Every July since 1996, approximately 15,000 neo-hippies (and some original ones) have descended on various locations — currently Bridgeport, Conn. — to spend four days keeping the spirit of the ’60s alive at a giant festival unironically called the Gathering of the Vibes, which started in memory of Jerry Garcia. Really they keep the spirit of the decade just half alive. “The ‘Vibes,” as people call it, is largely divorced from most of the political implications the counterculture once held close: You won’t see panels on feminism, the Yippies, Chicanos or Black Power. They sure do smoke a lot of weed, though! And if you think the latest neo-post punk band is derivative, just wait until you hear someone rewrite the same Grateful Dead song for the hundredth time … or better yet, just cover the originals. (To be fair, they also have the originals, in the form of the still-kicking Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.)
This type of subculture is common in New England, and it doesn’t change over time. #vibetribe tweets aside, the Vibes will be more or less the same in 2050 as it was in 1996, minus some key players; its source decade remains frozen in history, and the old timers have taught their children well. But more interesting than the music, to me, were all the delightfully wacky people who follow festivals around in psychedelic buses like it’s their job. It would be easy to go into something like this and just mock the shit out of it, but that’s not what I set out to do, and honestly, everyone I met there was so damn nice that I’d feel like a terrible person if I did. Most of these folks wanted to share their secret to happiness with me, so I began asking the bands if they had any insights along those lines.
Rock Dude, aka Ryan
Immediately upon arriving in seaside park, I headed to the beach, because the weather was perfect and I wanted to stick my feet in the water. Connecticut beaches aren’t much, but any beach is better than no beach, and people were carefully wading in over the rocks. Everywhere I looked, people had made little rock sculptures of similar size and shape.
“What are you making?” I asked one guy whose sculpture was still in progress. He told me he was making his very first rock sculpture, as he balanced rocks of descending size on top of one another to make a tapered tower.
“I mean, you see them at all the festivals. I’ve been to all of ‘em a bunch of times, they do ‘em on the road … it’s just way cooler here on the sound and stuff. It’s great, lots of rocks … this is actually the first rock sculpture I’ve made. It was fun. I’m probably gonna make another one.”
Mates of State
The first band I caught was Mates Of State, whose sunny indie pop had somehow snuck into a lineup of jam bands and Pink Floyd tribute projects. As it turned out, they live ten minutes away in Stratford, CT, so they were there for primarily geographical reasons, though they seemed to be having fun.
“How do you feel like you fit in with the Vibes?” I asked them after their set.
“Well, we don’t,” replied husband/drummer Jason Hammel. “But we never fit in,” wife/keyboard player/singer Kori Gardner finished. “We’ve never fit into a genre that you can clearly say, unless you wanna say ‘indie,’ which is pretty broad, so it’s kind of nothing new to us.”
I told them they seemed like positive people though, so they were a good match for the Vibes. “That’s true, and everyone here is very positive,” she said. “This is probably the nicest festival we’ve been to as far as the people we’ve been around…people say, ‘excuse me.’ My sister was short getting a hot dog last night and someone gave [the money] to her and I was like, ‘God, this is not a normal festival attitude!’”
I quickly found this statement held true as photographer Rebecca Smeyne and I walked around our camping area looking for new friends. Normally, I feel a bit sheepish about going up to someone and bothering them for an interview, but these people were practically begging to talk to me. And not in a fame whore-y way, either…they just really, really wanted to share their stories with any and all sympathetic ears.
“‘With a chest like that, you can do whatever the hell you want. You can slap me and call me mama,’ said the man.”
It wasn’t long before we came upon a guy wearing a little vest, cat face paint, and bunny ears who told us that that he was a “cabbit.” “You might not wanna record this part, but um, like a few years ago…anyway, it worked out so that I felt like a cat,” he explained, strongly implying he’d been tripping on psychedelics. “I tried to throw something together [for the vibes], so I painted little whiskers…I don’t know what sound a rabbit makes, but I know what sound a cat makes so I’m like “Meow meow meow” [here he did an eerily good impression of an alley cat in heat[ …”Last night, we were in that field over there, and everyone was like, ‘Meow meow meow.’”
“How did you get everyone to meow in unison?”
“You gotta strike, and the iron was pretty hot.”
The Freaky People Department
As it turned out, this guy was with a group called Rock Camp Productions that’s officially recognized by the Vibes as “the freaky people department.” A nice girl named Jessica explained to me that their raison d’être is going around to festivals with their giant neon dragon puppet (among other things) and running around in costume, all for the noble purpose of “making people happy, to get our art out there and change people’s lives.” Just then, Jessica’s father rolled up and told me that he was the one who’d introduced her to the festival scene. How old was she at the time? “16?” he guessed. “You brought me to my first vibes when I was nine, dad,” she said. In any case, he was very proud of her. “It warms me to the cockles of my heart that I look up on the screen and I see Phil [Lesh]s face, and all of a sudden they flash to the dragon. Oh my God, it was wonderful.”
The Crow Whisperer
Nearby, a girl sat with a crow perched on her breast, feeding it bits of chewed up carrot from her mouth. The crow kept opening its mouth and cawing for more food. “Is that your pet bird?” I asked. “He’s my new pet bird.” She explained that she’d met him earlier that day, and that people let domesticated birds go in the park all the time. How sad. She told me she had named him Dirk, and I told her that he seemed like a chill bird. “He’s really chill,” she said, then she addressed Dirk directly: “Do you need to poop again?” She moved him out over the ground, and the bird pooped on command. Girlfriend can talk to the animals!
Further towards the heart of the campground, we encountered an awesome old hippie dude named Eric Triffin who, among other things, is an amazing dancer who will be appearing in an upcoming Tori Amos video directed by Danielle Levitt, who first met him while shooting a book on happiness. And happy he was! He explained that he’d been to Woodstock ’69 and ’94 (the latter of which he’d brought his son to), and that we should have a national week of music like they do in France. “We do the NFL and March Madness … why not June Harmony or something? Wouldn’t that be cool?” We talked a bit about life and love (he comes from love; also New Haven), and how we are all in different grades at the Earth school. He told us he likes to dance, then busted out some moves for us right there, in a vibey series of motions he calls “transcen-dancing.” He’s quite nimble for a man his age. “I’m about turning onto the love, the love that’s there already, where we come from in the first place,” he said, somewhat out of breath from the dancing. “What’s hard about that? What’s not to love about love, and be love now?” Nothing! Nothing at all! He told us his name was “Trippin’ Triffin.” I asked him if he did drugs.
“I’ve been there, done that…I still remember, I still can psychedelicize the moment…if you can do it with words, you can do it with movement, why not go natural? You don’t forget that stuff. You know, so you can work it in other ways: the walking meditation, the doing-the-dishes meditation, the consciousness raising exercises in more ways than one.” I can’t fucking wait to see him dance with Tori.
Next we came upon a school bus painted with a giant, colorful fish that belonged to a band called “Lucid.” Its inhabitants claimed to have stolen it from a Catholic orphanage, kicking the children off before filling it with marijuana smoke and driving away. Oh really? “We made them believe in Santa, though.” Oh, okay then. Not unlike a Greek triumphal column, the art spiraled up towards the top of the bus and told elaborate tales about the fish’s many adventures. “You might hear acoustic music coming out of here later,” they said as we bid them adieu.
Venturing out of our happy hippie camp, we walked through the main festival area, past the Ferris wheel and through the Karma Wash (where adorable children squeegeed my soul clean), to the camp on the other side, which we’d been told was more of a crazy party spot. In fact, I found the vibes there significantly darker, and not just because that was where all the drug dealers were. I even sensed a bit of potential crossover with the Juggalos (a very different gathering), in terms of what drugs people had and what they were wearing on their heads, as well as the aforementioned strung out energy. There was a little path called “Shakedown Alley” where the dealers had set up their tents. As we walked down shakedown alley, the dealers cried their wares at us like some kind of old-timey marketplace, but it only worked when walking west to east. Nobody had mushrooms. One drug that apparently was going around was bath salts, that much ballyhooed new player on the scene which I can find no upside to trying. Actually composed of a varying cocktail of drugs (one of the most common of which is mephedrone), they are said to be similar to a combo of coke and ecstasy but with an addiction profile that’s more in line with crack, a choice that removes choice. One glass blower told a story that sounded suspiciously bath salty, and a Vibes employee faithfully related it to me:
“So there’s this yellow rope in front of the glass blowing booth…this guy walks up, eyes ablaze, he’s got this crazed fucking look on his face. He just starts staring at them, just standing there staring at them and they’re wondering what they can do for this guy. So the rope is about at waist level. This guy all of a sudden, he kneels down like this, and he starts to gnaw on the rope. And not just like that, but like an ear of corn, he starts to gnaw all the way across this rope, like ten feet just gnawing on every single section. And then he goes back and he starts gnawing again, and then when he gets to the middle of the rope, he stands up like staring them dead in the eyes, takes his belt off, pulls off his pants, and just walks away. And leaves his pants on the ground.”
Takeaway: bath salts make you want to bite things and take your clothes off.
Two Classy Guys
Before leaving the bad vibes campground, we spied a school bus painted black with “Magic Bus” written across the front. Its occupants initially beckoned us over because of our “great big tits,” an invitation my mother always taught me to accept. “With a chest like that, you can do whatever the hell you want. You can slap me and call me mama,” said the man. We talked to his friend and took some pictures on the bus, but when the first guy came back and realized what we were doing, he grew agitated. “I don’t want nobody recording me, I don’t want any pictures, I’m wanted in five states, so if you wanna do an interview, you gotta get out of here. I’m a career criminal, I don’t want no pictures taken.” As we retreated, I looked back and saw he was still ducking down behind the deck chairs on the bus’s makeshift patio to keep us from taking his picture.
Later that night, right before Primus blew my mind, Roseanne Barr made an angry campaign speech on the main stage. As you may know, she’s running for president of these United States, and her platform (delivered in her unmistakable nasal whine) is simple: she’s “not a thief, a liar, a whore, or a fucking politician,” “every one of those sons of bitches need to get thrown out on their goddamn face,” and “Obama can pry my weed from my cold dead fucking fingers.” The people down in front waiting for Primus to go on cheered heartily, but when I talked to people about it later, reactions were mixed.
(The only thing I managed to write down during Primus? “Dude…Claypool’s bass is like flavor and texture for your ears.” I stand by it.)
Festival patriarch Wavy Gravy, for one, was not too impressed with Roseanne’s speech. “We did not enjoy it, we thought it sucked,” he said when I found him riding around in a golf cart the next day. How so? “Because it sucked. If you don’t know why, I don’t know how to tell you.” Strong words for a man wearing a clown nose. But what about the radical political aspect of ’60s counter culture? How did he, a lifelong activist, hope to keep that alive?
“I’ve been running nobody for president since 1976,” he said. “Before that we ran a pig for president … she was the first female black and white candidate for that high office. And then we ran a rock for president and a roll for vice president, so you could always eat the VP, and then after that in 1976 we started running nobody, and I ran nobody year after year, campaigning all across America, telling everyone that nobody should have that much power, and nobody lowered your taxes and nobody bakes apple pie better than mom, and then along came Barack Obama and nobody told me to vote for him.” Attempting to agree with him, but perhaps a bit stoned on the uptake, I said that I agreed that the major parties were both kind of bad and more radical solutions were needed.
“I don’t think so! I don’t think there’s anything similar about the Democrats and the Republicans.”
“So who will you support?”
“Barack Obama, in a heartbeat. I want to go back and hear the bands, please,” he said, addressing the driver of his golf cart. Had I just managed to piss off Wavy Gravy?
I completed my Vibes experience by watching two competently jammy jam bands in a row, though I’ll admit I selected the McLovins partly because their name was hilarious. Indeed, one of its members (Jake) looked quite a bit like the character from Superbad. I asked if they’d met any other interesting people so far. Guitarist Atticus replied: “This one thing happened. I was pouring soda, and like, it’s all foamy and this woman comes up to me and she sings, ‘the foam keeps getting thicker,’ and just laughs. And she was so old, she was like 70, and she was quoting this Phish song. About my foam. And it was mostly funny but I also felt a little weird about it.” When asked what he thought her deal was, he replied that “She was probably tripping, or just old. And she clearly likes Phish and also likes foam, as I found.” Sometimes being old is kind of trippy, no? “Oh yeah, I can’t wait. You stop adjusting and the world becomes weird.”
Getting down to business, I asked him his secret to happiness. “Playing music,” they all agreed.
“It’s one of the most realest things,” said Atticus. “You don’t waste anything by trying to articulate it with words…it’s the purest thing when you’re onstage. You look at someone and you smile at em ’cause you like what they played. It’s all clean pure intention, the same way it was when you were a little kid. It kinda takes you back there every time. Unless it’s bad! Unless it goes poorly, and then it feels like you’ve been shitting and puking for two hours straight.”
The last band I spoke to was equally zen, addressing my question with gusto. “I like The Four Agreements…do you know about The Four Agreements?” asked guitarist Lebo. I did not. “This is super new age…I’m gonna get real new age on you.” I said that would be fine. “Don Miguel Ruiz, a friend turned me on…I think if you go too deep with it, like anything else it’s probably not that productive, but on its base level it’s good and it’s just four life rules. The first one is be impeccable with your work … just try to use your work for good, and that doesn’t mean can’t critique things and you know … you don’t have to just be like, spreading happiness, but don’t do it to cut someone down, you know, use it … be constructive.”
”Another one is don’t take anything personally, and I think this really keys into what we were just talking about … like, if someone’s like bumming you, that’s their trip. There’s two others…um…always do your best, that’s great, right? Whatever you’re doin’, always do your best…and there’s one more. I can’t remember what the other one was.”
A fitting end to a long and mind-erasing Gathering.