A Tale Of Two Music Festivals


Summer has always been a time for three things: festivals, music, and booze. It also used to be about drugs. Not so much these days. I can’t live that way anymore. However, when I used to live in the towns of Kitchener and Waterloo, life was different.

The year was 2010. Or was it 2009? No, I’m pretty sure it was 2010. Jesus, my life between 19 and 23 is almost a complete blur. I’m certain it was 2010. It’s amazing how events from not even four years ago feel like they happened in a different life.

The jazz and blues festivals came to the twin cities. My friends and I, who often grooved on classy jazz guitar and saxophone vibes in a couch-filled garage which doubled as an illegal bike repair shop, were eager to attend. There were five of us: Benson (that’s me), Belmont, Dumaurier, Peter, and Jackson. We were an odd lot who all became close friends over the last couple of years. Belmont and Dumaurier were both buddies since high-school. Belmont’s tall, about six and a half feet, and he had bushy blond hair. All of our hair was bushy and unkempt. Dumaurier’s was bushier than Belmont’s, and red instead of blond. Dumaurier’s also a tall guy, but while Belmont was on the skinnier side, Dumaurier was built like a brick shithouse. Being a roofer (like Dumaurier was) can make a man fit. Then you had Peter, who to this day continues to live as the world’s most successful hobo. I’ve never seen that man hold down a job for more than two weeks, and as far as I know he’s never paid rent in his life. Yet every night he manages to find a place to sleep, and he never seems to starve. Quite the opposite: the guy’s built like he hits weights and runs on treadmills, but I bet he’s never willingly seen the inside of a gym. Jackson’s the oldest of us all, and these days he’s got a beautiful girlfriend and his life on track. Back then he was a mess, and his physical appearance was a powerful reflection of his life. His jet black hair looked like a mad scientist’s, much like his insane and unkempt beard. He was the shortest of all of us and a fair bit overweight. Jackson had a looks in his eyes which was a mix of desperation and the mark of a man who has been repeatedly harassed by life. Jackson, still a single father who almost never had custody of his child, was a man who often turned to the bottle when he didn’t turn to us, his fellow druggies. Finally there was I, a skinny dark-haired university student and convenience store cashier who was taking recreational drug use to a whole new level with these friends of mine, all whom I met outside of school. Why was I hanging out with these guys? It’s because I never quite fit in at school. Sure, I was getting the grades, and I eventually graduated. However I never cared to really get to know my classmates, and I think I was a bit too unusual of a person for their tastes.

Now that I’ve introduced you to my friends, I’d like to get back to my story.

We were in the midst of what felt like the perfect summer. Every day was sunny and warm, and we were outside almost all the time. The jazz and blues festivals were coming up. The former would take place in Waterloo while the latter would take place in Kitchener. Many often make the mistake of calling it Kitchener-Waterloo, as if the whole area’s one big town. The fact is, they’re two different places which just so happen to be right next to each other. Somewhere along King Street, which runs all the way through both cities, it’s like someone placed a giant mirror. Only, instead of a perfect reflection, the image in the mirror is twisted.

Waterloo is where you have the two big universities. For the most part, it’s a campus town. There are also a few high-schools, and the further out you move from the universities, the more “suburban” it gets. These are places you can raise your kids. The neighborhoods are nice and clean. Even downtown Waterloo isn’t so bad. Campus kids occasionally get too drunk and do stupid things like get into quickly-ended fights, but for the most part the worst they do is be loud and obnoxious in parks on the weekends and smoke joints in public.

I think a lot of people would say that Kitchener is the twisted twin. Kitchener is more industrial. It’s where you can find the distilleries and the factories. The bars and night clubs are less filled with students and more-so with what students tend to call “townies”. During the day, the streets are filled with workers rather than students. At night, the junkies come out. Instead of people smoking weed, you’re much more likely to be approached by hard drug dealers, or encounter junkies smoking from crack pipes instead of joints. Though on the surface it may be the uglier side of town, it’s far from hideous. You have some nice hangouts, like Bobby O’Brien’s. Overall, however, students feel more comfortable in Waterloo which caters to their lifestyle.

The jazz festival was the first one we would attend this summer in the mid afternoon. It was around 3 PM, and we were waiting outside the pub Jackson worked at for him to get off the clock. The remaining four of us had already spent a good deal of time drinking bad whiskey and cheap beer that day, and were well liquored up. To add to it, we were armed with two tabs of acid each. When Jackson walked out the front door, Dumaurier all but force-fed him the acid, and we took our own tabs.

I had 20 bucks, half a pack of smokes, and my sunglasses.

As we wandered down King Street, the drugs began to take hold. I’ve never had a bad experience on acid, and this time was no different. I became giddy. Colours were brighter, and everything swirled and morphed in delightful ways. The sky danced overhead and the sun bathed everything in a warm, welcoming glow.

The jazz festival took place by an open, grassy field somewhere off of King Street by the old railroad tracks. A massive stage had been set up along with rows of now-filled seats which faced it.

We did well to stay back from the crowd, as the first thing I noticed was that we most certainly did not fit in. Our clothes were dirty and mostly torn. My shirt had oil stains from our makeshift bike shop, and my jeans were covered in dirt and grass marks. We all looked like that. Peter looked especially out of place as his arms and legs are covered in tattoos. We were unkempt and unshaven. A satellite could have picked us out from the multitude of middle-aged straight shooters which populated the festival. This wasn’t what we were expecting at all. Where were the younger folk? Why do I see nothing but middle-aged husbands and housewives in summer dresses and suits? What’s with all the families?

This was a very family-friendly event, and we weren’t very family-friendly people. Five drunk and drugged-up young adults with pupils the size of saucers were not the kind of people you should want anywhere near your kids. We kept back from the crowd and hung out on a nearby hill, though we were still in the midst of these people. There were cops nearby as well. We remained on the hill.

After a couple cigarettes and feeling our high grow, we began to notice something else which was amiss. We listened to the music. Good Lord, could you call it music? Sure, they had the right instruments. There were trumpets, saxophones, trombones, and flutes, among so many others. There was a whole orchestra, but they were blaring some warped, twisted conception of what jazz should be. This wasn’t the acid’s effect; something was horribly wrong here. It was like something out of a Broadway musical, and at the center of it all was some veritable jack-ass wailing like he was in a Tom Jones sound-alike contest. He danced around like a marionette with its strings attached to an invisible hand with Parkinson’s disease. Between lyrics he’d crack jokes and spit lines like he was making elevator small-talk with the audience before laughing at his own charm (“How y’all folks doin’ today? HA-ha! How ’bout this heat, am I right? HA! Where are we, Canada or the equator? Ha-ha-HA!”).

I got the wise idea to wander into the crowd to try and get myself a beer. The weather was hot, and boy was I thirsty (HA-ha!).

I’ve never had a bad trip on acid, yet this little adventure of mine would prove to be the most uncomfortable I would ever feel on the drug. I was a donkey among sheep. I wandered through the rainbow of sundresses and floral shirts, with only my sunglasses barely hiding just how high I was getting. The guy on stage said something, and the audience chuckled. What was wrong with them, I wondered. There was something so odd about this festival. Do these people ever get out? Why are all the women wearing the same kinds of sundresses? Why are all the men wearing floral shirts? What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.

I found the beer tent. Good. Wait, why was I getting beer? The acid was rapidly taking over and I knew I wasn’t quite in the thick of it yet. Whatever, this was what I came down here for in the first place. I couldn’t just back out now. That was the acid talking, but at the time it seemed to make so much sense. I make my way to the tent as the bartender eyes me with suspicion that I was not sure I was only imagining. Getting high especially in a setting like this can make one paranoid, and suddenly I found myself second-guessing. Did he think I was high? Did he know I was high? Just how sketchy did I look? Was he giving me the stink-eye, or was I just imagining it? Calm down, I tried to tell myself. The more you worry about how high you are, the crazier you look. Oh God, was that true? How crazy did I look? Jesus man, just buy your beer!

I forked over my $20 and ordered a Budweiser. Not typically my favorite but it’s the first thing I saw he had on tap. He gave me a look like he was seriously considering whether or not giving me the drink was a good idea, and I did my best not to fidget too much, but also to not not fidget too much. Eventually he surrendered a plastic cup of the drink and I grabbed it along with my change. Thank God, this whole ordeal was going to end.

These people were so strange. Something about the middle-aged women with their faces all made and the sundresses, with their meek-looking and pasty husbands at their sides… I felt like I was among animals or some other species trying their best to pass as human. They wore they life stories on their faces in huge suburban letters. Gathered like this, these identical people were all among their own kind. Perhaps that’s why they laughed at the “singer’s” bad jokes and why they tapped their feet to the terribly cheesy band. This was somewhere they could all be out and feel safe. I was the biggest shit-disturber in the audience, and the only thing here which could make any of these people feel remotely uncomfortable until this thing was over. I was a donkey among sheep.

I tried my best to leave when some girl waved me over. I recognized her instantly as someone from one of my classes. Oh God. Oh no. Oh sweet Jesus. I couldn’t deal with this right now. She was a friendly girl that I was working on a project with. I’m sure she thought I was weird enough, but the last thing I needed was to totally alienate her by letting her see me trip balls. I couldn’t ignore her. I very visibly looked in her direction and nodded before I knew what I was doing. I had to go make conversation. But how? I must look insane. I know, I thought. I’ll just pretend I’m drunk. Yeah, that’s it!

“Hey Benson!” she said as she walked up. “Who’d you come here with?” I saw she was with her parents. Oh God, of all things I had to deal with right now, not parents.

“Friends” I said “Yeah you know it’s a nice day out, thought ‘why not come out to the jazz fest’, yeah read about it… or heard about it… whatever… it’s pretty cool eh? Yeah nice festival, good beer. Think I’ve had too many. Sure is hot out. Ha-ha… say this guy’s good… hey how’s your summer going? Hey actually I gotta go… um I’m up over there, so yeah. See you around. Cool. Later.”

I thought I handled it pretty well considering her face was melting and her parents were both slowly merging and transforming into Cerberus.

I drank my beer so as to appear normal as I stumbled through the crowds. My friends were still on the hill smoking cigarettes. They were watching some kid throw rocks at ducks in a river while a cop tried to get the child to stop. I sat down and chugged my beer, and immediately regretted my decision as my stomach rocked and I found myself running to the bushes to have myself a nice good puke. Thankfully along with the booze I managed to relieve myself of the discomfort and the paranoia I had been feeling back in the thick of the audience. I was mellow again and enjoying my state of inebriation.

Yes, we were making everyone quietly uncomfortable with our presence. I couldn’t help but notice the looks we got, and at this point I had to laugh. At this point we were no more than shit disturbers, and that was fine. Belmont dared Dumaurier to see how far he could run on the rail of the railroad tracks. He made it about five steps before eating shit. When he stood up he was covered in scrapes with gravel embedded and a gnarly gash in his forehead which bled fairly. We were howling, and people were staring at us. Jackasses among sheep.

We lit some cigarettes and decided to bike back to the garage where we could ride out the rest of the high.

We attended the blues festival another day, after making a trip up to Cambridge to pick up our LSD from a guy Peter knew. All four of us were together in the car and we all took our tabs at the same time. Obviously this was unwise of me to do as I was the driver, but I figured it would take at the most half an hour to be safely back in Kingston, which would be just enough time to make it before it would begin to hit me. The drive back went smoothly and, as planned, we were well in the comfort of the garage before any of us began to feel anything.

We set out to the blues festival in the early evening just as the sky had begun to darken. The festival took place right on King Street which had been closed off for several blocks for the event. The air was warm.

Like I said before, I think most people would consider Kitchener to be Waterloo’s twisted sister. Yet it’s in this place that I felt so much more comfortable. When we arrived, Eddy Clearwater was on stage jamming on his electric guitar. He was amplified on a mega-screen behind him. This was blues. The notes flew off the screen as he played, his face showing his concentration as he played. No cheesy one-liners. No laughing at his own jokes. The man just played, and my God could he play.

I was not swimming in an ocean of sundresses, floral shirts, and flip-flops. I was not surrounded by the clones of suburbia. Oh, sure, there were the suburban folk out here. There were also students. There were also townies, hipsters, dealers and junkies. There were drag queens and kings. There were workers and yuppies, and everyone was just grooving. We were no longer braying jackasses among a herd of disturbed sheep. We were still jackasses, but we were among the entire animal kingdom.

We remained at the blues festival for some time before we decided to bike off into the night to find an open patio where we could smoke and drink the rest of the night away. It would be hours until we recovered and returned to what would be a temporary form of sobriety. It’s how we were back then. We’ve all grown up since then. We’ve moved past the drug abuse and the binge drinking. Yet there are times when I still look back at these days with a sense of nostalgia. I’ll never be the person I was back then, but it was an experience which has shaped me who I am today.

I’m a regular Joe now who’s holding down a full-time career and working towards the life I want. It’s a different life from the one I had. My friends and lifestyle have completely changed. I’ve never had the same kind of close friends that I had in my university days.

Then again, who did?

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