I MUST confess to hating “rock festivals” with some passion. My response to the rhetorical “Would you have gone to Woodstock?” question has always been a resounding “No, no… God no!”
What? Go voluntarily to a place where I would be covered with mud, dosed with all manner of cheaply-made hallucinogenics, forced to watch heaving mounds of human flesh copulating all around me, and after all that… nor seeing the bands very well! Then, after the fairly interesting (talent-wise) festivals of the 60’s, the 70’s versions were strictly bloato supergroup extravaganzas; any fest with “Jam” in the title to be avoided at all cost.
But here it was August 1980, and I’m forced by Elvis Costello to go to one of the dreaded outdoor congregation of jerk?! Elvis, it was made clear from the start, would not appear in North America in 1980 apart from the Heatwave Festival, so my fate was sealed as soon as Elvoid inked his Mosport contract. To Bowmanville, Ontario we would go; four hours by train from close-to-CREEM Windsor, Ontario, and then about 70 kilometers (no translation for stupid Yanks) east of Toronto to the Mosport Speedway, site of the shindig. The tentative band list as late as the day before the show included bands like Third World, the Ramones, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, who didn’t show to our temporary dismay.
Getting to the site was no problem; as everybody else had already arrived (the ticket starting time of 2 p.m. was three hours late), traffic on the two-lane blacktop out to the speedway was practically nil, adding to the we’re-almost-in-the-Arctic-Circle-now feeling. Indeed, the site is practically ideal for outdoor concerts, being a natural amphitheater of rolling hills that place people in the back regions higher than their lucky pals up front. After Toronto’s endless suburbs of duplexes and tower block apartment cities, this Canadian tundra was beautiful but unnerving to our packed-on-top-of- each-other-like-rats Yank eyes.
We arrived at this last outpost before the Yukon to find the press accommodations — ‘scuse me, the VIP TENT — to be off to the side of the stage. The Canadian PR hadn’t been informed by the American PR that so many of us Yanks were arriving, so the promised passes had disappeared, of course. Without a pass you didn’t get to fight your way into the “refreshment tent” where you could fight muscular, irritated AP photographers for one of the 10 beers an hour provided, or watch as FM radio assholes stole whole cases of “press beer” to stash under their tables. Yes, for all you readers who look at VIP tents and wish you were there with a backstage pass slapped on your knee, now you know. You dumbos playing tag out in the mud are better off than us press jerks. Plus we had to worry about musicians coming over and forcing interviews on us! Jeez! Still, some time later, when the sky was that dangerous shade of pink just before the blue takes over, after having eaten mud until I felt chemically hippie-like, there was a lovely moment when it all came together, and I felt touched by the Spirit of Outdoor Festivals. Peace, love and a press tent Molson’s in my hand conspired to make everybody look like my friend, and all my friends were fine, well-spoken music-lovers indeed. Apparently, just a matter of yards away, outside of his VIP Trailer, mellow Elvis Costello was also feeling hip with the oneness of the assembled brothers and sisters. But more about that later…
Anyway, imagine our fan’s dismay to be dickering for our nonexistent supply of press passes while Rockpile finished off their set. Forget the Rumour — they’d already played, as well as Teenage Head. Poor Nick Lowe, according to consensus, “looked like Nick Lowe’s dad,” with a considerable weight gain and nary a drop of Grecian Formula 44 on his gray mop, but Rockpile’s set was generally acclaimed as excellent. Ex-hippie Nick was the first (and last) to say “Don’t eat the brown acid, man…” We all wept. And sulked in the VIP tent during Holly & the Italians’ set — I really didn’t want to know whether the rolling Canadian grasslands would appeal more to young Holly’s sensitive mind than her detested California roots. If I’d known what she’d worn, I could have laughed at her anklets.
As it was, we did a good deal of laughing at what people were wearing — both out in the Real People’s hills, and back in our refugee camp VIP area. I’d always known that Toronto has an alarming capacity for over-trendiness, although it’s also one of my favorite cities for its less glitzy attractions. Still, to actually see miles and miles of actual punks was mind-numbing. Girls in black Naugahyde bondage wear, boys in pink Capris, girls in Specials-type black-and-white minis, old hippies wearing gauze and tie-dye, young hippies in Adidas and Lacoste, fishnet hose everywhere, spikey hair everywhere, Rush or Journey t-shirts nowhere.
Back in the VIP Tent, a PR lady offered helicopter rides. “But only to the biggest publications! Now don’t rush me all at once!” We fled the premises. “Tail Gunner” Bob Matheu volunteered and went up into the aircraft for CREEM, to take aerial shots.
As the afternoon wore down, the Pretenders came out, Chrissie wearing white boots and a flowing shirt, to pique the crowd’s interest somewhat. Unfortunately for Chris and the boys — despite a good show and a lot of picturesque stomping about by Miss Hynde — because it was still fairly broad daylight the masses sat in sunbaked, drugged-out stupor and the Pretenders’ reception was more tepid than it might have been in the gentler evening hours.
(Special acting kudos to the English person in the VIP area who gave the most heartfelt review of the Pretenders before they even hit the stage — he fell about, mock puking with such fervor that I stared at him instead of the band.)
The B-52’s were the afternoon delight of the Heatwave Festival; looking nothing like the awkward people we’d seen in Detroit last spring, Cindy and Fred and Kate and Ricky and Keith got some 70,000 drunk, stoned kids on their feet and dancing. Cindy and Fred didn’t stop moving, frugging or ponying, whatever the song called for — and all Kate had to do was jump out from behind her organ to dance, wearing a bright red miniskirt, to bring up the day’s first roar from the crowd.
It was after the B-52’s that the afternoon started to almost turn into evening, and we mud-caked hippies stood around talking to Brother Bruce Kirkland, Stiff/America prez, who laid the good rap on the proceedings, despite a stinging hangover.
“Even Elvis is digging the vibes,” Bruce smiled. “He’s back there, walking up to see the bands, just hanging out.”
Indeed, a small girl photographer had taken rolls of film of Elvis “just hanging out,” with no interference whatsoever. When she’d taken pictures of Dave Edmunds (tanned and even redder-haired than usual) and Nick Lowe chatting, she’d gotten the customary search-and-destroy gambit from manager Jake Rivera, who happily pocketed her film. (But then, Elvoid isn’t fighting the battle of the bulge — he isn’t as skinny as he was in those hard-edge 1977-78 days — but his 1979-80 softness is actually quite becoming. Hi, El…)
Talking Heads was also one of the surprises of the festival, what with the new nine-Head line-up. But I came to praise small Irish/English myopics, so I sat down and saved my legs for the main event. El-void… El-void…
As he ascended the stairs to the stage, just a beercan’s throw away from our VIP camp, a cry came up from the CREEM pup tent: “Hey FORTRAN! Hey COBOL, you little shit!”
You gotta understand… to have followed Costello from record to record, gig to gig, is to love/hate him as one of our own. As we explained to a girl nearby who couldn’t reconcile our seeming irreconcilable attitudes…Hey — the man’s a genius. We love, him for being pure. It is something fine, in today’s troubled world, to cling to something absolute and true — the real, tangible Costello rage.
Since I’d seen Costello at a small club — the Great Gildersleeves in April ’79 — from only a scant two feet away, I can watch him from the side at some distance, as at Mosport, and still feel close to His Malevolence, if only by replaying that vivid show in my head.
As another writer who attended that April Fool’s Day show pointed out, Elvis is almost too powerful in such a small setting — used to projecting his lush cocoon of anger and paranoia out over the hundreds or thousands, in a close setting you feel your eyelashes being singed.
At that point, a year ago spring, Costello was still wound up from his barroom encounter with Bonnie Bramlett and company, and yet he smiled at the crowd as if to put them at ease. I find it difficult to understand reviews such as the one Rolling Stone ran of Get Happy!, in which the Costello personality is tirelessly psychoanalyzed and found to be wanting, and the music therefore twisted and antisocial and not worth slapping onto your Tandberg turntable. But then, that might be explained by differing editorial slants — somebody too “racist” for the Voice, too “fucked up” for Stone‘s Carl Rogersian Record Dons, (“Not housebroken” says Dog World) — is also somebody who speaks to us out in Bad Attitude, Michigan.
Elvis took the stage at Mosport grinning (“Hi we’re the Clash. How’re ‘ya doin’ out there?”) and departed grinning at drummer Pete Thomas, who forgot to crank the beat out on the last number. No song was too old or unpracticed for E. and the Attractions to take a crack at — they kicked things off with a new song, followed it with ‘Accidents Will Happen’, then (in no particular order) ranged from ‘Less Than Zero’ to ‘Chemistry Class’ to ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ to more new stuff — on and on and on into the night. Before ‘High Fidelity’ Elvis laughed “This one’s about lost love…and I know something about that.” After the “last” song, he yelled “Good night,” and ran back to crouch in the rear of the stage, waiting for his encore patiently. And the encores kept on comin’, Elvis performing as tirelessly as a bridegroom. This tortured paranoiac? This ranting little jerk?
After the show Elvis retired to the Holiday Inn to drink happily with his buddies the trouble boys, no doubt laughing at the prospect of any further press unravelling of his psychoses. Meanwhile, Nick Lowe is troubled…
© Susan Whitall, Creem, November 1980