This was one of those times in rock history where the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll cliche was really true. From 67 onwards, every time a festival was proposed anywhere in the world, but especially in North America, the straight folk panicked, fearing that a bunch of long haired freaks would arrive, get stoned, get naked and create some form of mayhem. Mostly they never did. But at the weirdly named, Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival 1972, that actually all happened, and then some.
Maybe by calling it a ‘soda pop festival’ the promoters aimed to make it all seem a lot more wholesome. Man, where they ever wrong? It was originally planned to be in Chandler, Indiana, a small town near Evansville. However, there were court injunctions passed to stop any festival-based grooving in Indiana whatsoever. Indiana was to be a no-festival state. No hippy dippy, booby cats allowed, baby. We don’t want no flowers in our guns.
But freaks always be thinkin’, man! Shortly before the start of the festival, the promoters decided on a site near Griffin in Posey County, Indiana, referred to locally as “Bull Island”. Due to the changing course of the Wabash River, Bull Island is located east of the Wabash River but is part of the State of Illinois. Thus, Bull Island was out of the jurisdiction of the various Indiana courts. Result! The local Illinois government in the small town of Carmi, Illinois, was surprised that the venue had suddenly ended up in its backyard, and was unable to stop the concert. Woodstock on the Wabash? Oh, yeah. Kind of.
And so they came. Like a scene out of the bible – a human tide of hair, cheesecloth, denim and narcotics. The promoters initially estimated a crowd of 55,000. Ha! As the 1972 Labor Day weekend approached, it became obvious that a much larger crowd was on its way. There were clouds of pot rising into the sky on the horizon and the sound of out-of-tune acoustic guitars being strummed drifting in on the wind. Some had even bought tickets – printed on a red velvet papery sort of stuff. Why not? Of course, they only collected tickets and money for a few hours because they were totally overwhelmed by the numbers who kept on arriving.
Bull Island was accessible by only two roads, consequently, traffic was backed up for 20 miles from the festival. Since Bull Island was technically part of Illinois but the only access was through Indiana, police protection and crowd control during the festival were non-existent. Co-ordination between the Indiana police and the Illinois police was woefully inadequate. Well, they’d seen nothing like this in their quiet part of America. A form of anarchy gripped the place. The only police on the festival grounds were three (3!)deputy sheriffs from White County, Illinois trying to police a crowd of 300,000. Yeah, good luck with that, boys. Lemme know if you need back up, huh?
So what about the music? Oh yeah there was some. But, well, there was a problem. The promoters had promised a stellar line-up. A who’s who of hairy rock. The scheduled lineup included Black Sabbath, Joe Cocker, Allman Brothers, John Mayall, Cheech & Chong, Canned Heat, Fleetwood Mac, Ballin’ Jack, Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger, Bang, Ravi Shankar, Albert King, Brownsville Station, Mike Quatro, Gentle Giant, Black Oak Arkansas, Eagles, The Chambers Brothers, Boones Farm, Slade, Nazareth, and Delbert & Glenn, whoever Delbert & Glenn were. At least our old, if anonymous friends, The Litter were not on the bill, for a change. Sounds good, huh? Yeah, you’d wanna go see those bands. Who wouldn’t? Trouble was almost none of them turned up. Later it was claimed there was “last-minute disputes” over money. Others wondered if something a little more unconventional had occured. Sometimes, promoters promised bands but never actually booked them. But who knows, really?
Anyway, not all was lost because people were busy getting very naked and pleasuring each other in public, which the typical human lifeform will tend to do if left alone for long enough with drugs and booze. Many youngsters reported seeing their first naked member of the opposite sex this weekend, so in a way, it was an educational experience.
Meanwhile, on the stage, some good bands turned up and played, including Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids – a name surely too long to be successful, Black Oak Arkansas (who released white doves and, for reasons not really explained, dropped sun visors with the band’s name on from a helicopter) Ramatam (I hope they didn’t spend long thinking up that one), Mike Quatro, Bang, Cheech and Chong, Foghat, Albert King, Brownsville Station, Santana, Canned Heat, Flash, Rory Gallagher, Lee Michaels and Frosty (surely, not the snowman, not on Labor Day?), the Eagles (just startin’ out), The Amboy Dukes, Farm, and Gentle Giant. Vince Vance and the Valiants( who sound like they’d be a Sha Na Na type group, to me) and even Ravi Shankar turned up to strum a sitar and looked blissed out.
As it turned out Ravi’s good vibes were much needed because across the long weekend, the festival drifted into a fre form anarchy of ‘do what thy wilt shall be the whole of the law.’ Food and drinkable water were in short supply despite a torrential rain storm. Announcements not to take the purple acid were made. Locals reported the freaks as being lovely, really just a bit over keen with the nudity and the tendency to get it on in god-fearing folks’ backyards. The place was a disaster area. A truck bringing food into the festival was hijacked, looted and burned. Well low blood sguar can make even a very laid back hippy, pretty grumpy. When vendors overcharged for food and drinks, a 2000-strong mob turned over many of the RVs and robbed the vendors. Yeah, take that, capitalism – with mustard and ketchup on.
To say that the facilities were inadequate would be a gross understatement. There was no sanitation to speak of. 300 wooden toilets were brought to the land the night before the festival began, but the crowd promptly dismantled them to use as firewood – as one would. It sounds like a scene out of the Simpsons.
Drugs were freely available in a makeshift shopping district where pushers proudly displayed their goods. One stretch got the name “Alice in Wonderland Avenue” and as there were only 3 police there, anything was bought and sold freely in the open and with impunity. By the end of the third day, as the gig ended, some of crowd even burned the stage in a kind of funeral pyre for the festival, or maybe they were just trying to chargrill and eat it.
Following the concert, the promoters were subjected to multiple lawsuits by the owner of Bull Island, vendors, the Internal Revenue Service, the State of Illinois, and the State of Indiana. The promoters were eventually found in contempt of court and fined several thousand dollars and maybe they got off lightly at that. Two people tragically lost their livies, one drowning in the river, another OD-ing on heroin. Choppers took people out who were ill, or freaking out or, in one case, having a baby. I wonder where that baby is today?
Talk of the music after the gig was secondary to the “man, you shoulda been at Bull Island, man, chicks were naked and gettin’ it on, dude…it was wild” kinda talk. It’s still remembered today as an important bit of local history. Despite the looting and other issues, many anecdotal accounts say it was severely groovy weekend and it lives on as warm glow in the hearts of many who went, despite the fact that it turned into a disaster zone.
There don’t seem to be any live recordings made, nor any film, which maybe, given what a lot of people got up to, is all for the best. Unlike today, when everything is recorded, ad infinitum, back then, experiences lived on in your mind, not on your phone. And that’s maybe how it should be. Woodstock on the Wabash? Yeah, almost. Outside of the States no-one ever heard of Bull Island, but for years, for some, it stood as an example of how not to run a festival, for others it was the best of times.