For the love of festivals

Music festivals have saved me so many times

Concluding our series of first-hand accounts of life in tents, Patrick Smith recalls the way that festivals such as End of the Road and Primavera have helped him through bad times, from heartbreak to grief to crushing depression

Friday 25 June 2021 07:00
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<p>Head of Culture Patrick Smith with friends at End of the Road festival in 2019</p>

Head of Culture Patrick Smith with friends at End of the Road festival in 2019

For years I believed there was no low so low that a festival couldn’t help fix me. Ever since my first one – Roskilde in 2007 – they have always been a sort of analgesic balm, three or four days of joy and catharsis. The time I was dumped? My friends dragged me to Glastonbury, and the defibrillating shock of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs restarted my heart. That spring sodden in grief? Bon Iver’s falsetto soothed my soul at a sun-drenched Primavera. When I was filled with self-loathing? Fleetwood Mac convinced me to “Go Your Own Way” at the Isle of Wight.

September 2019 was different. Four months previously, I had been involved in a moped accident in Thailand (I know). It was carnage: leg snapped, ligaments ripped, peroneal nerve damaged so emphatically, I lost all feeling and movement beneath my right knee. Then came the depression, a miasma seeping into every nook and cranny of my mind. There were tears. Outbursts. Feelings of devastation. I’d never run again, I was told. Worse was the PTSD. The flashbacks. The nights spent agonising over what had happened; what I could have done differently. My mum and my girlfriend would take turns to sponge-bath me. We laughed; inside I was a wreck, helpless.

All of which is to say, End of the Road 2019 really had its work cut out. Falling on the first weekend of September, this Wiltshire camp-out traditionally marks the end of the festival season – a summer swansong, teeming with oddballs and built on a mix of intimacy and bosky bacchanalia. I’d been a couple of times before, covering it as a music critic, though this time it was a little harder to get around: on crutches on the first day; in a wheelchair on the second. At one point, my girlfriend, transfixed by the vegan burger she was clutching, let go of me, and off I went hurtling down the hill, her in hot pursuit (but still clutching that vegan burger). At another, parked in front of Michael Kiwanuka’s headline set, I could scarcely see the stage as silhouettes swayed languidly in front of me. Surrounding me were my mates, though, eyes glittering against the night sky, rocking me enthusiastically (and chewing my ear off) to the psychedelic strains of “Cold Little Heart”. In moments like these I’m reminded of the sheer restorative power of festivals. Music! Friends! Love!

At Roskilde Festival in 2007

If I went to End of the Road desolate that year, I emerged from it clinging to small tendrils of hope. And hope had been the lesson I took away from my very first festival. In fact, it’s a miracle I ever went to one again after Roskilde in 2007. I arrived for a sunny weekend in Denmark to watch Björk, The Who and Arcade Fire. Alas, it turned out to be the wettest year in the festival’s history: I’d brought Converse when I should have brought wellies; a leather jacket when I should have brought a sou’wester; and a flimsy pop-up tent when what the conditions really called for was an ark.

The scenes were apocalyptic. Teenagers cried. Tents were lost in mud slides. Lakes formed in the camping areas. To watch an act required skilfully hopscotching through the chocolatey sludge. Imagine SAS selection, except with more blonde students hopped up on gallons of bad red wine. Five thousand people left on day one. I checked into a hostel on day three. If that all sounds faintly traumatic, it really wasn’t in the end, as we summoned the kind of hardy bonhomie usually fostered in the harshest conditions. By the time the sun peeped through on the Sunday and we were pogoing to Basement Jaxx, I understood what festivals were all about. I went to four the following year.

Since then, music journalism has taken me everywhere – from Portmeirion to Bilbao, Oslo to Helsinki. Friendships have been forged in front of the likes of Radiohead, Pixies and Lana Del Rey. Of course, the past 16 months have deprived us of these magical weekends. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to grapple with depression. Sometimes it’s bad, other times more manageable. But it’s always there, lurking. I still wear a splint but there is now movement in my foot, albeit minimal. Add to that the prospect of another End of the Road this year and I can (almost) feel a spring in my step. What I wouldn’t give right now to be in a muddy field, holding a warm beer and surrounded by the people I love, singing along to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off”. Nature is healing – and so is live music.

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