At the end of The Slap, the Melbourne novel by Christos Tsiolkas, there is a passage—one paragraph, two pages—wherein the character Richie attends a summer festival. Tsiolkas writes, “pushing through the thick crowd [in the Boiler Room], going demented…the hard beats of the music entering his body through the soles of his feet.”
To prepare me for my gate shift at that festival, the Big Day Out, my partner brought this passage to my attention and urged me to re-read it.
The first Big Day Out was held in Sydney in 1992, where the organizers had the fortune to have booked the band Nirvana shortly before their album Nevermind replaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as number one on the Billboard chart. Since then it has expanded to tour six cities annually and two back-to-back shows in Sydney are usually needed. A single Sydney Big Day Out has a 55,000 capacity, and the organizers fill this with their knack for touching every quadrant possible of alternative rock fandom; this year’s lineup included, for example, Tool, Andrew WK, M.I.A., Crystal Castles, Grinderman, Megan Washington, and Rammstein.
Which is to say that, as an Australian in his twenties, I was in a tight minority for never having been to one. From the passage in The Slap, I didn’t get the sugar-fuzz of memory my partner did; this coming Big Day Out would be his thirteenth. I had applied for a gate shift pretty much exclusively because LCD Soundsystem wasn’t doing any side-shows on this tour. It’s not that I don’t like festivals, and not that I’m unfun; at a different music festival, I fashioned the plastic catchment of a six-pack around my ears as a beer-delivery device. It’s just that a consequence of the Big Day Out’s lucrative reach is that it’s full of munted jocks—and if I’m going to write myself off for a weekend, I don’t want to do it in view of a shirt that says “THIS IS AUSTRALIA. WE EAT MEAT. WE DRINK BEER. AND WE SPEAK ENGLISH.” In 2007, post-Cronulla race riots, the organizers discouraged the practice of punters caping themselves in the Australian flag, a move which was in turn frowned-upon by our then-Prime Minister. Not that a flag-ban would’ve been effective; these bogans have Southern Cross tattoos.
In other words: if I was going to the Big Day Out, I wanted someone to pay me. I was one of 220 gate staff out of over 500 applicants. My friends and I arrived at eight; I did up my wristband overtight. “Sometimes I think your parents should pay me baby-sitting fees,” my partner said. We sat on the road down from Gate 1B, where we would be working. Just after nine, Vivian Lees, a co-founder, pepped us briefly. We were the first face of the festival; it would be hot, the hottest. So, “Get on some sun splash or whatever you call it, slip slop and slop,” he said, attempting to reference the old cancer jingle that goes, “slip [on a shirt], slap [on a hat], slop [on some sunscreen]”.
My partner winced: “Too much drugs.” Just earlier, Mr. Lees had thanked us for the trip we’d made here; he’d made a tremendous, stuttered batter of that word, “trip.”