Celebration of Life festival in the swamps of rural Louisiana, 1971. A tale of teenage carelessness, fearlessness, stupidity, irresponsibility, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. It was pitched as 8 days in the country at summer solstice, and had a lineup advertised that was as good as any I'd seen.
Allman Brothers, Alex Taylor, Amboy Dukes, B.B. King, Ballin jack, the Beach Boys, Bloodrock, Boz Scaggs, Buddy Miles, Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Chambers Brothers, Chuck Berry, Country Joe McDonald, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Dixieland Jazz Bands, Edgar Winter's White Trash, Eric Burdon, Flying Burrito Brothers, Ike and Time Turner Review, It's a Beautiful Day, James Gang, John Hartford, John B. Sebastian, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Winter, Leon Russell, Melanie, Quicksilver Messanger Service, Ravi Shankar, Richie Havens, Roland Kirk, Seatrain, Sly and the Family Stone, Symphony Orchestra, Voices of Harlem, War, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, rumors of Pink Floyd
There's actually some video of this on YouTube. The added soundtrack used was not from a band who played there (actually, very few bands ended up playing there), but the lyrics "I just want to celebrate another day of living" are a bit appropriate for this thing, as it was an ordeal getting through it in one piece.
I had been to several rock festivals before this. December 1968 there was Miami Pop Festival, 1969 there was Atlanta Pop Festival, West Palm Beach Festival, and another Miami Pop Festival, 1970 there was another Atlanta Pop Festival, so 5 major rock festivals under my belt.
I attended all of them with my mother. It's not what you think... my mother was no different from all the kids of the counter-culture of the day except for being about 30 years older. Read about her late-sixties persona and ours lives at that time here, and a little bit more here.
The reason I attended it without my mother was because she had just broken her leg and was on crutches. I didn't want to leave her alone like that, but I was absolutely full of wild & crazy, just got my driver's license 2 weeks ago, absolutely gotta go to this thing and nothin' on earth is going to stop me. She assured me that she would be OK. I had spent every dime I had saved ($200) getting an 11-yr old car so I'd have transport. I put an ad on a college cork message board (in Carbondale IL) for someone to help drive, and found a guy. On the way down, we picked up a couple of guys hitchhiking, they were going to the same place, so that was cool. They had dropped acid, so we didn't let them drive. We got as far as Grenada, Mississippi before getting pulled over by the cops. That's when I discovered that my driver-helper didn't actually have a driver's license. As the owner of the car, and the one with a license, I had to go and sit in the police car while he ran a check on me. He was an absolute stereotype of a southern cop, really fat, country music playing on the radio, and smelling strong of English Leather (a smell I can't tolerate for unrelated personal reasons). He told me to get back in the car and follow him to the station. With only a couple of weeks of driving experience, I was extremely nervous and terrified of screwing that part up in some way. At the station I got a lecture: I was to be the ONLY driver of the vehicle, the name of the town is pronounced "gren-AY-da," not "gren-AH-da," and was charged a fine of $14, which was exactly all the money I had, and we were sent on our way. We got off soooo lucky - it's impossible to say just how lucky that was.
That night we were to reach our destination. The roads were winding and very dark - no lights anywhere. There was an old-timey mystery show playing on a scratchy radio station, there was a ferry-boat ride for us alone that was conducted by a couple of cajuns (I could barely understand what they were saying), and after being lost for who-knows-how-long on that very spooky night, we found the area, with the help of some directions from someone in a gas station which also sold live chickens. We were as far out into the sticks of rural Louisiana as you could get.
Turned out, the locals and the law were doing everything possible to keep this thing from happening, so even though we had tickets, we had to essentially break into the site, along with a few hundred others - hiking through swamp and sawgrass and busting through some kind of a fence (sorry, the memory of that part is a little fuzzy). Inside was nothing. No food, no fresh water, it was officially closed so we were kind of stuck without facilities and basic needs. I could not have been more unprepared... I had brought no food, no tent, no water, no sleeping bag, and thanks to Grenada I had zero money... but... being a 17 year old girl I did not worry about stuff like that. I was invincible.
I got separated from my traveling companions and got hooked up with my first-ever lover (starting many years of a very dysfunctional relationship, but as The Eagles said, we had one thing in common), a good-for-nothing 16 year old with dark hair and a mustache who looked like Jesus Christ, only a lot cuter. He became my personal savior and my worst demon. He was pretty much a druggie, a thief, and a wanna-be biker (and I found out later: an insanely jealous white-power type who verbally and physically abused me and then stalked me. His name was Pete, but he now goes by a different first and last name). I was headed for hell... he talked me into shooting up MDA (the love drug). I had never injected any drugs before (mother prohibited that, and all under her umbrella respected it in her presence. All drugs were fine, but needles were not allowed.) It was an incredible experience like nothing I'd felt previously. I never did anything like that before and never have since. I had dropped acid a few times, and generally dabbled in hallucinogens but had tapered off to pretty much just pot during this time, so this was way out there for me. I got off the ride and didn't get back in line. (These days, I generally have one or two beers or glasses of wine and I'm done. Pretty lightweight.)
Someone finally brought in some water to the festival, it was in a big barrel and we were drinking it, although I doubt it was very clean it was cleaner than the nearby river. I did not get in the nasty river for various reasons, and now glad, as it was being used not only for bathing but as a toilet - also, I don't swim and a few people died from drowning that week. Some people were setting up makeshift food stands, like one that sold watermelon, but I think that one got looted by the masses (including Pete). I remember eating this and that out of some cans, and using a spoon that was found on the ground. My car was outside the site, so we slept in a blanket on the ground. The insects were deafeningly loud through the midsummer night in the swamp. There were bands that finally did play, although my memories of the music at this festival are a lot fuzzier than of others. There was Bloodrock, Sly and the Family Stone, Melanie, the Amboy Dukes, and Stephen Stills (who I remember lecturing us on how crazy we were to be there).
I told Pete I had no gas money to get home, and he reached in his pocket and produced some stolen credit cards. He also stole a license plate and put it on my car. These criminal minds... they think of everything. Yes, I know I became an accomplice at that point, but I was desperate. That's my only excuse. And, no, I couldn't call for money from my mother. We lived on $400 a month, which had to buy her cigarettes as well as everything else, we did not have credit cards or cash on hand. I mentally did a Pontius Pilate washing of hands concerning what he'd done to save our necks. The old clunker was also hemorrhaging transmission fluid, and he poured brake fluid in there to swell up the seals or something, and when the car finally rolled into home in Illinois, it had a failing U-joint - so it was officially a goner, ready for the junkyard.
When I opened up the door, my mother was not home. Turns out, she had been trying to retrieve one of our cats from a tree or the roof or something, had called the police (which brought a policeman who was terrified of cats and was not any help and left), then she had fallen off the porch on her crutches (remember the broken leg?) and broken her arm so she was now off the crutches and in a wheelchair. She had been staying at her mother's house, our cats were outdoors and missing for a few days, and there was a massive flea infestation in the house, which was devoid of cats at the moment. I walked in the door, and what was probably thousands of fleas added themselves to my legs. I still bear the scars from some of those bites. Also, I came down with typhoid fever, followed by arthritis. Yeah... all the luck... so if you were wishing me ill following my teenaged debauchery, you got your wish, and worse than that, I ended up linked with Pete for several years, an ill-chosen god. But - I did not end up dead from O.D. or poisoning, stuck in a small-town Mississippi jail, married, or pregnant. That was my good luck.
There's a good thread on this festival over on the "Hip Forums" (a place for the old hippies). Lots of other people's crazy stories there. Click on the pic at right for a few images. (sorry, I have to rely on someone else's photos)
More on the Celebration of Life 1971
This article was originally found here, but is gone now (or at least, I can't find it)
Roll...Festivals! (or the 1971 "great festive debacle" in the Louisiana swamp!)
Fourth in a series of articles
By Steven Fromholz
The Dictionary defines “festival” as a feast or celebration or a series of programmed cultural events.
My first festival experience was in June, 1971 at “The Festival of Life,” deep in the swamps of Louisiana – near Baton Rouge. At that time I was employed by Stephen Stills as a guitarist and vocalist in the rock and roll band he had put together – with which to tour nationwide – his second solo album for Atlantic records. The band consisted of myself, the great bassist, Fuzzy Samuels, Paul Harris on keyboards, and Dallas Taylor on drums...and Stills.
We were in Memphis that June, in rehearsals with the Memphis Horns, when Stephen’s management folks received a request from the promoters of the “Festival of Life” which had turned into a disastrous Festival of Death – huge amounts of rain and several people dying there in the mud and the blood and the beer and the drugs of that swampy event. The promoters wanted us to come down on the final evening to close the show and encourage the fans to get the hell out of there in some sort of orderly fashion.
Stills accepted the invitation and that afternoon we were in a Lear Jet winging our way, without the horn section, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At the airport we were met by a pair of two passenger, bubble-top, Bell Helicopters, which would – with any kind of luck – fly us to the festival site. Stephen went out in one and the rest of the band was overloaded with our instruments – no piano – into the other and off we flew into the deep, dark night that is the Louisiana swamp lands. The rest of the band and I all thought we would probably crash into the swamp, there to be eaten by alligators, and go down in history as a great rock and roll tragedy. We did not crash – as fate would have it, and fate will have it!
We arrived and were escorted to the star’s dressing room where Stills was ensconced, Pasha-like, awaiting our arrival or news of our untimely deaths. We remained in the dressing room for an hour or so, getting high enough to hunt ducks with rakes, until it came time for us to hit the stage and try to close what had become a disastrous event.
I have no idea what time we took the stage but I do remember beginning our set with a jumpin’ version of Stephen’s hit song “Rock and Roll Woman.” The remainder of the set is kind of a blur in my memory but I do recall that because of the lights on stage, not being able to see any of the thousands of people out front – but, I could smell their swampyness with more than just a hint of pot wafting onto the stage. We played five of the six songs we knew as a band and then Stills took to the piano and began his peace and love, brother and sister medley, at which point a loud, male voice at the left front of the stage was heard to exclaim, “Shut-up and play your f----in’ rock ‘n roll.” – which we did!
We then beat a speedy retreat back to the relative safety of the dressing room. I do not know if we were successful in our attempt to end this festive debacle but the boys and I were ready to get the hell out of the swamp and back to our fine hotel rooms and excellent room service of the Commodore Perry Hotel in downtown Memphis. As you can guess, we did not die in a helicopter crash in the swamp on the trip back to Baton Rouge – arriving just in time to see our Lear Jet leave for Memphis without us. We sat in the airport for hours and hours waiting for the first commercial flight to Memphis. I certainly wouldn’t call that experience “a series of programmed cultural events,” but...that is how festivals and I began.
Mud, Sweat & Tears, Time Magazine, Monday, Jul 12, 1971.
It was billed as a "celebration of life," but the Louisiana rock festival near the town of McCrea may have marked the end of what began at Woodstock as a beatific American experience and deteriorated into something violent at Altamont and vapid at Powder Ridge. Last week's festival, which lasted only four days instead of the announced eight, was an American nightmare. To begin with, the festival was postponed for three days while the promoters wallowed in legal mire. The kids amused themselves by making human mudpies and bathing in the nude. Two youths drowned in the fast-rushing Atchafalaya River. State undercover narcotics agents circulated in the crowd and made more than 100 busts. One youth died in a hospital tent from a drug overdose. Meanwhile, dazed with blistering heat, and stultifying humidity, the estimated 50,000 youths who gathered to see Country Joe McDonald and John Sebastian were also choked by dust. For the Woodstock Nation, McCrea was a bleak experience of mud, sweat and tears.
Chet Flippo, July 22, 1971 Rolling Stone
The festival began Thursday night--three and one-half days late--with Yogi Bahjan taking the stage, chanting and saying, 'God bless you. Let us meditate for one minute for peace and brotherhood.' 'Fuck you. Let's boogie,' responded a member of the crowd.
A tractor pulling two flatbed trailers would come around, and six hired hands would jump off to collect endless piles of rotting watermelon rinds, empty wine bottles, discarded clothing and other assorted garbage.
A festival worker ODed backstage and crumpled to the floor as 'Sister Morphine' was being played over the P.A. system to an impatient audience.
Finally, there was dope, and it was plentiful. You had only to walk to the intersection of Cocaine Row and Smack Street (as the makeshift signs proclaimed) to find dealers hawking an estimated 30 varieties of mindbender, only two of which could be smoked. Plastic syringes, at $1 apiece, were selling briskly.
[addendum added Jan 7, 2012: Post from Houston Chronicle]