We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn't, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day
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On August 16, 1969, Croydon Road Recreation Ground in Beckenham, London, provided the stage for a strange scene. Garish puppets pranced in their strings to the manipulations of invisible hands, playing out psychedelic versions of children’s tales while the smells of incense and marijuana wafted through the crowd of British teens swaying on the lawn to an eclectic mix of rock and roll, blues, and folk. Some of the attendees had hitchhiked a couple days just to make the event. Others had simply wandered in from the suburban surroundings, drawn magnetically by the carnival-esque atmosphere and the music. There were also hamburgers cooked in a wheelbarrow by Bowie’s then-future wife, but it’s unlikely that they were a starring attraction. All in all, the attendees would generally remember it as a fun and positive event, even if it was considerably more modest and less historic than the Woodstock Music Festival happening across the Atlantic on that very day. One person disagreed quite vehemently with that assessment, however. He helped organize the event and would one day go on to become the biggest star of all the acts who played it. His name: David Bowie.
Despite entering the music scene in 1962 and achieving commercial success in 1969, David Bowie is not generally remembered for being associated with the hippies or the counterculture movement. For a time, however, he was part of that scene, at least peripherally. That flower-powered enthusiasm for the vaguely defined idealism of the time peaked with Bowie’s creation of the Growth Arts Lab, originally called the Arts Lab, which was a sort of musical community open to anyone who wanted to join. As Bowie stated at the time, "I run an arts lab, which is my chief occupation. It's in Beckenham and I think it's the best in the country… All the people are real–like labourers or bank clerks. It started out as a folk club, arts labs generally have such a bad reputation as pseudo places…The people who come are completely pacifist and we get a lot of cooperation from the police in our area. They are more than helpful.” Whatever hopefulness in the hippie scene that Bowie felt, however, would soon dissipate.
The last major act of Growth, and possibly Bowie’s last flirtation with taking the hippie scene seriously, was the free music festival thrown on Croydon Road Recreation Ground. To be fair to the event and the general air of the time, Bowie was probably in the most receptive mood for a joyous get-together that day. His father had died only 11 days before. He was also still struggling to find any commercial success whatsoever with his music, and he’d been at the game for years without a single major hit to show for it. Still, despite all of the bad mojo undoubtedly swimming around in Bowie’s androgynous little heart that day, at least some of his criticisms and problems with the event seemed to stem from ideological differences with hippie hypocrisy, and not personal angst, mourning, or career disappointment.
Croydon Road Recreation Ground bandstand
Some would say that the events of the festival offered a perfect microcosm of the time. The whole event was supposed to be free and, on a grander and more abstract scale, supposed to represent a freedom that went deeper than price tags. Yet, through it all, Bowie witnessed people blatantly trying to cut profits, selling various wares, various forms of fortunetelling and mysticism, and the aforementioned wheelbarrow hamburgers (no idea how such a method of preparation was actually carried out). All of this caused Bowie to deride both his friend and the woman who would one day become his wife as being “materialistic arseholes.” To be fair to those arseholes, those little things might have simply been the straws that broke the camel’s back, as more egregious forms of greed had riddled the concert since its earliest preparation. The manager of former Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding, for instance, responded to a request for his client to play the festival by simply saying, "Noel Redding is a superstar and doesn't play free festivals.”
So it was that Bowie spent the day pissed off about the whole affair, and then decided to write an ethereal and seemingly nostalgic song about it entitled “Memory Of A Free Festival.” In explanation for this seeming anomaly, he recalled later, “I think I stomped off in a temper tantrum at the end of the day, but I certainly turned it around by the time I came to write the song, because I felt, well, the idea of it was great, so I’ll write about the idea of it more than anything else.” It’s an interesting statement from Bowie, because a reasonably close examination of the lyrics seems to indicate pretty clearly that, consciously or subconsciously, they were imbued with no little amount of cynicism for the event. He calls the scene, after all, “ragged and naïve,” before quipping “it was heaven,” with some bit of sarcasm. He also reveals that, while the attendees “claimed the very source of joy rang through,” the truth was that “it didn’t, but it seemed that way.” The whole song is a joyous funeral dirge for an impractical idea that never had any meat, or wings, or wings of meat.
Ultimately, Bowie decided that running around with tea shades, patchouli, and tie-dyed-sack-cloth clothes preaching about making the world a better place while selling wheelbarrow hamburgers for a dollar was just ridiculous, and playing a bisexual rock star contacted by aliens with a message about the end of the world just made way, way more sense. It’s truly a testament to the man’s artistic genius and integrity that he turned out to be entirely right, after riding Ziggy Stardust into musical history. The monstrous success awaiting Bowie certainly didn’t happen with “Memory Of A Free Festival,” however. The song was a sales bomb that attracted almost zero attention. It has been vindicated since then by fan appreciation and numerous remakes, including an extremely heartfelt and moving 2010 rendition by Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes on Manimal Vinyl’s Bowie tribute album. It also stands as a historical witness to that other
outdoor musical festival happening on August 16, 1969.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.
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