Leeds, England, 2019
Just whose idea was this, I ask myself, as we rattle down the motorway. We are 15 minutes out of the city, and we are certain that our Uber driver is lost. His brow furrowed, he mumbles and taps furiously at his sat-nav. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he decides that detouring out through narrow country laneways at a breakneck speed might be the quickest route to our destination. My eyes are glued to the road ahead, not daring to take in the picture-perfect scenery to the left of me. In the back seat, my friends Andy and Fintan sit in a silence which I construe as a combination of bemusement and white-knuckled fear.
Appearing before us at last are the ornate entrance gates to Bramham Park, a country manor which is the venue for the Leeds Festival. We drive on in for what seems like miles, until a security guard appears and advises us that we can go no further. The driver cannot disguise his relief, and we are hurriedly dispatched from the vehicle to continue our journey on foot. The three of us fall into line behind other latecomers, meandering up and down dusty gravel paths.
We pass through baggage and security checks. Time is getting away from us and, somewhere in the distance, the band we have come to see will soon be taking to the stage. Hell, I would not even consider myself a fan of the Foo Fighters, but it now feels as if I am making a pilgrimage. Then, cresting a verge, we are confronted by an ocean of tents stretching across endless rolling fields, and I realise that I have never before seen so many people gathered in the one place.
Urgency is dictating that we move more quickly now, so we forge on past rave tents full of writhing, scantily dressed youngsters, many with glazed eyes. After a day spent sitting in the sun at the cricket, our nerves are beginning to fray. At a toilet stop, my senses are brutally assaulted by sights which will never be unseen and odours never to be unsmelled. The heat and dust are all-pervasive, the noise and motion are disorienting, and my friends and I are leg weary. Why did I believe that this all might be a good idea?
Onwards we trudge until, finally, we reach the rim of a large natural amphitheatre, an enormous stage assembled at its base. There are easily 60,000 people crammed in, and somewhere among them is my 22-year old son, Brendan, who has been here all day. Before his phone battery died, Brendan had sent me photographs of his approximate location. We follow the pictorial clues and are miraculously reunited mere minutes before the show commences. A long day of standing in the heat has wearied my son, and the effects of alcohol are obvious, but he pushes us forward to a vantage point only 50 metres from the stage – a satisfying result under the circumstances. The suggestion of wading up through this sea of humanity to the bar for a drink is out of the question – as is the idea of a bladder-relieving visit to those cesspits masquerading as toilets.
Before we can even get our bearings, the Foo Fighters appear without fanfare and launch into The Pretender. It is impressive just how skilfully frontman Dave Grohl and the band work the enraptured crowd. Brendan is an avid “Fooies” fan, and it was he who had months ago discovered that they would be headlining the Leeds Festival while we were in town for the cricket. He had immediately purchased a ticket, but I had been reluctant until urged on by my friends.
Already a little disoriented by the entire experience, my older companions and I are further discomfited when, two songs into the set, a small circular clearing a few metres in diameter opens nearby. Men of all ages rush through the opening in the crowd, playing an aggressive form of hoppo-bumpo. Obviously familiar with this game, Brendan quickly hands over his wallet and phone to Fintan, and rushes into the circle. At more than 6’ tall and weighing more than 100 kilograms, his large frame sends men sprawling. But no sooner had the space opened, that it closes again, and a beaming Brendan returns.
Meanwhile, the band ploughs on through a set full of surprisingly familiar tunes, the boisterous crowd in full voice. Mid set, as the long day gives way to a humid evening, there is a form of silence as Grohl introduces his teenage daughter Violet, whom he claims had begged to accompany him on the next track. It is a touching moment, for I know enough about the Foo Fighters to comprehend that the track will be My Hero.
As the song commences, Brendan puts his arm around my neck and pulls me close, almost dragging me off my feet. I place my arm around his waist, and we sway to the lyrics “There goes my hero, he’s ordinary!”, which I have always interpreted to be something of a celebration of the everyday man. My middle son and I have had our disagreements over the years. Now, here I am being propped up by this man whom I once cradled in my arms. “Dad,” Brendan whispers into my ear, “You are my fucking hero”.
I am taken aback. Although I consider myself just an ordinary man, there is something strangely satisfying about being called a hero by my son. It is a small measure of affirmation, that maybe I have not done such a bad job as a father. And maybe this journey to the Leeds Festival, battling the traffic, being engulfed in the crowd, suffering through the heat and the smell, was not such a bad idea after all.
Stereo Story #501