Saturday, June 25, 2022

Field of Dreams: The Emotional Return to Glastonbury Festival

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SSome flocked to airports for long-delayed vacations or much-needed escapes. Others flooded bars to reconnect with loved ones or had casual sex like it was going out of style. For nearly two and a half million of us, however, ‘normal’ didn’t resume until we were sitting in a bedroom at 9am angrily updating Glastonbury’s ticketing website with RSI-tainted fingers. Two tweets already drafted: one a screenshot of a checkout that can’t be completed, the other a picture of us looking forward with a Billie Eilish face mask on.

Live music and festivals returned almost a year ago, but Glastonbury 2022 will still be the main sign that the partying is back in full swing after the pandemic. As an event that would see a fervent battle for 200,000 tickets to one of the biggest and most exciting cultural events in the world in any regular pre-Covid year, this will make a particularly emotional comeback after two years. The festival equivalent of Noel Gallagher showed up at Liam’s with a Union Jack guitar and a bowl of cereal sprinkled with cocaine.

For many music fans, Glastonbury represents the British summer. Without them, it feels like a musical hole has been punched in the heart of the cultural calendar. Each regular idle year – one in five to allow Worthy Farm and its neighbors to recover – leaves the festival season subdued and bereft and builds anticipation for the next big blowout at chez Eavis. After two tiring years with barely a whiff of a psychedelic falafel, then Glasto’s homesick regulars — like me, a veteran of 20+ Glastonburys and webbed to prove it — are as desperate to return to the nude mud sauna as Nadine Dorries is said to be the state-owned one defend crime. That’s even without the celebratory addition of Glastonbury’s belated 50th birthday (the first event was in 1970). In comparison, the Jubilee will look like your cat’s lockdown snipaversary.

“It feels like a world of its own,” says Billie Eilish in a new BBC Two documentary on the event. Glastonbury: 50 Years & Counting. The Gen Z pop star is a new convert who succeeds in discovering why Glastonbury means so much to so many. The world-renowned line-up practically plays second fiddle to the hippie hoopla and rave surrealism that engulfs them. This is a place where a minute later you’ll be tossing suspiciously foggy cider to a Weimar cabaret band in an underground piano bar, a short squelch later swarming the grounds, swarming in a dystopian future society, or basking in the flames spewing from a gigantic techno Spider. Here you can crawl through secret rabbit holes to hidden costume parties. Dance ’til dawn in a club designed like a derelict high-rise where a train car crashed on the second floor. Plug straight into the ley line of the onsite stone circle, or let a guru gong you senseless in the goddess temple. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need drugs to get the most out of Glastonbury; Glastonbury is drugs.

Previous films about the festival have tried to capture this intangible atmosphere on camera – a futile endeavor that leaves the viewer with an epileptic fit rather than a sense of what it’s really like to be there. The new documentary traces the history of the festival as a cultural pioneer. It spans from his hippie roots in the early ’70s to his embrace of indie rock and traveler culture in the 1980s, his role in cohering rave and Britpop, and his reflection today on the tribal-free inclusivity of the streaming age.

A few key Glastonbury moments are addressed along the way; these sets that united generations, broke down barriers and took music in unexpected directions. As usual, there’s much talk of the 1997 festival being so miserable, thanks to bad weather and impending New Labor turbo-Thatcherism, that Radiohead’s headline set summed it up. But here, the hip-hop war of 2008 also blew open alternative culture with all its rebellious voices, the moment Jay-Z strode onto the Pyramid stage with an acoustic guitar and sang a snippet of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” To prove it he had 99 issues, but Noel Gallagher’s outdated belief that rap had no business in Glastonbury certainly wasn’t. Here Stormzy similarly raised the flag of grime in 2019 at the height of British culture. “I feel like my whole life has led to this moment,” he told the crowd. And apparently the entire history of British rap music as well.

Glastonbury’s historic moments are legion. Orbital brings dance music to the main stages. Dolly Parton and Paul McCartney provided singalongs that shook the gate. Pulp released “Sorted For E’s And Whizz” in 1995 as a sensational surprise headliner, replacing The Stone Roses. David Bowie returned to 12 Hippies and a Dog 29 years after he headlined the second Glastonbury in 1971 and found that things had changed somewhat in his absence. This was the scene of the triumphant rise of the Arctic Monkeys, the belated appearance of the Rolling Stones and Pussy Riot when they invaded Park Stage in a tank in 2015. But this is only the top of the experience pyramid. As much as Glastonbury’s banner message is a community bond, it’s the personal connections made on and with the festival that make it feel so much like a home – and occasionally a swamp – from home.

A utopian pop-up city where hedonism and communal goodwill are expected norms, Glastonbury is responsible for life stories that can’t happen anywhere else. We all know someone who was conceived in Shangri-La or had a long fall. A friend told me this week about a time they jumped the fence in 2000, only for their Gigmate to slip and fall on the other side; the man who rushed to her aid became her husband a few years later. I will never forget sitting in the dining room early in the morning, sometime in the noughties, asking every passer-by if they like Weezer and, if so, recruiting them into my spontaneous Weezer and wine choir. If you’ve ever been there, you have your own personal legend to spin.

So Glastonbury 2022 is not just a mega festival. It’s 200,000 people making a long-awaited pilgrimage back to their hallucinatory happy place, and pop culture’s most permeable mirror once again hoisted high above summer. If you can remember it, you’re probably watching it again.

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