Musical Family Tree

Spreading Indiana Music

Rock For No Reason Part Three: Babylon's Burning

I woke up Monday, very tired but in surprisingly good spirits. It was Labor Day, and after 3 solid days of music, there was a debate over whether to continue past the announced schedule. Eric had arranged in advance for the sound system to stay a fourth day, and finally that morning it was decided, what the heck, if some band wanted to play that night they could. The sound crew slowly began to set up the PA system.
I will never forget what happened next. It was mid-morning. I was sitting in a lawn chair next to Andrew Wagner. We chatted, relishing the shared experience of the festival, and while it would never go down in history like Woodstock, it was a good turn out and casualties had been light.
Shielding my eyes from the sun, I saw someone (I know longer remember who) running at us from across the field. At first, I thought nothing of it. But as he came closer, I realized he was yelling and waving his arms. He was kept running and running, but he was so far away that it seemed to be happening in slow motion. It was like a movie.
“Hey, what’s going on with that guy?” I asked Andrew, pointing to the individual in question. Andrew confessed he didn’t know. Slowly it became obvious that something was wrong. Andrew and I exchanged glances. Finally we stood up. The person was obviously distressed, and for a brief moment I pondered that he had discovered a dead body.
Finally, after enough time had passed, he was about 20 yards away and we could hear what he was yelling. “THERE’S A FIRE!” he screamed. Andrew and I took off running across the acres of grass and dirt to a part of the field adjacent to the main area, separated by a nasty ditch.
Now RFNR took place on 8 acres, shaped roughly like the letter L. 5 acres were a rectangle jutting out from the state highway; this was the main concert area. 3 acres were attached at the end of the rectangle, forming the bottom of the L. It was on these 3 acres that that a group of Bloomington punks had been beating on appliances and, unfortunately, having a camp fire.
At first only about half of the section of this land was on fire. Now I will ask if anyone reading this has ever stood in front of an acre of land burning. If you haven’t, let me inform you: it’s big. It’s huge. And it’s frightening.
A squad of us had arrived on the scene; I no longer remember who. How the hell, and hell is a carefully chosen word, were we going to stop it? Somehow a stack of heavy blankets appeared. Each person grabbed a blanket and swung it over their shoulder onto the burning ground: WHACK! The fire would go out where you struck the ground, but the flames to the left and to the right of you would continue to burn. Those flames would advance past you and then meet up behind you.
Beating the ground with the blanket for long enough, you would then turn around and find yourself surrounded by flames. To reach safety, I would have to dash through the fire (“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack dash through the forest fire AAAGGGHHHH!!!!”) and the area where I had extinguished the flame would erupt and blaze again. There was a breeze blowing and the fire kept growing in size. People were shouting; panic, smoke, and the popping sound of the conflagration consuming grass and sticks joined to create a nightmarish cacophony. Sweat dripped off our noses.
There was a line of trees that surrounding the 3 acre section of land. Our fear was that the fire was going to hit the timber and then it would really take off. Our pathetic efforts to stop this from happening had no effect. The Greene County Volunteer Fire Department showed up, a collection of motley trucks that appeared to be creations of well-meaning rednecks with duct-tape and spare water tanks.
The arrival of the trucks boosted our spirits, but their vehicles couldn’t cross that nasty ditch I mentioned earlier. The firemen ended up standing around staring at the flames. As the noon sun rose higher in the sky and the grass fire grew and grew in size, I had images of news helicopters showing up and RFNR appearing on CNN, with miles of land erupting in crackling fire a la southern California.
The fire kept spreading, finally reaching the trees. Our spirits had reached their nadir and we looked on helplessly when it happened. Bizarrely, while staring into the inferno, I felt the breeze change direction. I first I paid no attention, but then I noticed the flames were no longer spreading out; they appeared to be moving back in the opposite direction. Could it be true? I kept watching, unbelieving. It was true! The wind kept blowing in its new direction, and the fire actually stopped growing of its own accord. Pushed back into the area where it had already consumed the fuel, it actually began to peter out, growing weaker, weaker, and then simply dying out.
Stunned, at first disbelieving, when it finally appeared that it was all over, we erupted in cries of joy. At the time, it felt like a miracle. It still does. Wearily we limped back to the concert area. By unanimous consent we cancelled the Monday music. It was over.
A group of volunteers then cleaned up the field (read my earlier blog for details). Because of the intensity of fighting the fire, emotions ran high. Some were upset at the carelessness of the concert-goers who had set the camp fire but not exercised care when they left. As I have a (probably mentally unhealthy) ability to compartmentalize, I let it go. It was obviously an accident and in the end nobody was hurt. Recently a post explaining what had happened was posted; this site has been extremely cathartic in that regard.
A few days after the festival, I celebrated my birthday; I simply sat in a chair, too tired to move, while friends chatted about recent events. For the first time in my life I was feeling my age.
And so Eric edited the video and reel to reel tape recordings for posterity. Somehow I was involved; I remember listening to the final tapes for a little bit and watching a smidgeon of the video but I didn’t have the enthusiasm for anything extensive.
Eric never attempted to replicate putting on a similar event again and who could blame him? He took a tremendous financial hit, and who knows how physically and emotionally wearing it was on him. Actually he and I rarely revisited the proceedings in detail. It was an awful lot to go through. I believe that he showed the video at Rhinos, but, like most things concerning RFNR, I honestly can’t recall if it happened or not.
Rumor has it that we will try to show it at the Straight Edge Luncheon Reunion. We should. Good or bad, it was a helluva ride, and certainly a landmark in the history of original music in southern Indiana. And with the distance of 20 years I might finally be ready to once again rock for no reason.

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Comment by Phillip Traicoff on July 28, 2008 at 3:19pm
That was some fun.....One of the better shows I did as Virginia's Scrapings...Eric deserves a lot of credit for pulling it all together. Nice story John....
Comment by Jennifer Hallfrisch on May 2, 2008 at 6:46pm
I didn't sleep for 3 days. Roger & I were running a shuttle from People's Park. At some point I made the mistake of getting into a car with Shawna & Tosca Lewis. All of us were tripping and we hit a deer. We killed Bambi! Then some guy in a pick up showed up and asked us if he could have the deer to feed to his dogs. Then a cop came along & Tosca & I were trying to convince Shawna to keep her F****ing mouth shut. It is a miracle that we were not incarcerated.
Comment by mike whybark on May 1, 2008 at 2:38am
Annual. HAW.

Holly, it's year 'round!
Comment by Jbarge on April 30, 2008 at 10:19pm
I do think that large chunks of discretion are needed, just for humanity's sake. Some day I will tell all, if I'm paid enough for my autobiography. Oh, the stories that could be told by just about anyone involved "back in the day".
Comment by Eric Spears (White) on April 30, 2008 at 9:31pm
There's a 12% or so chance I might be able to make it - it's Thanksgiving weekend? Hopefully, I'll have a teaching job though, which might make it hard to do, what with being a new teacher & all. I'd like to come - I had a great time at that multiple reunion show in Bloomington in December.
Comment by Jbarge on April 30, 2008 at 8:36am
Eric, I'm glad you liked it. I knew with some prompting you would be able to add some stuff. I'm surprisd to hear I took footage.......I have no memory of that (I'm sure you're shocked). Well, let's watch the footage then; can you make the Punk Rock Pot Luck?
Comment by Eric Spears (White) on April 29, 2008 at 11:15pm
I also remember that I was about 23 or 24 years old at the time & a lot of people thought that was very old. I remember talking to a band on the phone & when he heard my age, the dude was like, "Wow man, you're old." I had planned to shave my beard on stage, but never got around to it.

Another factoid: The original plan was for summer 1986, but I wanted more time to organize. I started sending out the Rock For No Reason Bandzine, and even had a cooperative ESAD Catalog of Stuff where people could sell their, well, their stuff. It was in the early days of computers, so I would do everything with a typewriter or rub-off letters. But here's something that struck me as hilarious: Maximum RockNRoll had this deal where you could advertise your event for free. I made a cool ad with rub off letters, etc., and they rejected it because it looked too professional to them. It wasn't that fake hand-made computer generated look. Instead, it was a real hand-made fake computer generated look, if you know what I mean.

So I took that year, 86-87, to promote the show through correspondence, flyers, drawing messages on dollar bills, anything I could think of that was kind of under the radar and would build consciousness of RFNR. I think that's why we ended up with scattered people coming from far flung places like California to see the show.

Although I was pretty confident that it would happen, I remember still being amazed that it actually took place.
Comment by mike whybark on April 29, 2008 at 11:11pm
"one lesson I had learned was that you shouldn't let anything go forward until you have a location in place"


One of many, I am sure.
Comment by Zac Burke on April 29, 2008 at 11:06pm
Can't wait to see it again! I know it has been at least 15 years.
Comment by Eric Spears (White) on April 29, 2008 at 11:01pm
Wow. John, thanks so much for your beautiful prose & witty recollections. Let's see what comes to mind.... First of all, the motivation for RFNR was that I had been putting on street dances over the summers & I wanted to have an event where I didn't have to say no to any band - where there would be room for everyone to play. I also remember that in correspondence with Jello Biafra (who said he couldn't play because his band was falling apart after a lawsuit) I called it a pre-political event. John alluded to it - something that wasn't overtly political but would be a gathering where a lot of networking could take place. It was also a big DIY celebration. And the name was mocking all of those big shows for causes, like Farm Aid, Rock Against Reagan, etc. So I thought of it as pretending to be for no reason.

John, do you remember Doc & The Pods? Another band that played at RFNR & we used their music, which was hyper poppy, in our radio ads that we played on WQAX. Plus we arranged for a shuttle car to & from People's Park. Let's see... I do remember finding it interesting that the volunteer firefighters drove their firetrucks there & then just stood & watched my friends frantically trying to put out the flaming field.

Jumbled memories... There was someone who had passed out in front of the stage, and for a while I thought he had died, which pushed me over the edge emotionally. We called an ambulance, but I think his friends roused him.

My brother Seth worked very hard & very loyally the whole weekend. For that matter, people came up seemingly out of nowhere to volunteer to help - probably a lot of you reading these posts. We used to have RFNR planning meetings in the house we rented. We sold tickets at a table on the sidewalk @ Dunkirk Square. I wanted to make it as cheap as possible, so anyone could afford it, thus the $5 for 3 days of bands. I believe that I booked 72 bands and that 45 or 50 played.

Yes, there was a lot of ripping off of money, but a lot of kindness, too. Like when Circadian Rhythm had their tent broken into & money or equipment taken, my dad made an anonymous donation to them. Later I found out that bands & people had dropped by my mother's house lost, looking for the field. Apparently my maps were horribly inaccurate and many people told me they never found the show. Pre-Mapquest.

Actually, I looked into a 10th anniversary show, "Daughter of Rock For No Reason." But one lesson I had learned was that you shouldn't let anything go forward until you have a location in place & we didn't find one that 2nd time around. But I won't rule out "Grandchild of Rock For No Reason," or "Great Grand Neice..." or some such thing in 2012. Depends on how well our cryogenic body preserving technology takes off.

If anyone does watch the RFNR movie, I recall using the same circle mosh pit dance scene over & over as a strange joke that made sense to me while I was editing. The video was mostly taped by people other than myself. John Barge took a lot of footage. It was the first video I edited, and it got me into video editing, making music videos for my friends' bands, etc. It also took a long time to finish editing because there was a lot of footage of Suzy Whybark and it was difficult for me to watch it for a while. But now it would just make me happy.

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