Sitting in a river with bats flying over my head as the beautiful Barbara wrapped herself around me, I reflected on life. It was a fine way to enter the new year. Building sculptures, creating a crew, ringing a bell, living the dream, loving the moment. Carhenge had delivered so much more than it had promised.
As mentioned in the previous blog, Robin Cooke and I had co-founded the Mutoid Waste Co. in Australia three months earlier, in September 1990. Robin and Karen Snyders had driven up to the Confest site at Walwa on the NSW/VIC border a couple of weeks before Christmas and put Carhenge together with a backhoe. Because they didn’t have enough time to do the job properly, the cars were quite unstable as they were not buried deep enough in the sandy dirt and so I had a lot of problems with the organizers of Confest who wanted to pull down the sculpture as soon as I arrived.
After fighting them off I started putting a crew together. The first to appear were Brad Smith and Ray Etherton, who donated their car batteries towards the welding of the cross bar that strengthened the sculpture. Brad was an ex Krishna devotee and Genuine Genius Green Fingered Grower. Ray was a professional electrician who lived on a bright red bus with a full workshop of tools and welding equipment stowed very neatly under the bench seats. They both subsequently painted large parts of Carhenge and helped wire it together so it wouldn’t fall over.
Simone O’Brien and Anna Potts showed up the next day. They were two cool Australian girls who’d come across the Mutoid Waste Co. in Europe and were delighted to find Carhenge at Confest. They got involved with gusto and were really helpful as they were the only other people there who actually knew what kind of mayhem the Mutoids were capable of creating.
We all worked hard in those first few days, cleaning up and painting the cars in 45C (113F) degree heat. As festival attendees would wander over to comment on the developing paint job, I would offer them a brush and suggest they help. A few of them did. One of them was Leith, who was a 21 year old surfer kid who worked as Arthur Boyd’s assistant. For all the non Australians reading this, at that time Arthur Boyd was Australia’s most venerated living artist (He died in 1999 at the age of 78) and regarded as one of the greatest in Australian history. Leith would get flown around the world to mix paints for him. Nice work if you can get it.
A bell we hung from the crossbar could be heard 5 miles away and understandably became the source of many bitter complaints. Lots of people tried to get us to take it down, but we left it in place. We had initially planned to use the Carhenge to promote creative recycling by holding a water tank at the top, but as it had become obvious the sculpture was not strong enough to hold the weight of the water, we removed the tank.
And anyway, as it was going to be a Full Blue Moon on New Years Eve, we had plans for that night which required the top of the cars to be empty. Kirstin, who was running the kids area, had agreed to lead a procession through the entire site that would culminate at Carhenge. Whilst we were getting the cars ready, she was busy creating a 200 feet long painted and stuffed cloth and rope serpent for people to carry in the procession.
On the morning of New Years Eve, I grabbed a coil of new steel wire I’d spotted behind the organizers area as I figured the Carhenge needed it more than any other place on the site that day. I’d previously scavenged some old wire and used it as guy-wire to tie down the Carhenge from each corner to make it stronger. It was a good theory. It was unfortunate the wire was rusty and old and kept snapping when we tightened the tension.
For obvious reasons I’d become seriously paranoid about what might happen on New Years Eve once everyone started drumming on the cars. I had visions of the sculpture collapsing on a mass of hippies and making the 6pm news all over the world. Which would immediately stop any Carhenges ever being built again. And put the Mutoids under a serious microscope. Wherever they were. I really didn’t want that kind of responsibility.
So I found Brad and the two of us replaced the guy-wires on all four corners of the Carhenge. I was extremely grateful later that evening when I was standing on top and the cars were swaying so much that I knew they would have fallen over if we hadn’t replaced the wire. But that was later. Much later. Once we’d finished the re-wiring, we cleared the area of rubbish and swept it with a broom.
Simone, Anna and I decided to head over to the local tip so we could find some materials with which we to mutate ourselves. We found a stack of dashboard wiring and a bunch of hubcaps and headlights that we threw in the back of my car. We didn’t find much because Walwa is a small town with a population that normally hovers somewhere around the 500 mark. Add 5,000 freaks in town for Confest and madness ensued.
On our way back to the festival we decided to stop at the local pub and grab a beer. Or two. The air conditioning was heaven and it was hard to leave. After 5 days of sweltering heat, it was too hard. When we finally left much later that afternoon it was still far too hot to be outside. I wanted to find somewhere to go for a swim, but we didn’t have time as there was still lots to do before nightfall.
We got back to the site and unloaded all the rubbish from the back of the car onto the ground next to Carhenge. I parked the car and we went to grab some dinner from the Ananda Marga’s, an Indian sect who were supplying good cheap food. As we sat down to eat I noticed a small black cloud in the corner of the sky, but didn’t think too much of it.
We had a leisurely dinner and finally made our way back to the Carhenge, thinking we still had another couple of hours to get ready before the procession would show up. By this point the cloud had grown considerably bigger and filled almost half the sky. Just as we arrived back at base the cloud covered the sun and we heard lots of banging and noises coming from the kids area. It became obvious the procession had started early as it now looked like it was going to rain. Hard. The air was hot and humid and heavy with anticipation of the rain. And the speed at which the cloud was moving across the sky made it an even bet as to which would get to us first, the procession or the storm.
I ran around and collected the seven closest 44 gallon metal drums that were being used as garbage bins and dragged them up to the Carhenge. I emptied them all into one bin and then turned the remaining 6 bins upside down so they could be played as drums. I positioned them around the Carhenge and then cut several long lengths of 1” wooden dowl (curtain rail) that I’d scored at the hardware store into drumsticks.
Simone, Anna and I then had less than a couple of minutes to slap on some paint and mutate ourselves before the procession arrived. We threw what we didn’t use from the tip next to the outside of the cars, but didn’t have time to sweep it clean again. I felt bad because I knew there would be lots of barefoot people there, but there was nothing more we could do about it as the procession was already on top of us.
The head of the painted serpent led the way for several hundred naked or semi naked individuals who were dancing, banging on drums, playing trumpets, guitars and sundry other instruments as well as shouting and singing wildly. I immediately got busy handing out drumsticks to the multitudes and encouraging them to play on the drums and Carhenge itself. As this dancing cacophony began passing underneath the arch, a huge gust of wind came through the camp and blew down a lot of the tents surrounding Carhenge. We were on top of a small hill (which was the highest at Confest), so I could see from my vantage point that a lot of the people started heading to their camps to batten down the hatches before the Mother Of All Storms hit and most of the rest were exulting in the coming storm like some pagan feral creatures. These were making their way towards Carhenge and the noise level increased as more people started drumming with the sticks I’d handed out.
After passing through Carhenge, the procession made a big circle and then came back around to go under it again. As the serpents head passed under the arch the second time, the heavens finally opened with a huge crack of thunder and enormous tropical storm raindrops started to fall.
I turned my face into the wind and climbed the Carhenge with Anna, Leith and Candy, (a 17 yr old feral hippie chicklet). It was a dangerous operation as the metal of the cars had become slippery in the rain. Once at the top, I proceeded to lead the drumming as thunder rolled around the hills and lightning lit up the scene below us.
More people had arrived from around the festival and close to 2,000 wild pagan trippers were dancing and drumming madly in a large circle and generally going completely nuts around the cars. I was driving them on, screaming wildly into the wind and rain as the storm unleashed on us all. I found myself singing ‘Mutate yourself” over and over at the top of my voice and could feel the spirit and movement of Joe Rush, Mutie Preacher and founder of the Mutoids standing beside me. I could feel the energy of the moment in every fiber of my being and exulted in the elemental frenzy of the madness we were all experiencing. With my arms outstretched I felt connected to both the earth and the sky and a conduit between the two.
I could see that some people below me were starting to freak out as they were concerned we were going to get hit by lightning. But that was never an option in my mind. It was never going to happen. There was too much amazing energy in the air for something like that. Obviously the physics of my situation didn’t occur to me in that moment as I was standing on top of the largest lightning conductor for miles and by all logical rules I should have been fried. But I wasn’t.
The others climbed down and I was left alone at the top when I saw a car start out from the organizers area and begin to slowly make its way through the crowd towards the Carhenge. They were obviously worried about the potential for lightning strikes as well. By this point there would have been close to 3,000 people below me, heaving together en masse, dancing and drumming and building to even greater crescendos of noise and laughter. I shouted down for the crowd to block the car and stop them from getting any closer. And realized as I watched a huge number of people start bouncing the car up and down that I may have made a mistake, because mob power is a truly powerful thing. If I would have been inside the car I would have been terrified. They immediately backed out and didn’t come back again. Understandably.
Ray had obviously realized whilst I was on top of the cars that there was no reasoning with me because I saw him moving the drums away from Carhenge to an open piece of land next to the sculpture and taking most of the crowd with him. As an electrician, he understood there was good reason to be worried about the lightning.
I descended from the top of Carhenge as it was time to get back down to earth. Once on the ground I wandered for a few minutes through the people, completely connected yet totally alienated. Ray came running up to me with a worried look on his face as he wasn’t sure how I was going to react to him moving the drums. I soothed his fears and told him that as he understood it, he’d done the right thing. And got him to help me move the drums back around the Carhenge as the lightning had passed, although the rain had doubled in intensity and darkness had fallen.
As we circled the drums around Carhenge again I saw Simone, Anna and Candy climb back up and attempt to do some fire twirling from the top but they weren’t very successful as the wind and rain were giving them a hard time. At which point Donnie Corbin, a wiry friend of mine with a seriously wild grin from a beautiful multiple occupancy near Bellingen called Homelands, started spinning his firesticks below.
By now it was really dark and the rain was still hammering down, so the crowd moved in closer, forming a circle around Donnie as he danced with the fire to the rhythm of the drumming on the Carhenge. As you can see in the video above, the material dropped off the end of his sticks so he picked it up and span it around in his hands. He also traced the fire stick around me (with arms outstretched and manic grin) and then around a naked Benny Zable, who was the Green Activist who’d been instrumental in helping us negotiate with Confest so we could actually build Carhenge. Do not try this at home kids.
A beautiful Austrian girl (the aforementioned Barbara) who I’d met earlier that day came up to me and told me “You are the devil you know”. To which I replied, “Yes, but I have God within me as well”. At that moment all the fire died out in the rain and my energy shifted from the wild elemental mania of the previous hour or so to a much calmer stillness. I took Barbara by the hand and we wandered down to the river, where we sat up to our necks in the water for the next couple of hours with bats flying around our heads and sheltered from the rain by the trees overhead. The drumming around Carhenge went on for the rest of the night and later at some point when I was seriously twisted, I climbed back up Carhenge to drag some people down from the top because I didn’t want anybody falling off it. The truth was that I was probably in more danger of falling off than they were. But that didn’t matter.
January 1st was a quiet day. In the morning I painted Barbara in flowers and photographed her with Carhenge, as seen on this page. I then checked on it’s condition and noticed that 3 of the metal 44 gallon drums had been beaten flat. Which I’d never seen before. Or since. (You can see in the videos below how much punishment the cars took as the roof is really battered out of shape). Once I’d ascertained the sculpture wasn’t going to collapse we spent the rest of the day relaxing and wandering the site together. At one point we were lining up to get a chai tea when I overheard somebody who didn’t know me describing in great detail how he’d seen me struck by lightning. Which didn’t actually happen. I laughed and left to him to his fantasy. I’ve heard many other such stories over the years. And I’m still here standing.
Tom, who ran the local Walwa tip showed up on January 2nd. He was a very small and very cool white haired character with a great laugh that he used often. I’d arranged to meet him at the Carhenge around 2pm. I was delayed and heard the sound of the cars crashing to the ground as I was on my way there. I was hoping he’d wait for me before pulling them down. But he hadn’t. Once we got all the cars separated, we dragged them onto a flat bed truck and Tom hauled them back to the tip.
Tom was in fine form and told me that his friend Roger Plant had filmed all of it, which was the same as me being there as far as he was concerned. It wasn’t the same, but I am completely grateful to have this video footage, which was all shot by Roger – I converted it from a very old video tape and edited it down to the highlights in the three youtube videos on this page. He covered the procession up to when it started raining really heavily, but then had to run off and find some shelter so his camera wouldn’t get damaged.
The following day it was time for us to leave. I was driving to Byron Bay, which was about 600 miles north of Walwa and I was giving a ride to a car full of people. As I finished packing the car I totally passed out from heat exhaustion. I woke up to a group of worried looking faces standing over me. Fortunately, Roger (the film maker) was one of the people getting a ride to Byron and his parents lived just down the road. I was bundled into the car and somebody drove us to Roger’s parents, where they carried me in and left me in a darkened and air-conditioned room for 24 hours. After which I started to come around. After another days rest we drove out of the area and into history.
In 3 weeks time, this happened 20 years ago. Which is kind of strange. Because it still feels like it happened yesterday. It was an amazing week, one of the greatest of my life. I feel I should point out that although a lot of this writing may seem like some kind of wild fantasy, it is all true and reasonably accurate as it was taken from notes I made a couple of months after the event.
There were a lot of people there who witnessed it. And went on and did other things from there. Robin followed his Earthdream in 2000 when a couple of hundred people drove up the center of Australia. And he’s planning a new one for 2012. I went off and started Imagineer, which was the real beginning of the Feral Techno scene in Australia. And I will write about that some other time. Over the years I’ve had countless people tell me they were there and how much of an impact it had on their lives. For me, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’m glad I was there and proud to have been part of it.