J. Cole, Walt Whitman, And Me: Taking My Dad To Bonnaroo

Our father-daughter reporting team heads to the fest

By David Dark and Dorothy Dark

David Dark: “The lyrics aren’t that deep, but the vocals are good.” My 16-year-old daughter, Dorothy, is assessing a song we’re taking in as we drive down a Tennessee back road at dawn, mulling over our Bonnaroo 2016 playlist. I feel a slight pain in my heart and a rising sense of shame in the seconds that follow, because I wonder if I’ve made her feel bad for loving things she imagines I won’t.

“I bet they are deep,” I offer, hoping to rewind the damage a little. Depth is everywhere, I want to say. Where there are people there’s depth, people shaking it up and off and working it all out. But we’ve moved on from the moment, and we’re now marveling at the drop in The Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down” and laughing (with, not at) the thousands of beloved human beings we can envision losing their minds the instant it all goes down live in the beating sun at Bonnaroo. We imagine ourselves among them. As safety permits, we’re dancing while driving.

This exchange from last week keeps coming back to mind as I follow the news from Orlando — the images of the smiling faces of young people, the couples murdered at the gay nightclub amid Pulse's Latin night, remembrances of family and loved ones, and the photos of the shooter. I’m not thinking of the widely disseminated, menacing-looking image of Omar Mateen as much as the ones in which he’s trying on an uncertain smile. The gunman’s father assured reporters that while his son shared his revulsion at the sight of men kissing each other, he would have tried to stop him from committing such an act. As the elder Mateen sees the situation, “God himself will punish those involved in homosexuality.” Within hours, reports surface that the 29-year-old Omar, a father and — according to his ex-wife — abusive husband, had himself frequented Pulse for the last three years.

The full story, is, as the saying goes, developing, but the sad constellation of fear, control, and self-hatred hinted at here — one more hungry heart in conflict with itself — is horribly familiar in our nation of God-talkers, their children, and the accompanying shame spirals glimpsed in so many a selfie. Raise your hand if what you want — what you really, really want — is more than a little bit at odds with what’s largely expected of you, what’s been normalized, what you’ve been told you should want. Turns out we’re legion. Where do we go to be set free of these mind-forged manacles? We go to poetry. We go to Pulse, the better to dance ourselves clean. We go to Bonnaroo.

We decide, Dorothy and I, that we can hear the spirit of Walt Whitman in Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” as he imagines himself as a ghost living on in the very song he’s singing after he’s gone. Or we at least decide it’s a connection that can be meaningfully asserted, because it’s our assignment. I’ll let Dorothy explain:

Dorothy Dark: Late last week, I found myself in the midst of an argument with my father, in which we discussed the possibility of making the journey to Bonnaroo the following day. Blame it on my youthfulness, but I spent a good portion of the conversation rambling and pleading like a small child for his company while also insisting that Bonnaroo was one of the most important social experiments going on in the world today. His rebuttal: “It’s not a soup kitchen, Dorothy.” I had no response. Bonnaroo is, indeed, an extremely expensive, for-profit, money-breathing event, but somehow that does not diminish its effectiveness as a safe haven for music enthusiasts, unapologetic feelers, and dreamers. With this in mind, I turned to my mother, the other genius under the roof. “Well …” she said, eyebrows furrowed in thoughtfulness, looking at the upper right-hand corner of the room, “I have no interest personally, but I suppose there are ways in which it pays tribute to something righteous. Like … Walt Whitman.” Now in possession of a very workable idea, my father and I were Roo-bound shortly thereafter.

On the way there, we talked through our plans, what we hoped to see, and what we’d seen the year before as we listened to a playlist featuring two songs from every artist on the lineup. My own excitement grew as my father asked me about artist after artist; I jotted down bits and pieces of our expectations and worked through portions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a book full of words that will likely bring its readers to tears with all the wisdom and truth they hold. Within the first few poems, I found myself surging with joy and wonder over how flawlessly his beliefs fit into the Bonnaroo mission. And as we pulled into the festival and dove into the community around us, all I found were individuals who further embodied what Whitman preached.

I exist as I am — that is enough,

If no other in the world be aware, I sit content,

And if each and all be aware, I sit content ...

I am the poet of the body,

And I am the poet of the soul.

Those words rang most true as I made it through my first few hours at Bonnaroo. As I sat at Bearclaw Coffee, taking in my surroundings, I was content in my own existence in that place. Around me, all I saw were others content with their existence. The crowd’s cries of excitement, the man who politely asked if he might sit at the picnic table I was stationed at — all of it had me thinking, This is the festival of the body, and this is the festival of the soul.

Bonnaroo is an environment that encourages the embodiment of Whitman’s desire for humans to feel the worth of their own skin. The festival takes all that people have to offer and responds to it with an enthusiastic "yes" — or better, Whitman’s own “barbaric yawp” — that so many people find themselves deprived of in their everyday living. And truly, Bonnaroo offers its congregants the powerful and profound permission to feel all the feels. On that note, with permission to feel, I’ll give my father permission to wield the figurative microphone.

David Dark: Permission to feel is the heart of rock and roll. And the giving and receiving of such permission, making a space for it, is essential to the survival and the thriving of the human species. I think of the young woman with a listless look on her face who suddenly sprang to her feet upon hearing the opening strains of St. Lucia’s “Elevate.” I think too of Tyler, the Creator, who addressed his audience with one homophobic slur after another only to tell them, a couple of songs in and seemingly begrudgingly, that he’d underestimated them. It’s a drama — or the proffering of a drama — in which people who feel hopelessly estranged from themselves and others might yet see themselves as kin. In this way, Bonnaroo curates an aesthetic that is also an ethic.

Consider this admonition from novelist Tom Robbins, which appeared on the What Stage screen before J. Cole’s performance: “Let us live for the beauty of our own reality.” Within minutes, thousands of people are lifting their hands in the air and knowingly shouting every word of “A Tale of 2 Citiez” (“What’s the value of a thing? ... Till you get it how could you know?”). Upon the conclusion of “Fire Squad,” which lyrically tears down every pop culture hierarchy we might posit (“White people have snatched the sound”), a white man from behind me cries out, “Goddamn, that shit rocks!” What breed of catharsis and uplift and reconciliation are we spying here? What are its fruits?

On the one hand, it seems to me that Bonnaroo represents — or holds out the hope of — the radical inclusion of every type of person, but it’s not without its tensions. As the George W. Bush “fool me once ...” sample rolled out in “No Role Modelz,” Cole remarked that he wished he had a Donald Trump clip to replace it with. This prince of exclusion, Donald Trump, was paradoxically present in some noteworthy ways. On one Centeroo entrance, I saw the spray-painted sentiment “No Trump Allowed.” And with an eye on Trump’s promise to build walls of protection around American society, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam expressed his desire to build a wall around Trump himself. Presuming many or most Bonnaroo attendees have people in their lives who drink deeply from Trump’s Kool-Aid, this seemed a fitting word. After I tweeted Vedder’s proposal, one friend remarked that Trump has already undertaken that project himself with all the accompanying self-hatred, sadness, and escalating insecurity.

As an alternative to this escalating movement of raw nihilism, I don’t believe it’s a hopeless stretch to argue that the space Bonnaroo conjures is similar in spirit to what Fred Rogers (yes, Mr. Rogers) once told a Senate committee he hoped to offer for the public good in his half-hour program. He sought to persuade his young viewership that our feelings are “mentionable and manageable.” And if we’ve been taught to fear the world instead of loving it, this curriculum might yet be reversed. Perhaps it already is in what Thomas Pynchon refers to as the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll. It’s that alternate universe from which Fred Rogers speaks: “We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.”

As I sat beneath a canopy, trying to shape my body to the shade to escape the beating sun, I listened to a young woman attempt to persuade a group of her peers to sign a petition calling for the decommissioning of nuclear weapons. Everyone was on board, but a semi-dissenting young black man pushed back a little. “No disrespect, but isn’t it an ‘If I know you have one, I won’t use mine' situation?” The young woman was flustered. He went on, “I live 30 minutes from here in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I don’t want any crazy people having access to weapons, but I won’t go anywhere without protection. There’s only one place in the world I feel safe without a gun, and that’s right here, right now.”

When I consider this testimony concerning a culture that, at its best, presumes kinship at every turn, I feel deeply schooled over my own sense of detachment from it all. I’ve got to let it go. What Dorothy calls a social experiment, I’m tempted to call a social miracle. May we have more of them. Soon and very soon.

Dorothy Dark: Surrounded by people who are at their most comfortable, the urge to let all personal, worldly concerns go for a few days is contagious. All that’s left to do is feel and embrace the positivity of people surrounded by music and individuals that they love. As far as I could tell, there was so little judgment, so few traces of discomfort in the attendees despite the sweltering heat of the Tennessee sun. Put 85,000 people in hot and humid wilderness and you’ve likely got chaos, but put them in hot and humid wilderness with music, and through some sort of magic you’ve got humans at their best.

There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now,

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Bonnaroo blends the heaven of assembly and truly good music with the dirty heat of summer. The two make for a legitimately perfect now. All sense of prior commitment to something not worth being excited about is left on the interstate, and for four days, people give themselves the time to feel and embrace their concealed inner lives. This practice of feeling is vital to humankind.

The Farm provides a place to be and feel unafraid, to lift up every person from every end of the spectrum. The Bonnaroo population is a conglomeration of pain and hurt and life lived beautifully. In women strutting around in minimal clothing, I saw the insistence of the community that we love ourselves as ourselves. In the enthusiastic greetings of strangers and the eager conversation exchanged between myself and unfamiliar faces, I saw a spirit of congregation that is far rarer in the outside world, although I so wish it wasn’t. Upon entering and exiting Centeroo, it was often the case that you’d be greeted by the staff with a high five and a “Happy 'Roo!” As we left the heart of the festival to find shade in the Grove, my dad casually mentioned, “People need to be touched.” And indeed they do.

And I will show of male and female that either is but

the equal of the other,

And I will show that there is no imperfection in male

or female, or in the earth, or in the present — and

can be none in the future,

And I will show that whatever happens to anybody, it

may be turned to beautiful results — And I will

show that nothing can happen more beautiful

than death;

And I will thread a thread through my poems that no

one thing in the universe is inferior to another

thing,

And that all the things of the universe are perfect

miracles, each as profound as any ...

It is my sincere hope that we humans feel the weight of our interconnectedness and begin to understand the possibility that relationship holds. Bonnaroo and Whitman both so effectively show us that possibility, but there is little purpose to these teachers of ours if we do not take what they give us everywhere we go. We go to places like Bonnaroo to feel the sense of community, and we must take it with us when we leave. We read the words of Whitman to better understand the immeasurable value of a single human life, and we must take it with us when we put Leaves of Grass back on our shelves. The annual reminder of collective human awesomeness that Bonnaroo offers us is beautiful. But it does no good if it’s not carried with us for the rest of our days.