We go right into Manzanar now, and as I grab for the F# I can tell the strings have dropped a half step at least in this heat. I look out at the sun baked field, where a few hardy punkers have the sand to start a fledgling mid day pit, but the reasonable ones stay back in whatever shade can be found.
A beer can comes sailing toward the stage, and I savor the baptism of a few precious drops of cooling liquid as it just misses my head.
We’ve drawn one of the very first slots of the day, but console ourselves with the fact that the sun is at least at the far reach of it’s radius directly overhead, and the next poor bands will be playing straight into its blazing stare.
But what the hell, it’s a rare invite to play a big fest, so who are we to bitch about set times?
Ah, 1982, is that you I hear scratching at the backdoor of my battered hippocampus?
The Eastern Front up yonder Berkeley was indeed our first big daytime fest, but I don’t recall any water bottle filling stations or safe spaces back then, brother!
That day was hot and grimy, and quickly dissolved into a drunken mess, sort of an Altamount for the punkers who would’ve welcomed a stab to the gut over a trip into those bubbling porta potties in the north forty.
A few hazy images, of us drinking from our warm Old English jugs at 10 am and trying to lure a squad of new wave chicks into the Blue and White, while Grant & Bob from Husker Du could only shake their head at our antics as they walked past.
Stevo got into a mortal battle with a gopher who had the bad idea to poke its head above ground, the Vandals singer ultimately removing the rodent’s trachea with a pocketknife.
Then our boy Duane decides it’s reasonable to tip one of those fetid Port a Potties onto its side, while a poor punker is still inside intent on the business at hand. It was only Big John Macias from Circle One stepping into the mob, muscled arms raised, that stopped the subsequent lynching.
The day is mercifully finished at some shitbag motel, where Larry calmly pours a beer down the back of the television set, causing the poor Quasar to spark in protest for just a moment before surrendering its fuzzy image of Fred Mertz to darkness–a proper end to a day spent on the edge of reason, kids in the wild, animals of the Savannah literally on the kill without a thought of nutrition, hydration or safety. Punk.
It’s a new day when we roll into the Glen Helen Ampitheatre grounds for set up.
9:30 am, and we unload drinking sensible grande Americanos, not a 40 of Olde English in sight.
It’s already a balmy 101 degrees as we set up the merch, but everyone is cheerful and relaxed.
I mean, c’mon! How can you not grin when you are doing a soundcheck at 11 am and look right across at a Hello Kitty jumpy next to a circus tent.
Its our first clue that the It’s Not Dead Festival is a going to be a bit different from that dusty day 35 years ago. We are taken by golf cart back to the catering area, careful not to make too much noise as the idling tour buses contain the snoring headliners.
We are shown to our air conditioned trailer, and get this–we get the goddamn thing for the whole day! Usually we are kicked out of festival dressing rooms as soon as we are done playing, and stand like traumatized first time mothers kicked out of the maternity ward, holding backpacks bulging with energy drinks and waters swiped off the catering table.
It’s all fine hellos and catching up, as these big bills tend to be. Call it high school reunion for the graying punkers, or perhaps more of a support group for the survivors. All I know is that it’s grand to say hello to a lot of people we’ve known a damn long time!
Keeping the lucky streak intact, we once again draw the opening slot, so we ring out the first chords of the day on Stage 2 just as the first hardy souls come streaming into the Festival grounds.
The day holds, I don’t know, a million bands? So the set times are just that: set.
We are given a serious lecture about not going over 30 minutes, so it’s all business at hand: 40 year old songs with a few of the new ones sprinkled in to keep the crew on its feet. There is no time for the usual Rat Pack banter today baby!
We’re over and done while the majority of the crowd is still emptying their backpacks on the security tables, but we played our first set back from the long layoff, and it went pretty good.
We were able to pull off some of the new songs without messing up too many parts, kept our bone marrow from boiling over and suffered only minor heat stroke.
Work’s done, and it’s our turn to go be festival fans now!
Lyman and crew put their years of Warped experience to good use with this one, as there were cool-off misters and water bottle filling stations, not to mention a steady bank of ATM machines humming happily next to the merch booths!
Still, I worry about these kids, drinking so much alcohol in this unrelenting heat.
Let’s hydrate! And sunscreen! Have you goddamn people ever heard of it?
It is a major chat fest and band geek out for us, a rare treat to see bands like GBH and Buzzcocks betraying the road map of wrinkles upon face and putting out blistering sets of great sounding classics.
We eat lunch, do some interviews, huddle in the trailer when the white spots start dancing across our fields of vision.
The heat and the hellos, running from one stage to the next in classic festival juggling act fashion, the day stretches on into weeks it seems. Murphy’s Law is on at the same time as Buzzcocks, Kevin Second’s acoustic set bleeds into GBH downbeat.
The temperature has settled begrudgingly at 106 degrees, as if it’s too hot for heat itself to make any more effort.
The day continues and we’ve become a tribe now, communed in a battle against the merciless Sun. All eyes on the hills above Glen Helen, that will soon be tucking this bastard fireball away for the night.
A resigned cheer goes up as the first shadows fall across the dusty field, and the unlit side stages go dark to the last horn blats of Voodoo Glow Skulls.
The crowd makes its way over to the main stage now, grateful for the relief of darkness, but burnt.
Sinead starts wailing mournfully above the Chieftans for the usual Dropkicks intro of Foggy Dew as the exodus continues toward the sound: A ghostly landscape of tired legs shuffling in the dust, as if through a smoky battlefield.
But there is plenty of laughter and smiles among all these tired faces.
We start our checkout of the merch and begin loading out the boxes as Rancid kicks into Roots Radicals, Lars singing his guts out on the last night of their tour.
I walk back to do a final sweep of the trailer, and pass the Grim crew at their motorhome, a big screen TV showing the McGregor/Mayweather debacle.
Tim Armstrong is now singing about hanging with Lars on 52nd and Broadway. For a fleeting moment I sense the confluence as they sing about nothing more than friendship, while the bored looking champ fends off the feisty leprechaun, who is at least putting himself out there and leading with his heart. I struggle to make the connection, but my brain is fried.
I step into the empty Star Wagon for the last time today, the little space that has been a godsend on this boiling day. We had the rare luxury of coming back here to literally chill out, while the masses of true fans stayed in the dust and heat, rolling as one to their favorites.
I take every banana and water bottle left and feed my bursting backpack, as habits die hard, and take one last look around the trailer.
It’s quiet and cold in here now.
I feel that stab of punk rock guilt, to be standing here in comfort while a few thousand kids stand out there in the dirt and heat, singing along to their heroes.
For a fleeting moment, I consider taking one of the last beers out of the mini fridge and pouring it down the back of the plasma TV mounted amidships.
But what would that be? An uneasy assurance to myself that I am still that carefree and careless punk of 3 decades back, that a true spirit lives on?
Instead I tidy up the trailer and put all the recyclables and garbage into the proper trash cans.
And when I leave I turn off the light.