In 1972 I lived in Manchester. Not that far from Bickershaw, so when
the festival arrived a group of us decided we would be fools not to go.
We arrived on Friday evening and put our tent up outside the concert
perimeter and went in. My recollections of the groups who were on
Friday night are not vivid. I remember being impressed by Doctor John,
as he threw his sparkly dust into the evening sky, but that's about it.
Saturday was much more memorable.
As has been well documented it was a little on the damp side and by the
time Saturday evening came along I was rather soggy. My best friend
bought two tabs of black microdot and asked me if I wanted one. At the
time I was going through one of my 'I'm not taking acid again. It makes
my head go too funny' periods. In retrospect I can see it was my
Catholic upbringing, with all the 'weeping and gnashing of teeth' that
was to blame. From being fun, visions of heaven and hell had started to
sneak in, but one of my friends had bought a couple of tabs, so after a
little persuasion I thought 'What the hell'. After I had taken my tab
my 'friend' said "I've got a terrible headache. I think I'd best not
take my tab."
"THANKS A LOT" He then gave me his tab because he wouldn't be needing
it, and I like a fool, accepted it. Needless to say about five minutes
later I lost my friend in the crowd. So there I was having taken some
acid in amongst thousands of strangers. I began to get paranoid about
the tab in my pocket, and instead of throwing it away (that would be
wasteful), I swallowed it. Up to that moment the first tab hadn't
kicked in yet, but as soon as I had taken the second things began to
happen. The sun was going down and people started to light fires to
keep warm. The smoke began to get in my eyes, and get down my throat,
making me choke. The contours of the land changed completely and the
muddy field began to resemble the Somme. Everybody started to look like
demons. I remember vividly someone buying a hotdog and wolfing it down
like Wimpey in a Popeye cartoon. It became clear to me that this
concert had been going on since the beginning of time. The acid I had
taken was the Apple. I had tasted the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of
Good and Evil, and here I was in Hell.
There was an air of resignation about me as I wandered the muddy fields
populated by countless other lost souls. There was a stall selling
records by artists who were appearing at the festival. The Grateful
Dead were performing and the stall was regaled with their record
covers. Everybody must be aware of what Grateful Dead covers look like
and the skeletons that were dancing about were reminiscent of Jason and
the Argonauts. All this just seemed to confirm my sense of foreboding.
When the announcer said over the Tannoy 'And now for the first time in
Britain, we have 'The Flaming Groovies,' and they started up with
'Jumpin' Jack Flash', my heart sank.
I stumbled round with an ever-increasing sense of resignation. I came
across a black London taxi, with a bullet hole sticker on the back
window. I entered and sat down. I absent-mindedly searched through my
pockets and found a little leaflet which I'd been given earlier in the
day. It was from 'the Children of God' a bunch of pseudo psychedelic
Christians who frequented rock festivals around that time, picking up
casualties. Everything was conspiring to make me believe that I was in
hell or at least at gates. I was sure that the Devil in the best Hammer
Horror Tradition was going to get into the drivers seat and say, "We've
been expecting you." Instead somebody opened the door and said, "What
are you doing? This is my brother's taxi."
I said all I want to do is get out of here. He pointed to the
Entrance/Exit which was situated on higher ground than where we were. I
started to walk with a purpose towards the gate, saying to myself as I
went "Got to get out. Got to get out. Got to get out" afraid that I
would forget what I was trying to do, if didn't. As I approached the
gate a man with one tooth in his head asked "Do you want a pass-out?" I
told him, "I'm not coming back" and plunged through the gate.
On the other side things were even worse! There was a car stuck in the
mud and in an effort to get moving the driver was giving it plenty of
revs, filling the air with petrol fumes. There were lots of policemen
and what appeared to be more unsavory characters than inside the
concert. It was then I thought that I had to get back in. Then I
realised I hadn't got a pass-out and didn't have enough money to get
back in. There were six entrances in a line I walked up to each in turn
and said, "You've got to let me in." At each entrance I was told, "If
you haven't got a pass-out, you can't come in." Eventually I reached
the last gate and said with a look of desperation, "YOU'VE JUST GOT TO
LET ME IN." And the guy said, "You'd best come in then."
I was walking around now with the rain getting heavier, when I heard a
message come through the ether, "THERE IS A CHILD MISSING. HE HAS BEEN
MISSING FOR FOUR HOURS. IF YOU FIND HIM COULD YOU PLEASE TAKE HIM TO
THE RELEASE TENT AT THE BACK OF THE STAGE." I am a child and I'm
definitely missing. I could see the stage in the distance. All I had to
do was get to the back of it. I started to run not caring who I was
standing on. Because of the rain lots of people were lying on the
ground, covered with plastic sheeting. As I made a beeline towards the
stage there were lots of expletives from the recipients of my size
10's. Eventually I got to the front, but how would I get to the back of
the stage. The stage itself was a massive wooden structure and on
either side of it stretched a fence, preventing people from getting
backstage. I followed the fence along and spotted a small hole just big
enough for me to squeeze through.
On the other side of the fence things were a lot calmer, more peaceful.
There were only a few people walking round. Ahead of me, I spotted a
bus. I had been walking around for what seemed like eternity and was
totally exhausted. I thought to myself, "It seems pretty peaceful in
there" so on I hopped. The bus wasn't like I expected it to be when I
got on board. The seats were set out like somebody's living room and my
acid-mind made it seem bigger than it should be, almost Tardis-like. I
sat down on the seat closest to the door, hoping that if I kept quiet
I’d be allowed to stay.
When I had been sitting there a short time I became aware of American
voices floating around the bus. I noticed a group of people was talking
at the far end. One of them noticed me and walked over.
"Who is this cat?" he said cheerily.
"Oh you don't know me," I replied in a broad Lancashire accent.'
"Didn't we pick you up when you were hitch-hiking in Germany, last year?"
"No" said I, honestly.
Then I remembered my assumed predicament. How I was lost in Hell and
all that sort of thing. So I hit him with, "Whose side are you on?"
He batted back with, "Why does there have to be any sides? Why can't it be a circle?"
While I was trying to get my head round that one, he said "Do you know
who I am?" Not in a big-headed way. He was genuinely inquiring if I was
aware of his identity. I peered at him through hallucinating eyes and
said, 'You're Captain Beefheart, aren't you?'
"That's right". Then he looked at me and said, "Its pretty wet out
there." It was then that I looked at myself for the first time. I was
soaked to the skin and caked with mud. Then smiling kindly he said, "We
have to go on stage soon. You don't want to be down here in the mud.
Would you like to come up with us?" I didn't need asking twice. I
wasn't about to loose contact with the only friendly face in Hell.
It was a long way up to the stage and through my acid-eyes all the
wooden planks seemed warped, and the lights made a spiders web effect
on everything as if to confirm my feeling that the concert had been
happening forever and this was Hell. When we got to the top of the
stairs a huge guy, obviously security, stopped me from going any
further. Beefheart shouted across, "He's with me," and I was let
through. When we got to the stage itself there was a large space behind
the playing area where people were chatting and dancing. Beefheart went
chatting and I went dancing, always making sure that I kept an eye on
the Captain. He came across once and gave a bottle of something which I
drank down in one swig, thinking it was some miraculous potion that
would transport me somewhere else (I found out later that it was a
bottle of spa water that he had given me to try to dilute whatever
substances I had taken). Another time he offered me a cigarette. When I
told I didn't smoke he said, "Good for you. I'm trying to give them up
Then it was time for him to go on stage. From my vantage point, I don't
think I've witnessed a performance so breathtaking. The movement of
Rockette Morton and Zoot Horn Rollo was astounding as they careered
around the stage like whirling dervishes, with Beefheart conducting the
whole thing. The band would disappear up different alleys then
Beefheart would bring them back with the subtlest of gestures. Then
something happened of which I don't understand. The only thing I can
think of was that Beefheart was introducing the band to the crowd.
"Zoot Horn Rollo on guitar," that sort of thing. Whoever it was
supposed to play, nothing happened and in my intoxicated state it came
to me in a flash of insanity, they are waiting for me. I have to be
seen on the stage as a member of the band. Captain Beefheart roams the
Galaxies doing gigs. He arrives with his Magic Band at Festivals and
picks up lost souls and whisks them away to La-La Land. A sort of
Cosmic Scarlet Pimpernel. When I knew I had to be seen on stage, I
started to make my way there. At Bickershaw when a band had finished
their spot instead of packing up their instruments they just moved them
back which meant that by Saturday evening the stage was cluttered up
with drum kits, microphones and the like. I thought I had to be seen on
stage, so like a bull in a china shop I went clattering through. Any
instruments that got in my way were scattered. In the end I finished up
standing at the left hand of Roy Estrada. He looked at me as if to say
"What the hell are you doing here?". I realised then that I had made a
booboo, and started to sidle off. Everybody was very nice. One guy
ushered me off, in the nicest possible way. I was then left in the
wings for the rest of the concert. When the Magic Band had finished
playing, Beefheart came across to me, and said "We are going now. Do
you want to stay here or come with us?" I said "I want to go with you."
There was no way I wanted to be left in Hell.
We came down the stairs and walked towards the bus. When we were about
fifty yards from the bus, he was engulfed by what I presume were
reporters, so I thought to myself "I'll go to the bus," but when I
tried to get on the bus this bouncer type barred my way. I stepped back
about five yards from the bus door. Somebody came along and said a few
words to the guy guarding the door. I couldn't quite catch whet he
said. I just got 'Blah, Blah, Blah, hotel.' I thought I understood
staying at the same hotel as Captain Beefheart. I marched up to the bus
and said 'Blah, blah, blah, hotel' and tried to get on again. The
bouncer said "I'm sorry you can't come on." By this time I noticed that
Beefheart had finished talking to the reporters and was walking towards
me. We met just in front of the bus. He said, "Its all right. Don't
worry, you'll hear my music. I promise that you'll hear my music." It
was such an enigmatic thing to say, so optimistic, something that could
be heard on so many different levels. The sun had started to come up.
The long night was over. I slipped back through the loophole and almost
immediately banged into some people that I knew. Santa Claus was
definitely on the Evening Stage that night.
What do I think now? I think that Don Van Vliet is a very special
person. Not because he is probably the most original musician of the
last century, or because he is a great painter, but because he was
aware enough to spot a fellow human in distress. He didn‘t feel so high
and mighty and above helping. At any time during that evening he could
have got rid of this 'muddy individual' who was messing up the bus, and
generally making a fool of himself, but he didn't leave me until my
crisis was over. When somebody is one of the biggest stars in the world
and is still able to behave with such compassion that is what I call
GREATNESS. As far as I am concerned he is one of the brightest stars in
the Universe, and I am so grateful that our paths crossed that night.
- Charles Gee, 1999