Life Before Kids:

Our first Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2002.

Good morning, friends and nebula acolytes! Happy last day or two of school!

Recently, Tara Rittler got me thinking about press passes and how much I totally miss having them from our pre-kid days–if you read my story about Finding Neverland (and totally mooning over LeAnne Taylor), you know of my press pass-ion. See what I did there?

Anyway, I feel inspired to share the totally bananas story of the time Justin accidentally got us passage into the VIP section of the inaugural Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee! This was the first step on the journey that led us to take a 15-month-old boy to a music festival with 90,000 music fans.

I suppose the moral of this little tale is that it never hurts to ask for something. The worst that can happen is you get a big fat no, and the best that can happen is you write an amazing story people love, end up using the good potties at an amazing music festival, and raise a kid who saw Snoop Dogg, Wilco, Erykah Badu, Beastie Boys, and Nine Inch Nails play before he was two years old.

justin and arthur owen at bonnaroo music festival

The year was 2002. We were married a year before in at the charming, quasi-mystical Circle of Light Wedding Chapel overlooking Beaver Lake with 60 of our closest friends and family present.

Dig, if you will, a picture. Downtown Tulsa was mostly empty, a dark and quiet scene from a post-apocalyptic video game. It wasn’t a place you wanted to walk too far alone. There were only a handful of restaurants and clubs down there. The busiest of those streets was Brady between Boston and Main. On one end was the Bowery, the chill, hip kind of night club where you might watch an improvisational band play, on the other was downtown party land Caz’s and the Majestic, which was back then a brand new live music venue.

In the middle of the street, hidden behind a tiny little door on the north side of the the street was a glass door opening up to a stairwell and an empty apartment building, and up two flights of those creaky, forgotten steps on an abandoned floor with gutted apartments was a little office, the office of the local monthly publication we worked for with a few of our friends, Infinity Press. I was a writer/editor, and Justin sold ads. It was a very casual working environment where no one clocked in or out, and everyone just sort of threw down until they got the job done, as the good Lord intended.

The apartment, furnished with local art and piled in various corners with back issues and promo CDs, reeked of nag champa.

The rag itself was as much proto-hipster zine as music mag, but we managed to score some pretty decent stories. Features ranged from David Byrne (met him!) to political/philosophical rants about Dubya’s War on Terror. The biggest interview I can personally boast was Wynton Marsalis, but I was awfully proud to get the chance for Ben Folds to sign my album review of Rockin’ the Suburbs. We worked with some of the most fabulously talented artists and writers there.

One day while browsing Jambase, Justin came across a piece about an upcoming music festival in Manchester, Tennessee that looked amazing. This was back when we were young and child-free with disposable income. Having duly convinced me that it was a worthy place to vacay, he sat down at the computer to purchase tix only to learn they were sold out without even advertising. He was lamenting this to one of the publication’s owners when a thought occurred to them both–he could ask for press passes.

No one was more surprised than he when he got back response. His contact at Bonnaroo offered two tickets with the opportunity to purchase two more to the otherwise sold-out event. We planned the trip with a work friend of Justin’s from the Buccaneer and her boyfriend, and in June of 2002, we set out to Manchester, Tennessee.

We had no idea what we were getting into.

We were used to taking long hauls for weekend shows, usually in the range of Oklahoma City to St. Louis, so the 11-hour road trip to Tennessee wasn’t too much worse. But when we neared the festival, traffic had completely stopped on the 4-lane highway.

We arrived late at night, but five hours later, the sun was coming up and we were just finally getting into the festival. Manchester is in the central time zone, but just barely. That far east, the sun rises about an hour earlier, and Bonnaroo that year coincided with summer solstice, meaning the sun rose at about 5 a.m. during the festival.

We were lucky to only wait five hours (the following year, we spent 12 hours stuck in nearly dead-stopped traffic). We managed to circumvent the worst of the line by sheer luck. Inside a gas station we waited in line an hour to get to, Justin found a stack of half-sheets of paper with directions printed on them. They were the kind of countrified, down-home directions that included things like “turn left at the old trash cans” and “turn right at the wood pile,” but they probably shaved 5 hours or more off our wait.

When we finally pulled in, we were about as far from the center of camp as it got. It was about a half-mile walk to Centeroo, where the concerts and events were taking place. By the time we set up our tent, the temperature was already in the mid-80s, and the full sun was beating down on us. We realized immediately we had made a mistake in bringing no shade other than our tent. We tried sitting in our tent, but it had already morphed into a convection oven. With nowhere to sit, we wandered down to Centeroo.

Having officially been up all night and setting up in the heat, we fell asleep lying on the ground near the main stage. Around noon, we woke up to the sound of Les Claypool shouting, “Bonnaroooooo!”

les claypool performing at bonnaroo music festival

Les Claypool with his Bucket of Bernie Brains in 2002

Tens of thousands of music fans swarmed magnetically to the call of Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade–shirtless twentysomethings, girls in long skirts and halter tops, fans in band shirts and ball caps and watermelon rind hats (I don’t know why this is a thing) as far as the eye could see.

Late that night, we ambled back to our campsite in the dark only to realize that our little dome tent was completely indiscernible from the thousands of other little dome tents in every direction. We wandered about in frustration for at least half an hour, swearing at each other and mentally noting that next year, we would need to bring a flag of some sort.

When we finally made it back to our tent, we realized quickly that everything in our cooler had completely thawed out quite a while earlier. Our limited camping experience proved we were unequipped for the challenges of festival camping. Everything in our cooler down to our beverages was tainted with raw chicken.

But all of it was about to pay off on Saturday at the Ben Harper set. By some twist of fate (or user error), Justin had listed me for a photographer pass and himself for the regular press pass. I have always thought Ben Harper was simply dreamy and wonderful, so I was fairly beside myself over this.

Ben Harper

My photo pass got me front and center in front of the main stage for the first 3 songs, smooshed in between a whole bunch of other, taller photographers. Although I am ashamed to out myself to my editor Tara Rittler, I am barely a competent photographer now. I was even less so back then, and this was before the days of smartphones and smarter cameras. Most of my Bonnaroo pics from the first two years were taken with good old-fashioned 35-millimeter film, which meant you snapped and prayed and tried not to waste.

After the show, we checked out the press bleachers and somehow ended up wandering into the VIP tent from there. There we found reasonably priced beer, a spread of questionable salsa and chips, and most importantly, fresh portaloos.

You see, Bonnaroo’s producers, Superfly, vastly underestimated the portaloo infrastructure necessary for such a festival. By the middle of day 2, the situation inside the loos was borderline apocalyptic. It was best not to enter these unless absolutely unavoidable.

Despite the oppressive sun, the lack of shelter, the raw chicken-soaked groceries, and the psychologically jarring portaloos, both Justin and I count that year as one of our life’s top experiences.

On Saturday afternoon, we wondered down Shakedown Street, AKA unlicensed vendor street for all you normies out there. This is where you find legit real-world hippies still alive and kicking and doing their thing, spreading their good vibes and vegan organic burritos and garlic grilled cheese of questionable sanitation. A walk down this lane will take you past unlicensed band merch, your basic hippie clothing in all varieties of patchwork, beaded macrame necklaces, and dreadlocks as far as the eye can see. And patchouli. So much patchouli.

Hacky sack games and impromptu drum circles popped up like flash mobs all over the place. At one point, we walked into a massive group of folks hand drumming on empty trash cans, with several of the girls and guys in long, flowing broomstick skirts, their hair wrapped in bandanas.

It was the first time in my life I had seen this many people coming together peacefully, sharing such a happy, positive energy. It felt almost utopian, and in the tumultuous climate after the recent political changing of the guard and the path to war, it was the first time I had felt so fully hopeful in a long time. It was inspiring to see the power of music to unite. We observed no fights while we were there, no drama. Just good, chill people coming together to groove.

Over the course of the weekend, we saw plenty of bands play. We saw Ween, Government Mule, Trey Anastasio, and Les Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains, to name a few. A single, fluffy cloud appeared overhead and drizzled the lightest rain over us while Phil Lesh and Friends played with Bob Weir. “That’s Jerry blessing us,” our friend Amber said with a smile. On Sunday night, we lay on the grass in the field of What Stage and gazed at the starry Tennessee sky while Widespread Panic jammed.

By the time we crammed our tent and filthy bodies (it would take us another couple of years to perfect Bonnaroo hygiene) back into the car on Monday, the grounds were already starting to thin out. We stopped at a truck stop and paid for showers, some of the most satisfying showers we will ever have the pleasure of experiencing.

We went back six more times, even taking Arthur with us in 2009. You can read more about that experience in this piece I was interviewed for with the New York Times. We should have known Arthur was destined to be a long-haired pescatarian, because he actually took his first steps at Bonnaroo during the Wilco set. Arthur was also later featured on the Bonnaroo website! Talk about your proud parenting moments.

Arthur featured on the Bonnaroo homepage in 2010

Anyway, thanks for reading my wild story. If you’d like me to write a post about taking a kid to a music festival, comment below! If you think Bonnaroo sounds like about the worst time ever or if you want to drag your hippie self to the next one with our fam, drop me a line, too.

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