How a trip to Atlanta’s largest annual music festival proved I’m no longer the young Turk I used to be…and why that’s ANYTHING but a bad thing.
Every year in Atlanta, this multi-day mega festival is held at Piedmont Park, called “Music Midtown.” This year’s line-up consisted of bands whose general discographies I more or less enjoyed -- Weezer, The Black Lips, Tegan and Sara, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- and a couple of bands that, in my opinion, are extraordinarily overrated -- the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queens of the Stone Age and Imagine Dragons, among them -- and a whole hell of a lot of acts I’ve never heard of before -- ZZ Ward, Mona, The Neighbourhood and pretty much everybody else on the schedule.
I’ve never been to Music Midtown before, but this year, I said “why the heck not?” After all, there were a lot of quasi-decent bands there, and it’s a full Saturday filled with rock and roll, food trucks, and all sorts of kitschy, kooky stuff that you really don’t get to see anywhere else (primarily, because the rest of society isn’t littered with alcohol and weed-intoxicated twenty year olds averse to wearing shirts.) I’d heard from quite a few folks that parking there is generally a nightmare, so I asked my other of much significance if she wanted to get there extra-early; as in, like six o’clock in the morning (when the first act, mind you, wasn’t scheduled to begin until about noon.) Because she’s the most awesome girlfriend in the world, she said yes, and after filling my stomach with a 22 ounce Styrofoam cup of QuikTrip Cappuccino, we were on our way to what is pretty much the largest musical festival in the Southeast -- not called Bonnaroo, of course.
Now, I know Atlanta quite well. In fact, I’ve spent pretty much every other weekend of my life for the last three years hanging out there. That said, I’ve never really been on the streets of Atlanta on a Saturday morning, and it was downright surreal. For one thing, there was hardly any traffic at all on 10th Street, and if you know anything at all about the ATL, you’d know that stretch of real estate (basically, everything from The Varsity to the Midtown Art Cinema) is usually congested like a mofo. Alas, there were few vehicles on the pavement, and even fewer people ambling around (outside of the joggers, of course -- by the way, half of Atlanta is populated by people in really bright shoes just running around aimlessly.)
So, me and Miss Internet Is In America grabbed a quick coffee at Starbucks (for Atlanta area travelers: the one next to the Chick-Fil-A at Colony Square is one of the few public spots within walking distance that has guaranteed bathroom access) and just watched the sun come up. That sounds like something really boring people do, but watching the sky turn from purple to light blue as the giant-assed orange sun just radiate across all of the skyscrapers was something truly magnificent, and something suburbanites just can’t bear witness to on a daily basis. You know, for a city that has a reputation as being one of the hardest places in America, Atlanta truly is a beautiful town, in many respects. Well…as long as you stay out of Vine City, I suppose.
From there, we did some ambling. Not walking, “ambling,” which is sort of like walking, only without any true direction in mind. If you don’t amble, you should try it sometime; you really have no idea what exciting, unexpected locales you may find yourselves in when you do (that morning, I ended up in a strip mall parking lot with a Thai restaurant, a seasonal Halloween store, and what I am fairly certain was about three or four gay bars.)
Piedmont Park, for those of you out of the loop, is a really, really big park, and even though a majority of it was roped off for the festival, half of the place was still open and accessible to joggers and dog walkers. As pretty as it is, it’s also one of the more depressing sites in the city, as its often home to any number of impoverished people, sometimes sleeping on top of playground equipment until the police walk on over to them and tell them to scram. It’s an unfortunate plight, on so many levels, but at least the city’s ordinances don’t make them ILLEGAL by default, which is actually on the books in some places. Places that really, really ought to be ashamed of themselves. And by all of that, I mean “Columbia, South Carolina,” which by all contemporary measures of human decency, can go fuck itself anytime it so chooses.
After ambling around a bit, I found myself at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which is sort of like Busch Gardens, only with a lot less roller coasters. We didn’t explore all of it, but we did manage to see this impressive sight -- a topiary toy canine, which almost looked like a bichon frise made out of moss. And in case you were wondering; there was a security camera placed right in front of it, so no take-home souvenirs of grass-puppy-chunks were collected that day, sadly.
Despite my well-established adulation for breakfast cereals, the actual meal of breakfast itself is something I rarely experience. Hell, most days, I don’t actually get around to eating anything until about 5 or 6 PM, and on the weekends, the wait is sometimes even longer (primarily because of the nature of this whole online writing business -- I’m more or less enslaved by my laptop a good ten or 12 hours a day, and even making a trip to the microwave could cost me a much-needed phone call or e-mail.) So, at around 10 AM, we decided to hit up the Flying Biscuit Cafe, one of Atlanta’s more popular non-franchised eateries. Yeah, it may not be a Gladys Knight- endoresed chicken and pancakes stand, but it’s own reputation remains fairly vaunted, nonetheless.
A ton of people were in the restaurant that morning -- mostly for Music Midtown, I’m assuming, but there was also the PGA Tour (who the hell wants to spend money to watch OTHER PEOPLE play golf, exactly?) and the Georgia Tech/Whoever Georgia Tech Was Playing game down at Bobby Dodd Stadium going on, too. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard lots of things about Atlanta’s demographics, but for those of you that think Atlanta is filled with nothing but Antebellum South leftovers and the likes of Curtis Snow, you’d be plum shocked by just how diverse the city ACTUALLY is. Black gay dudes into punk rock hobnob with forty year old white hipster dudes that really like Etta James, and really fat looking old dudes that wear tank tops and look like they hate all minorities live on the very same block as acoustic guitar virtuoso African-Americans and hardcore women’s rights Puerto Rican lesbian Georgia State professors. I haven’t seen any seven foot tall Filipino transgender strippers walking down the street holding hands with their live-in-albino-midget boyfriends yet, but at the same time, I haven’t checked out every street in Atlanta, either. For all I know, there could be an entire village of them living behind the Carter Center or something.
The interior of the Cafe is really something else, too. For one, there are indeed literal flying biscuits painted on the walls, and you can actually open up the windows while you eat -- which, I guess, is the kind of thing that makes dining and dashing a lot easier, but apparently, that's not much of a problem for the proprietors of the restaurant. Weirdly, there's this glass enclosure inside the building, so there's basically an inside part of the cafe and an outside-inside part of the cafe that's kinda' like a ring around a planet. Also, it makes you feel like you're eating behind a plate-glass window at the zoo (or prison), therefore making the dining experience, as a whole, that much more awesome.
So, what did my breakfast consist of at the Flying Biscuit Cafe that morning? Well, I had all of this deliciousness right here -- a MEGGSXICAN omelet, with potato chunks (like home fries, but way more Georgian in nature) and a complimentary biscuit (the red stuff in the thimble was the best goddamn jam anyone's ever had in their life, by the way.) You know you're in a major metro area when your vegetarian-friendly options entail the ability to substitute tofu for scrambled eggs, which is precisely what I did with my plate. Needless to say, the whole meal was freaking delicious, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who is in the ATL for any prolonged period of time. It's metropolitan-urban-alternative-soul-food at its finest, and just to remind you that you are still eating in the Deep South -- one of the menu offerings is a Coca-Cola glazed chicken. (And further proof you're still in Dixie: there were people in the eatery that morning chowing down on scrambled eggs and washing it down with Blue Moon ale at the same time.)
With about an hour to go until the festival officially kicked off, we decided to make the brief march back to Piedmont. At this point, not only did the lines start forming, so did a light drizzle -- which, over the course of an hour, turned into a medium-sized downpour. Thankfully, at least one of us in the relationship watches the Weather Channel, and as such, we both came prepared for inclement conditions. My little rain slicker thingy even had a sweet-looking flannel interior -- which would soon prove itself to be an utter and complete good time-killer a little bit later on in the evening.
The first thing I noticed about the line was that it was filled with some young folks -- I mean, like high school aged and shit. So many white people, with blonde hair and braces: yeah, I guess a few of them could've been sorority girls from Georgia Tech or rich kids from Nashville, but I was still aghast at just how much the demographics that day skewed towards those in their early 20s and late teens. And after an hour of being harangued by the park's ticket taker gestapo -- who made people give up their "oversized" umbrellas and pointed out people in the crowd smoking cigarettes illegally -- the entry gates finally swung open, and the day's festivities had officially kicked off!
By the way, did I mention that it was raining like hell, windy as hell, and colder than hell throughout the entire day? Well, it was, and it made the entire foray about as much fun as realizing the interior lining of your jacket was melting and covering your entire body in a semi-permanent red dye -- which is exactly what all of that excessive moisture did my "sweet" flannel jacket parka thingy.
There were a lot of neat attractions there -- food trucks, a ton of vendor spaces and even a Ferris wheel -- but since a junior-sized tsunami had broken out, all of that shit went straight out the window. From there, "having fun" became a secondary function to "not being out in the open and having water seep into every nook and cranny of your body," so I ended up spending a good 95 percent of my time there hugging the bark of a tree and TRYING to not get any more rain in my socks.
It was a really great look into the psyche of humanity, too: it was clear that everyone there was totally miserable, but since they had already spent $200 on tickets, nobody had the willpower to leave. Even more fun was watching the impromptu entrepreneurs blossom, with park custodians turning around and (probably illegally) selling plastic garbage bags as makeshift ponchos. The one tent that was already selling actual ponchos probably had the biggest end-of-day purse of any vendor there, but I was just wondering why in the hell they were selling "pregnancy tests" next to the cash register...
I guess now's a good time to talk about the music at the festival, no? Well, the first couple of acts were far from impressive, in my humblest of opinions. Ever heard of the bands Mona or The Neighbourhood? If you haven't, long story short, they suck, and you didn't miss anything. Except for rain. A whole hell of a lot of it.
The first band that I actually cared about took one of three central stages at around 2:30 PM, which was around the same time the downpour got the most ferocious. While it was no doubt cool hearing Weezer torch through "Say it Ain't So" and "El Scorcho," the entire scenario was marred considerably by three factors:
#001.) You know how the park ranger Nazi from earlier told everybody that smoking was verboten at the festival? Well, a large throng of festival-goers decided that was more of a "suggested practice" than an official mandate, so while I was wedged up against a leaky oak for protection from the elements, I was forced to suck down approximately 43 metric tons of second-hand Camel Crush smoke, in tandem with the 88 metric tons of second-hand marijuana dust that was bellowing out of the mouths of a good 87 percent of the festival's attendee's collective maws.
#002.) So, while my lungs are being McGangBanged by all sorts of noxious fumes, a downwind from across the park cascades across the plains -- in short, the collective stench of EVERY SINGLE fried food being sold at the park, in one John Carpenter-esque miasmi, hung directly overhead during the entirety of the set.
#003.) Oh, and then there were the port-a-potties, which apparently began leaking a bit and mixing in with the mini-flood that was sweeping across the walkways of the park. So, to reiterate, the positive here was that Weezer sounded pretty all right. As for the negatives, for a solid hour, I was forced to stand shivering underneath a leaking branch, while a perfect storm of B.O, weed, tobacco, grease and various forms of poop and/or pee danced underneath my nasal passages.
The Black Lips -- one of Atlanta's finest home-grown acts, as we all know by now -- took the stage right after Weezer's set concluded. I caught a couple of their songs, and decided that it was time to scout the surroundings for both food, protection, and a clean place to urinate. And by the way: you've probably heard some bad things about music festival bathrooms before, and I assure you, EVERYTHING you've heard about them are true, and then some.
The line for vegetarian corn-dogs were the shortest, so that's where we decided to pick up some mid-day grub. Around this point, I had no option but to spend five bucks on one of those cheap-ass ponchos everybody was selling, and somehow, it was even LESS effective at preventing rain from seeping into my boxers and socks than my bleeding flannel overcoat. So, basically, if you missed out on Music Midtown in 2013, the only thing you really missed out on was pretending to be a Bosnian refugee for an afternoon.
Regarding the vendors, two in particular stood out to me; one was a Dunkin' Donuts truck, which instead of providing delicious, warm beverages that could've possibly saved my ass, was handing out mini-sample cups of iced coffee and allowing patrons to have their pictures taken inside a corporate branded photo booth. The other was a table selling various "cooling products," and needless to say, their money boxes looked quite vacant when I waltzed by.
Let's talk about the patrons of the festival, why don't we? As stated earlier, the demographics skewed pretty young, but there were quite a few older folks at the show, too. The security protocols for the festival were utterly perplexing to me; por exemple, large umbrellas were illegal, but people on five foot tall stilts were COMPLETELY all right with the guards. Similarly, totem poles -- basically, ten-foot-poles with flags and stuffed animals on them -- were permitted without hesitation.
There was a LOT of alcohol swirling around at the festival, which, I suppose, shouldn't be too surprising. A rain-drenched populace spent most of their day trying to improvise protective apparel, and some of their ideas were downright ingenious. In one instance, some Verizon spokeswoman was handing out free tote bags -- while under normal atmospheric conditions, nobody would even stop by her booth, people were FLOCKING around here like she was handing out free Chuck E. Cheese tokens. Why were they so desperate to procure one of the bags, you're probably thinking? Because they could be transformed into impromptu pope hats, and there were TONS of folks rocking the head wear...so much so, that they more or less become the most fashionable item at the entire festival.
By the time the Black Lips set was over, the park was a downright muddy mess. Flocking across the park to catch Tegan and Sara's performance, there was more or less a massive gulch of wet dirt...a couple of inches thick...separating patrons from the green space in front of the stage. And because so much of the park was corralled off, there was NO way to get over there WITHOUT wading through the bog.
Conditions were miserable before, but now, things were just comically awful; so it's cold, rainy, everything smells like a septic tank, and there's mud encrusted on your leg all the way up to your ankle. So how do you make such a predicament worse? Easy, amigo: you add in people.
So, we're huddled underneath the most anorexic looking oak tree you've ever seen, when this diminutive blonde girl -- probably 19 or 20 -- stumbles over to us, blows beer breath in our face, and asks us how we would "describe the place." I respond by telling her "rainy and muddy," and she then proceeds to drop her smart phone in the mud. "No," she responds, almost doubling over when she goes to pick up her phone. She points towards a text message on her phone, which I can barely read. Apparently, she's trying to tell one of her friends where she is, so my girlfriend responds by saying "well, it's the place next to the tree." The drunk girl's response? "OK. Which tree is this?" You know, because the things are so clearly labeled and shit. Eventually, she just wandered off, while another college-age looking kid literally dragged his near-comatose date right through the mud, like she was a flat tire or something. Cue the mid -20-something that decides to smoke one of those clove cigarette things right in our face with no regard to our own well-being, and that was when our worries REALLY started to blossom.
I'm convinced that Tegan and Sara fans are the most sociable people on the planet. While I was hanging out on my flannel jacket -- it had long lost its utility as anything other than a makeshift blanket by this point -- this one 20-something decides to just hop on the jacket with us and start talking about her adventures.
"Tegan and Sara are the twin lesbians, right?" she asks us. "I'm here to meet up with these two girls, that actually ARE twin lesbians," she continues. "I mean, how cool is that?"
Now, I know what you're thinking -- here I am, surrounded by a bunch of drunk lesbians and drunk non-lesbians, gleefully splashing through the mud in their $250 dollar flip-flops and $30 emerald-puke-green toenail polish, and I'm COMPLAINING about the experience? Well, yes, I am, because perspectives are different once you're in your late 20s. Maybe 20 or 21 year old me would have LOVED getting sloshed on Coors and slip-sliding around in brown gunk and trying to hit on Savannah College of Art and Design co-eds that we're probably on ecstasy, but as a quasi-professional writer-person, who's in a committed relationship that more or less constitutes a common law marriage in 30 states, the event was, surprisingly, not that fun at all. And that's when HE showed up.
You shouldn't -- and really can't -- be surprised when you see people tanked out of their minds on Budweiser and rat weed stumbling around at a concert. But when the 300 pound, baby-faced lard-o in a bright yellow tee-shirt started stumbling through the bog RIGHT IN FRONT OF US like a monster truck, my reasonable disappointment with the evening quickly transitioned into my first sensations of mortal terror for the afternoon.
The guy falls down once, and just kind of lays there in the mud, like some sort of stillborn fetus. The poor bastard is so smashed out of his mind, its virtually impossible for him to pull himself up. Had some good Samaritans not been there to yank him upright, it's likely that he would've been petrified in the sludge for all eternity, like a woolly mammoth that fell into a tar pit or something. So he, starts stumbling forward, and stops, about five feet in front of us. And that's when he starts swaying back and forth, with his tongue hanging out, looking like he's about to do his best impersonation of a Jenga game.
The dude just STOOD there, for like, five minutes, slightly bobbing up and down, forward and behind, before suddenly correcting his posture and walking on out of the park like a normal bipedal creature. My girlfriend, now with some downright grisly blisters on her feet, asked if we could call it an early evening after that. I may not have gotten a chance to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the Queens of the Stone Age, but I really didn't care, either -- I wanted out of that madness just as much as she did by that juncture.
Now, I know you're thinking it: "Jimbo, had the day been really sunny and warm, wouldn't you have really enjoyed it, and had no grand sociocultural epiphanies while you were there?" The answer is pretty clear: yeah, but God made it rain, and rain makes you think about all of the inherent miseries of the world, and that's not all that bad of a place to be, because only seeds of distress bear fruit. Good times make you drink, after all, while bad times make you think.
First and foremost, the day made me realize that I'm old. Maybe not old-old, but certainly beyond the threshold of being "just another kid out there without a concern in the world." A lot of the younger folks there had a great time, being all wet and dirty and plastered out of their gourds. But to me, such an environment is utterly detestable; I mean, why do I need to be physically and mentally battered to enjoy myself? That's the kind of instant-gratification, sensorial-before-existential experiencing that young people like, and older people can't stand. Now, I still don't mind blasting some Monster Magnet or old school Emperor through my cochleas every now and then, but it doesn't have the same universal, experience-for-the-sake-of-just-experiencing-something appeal that it used to. I haven't had a sip of alcohol this decade, and I've never used any illicit substances -- looking at the kids that day, I really wondered if they were using that stuff to enhance the experience, or just because it was the only way they could experience anything at all. It was a sad observance, for sure: these poor kids HAD to be smashed to enjoy themselves -- the only pleasure they derived from the event coming through a chemically-brewed fog.
So, I'm in the parking garage, about to leave town at 6 PM -- the festival, remember, isn't supposed to end until midnight. I toss my dirty shoes in the trunk, and I think about how much I LOVED that morning, when I was just walking around in the park and having a quaint breakfast and just talking to my girl, and then I thought about how I utterly ABHORRED the rest of the afternoon, with its rain, and mud, and shit, and ZZ Ward (that bony-assed Adele wannabe had the audacity to do a cover "I Can't Stand the Rain" during her show, thus earning her my eternal contempt.) For a second, I felt like an old coot -- being an early bird and all that jazz -- but then, I realized something: my outlook on life had matured, past the phase of sheer experientialism to the phase of profound experientialism. I enjoyed the morning because of its holistic qualities -- the exploration of nature as a whole, the connection with my girlfriend, that sense of shared experiences. I was deriving pleasure form observance as opposed to participation, while at the festival, I was...well, really, really wet and muddy for the most part. In short, at the concert, I was amid a throng of (generally younger) folks that were deriving pleasure from what they were doing, while earlier that morning, while I was just parading around Midtown with my gal, I was deriving pleasure from what I was being. I was happy with existence as a whole, beyond my own meaty perspective, while at the show, there was only circumstantial happiness wholly focused on individual pleasure. The former is the mindset of the aged, while the latter is the mentality of the young; in that, I left with a bigger smile on my facing leaving the party than I did at any point while I was actively partying.
So here's to Music Midtown 2013 for being another one of those pivotal, life-changing experiences: henceforth, September 21st will always be that day where I realized I was kinda'-sorta' old...which, not coincidentally, was also among the happiest moments of my life.