Well, I survived Bonnaroo, and despite my fears of middle-agedom, I had a great time. In fact, I'm considering dumping my family and my job and taking on a full-time career as a rock 'n' roll photographer.
I've gotten to meet, interview and shoot famous people before, from the time I mugged comedian Bruce Vilanch at MGM Studios or interviewed the late Tiny Tim outside a seedy circus, standing in the sleet and rain while he answered questions through a cracked car window.
Then there was the time I spent an afternoon with Arlo Guthrie, sharing a table and complaining about the Memphis heat; or the week at college when I got to interview both Gordon Jump (Mr. Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati) and Ralph Waite (Pa Walton.)
Ironically, one of my last interviews at the Manchester paper where I was the editor was with these two guys from Superfly Productions about some music festival they wanted to put on in the Coffee County boondocks. I probably wrote the first Bonnaroo story ever.
But those were nothing -- nothing -- compared to the hours I spent in the photographers' pit at Bonnaroo, rubbing elbows with the big guys from Rolling Stone and Spin, whose camera equipment cost more than all our family vehicles put together. (Okay, truth be told, that's not a real stretch. Their equipment cost a LOT of money, let's just leave it at that.)
There's room for about 10 people comfortably in the pit, and there were at least 30 of us there. Like too many puppies eating out of too few bowls, we wiggled around and over each other, crawling under arms, stepping over cables, and muttering, like Bugs Bunny in the movie theater, "'Scuse me, pardon me, 'scuse me."
At least, I was muttering that, and I think they were, too, but the first thing they hand you when you move into the pit is a pair of earplugs. I could still hear the bands, but nothing else.
One thing that really stood out for me at the festival was how nice everybody was. Even when I got between some big-time photog (I think NY Times) and a good shot, or when he stepped on the little old lady sitting in the pit (lead singer's mom, I was told), nobody got ticked off. Nobody got rude.
The first night we were there, Thursday, it rained right up until the second I parked my car. Then the clouds cleared, the sun shone, and the only things left to remind you of the storm were the humidity and the great big, gray, greasy mudpits. I stepped wrong in one, and went flying. Since I was more concerned about rescuing the Nikon than my hips or skull, I landed flat on my back, camera cradled in my arms.
Keep in mind, I was surrounded by teenage boys and young men, ranging in ages from 16 to 22. An overweight woman at a young person's concert does a Buster Keaton and ends up coated in mud. It was a scene destined for Funniest Home Videos and an easy target shoot for juvenile humor.
And yeah, the guys laughed, but it wasn't the mean kind of laughter you might have expected. They were grinning as they slipped and slid to my rescue, and when we all almost collapsed again, we were all in giggles. They then made sure I was okay, the camera was okay, and even the egos weren't bruised.
I watched people pick up litter that wasn't there and toss it in the appropriate barrel. I saw one woman chase down an older man to return the cheap sunglasses he'd just dropped. I saw a bunch of nice people having a good time.
Brian Mosely, who went for the T-G last year, said it wasn't quite as Mary Sunshine then. With more heavy metal bands on the roster, he said, the crowd was a little rougher.
And, to be truthful, not everybody was polite and considerate. Not once, but twice, as we were standing in the long, crowded and unshaded line to have our bags and backpacks pawed through for contraband (drugs, glass, ticket stubs to Clay Aiken concerts), several people decided common etiquette didn't apply to them and started weaving their way up through the crowd, cutting to the front.
This is where being a crabby old middle-aged mom came in handy. We get to the age where we no longer care what people think if we make a scene. I not only called them out, I sent them back. They were all in their 20s -- old enough to know better -- and at the risk of sounding prejudiced for my own home place, the Southern ones reacted better than the ones with the Yankee accents. The two men from Alabama, who were obviously, judging by their breath, good friends with at least two Tennesseans (Jack and George), apologized profusely, hung their heads, and admitted their mothers would not be proud of them.
The snippy little blonde from Up North, on the other hand, gave me a Barbie blank-eyed blink and said, "We didn't realize there was a line."
"Of course there isn't honey, " I assured her. "All 700 hundred of us in front of you are standing here just to watch you go in."
What I really wanted to say was, "No line? Are you blind or just stupid?"
As they slinked back to their original places, the other young people around me turned and grinned, and some even said thank you. Maybe being the Matron isn't such a bad thing.
As the evening wore on -- and the alcohol kicked in -- there might have been a little more rudeness, but not nearly as much as I expected. Most of the Roonies seemed content to kick back on a blanket with a beer or two and enjoy the shows. And, yeah, there was, no doubt, another contributing factor to the mellow mood, but I was operating on the platform of "Don't ask, Don't tell, Don't acknowledge that smell."
Now that I think about it, this laid-back, peaceful, polite behavior is probably the exception more than the rule in the world of rock 'n' roll, and a life on the road with some band doesn't seem that appealing anymore. Maybe I won't follow Portugal the Man on their inevitable rise to fame and fortune -- but I will catch them again if they come back to Bonnaroo.
I know I'll be there.