police. One of the amazing things about the farm is that while local police post up outside of the gates, randomly searching cars as they enter the grounds, they aren’t allowed on the farm at all. That means that once you are inside of Bonnaroo, you are free from their watchful eye. I can’t think of another time when I knew that there was no government authority monitoring my every move. Being a military guy, I had grown to believe that in the absence of a governing authority, that the world would descend into chaos and anarchy. Here at Bonnaroo, the main authority figures are volunteers who have agreed to work for free tickets. And yet, even in that void of authority this place was truly the happiest place on earth. I can only speak to my own experience, but I never saw any violence, never heard of any rapes, and only a few thefts. So, what then did Bonnaroovians do with their new found freedom, if not to rape, pillage, and murder one another? They did drugs… WE did drugs. Festival goers would roam from camp site to camp site peddling their goods to other festival goers. People would come into our group and have a seat, tell us about their products, offer to give us a sample or to test if we wanted to. Then we would go in to the shows and enhance our own experience. Nobody was hurting anybody else, the way I’d always been led to believe they would without the prescribed law and order in place. Things were actually more peaceful than ever.
To a person like me, who does little more than dabble in drug culture in regular life, occasionally smoking pot, and on very rare occasions eating mushrooms, the idea of doing unfamiliar drugs around unfamiliar people, in unfamiliar places is a daunting one. But, not at Bonnaroo. That first year I did MDMA and cocaine for the first time. The next year, acid. And I’ll tell you what, even as trepidatious as I was going into all of it, The experiences were both safe and amazing. The more comfortable I felt around my group of festival goers, and on those festival grounds, the happier my highs were. I found myself emotionally in places that I didn’t even know existed. I had never truly experienced the connection between music, drugs, and people before. I became closer with my girlfriend through these things, and we became indelibly a part of this Bonnaroo family, the Back Left Pole. With all of the right tools in place, we experienced the kinds of things that will fill stories for the rest of our lives:
- 80,000 people singing Hey Jude along with Paul McCartney
- Paul McCartney’s 4 hour marathon set
- Seeing Wu-Tang on stage, talking about the new record they’re working on after such a long hiatus
- Tom Petty playing Free Falling in a torrential downpour
- R. Kelly releasing a thousand (paper? balloon?) doves at the beginning of his show
- Finally peaking for the first time after serotonin overload (AKA violent vomiting), right as Alt-J was going on stage (They started their set by playing the first four tracks of their album in order… so good)
- Finding our group during Kendrick Lamar’s main stage afternoon set and going completely insane!!!
- Singing along to Jack Johnson’s “Better Together” while dancing with my girlfriend (our song)
I’ll never forget that first year. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought I would see some amazing shows, get good and drunk, and bond with my girlfriend. I did all of that, but I also became a part of something that I could never see myself not being a part of again. I became a part of the Back Left Pole. I shared amazing experiences with amazing people, who are now amazing friends. On top of all of that, after Roo 2013, as my girlfriend and I moved to New York City, where neither of us knew anyone before this festival, Bonnaroo surprised us once again. At Bonnaroo we met a couple of Back Left Pole Dancers from Minnesota (like my girlfriend and me) who lived in NYC and would become two of our best friends.