Life Celebration: A Report From the Front - Rolling Stone
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Life Celebration: A Report From the Front

Drugs, death and rock & roll at the Louisiana music festival




McCrea, La.—On the last two mornings of the Celebration of Life Festival, a tractor pulling two flatbed trailers would come around and six hired hands would jump off to collect endless piles of rotting watermelon rinds, empty wine bottles, discarded clothing and other assorted garbage. The Master of Ceremonies — known only as “Happy” — called it the “ecology truck.”

The festival began Thursday night — three and one-half days late — with Yogi Bahjan taking the stage, chanting, and saying: “God bless you. Let us meditate for one minute for peace and brotherhood.”

“Fuck you. Let’s boogie,” responded a member of the crowd.

The next evening, before the entertainment started, a festival worker ODed backstage and crumpled to the floor as “Sister Morphine” was being played over the P.A. system to allay an impatient audience.

It was that kind of a festival.

The final site, Cypress Point Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, about 50 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, consisted of 700 barren acres and damn few cypresses. After the sun rose, it was impossible to sleep because of the heat — at least 90 degrees each day — unless you were completely wasted, and each morning renewed a personal battle for survival.

First came the search for a water truck that still had water in it. That usually took an hour or two. There never were any of the promised showers, so that meant a 30-minute walk to the brown, and swift, waters of the Atchafalaya River for a dip. (Less courageous bathers chose to wallow in the muddy banks.) Next you had to scrounge enough food for the day, since anything you had brought had probably been stolen, and unless you had a security badge you couldn’t leave the site to get groceries.

Finally, there was dope, and it was plentiful. You had only to walk to the intersection of Cocaine Row and Smack Street (as the makeshift signs proclaimed) to find dealers hawking an estimated 30 varieties of mindbender, only two of which could be smoked. Plastic syringes, at $1 apiece, were selling briskly.

There were also bikers shaking kids down for money, scores of hungry bayou country insects, a high wire act, a trapeze artist, an elephant that spent most of its time rummaging backstage for food, 200 police who spent much of their time watching nude bathers in the Atchafalaya . . . and occasionally, there was music.

And there were three deaths: 

  • Randy Runkle, 19, of Elmira, Ohio, died Sunday in a medical tent following an overdose of methadone.
  • Wayne Edward Green, 19, of New Orleans, drowned Friday and his body was recovered two days later.
  • Edwin Thomas Hardy Jr., 20, of Atlanta, drowned Wednesday, the day before the festival began, and his body was recovered the following Saturday. Both were sucked under by the Atchafalaya, which is reputed to have one of the swiftest currents of any river in the country.

There were also 150 arrests on the festival site, mostly for drugs. The day the festival ended, Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff F. A. Smith said that 61 persons remained in the parish jail in Newroads, 48 were in the East Baton Rouge jail, 33 in the West Baton Rouge jail and 31 in Lafayette, with the rest out on bond. There were 56 arrests in New Orleans as well; all but six were for drugs.

Considering the series of events that went down prior to the opening of the Celebration of Life, it was amazing that the festival lasted for four of its proposed eight days. The original advertisements promised “a week in the country … away from urban pollution and the busy complexities of city living . . . an escape for the inner soul . . .” — with the biggest lineup of groups since the you-know-what festival, and it would all be held on an island in the Mississippi.

Promoter Steve Kapelow, 28, son of a wealthy New Orleans family that made its money in real estate speculation, refused to divulge the island site; in fact, he refused to divulge anything to anybody, granting no interviews, retaining no press aide, letting his lieutenants explain — to anyone lucky enough to get through to them — that the secrecy was imposed to keep “undesirables” and potential gatecrashers from descending on the site.

Those who sent in $28 for advance tickets received the most specific information the festival promoters would put out: A mimeographed map directing tick-etholders to three exits along the highway between Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans. State and local officials, meanwhile, began a frantic plane-and-boat search for the island, but could find none on the Mississippi River capable of accommodating 60,000 persons, the supposed attendance ceiling set by the promoters.

On the first week in June, Kapelow (through intermediaries) announced that the island site was being dropped for five potential sites in Lamar County, Miss. The county sheriff told local reporters he would lay ten-to-one odds against “any rock festival” being held on his turf. He was right, because the following day the county enjoined the promoters from holding the festival in Lamar County and preliminary construction work on two of the sites was abandoned.

But nobody from the Celebration of Life staff bothered to appear at the show-cause hearing a week later; Kapelow had found another site, the Cypress Point Plantation. Injunctions began to fly in Pointe Coupee Parish as well, and on June 21st — the original opening date for the festival — the promoters and county officials met in Judge E. Gordon West’s courtroom in Baton Rouge to decide the final outcome. In the meantime, more than 30,000 people from across the country had arrived in the area and were camped at roadsides, rivers and farmlands. Police had blocked off all access roads to the site.

Kapelow himself appeared at the hearing, and some of the information revealed included:

  • Only 12,000 mail-order tickets had been sold (although many people who had telephoned the festival offices had been told it was sold out).
  • Kapelow had invested a half million dollars in contracts and advertising thus far; he expected to spend at least that amount again before the festival was over.
  • Stewart Enterprises of Houston had paid Kapelow $35,000 for the rights to sell food at the festival, and everything, in accordance with Louisiana Sanitary Codes, would be sold pre-packaged.
  • The Cypress Point site had been leased for $20,000, four days before the festival was scheduled to begin.
  • Kapelow had a degree in engineering from M.I.T. and said he knew something about the logistics of planning a temporary city and had plans drawn up for adequate water, sanitation, etc.

The final delay to starting the festival boiled down to that issue. John Trygg, director of the state health department’s bureau of environmental health, told the hearing that despite testimony to the contrary, festival promoters had no detailed information on sanitation, water supply systems and other health concerns. “They had not a damn thing when we got in there,” Trygg said. The judge ordered the two sides to sit down and work out a compromise agreement. “They (the promoters) have a right to a permit if they comply,” he said.

On Wednesday morning, June 23rd, health department officials, Kapelow, and the county sheriff made an inspection tour of the site, The health department gave final clearance at 10 AM, and the crowds immediately began flooding in. One official intimated that the numbers already present in the area had added more than a little leverage to the final decision.

While the hearing had been going on, workers on the site continued to prepare for the festival with materials on hand, since they couldn’t get out and nobody could get in. The crew survived on peanut butter sandwiches and canned vienna sausage which had been airlifted in by sympathetic locals. Late Tuesday, during a severe rainstorm, part of the stage collapsed, seriously injuring two workers, David Newkirk, 23, and Danny Peacock, also 23. They were airlifted to a Baton Rouge hospital and received emergency surgery.

After the decision to let the festival go on had been announced, Walter H. Claiborne, president of the Pointe Coupee Parish Police Jury, issued a statement which read in part:

“We have great sympathy for the young people who paid to attend this festival. They have been exploited by promoters of a multi-million dollar enterprise which had no site or permit when tickets were sold.

“No contact was made with this governing body and a fast move was made to McCrea. The almighty dollar prevails.

“The situation is now out of our jurisdiction.”

More than 200 police were in and around the site when the festival began, but they were careful to remain fairly unobtrusive. Much more in evidence were the “security forces” Kapelow had hired: Three Louisiana motorcycle clubs headed by the Galloping Gooses of New Orleans, who reportedly fancy themselves to be the Hell’s Angels of the South. Kids were shaken down for money, food and dope, skinnydippers were beaten with chains, the bikers fought among themselves, and finally tussled with the state police as well. By the time Kapelow had asked them to leave the damage had been done; physically, to at least 29 persons, and mentally, to the crowd, which gorged itself with biker paranoia stories.

Dr. William Abruzzi was sitting in his camper office on the festival site when an assistant ran in saying three of the medical stations were out of water and communications were cut off.

“Send a runner you can trust,” Abruzzi told the man. Turning in his chair, he said: “Everyday for six hours I have called for water. I have called for medical supplies, called for toilet cleaning, called for water. At most festivals, you get that sort of thing off the first day. But not here. The water facilities are inadequate, the supplies … All we’ve got here is bare survival.”

Abruzzi, who became known as the “Woodstock Doctor” for his work there and at other festivals, ran the medical operation for the Celebration, ran it with all the problems that plagued the festival as a whole: not enough water, not enough food, not enough supplies, filth, heat, bad communications, and hostility.

“After days of confusion and uncertainty and boredom, people get frustrated — not resentful like at Powder Ridge — but … I don’t know . . . careless.”

He and his staff of a half-dozen or so doctors, nurses, and para-medical aides filled their days and nights mostly with treating bad trips of one origin or another, cuts and bruises, heat prostration, and so on. But they also spent their time looking into knife and gunshot wounds and cracked-open heads.

“Kids were walking in here — literally — with their teeth in their hands,” the doctor said. “The confrontations between the kids and the “security forces”–I’ve never seen it before at any festivals. The people were treated in a very, very physical and punitive way. They were threatened with shotguns. They were hit with chains, machetes, and clubs.” Abruzzi asked that the security men — supposedly members of three New Orleans motorcycle clubs — be called off the third day into the festival, and they were.

Abruzzi talked of one of the more serious accidents on the site:

“We had the unbelievable situation of the stage prestructures being built without the metal bars being pinned down. The kids were working on them in a storm and down it came. I can’t forget the scene: the rain was coming down and there was a boy with two of the pipes run through him. We had to hold the pipes steady all the way to the hospital at Baton Rouge so they wouldn’t move. You’d think by now I’d be objective about all this. I wasn’t. I cried all the way back.”

The doctor said there was more of a problem with dope at the Celebration than anywhere he’d been.

“It comes down to where kids’ heads are at. They have to start realizing some things about the festival scene. Look at the garbage on this site. There’s no excuse for it, but they’ve been through so much. They get a chance for “eight days of freedom” and then they get here and are put on a levee for three days with nothing — no toilets, no water, no showers, outlandish food prices — with nothing.”

The dope trade was bullish. A Custer-haired kid from Ohio expressed a not uncommon opinion succinctly: “This festival is fucked. Nobody came here for the music — they all came to sell or do dope.” The doing was well-nigh universal; a person couldn’t advance three feet in the crowd without being offered something or other of dubious chemical origins. During a three-hour period on Friday night, 20 people openly shot up at the rear of the stage.

An amateur but knowledgeable pharmacologist from Texas surveyed the traffic in dope and reported the quality of drugs overall to be fair, but said there was more poor stuff than good available. He bought samples, for instance, of all the THC available (at $1.25 a hit) and found it to be all PCP — at one time called “the peace pill,” an animal tranquilizer.

Among the other goods on display:

  • Weed, of course — good, bad, and ugly. 1) Fair-sized baggie lids for $10; hawked as a product of Mexico, but actually young, green homegrown from Indiana, as the majority of weed for sale was. 2) Actual Mexican lids, rated of fair quality, $10-12. 3) Small Columbian lids, “very good,” $10-15. 4) Inferior green “Mexican” lids, $8.
  • Hash. 1) Black primo, $100 an ounce, $5 a small gram. 2) Green Moroccan, $5 a gram, “triple-star rating.” 3) Odd-smelling black, $5 a gram, $65 an ounce.
  • Psychedelics. 1) LSD-25 for 75¢ a hit. The dealer said he didn’t know whether it was pure. 2) Synthetic mescaline passed off as organic, 75¢ a hit. 3) Yellow blotter acid, 75¢ or two for $1.49. Users reported good results. 4) LSD-25 for $45 a hundred, $1 a hit. The dealer was Ron, from Hermosa, California. He said he and three associates from Southern California had brought in about 10,000 hits of Light Purple made at Thompson Pharmaceutics in London and tabbed in California. Ron sold the tabs with a money-back guarantee, often to repeat customers. By Saturday, this Ron and his partners had sold some 4000 hits. Ron, who claimed to have worked out a “foolproof system” for the manufacture and transport of his wares, also sold light green mescaline, “pure,” also from Thompson Pharmaceutics, at $1 a hit. 5) Yellow sunshine from Berkeley, $1 a hit. John, from St. Petersburg, Florida, claimed to have sold about 150 hits. 6) MDA, $5 for a four-way hit. Speed-based. 7) Yellow acid (some speed) from Austin, 75¢. 8) “Pure” Frisco Blue, in Baby Nutrament tablets, 75¢. The dealer claimed it produced a 15-hour high. 9) Pink synthetic mescaline, $1 a hit. 10) Psilocybin, $8 a gram. Rated poor. 11) Purple Haze, $1 a hit. 12) Beige organic tabs of pressed peyote, $1. Reported to be good. 13) Synthetic orange mescaline from Detroit, 75¢.
  • Opium — $7 a gram.
  • Cocaine. 1) “Pure” Peruvian, $50 a gram. The dealer conceded it’d been “stepped on a little,” but turned away with a hostile shrug when asked if his coke might in reality be procaine, often passed off here as the real thing. 2) Coke from New Orleans, $8 a dime bag. “Gets four people off,” the dealer boasted.
  • Paraphernalia. One dealer trafficked exclusively in plastic syringes at $1 a pop. He wouldn’t talk about his business, nor would any of the smack and speed dealers present.

The only music before Thursday night was recorded, and at least there was plenty of that (“The motherfuckers think they’re playing Woodstock,” said a guy crawling out of his tent Thursday morning. “They keep the fucking P. A. going until 3 AM. It started up again at 6:30 with that ‘good morning, people’ bullshit.”)

John Sebastian, the first performer to appear, opened the festival with a medley of old Spoonful hits after making a few sub rosa comments about the festival in general. He was followed by Chuck Berry, a high wire act, War, and Eric Burdon with his new band and blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon. And that was Thursday.

On Friday afternoon an impromptu people’s caucus decided it was time to do something about the concessions, which had jacked up their prices considerably since Wednesday. A half-pint of milk was going for a quarter, a dry sandwich for 75c, and some vendors were reportedly getting three 25c cups of soft drink out of one 12-ounce can. The crowd stormed the concession stands and grabbed all they could before police moved in to stop it. Negotiations on the spot brought about a free food tent and lower prices for the concessions.

Agents from the Internal Revenue Service also arrived Friday and stationed themselves at the front entrance and began seizing gate receipts. Kapelow and associates Tad Holding, Kenneth Lind and Ronald Barnett were hit by the IRS with tax liens totaling $457,235. Additional liens totaling $319,000 were placed on two other backers, Cambridge Investment Corp. (which reportedly put up the money for the site lease), and Ontario Ltd. (headed by John Brower, who organized the famous — or infamous — Toronto Peace Festival in 1969). After the festival had ended, the state tax people began making their own demands. Friday night’s concert consisted of Stoneground, Bloodrock, an aerial act and the Amboy Dukes. That was it. During the concert one very stoned individual climbed the high-wire tower and waved to the crowd. A trapeze artist went up the tower to try and guide him safely back down, but the idiot decided he could fly and took the trapeze artist into the net with him. The aerialist went to the hospital with a severe back injury. The stoned idiot wandered off laughing.

By Saturday morning, angry crowds were streaming from the site. Kapelow, who had lowered the admission to $20 by Friday, gave up and threw open the gates to all comers. As a final recourse, he and his father stood at the gate handing out return passes, negating the no-return access rule that had been advertised from the beginning.

On Sunday morning, Dr. Abruzzi announced that due to other commitments by his staff and the lack of cooperation from the promoters in getting him medical supplies, he was pulling out after the evening’s concert. It was, in effect, a mercy killing. On Sunday afternoon, seeing that the end was near, police began stepping up drug arrests. More people left.

On Sunday night, Happy, the MC, began making such announcements as, Sly and the Family Stone had called and said they were flying in (Sly was included in the original advertisements) and Neil Young was on his way. The audience cheered. Neither ever showed.

Still, Sunday night was the best evening for music. Boz Scaggs played, so did Delaney and Bonnie, and Steve Stills arrived and played for free to try and rescue something from the shambles.

But as he began to sing, a guy in front of the stage (who identified himself as “a Detroit speedfreak”) kept yelling at Stills to “kick out the jams, motherfucker, and get on the rock and roll. Boogie, you fucker!”

Stills patiently stopped singing and said that the crowd should realize you can’t pack 60,000 persons into a small area with inadequate facilities and expect it to be country living. “Hey, man,” another spectator yelled to the audience in general, “that motherfucker is laying a bummer on the crowd, and all they want to do is boogie.”

Of the 27 groups listed in the advertisements, only eight actually appeared. “Another 30” groups “were being contacted” when the initial hype went out.

One example of how several of the lesser-known bands were treated:

High Voltage, from Portland, Ore., drove all the way to play for free after Kapelow had assured them over the phone they would be put on stage and would have passes waiting for them at the gate. According to their road manager Mike Nealy, no one had heard of the group when they arrived, they received no passes, and spent the entire festival sitting on their heels. Nealy complained to Joe Bailey of the Milliard Agency, who was handling the booking, and said that Bailey told him to “quit hyping your group and help the festival.”

Bailey was the only key festival figure remaining in Baton Rouge the day after the Celebration of Life ended. Kapelow had disappeared again.

“I’m happy at this point,” Bailey said. “We bailed out as gracefully as we could. We made our mess, now let’s clean it up and meet our obligations.

“All the acts you see on that poster that we advertised were paid at least their deposit. Johnny Winter would have played but he was sick. Cat Stevens came into town and waited three days but we couldn’t get him on because the site wasn’t ready and he had to leave . . . Leon Russell was going to play Monday night and the Allmans were ready for Tuesday night but the festival really couldn’t have continued.”

As we talked, Bailey was paying debts with a large stack of $100 bills at his side. He said that Kapelow is financially finished for right now and the IRS is trying to attach his house, car and clothing.

Kapelow surfaced briefly the next day in the form of a short announcement which said the festival was a disaster, that some of the blame must go to the promoters, and that for the next several days he would be preparing a longer statement to explain the failure.

Walter H. Claiborne, the foreman of the Police Jury of Pointe Coupee Parish, issued this short statement after the festival:

“We have been visited by every form of depravity and obscenity. We have been forced to stand idly by and witness flagrant violation of the law.”

Major Aubrey Deslatte of the State Police, speaking on Monday afternoon:

“This place is messy, smelly, dirty and you name it. There apparently were not enough facilities and they were not exactly here for ecological purposes.”

Monday night a Greyhound Bus was reported missing from the Baton Rouge bus depot and police said they figured some festival goers wanted to do the driving themselves and asked the public to be on the lookout for a stolen bus with dogs on the side.

Georgia State Representative Julian Bond hit town Monday and announced:

“There’s something wrong with the country when 500 young people will go to Mississippi to work on voter registration and 50,000 will spend the week smoking dope in Louisiana in a ripoff of their culture.”

Finally, we give you Margaret Sams, 18, of Atlanta, who said it was her first festival and she liked it. “All those people. It was a beautiful thing at times. All that love flashing around.”

In This Article: Coverwall


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