After nearly five decades of Summerfesting, I wonder if it’s time to move on with my life.
I was there at the very first Summerfest – a hodgepodge collection of tents, games, vendors and music scattered at sites across the city – at age 8 with my family in 1968. Since then, I’ve watched it grow into the world’s largest music festival.
These days, most of my Milwaukee friends go for the beer, the food, the chance encounters with old pals. Oh, I like all that, too. But for me, it’s all about the music.
I’ve seen thousands of musicians there, from the enormous – think Rolling Stones, Santana, Zac Brown, Jimmy Buffett, Gwen Stefani, Eric Clapton – to local favorites like the iconic Bodeans.
At age 13, I remember being blown away by the wild scene at the Steve Miller concert at the old Main Stage – the beer and drugs were flowing all around me as I wandered through the crazed crowd grooving to the Milwaukee native singing “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker.” The years pile up with memories – the antics of Midnight Oil’s lead singer Peter Garrett leaping and climbing all over the stage and audience, John Mayer joining Buddy Guy unexpectedly on a small stage in the rain, and my two little girls jumping excitedly to Katy Perry performing hit after hit amid giant lollipops.
I’m not so enamored that I can’t see the festival’s flaws. The noise bleed between stages is atrocious – the thundering bass of Paris Hilton’s DJ set in 2015 overpowering the real music of the New Pornographers was particularly annoying. The drunken mayhem nearly every night toward midnight gets older every year. My sister calls it “Bummerfest,” while my brother complains, “The beer is too expensive.”
Sure, you can argue that $8 for a Miller verges on price-gouging, but by my calculations, it’s a great deal: I save at least $2,000 a year by attending Summerfest because I’ll see dozens of bands that charge $30, $70 or $100 for shows out in Colorado, where I live now. Like many frugal Milwaukeeans, I also know all the tricks to get in free nearly every day – bringing in Goodwill receipts, canned goods, newspaper coupons. In fact, I already collected enough free tickets for this year’s 50th at a giveaway last year.
The first few days of Summerfest are always the best – the grounds are fresh and clean, the beer is crisp and refreshing, the crowds look young and enthusiastic. As the days progress, I notice the trampled flowers, the beer-stained concrete, the Milwaukeeans who look like they’ve been coming to Summerfest for half-a-century. Oh, wait; that’s me.
Instead of building to a crescendo, the final night of each year’s fest is always a bit depressing. Last year, I couldn’t convince my kids to attend another day, so I found myself alone on a bench watching Ryan Adams perform on the distant Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage. Adams sang, “I can’t see/ Some darkness on the rise/ I’ll be waiting here/ ’Til the end of time,” while I contemplated my life, measured in Summerfest years and beers.
When I told my daughter Bianka about the lonesome bench on the last night of Summerfest, she just looked at me pitifully and said, “That’s so sad.” I decided then that my summers would no longer be arranged around the Summerfest schedule. Well, after this 50th celebration, anyway. I already have my tickets. ◆