The Rocklahoma Diaries: A Journey Into the Prairie With Axl Rose and Bad Tattoos

There is an antidote to the neon and designer sunglasses of America's big-ticket music festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. You hear less about these specialty festivals — they know their audiences and pretty much stay within them. The hippies go to Austin Psych Fest; the punks go to Chaos in Tejas; the Juggalos go to The Gathering.

It's not clear exactly which subculture Rocklahoma, a fest set in fields 30 miles outside Tulsa, is going for. But with a lineup that ranged from surprisingly potent (Alice in Chains) to unsurprisingly impotent (Guns N' Roses), we had to see it for ourselves.


10:30 p.m. We managed to make it to the stage in time to see Axl Rose mangle "Live and Let Die," and as the 51-year-old ex-baddest boy in the business struggled to hit any type of pitch or remember most of the lyrics it dawned on us what we were in for: an aging crazy person's personal fashion show delivered to a shockingly sparse crowd.

Axl took every opportunity to disappear backstage and change clothes. Each song ended with a solo by one of the band's members, which would then be transitioned into a lead-in solo for the next song. This gave Axl enough time to amble off stage and change into a new leather jacket, garish T-shirt and matching hat. During the 13-minute (!) version of Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" (a song about suicide that Axl promptly dedicated to the victims of Moore), we experienced three separate breakdowns, and what felt like four separate Axl costume changes. This wasn't a Guns N' Roses show, this was Axl embracing his inner Madonna.

Sometime between Axl fumbling the lyrics of "Patience," a feeling that was in short supply, and the horrid cover of The Who's "The Seeker," I decided there was a way to fix this (Night)trainwreck. Axl just needs to disappear again. Maybe apologize to his old bandmates, and work on getting them and his voice back. Because, honestly, we're tired of seeing the world's worst Guns N' Roses cover band. (JPF)


1 a.m. Walking away from the main stage after the marathon torture of Axl's impostors, we passed by proof that '80s hair metal never went away, in the form of be-mulleted bands on smaller stages pounding along completely without irony. The guys in these bands are all in their 20s and all received adoringly by the smaller crowds around the lesser stages, so they were clearly being received with none of the snarky judgments that people like myself may visit on these acts as well. That's heartwarming to see. (GC)

3:29 a.m. While making my way back to our campsite after a quick Porta Potty run, I walked past a tent occupied by a couple having really loud and aggressive sex while blasting Linkin Park. That was about par for this particular course — not sure how we were supposed to sleep through all this. (JPF)

1 p.m. Making a temporary escape from the heat and the metal, we encountered several residents of neighboring Pryor Creek, Oklahoma, a tiny town of a few blocks in length. They were pretty happy to have the festival, one of several to take place on these particular campgrounds every year. Various banners and signs greeted Rocklahoma attendees, and all the restaurateurs and employees we saw or spoke to were keen for the upturn in business. There seemed to be no spread of the chaos on the campsite down into the bars of the surrounding town whatsoever, possibly due to the many police DWI patrols around the town. Instead, Pryor Creek was still a model of an old rural American Midwest town. (GC)

3:45 p.m. Out of nowhere, the Budweiser Clydesdales showed up and paraded around the festival grounds. There was even a Dalmatian. Had Stevie Nicks' voice suddenly started whispering to me, I would have broken down and cried. (JPF)

4:40 p.m. Some of the attendees came with a variety of tattoos and T-shirts expressing various viewpoints that are, shall we say, somewhat extreme. No doubt rural Oklahoma, with its various billboards on abortion, meth addiction and Christianity prominently displayed outside of the reaches of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, is a more likely place to encounter such a phenomenon, but realizing I was standing behind a man who has "WHITE" tattooed down one arm and "POWER" tattooed down the other was still unsettling. (GC)

8 p.m. Before Bullet For my Valentine took the Main Stage an impromptu auction was held for a guitar signed by Axl Rose. Obviously, this led to a mass of drunk people randomly bidding as either a joke or out of confusion. Eventually the guitar went for $7,500 and the money was donated to the victims of the Moore tornado. (JPF)

10:30 p.m. We arrived from an anticipatory beer run back to our campsite just in time to catch a confident, rollicking, efficiently brutal version of "Them Bones" being bashed out by way of an introduction to the evening's main entertainment, Alice In Chains. The stage was dark, sparse even, with a giant screen behind the band showing simple imagery. All the band members were dressed in black, and nothing on the stage, not even the bass drum skin, was branded with the band's name. It was low-key, almost. Jerry Cantrell, looking good for his age, with a slightly weathered visage and short gray hair, pulled off the complex solo of the opener with no visible effort whatsoever, no grandstanding on a monitor, no running around. Just a supremely talented musician playing a classic solo with the minimum of fuss but the maximum of focus and application. It was note-perfect.

What was this headline performance? It was a proper rock concert. While showmanship has its place, there's no substitute for the actual part where all the men play their instruments well and the songs hit home. You know when one thing makes an entire trip worthwhile, and you suddenly feel contented when you hadn't realized you were particularly discontented? This was that thing. AiC got a rapturous reception throughout, and there was even a brief hello to the crowd from a native Oklahoman, the Rooster himself, Jerry Cantrell Sr. (GC)


12:15 a.m. It's always best at festivals like these when you go looking for the party in the campsite rather than let it come to you. Directly around us were several bands, the longest-running flip cup tournament of all time, a tiki-tent of some sort complete with bar and swimming pool, an official Jägermeister tent and RV, Miss Rocklahoma and endless other gazebos and small tent villages put together by friends. All of them were welcoming and friendly, and at least they weren't the guy next to us who seemingly spent the entire festival sleeping directly underneath his truck. (GC)

1:40 a.m. The future Mr. and Mrs. Paul and Sherry Keys didn't plan to get married at Rocklahoma. Originally, the Pittsburg, Kansas, couple had intended for the festival to be their honeymoon, but circumstances had arisen and they decided to have the wedding in a field at the event. When word of this got to festival organizers they decided they could do better for the couple, so that's how they ended up backstage at 2 a.m., Paul in a black tux with a red tie, Sherry looking resplendent in white and sequins, waiting for a band to finish so they could be ushered on stage to exchange their vows. Another, The Chimpz, would serve as the official witnesses.

As soon as the band was finished, the happy couple was rushed on stage and a local official read them their vows. When Paul was instructed to kiss Sherry to seal the ceremony, the crowd erupted. As Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" played over the P.A., the couple had their first dance to cheers, catcalls and applause. (JPF)

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Gavin Cleaver
Contact: Gavin Cleaver
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