It's the first time The Big Four of thrash metal have played together, and for thousands of metal heads, it was an historic event to attend one of this year's Sonisphere Festivals. Each show went from midday to about six the next morning, before loading up and moving on. Headliner Metallica was preceded by Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer, along with a half a day full of other metal bands. As I am married to a metal head, this was a big deal show to be a part of. The timing of this event worked out well to make this Chris' early birthday gift this year, with VIP tickets and all. As we tend to be budget travelers, it was a big deal to go for the VIP tickets, but having guaranteed access to the Golden Circle, this festival's name for the pit area closest to the stage, made it worth the extra cost.
We stayed in Prague and drove the 50km or so to the festival venue the morning of. The Sonisphere Festival was held at an abandoned military airport in the middle of nowhere, and I'm not sure we would've found it without help from the satellites above. We were sure someone had messed up, either us or the British lady who lives in our GPS, when we were the only car on a narrow and unpaved road stretching into a heavily forested area. Soon enough, though, we joined up with a long parade of cars and vans, and even a few tour buses, loaded up with metal heads on their way to the fest. (It turns out we'd entered the area on the opposite side of "town," hence the initial lonely driving.) Traffic was slow moving, and we passed more than our share of roadside peers, as in rows of urinators lining the road. When the trees pulled back from the road, the landscape became one of dead, concrete buildings with no glass left in the window openings and lots of graffiti. I wanted to jump out to photograph a few of the creepier sights, but didn't want to hold us up as the cars began moving more quickly. We were driving through the middle of a horror movie in Eastern Europe, and visions of Hostel entered my mind. The cars were eventually funneled into grassy fields separated into parking and camping areas, and a few quick conversations with the neon-yellow-vest-clad gentlemen, pointing out the letters VIP in the upper corners of our tickets later, we'd found OUR parking. While we gathered our things from the car, scattered clumps of people emerged across the field from the forest that surrounded us. Maybe it was just that we'd recently watched the movie, 28 Weeks Later, but they looked to me like wandering zombies.
(These are NOT the VIP toilets)
A few years ago the extent of my hard rock appreciation skimmed the surface as I could sing along to a few Metallica and Korn songs. Enter Chris and the start of my love of music festivals. A seasoned rock and metal fan, Chris was already familiar with the scene of such a gathering, but it took some getting used to for me. Just like a football game, the air buzzes with a common love and anticipation, a shared feeling of excitement heightened by alcohol. I remembered very quickly how hypnotic live music is, how intimate a feeling it is to see a musician's face while he cranks out words everyone around you knows, too. Something moves through you when every inch of a massive outdoor venue is filled with the sounds of guitars, drums, vocals, and the mutual admiration that exists between the best bands and their fans. So at 5'3", I'm proud to say that this suburban Florida girl can rock with the best of them, though I might stay back when the pit opens up in the middle of the crowd.
Speaking of height, it's not such a nice thing being short at event such as this. A little stinky when it's hot, and a little painful when it gets rowdy, it's all armpits and elbows, quite literally. What is nice, though, is that when an elbow does come down on top of your head, instead of a lump and a headache, you're more likely to get a surprised apology and a little pet. Sure, at times an apology may take the form of someone else's beer being poured in your mouth before you can say, No thanks, as was the case when a guy was shoved back and, in turn, shoved me. This is the brand of kindness here, and kindness is kindness, backwash and all. If you can appreciate it, it's pretty nice.
When I was seventeen and attending a Seven Mary Three show in downtown St. Petersburg, of course I pushed my way to the front again, eager to show I was just as tough as the hardcore fans around me. It didn't take long to get knocked down, and as I was easily shoved to the ground, some advice from a friend at school echoed through my head. "If you get knocked down, always reach out your hand and someone will pull you up." My hand shot out as high as I could reach it, and low and behold, somebody snatched it, giving me a hardy tug and pulling me away from the stomping feet. I remember being surprised that the person who'd saved me from a certain stomping was one particularly serious looking guy who had earlier glared at me when I was pushed into him, though I can't see that making him mad at a show like this. I think it was the fact that he hadn't returned my excited smile, so I figured he was mean.
Bernie from Scotland
Along with a host of other festival goers, whose sobriety was questionable at best, we met a guy named Bernie. Bernie approached us, asking if we spoke English. The cynical side of me immediately suspected we were about to be asked for money, as this friendly guy with a Scottish accent explained how he'd come to Prague alone for this show not realizing how far out of Prague it was actually taking place. He asked if we'd camped. No. He asked if we'd taken the train. No. Unwilling, perhaps, to offer the information but at the same time, unwilling to lie, when he asked how we did get there we told him. We drove, and I was sincerely surprised when he didn't ask for a ride back to the city, and was appreciative of the printed out info we gave him regarding getting to the venue by train. He seemed genuinely thankful for that little bit of help, having apparently been stressing all day, trying to figure out how he was going to get back. You see, thinking the festival was just outside of town, Bernie had gotten into a taxi and ended up spending quite a lot for the ride out to the middle of nowhere, which didn't even bring him all the way to the fest site; he'd walked a couple hours down the same narrow, creepy roads through the forest we'd driven earlier, only later in the day when they were vacant. His cash was low and being on his own, he admitted to being a little scared out there with all the crazy people in this Eastern European country.
After a little while Bernie gave us another handshake of thanks and disappeared into the crowd, anxious to move away from a few shnockered Czechs rocking out in front of us. I felt a little ashamed of my own paranoia, having so quickly assumed this guy was out to con us. Having lived out of the States for several years now, I've learned that my deep-rooted fear of strangers and assumption of bad intentions is very American. Not that I'm not proud of where I come from, but I think Stateside living teaches us to lock our doors while driving through cities and distrust people we don't know. And with good reason, as everybody seems to know of someone snatched right out of their own car and robbed, and we've all seen the movies where gullible people are conned by the charming murderer. It was that side of me that kept me from immediately offering further help to this lone Scotsman, but given time to reflect and talk about it together, Chris and I decided that if we saw him again, we'd offer to take him back to Prague with us.
He found us again during Slayer, the second to last band of the night, and everyone smiled a hello beneath the blaring bass. Bernie started to explain in my ear how he'd been able to find out that the last train would be leaving a good two hours before the show was to be over, but before he could finish, I told him we were going to offer him a lift anyway. It was like we'd saved the man's life, and he made sure we knew how grateful he was to not be left out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night on his own. When we all walked to the port-a-potties between sets together (he said he was going where we went), I told him no puking in the car, and to make sure he left any knives behind with a laugh. He swore up and down he was a nice guy, and I believed him.
A couple rounds of beers for all and lots of cheering later, the show was over and it was an amazing one. Superior parking made for an immediate exit from the grounds, though not a quick one. It was like trying to drive through a parade of zombies, as the car was surrounded by slowly walking, and sometimes stumbling, metal fans drunk off beer and exhaustion. We floated down the narrow lane, once again, through the dark and creepy forest that surrounded the abandoned airport, and we saw exactly what we would have left our pal Bernie to had we gone on without him.
When we got back to Prague, Bernie wasn't certain and so couldn't really tell us where his hotel was, but was happy to be dropped anywhere in the city he could grab a taxi to get him there. When he saw the big, yellow Erotic City up ahead, the same visual marker Chris and I had come to associate with our hotel, he laughed and said his hotel was just past it to the right, and we could let him out right there. We are not the type to give someone a ride from a concert and not drop them where they're going, so we pulled around back of his hotel and parked.
After all, it was our hotel, too.
What are the chances? It's unbelievable that out of all the thousands of people at the festival, Bernie asked us for help (we certainly weren't the only English speakers there), and even more so that we were all staying at the same hotel in Prague. Believe me, there are many, many choices in this city, like anywhere else. After a moment of laughing disbelief, we all swapped email addresses and made plans to meet up in Glasgow next month, where Bernie lives and it turns out we'll be visiting in Scotland. Again, what are the chances? Bernie has promised us a royal welcome with bagpipes and all, but we'll just be glad to see a familiar face and meet his wife, Sara, who couldn't make the trip on account of being 6 months pregnant with their first.
So it turns out there are a lot of good people still out there, and we were glad to help one out. Not only did he not rob or kill us in the middle of the woods, the guy actually hid cash under the blanket in the back seat. I guess our refusal to accept gas money didn't fly.
I love music festivals :)