I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The US Festival and The Wizard of Woz

by Casey Dewey
May 28, 2013

This Memorial Day weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the second part of the US Festival. The festival, years after Woodstock and years before Lollapalooza and Coachella, introduced the world to a few earnest ideas: Jumbotrons, merging tech expos with rock music and (maybe not for the better) Ticketmaster’s debut. The scope of the musical talent was staggering, and to this day it reads as a Who’s Who of punk, new wave, metal and dinosaur acts. Bands jockeyed for headlining position. Bands broke up right afterwards. Some bands saw it as a huge, hedonistic party while other bands saw it as a glorified soap-box to spout off all manners of agitprop material.

Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak had a dream. Thankfully he still had them; only 18 months earlier he had narrowly escaped death when a plane he was on crashed. It was no wonder Woz wanted to party, and he had enough cash to throw around to make it happen. His dream was to create an anti-Woodstock. There would be no hippies crashing the gates here. No zonked-out promoters passing joints back and forth with David Crosby; Woz wanted a tightly controlled event and better bang for your buck. He paid out of pocket for a patch of land near San Bernardino, Calif, and sent in the bulldozers and construction crews to build a 55-acre venue from scratch.

Working with the Bay Area’s legendary cutthroat concert promoter Bill Graham, Woz got the talent he wanted for the first part of the festival. Over Labor Day weekend in 1982, Graham and Woz booked the cream of the crop of each genre that would be represented over three days. Friday was New Wave day with (in order of appearance) Gang of Four, The Ramones, The English Beat, Oingo Boingo, The B-52’s, The Talking Heads and The Police. Saturday was Top 40 rock day with Dave Edmunds, Eddie Money, Santana, The Cars, The Kinks, Pat Benatar and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Sunda was Dinosaur day with The Grateful Dead, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac. Impressive, right? What if I were tell you single day tickets were $17 and three-day tickets were a measly $35? How much did you shell out for Coachella tickets?

300,000 people showed up. Over 1,880 Porta-Johns were installed. Peak heat was at 110 degrees. Woz paid over $12.5 million dollars and lost almost all of it. There were 100 arrests, 35 drug overdoses, 1 murder (a car accident on the way to the festival) and only a whopping 65 people treated for injuries. Other than the severe heat, the choking smog and prevalent dust, it looks like everybody had a hell of a time.

So, why not do it again? As I said, Woz had the cash.

Woz had a code name for these festivals, Project UNUSON. UNUSON stood for “Unite US in Song.” When it came time for the Memorial Day edition of the festival, some weren’t feeling particularly united, namely Graham, John Cougar Mellencamp, Van Halen and The Clash. Graham got out of Dodge for the second go-round, and his nemesis Barry “Rockfather” Fey stepped in. With loads of cash to go around, once again Woz, through Fey, got the acts he wanted. But not Mellencamp, who wouldn’t agree with a clause in his contract pertaining to video rights. I never liked that guy, for the record. Van Halen, being Van Halen, demanded no one be paid more than them. What do you say to arguably the best live band who, at the time, ruled the world? You say “fine.” David Bowie was being paid $1 million, so Van Halen said “we’ll do it for $1.5 million.” Woz and Fey said “fine.” None of this particularly sat well with The Clash, who had their own agenda in mind. We’ll get to that in a bit.

The second part of the festival took place over three days on Memorial Day weekend, 1982. This year, Saturday was New Wave day with (in order of appearance) The Divinyls, INXS, Wall of Voodoo (their last show with lead singer Stan Ridgway and percussionist Joe Nanini), Oingo Boingo, The English Beat, A Flock of Seagulls, Stray Cats, Men at Work, and The Clash (last show with Mick Jones and really the end of the band). Sunday was Heavy Metal Day with Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Triumph, The Scorpions and Van Halen. Monday was Rock day with Los Lobos, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Berlin, Quarterflash, U2, Missing Persons, The Pretenders, Joe Walsh, Stevie Nicks and David Bowie.

The Clash were falling apart. The band had come a long way from playing dingy dives in London’s East End. The had just released Combat Rock, their chart-topping album with “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” They had just embarked on a tour with The Who, a position that both entertained and repulsed them to no end. Joe Strummer, guitar player/lead singer, was pissed off at the band, his manager, the organizers, the audience and himself. Watching the footage you can see the band burning itself down. Strummer, never shy, isn’t impressed by the amount of money being made nor is he able to deal with all of the technology on display. Before going into “Casbah” he rants and raves about “getting on your knees and kissing the micro-circuits.”

At this point, longtime drummer Topper Headon had been fired for consistent drug abuse. On skins was 23 year old Pete Howard. Jones had isolated himself from the rest of the band. Strummer was sick of the stardom. Right before they were scheduled to go onstage, Clash manager and alleged puppetmaster Bernard Rhodes told the band they must demand a press conference and denounce the $25 ticket prices and demand Apple give a $100,000 check to charity, or else no show. Van Halen was name dropped and targeted for their exuberant fee. The kicker? The Clash was receiving half-a-million dollars to perform. The band played an 80-minute set in front of a banner that said “Clash Not For Sale.” It was Jones’ last gig with the Clash that night, in fact, it seems Strummer and bass player Paul Simonon are purposefully avoiding contact with throughout the ramshackle performance. The next night, a drunk, coked-up David Lee Roth had a lot of fun at The Clash’s expense, taunting the band and, per usual, being a pretty funny motherfucker about it.

670,000 people showed up. About another $12 million was lost. There were more injuries and arrests this time around. 2 deaths occurred. After a poorly attended Country Music day a week later, Woz had no plans for another US Festival anytime soon. The party was over.


Casey Dewey resides in Tucson, Arizona. He's a film writer for the Tucson Weekly and host of "Deep Red Radio" , a radio show dedicated to film soundtracks on 91.3 KXCI FM. He enjoys tacos, cervezas and garlic in everything. He wakes up every morning to a fresh pot of black coffee and at least two hours of Dragnet on TV.