Friday. We arrived at the Nelsonville Music Festival at the exact same time as Kurt Vile. We know this because we saw him pulling his van full of Violators into the artist area as we walked up to get our wristbands. We waved and J shouted WELCOME! through the windshield and we marveled that Kurt Vile drives his own van and I said now that Kurt Vile's here the festival has STARTED. We saw Kurt Vile a lot that day — at a booth flipping through records, at the Porch Stage watching Michael Hurley — and considered the sight of him a good omen.
Just before Guided By Voices, we saw Kurt again, and I went up to say hello. I told him we saw him open for Big Star at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, and how that night we became a fan and found out about the festival because of them. Kurt asked how the show was; I told him they'd done a great job. (They had: "Freak Train" was a festival highlight for me, and I'm glad the organizers let them come back on stage to do it.)
"What's your name?"
"That's my wife's name. She's Suzanne, but I call her Zan."
"No way, I'm a Suzanne/Zan, too."
I told him to enjoy Guided By Voices (he was excited to see them because they were only there for a night, and GBV had been added last minute when Bad Brains had to cancel), and walked back to J. "His wife is a Zan, too," I said. Another good omen.
Somewhere between "I Am A Scientist" and "Game Of Pricks," Kurt Vile walked off into the night.
* * *
There were sunhats, backpacks, and hula hoops. People applied face paint and sunscreen in equal measure. Children poured out of camper vans, a school bus rigged up with a luggage rack and a retractable shade. There were fires burning across the field, blankets spread out in the shade near the porch stage. Wagons filled with distractions for the littlest festival-goers. A man with a hat in the shape of a hot dog attempted to dunk a man in a tie at the dunking booth. The placement of chairs was decided by the sun's arch; as day turned to night, the chairs fanned out in the field until the sky was completely dark and the chairs stretched to the bleachers on the other side. At noon, the line for ice cream was the longest, followed by the line for beer. A woman in a hippie skirt breastfed her baby in the shade of a sycamore tree. There were herons and sparrows, vultures circled the campsite to see if we were napping or dead.
* * *
Saturday. The vultures must think I'm dead. I was curled up in a ball on a tablecloth between the tent and the car, wishing away my cramps and alternating water and beer: hydration, numbification. A car pulled up in the field next to us; I heard J walk over and start talking to two men who were hoping to set up camp.
Half an hour and one missing pole later, I stood up, and saw them folding the tent back into the car. "No luck?" Colby had a GG Allin tatoo on his right arm and carried a book of Roky Erickson's lyrics in his left. Matt, his salt-and-pepper bearded friend, had just bought a 2012 Subaru and wouldn't let Colby eat or drink anything in it on the whole drive up from West Virginia, so we let them sit in our camp chairs while they drank a few beers. They offered a leaving neighbor $7,000 for their tent, but their offer was rejected. It didn't matter that they might not have anywhere to sleep that night; they were there to see Roky. They threw on flannel shirts and headed to the festival.
You know Roky Erickson: the singer from the 13th Floor Elevators, wild man of the sixties, influencer of Janis Joplin, Big Star, Patti Smith, Yo La Tengo, Butthole Surfers, and REM. If you don't know what happened to him between then and now (last year he released an album with Okkervil River as his backing band), I won't spoil the story: seek out the 2005 documentary You're Gonna Miss Me. His story is one you should know.
Once you know the story, though, you know how amazing it is to see him up on the stage performing again. Not just the old stuff, but the new: "Goodbye Sweet Dreams" was probably the best song I heard at Nelsonville. Maybe it's something about the time of day, the moment the sun is below the tree line, when the stage is a silhouette and the sky is still blue, but our two favorite performances at this year's festival happened in that magical hour between 8:30 and 9:30: on Friday, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires took us to church; on Saturday, Roky Erickson reminded us that it's possible to see the devil and make it out okay.
After those performances, the rest — Guided By Voices with their dangling cigarettes and tequila shots, Andrew Bird with his pedals and violin, Iron & Wine with beards that rivaled J's, even Lee Perry with candle wax dripping down his back — were just icing.
* * *
Sunday. The next morning I lay in my sleeping bag, zipping and unzipping the tent to let in some air, determined to stick it out until Lee Ranaldo's 6:15 performance. Even though some dude in a scissor-eviscerated shirt had kept me awake half the night shout-talking over a campfire next to his Laredo trailer (long after the hootenany had wrapped up on the other side of our tent), I wasn't going to wuss out on the last day.
But to not wuss out would require standing up.
As soon as I tumbled out of the tent and attempted to stand, I found that my feet were clenched like fists. I inched my way to the port-a-johns, ouching each step, and decided that Lee Ranaldo would have to wait for another time. Walking around in the hot sun all day feeling like this was just not going to happen. I stood in line, in my pajamas, waiting for the sea-foam cubicles to empty out. "It's like Whack-A-Mole," said the guy in front of me, crossing his arms while I crossed my legs.
I could tell you that I found myself inside a port-a-john feeling my age, realizing how dumb I'd been to wear my thin socks with my cowboy boots on the second day instead of my thick ones. I could tell you how clean those port-a-johns were. I could tell you that their cleanliness made me change my my mind. But it didn't. My feet were still fists, we'd seen some amazing music, and it was time to go home. We packed up the tent and headed back to Cincinnati.
What I will tell you is this: we will go again. That thought came to me on the very first day and stayed with me the entire time, right up to that moment in the port-a-john when my feet were fists, thinking of every great encounter we'd had throughout the weekend: Colby and Matt, Kurt "Good Omen" Vile, R. Ring, our friend Meredith and her friends in Old Hundred, the kind family next to us who had driven up from Indiana without even knowing who was playing, the Jeni's ice cream guy who complimented my choice of flavor combination, and all the smiling volunteers pouring beers, guiding us into the campsite, checking our wristbands and telling us to have a great time.
We did have a great time, Nelsonville. (And the port-a-johns were so clean!) We will go again.
(The rest of my Nelsonville photos are over on Flickr.)
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.