Sunday, February 28, 2010

I survived the Celebration of Life 1971... mostly

All of this is to the best of my recollection. Your recollection (and even some so-called official facts) may vary wildly, because this one was truly not well-documented into history.

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.

Celebration of Life Festival near Innis, LA. June 1971There'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]

30 comments:

Blueberry said...

...and please don't even think of trashing my mother's parenting skills here. It's far too late for a judgmental lecture, as she died in 1993.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Sounds like that was a major turning point in your life. All I can say is: Holy shit, girl!

Blueberry said...

Definitely a turning point. :-)

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Wow, what a story. Thanks for telling it. I had never heard of the festival.

Ptelea said...

This story is amazing. Even though I never had this exciting of an adventure, I did have a few of a lesser kind and I know what the times were like (we are the same age). Knowing that you made it out alive, would you trade the experience for something less terrifying?

Blueberry said...

The experience was not really terrifying (I look back on it as fun, for sure), but the person I hooked up with there still frightens me to this day. I always want to know where he is so I can avoid that place (right now it's Houston). I hope he never finds me again.

Valerie said...

I remember going to this event but I had't heard anything about it all these years until now. We hitched down from Ohio. I remember it being advertised as A Celebration Of Life and a promise of the Rolling Stones and a number of other bands. The highlight for me was waking up to IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY sing White Bird at sunrise. Also I remember Chuck Berry, Melanie. I also remember a very drunk Stephen Stills who ended up yelling at the aduience. It was very hot and muggy during the day. People were trying to cool off under some trees and then playing and sliding in the mud. I remember someone getting cut pretty bad on glass. Of course there was lots of drugs. I don't remember violence. I remember that a lot of the bands didn't show and they kept blasting the Rolling Stones over the loadspeakers.

Blueberry said...

:-)

zuke.green said...

I hitchhiked down from St. Louis with a female friend and had kind of a harrowing experience outside of Jackson with some rednecks that didn't like hippies,finally getting a ride with some cool folks from Boston. One guy I remember named Lucky was an old biker turned peace dude who was pretty cool. We bought some acid from a guy who had a drug store in his van. He was from Ca. and we were only used to 450 mics and this stuff was probaly 1200 or so. Lucky and I took one and he asked me to wake him in 45 or as soon as I started getting off. An hour went by I wasn't getting off so I woke him and we split the last one. About ten minutes later I started getting off from the first one,needless to stay I don't think I slept for three days. I even got my picture in the Sept. 72 playboy. Don't remember awhole lot from those days,do remember being part of the river people and we attacked the mud people trying to drag them to the river. I remember the johnny on the spots were metal and the temps were in the 90's with high humidity so they were stinking sauna's[most people took to the woods. I was allergic to the fire ants and had a reaction of hives and had to go to the medical tent before it opened and some bikers tried to stop me,I juat approached them with my arm rolled up[huge hives ] and they let us in. we were escorted into the festival grounds by this old native who hunted the area. He had a long white beard and led us through alligator infested swamps to get there. What fun we had in those days. What drugs I did in those days. if Steve is still alive and reads this get back to me at zuke.green@att.net

Blueberry said...

Guys, I am loving these stories! Thanks for posting.

Michael Ultra said...

I was there and worked the stage. It was survivalist at it's best. Glad you survived.

Ellum said...

I was also there... playing in this little band from Baton Rouge, called Swampfox. Several members went on to bigger and better things, Lewis was an MCA songwriter and wrote "Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love" for BJ Thomas, Becky still performs under the name "The Beckaroo", Clay was the house drummer on Ralph Emory's The Nashville Now Network, and Mike was Willie Nelson's sound engineer for years. It was as others note, a dismal scene in the most unlikely of places. Great read, Blueberry... and sorry about your mother's passing. I'm glad there is a record of the event, it was seminal in my growth as well.

Worthbob said...

Worthbob said.... I was there from Charlotte. Mom and Dad begged me not to go. I was 17, my girlfriend 16. We went to same church in Charlotte. Mom had the Minister to our house to try to keep us from leaving. We sneaked out at 3 AM one night and bolted. First stop, Jackson MS. with girlfriend. I will only name her as Denny and friend Al Moneyhan. Have not seen Al since. It was survival of the fittest. We stopped to see a relative of Al's in Jackson MS and he reported after a nice home cooked meal that we must leave his 65 VW in Jackson and hitch hike to the festival. He stated he didnt think the VW was fit to make the entire trip. We had no idea how to get to the site. The three of us survived rides with wild drunken rednecks, and I vividly remember fear of dying in a car crash. We all lived.

Blueberry said...

Just getting there and back was enough of an adventure.

AllmanBros said...

Hi Blueberry, thanks for sharing your experiences, a very enjoyable read. I was wondering if you can recall anymore details as to who might have performed. Aleast one person on another thread regarding this festival claims that the Allman Brothers Band definitely played, although most of the circumstantial evidence points to the contrary, perhaps you can shed some further light on this puzzle. Wishing you a happy 2012, thank you.

Blueberry said...

AB: I am a little foggy on the Allmans, but I am certain that I didn't see Duane there, because I only saw him once - and it was elsewhere (Atlanta Pop). Wish I could be more helpful. Would they have played without Duane?

ronpatchouli said...

Bluberry - you are awesome.
I stumbled upon this at work today, brings back some memories. As a naive 18 year old white guy I hitched down there from Minnesota. No tent, no food. Yes - survival was the main goal. It's a Beautiful Day, Amboy Dukes, heat, losing my wallet, first time skinny dipping in a crowd, finding my wallet at some sort of Lost & Found, starving, sweating, getting high, and hearing "Brown Suger" five thousand times.
2 highlights: trudging out to that small store down the road from the site to call my mom on her birthday. After standing in the long line for the pay phone, the crowd joined me in singing her happy birthday when I held up the receiver. #2 - getting a ride in St Louis from a Texan kid named Buddy. Some things we discussed, and a visit to a friend of his in Chicago very haphazardly and serendipitously affected my life greatly.

Blueberry said...

Adventures, and wild abandon! :-)

stantheman said...

After reading a dozen "replies" I find "The Biker Incident" posted in yours. My girl and bud and his girl went to this festival from Houston. We paid the totally unfair $$ entrance fee for far less than half of the advertised bands on the CoL posters and ads. And those were the less known bands. We swam in the river and about a couple hours into the music that night I got a very real feeling of dread and "we gotta get outta this place." Next day news read bikers came in and as one fellow said, started beating the *&%$ out of anyone they wanted. Glad you made it home.

azBob said...

I was 17. I had just gotten home from a 3 month, cross-country, hitch hiking trip when I heard about the festival. I bought 2 tickets, found a friend to hitch down there with me from Chicago and headed out.
While I won’t deny that any of the reports above are false, my memories of it were very different. I must have been wearing rose-colored glasses.
Somewhere just outside of Detroit, we got picked up by a (honest to God) pink VW van with flowers on it. There were four occupants; two girls and two guys. One guy was obese, but very good natured; the other must have weighed about 120 lbs soaking wet. I realized why when he started shooting up meth in the back of the van. It feaked me out, but was kind of cool, since I’d never seen anyone mainline before. One of the girls was skinny and homely, but the other was 16 with long dark hair and pretty cute. I figured they were couples…Nope!
So the brunette and I hooked up for the rest of the event. The first time we “balled” (sorry, I couldn’t resist) was under the stars alongside a field of hops, both tripping. This was while we were in the caravan of vehicles, miles long, camped along the road waiting for the concert to open. Every few hundred yards, someone would have big speakers on top of their van and we strolled up and down the line meeting people, scoring drugs and just have a good time. There lakes everywhere and many of us took advantage of a chance to cool off.
Once inside, I remember being pretty close to the stage. Stephen Stills came a little late, so a helicopter lowered him onto the stage to join his band. When Chuck Berry sang “My Ding-a-Ling”, my date held on to mine the whole time. I tripping pretty good by the time the Chambers Brothers played, “Time”. I never knew how trippy that song was. But the It’s a Beautiful Day concert at dawn was one of the highlights of the festival for me.
Another fond memory was at the river. I don’t remember any alligators or water moccasins, but I do remember the “wars” between the water people and the mud people. The water people tried to rinse the mud off of the mud people, while the mud people tried to cover the water people with mud. The mud people had an initiation ritual where they would slide the inductee, naked, through the mud while a line of people slathered their body from head to toe with mud. It looked very erotic, but I was a water person.
Food was scarce, but the drugs made it tolerable and curbed your appetite. Our VW friends took us back as far as Detroit and we hitch the rest of the way home. I never saw my hippy chick friend again.
Does anyone know where I can get a list of the bands that DID play?

colleen said...

I was there! I live in Austin too! I actually had good memories of that concert- even tho' not all the bands played, It's a Beautiful Day was the highlight for me as well. I had such fun in the mud and watching people playing and being childlike.Folks coating themselves with mud and sticking leaves on strategic and creative places was hilarious, they would walk around like that all day!. The locals in their boats were kinda weird and "pervy "- bushwacking off in their boats looking at the naked girls and boys (whichever did it for them) This was my last acid tripping festival before I had kids and stopped doing acid. I am a planner(used to camping) and we drove over there in our old Chrysler PowerGlide, so I had brought lots of food and water tent, blankets ect. we shared our food till we ran out... Had some trouble with cops on the drive home but made it out fine. I was 19 and my boyfriend was 25.

Dustin Laycock said...

I have a friend who just mailed me a tray of slides and 45 minutes of 16mm film from the festival. I've already dropped it off to convert it to digital and will let you know what I find...sounds like it could be interesting! (He freelanced for news stations back in the day - this is the footage he 'couldn't' turn in). BTW, I'm in Austin as well.

Blueberry said...

Dustin - I would love to see it! let me know when it might be available to browse!

Oreo and Botta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ali naqvi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hollisland said...

I was 17 and living in Baton Rouge with my brother who owned a "head shop". He had just bought a new truck and we loaded everything in the shop into it and headed to the site. The gates weren't open yet so we walked up and down the road and partied. There were groups gathered all up and down the road. There were some beating on drums and buckets and making great rythyms. When the gate opened the next day we were driving up to the entrance and noticed that the bikers were pulling people without tickets out of their cars and beating them. We had no tickets, or money I was riding in the back of the truck and when we saw this my brother jumped out and ran to the car behind us and asked them if they had tickets. They did so he asked one of them to drive our truck in and just park it by the main road. We walked about a quarter mile back down the road and started crossing through the swamp when we saw a biker at the top of the levee shaking his finger in the "no, no" way. My brother took off his watch and held it up and the biker waved to us to come on up. We did and then went and found the truck.We sold the entire inventory of the head shop, but i got wasted and totaled the truck and we left it there.I also remember hearing people screaming and i stepped out to look down the road that lead to the stage and a guy was running and about 50 people chasing him. He got within 15 feet of me and turned around and started shooting back at the people. He took off again and i never heard anymore about it.

Blueberry said...

I love you guys leaving your stories here. Thanks... and wow!

sammy said...

We were there for 13 days ,it rained the hardest that I've ever seen in my 59 years.I was standing on the porch of a little store out side of the festival trying to get a tire fixed--rained very hard, had a awsome time, sunburned bad!!!

Meryl said...

Excellent story. Thanks for posting it. I will be checking out your blog more. You're a good writer. I was there too. Do you remember how people lined up their cars and trailers into makeshift streets with signs and flags? Southern hippies seemed a little nicer and more polite to me than their northern cousins.
Mine is a similar story, lol! One of my girlfriends and I decided it sounded like a good music festival and we got a ride as far as mid Texas with some of the neighborhood boys and then fed up we parted company with them and hitched the rest of the way there and all the way back to Oregon. I had a walking cast on a broken leg. Crazy I know. Met the nicest young guy out of Tuscaloosa Alabama, name Corky. Poor sod hitched all the way to visit me in Oregon when I was much too distracted by my own life and interests. Hope he had good adventures to and fro.

Blueberry said...

RIP Steven Fromholz, whose now-missing blog post I snagged as part of the reference material in this post.