Spookstock 7

Brennan Stebbins

Spookstock. Schwagstock.

The names are familiar to many and alien to many more, though the unfortunate “stock” ending is a dead giveaway to most. There’s a place in Salem, Mo., called Camp Zoe, owned by a Grateful Dead cover band – The Schwag. To me, naming yourself after cheap, undesirable pot says, “don’t listen to our music,” but apparently thousands of hippies young and old liked what they heard and kept coming back.

The Schwag purchased 300-some acres several years ago in south central Missouri that used to be a camp for kids and rechristened it Camp Zoe. It is here that many venture year after year for annual music festivals – the 40th Schwagstock will take place next summer. I set out to find the heart and soul of this operation but came away empty handed. Camp Zoe beat me. Over the weeks this story has been chopped and trashed and brought back to life, finally emerging something completely different than what was intended. So here, without further adieu, I present the long-awaited (by few) and disregarded (by more) schizophrenic remnants. This is but one side of the story, and more will come in the future, but for now this is my last journey ill prepared and unarmed into the woods south of St. Louis.

Standing in a long, smoky circus tent, I see Jesus introduce himself to some women on my right. Yes, Christ himself is working the room and doling out little trinkets of knowledge along the way.

I ask about the possibility of hell.

“Not if you truly believe and you are truly sorrowful for what you did,” the son of God responds.

“What have I done?”

“I can’t have that conversation with you when other people are around,” Jesus replies. “That’s all protected.”

He refers me to an Internet social networking site and gets back to his female followers. I move to the back of the tent, past a topless woman with Janet Jackson pasties, and run into Mick, the security guard. There’s no better person at this moment to tell about my experience with the third member of the well-known trio “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

“I almost died at the age of seven,” Mick says. “Encephalitis.”

****

I’m sitting in a parking lot at a grocery store in Salem and there’s a white and brown pit-bull staring me down from inside the rusted Ford Ranger next to me.

I needed a disposable camera and this was my last chance to get one, but considering I was dressed rather garishly, wearing the same clothes from Halloween in Kansas city the night before – I had been a Samoan attorney – I convinced someone else to go into the store for the camera. I know it was a wise decision, because the dog was now salivating and whining through a crack in the side window, no doubt getting a whiff of the mustache glue stuck on my face – again, the attorney – and the locals didn’t appear to be much friendlier toward people wearing red polyester pants and brown paisley shirts.

The camera in hand, I was finally on my way again, driving down highway 19 and looking for a place called “Zoe” in the dark.

****

Camp Zoe has the feel of that rumored deep-in-the-hills commune, where hippies young and old escape to await the coming apocalypse, and with towns like Eminence and Bunker just down the road, maybe it’s not far from the truth. Here anyone can come – provided they navigate the heavy police presence outside – and wait for the first signs of nuclear fallout or the return of Putin rearing his ugly head over Alaska, in any physical and mental altered state desired. I’ll be offered MDMA in about 20 minutes.

The first signs of life ahead are two men with flashlights standing in the road. I come to a stop and pop my trunk while they look through the windows of my car suspiciously.

“You don’t have a taser, do you?” I’m asked.

“What? No.”

“Well there’s a guy down there going crazy with a taser. Watch out.”

With that bit of advice I continue down the road and through the darkness, finally emerging in a clearing; my destination. This is Spookstock, Camp Zoe’s annual Halloween music festival, and I have arrived fashionably late, to the tune of 8:15 p.m. on Nov. 1.

I find a place for my car past a row of aging travel trailers with Jesus bumper stickers and right next to the edge of the wilderness. Next to the car two men are smearing blood on their nurse outfits, and after checking scores on the radio I walk through what is surely the most scrambled and haphazard campground in existence. The only sure way to avoid the tent ropes and passed out goers is to walk in the road, and it is there I’m solicited by the first attractive college girls wearing tie-died clothing of the night, but not the last.

“You want some molly?” one of them asks.

“Is molly related in some way to Mary Jane?” I respond.

“Nah, this is pure MDMA.”

I mutter something about checking out the facilities and continue on, determined to see all of this festival, and not get hung up with these people in the shadows before 10 p.m. Besides, the elusive 20 dollar bill they request definitely isn’t in my wallet tonight.

****

Salem is one of those towns with an unfortunate name, automatically eliciting visions of witch hunts and burning stakes. Despite state troopers doing their best to play the role of the gullible masses and mobs with torches outside the gates of the camp, Zoe has somehow existed as a refuge for aspects of the counterculture in the Midwest. Like Bonnaroo, but more intimate and without the corporate hawk circling overhead looking for vulnerable scraps. The people of Salem seem for the most part to turn a blind eye to the debauchery that takes place down the road as long as you don’t vomit in their backyards, and with a crowd drawn largely from St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City, along with a few stragglers thrown in from the east and west, Camp Zoe has emerged as a favorite destination for Woodstock leftovers, eye-opened college students and opportunistic dealers with a reputation for selling bad drugs. Of course, there’s no escaping the inevitable Phish fan. But why waste your time.

Walking through the vending area, noticeably absent of Monster Energy drink sponsorship, a rather large, rough looking man is hawking a suitcase full of pins for a dollar each. The guy has a good sales pitch and I leave with three pins stuck on my shirt, including one that appears to show two women kissing.

“I just got swindled,” I think to myself.

Twenty feet away I see a vacant-looking man crawling around a multi-colored spinning light on all fours, desperately trying to grab something on the ground that doesn’t exist. Someone finally drags him away silently, and again I’m offered Ecstasy. One pill for $20, three for $50.

This vending area feels more like a carnival, and it’s too early in the evening for a freak show so I seek out the shadows of the campground again. Quickly another tie-died darling approaches me, and after wishing me a happy Spook, shows off her wares. Pineapple Express, Hindu Cush and OG, which she emphatically says is the “original gangsta.” I leave empty handed though, as The Weekender doesn’t expense such things. Probably for the best anyway, I don’t want to end up like Seth Rogan making a porno this early in life. The girl asks me to meet her inside the tent in 10 minutes; I never do.

****

I had just spent 10 minutes listening to the fuzzy reception from a Chicago-based AM radio station when I left my car with a king of spades in hand to head back to the circus tent. The card had “it’s all part of the plan” scrawled in red crayon on it and having found it the night before I thought it could come in handy later on. I noticed someone puking right next to my passenger door while The Schwag were working on their encore, sending sprawling tones over the campground.

By now it was getting late, or early, and nothing looked better than a fajita from a stand near the mouth of the tent. Inside, two men, one around 25 and another in his 50s were quite obviously tripping on LSD and having a difficult time pulling it together to make fajitas.

The older one, the chef, immediately accused me of being Mike Myers. But which one, Halloween Mike Myers or Saturday Night Live Love Guru Mike Myers?

“I think you’re the G-rated Michael Myers,” the chef said.

“G-rated? You haven’t been to my tent. That’s not G-rated going on in there,” I responded.

“You know, death is quite romantic man,” he said, suddenly growing somber.

“Yeah?”

As the chef talks to a man claiming to be a singer from Colorado, someone with a plastic Richard Nixon mask arrives, and it sends the cooks into a rage. Before Nixon returns to his grave on the property of the Richard Nixon Library, a 12-inch butcher knife will be thrown into the ground at his feet and a gun will be requested of me.

“Nixon!”

“Hey, hey, hey! I don’t serve your kind. I don’t serve your kind.”

The cooks started throwing shredded cheese and lettuce at Nixon, trying to get him to back away, but his greedy smile kept staring them down. Meanwhile, the younger cook insisted on rewrapping the singer’s fajita, and I was caught in the middle, still waiting to order.

“Let me put a piece of foil on it. The fajita I sold you man. Let me rewrap it for you man,” the younger cook said.

“I’ve been raving too much. Those gals are bouncing,” the singer said.

“I don’t serve his kind!”

“Those gals are moving like snake ladies there.”

“You know why you don’t mess with Texas? Don’t you think you fucked it up enough already with Bush? Fucking alcoholic. Beat it!”

The Schwag were apparently still playing and the chorus of a Grateful Dead song billowed over the tent, while the cooks continued throwing cheese at Nixon. He eventually disappeared, only to return a few moments later.

“Beat it. Go the fuck away. Who is that guy man?” one of them said.

“Look he’s taunting you. Yeah, some lettuce,” I said, finally placing my order.

A stranger walked up with a mixed drink, which the chef grabbed right out of his hand and took a big gulp from. Walking over to me, he offered a bump of cocaine off a Grateful Dead CD case, which I politely declined.

“You’re not so scary anymore Michael Myers. Sloppy sloppy joe. Hey, why are you scaring my customers?”

****

A place like this can make you forget everything you’ve seen once morning hits. I catalogue the entire night with an audio recorder – digital, regrettably – but the clips were largely disjointed, mostly due to the atmosphere, and I end up with the unfortunate “ruminations from the porta-jon” made sometime between the hours of 12 and 4. The best part of the evening is an encounter with St. Louis legend and music icon Beatle Bob, who supposedly has been to a concert every night since Christmas Eve 1996. He wears a vintage lime green suit and has a thick, brown mop top, and we stand in the middle of the crossroads talking for several minutes. The familiar voice that has followed me all around Camp Zoe and even on the radio in my car now becomes obvious – Beatle Bob is the MC at this thing. Perhaps it is a fitting end that Beatle Bob is the last person I meet at Camp Zoe, after all, the guy used to produce a Phil Spector Christmas Special for a St. Louis area radio station, and what better way to end Halloween weekend than to think of the Phil Spector Christmas Special. So good it’s deadly.

I return to my car in the early morning hours and sleep briefly in the driver’s seat before slipping out of town around 6 a.m. I have been here for close to 10 hours and haven’t seen daylight yet; I don’t want to, either.