Note: For this, my 1500th blog entry, I’m taking a look back in time. The events described herein took place more than a year and a half ago, so please take the specific details with a grain of salt. I find that I had to wait this long to allow the events to settle in my mind’s perspective; an unpublished June 2013 version of this story didn’t capture the story’s essence to my satisfaction. I now know that — as some playwright once wrote — all’s well that ends well. — bk
In early 2013, I experienced the opportunity of a lifetime: the legendary virtuoso guitarist John McLaughlin had just finished recording a new album, and I was scheduled to interview him about it. The interview itself took place over the telephone – McLaughlin lives in France – and it ranks among my all-time favorite musical conversations. McLaughlin was engaging and forthright as we delved into all manner of subjects. When one is as well-known a figure as he is, there’s no worrying about “name dropping,” so he was happy to discuss his work with Miles Davis and others.
Near the end of our conversation, he made a point of telling me how much he had enjoyed the discussion. McLaughlin extended an invitation around his upcoming visit to Asheville NC: after the show, would I like to come backstage so we could meet in person? Why, yes. Yes, I would be willing to do that.
As the show approached, I was in touch with his publicist, making sure to iron out the details. Not that there were many: Am I on the guest list? Is my name on a cleared-to-go-backstage list? Yes and yes; his publicist is very good (you might be surprised how many times this sort of thing goes all wrong on the ground).
Around that time, another opportunity presented itself; a quite unusual one, in fact. A new friend of mine was planning a celebration around her upcoming 50th
birthday party. The gist of the plan was that she had chartered a bus of sorts (more on that presently) and was planning on taking a merry caravan of friends on a trip from Asheville to Manchester TN for the 2013 Bonnaroo Festival. Would I like to come along? Why, yes. Yes, I think I might.
I had attended Bonnaroo in 2007, covering it for a feature that appeared in a print magazine where I just happened to be editor-in-chief. I went to that festival with my son Daniel, who at the time was only fourteen. We had a good and memorable time, but let’s just say that once it was over, my attitude about multiple-day, sleep-in-a-tent festivals was a resolute “never again.”
But this invitation had a number of appealing features. First of all, this bus – a sort of cross between the Merry Pranksters
‘ Furthur and the coach that The Beatles
chartered for their Magical Mystery Tour
– had (I was told) sleeping quarters, air conditioning, a generator, and a rooftop stage where our little collective could stage impromptu “concerts” in the camping section at the festival. Second, most of the trip’s costs were to be covered by our host. And third, the bill for that year’s Bonnaroo included Paul McCartney
So I said yes, and began sorting out my schedule to make time for the several-day excursion. As I learned of the trip’s itinerary, I quickly discovered that I had a bit of a conflict: the chartered bus trip was scheduled to leave a couple of days before the actual festival began. Why was this a problem? Because it meant that I would not be in Asheville on the night John McLaughlin was playing in town at the Orange Peel.
Luckily, it turned out that after his Asheville date, McLaughlin’s next-scheduled performance would be at none other than Bonnaroo! So I got back in touch with his publicist, explained the situation, and asked if I might instead meet the maestro backstage at the festival. No problem, I was told; they would even set me up with press credentials, meaning that I would have some backstage access for the whole of the the festival. Niiice, I thought. This was really working out well.
The crew for this adventure included our host, who I had now known for just under two weeks. (Our initial meeting was actually a first date, but we quickly pivoted into just-friends mode.) Also on board would be an interesting and very nice couple who were close friends of hers. Another friend of our host had flown in from Alabama or somesuch to attend as well. And a last-minute addition – added because someone else had dropped out, and an extra ticket was lying about – was a friend of mine, yet another date-turned-friend. We’d be picking her up in east Tennessee, along the route to Manchester.
We were also slated to pick up two women who none of us knew, but who were described to me as “guards.” Their role, I was told, would be to stay behind at the campsite, keeping an eye on our bus and its contents while we enjoyed the festival. This struck me as a bit odd – who would go to the trouble to travel to an outdoor festival and then not take in the music on offer? – but there were lots of things about this trip that fell outside my sphere of experience. So playing strongly against type, I was just along for the ride, and had no hand in (or say in) any of the decisions about the nature of the excursion. Anyway, one of these so-called guards was to be picked up here in town before we left, and the other was to be collected somewhere (else) in east Tennessee, again along the way.
Our driver was a laid-back, friendly sort who also owned the bus; I wasn’t clear on his role in (and relationship to) the other members of the crew, but my vague impression was that he was a hired hand who would also be staying behind to watch the bus instead of the onstage performers. He reminded me of a cross between Shaggy from the cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?
and Timothy Leary
; make of that what you will.
As scheduled, I showed up mid-morning at the point of departure. There I found the bus parked in its regular home, roadside amidst tall weeds, junked cars and mud puddles. I had packed as light as possible, though I did – on advice of our host – bring along a portable keyboard, stand, amplifier, and power cords. We were actually serious about staging some “jam” performances on the roof of this thing once we were set up at the campsite. (Those of you who know me in life may be raising your eyebrows at this point: I am decidedly not of the jamming sort. I would refer you to the immortal words of St. Ambrose: “When in Rome…”)
Joining me there were the driver/bus owner; our host; her out-of-town friend (both fully kitted out with many, many bags of makeup, hats, masks, costumes, helium-filled balloons, hair dryers, and god knows what-all else); and the female half of her friend-couple. The plan was to pick up the latter’s husband from the Federal Building downtown (he’s a lawyer, and had a case that morning). We rode the bus the five or six miles to the Federal Building, and since he would be briefly delayed, the bus was parked a half-block away, on a side street.
I sat there with my fellow travelers, popping open a beer or two and idly watching some of them fiddle with makeup and the like. At one point, I noticed a really loud hissing, and an odor that was both unpleasant and oddly familiar. “That smells like the inside of a tire,” I said out loud to no one in particular.
We ventured out to the curb to discover that yes indeed, we had a flat. We hadn’t even gotten anywhere close to leaving the city limits, we were already a tiny bit behind schedule, and…now we had a flat tire.
Once we collected our crew member from the courthouse, we headed to the only place in town that – we were told – could handle a flat tire on a vehicle of this size. It was a few miles outside of town, in the opposite direction from our destination.
When we got there, we had to wait: a giant fire truck was in line head of us, and for obvious reasons it took priority over a rainbow-painted bus filled part-way with luridly costumed revelers (all of whom were by now drinking iced-down beer from cans). Some two or so hours later, we were again on our way. Around this time, I worried silently for a brief moment: if we continued to fall behind schedule, might I miss my appointment to meet John McLaughlin before his performance? I brushed aside that fleeting concern: at this point, we were still scheduled to arrive nearly a day ahead of time. What could possibly go wrong?
At this point, dear reader, I hope you have picked up on my subtle literary use of a technique we writers like to call foreshadowing. If somehow you missed it, allow me to answer the question posited in the previous paragraph: Everything could go wrong. Yes, we finally got on the road. But some 77 miles into our trip (I measured it), the bus broke down. We had just finished navigating the section of I-40 that winds through the Pigeon River Gorge: ten or more miles of narrow, endlessly twisting road taken (by most vehicles) at around 70mph. The magic bus, it seemed, could only do about fifty, which was fine with me (I am prone to motion sickness). But mere moments after we came out of the gorge and into a resolutely deserted section of east Tennessee, the drive shaft (or something like that) broke. The bus ground to a halt on the roadside, and there we sat. For hours, in fact.
Once we found someone who could potentially fix the bus – and making that happen took a lot of cell phone work on the part of our host, and in fact we were lucky to get a cell connection at all – it was quite late in the day. I forget now just how many hours behind we were, but the more we learned, the worse the news got. The bus would have to be towed several miles east, using – wait for it – the shoulder of the westbound lane of traffic on I-40. A special tow truck – the kind you might see hauling a tractor-trailer or dump truck – would have to do the work. And because the bus itself was so tall (did I mention it had the body of an old VW Microbus welded onto its roof, with a portable performance stage atop that?) there was some real concern that it might not clear the underpasses between the spot where it died and the off-ramp (oh, pardon me: the on-ramp
) to which it was headed.
Our rescuers arrived in a transit van, the type of thing designed to hold maybe a dozen people. Fine, right? Because there were (at this point) only seven of us: the driver, the host and her makeup-aficionado friend, the couple, one of the so-called guards, and me. But wait: because we didn’t know how soon we’d be getting the bus back, we had to take enough gear for – here it comes – an overnight stay. So the van was packed to capacity.
There was also road construction underway, so with lane closures, the twenty-mile trip to the nearest town of any appreciable size took us a couple of hours. By this point it was dark, well after 9pm. Meanwhile, the news from the repair shop (the bus had made the trip safely, thank goodness, with most of our belongings still on board) was not good: the magic bus had lost its magic, and would be sidelined for perhaps a week or more. So we bunked up for the night in a few rooms at a motel.
The next morning, we collected our two remaining travelers: my friend and the second “guard.” Once we were all gathered in the hotel lobby, we began to have discussions as to what we should do. Our host had by this point rented a pair of transit vans, big enough to carry all of us and a scaled-down version of our gear (the rest would stay with the bus).
My own contribution to the discussion was the idea that our host should cut her losses, send the inessential members of the crew home, and head onto Bonnaroo. By my reckoning, she didn’t need all of these people. The bus driver was wholly superfluous. So he could go home, or perhaps stay with his brokedown bus until it was repaired. We wouldn’t be staying in the vehicle campground, so we didn’t need those guards. (By the way, the two of them were chatting a good bit about which acts they were planning to see at the festival, so it quickly became evident that they weren’t going to be standing guard over our stuff anyway.)
And since our host hardly knew me at all (and knew my friend even less) it made sense to cut us loose. Besides, I figured, if we left for home now, I’d make it back to Asheville in time to see John McLaughlin play (assuming I could reach his publicist and convince her to change the plans to suit me yet again).
Our host was having none of it. She was bound and determined to see the trip through in a manner as close as possible to her original vision. It made no sense to me, but I bit my tongue and stuck to my along-for-the-ride approach. We trundled back east to where the magic bus was now in storage, went aboard and got the bare essentials. For me, this meant some of the food and drink from my cooler, and the rest of my clothing. My thousand dollars’ worth of musical gear (and that of some of my fellow travelers) would await our post-festival return.
Our host and her friend collected their bare essentials as well: the costumes, the shopping bags full of beauty aids (blow dryers, curlers etc.), and a few fistfuls of balloons (there were fifty total; mercifully, a few were left behind). All of these must-haves were squeezed into our vans, and we began our westward caravan. At this point we were almost exactly twenty-four hours behind schedule. I was supposed to be meeting John McLaughlin that very afternoon.
Thankfully, the remainder of the trip to Manchester went off with little interruption. Once we approached Manchester, however, the traffic slowed to a standstill, as it always does near the entrance to Bonnaroo. Getting through that traffic and the entry checkpoint took a few hours; by the time we rolled onto the parking area, it was minutes before my scheduled appointment with McLaughlin. As soon as the vehicle’s gear went into park, I said goodbye to my fellow travelers, leaped from the van, and began a one-mile-plus journey on foot through the entry gate and past many thousands of festivalgoers. My destination was the press area, conveniently situated on the opposite end of the Bonnaroo complex from where we were parked. With single-minded purpose, I navigated my way across the acres in record time.
When I arrived at the press tent, it was oddly quiet. There were very few people present, and a line of director’s chairs on the stage was empty. I spotted a TV reporter who was busily scribbling away in her notebook, so I approached her. “Do you know when John McLaughlin will be here?” She looked at me with eyes that said I wasn’t going to enjoy her answer. “He left about ten minutes ago.”
The remainder of the trip had its high points, but was mostly punctuated with misadventures that are best left unrecollected. We all made it safely home afterward, and we were reunited with our belongings about a week later. The bus wasn’t so lucky: I believe that I heard it was a few weeks before it was repaired enough to be driven the 70 miles or so back to Asheville.
But when I was still in Manchester TN, I was so downcast that I skipped the second of three days of the festival, electing instead to stay behind at the motel (a good half hour away from Bonnaroo). As it turned out, it was a low-key, highly enjoyable day. I took a swim, had a few beers, read a book, napped, and dined out at a nearby pizza place. I also spent a good portion of that afternoon on the phone with a woman back home who I was getting to know (though we hadn’t met in person at this point). Today that woman is my wife.
I never did get to meet John McLaughlin, but I did get to see his concert. It was predictably wonderful. McCartney was great, too.
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