Reflections on Rock Music Festivals

Reflections on rock music festivals take us from a disappointing Goose Lake Music Festival to permanent hearing loss in New Orleans.
By Lad Tobin, from The Sun
January/February 2013
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Trudging back to my seat, I decided the only way to do penance for ruining my daughters’ good time was to have a bad time myself. But I couldn’t stick to my plan: Ani DiFranco, as it turned out, was ridiculously charismatic.
Photo By Rob “Berto” Bennett
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Rock Music Festivals: “McCarthy for President” Rally, Chicago, Illinois, 1968

I was there in Lincoln Park to see Phil Ochs, whose antiwar songs played on an endless loop those days both on my turntable and in my head. My mother was there to see Eugene McCarthy, whose Democratic presidential-primary campaign was just starting to take off. My mother was also there to drive me. (I was 15.) I was also there to be rude to her. (I was 15.) She kept beaming at me and saying things like “I’m so glad we’re doing this together; we never get a chance anymore to relate.” I kept saying nothing to her. While she was talking, I stared at the empty stage with a focused intensity meant to tell anyone who might be watching, I may be standing next to this overly animated, middle-aged woman, but please don’t think that I’ve got anything to do with her.

Finally, unable to stand being so close to my mother any longer, I squeezed between the people in front of me and worked my way toward the stage, never once looking back. Halfway through “The War Is Over,” my favorite Ochs song, McCarthy strode onto the stage. As Ochs delivered the song’s most incendiary lyric—“Serve your county in her suicide / Find the flag so you can wave goodbye / But just before the end even treason might be worth a try”—McCarthy threw his arms in the air, and the crowd erupted.

Everything about this moment—the heady feeling that my side was finally winning, the memory of all those lonely afternoons listening to Ochs alone in my room, the way his voice caught at “suicide” and rose at “treason”—made my chest tighten, my eyes well up, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I could also feel something else on my neck: my mother’s eyes staring right at it, imploring me to turn around and share this moment with her. And on some level I wanted to. I knew what deep pleasure she would have experienced if I had just let her glimpse the tiniest bit of my excitement, let her know that, in spite of my trying to feel as miserable as I did, sometimes I actually felt—could I admit it to her, to myself?—happy.

But when I did turn around, I saw her grinning at me as if we shared a great secret, completely unaware of how ridiculous she looked in that here’s-what-Mama-Cass-would-look-like-if-Mama-Cass-were-a-Jewish-suburban-housewife get-up. And just like that, all of my good intentions disappeared, and that familiar wave of adolescent righteousness and revulsion clicked back into place. Instead of the See, I’m happy nod I’d intended to give her, I shot her a look that said, Don’t you know how embarrassed I am by you? Don’t you understand how much I want you to LEAVE ME ALONE? 

Rock Music Festivals: Goose Lake International Music Festival, Jackson, Michigan, 1970

Lenny and I should have gone to Woodstock. We had a ride lined up and everything. But then we heard about a party a girl in our class was throwing that weekend while her parents were out of town, and we decided we’d rather do that. Besides, we figured, there was just no way all those acts rumored to be playing Woodstock—Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, the Band, the Grateful Dead, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—would possibly show up.

But of course they did show up, the party girl’s parents stayed home, and I spent the next decade or so convinced (in what I know now was blissful ignorance) that I would never feel another loss as painful as missing Woodstock.

And so, exactly one year later, when Lenny and I heard about the festival at Goose Lake—which promoters were calling “the next Woodstock,” and which was rumored to feature Led Zeppelin, the Doors, and Cream (all bands that had turned down an invitation to be at Woodstock)—we had to go.

It wasn’t easy to talk to my mother into letting me go. She pointed out that I wasn’t an experienced driver and that Goose Lake was many hours away. She’d read articles that warned of trouble involving police and drugs at these festivals. She warned that sleeping in a field was certain to cause my hay fever to flare up. Not bad as opening gambits, but I knew from hard experience that she was saving her best shots for the closing argument.

So I wasn’t shocked when she concluded by saying that the festival was the same weekend as my grandparents’ anniversary party, and we had no idea if Nana would even be alive for their next anniversary. What if I skipped the party to go to some rock-music festival and then something happened to her? I replied that there was not one thing in my whole life that I cared about, not one thing that could give me any happiness, not one thing I could look forward to—not one—except going to Goose Lake.

Though my mother didn’t exactly give me her blessing, she did give me the keys to the station wagon.

Lenny and I agreed to share the driving, but as it turned out, I’d have to handle it all myself. The afternoon before the festival, we were playing one-on-one basketball in my driveway, when, provoked by Lenny’s excessive celebration over a basket, I lost my temper. Trying to block his next shot, I leapt in the air, swatted wildly at the ball, and smacked my friend right across the face. His thick-lensed glasses fell to the ground, and I landed squarely on them, producing a Jewish-wedding-ceremony breaking-glass sound. Lenny was legally blind without his glasses, so we had no choice except to patch them up with tape and glue and, the next day, head out on the open road.

All my mother’s prophecies of doom came true: We got pulled over by a cop who harassed us for more than an hour, saying he knew we had drugs in the car (we did), and if we didn’t own up to it, we’d be in big trouble (we didn’t, and we weren’t). We got lost finding the festival and ended up in a traffic jam, which was about the only Woodstock-like moment of the weekend. (The rumors about Zeppelin and the Doors and Cream turned out to be just that: rumors.) And after my first night in the field I woke up with a hay-fever attack so virulent that my whole face was burning and swollen. My eyes—watery and bloodshot when I’d fallen asleep—were now glued completely shut. At least I could pry them open and see a blurry vision of the chaotic scene around me, which is more than I can say for Lenny, whose glasses had by now completely
fallen apart, leaving him unable to see much of anything at all.

Which had its silver lining: He didn’t have to see the bathrooms with no doors on the stalls. He didn’t have to see the “lake” that gave the festival its name, which turned out to be a muddy swamp. And he didn’t have to see the look of disgust on my bloated face, now turned beet red from my allergies but also from my embarrassment at having to lead him through the festival crowd by the hand.

As bad as all that was, nothing was as awful as what happened late Saturday night, the night I was supposed to be at my grandparents’ anniversary party: Halfway through Ten Years After’s encore of “I’m Going Home” (one more pitiful attempt to re-create a glorious moment from Woodstock), I somehow lost hold and sight of Lenny. Forty-five nightmarish minutes later, halfway through Jethro Tull’s night-closing set, I spotted him sitting on the ground near one of the overflowing trash bins, his head in his hands. Our reunion was the kind of insightful give-and-take you’d expect from a furious mother and a terrified toddler. “Where were you?” “No, where were you?” “No, where were you?”

Rock Music Festivals: Ani DiFranco Concert, Boston, Massachusetts, 1996

As the usher led me to my seat, I could feel the entire crowd of pierced, punked-out Ani DiFranco fans staring a hole right through my head, probably thinking, How’d that middle-aged asshole get such a good seat? But I didn’t really care about the whole crowd. I cared only what two particular pierced, punked-out fans were thinking: my daughters, Lucy and Emma. Actually, I knew what those two were thinking: Dad got a ticket? He’s not waiting in a parking lot or a coffee shop until the concert is over, like we told him to? And why are we up in the balcony while he’s sitting down there? 

As I got closer, I saw what a horrifically bad idea this was. They were giving me looks of rage and mortification so dark and murderous that I almost stopped in my tracks. But it was too late to change my mind.

“Someone must have turned a ticket in or something,” I stammered. “It’s way up in front; why don’t you guys take turns sitting there?”

In a whisper fiercer than I would have imagined possible, Lucy hissed, “You think either of us wants to sit here with you? Are you crazy?”

Trudging back to my seat, I decided the only way to do penance for ruining their good time was to have a bad time myself. But 15 minutes into the set I couldn’t stick to my plan: Ani DiFranco, as it turned out, was ridiculously charismatic. That compellingly percussive strumming, those clever and cutting lyrics—it was just too much to resist. I was up on my feet, wondering why it had been 20 years since I’d been to a rock concert. Some possible answers: I grew up; I got a job; I had kids; I started living through my kids; I started thinking that listening to Raffi and Rosenchontz was the same as listening to music; I got worried about money; I decided on HBO and therapy as my big indulgences; my mother died; I got old.

Halfway through the encore I was bobbing my head in a way that I prayed Lucy and Emma couldn’t see and shouting along with Ani and the now-not-so-angry-seeming young women around me, “I cannot name this / I cannot explain this / And I really don’t want to / Just call me shameless.”

Rock Music Festivals: New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2010

Fifteen minutes after falling asleep in my hotel room in the French Quarter, I was jolted awake by a pain that traveled from my lower back down my left thigh and all the way to my toes. I attempted to sit up: definitely a mistake. I rolled over onto my side, clenched my fists, curled my legs, and tried to remember how the hell I’d hurt my back.

I’d spent much of the past four days at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, the seventh year in a row I’d made the pilgrimage. During the final set of Galactic, one of my top five favorite funk bands, I’d pushed my way to the front of the crowd, ending up so close to the giant speakers that the beat had felt like a strong wind. 

For 90 minutes I was completely engulfed in the crowd and the noise. In fact, I was so into it that at some point I stopped my usual low-impact shuffling to the beat and took to more-vigorous hopping and then to all-out jumping, with no regard for my middle-agedness and tricky back; no regard for anything except the power and immediacy of the experience. Thinking back from my curled position in bed, I could recall a moment or two when maybe I’d been vaguely aware of some growing soreness in my back, but the thought that a few hours later I would be completely immobilized by sciatic pain had never entered my mind. Nor had the notion that standing just two feet away from ten-foot-high speakers for an hour and half might damage my hearing. Now, though, as I gingerly tried to readjust my position, I realized I could barely hear out of my right ear, and I wasn’t sure I could hear at all out of my left.

For a moment I considered trying to roll off the bed and crawl to the bathroom for one of the Percocets that I’d been saving from hernia surgery for emergency or “recreational” use, whichever came first. Suddenly, though, the bathroom seemed about a million miles away. Better just to lie here, I told myself. Stay still and keep calm. Just let the muscles unclench and relax.

Not three minutes later my brain raced with pure, uncut anxiety: I would never get better; I would never be able to walk without a cane; I had done permanent damage to my hearing. Unable to calm down until I’d assured myself that my injuries were only temporary, I decided to crawl first to the bathroom to take that Percocet, and then somehow across the room to my laptop on the desk, so I could go online and research my symptoms. And so, with a Gregor Samsa-like awkwardness, I began my near-impossible journey.

I’d thought the worst of it was the physical pain, but that was nothing compared to the panic that overtook me as soon as I googled “permanent hearing loss loud music,” and watched in horror as dozens of studies and testimonies popped up.

Back in bed, before I could plunge even deeper into my dark night of the soul, the Percocet suddenly started to do its job: the knot in my lower back unclenched; my right shoulder unspasmed; and, to my deepest relief, I realized that I hadn’t gone deaf. I could hear a car alarm in the distance, people laughing and shouting in the street below, and the sound of a solitary, off-key street musician. In fact, I still had time to return to my original plan for the evening: grab a cab uptown to Le Bon Temps Roulé to catch the last set by another of my top five, the Rebirth Brass Band. A voice in my head told me that I would regret missing this chance—my last?—to hear their music live. But with the Percocet kicking in, my limbs were now so heavy that the idea of getting up, getting dressed, and heading out into the night seemed far beyond my physical capabilities. So I lay there as free-floating images flashed through my consciousness.

This, I suddenly realized, was how my mother must have felt in the days after her surgery, when she would call my brothers and me to her bedside. Groggy from her various meds, weakened from congestive heart failure, and worn out from years of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-level fighting with my father, she would talk about whatever came into her mind: strange dreams, memories from childhood, not-so-nice impressions of my brother’s former girlfriend, conversations with her therapist or divorce lawyer, regrets, remorse, recriminations.

My brothers and I were teenagers, but none of us felt nearly old enough for this. “Look at you all,” she said to us. “Your hearts are clearly breaking. But it’s so sad: none of you can even come over here and give me a hug.”

If she hadn’t made it seem as if it were a test, if she hadn’t been in bed in her negligee, if she and our father hadn’t raised us to accept on faith the truth of the Oedipus trilogy, and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, I’d like to think I would have gone to her. But she had, and they had, and all I could do was stare at a spot on the wall just above her head, my feet nailed to the thick lime-green shag carpeting.

Rock Music Festivals: Tenthouse Folk Festival Highland Park, Illinois, 1958

My very first live concert. My mom and I were there to hear Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Josh White. My mom had never been much of a folk fan, but she was an armchair lefty who loved the idea of celebrating these just-off-the-blacklist performers, and she would attend any event that might make one of her kids happy. The real reason we were there was that, at the age of five, I was obsessed with White, a gravel-voiced African American folk singer—or, rather, I was obsessed with White’s hit record, “One Meatball.” Somehow both the funniest and the saddest song I’d ever heard, “One Meatball” is about a poor guy at a restaurant who has enough money to order one lonely meatball, which, to his mortification, is loudly and scathingly announced by his waiter: “One meatball, everybody / One meatball / Hey, this here gent wants one meatball!”

Of course, I recognized the irony that, when I was five, my favorite song was about excruciating self-consciousness. But what made White’s performance so thrilling to me was that, as I listened to him sing, I didn’t feel at all like that little man—embarrassed, poor, and alone. For one thing I was there with my mother at a time when she was still fearless and healthy, and nothing seemed real or worthwhile to me unless she was there to see it too and exult in it and turn it into a story that made me believe I was bound for greatness.

I’d like to think I remember that moment all these years later because it marked my first recognition of the power of live music, but more likely it’s stayed with me because that day became part of a family story with mother would later impose on anyone who would listen.

It’s been years since she died, but I can still hear her tell it. In her version the defining moment of my first-ever concert was not White’s exhilarating performance. It was when Pete Seeger invited all the kids in the audience who had a birthday that month to come up onstage and sing along with him on “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” According to my mother, as soon as Seeger issued the invitation, I went into a near-hysterical panic, climbing onto her lap, clinging desperately to her neck, and wailing, “I will not go up there! You can’t make me go up there! I’m staying with you! I am not leaving you!”

In my mother’s telling of the story, she assured me that no one would make me go up there. And, anyway, Seeger had called for all the kids whose birthdays were that month—July—and my birthday was in January. “But I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to go up there,” she added. “You’ll probably never get another chance to sing with Pete Seeger. You get to be with me all the time.”

Lad Tobin has recently completed a memoir about his midlife return to rock-music festivals, random acts of rebellion, and other teenage obsessions. Excerpted from The Sun (August 2012), a monthly magazine that uses words and photographs to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human. 


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