In The Swamp.
A tale of drugs, mud, piss and strange people at the Isle of Wight Festival 2012.
Not so long ago, Yuri and I were music students. That’s how we met. A substantial part of our education wasn’t at college. It was in dark arenas or pub basements or backrooms, members of a sweaty mass of bodies. Strobe lights and the occasional sprinkle of beer and a band murdering sound waves. From this everything else grows. Without those experiences we wouldn’t have become music students and if we had, whatever we did learn would have been meaningless.
Much of it remains so, despite introductory units on invoicing and financial management, despite units on promotion and licensing law.
Yuri left college a good musician with a mediocre grasp of theory. I left a mediocre musician with a good grasp of theory. My head was full of pointless information. More about advertising and the legal requirements of running a venue than music. Being able to write—in academia, this really just means being able to blag effectively—will get you a long way. Further than being able to play guitar. In the end I graduated with a better grade than Yuri. That’s how art is judged in our education system. Mostly on account of good quality bullshit artistry. Words justify how much you achieve on a music course.
After college, we formed about three separate bands. Or we reformed the same two-piece three times. None of them stuck. We never got as far as self-promotion or invoicing session musicians. The syllabus really wanted to turn us into marketing agents but that didn’t happen either. Music was taught as a vehicle for something much more sensible, much more applicable to the economic system, much more suit and briefcase.
A couple of years before we attended the Isle of Wight Festival, Yuri’s dad bought us day tickets for Hyde Park Calling. Pearl Jam were headlining. In the months running up to the gig, I listened to them non-stop. The day of the festival, more than halfway drunk and beginning to stumble, we saw the Hives, Gaslight Anthem and Ben Harper. Yuri’s dad was at the show too, somewhere hidden by packed groups of revellers. Bumping into him this intoxicated was a concern. Second impressions count. Maybe more than first impressions. Everyone’s on their best behaviour when they’re introduced. You only get a little truth later on. And then only a little.
Pearl Jam came on while we were back on our way to tipsy. Our movements were getting steadier. The slur I’d developed had regained some clarity. Those sprawled on picnic blankets with legs protruding were no longer a significant trip hazard. The toilets could be reached without considering the route for several minutes in advance.
The song Corduroy had grown to legendary status in my mind. It remains one of my most vivid memories of that night, along with walking around Hyde Park after we’d all funnelled out of our entertainment enclosure, and watching the people filter in different directions from the grass. It was a warm evening and there were reasons to smile. When we arrived at our hotel and flicked on the TV, highlights from an old Radiohead performance were on. We fell asleep as they played Karma Police from the Pyramid Stage.
This year, Yuri’s Dad got him a weekend ticket for the Isle of Wight festival. Partly because I wanted to see Pearl Jam again, partly because I’d been a music student without a festival wristband and what sort of music student is that, and mostly because you don’t leave a friend to brave the festival site alone, I brought a ticket too. Nearly 150 quid on a line-up featuring two headliners that meant nothing to anyone under 40 and a bunch of artists you flicked off when they came on 4Music. It was something like taking a long car journey with your dad and your sister, your dad listening to his favourite classic rock driving compilation, and your sister demanding Kiss 100 after every five songs.
Still, we had Pearl Jam, Elbow and Noel Gallagher. That was something. We had a decent amount of weed. That was something too. Like middle class university graduates have to join a drum circle in Thailand, I had to chase music to one of its hallowed sites. 1970 saw Hendrix, Miles Davis, The Who and the Doors share the same stage. This year it was Jessie J, Tinie Tempah and Professor Green. Maybe those artists would erode the legacy of the late 60s and early 70s. That era is already decades and new investors and corporate advertising away. We’d wait and see.
I called Yuri, told him I’d bought a ticket. Together, in pursuit of strange times and great music, aware from the beginning that strange times would be more plentiful than great music, we headed to Portsmouth and prepared for the festival.