A quick-and-dirty tour of music-fest history
Pop Eye Mike Usinger
At the risk of bringing up the ghosts of the Grateful Dead—a band currently beating a rotting horse under the money grubbing banner of Dead & Company—what a long strange trip it’s been for the phenomenon known as the music festival.
One minute, you’re eating barley cake and dried eel while grooving to the exotic sounds of the aulos and kithara and singing a hymn to Apollo at the Pythian Games at Delphi in ancient Greece. The next, you’re dining on roasted rib-eye with Bordelaise sauce and horseradish salsa verde while the Killers power through
“All the Things I’ve
Done” at the SKOOKUM festival in Vancouver’s gorgeous Stanley Park.
It seems like only yesterday that your grandparents were rolling around in the mud like pigs at Woodstock.
What’s crazy is the way that music festivals have evolved in a short time.
While the Pythian Games were indeed first off the mark, the modernday outdoor extravaganzas we’ve come to know started in the ’60s, when peace, love, acid, and bushels of marijuana got people realizing that it was better to be trippin’ balls together than curled up in a fetal ball in bed.
Popular opinion is that California’s Monterey Pop Festival was the first time someone got the idea of setting up a bunch of generators and portable stages, and then convincing people that nothing is cooler than taking a Day 2 dump in an overflowing Porta Potty.
It makes sense that the three-day Monterey blowout gets credit for paving the way for Woodstock, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, Coachella, and too many others to list here. It was at the Monterey County Fairgrounds that the Who ended its set with Keith Moon kicking the shit out of his drums while Pete Townshend attempted to turn the stage into firewood with his Stratocaster. And that, determined to upstage the Who, Jimi Hendrix turned his Stratocaster into a campfire after fucking the living daylights out of his Marshall during “Wild Thing”.
Given such landmark performances, it’s no wonder that the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, which took place one week before Monterey, seldom gets the glory for being the true rock-fest prototype. Blame Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Byrds, and Canned Heat for not giving the audience something epic to remember—namely, dodging flying guitar parts, bass drums, and empty cans of lighter fluid.
But, as fun as it is to watch Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin get punched out by Hells Angels in old Altamont Speedway Free Festival footage, let’s bring things into the present.
Assuming that you know the Weeknd is Abel Makkonen Tesfaye’s stage name and not a typo, chances are you’ve heard of Surrey’s now well-established FVDED in the Park. This weekend sees the launch of the Lower Mainland’s second major multiday music fest: SKOOKUM. SKOOKUM is interesting because, like FVDED, it represents something of a sea change in the festivalgoing experience. For lack of a better and more gracious way of putting things, it might be the first time that a multiday West Coast music festival has succeeded in making things classy. Think long-table dinners, on-site craft breweries and craft distillers, and pop-ups by topflight restaurateurs.
Forget queuing up for a Mr. Tube Steak and warm Molson Canadian in a dust-swept field at the recent and unceremoniously departed Pemberton Music FESTIVAL—SKOOKUM will see the likes of the Main Street Brewing Co., Liberty Distillery, Vij’s, and Hawksworth Restaurant set up on the Brockton Oval grass in Stanley Park. Yes, you read that correctly—hawksworth Restaurant and Stanley Park.
With a lineup like that, one might be forgiven for forgetting that SKOOKUM (running Friday to Sunday [September 7 to 9] in Vancouver’s most fabled green space—is actually about the music: the Killers, Florence + the Machine, Arkells, Father John Misty, Metric, the War on Drugs, and a few dozen more, including St. Vincent, whose motherfucking “New York” is easily the greatest motherfucking song you’ll hear this motherfucking year.
What also sets SKOOKUM apart from recent local festivals—not to mention Woodstock, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, and Coachella—is its decidedly uban location. Somewhere along the line, after the highprofile Pemberton Music Festival and Squamish Valley Music Festival crashed and burned, it became clear that high-wattage destination events were increasingly difficult to pull off. Having to pay top American
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radical insurgents (such as the photo session in which the band brandished rifles, only focusing the unwelcome attention of authorities) can look like youthful posturing. But there can be no doubt about the MC5’S willingness to wade into the middle of a blaze, as it did when it turned up to play for hours at an antiwar demonstration during the famously riot-filled 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago, while other acts on the bill fled.
This is doubly remarkable given that, only a year beforehand, Kramer had been offered a close look at the violence that police forces of the day were ready to inflict. As if establishing a keynote, The Hard Stuff opens with his description of the 1967 Belle Isle police riot in Detroit, when lines of officers swarmed concertgoers after an outdoor MC5 show and started swinging.
“Clearly, there was a rage building up in the Detroit police department, and they must have been rehearsing their tactics, because the level of force that they used to basically rid the park of a bunch of hippies and drunken factory workers was all out of proportion,” he tells the Straight. “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. To beat people mercilessly with nightsticks from horseback was like—you know…” He trails off for a moment. “When I was growing up, my mother said, ‘Wayne, if you’re ever in trouble, you can go to a policeman. He’s there to help you.’ Well, not those policemen.”
THE INCIDENT WOULD be far from Kramer’s last brush with the law—indeed, a head-on collision was lining up. The Hard Stuff contrasts the brilliant arc of his band with the darkness that engulfed him in the years that followed the 1972 collapse of the MC5, run to ground by drugs and infighting. Disillusioned and wired to heroin, he entered a spiral of petty crime and dealing. Inexorably, as the quantities he handled grew larger and larger, his contacts reached farther and farther into the underworld. In 1975, an arrest on cocaine-trafficking charges sent him to federal prison for more than two years.
There, he says, he witnessed the early effects of the war on drugs that still rages in America, a policy he refers to in the final pages of The Hard Stuff as a “catastrophic failure”. He illustrates this for the Straight by comparing the morass of drug-related incarceration in the prohibitionist U.S. to a contemporary Swiss program that set up a network of clinics where addicts could acquire legal heroin as the initial stage in resurfacing from the drug.
“They come in with this terrible addiction, and the first thing they do is receive medically controlled doses of medication,” he says. “It’s treated just like any other prescription medication. And the first thing you can do is get a job, and then you can get a relationship, and then you start to have friends, and then you start to have ambitions, and then you start participating in the world, and pretty soon