On August 16, 1969, a young psychedelic rock musician named David Bowie took the stage at the Free Festival, held at Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham, England. Bowie had helped organize the festival in his hometown, in hopes of raising funds for the Beckenham Arts Lab. Attendees of the festival recall a well-attended and peaceful event, with vendors peddling typical festival fare, Bowie's then-girlfriend cooking burgers in a wheelbarrow, and a variety of musical offerings, including a reggae version of Bowie's then-unreleased "Space Oddity," filling the air.
David Bowie immortalized the event in his song "Memory of a Free Festival," a light, trippy tune that waxes nostalgic about rainbows, clouds, and soft green grass.
"Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon; To paint that love upon a white balloon, and fly it from the topest top of all the tops," sings Bowie, but the song may have been a romanticized version of how he really felt that day. Just days before, Bowie had experienced the death of his father, and his mood, quite understandably, was reportedly anything but ecstatic during the festival. Listening to the song you can imagine the song following the timeline of his life up to that point: his voice at first is almost childlike, a quality enhanced by the fact that the only musical accompaniment is a child's organ. As the song nears the end, we hear a progression toward Bowie's trademark sound, the powerful vocals and near-chaotic yet carefully controlled arrangement, before taking a tired, somber turn at the finish, as if he's mourning something lost.
"Memory of a Free Festival" was released as a single in 1970, but sold only a few hundred copies in both the US and the UK. It remains a fan favorite, however, and has been covered by several artists in later years, including Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and the Gene Ween Band, who often play it during their live shows.
In 2014, a fundraiser was held to restore the dilapidated bandstand on which Bowie played at the Free Festival in 1969. Although he was unable to attend the event, aptly named The Memory of a Free Festival, Bowie donated several signed albums to be raffled off, with the proceeds going toward the renovation of the now-infamous bandstand.