40 Years Out: Celebration of Life, Louisiana
The Woodstock festival in 1969 signaled a new era in the marketing of rock culture to the youth masses. Of course, before the first note of music was played Woodstock was actually a slick, professionally planned event – they had lots of publicity and even the foresight to hire a movie crew – but it turned into something else once the fences came down. So after Woodstock every time somebody put a couple of bands together they called it a “festival” and any time four or more acts played together outdoors it was billed as the next Woodstock.
That was how they sold the Celebration of Life, an epic outdoor rock festival to be held in central Louisiana, in the middle of June 1971. Oh man, the lineup looked even sweeter than Woodstock: the Allman Brothers Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Canned Heat, Richie Havens, the Beach Boys, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Johnny Winter and many more over eight or nine days in a Southern paradise right at the summer solstice.
What it turned out to be, though, was a stinking mess. Many of the advertised acts didn’t show or refused to play, kids had to camp out for days before organizers even opened the gates and let anyone in, and once they did conditions were horrid at best and dangerous at worst. I know, because I was there. Unfortunately.
In June 1971 I turned 16 years old and I got my Texas drivers’ license. There was this one dude in our neighborhood who was older and he knew another dude who worked at the local newspaper Port Arthur News – they said they had some “press passes” to the Celebration of Life but no ride to Louisiana. Being young, stupid and in possession of a car, I volunteered to drive; they said they’d book a hotel so we would have some place to stay and they would pick up my food if I paid for gas. So I show up to pick up my two friends and magically there’s a fourth, some dude named Tommy.
This festival was in a place called McCrea, Louisiana, along the Atchafalaya River north of what is known as Cajun Country. Wow, I remember thinking, days along this lazy slow-moving river and nights in an air-conditioned hotel … it still sounded cool to me, even as we encountered the first traffic jam heading to the festival site. As we got closer I could see people everywhere – camped atop the big levees that ran along the river, shirtless dudes laying in the grass and smoking pot. A grim Louisiana state policeman pointed us in the direction of a huge, muddy field that was the parking lot. Kids were hanging out of minivans, sleeping in open car trunks and atop car hoods. We pulled up behind a naked dude taking a piss right out in the open.
Now this was Friday afternoon; the festival was supposed to have been going on for five days before and people there told us there was some kind of “hassle” with lawyers and promoters which kept the gates closed but music was supposed to start once it got dark. We made our way to the ticket booths, and my newspaper man walked up confidently to will call. He came slinking back shortly; “Our passes aren’t there, man.” So let’s go check in to the hotel, eh? Uh, man, we can’t leave … we’re here for the MUSIC. At which point I realized I’d been had. No tickets, no hotel … and no music. Just a long drive back to Texas.
We got back to the car just as the sun started to set, then this bearded hippie approached us. “When it gets dark, man, I’ll help you get in,” he said. This was beginning to sound like a bad idea. So a few minutes later we were following this dumbass through the swamp and we came upon a huge fence. Some shirtless redneck with no teeth was guarding the fence, or rather a large hole in the fence. The press entrance, I suppose.
Once inside, the lights from the stage and the tall sound towers illuminated what seemed to be a fresh battlefield. Mud everywhere, people sprawled on dirty blankets, tents here and there, a campfire smoking off on the side. War (without Eric Burdon) was playing, so I found a patch of grass and stretched out. I remember Chuck Berry played and it seems there was an appearance by Brownsville Station. The music was loud, but not as loud as the mosquitoes buzzing around my head. Music went on all night, and into the early morning’s light.
When I couldn’t take it any more, I got up and staggered around looking for a drink of water. People were handing out apples and bananas and ham sandwiches and I thought I could just dip into the river and get a drink. But when I got there I was shocked – the lazy Atchafalaya I had envisioned was this fast-moving stream, and the water near the bank was filled with naked hippies. This sunburned guy walked past me and smiled. “If you’re going swimmin’ don’t go too far out,” he advised. “The current will pull you out … if the alligators don’t get ya!” Downstream from the bathers, I saw a turd float past. Maybe I could get a drink later.
They really didn’t have music during the day, just at night. Probably because it was so hot and humid. They blasted the Rolling Stones’ new album Sticky Fingers over and over on the P.A. while people sweated under the blistering sun. It rained in the afternoon, but nothing really cooled off – the sun just came back out and made it all steamy.
I wandered back to my car and slept on the back seat. When there was a breeze, which was rare, it usually carried the whiff of pot smoke and the occasional armpit or eau de ass crack. Now I hadn’t seen my trip companions since we arrived, and I was seriously thinking about just leaving the assholes there and bolting back to Texas.
But no – I went back at dark for more music, trying to get a little closer. I managed to sleep through at least part of every set on Saturday night, including Ted Nugent, who bitched at people from the stage for sleeping through his performance. There was one band, I think it may have been It’s A Beautiful Day, playing around sunrise with their flutes and crap. What a fucking nightmare.
By Sunday morning I’d had enough and resolved to make a break for it. When I got to the car I saw my companions sprawled on the hood and trunk. I started up the engine and without a word, they all piled in for the trip back. We rode to Texas with the windows open, the wind taking away only traces of the body smells. A fart wouldn’t have had a chance with the overpowering mixed aromas of armpits and socks. Even though all I had to show for it were mosquito bites and sunburn, I’d been to my first rock festival of the era. I was also determined it was going to be my last.
When we went to the 40th anniversary of Woodstock we encountered person after person who had been to the monumental festival and remembered their own surroundings, but very few recalled a lot of details about the music. I know the feeling – you go there for the MUSIC, but you take away the experience.
Down the road 40 years to the internet age, we get these stats: 50,000 people attended; two drownings in the river, maybe one or two more deaths due to drug overdose; many of the billed performers bailed or didn’t show; 100 busts for drugs; and it was the last time they ever had one of these in central Louisiana. Time magazine said the festival was an “American nightmare.” And to this day, I still get a weird nauseous feeling when somebody plays “Sister Morphine.”
But in the end … I’m glad I went. What a memory.
YouTube: Video from the Celebration of Life festival 1971. (Rare Earth did NOT play).