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Backstage at the Us Festival: It’s Only Rock & Roll

The rock world descends on San Bernardino, California, for three days of music and dust

US Festival

A crowd watches the stage as music plays at the Us festival,Devore, California, September 7th, 1982

Ed Kashi/Liason/Getty

Backstage at the Glen Helen Regional Park, Tom Petty was resting his vocal cords. He had just arrived to headline day two of the Us Festival, and he could already feel the pervasive dust threatening his voice. But as he sat in his air-conditioned trailer by the edge of a wooded stream, Petty felt well enough to quietly explain why he had left the studio, where he was recording an album, to show up here.

“I thought it’d be fun,” he said with a shrug. “Something this big is rare these days.”

So this was different from the usual big rock show?

“Go out there and look at it! All I know is that I got here fifteen minutes ago, went up onstage, and there was Ray Davies singing ‘You Really Got Me’ to all those people. This is a party, man.”

That’s exactly what the Us Festival was: A big, dusty three-day party that brought the rock & roll elite to a heretofore obscure park near San Bernardino, California. By enlisting veteran rock promoter Bill Graham and offering paydays as big as $500,000, festival organizer Steve Wozniak was able to line up a slate of acts that included Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, the Police, Jackson Browne, Pat Benatar, Talking Heads, the Grateful Dead, the Kinks, the Cars and the B-52’s.

It wasn’t a wild lost weekend by any standards, or even a large-scale frat party, but a remarkably sedate soiree —– a well-run, impeccably professional outing. To say that it was a triumph of logistics more than art is not to disparage the musicians who performed generally decent but unspectacular sets; it’s just that most of the music was eclipsed by the fact that Wozniak and Graham pulled off this mammoth event as . . . well, as uneventfully as possible.

Friday

“I hear someone out there just had a baby!” shouted Gang of Four singer Jon King as his band kicked into “Damaged Goods.” It was just past two p.m. on the opening day, and while nobody had really given birth –— except Steve Wozniak’s wife, who had delivered a baby boy the day before – it made sense that this 1982 festival should kick off with a day of New Wave music and a radical English band resurrecting Woodstock stage patter.

As the Gang of Four churned through a lively, funky set, it became clear that the much-lauded sound system was indeed spectacular: 400,000 watts loud, but also far crisper, cleaner and clearerthan anyone had a right to expect in a cavernous, man-made amphitheater covering fifty-seven acres. You could fit more than fifty-five football fields on the long slope from the stage out to the distant concession stands, but time-delayed speaker towers halfway back in the bowl kept the music distinct.

Still, the fans didn’t have a lot of patience with the Gang of Four, a quirky English band most of them hadn’t heard of before. The Ramones and the English Beat fared a little better during their sets, but afterward, the Beat’s keyboardist, Blockhead, decried what was to become a familiar problem. “We finally got the crowd clapping along and dancing during one song, and we thought it was great,” he said. “Then we saw the dust cloud heading toward us. And there I was, wearing contacts.”

As Oingo Boingo hit the stage, Police drummer Stewart Copeland arrived at the backstage area –— near the air-conditioned trailers that served as dressing rooms —– and began reminiscing about a Dutch festival years ago in which the Police –— stuck in the middle of the bill –— stole the show and broke Holland with one gig. “We can’t do that anymore,” he mused. “We can’t do that anymore,” he mused. “We can’t surprise people with how incredible we are, because now they all know it.”

In the wings, Police singer Sting strolled idly back and forth in green walking shorts and an English Beat T-shirt, gently resting his chin on the head of his infant son, whom he cradled in his arms. In the same area, Dee Dee Ramone stood hand-in-hand with his girlfriend, a bright pink shirt unbuttoned to show off a complexion that clearly had seen little of the California sun. And a couple of members of the Cars came by a day early to inspect the facilities.

Onstage, the B-52’s were learning the price of being popular. Their nonstop dance numbers turned the area in front of the stage into a man-made dust storm; by the time the band finished “Hot Lava,” the white spotlight aimed at Fred Schneider looked for all the world like a car headlight cutting through heavy fog.

Talking Heads didn’t have to inhale quite as much dirt during their set, which followed, but they did turn in the day’s best show – a tough, gritty set of percussive funk that found David Byrne hopping around the stage like a bunny rabbit, running in circles around its perimeter and introducing one unrecorded, as-yet-untitled new song whose chorus consisted of “Hi hi hi hi hi hi.”

All the acts benefited from another technological standout: the two fifty-foot-high video screens that flanked the stage. “The only problem with these screens is that you can’t pick your nose,” said Sting as he did just that during the Police’s set; as darkness fell, the size of the images and the reasonably intelligent camera work made the musicians clearly visible from the back of the amphitheater. And the Us promoters were clearly bent on seeing to everyone’s welfare: halfway through the Police’s set, workers began moving to clean up trash.

Saturday

One of the advantages of footing the bill for a big rock show is that you can insist that your friends get on the bill. Steve Wozniak clearly learned that early on, and day two opened with a couple of his own choices. First, there was Ms. Milk, who sang “America, the Beautiful” to the accompaniment of a lone synthesizer, adding a few new lyrics along the way: “America, America/It is our human right/To do our thing/To laugh and sing/Free from atomic fight.” Ms. Milk was followed by Joe Sharino, a Santa Cruz-based singer/songwriter who played at Wozniak’s wedding.

The temperature was lower than on Friday: only 106. But that made little difference to fans, who chanted “water, water water” between sets until they were sprayed by giant hoses. And the festival was a lot more crowded: with a solid lineup of mainstream rockers, the attendance on Saturday was near 200,000.

At noon, Dave Edmunds came out in shorts and tennis shoes to launch the regularly scheduled program with a blistering set of what Graham later called “kick-ass rock & roll.” In many ways, it was the best performance of the day, but it was also one of the least appreciated: throughout the three days, the crowds were receptive to just about everyone, but in most cases warmed up only as the days cooled down.

Eddie Money and Santana followed. For Graham, who was hired by the festival organizers after their own pitches failed to attract many performers, those two acts were the easiest to book, since he manages them; to put together the remainder of the bill, however, Graham had to, in the words of one festival insider, “call in every favor he could.”

Of course, Wozniak’s money had also been a lure. The biggest dollars were offered to acts that declined: the Who turned down an offer of $1 million; Bruce Springsteen passed on an offer of $850,000. But a reported $500,000 did the trick for Fleetwood Mac; Pat Benatar and Tom Petty, Saturday’s headliners, each picked up approximately $250,000, while the Police took home about $350,000.

“The first time they pushed me to do this, I said no,” admitted Cars leader Ric Ocasek as Woodstock veteran Carlos Santana stood nearby, facing a line of reporters asking him to compare the events. “But they, uh . . . they talked me into it. We haven’t played in months, so this show could be anything.”

More than perhaps any of the festival’s other bands, the Cars have a clear interest in sophisticated electronics and a gleaming, high-tech look. Still, Ocasek said they were never pitched on that angle of the festival – or on the Us Decade concept. “I don’t even know what the Us Decade is,” he said. I explained: it’s about all of us working together in the Eighties.” He smiled. “That sounds nice.”

The Cars were billed fourth on the day’s program, hitting the stage in midafternoon. That didn’t bother Ocasek. He said he’d be willing to play anywhere on the bill. But the Kinks most assuredly did care when they appeared, and by their reckoning, they shouldn’t have gone on until after dark. But they were scheduled for 6:20 p.m., before Petty, before Benatar and before dark —– and a couple of weeks’ worth of protests didn’t change that. So they resorted to the next best thing: as the clock reached 6:20, the Kinks were nowhere in sight.

For Bill Graham, that was the cardinal sin: screwing with his smoothly run show. Graham was fuming when the band’s manager —– sans Kinks — parked his Mercedes backstage. Graham bodily ejected him, ordering a forklift operator to upend the car unless he left. He left.

Finally, twenty minutes after they were supposed to have taken the stage, the Kinks pulled up and strolled to their dressing room. Graham was still seething. “Five minutes!” he screamed at a band assistant as he towered outside. Five minutes later, he pounded on the door, yelling, “NOW!”

The band finally emerged. Ray Davies walked slowly, loitering by Benatar’s door, a big, bemused smile on his face. Graham simply watched; if looks could kill, they’d have had to take Davies home in a paper bag. When the band got to the base of the stage stairs and then stood around with no apparent intention of taking the stage, something snapped in Graham.

In two strides, the promoter was halfway up the stairs, shouting at Davies and a Kinks aide. “All right, that’s it!” Graham finally bellowed. He galloped up the rest of the stairs, and it was clear that as soon as he made it to the microphone, the Kinks would be off the bill. Before he got there, Davies and crew were on their way onstage. By then it was nearly dark. The band played a sloppy, flashy set. The two video screens were not used.

Meanwhile, Pat Benatar’s parents, who flew in for the show, wandered around the backstage area. As Benatar went through a brisk, efficient set that included a pair of songs from her upcoming LP, Tom Petty sat in his trailer and talked about the video contracts and similar complications this show had brought with it. “There’s so much extra stuff going on with this thing, getting ready for this one show is like goin’ on a tour.”

Like most other acts, Petty said he was at the festival to play music, adding that he was never pitched on the Us Decade. “They knew better than to give me that rap,” he said with a grin. He then repeated the standard musician’s line at the show: “I don’t even know what the Us Decade is.”

Sunday

Nine-thirty in the morning, and it was time for breakfast with the Grateful Dead. At least that’s how it was billed, though for this breakfast, the 100,000 attending had to bring their own food. The Dead cut their normal marathon-length set down to two hours and forty-five minutes, ending with a version of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.”

The Dead were quickly followed by Jerry Jeff Walker (the one performer Wozniak originally wanted), an acoustic duo named Tommy and Brian, Jimmy Buffett and Jackson Browne.

While Browne was onstage, the members of Fleetwood Mac arrived backstage. They had played the previous day in Orlando, Florida, and didn’t make it to San Bernardino until after three a.m. Sunday. But, as Christine McVie said, “We’re getting such a lot of money for this that we couldn’t pass it up. And it’s a good opportunity to do something big on the West Coast.”

A short while later, when Mick Fleetwood pounded out the beat that begins “Second Hand News,” there was a typical Graham touch. All weekend long, volunteers had been inflating helium balloons, and at that moment, they were released from the scaffolding at the sides of the stage. The balloons drifted out over the dust and the lakes and the parking lots and the campgrounds, sailing away in two thick clumps. The crowd called on its final reserves of energy and whooped it up. It was just what Tom Petty had described: a party.

In This Article: Coverwall, Music Festival

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