Published August 26th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
On a Thursday morning in 1974, Bill Manning scribbled a note to his roommate.
“BE BACK IN FOUR OR FIVE DAYS, GOING TO A MUSIC FESTIVAL IN SEDALIA. WILL YOU FEED MY CAT?”
Manning, now an old man living in Texas, remembers posting the prehistoric text message where it would be easily seen. He then piled in a cramped Mercury Cougar along with a few buddies. The plan was to drive eight hours from their home in Illinois to the summer’s most-anticipated show — the Ozark Music Festival in Sedalia, Missouri.
A few years out of high school, Manning worked in a “headshop” selling records, posters and blown glass — among other things. It was one of those places that reeked of patchouli. As the man behind the counter, Manning often scored concert tickets from record labels. He always knew which band was coming to town.
One day, he came across an ad for the Ozark Music Festival, set for June 19-21 at the State Fairgrounds in Sedalia, Missouri. Manning recognized nearly every act.
The historic bill scheduled more than 30 artists, including Aerosmith, Blue Öyster Cult, Eagles, America, Marshall Tucker Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Boz Scaggs, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Jeff Beck, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen, The Earl Scruggs Revue, Charlie Daniels Band, Joe Walsh, REO Speedwagon and Bob Seger.
A three-day ticket was $15.
It was a show that Manning couldn’t miss. Making around $1.25 an hour in 1974, the ticket was manageable. With $100 bucks on loan from the old man, plus essentials in the form of a cooler of beer, bottles of wine and a bag of weed, the group hit the road.
Unbeknownst to the Cougar crew, it was just the beginning of a very long, strange trip.
“I’m from Sedalia, so if you grew up where I grew up, you hear the rumours. Nobody had really talked about it for decades,” said Jefferson Lujin, the filmmaker who has dedicated the last decade or more to digging into the 1974 Ozark Music Festival.
In his documentary, “The Story of the Ozark Music Festival: Three Days of Sodom and Gomorrah in Sedalia, Missouri,” Lujin travels back to the summer of ‘74, revisiting the Woodstock-esque event that happened in his hometown.
The doc offers updated insights on a festival many considered catastrophic nearly 50 years ago. Lujin’s interviewees range from former politicians to the flower-power party animals that made the weekend a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
Still miles outside of the festival grounds, Manning’s Cougar rolled to a stop. The back seat was “so damn small” that Manning and his backseat buddy got out and walked as the car crawled through traffic.
“We walked the rest of the way into town, just as fast as the car was driving,” Manning remembered, still wondering about all of the broken-down cars, many of them abandoned along central Missouri highways.
The group now realized what they faced. A day before the first act stepped on stage, the town of about 23,000 was already overrun with festival-goers.
No-one knows for sure. But attendance estimates for the weekend range from 160,000 to 400,000 people.
The festival’s opening day lineup was strong. Bob Segar, Eagles, Joe Walsh and Ted Nugent all in one day. Full of energy, Manning finally reached the fairgrounds entrance and walked through the grandstand concourse into the immense field.
That’s when he came face to face with his roommate, also named Bill.
Bill No. 2 never saw the note. So much for the cat.
“What are the chances? He had no idea I was going. I thought, ‘Ah man, who is going to feed my cat?’,” Manning said, looking back and laughing at the debacle.
Lujin was just three years old when Sedalia staged the largest single event in its history. In making the documentary, he has relied on firsthand accounts of the festival. Much like Manning’s run-in with his roommate, stories from the weekend in Sedalia span from the serendipitous and seriously strange to downright dangerous.
As time has passed, the town’s perception of the music festival that was declared a disaster in a Missouri State Senate report flipped to some form of nostalgia. Sedalia set up an exhibit in town on the 35th anniversary of the Ozark Music Festival. After that, a private Facebook group with more than 4,000 members, many who attended the festival, was formed.
By 2008, sitting down with those who were one way or another involved with the festival once deemed “don’t ask, don’t tell” became a real possibility.
Lujin believes a gathering of this magnitude is the perfect breeding ground for urban legend.
“But then again, some of the things I heard and would never have believed to be true, actually happened,” he said.
The Ozark Music Festival Facebook group members share sepia-toned photos of skinny and stinky subjects of the ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll scene. Commenters work to identify which band was playing on what stage at what time. Some have found themselves in the photographs.
Then there are the stories.
One commenter recalled seeing Joe Walsh eating breakfast at the Ramada Inn.
There’s a post from a woman who traveled to the show from Kentucky with a friend from school. The pair was separated in the sea of people on Friday and didn’t reconnect until after the festival on Sunday.
Another member of the group has determined that the conception of their child occurred on the festival grounds.
According to firsthand accounts and reporting, by Day 2 things had all but completely unraveled. There was very little water and food. The showers were now coed communal. Nudity was no longer bound by the makeshift shower walls. Overflow from the wash space and pried-open fire hydrants, plus the footsteps of hundreds of thousands turned dirt to mud.
Even “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen bailed out on the festival.
Manning remembers heading to the grocery store to stock up on supplies before it ran out of food. The shelves were barren. Ice was $5 a block. At a third of the ticket price, the boys decided to put that money toward something a bit more mind-altering.
When it came to sleep, the options were to either lay in the mud like a water buffalo or party all night, just like the rock stars who drew the massive crowd. Festival goers like Manning, who was without a tent or sleeping bag, resorted to some combination of the two.
A Missouri Senate Committee report in the wake of the unorganized, understaffed, chaotic event judged it harshly.
“The Ozark Music Festival can only be described as a disaster. It became a haven for drug pushers who were attracted from throughout the United States. The scene made the degradation of Sodom and Gomorrah appear mild. Natural and unnatural sex acts became a spectator sport … Frequently, nude women promoted drugs with advertisements on their bodies.”
Twelve-year-old Sue Fields was in the crowd. She and her 18-year-old sister traveled from nearby Stover, Missouri, for Saturday’s show, particularly excited to see Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band released its second studio album, “Second Helping” that spring.
Fields enjoyed the music, but tagged along as a chaperone to her big sister at her parents’ request. In 1974, it was like nothing she had ever seen before.
Even today, with hundreds of concerts under her belt and five daughters of her own, Fields still hasn’t experienced anything quite like the Ozark Music Fest.
“They were getting into it, dancing, doing drugs and kissing people. I was 12,” Fields said.
The music was good, though she did see her sister doing things that she didn’t know sisters were capable of doing. When asked if she would let her daughters venture into a scene like the fairgrounds that summer, Fields’ response was stern.
Lujin’s film was kickstarted by the report from undercover members of the Missouri State Highway Patrol who were disguised by “the length of their hair and general appearance” as just dudes enjoying the music.
The filmmaker found the covert mission and the report’s content rather hilarious.
“On Saturday, July 20, 1974, at approximately 7:45 a.m., a male subject entered our campground and offered us a ‘toke’ (to smoke) from his electric marijuana pipe. We declined and the subject returned to his campsite to smoke with other subjects there,” one officer wrote.
The bulk of the notes from the posing patrolmen noted widespread drug use and sales, a fight or two, overdoses, nudity and placed some blame on master of ceremonies Wolfman Jack for riling up the crowd. The lack of a security presence was another sticking point for the patrol. Promoters worked with Wells Fargo to staff security guards, many of them young and untrained.
Lujin learned that a majority of the staff members abandoned their posts for the party, though it didn’t matter much at that point. The fairground gates crashed.
Watching the ticket-less stroll in had Manning shaking his head. They could have spent that money on another bag of the green stuff.
The Senate Report states the Ozark Music Festival resulted in more than $100,000 in damages, about 1,000 recorded overdoses and one death.
A rural, conservative community in the 1970s, Sedalia city officials were embarrassed by the event and claimed promoters pulled a fast one on the town by selling tickets beyond the agreed capacity and booking bands that played faster and harder than expected.
“You drag 200,000 to 300,000 people into one space … things are going to go wrong. I think it’s more surprising that more didn’t go wrong,” Lujin said, considering whether or not the Ozark Music Festival was truly “a disaster.”
He says if there is anyone to either credit or blame, depending on how you view the festival, it’s Kansas City live music promoter Chris Fritz.
In Lujin’s opinion, Fritz and his team did a lot of things right, all things considered. He mentioned a few strategic decisions that made a difference, for example, positioning doctors on-site who were experienced in treating drug overdoses.
Declaring the weekend a disaster really just depends who you ask. In the end, Lujin says he wouldn’t quite qualify it as such. He says including “Three Days of Sodom and Gomorrah” in the documentary title was a tongue-in-cheek choice, poking a bit of fun at a Kansas City Star headline that followed the festival.
Also in the camp that takes a different view than the locals and politicians who were outraged by the Ozark Music Festival overrunning the Missouri town, Manning deemed the dream concert “a riot” — the best kind of riot, that is.
Manning, who is the proud owner of thousands of bootleg Bob Dylan concert tapes, looks back on those days fondly. His daughters are envious when he shares photos from the Facebook group.
“It was a party city for the kids, what more could you want?” Manning said, adding that the crowd was relatively peaceful and looking out for one another.
“It was still back in the day when people were really friendly. Whatever you passed to your neighbor, it might just keep being passed on. To me, when I look back on all this stuff, it seems like this was before the hard drug era.”
Regardless of the era in which the festival took place, there was a mess of astronomical proportions left behind on Sunday, with the Missouri State Fair coming soon.
Walking through filth, past thousands of abandoned tents, Manning and his buddies had another traffic jam and an eight-hour trip home in the Cougar to go, with a cat to feed.
It wasn’t until Manning arrived home when he learned his second roommate, who, incredibly, was also named Bill, cared for the cat back in Illinois.
Exhausted on Sunday evening, Manning had a tough time putting the experience into words. But can you blame the guy?
“I remember walking away and we were talking like … ‘Man that was something.’”