By Anna Murphy
New York, NY, USA
Until right now, I haven’t really been able to talk about it. When people ask me how Bonnaroo was, I become uncharacteristically terse, calling it “wild” or “an alternate reality” or simply confessing that, “it was the best time of my life.” It almost seems like a sacrilege to try to describe this four-day auditory buffet in words, but here I go.
And a sensory feast it was. It was an unparalleled experience that I was able to share with 80,000 like-minded, degenerate hippies in Manchester, Tennessee, and one that I have tried to relive again while sitting at my desk every day since. With Pretty Lights blasting in one earbud in broad daylight (I can’t wear both at work - that would be unprofessional), I sit in an office plunking away at my keyboard. Even though it pains my heart, I still have to get my fix…because music, especially live music, is an addicting drug and my own personal upper.
Since I don’t want the best week ever (VH1’s have nothing on mine) to get buried under the mundane, the following is my attempt at translating the event in living “written” color.
Back in February, three of my New York girlfriends and I purchased tickets to Bonnaroo without a second thought or means of transportation. My friend Ryan from high school then got two of his coworkers in D.C. onboard and suddenly we had a nice co-ed group of seven. Eventually, when we couldn’t put off the logistics any longer, we agreed that our optimal travel option would be by way of RV. The boys unearthed a 1986 hunk of metal on Craigslist, affectionately christened “The Beast,” which, bless her heart, died 10 minutes after they drove her out of the lot. Since Ryan and Co. had just gone on a cross-country road trip in a newer recreational vehicle, they were able to do a swap at the last minute.
We NYC girls megabused it to D.C. and were introduced to our new home on wheels. The boys, eager to get on the road, decided we were to depart that night. Brian got the first shift, while the rest of us passed out wherever there was a flat surface. We woke up the next morning in a Wal-Mart parking lot across from the James Madison University campus. Swooping into the mega-store with a mission, we stocked up on supplies, water and food for the week, and the boys got their first taste of corralling a herd of indecisive females. Three hours later, we were back on the road.
The Wandering Hat boys somewhere between DC and Tennessee.
Bonnaroo newbies, we took the scenic back way through Tennessee and got pulled over by cops because allegedly “our front right light was out.” They revealed they were from the drug unit and asked if we had drugs with us. We said no, but they prompted us further saying that it didn’t matter if we did. They were only worried about the quantity. This didn’t change our answer. They then brought a drug dog on who sniffed out our space and finally, dismissed us. In the clear, we got back on the road.
Upon entering the park, we waited for an hour as other oversized vehicles ambled in, none quite as beautiful as the “Journey.” We were searched again by Bonnaroo staff (two 16-year old guys who used words like “gnarly” and smelled like earthen clay), because glass was not allowed. Luckily, we had spoken with Bonnaroo pros and had transferred all of our vodka into plastic drinking jugs labeled with black tape so no hasty/thirsty victims would mistake it for water.
We got our wristbands scanned in and, of course, mine didn’t work. I was not surprised as Murphy’s Law is not only my namesake, but also, inconveniently, my lot in life. Wading through tall grass on my way to customer service, I took in the scene around me. Many had started the party early. I noticed that no one really liked wearing clothes, and that you really couldn’t tell how old anyone was because they were all acting 21. Finally, when my wristband issue was resolved, we entered the sprawling farm to park and set up our camp in the Johnny Lawrence lot. We met our neighbors, took a walk on the grounds and before even hearing any music, I decided that I could stay there for a very long time.
A view of our RV neighbors from the roof of Journey.
Late arrivals showed up the next morning. My best friend from college came and a few people set up tents around our RV. Since we had air conditioning, food, alcohol and free fun, we unofficially became the central meeting spot.
Day 1: We were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We stretched out on top of the Journey, went on a water run (we drank most of it on the drive down) and put on our Bonnaroo best. I wore a brown cloth bikini top that I found at a thrift store. It had a 70s-inspired retro flower and was therefore deemed appropriate apparel for an event comparable to Woodstock. People skinny, large, tall and small adherently agreed that it was too hot to wear a lot of clothes, and I willingly jumped on the scantily clad bandwagon. We were all blanketed in a cloud of dust anyway. Our Bonna-crew was selfishly satisfied with the demographic…and it was around this time that our group collectively agreed that we were in the top 2.8% in terms of attractiveness - in other words, Bonnaroo elite.
While the boys left the site on day one, we girls took advantage of the two guitars and snare drum that had been brought along. We wrote the official trip theme song, the “Bonnaroo Ballad,” penning the lyrical genius line of “Bonnaroo…me and you…Bonnaroo…came with a crew.” When Ryan, Kyle and Brian got back, they finessed the lyrics, perfected the key and made it a true chart topper.
Sing-along time in the RV.
While at Wavves (rad surf punk band), the boys videotaped us (they own a film company and gathering footage is their forte). On playback, we saw that our group was the only gaggle dancing like goons. This public display was pretty much standard protocol for every other show too. I ruined all of my shoes, developed Osgood-Schlatter again and needed a pedicure stat upon returning home.
I took away a few key things from Day 1: 1) It was very difficult to meet up with anyone not in your proximate group; 2) Drinking vodka during the day was not the smartest move when you should be pacing for a marathon; 3) The left side of the stage is the most accessible place to watch music; and, 4) Absolutely no one fights at Bonnaroo (except for Jess and me when she intentionally poured a beer on my head).
On the second day, I wore Native American print shorts, a lace top, thrift-store boots and a Boho headband. A girl from a fashion magazine asked to take my picture for a feature. I, of course, told everyone, solidifying, in my mind, our 2.8% standing.
My roommate, Sarah, and I. Believe it or not she was wearing jean shorts.
During the day, we saw Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Buffalo Springfield, Greensky Bluegrass, Allison Krauss and Walk the Moon. We also fell in love with the Sonic Stage, a smaller intimate uncovered venue. Walk the Moon’s “Anna Sun” was a personal favorite, not only because they were crooning my name, but also for its energetic poppy beats, approachable lyrics and catchy chorus hook.
That night we saw My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire, Lil Wayne, Pretty Lights and Shpongle. This was hands down (or hands up, hands clapping, fists pumping) the best day of the entire festival because of the consistent quality of the music from sun up to sun down. My Morning Jacket was my favorite. From Jim James’s hair-flinging energy on stage (even in white fur boots and 90 degree heat) to his pitch-perfect voice and a montage of songs, which like most of their music cannot be confined to a standard genre, the performance just proved their main prerogative is to have fun while making music even a decade later. Following MMJ, Arcade Fire energized the crowd with a set so dynamic that I was dancing, singing and sweating as much as frontman Win Butler. His wife Regine had a whimsical stage presence and uniquely pure soprano that left me awe-struck, enchanted and inspired.
The following two days were a blur of waking up, watching live music, barely sleeping…repeating.
I realized a few more things over the course of the trip: 1) My crush on Eminem (much to my mom’s chagrin, I’m sure) has not really subsided since the year 2000; 2) I enjoy trance, neon, lights and raving; 3) There are people out there who are weirder than I am, and unlike me, they express themselves through masks and shiny lycra bodysuits; 4) I see why Widespread Panic has such a cult following; 5) I consistently spent more money on buying water bottles than beer; 6) Bonnaroo is not a place to meet men, clean or otherwise; and, 6) Pre-judging people that wore bandanas over their faces was stupid, especially when I developed a chest cough and had the Bonna-flu for weeks after breathing in dust for four days.
Arcade Fire on Friday, June 9, 2011.
While I left Bonnaroo with some bodily battle-wounds, what was really broken down was my perceived pressure for perfection. Being around people who don’t have a care in the world made me realize that, much like the old cliché, worry really is like a rocking chair…it gets you nowhere. And, there’s strength in finding this inner arsenal of calm and control.
So while that takeaway may be an unrealistic stretch, after simply living on a musical fairground for four days, the time away was necessary to be able to objectively look at the bigger picture. Living in New York, I often get caught up in the trivial details in this perpetual rat race. And while I don’t have all the answers just yet, I’ve at least started thinking about them…and, obviously, now discussing them.
Hopefully, you’ll all get a chance to go to Bonnaroo next year. And if you do, I’ll see you there…on the left side of the stage, bopping around wearing a bandana mask and a bikini top.
Anna Murphy works in Beauty PR and resides in the East Village of Manhattan with her sorority sister. She enjoys long runs on the Hudson River, live music, vegan cookies and the Florida Gators.