The Fyre Festival in the Bahamas was a disaster but Aidan Smith hopes two 50th anniversary Woodstock events will help such events return to their roots.
Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski. I’ve always wanted to begin a story with these girls. They’re going to do wonders for it. Many more will read as a result. Possibly my new audience will have quit by the time I mention the prog-rock group Van Der Graaf Generator but that’ll be their loss.
Maybe you don’t know Jenner and her chums: they’re supermodels. Also influencers. An influencer can pretty much sell anything. Coals to Newcastle, goals to Lionel Messi. Their impossible glamour makes everything shiny and new and can’t-live-without. Maybe Theresa May should have signed them up for Brexit. The organiser of the Fyre music festival signed them up and, after they’d posted shots on social media of themselves frolicking in bikinis on white Caribbean sands, Billy McFarland thought he would be properly acclaimed by the world at large for something his yes-men had been telling him for a while: that he was the entrepreneur of his generation.
Except McFarland is now in jail for having all but killed the rock festival for evermore. His actual crime was fraud but who would ever attempt to stage another fest after the cheese-sandwich-in-a-polystyrene-box disaster that was Fyre? The only hope is Woodstock. This summer there are going to be two competing 50th anniversary revivals of the daddy of them all. I wish them well but fear there may be no way back for these mega musical celebrations now.
“We are stardust, we are golden,” sang Joni Mitchell in her song Woodstock, a beautiful anthem for the counterculture movement which gathered in a field in upstate New York for an extraordinary party. “I’m going to camp out on the land/I’m going to try an’ get my soul free,” Mitchell continued. If you believed in the hippy ideal during the social and political convulsions of 1969 then anything was possible. The “bombers riding shotgun in the sky” – a reference to Vietnam – really could turn into butterflies.
In the Netflix documentary on the Fyre farrago, McFarland believes himself to be stardust and golden when he’s driving his Maserati round Manhattan en route to his luxurious penthouse. But even he must have pinched himself about the scenes where he’s hanging out with the world’s most beautiful women aboard a luxury yacht or giggling at the rapper Ja Rule’s jokes while planning the high-end boutique festival to end them all. One of McFarland’s little helpers references Woodstock, how its legend squashes any memory of the freeway logjams, bad drugs and absence of drinking water – and that, maybe, Fyre’s own snags out in the Bahamas will be forgotten about, too. But Woodstock actually happened; Fyre didn’t and left the crowds fighting over disaster-relief tents, sodden mattresses and those cheese sandwiches.
God, what I would have given for a mouldy slice of processed cheddar atop a stale roll at Knebworth in 1976! That was the festival where me and my mates had our money stolen, more tragically our carry-out nicked, were almost beaten up by bikers for ogling one of their “chicks”, caught sunstroke during the endless early afternoon soundchecks (“One-two!, One-TWO!”), developed rigor mortis during the endless late afternoon boogie of Lynyrd Skynyrd – and then had to miss two-thirds of the Rolling Stones because the festival was so behind schedule that our bus was leaving. It’s difficult to feel sorry for the poor little rich kids who were fooled by McFarland: all the frat-boys who thought they’d be partying with Jenner, too, and all the vloggers who were worried there wouldn’t be enough power-points in the villas to enable them to keep us up to date with the story of their thrilling lives. In the end there weren’t any villas, and one acknowledged in a tweet: “I paid $4,000 to go to Fyre. It’s fair game to make fun of me.”
The rock writer Mark Ellen, a veteran of even more ancient and basic events than me, had similar grumbles about the middle-class-isation of festivals in his memoirs. “You bastards!” he wrote. “You don’t know how lucky you are. You’ve got halloumi. We had salmonella and chips. You’ve got Orange Mobile ‘Camp-Finders’ that make your tent light up when you text it. We slept in old fertiliser sacks. You’ve got Primal Scream beneath a harvest moon, the sky lit with Chinese lanterns. We had puddles and Van Der Graaf Generator.”
But oh the irony of Fyre, for while it was built up to be the most exciting and exclusive event by the credence given to it on Instagram by a handful of powerful models, everything came crashing down with the tweeted photo of that pathetic sandwich, delivered – one of McFarland’s retinue sneered – “by a guy with about 400 followers”. Well, Trevor DeHaas from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, has got a few more now.
Vanity encouraged McFarland to have the cameras to follow his botched project but, as we learned the other day, the documentary has at least brought sympathy – and an online fundraising campaign – towards those who were trampled underfoot, such as the restaurateur who acted as a caterer and lost £50,000. The fall-out from Fyre has had other positive effects, such as bringing scrutiny to the nebulous world of the influencer. The models were paid to promote the festival, in Jenner’s case $275,000. Nice work if you can get it, but perhaps not for much longer.
Maybe the very least that McFarland has done is kill the posh festival with its glamping and golden circle, the VIP area directly in front of the stage where the nobs are kept a safe distance from the plebs. I welcome that and look forward to the two Woodstocks, hoping that the Incredible String Band will be invited to one if not both.
They were missed off the movie first time round, a classic Scottish story of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.