Bands to rock till the cows come home

Festival: Although dairy farmer Michael Eavis' Glastonbury music festival has grown in size and added a few corporate sponsors, it still holds fast to its hippie roots and gives most of its profits to charities.

June 21, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PILTON, England - Hey, gang, let's put on a music festival.

Let's invite 100,000 rockers and New Agers in various states of dress and excess to camp on a farm.

Let's build a 100-foot high pyramid-shaped stage in the middle of a pasture. Let's rave in the morning, chant in the evening and take coed hot showers and stoke blazing bonfires in-between.

And let's party so long, hard and loud that the cows join in with a chorus.

This is the Glastonbury Festival of Performing Arts, which kicks off its year 2000 edition Friday and remains the pride and joy of 64-year-old Michael Eavis, a dairy farmer and pop impresario.

Eavis is Britain's answer to the late Max Yasgur, the upstate New York dairy farmer who in 1969 allowed a bunch of kids to turn his pastures into Woodstock.

At Glastonbury, Eavis runs the show, books the headliners and makes sure the festival sticks to its counterculture roots.

"Deep down I suppose I'm a bit of a hippie," he says.

Dressed in sunglasses, T-shirt and sandals, the bald, bearded grandfather of 17 looks like an aging hippie, too.

But don't be misled by appearances. He's a former merchant seaman and coal miner and a full-time dairy farmer, keeping a herd of 300 Frisian cows and the 150-acre Worthy Farm, which has been held by his family for more than a century.

And when it comes to organization, he runs a festival like a farmer, laid back but with a wary eye on the bottom line.

"Motivating everyone is my job," he says. "I have to write the checks."

Perched in a Land Rover the size of a tank, he rumbles over the site as workers paint, pitch tents and erect stages.

"We're having a field day," he says, using a motto like a mantra as he makes the rounds on a site that isn't your average, everyday farm.

In one field there's a totem pole. In another, there's a mini-version of Stonehenge erected by "someone called Ivan." No one can actually remember Ivan's last name or when the stone circle went up.

For many in the Glastonbury work force, ragged blue jeans and dreadlocks seem to be the uniform of the day.

In one field, workers decide that they don't need mechanical tools, or even picks and shovels, to create 50 holes for flag poles. They dig with their hands.

Others are waiting for delivery of a plywood floor to be used by ballroom dancers dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns.

"What we've got here is a glorified 1960s festival that has extended outward," says Liz Eliot, a 53-year-old grandmother charged with overseeing the 70-acre patch to restore spirits, take a sauna and watch the annual Saturday night bonfire in which a giant sculpture is lightedto the beat of drums.

"What I really enjoy is the buildup, creating a world in two weeks," says Julie Bubbins, 28, a former Glenelg High School student who with her British-born husband is helping set up a health zone for alternative healers and spiritual groups.

Her fourth year at Glastonbury, Bubbins has never actually managed to see any of the headliners.

"Glastonbury is a way for people to come and form a community in the countryside," she says.

Started as a dream

Ties to the land - and fans - bind Eavis to the festival that he and his late wife, Jean, founded in 1970.

They called it the Pilton Festival, and it was nothing more than a couple of bands, and a dream, conjured up by the Eavises after they gate-crashed a blues festival in Bath and enjoyed the look and vibe of the people and the music.

"We fell in love with the whole idea of a festival," he says.

The first Glastonbury opened with T-Rex playing in front of 1,500 people. The flashiest thing to happen was when lead singer Marc Bolan drove on to the site in a velvet-covered Buick.

"He didn't know he was booked on a farm," Eavis says.

In the early years, the festival was run modestly. There were some summers when the event wasn't even held. Things became more organized in the 1980s, with bigger acts, an expanded site and proceeds donated to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The festival has survived a riot among gypsies (they were banned), a shootout in which no one was seriously injured (security was beefed up) and licensing problems with the local council (overturned by the courts).

After a one-year break in 1996, Glastonbury overcame torrential rains that turned the 1997 and 1998 festivals into mud baths.

Now, Glastonbury is huge, with bands, stages and hundreds of food stalls and crafts sellers dotting the landscape. There's room for rock, jazz, cabaret, dance, theater, a children's area and a circus. An eight-mile perimeter fence keeps the mayhem in and the gate-crashers out.

"Glastonbury remains popular, all too popular, because it has moved with the times," the Guardian has written of an event that some have derided as going overly commercial.

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