Bonnaroo, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

What was the best weekend of your life?

Right now. Without hesitation. Can you definitively answer that question? Most throw around the phrases “best day ever” and “best week ever” with empty hyperbole, simply describing a day or week that happened to be exceptionally fun. But to truly be able to answer the question, “what was the best weekend of your life” with zero thought or hesitation is a blessing. I see it gleaming at me.

As I wrote about in my last post 5 Ways To Become More Successful in Medical School, I am definitely on some “mind, body, spirit” shit. I would say this is only lately, but I’ve always been about this life. For nearly one year, my mind and body took precedent over feeding the spirit. I spent many early mornings in the gym or anatomy lab, many afternoons pounding black coffee and absorbing hundreds of lectures, and I also spent many evenings in my apartment, alone, hazy-eyed with my bright computer screen in front of me, and only printed out photographs of my girlfriend, friends, and family on my refrigerator to keep me company.

So, after my first year of school ended, I vowed to devote myself to quenching the spirit. This means many things, such as…

  • accepting each and every call to get drunk
  • reminding myself not to give a fuck about anything
  • spending as much time with old friends as possible
  • spending some days doing absolutely nothing, aside from maybe having a Star Wars marathon
  • reading some non-medical literature
  • playing my guitar
  • doing some traveling
  • remembering once again to not give a fuck about anything
  • and of course, embarking on my yearly journey to Manchester, Tennessee for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

It’s tradition. It all started five years ago.  Yes, I’ve been making the pilgrimage to bumfuck Tennessee for five years now.

Reminds me of the ol’ trope – What’s your five year plan?

My five year plan at 19? Well, if you asked me at 19 years old, 5 years ago this week, what my five year plan would be, I assume that I would tell you I’d still be getting drunk all day and going to concerts on a farm in Tennessee, except as a medical student. I’m a man of my word –  five years after my first trip to Bonnaroo, I was in fact still getting shitty drunk in the Tennessee sun, and my medical student ID card had replaced my college ID in my wallet.

But it’s over now.

I have returned home from the 2017 installment of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. After hibernating and doing absolutely nothing for a few days, I’ve finally mustered up the energy to write this post today: Thursday, June 15, 2017 Tuesday, June 20, 2017 Wednesday, June 21, 2017 (I’m gonna finish today, I swear).

As a rising second year medical student, I will take my board examinations next year around this time. So, for the first time in six years, the month of June will be a little less exciting for me. Maybe I can return to Bonnaroo in a few years, but I have no idea what the future holds for me. For now, I am ready to move on from my sweet, weekend-long summertime muse. And now that it’s over, I feel it’s only right that I reflect.

This will sound sappy and stupid and corny. I know this. But it doesn’t change the fact that what I say and how I felt is true.

Each of the five years I attended Bonnaroo marks a time of personal change in my life. I can look at myself from one year to the next and examine how I grew in that time. I can examine the wide-eyed, but nervous, Bonnaroo 2013 version of Soze and compare him to the maniacally adventurous, yet stressed-out 2015 version. Then, to see how far I’ve come I can put these characters side-by-side with the current model – the overly sentimental, matured, dumb-as-ever medical student.

I can track my growth year by year, like a schematic illustration of the evolution of primates into Homo sapiens. As I changed, Bonnaroo changed with me. Some changes for the better, some for the worse.

The first year is still vividly burned into the back of my retina.

During my senior year of high school, I researched music festivals, talked to people, and decided on Bonnaroo as my next big trip. But at 18, making the trip with no other friends wasnt exactly feasible. After that, I set my sights on Bonnaroo, saved up, and scoured the internet for information, advice, and tips each and every day. The lineup was released and I was thrilled to see legends such as Paul McCartney and Tom Petty, my favorite rapper in Nas, Death Grips, Action Bronson, Wilco, and Animal Collective. I tore apart the lineup, listening to countless artists and discovering new favorites such as Tame Impala and Four Tet along the way.

I was 19 years old, a lover of music and drinking beers. The trip of a lifetime was on the horizon and I was overcome with anxiety and excitement alike. I had no idea what to expect. My first year of the festival reflected where I was in life at the time – relatively confused and not quite comfortable in my own skin. I had fun, but still wasn’t at the point where I was ready to immerse myself in the weirdness and intensity of Bonnaroo. For 19 year old Soze, the highlight of my weekend was simply the joy of using a fake ID to buy a $10 Miller Lite and rap along to Nas’s Illmatic on a sunny summer Saturday. The simple pleasures of youth and music made for a fun weekend, but at that point, I still hadn’t scratched the surface and I still hadn’t come close to the self-actualization that was to come.

When it ended, I knew I had to return, and I knew I had to do the festival properly. With a year of experience under my belt, I checked off days on the calendar in 2014  bursting with excitement to return to the farm. Yeezus, Jack White, Cut Copy, Arctic Monkeys, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, James Blake, Frankie Ocean, Darkside… the list went on and on. The lineup was stacked, eclectic, and filled with so many incredible artists that we had zero chance of seeing them all. At this point, the festival was still surrounded with a inexplainable mythos – some sort of strange aura that propelled it above a simple music festival and made the weekend seem like a religious experience. At least in my mind, it was.

In the preceding months, I thought about nothing else. Bonnaroo Bonnaroo Bonnaroo. I had my mixed CDs burned with tunes from my favorite artists playing the festival. I scoured the internet for more camping tips and tricks to ensure I had the proper set up. I had a big drawn out checklist, with everything from the EZ-UP Canopy and fold-up chairs to toilet paper partitioned into ziplock baggies to my specific alcohol loot… “2 cases of Budweiser, 2 tall boys of Heineken, 1 5th of Cheap Vodka”…

I wasn’t a whole lot different than the 2013 version of myself, other than the fact that I was slightly more comfortable with myself and knew what to expect. Again, I went with my girlfriend at the time. Just the two of us, but we had no problems making friends. While we went with only each other, our group was comprised of 6 Tennessee college students, a couple from Michigan, and us. We sat under canopies together. We drank together. We shared beers, stories, and advice. They grilled and fed us when we were snacking on protein bars and chips. We gave them liquor in return. The three factions of this group, complete strangers days before, coming from three different states, all gelled together to the point where we felt like old friends by the end of the weekend. I still keep in contact with some of them. Part of what made Bonnaroo such a special experience for me was this community atmosphere. “Radiate Positivity” felt like less of a business slogan and more of a genuine motto that every attendee embraced and lived to the fullest.

But the warm, friendly attitudes of the fellow Bonnaroovians is only one of many ingredients in the recipe for a perfect weekend. But there are certain weekend-enhancers that elevate Bonnaroo from a really damn good time to straight up otherworldly. Kind of like the Jalapeños on a hot melty slice of Spicy Pie.

See, I am a healthy, fit, moderately intelligent young man. I work out, read books, and drink with my friends. I don’t even smoke weed. However, if there is one place to indulge in the divine molecules of life, it is Bonnaroo. In fact, Bonnaroo is generally the only place I will partake, because it makes sense. Rolling your face off at a bar has never made sense to me. Tripping balls in a basement seems like a waste. At Bonnaroo, you can roam, dance, and act like an idiot without the confines of walls, last calls, and the judgements of others. If one has control over their life, is not mentally bound by 3rd grade level thinking, and knows exactly what they want to get out of a particular spiritual elixir, I encourage moderate usage because it allows you to see the world through a different perspective,and if used correctly, can reap extremely positive benefits on your life.

Bonnaroo 2014 was my first time. Once it hit, I understood things that I never had before.  I understood how these crazy people stayed up all night dancing and smiling. I looked into everyone’s face and saw childish wonder, awe and beauty. I explored this new land of candy-cane, neon beauty. I danced all night. In that mystical Christmas barn. I never danced before. I didn’t even dance with my prom date. I was shackled by the anxiety of feeling like I looked stupid. But I no longer cared after this. I left behind anxieties. I had the time of my life. And you better believe I saw some damn good music.

I returned a different person. I was no longer quite as introverted. I met more strangers. I made more friends. I talked to more girls. I some how became smoother with my words. I could dance with girls at the bar.

Bonnaroo 2014 was the time of my life to that point, but I knew there was more. While I was there, I felt a strange sense of self-assuredness and I felt a strong urge to explore.

But after 2014, my return to Bonnaroo the following year sadly seemed improbable. Instead of gearing up to go to the festival and counting down the days until my vacation in June, I simply studied for my MCAT exam day in and day out, while bartending some nights. I was bummed about not returning to Bonnaroo. I was also incredibly stressed out by the thought of taking a 7+ hour exam that was to determine the rest of my life.

Whaddya’know… as fate would have it, 2 days before Bonnaroo 2015 I bought a ticket, my car was totaled, and I rode with 10 strangers, only one of which I had met for about five minutes while bartending a week prior. This year was the game changer. I no longer had the comfort of a girlfriend, I had no friends there; just a group of nice people who were willing to let me tag along and drink some beers with them.

Remembering what I’d learned and realized about myself at the festival in 2014, in combination with the fact that I was desperately in need of a weekend to blow off some steam from my studies, I went all out in 2015. I drank until I passed out. I explored the grounds and wandered towards anything that caught my attention. I talked to whoever looked interesting or attractive. I went to whichever shows I wanted to see most. I left whichever shows I was bored at. I made fifteen minute friends countless times throughout the weekend. I danced until my legs felt like I’d done ten sets of squats. I only went back to sleep when the sun started to appear above the horizon. When I was tired from my lack of sleep and constant drinking, I found a nice tree and passed out for a few hours. I was embraced by the people who accepted me into their group. We were strangers days prior, and close friends with bonds and inside jokes by the time we left.

That year at Bonnaroo instilled me with a very strange personal confidence. Not like, “oh yeah, I’m the shit, I can get all the girls” type of confidence. More like, I can go anywhere, anything can happen, and everything will be alright. Going to Bonnaroo (relatively) by myself that year gifted me with a strange sense of freedom – I no longer felt shackled to anyone or anything, I could say whatever I wanted, and I felt like any sort of personal awkwardness or anxiety had been washed away completely. There was a certain flow that permeated through my life after that.

That weekend was such monumental moment in my life, that it is the centerpiece of a book I wrote. Yeah, I wrote a book. Like a long one with chapters, stories, an overarching theme, and all that good stuff. I spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours, writing, editing, perfecting. It has some of my best writing and my most entertaining stories – by far. The book follows a series of Peak Experiences that changed my life. It’s been done for like a year. And now it simply exists in some non-tangible space on my Macbook. I want to release it some day. I might. I might just take it to the grave. I don’t really know.

Moving on. 2016. Finally, at last, after two years of going with only my girlfriend at the time and one year of going with complete strangers, friends were accompanying me to Bonnaroo. For years I said, “come on guys, you’ll have an amazing time. Just come. I promise you’ll have fun” etc etc. For years I heard, “work, school, maybe next year” or the classic “I’m coming!” and subsequent disappearing act when the time to buy tickets rolled around.

2016 was a strange year – at times the best, at times the worst. With a crew consisting of college friends, my brother, and my girlfriend, there was an immense joy I felt in having the opportunity to share the Bonnaroo experience with people who had to tolerate my annoying ravings and tales after returning every year. After starting 15,000 stories with “soo, this one time, at Bonnaroo…” from the moment I met her, my girlfriend was finally able to see what it was all about.

However, being the only person out of eight who had previously been to Bonnaroo, no one else understood what they were getting into despite my warnings and pleas for more shade and camping equipment. Consequently, when we arrived we realized that we had ONE four person tent for eight people. We made the most of it. Day drinking in the sun with some of my favorite people at my favorite place in the world was a defining milestone and memory in my Bonnaroo vault. We played drinking games, did boob louges, basked in the sun, traveled into Centeroo, splashed around in the fountain, got wasted at the Brooers tent, smashed on Thurman Murman Roti Rolls, and of course, saw some dope music.

Of course, because I brought such a debaucherous group of idiots, it was the funniest year at the festival. Comes with the territory. For example, Friday morning while sipping iced coffees my younger brother heads over to a small stage to check out a random show, gets to the first row, and the singer in the band, thinking this kid in the front row was a big fan, gave him the microphone to sing the words to a song he didn’t know by a band he had never heard of. There was also the two a.m. drunken reunion with a lost compadre who happened to be lost on a strange chemical mixture at the Tame Impala show. Tears of joy were shed when we looked over in a sea of tens of thousands of people to see our lost friend standing directly next to us. Or perhaps my college roommate, blacking out, waking up in the medical tent and sprinting out like an escaped convict when Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen” woke him from his drunken slumber. In fact, that Friday night at Bonnaroo may have been my favorite night at the festival, ever.

But 2016 was the first year I had noticed that things weren’t quite exactly the same as they were when I arrived as a youngster in 2013. Our neighbors blared EDM music all night, made rude comments to my girl and I, and were all around really weird and not cool people at all. The festival attendance had dramatically declined. But above all, the factor that prevented 2016 from being one of the best years was that damned star that our planet orbits. The heat was unbearable. It was too hot to do anything during the day past Friday because we simply wanted to rot and drink water in the shade. I remember almost falling over and passing out due to dehydration Saturday night. In fact, two friends DID pass out due to the heat on Saturday. No one made it out past two a.m. and no one was able to experience the sunrise bliss of Bonnaroo’s past. Thursday and Friday were both beautiful days full of laughter, beer and music, and we all had fun, but everyone wanted to leave Sunday morning due to exhaustion. And this is when I had to ask myself, is Bonnaroo dead?

Is Bonnaroo a limping Live Nation corpse? A pastiche of what it used to be? A final lap with a broken leg before it spends its dying years in hospice care?

Ah, to be 19 again. Eager, with an intact music festival virginity. They had an allure back then that they don’t have now. None of my friends were going to each and every music festival that popped up in everyone’s backyard. Bands like 21 Pilots weren’t headliners; they were playing on Thursday to a tent-sized crowd where they belonged. Alt-J was just a cool band amongst dozens in the middle of the lineup, not top-10 material. And I don’t believe the ascent of certain bands is due to their spike in popularity (I mean it is), but rather because the bands that used to be at the top aren’t playing anymore. I’ve been blessed to see the likes of Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Kanye, Jack White, Elton John, and many others rock the main stage as headliners, but at a point – you run out of artists. There are only so many active, older, classic bands. There are only so many rappers who can command the entire festival at the main stage with dozens of hit songs (Kanye, Jay-Z, Outkast, Eminem??). Sorry Chance, you’re not there. There aren’t that many current rock bands that can entertain the whole crowd. So once you’ve used up these 20-30 possible headliners, where do you look? You promote lower artists to those roles, and some times they just aren’t quite the same, or ready for it. So you recycle, and hope some young guns can fill in respectably (see: The Weeknd). But no one can deny that the lineups aren’t as good as they used to be. It’s not just a Bonnaroo thing either, it’s just about every major festival.

Nevertheless, in 2017, my return was imminent. A spiritual retreat after the completion of my first year of medical school. However, unlike all the years before, I knew this would be my last. I brought the same base group: 5 from last year, 3 couldn’t return, and we replaced them with 3 others.

After reading reports of people waiting in line to enter the festival grounds for 5 to 7 to 9 hours, my veteran instinct and knowledge allowed us to surpass the line to a “secret” entrance. We waited maybe five minutes to enter, and upon entering, were parked in the best spot I’ve ever had at Roo. In contrast to 2016, our campsite was set up beautifully. We woke up on Thursday and cooked bacon and eggs, drank morning brews, explored, and played some good old beersbee to add the element of sport into our alcohol consumption. Twas’ a beautiful day, and a perfect evening. Every moment this year was flooded with a sense of sentimentality for me. The weather was perfect, the beers were cold, and the music was incredible, again. (Glass Animals may have been my favorite show).

The attendance was back up from 2016, but the good vibes seemed fewer. After the first day, some heinous criminal decided to steal one of our beersbee poles, so we could no longer play our harmless drinking game. May he/she walk fifteen miles barefoot over burning coals to meet the devil himself, evil bastard.  Nonetheless, we got trashed at the Brooers tent on Friday, saw Car Seat Headrest kill their set, Glass Animals hit us right in the feels while making us dance, U2 did their thing, and Portugal. The Man capped off the night of incredible music. But the late nights didn’t go all night anymore. And while in a strange Bonnaroo slumber that night, a subhuman loser slashed a hole into my tent (while I was sleeping in it), and stole my cell phone and the cash in my wallet. This particularly upset me because I had taken videos of our crew having fun, capturing beautiful candid moments, for a Bonnaroo 2017 recap video to relive my final year at the festival for years to come. So, that was gone. Then Saturday afternoon, the increased police presence associated with Live Nation’s monopoly on the live music scene put a damper on the day – one of our buddies and group members was caught with a small, personal amount of a substance. Over 6 sheriffs swarmed our tent, made us all feel uncomfortable, and laughed at our expense all so they could extort money from a kid harmlessly having fun at a music festival, which once prided itself on an “anything goes” sense of freedom. This isn’t the Bonnaroo I know and love. I fell in love with a super model and she gained 40 pounds in two years.

I did notice, with the change in lineups, the shift towards more EDM, less “old-timer” stuff, that the crowd had become younger. Less people that looked like my dad, more people that looked like my little brother who just graduated high school. At times I scoffed at them, their fists pumping in the air to some bleep bloop electrocuted garbage disposal music.The Other Tent was became the Other Stage, a massive open-air stage devoted to EDM. My beloved weekend retreat was changing. But I also understood that the festival was not designed for my personal tastes. I can’t tell you how many times I saw others dancing, singing and embracing. Having the time of their lives as I have in my years at ‘Roo. With that, I can smile.

Still, I managed to have an incredible time. I embraced the Bonnaroo magic once more. I made memories with my friends. I ate many slices of Spicy Pie. I drank many overpriced beers. I danced to plenty of songs. Above all, I embraced the careless vibe, the escape from the outside world, without the worry of memorizing drugs for upcoming examinations, without the worry of getting to work on time, only concerned about drinking beers and which show to see that night. For one last time.

On the penultimate night, Saturday of Bonnaroo 2017, the last real night of the festival, I wandered and explored with my girlfriend, examining the world and festival around me and taking it all in. In the early hours of Sunday morning, we wandered into The Grove, a small forest decorated with colorful lights illuminating magnificently tall trees, with hammocks for resting spaced out underneath. Exhausted, with our minds flipping and racing, we crawled into a hammock, slowly swaying back and forth weightlessly, not saying a word, staring up at the sky, the trees and branches and warping through various colors. In a state of utter comfort and serenity, I eventually dozed off and said Goodnight to my final slumber (out of many awfully uncomfortable slumbers), at the Bonnaroo festival.

But after that night, I was ready to head home. For good this time. The kids and their EDM. The cops. The stealing. The cops’ lack of concern with the stealing and desire to bust people for personal amounts of fun stuff. The heat. The $10 showers. The congestion in my lungs that has persisted now over a week after returning. I was definitely ready to get home to a shower, air conditioning and a cozy, clean bed. 5 years. From the awkward 19 year old with the fake ID. To the independently adventurous bartender in love with life. And finally to the more mature medical student with a youthful spirit, enjoying every moment of leisure with great people as a blessing.

While it is simply a music festival, an ongoing weekend concert, a party, and a cash-grab for the people who put it on, I am in debt to Bonnaroo for contributing in part to who I am today. Bonnaroo allowed me to self-actualize and come into my own. And I can definitively name the best weekend of my life, without hesitation, due to Bonnaroo. But shit, man, it had served it purpose and I deemed myself done with the dirty hippie festival forever.

Until I got home, slept off my hangover, and realized I’d do anything in the world to go back again.

Some day…

6 comments

  1. I felt like I was right there with you. Your writing is captivating. I stumbled across your page through the med school posts, and I’ve never been to a music fest but with the way you describe it, I think I’m going to have to round up some friends and purchase a ticket to Bonnaroo next year!

    Liked by 1 person

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