Whenever people explain Glastonbury to Americans they attempt to use reference points, and the question that always comes up is: "Is it better than Coachella?"
One of the biggest differences I noticed straight away is that British people seem to be really great at consuming drugs. The rave scene kicked off in the 80s, so I'm guessing the Brits were getting accustomed to ecstasy while we were still buying dried oregano from high school seniors and listening to Soundgarden. That's not even a generalization: It's an actual fact that twice as many British people take pills compared to Americans—and the same is true for cocaine. For mephedrone and ketamine, it's about five times as much. So I guess it's not surprising that a few hours after arriving at the festival, I was offered these…
What are they? "Dom Perignon pills," apparently pressed in the shape of the famous champagne label exclusively for consumption by celebrities for eighty quid a pop. The allure of an ingestible status symbol was hard to resist, but the anxious and paranoid prospect of having to explain I was sweating like a power shower because I'd taken novelty ectos designed specifically for the materialistic elite felt pretty shameful, so I passed.
Aside from the drugs, the other way Glastonbury varies from Coachella is that it's absolutely massive. It's actually too big to experience in one weekend, with 175,000 attendees to Coachella's 90,000. A better comparison would be that Glastonbury is what Woodstock would be today if Max Yasgur hadn't decided to go back to running a dairy farm after being ostracized by his hippie-hating neighbors. With 44 years of history behind it, Glastonbury comes the closest to realizing the hippie dream that began in the free festival movement—a dream that Americans lost with Woodstock.
There was no moment that typified this more than the appearance of the Dalai Lama. It was literally the most bizarre thing to happen at a festival since the dawn of humanity, and the point at which Western counterculture's fetishization of Eastern spirituality finally came full circle. Here's what happened:
In the middle of her set, Patti Smith read a birthday poem to the Dalai Lama, who turned 80 on Monday. She then paraded the beleaguered leader in exile onto the Pyramid Stage and everyone went "Awww." Which translates as "Aww, we love the Dalai Lama and his cute struggle for autonomy against an oppressive superstate." Then, inebriated and toking on spliffs, the crowd sung "Happy Birthday" to him in unison.
As the crowd sung along, Patti Smith helped His Holiness cut a birthday cake. Now, at this point, if we were in America, Steve Aoki would run on stage, smash the Dalai Lama's face into the cake, and the bass would drop. But that didn't happen here—and I suppose that's the beauty of Glastonbury. It's difficult to imagine the spiritual leader of Tibet making a cameo at Electric Daisy Carnival or Lollapallooza.
Obviously, the Dalai Lama's stance on the environment, interfaith dialogue, and interest in the expansion of consciousness through meditation and compassion have always made him fit the hippie movement like a glove, so his appearance at Glastonbury worked. But when I saw a man do a line of ket off of the Hand of Fatimah at the Stone Circle at 6 AM, I realized that when these spiritual practices get thrown into the soup of millennial values alongside sex, drugs, and unbridled hedonism they begin to fall apart.
The thing is, our generation is too hungover to create any kind of meaningful spiritual discourse, so we just take bits and bobs from everyone else and carry on being hedonists. I learned this in the Healing Fields, where an Italian shaman named Quinto offered to perform a Native American "Pyramidal Memories Transmutation" on me. It had been a while since my last memories transmutation, so I agreed.
The purpose of this ceremony was to enhance the vibrational field of my DNA using several glass encoders while a visionary named Leticia wrote down memories from my past ancestors. It's interesting that we were so quick to ban headdresses at festivals, but no one stopped to ask a Native American what they would think about a wannabe Carlos Castaneda calling himself Quinto and waving crystals in people's faces.
Shortly after my transmutation, a crowd had formed around some kind of attraction in the Stone Circle. I went over to investigate and stumbled upon possibly the most British thing ever. It wasn't a psychedelic magician or fairground ride or interactive robot that you'd sort of expect people here to be whooping and hollering about. It was a table. Was this some type of wartime game invented by the Brits when they couldn't afford toys or activities, or a piano to stand around after dinner?
The aim of the game was to climb underneath a table and come up the other side without falling or touching the legs. It cost me two pounds to climb under the table, but it was the best damn game of under-table I've ever played. My third attempt was a success, and I celebrated by doing the most American thing I could possibly do: a topless man-roar.
By this point I was ready for some of the shit people usually come to festivals for, like the music, so I made my way to the Other Stage for Young Fathers. They were absolutely brilliant: original, multi-instrumentalist, great flow, great voices, great dance moves, aggressive and masculine with dark, droney beats while simultaneously tender and effeminate. The only issue was that they weren't too happy with the crowd. They looked angry the whole time, and you could feel the awkwardness when G Hastings chastized us for not dancing. Don't get me wrong, G, Dead was a historic album, but I'll start dancing when you pick what frickin' genre you are so I can do it appropriately.
After that, though, we noticed that all the women at Glastonbury had suddenly disappeared. Then we saw why. Idris fucking Elba was on the decks at the Sonic stage. All of a sudden the world seemed to stop turning. So you're telling me that not only is the guy from The Wire a DJ, but he's also not American?!
Photo taken by author
The British reaction to Idris Elba DJing might be "All he does is play EDM club mixes," or "Where on earth did he find a tech house remix of 'Loveshack'?" or "What the fuck is Idris Elba doing DJing?" Well excuse me—sorry if one of the most lauded actors of the 21st century is also only kinda good at DJing. It seemed that the mainly female crowd were less interested in the guy's set than they were in shouting at him to take his shirt off. Poor guy—who cares about Idris Elba's perfectly muscular, glistening chest anyway?
Within 48 hours of being at Glastonbury, I became pretty tuned into the idea that weird shit just happens, so it wasn't surprising at all when I bumped into Jesus Christ using a hula hoop and a contactless juggling ball.
"Jesus left all the good bits out of the Bible," he told me. "The hula-hooping, the contact ball, the LSD. But Jesus is here this weekend and he says, 'it's all right, kids.'"
"I've been coming here for ten years. It completely changed my life. My name is now Dantastic Glastonbury, legally. I changed it five years ago."
It was obvious Glastonbury has a profound effect on people. It made a man change his name, turned Idris Elba into a DJ, and turned me into the table champion I never was. Having grown up in America, my experience of music festivals was well-organized, heavily produced parties with EDM tents, scannable wrist-bands and liquor-sponsored "chillout domes." The notion that Glastonbury was something far more than that was beginning to dawn on me.
I wanted to place the festival in some context, so I spoke to an anonymous tarot reader who had been there from the beginning. "People come to Glastonbury," she said, "and they have an expectation of what's about to happen. And one of the reasons why Glastonbury is so totally magic is because that never happens. Coming to Glastonbury is a bit like E.M. Forster's A Passage to India." I heeded her advice and went searching for magic without any consistent plan or expectation in mind. It was only after I lost my friends, wandered around aimlessly and followed a stranger under a hole in a fence that I finally found the magic... I ended up in the hot tub I was meant to be in all along.
If there was some kind of "ideology" surrounding Glastonbury, it would rest on four pillars: 1) music 2) environmentalist and socialist politics 3) drugs 4) Eastern or neopagan spirituality. It thrives on the successful legacy of the hippie movement that's all but extinct in America. Sure it's changing and becoming more corporate and controlled, but Glastonbury is still something people want to be a part of. And more than that, it's a long way away from the American approach to festivals: a multi-billion dollar industry that's more akin to cattle herding.
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