A GOOD MAN IN GLASTONBURY
Michael Eavis may look much like any other hearty, middle-aged English farmer. In fact, he is an icon of alternative culture, revered by stars and fans alike as the patron saint of British rock festivals
Sunday 18 June 1995
As he fretted, a car pulled up outside the farm gates. Even from a distance, Eavis could tell that it was Marc Bolan's, because it was covered from bumper to bumper in velvet. Eavis approached the singer and thanked him for coming. "I see you've got a velvet-covered car," he added, reaching towards the vehicle. "Yes," snapped Bolan. "Don't touch it." And without another word he drove off towards the gig.
That evening, performing on a canvas- covered, scaffolding stage so flimsy that it had been tied to an apple tree to prevent it from blowing away, Bolan more than made up for his cocky brusqueness. "Absolutely marvellous," recalls Eavis. "To this day, I reckon it's about the best thing that's ever happened here. The sun was going down behind the stage, a red sun. And every song they sang, every note they played was so good. There were only 1,500 people there to see it. But you could tell it had the makings of something that was going to last."
Twenty-five years on, the event now known as the Glastonbury Festival has grown to accommodate around 100,000 people, upwards of 100 bands and dozen upon dozen of weird side shows; where once it lost money, it now reaps profits for charity of pounds 300,000 from a turnover of pounds 4m. And, as the festival has grown, so has its founder's stature. The man once snubbed by Marc Bolan is now courted by record companies, deluged with demo tapes, celebrated in cartoon strips, and even - on occasion - mobbed in the streets by pop stars. If rock musicians drove velvet cars today, they'd be begging Michael Eavis to stroke them.
Though there's nothing remotely opulent or psychedelic about his appearance (tweed jacket, tie, corduroys, wellies in winter; shorts, shirt and boots in summer), he sticks out from the crowd. Even at the height of the festival, when the ground is thick with strange-looking folk, you can always spot Michael: the secret lies in his arresting tonsorial combination of shining bald pate and bushy chin. "I just thought it suited me," says Eavis, in his faint Somerset burr, of his unusual, moustache-free beard, which he first grew in 1971 - about a century after that particular style of facial decoration was last in fashion. "I tried a full beard, but I looked a bit of a gangster with it all round my mouth." The result is curiously charming, calling to mind one of those comical portraits which make equal sense upside down, or a mischievous hobgoblin from a fairy-tale, or perhaps just a friendly farmer from a bygone age.
Eavis would probably prefer the latter description. He considers himself a dairyman first and foremost. At the age of 59 (despite a recent brush with cancer, from which he appears to have made a good recovery), he still rises at 5.30am to milk his cows; lives in a comfortable but simply furnished farmhouse with his second wife, Jean, and his 15-year-old daughter Emily (between them the Eavises have eight children); and pursues an existence far removed from the flashy lifestyle one might expect of a major rock promoter. "If I have any money spare," he says, "it'll go on a new slurry pit, not a swimming-pool or a holiday in Barbados."
He devotes six months every year to organising the Festival, paying himself pounds 40,000 for "rent of the land, wear and tear and salary", although it is not his main source of income. He is proud of his organically-reared herd of 250 Friesians, whose milk earns him annual profits of pounds 140,000, making him one of the most successful dairy farmers in the West Country.
Such is his professional cachet that, following the demise of the Milk Marketing Board, he was asked to head the Somerset Milk Produ- cers' Group, a collective which represents the interests of nearly 300 dairy farmers and sells direct to Unigate. "Local farmers think I know what's going on," he explains. "I don't really. But I get through to people. They believe that what I say I'm going to do I'm going to deliver."
This reputation has stood him in good stead as a festival organiser. He is respected - almost revered - by rock people as a patently decent man (a rarity in the music business); but he is also trusted and liked by his Somerset neighbours, few of whom are the sort of people one would have expected to take kindly to the establishment of a rock festival in their "back yard". Eavis has bridged the gulf between rural conservatism and rock radicalism, and this is what makes him remarkable.
HIS VALUES are traditional, but his non- Conformist upbringing has imbued him with a campaigning spirit and a degree of open-mindedness rarely seen in the farming community. "We're a Methodist family, us lot," says Eavis. "Anti-establishment. Always have been. The status quo's forbidden, as far as we're concerned."
Born in 1935 into a family of "cow people" who settled in Pilton more than 100 years ago, Athelstan Joseph Michael Eavis was privately educated at Wells Cathedral School. "I didn't enjoy it that much," he recalls. "So I went off to merchant naval college at 15 and then joined the Union Castle Shipping Company." This he describes as "the glamorous bit" of his life. Union Castle was a smart company, with "lovely lavender-coloured ships", which sailed to and from Kenya and South Africa, carrying "colonials, archdeacons' daughters, people like that. They fancied all us cadets. There were six of us, all reasonably good-looking. We'd come out of the mess and the girls would throw flowers at us."
His plans to spend another 20 or 30 years at sea were scuppered in 1958 when his father died prematurely, leaving Michael with the choice of selling up the farm or taking it over. "It was a bit traumatic," he says. "A big change from a life on the ocean waves. I was a reluctant farmer at first. It was all hand-milking in those days and the farm was run down." He inherited 150 acres, 60 cows and an enormous overdraft (which even now stands at pounds 500,000). But although it took him 10 years to get the farm in shape again, the rigours of dairy farm life - milking, feeding, calving, mending hedges and tending foot-rot - were more than offset by the joys of working in the Vale of Avon, the lush valley at the foot of Glastonbury Tor. ("One of the most beautiful places on earth," says Eavis.)
In 1964, Eavis divorced his first wife, Ruth, whom he had married six years earlier and with whom he had had three children. Not long afterwards, he married his present wife, Jean. It was with Jean that he first developed an interest in counter-culture, following an inspirational visit to the splendiferously pyschedelic 1969 Bath Blues Festival. "We were sucked in to this era of protest and music and being lovely to one another," recalls Eavis. "I thought, `We've got a good site here in Pilton. Why don't we do something similar?' " The following year, they did.
IT SHOULD, by rights, have been a disaster. And it nearly was. Having phoned up the nearest rock venue (Colston Hall, Bristol) to find out how one went about booking a band, Eavis acquired a telephone number for the Kinks, who agreed to perform for pounds 500. Unfortunately, they pulled out at the last minute, deciding that they were too grand to appear in what Melody Maker had billed as a "mini-festival". Eavis was ready to give up, but was persuaded by his daugh- ter that this would be deeply uncool. So he persevered and got to be blown away by T-Rex.
Much as he enjoyed the 1970 festival - which lost him pounds 1,500 but was none the less generally seen as a success - Eavis had not given much thought to organising another one until the arrival on his doorstep of two prominent "beautiful people" of the day: Andrew Kerr, a "very attractive middle- class hippy lad with long flowing hair and smart hippy gear", and his friend Arabella Churchill. They had, they said, decided to finance a free festival the following year. It would be known as "Glastonbury Fayre".
"I tried getting them to spell `fayre' with an i," says Eavis. But in this, as in so many other organisational facets of the new festival, he was overruled. It all came to a head one day when Kerr threw a pack of Tarot cards into the air. "What's that?" Eavis asked, examining the scattered cards. "Oh," said Kerr and Churchill, "It says that anyone with the name of Michael mustn't be involved with this event." From then on, Eavis took the position of amused observer.
"Suddenly," he says, "all these stupid townies were appearing telling me things they didn't understand." On one occasion, his farm was graced with a visit from Mick Farren, editor of the underground newspaper International Times. Spotting a bog in the middle of the festival site, Farren insisted that it be fenced off in case people were swallowed up, never to be seen again. He was unimpressed by Eavis's protestations that both he and his cows had trodden that spot, unscathed, for many years. "I saw it happen in Lorna Doone," said Farren.
Eavis concedes that Glastonbury Fayre - which starred David Bowie, was attended by 12,000 people and filmed by a later-to-be- famous crew including Nic Roeg and David Puttnam - put Pilton on the map. For him, though, it was a nightmare. "There was a lot of LSD around. People were freaking out, wandering into the village wearing nothing but a top hat, that sort of thing. I was all over the place, looking after the villagers and the cattle that were straying. Once it was over, I decided I didn't want anything to do with it again."
His resolve held for half a decade, and there were no further festivals until 1977, when Eavis staged a small, free event. Bigger, loss-making shows followed in 1979 and 1980. But it wasn't until l981, when the Festival was held as a CND benefit and Eavis took complete control of the event and its purse strings, that he felt fully confident in its future. Today, as it celebrates its silver jubilee, the Festival is more stable than ever. Eavis has more or less resolved his on-off difficulties with the travelling community (granted free fields to keep them happy in the mid- Eighties, banned since 1990 when they rioted and caused pounds 50,000 worth of damage); and he has persuaded both the Mendip District Council and most of his neighbours that, for all the traffic hiccups it causes for one week every year, Glastonbury Festival is a Good Thing.
IT WAS not always so easy. Three times (in 1986, 1987 and 1989), he took the council to court after it refused the Festival a licence. Each time he won. "They were doing it for political reasons, you see," recalls Eavis. "By supporting CND I'd rattled a few right-wing cages. But all the magistrates wanted to know was whether the health and safety aspects were in order."
He has also had to placate - and, now, has placated - most of Pilton's inhabitants. Of 900 locals, only 11 still object violently to the Festival; another 30 are waverers. Neighbour- ing farmers make a small fortune by letting their land for use as car-parks; the festival gives temporary employment to many locals; and Eavis does his best to ensure that the villagers are bothered as little as possible. He pays about pounds 500,000 for policing; two 10ft fences surround the festival site - as much to keep revellers away from the village as to keep gate-crashers out; and he always spends some of the profits on local causes. This year, he provided the stone and land for eight new council houses in the village. (He also donated pounds 40,000 so that the homes could all have chimneys and clay-tiled roofs.)
His efforts have won the grudging respect of David Heathcoat-Amory, the local MP, who is not pro the Festival but has at least ceased to be anti; even though Eavis, recently chosen as Labour candidate for the Wells constituency, will be contesting Heathcoat-Amory's seat in the next election. (This stems more from mischievousness than from Parliamentary ambition. The seat is one of the Tories' safest.)
Despite his left-leaning views, there are some matters on which Eavis takes a conservative stance. Drugs, for instance. "I never did get into them," Eavis explains, putting his abstinence down to his Methodist background. "In fact, I used to put up all these posters with these lovely quotations I'd found, explaining that you didn't need drugs to enjoy yourself. Didn't have much effect. Even my kids smoked. But I'm sure if I'd done it, the whole thing would have gone to pot." Nor did he have the inclination to indulge in free love, even in the early Seventies. "I was married to Jean by then," he says simply.
His values may have made him appear old-fashioned at the time, but today Eavis seems curiously modern. He was championing environmental causes long before they became fashionable, and he believes that one of his res- ponsibilities as head of the Somerset Milk Pro-ducers' Group is to encourage the "greening" of local farms. "The Festival led me down the environmentally- friendly path that farmers have got to go down whether they like it or not," he says. He is no knee-jerk sentimentalist who thinks that animals have "rights", but he is a firm opponent of unnecessary cruelty (his calves go to English farms because he dislikes Continental weaning methods) and his business sense tells him that the future lies in eco-friendly produce.
This mixture of idealism and pragmatism is typical, as is the enthusiasm with which he keeps in tune with the mores of his punters. Besides reading NME, Eavis regularly attends rock concerts with family and friends to vet prospective Glastonbury acts. "I enjoy the gigs," he says. "My kids get bored of it before I do." And he prides himself on his ability to spot the Next Big Thing. In the mid-Eighties, for example, he booked the Smiths when they were on the cusp of superstardom. "I first saw them in Bristol and I knew they had something special." When they headlined Glastonbury in 1985, Eavis made a point of watching them from the stage wings. "Definitely one of the high spots," he says.
Rarely, however, does he spend much time hobnobbing with the stars. "I did say `Hello' to Morrissey," he says. "But I didn't expect him to look pleased, and he didn't. He's always miserable, though, isn't he?" Eavis enjoys better relations with Tom Jones, who still writes enthusiastic letters about the time he had at the 1992 festival. And every year, by tradition, he ferries Van Morrison from his hotel to the farm for his annual gig. "We have a chat about the farm, the village and the cows. It's all on a very folksy sort of level. Except one year when he asked me how much I'd paid Joan Armatrading. I told him pounds 5,000. He said, `Jesus. She could have got a lot more money than that, couldn't she?' " These days, though, Eavis has discovered that the stars need him more than he needs them. Only the other day, while up in London to collect a Brit Award for "Event of the Year", he was chased along the pavement by a man in a black beret. "He was saying, `Hey man. You're the geezer. You're the person who runs Glastonbury. Far out!' So I asked him who he was. He said, `I'm the lead singer of Supergrass.' "
Eavis shakes his head in bemusement. He has come a long way since he tried to touch Marc Bolan's velvet car. !
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
- 2 Van driver who comforted Clark Carlisle and called 999 after suicide attempt dies age 24
- 3 People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
- 4 Baby rescued 1km out to sea after parents forgot about her
- 5 Greek debt crisis: The photograph that conveys the despair of Greece's elderly
Bad luck, One Direction: Paul McCartney doubts success of The Beatles will ever be matched again
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
The Crystal Maze: Richard O’Brien confirmed to return as more details revealed about show's rebooted format
Guillaume Tell's gang-rape scene caused uproar at the Royal Opera House – but the portrayal of extreme sex and violence on stage is nothing new
Britain's best outdoor cinemas to visit this summer from Somerset House to Luna Cinema
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture