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It is a Midsummer Night's Eve in a wooded glen somewhere in the wilds of Finland. The chill blue sky is full of cumulus clouds, the air is ringing with the music of Bad Religion, and I am surrounded by thousands of comatose Finnish kids in an alcoholic stupor.
Today--18 years, six months and seven days after they busted up on a rainy night in San Francisco--the Sex Pistols are about to take the stage in the first stop of what's being billed as the Filthy Lucre Tour, and that stop is on a lovely hillside some 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Since snowboarding has helped sell hard-core and nouveau-punk rock to American youngsters, it's only fitting that the Pistols' first concert in 18 years is to take place here at the Messila Funpark, a densely wooded lakeside snowboarding park some 100 kilometers north of Helsinki.
This weekend it's the site of the three-day Messila Festival featuring a diverse set of bands: Moby, the Shamen, the Prodigy, Sepultura, and--back from the dead!--the Sex Pistols. There are also about 20,000 young people who have traveled from Finland, Norway and nearby Russia.
"It is a terrible day," a nice woman named Raija says on the train from Helsinki. "It is as if they compete to see who can be the most sickening."
She could easily be talking about the fact that the Pistols and other Seventies acts such as KISS, Kansas, Deep Purple, Van Halen, Foreigner and the Who are all about to hit the road again looking for the wallets and coke vials they lost in your couch the last go-round. But, in fact, she refers to the traditional drinking binge that marks Midsummer's Eve here.
In Finland this is a vacation day like, say, New Year's Eve, and although Americans aren't too shabby with a bottle, the Finns are Olympic champs at it. Johannussattu, as it's called, is Finland's national drinking holiday, and its effects are already apparent in the glazed eyes and fucked-up faces spread out throughout the train compartment. At the station in the town of Lahti, where special coaches have been arranged to take people to the Messila Festival, a handful boards the bus carrying extra-large green trash bags full of belongings: socks, a bedroll and an enormous stock of beer bottles. Every time the bus comes to a halt on the twisting road up to the park, there's an enormous clatter--clank!--of glass on glass.
One boy, a nice, bespectacled youth of 21 or so, silently drinks two 24-ounce cans of beer in the ten minutes it takes to get to the festival site. It is three in the afternoon.
Messila is a recreation area with campsites, sailing facilities and a gorgeous view of a lake. Nearby, in Lahti, three enormous ski jumps loom ominously over the dreary town.
Approaching the park, however, a visitor is forcibly struck by the emptiness of the surroundings. Unlike in America, where some cities become densely populated war zones for the duration of any major rock event, you would never guess a giant rock concert was anywhere in the vicinity. The place feels deserted, even as the festival occurs all around us.
This is, in part, a reflection of Finland's vastness, but it's also a result of the European tradition that finds kids camping and gathering peacefully all over the continent at a series of summer rock festivals like these--often for days on end. In America, any concert that draws more than 50,000 people--Woodstock in 1994, for example--is considered a huge event, but such festivals are increasingly common in Europe. In the United Kingdom alone, there's Glastonbury, Reading, Phoenix, T in the Park (Edinburgh); there's Fleadh in Dublin--all of them drawing about 100,000. And the continent has even more: Pink Pop in Belgium and Roskilde in Denmark draw up to 150,000 people, five times what Messila will get on this day.
For some reason, Finland is a mecca for such rock festivals. Several are held every summer, including the notorious Ruisrock Festival headlined by Nirvana in 1992; this year's bill features the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bunny Wailer and Neil Young. Frighteningly, a heavy-metal festival is being held this same weekend somewhere up near Lapland, and it will feature Iron Maiden and a re-formed version of Deep Purple. (Sepultura is heading up there to play as soon as it finishes opening for the Pistols at Messila--oh, the irony.)
The Messila Festival, however, is particularly notorious, because it takes place on Johannussattu. Because it draws some of its audience from northern Russia and Estonia--countries that rival Finland for the scope of their insobriety--and because of the holiday, Messila is downright bizarre. Unlike, say, Lollapalooza, here there is no traffic, no pushing, no searches, no filing through gates like cattle. There is only a long hike up dirt paths past hundreds of plastic tents. The road itself is littered with used condoms, pools of vomit and comatose kids resting by the side of the road. At the top of the hill, though, is a familiar sight: hippie booths selling incense, Finnish burritos and the inevitable tee shirts bearing anarchy slogans.