To Glastonbury: in search of the vibe
"Inside the Healing Field, I ask an old man with a long beard to heal me. 'Heal Yourself,' he snaps, as a helicopter purrs loudly overhead. 'Metal man machine,' he mutters, angrily." By Jon Ronson
Tuesday 27 June 1995
And, in that, all my worst fears are realised. I come from a culture in which "the vibe" (whatever that may be) must be easily identifiable, signposted with handy RAC arrows saying "Vibe. 600 yards. First left." I am terrible at generic-vibe hunting. The Glastonbury Festival is so big ("the size of Bristol," says Simon the press officer. "Or is it Swindon? Some Wiltshire town, anyway") that if the whole thing is a vibe - the car parks, the jazz tent, everything - then I don't know what to do.
In reality, it transpires, there is one small section of the festival that isn't a vibe at all. It is a small, seemingly innocuous, concrete path leading to organiser Michael Eavis's farmhouse. When I ask the seasoned Glastonbury veteran at the production office how the wheels of Big Business have transformed the festival over its 25 years, he pauses and points sadly at this small path.
"That never used to be concrete," he says, shaking his head. "It used to be gravel."
"And anything else?" He thinks for a moment.
"No," he says. "Other than that, it's all pretty much the same."
Today is my first ever Glastonbury, and only my second ever pop festival. Whenever, in the past, I've sat with seasoned festival-goers, listening to them recount brave anecdotes of mud and drugs (all of which invariably include variations on the themes "I paid pounds 10 for what turned out to be a horse tranquilliser" and "suddenly the whole field appeared to turn into a giant steel claw") I must admit to thinking that I am not really a festival type. Also, the prospect of paying pounds 65 to have some damp troubadour with a hessian sack full of Native American healing techniques jump around me performing an annoying allegory about the perils of concrete (which is exactly what happens to me an hour after my arrival) was never appealing. I don't mean to sound churlish - I'm not against this stuff - but, in vibe terms, it doesn't rank highly. People tell me that Glastonbury is the year's very best event, and consequently I want to experience the sort of vibe that cannot be found every afternoon at the Covent Garden Piazza.
I decide to question the hippie further on the whereabouts of the vibe.
"Look," he says, pointing at a ladybird feeding on a leaf, "there's the vibe."
"No it's not," I reply, testily. "That's not a vibe."
"Then maybe," says the hippie, a little angrily, "you should look for the vibe inside your own head."
He's right, of course: and perhaps the vibe can be summed up in the following conversation I had with Simon - the press officer of long-standing and old hippie friend of Michael Eavis.
"Have you ever lost your temper in the 25 years you've been doing this?" I ask him.
"Oh yes, indeed," replies Simon, a little sheepishly. "I did once. It was a good few years ago now. One of the stewards wouldn't let anyone take photos of the bands. So I tracked him down and confronted him."
"What did you say?"
"I shouted 'It's you!' " Simon pauses, seemingly unable to believe the potential of his fury. He blushes. "But then I quickly calmed down and apologised."
And later, when I ask the man in the local pub what he thinks of all the hippies invading the village, he replies: "Oh, they're great. You know, if someone doesn't like it, Michael Eavis will pay for them to have a holiday. Isn't that lovely? And one lady found some dog-turd in her garden, and insisted that Michael himself came over to sweep it up. And he did."
But so much for this spirit of Sixties bohemian philanthropy when much of the 80,000 strong audience seems to be comprised either of scally tent thieves ("It's like Babylon out there," says one steward, "everything's getting robbed... it's the worst ever"), or misanthropic, cynical middle- class teenagers. When the man from the Green Party delivers his speech on the main stage, everyone around me boos and hisses.
"You're so naive," shouts one young girl dressed in tie-dye and hair extensions. Then she turns to her boyfriend. "If the Green Party was in power, industry would collapse, and unemployment would sky-rocket. These people have no idea about economics." Wise words - of course - but sad to see them coming from somebody who looks like an extra from Godspell.
And as I wander towards the Healing Field, I pass a young man with eyeballs the size of my flat, careering through the trees, a look of frozen terror on his face. Another man - grinning mischievously - follows close behind him, quietly singing in his ear. "Paranoia," he chants, eerily. "Paranoia ..." And, once inside the Healing Field, I ask an old man with a long beard to heal me, and he bluntly refuses.
"Heal yourself," he snaps, as a helicopter purrs loudly overhead.
"Metal man machine," he mutters, angrily. "Flying man in his metal machine."
Later he explains to me that his entire stack of firewood had been stolen from inside his tent the previous night. He had been hiding his wood ("Can you believe it? We have to hide our wood these days") - but it got found.
Paranoia is running deep. Apparently, a group of people have arrived dressed as policemen and are confiscating everybody's dope, "only to smoke it themselves in a field". And if that isn't bad enough, there's a highly organised band of 60 tent-thieves, stealing the tents, and then setting up an impromptu stall selling tents at inflated prices to those who have had their tents stolen.
Soon the sun comes out, however, and everybody cheers up. As I walk towards the main stage, through the Theatre Field - in a last ditch attempt to experience the vibe first-hand - I spy four people dressed as aliens, pushing a huge alien trolley. As I stand and watch, the aliens surround me, their tentacles spinning. Then one produces a pair of scissors, cuts off a lock of my hair, and places it in a specimen bag, which he insists I hold while the aliens jump around blowing whistles. Slightly embarrassed, I look around me: a large crowd has formed, and people are laughing and taking photographs. And then, I suddenly realise that - for a brief moment - I have become the vibe.
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