Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival
June 16, 2013
Day 4. This was no ordinary sweat. The air was thick and suffocating. Beads of sweat dripped in streaks all over my face, neck, hands, and all the way down to my socks. The heat was unbelievable—over one hundred degrees, with the humidity index off the charts. It was almost too hot to make the effort to walk from my car to the stage where Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be performing.
Each year the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival takes place in Manchester, Tennessee, which is about thirty minutes south of Nashville. Many say it’s the southern stepchild of Woodstock; I believed it. But no matter how hot or crowded it was, I wouldn’t be anywhere else on that day. I was standing in the middle of more than eighty thousand screaming fans, all chanting the name of the rock ’n’ roll group I’d met by chance in the mid-1970s and worked with for many, many years after. A band whose members had become iconic superstars in their own right. Their hard work, tenacity, and sheer talent, along with the help of a few people who passionately believed in them, had brought them to this point on that hot, hot day in Tennessee.
My heart was racing. I felt like I was twenty-one years old again, and I could hardly wait for them to come onstage!
I inhaled a deep breath of the hot, marijuana-scented air. It lingered thick and heavy and stuck to me like the heat. It was so intense that even a nonsmoker could get a contact high. Pot was everywhere. Alcohol was everywhere. Fans were stripped bare from the heat. Teenage girls no older than sixteen or seventeen, clad in teeny-tiny halter tops and cutoff shorts, were screaming as they crowded around the stage, chanting, “Petty! Petty! Petty!” The crowd chimed along.
Besides the band and their dedicated longtime manager, Tony Dimitriades, I was probably the only one of the eighty thousand fans there who knew Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ real story. I wondered if the fans realized how the band had made it to superstardom of this magnitude: the songs, the singer, luck? Or possibly a series of circumstances that happened at the right time, the right place? It was all of the above.
Typically, I would be backstage with the band, but today I just wanted to be a fan, a free-spirited spectator enjoying the show with all the other adoring, screaming fans. The group I had helped to become rock ’n’ roll superstars was about to hit the stage, and I was feeling just as frenzied as the crowd around me.
I couldn’t help but think back to my first encounter with this amazingly talented rock ’n’ roll band and the set of serendipitous circumstances that had paved the way for this very day. I flashed back to all the things that had happened in the last thirty-plus years to help create their success. It was a long, strange journey, and I had loved every minute of it.