A journey into the beer-soaked, pot-smoking, bare-breasted heart of the three-day “party with a purpose”

Editor's note: With ComFest set to start on Friday, Columbus Monthly is republishing this 2003 story from former staff writer Molly Willow that captured the three-day "party with a purpose" in all its countercultural glory. 

It’s late Sunday at Goodale Park and ComFest is supposed to be ending. You should be packing up your things, saying goodbye to your friends and heading home for a decent night's sleep. Instead you're watching a woman with bleached blond hair in a silk-screened dress gyrating suggestively with her friend in tie-dye as the HooDoo Soul Band wails on the Main Stage. She may or may not actually be aware there is music playing around her. She is swaying and smiling, dancing with her friend who has fake flowers in her hair.

Then a man also wearing tie-dye joins the women as HooDoo saunters into a version of Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up.” Earlier, the friends were passing around a joint and its effects seem to be kicking in. Nearby, more friends find each other on blankets and do the official ComFest welcome: a one-armed hug with a 32-ounce plastic beer mug carefully grasped in the free hand.

For three days at the end of June you've been doing what can only be described as hanging out at Goodale for the 31st annual Community Festival. It's frickin' exhausting, After the high-intensity laid-back weekend of listening to good music you didn't know Columbus had, drinking beer to support the cause and generally soaking up the liberalism, you may need another weekend to recover. Later you'll struggle to remember band names so you can see them when they play around town. Your belly is full of falafel. Or maybe stir-fry, or that holiest of fair foods, the funnel cake.

And if you've done this thing as the organizers hope, maybe your head is full of some new ideas on how to get involved in your community. Or you've decided to volunteer at the fest next year, if only to get one of those cool T-shirts. You won't be as cool as the guy you saw working the Goodale beer booth with the '88 shirt, but 15 years from now, when you bust out the '03, the kids will all look at you in awe.

The vintage ComFest volunteer T-shirt is a hot, if rare, commodity. On Thursday, before the fest kicked off, volunteers raced to put together stages and not spill their Miller Lites (hey, it's hot out there in the sun). Chris Beaty was sporting one from 2001. The red-headed sculptor and painter charged with assembling the Live Arts Stage will earn another T-shirt—light blue this year—for his efforts. By his estimation, he won't get much use out of it. “They last about two years before they wear out and then you just keep 'em in the closet." 

But some, apparently, are kept under glass throughout the year and only brought out when the end of June nears. Like the elusive Yeti, there have been alleged sightings of tees from the early '80s. “Somebody the other day was wearing one from '83," says a shoeless volunteer named Greg. 

"It's our form of the caste system," Greg says, referring to the T-shirt hierarchy. He also notes that he prefers to go by what he calls “his ComFest name," Maynard G. Krebs, the character played by Bob Denver in the old TV show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

Yes, having a ComFest name may seem weird, but so is planning a free festival for tens of thousands of people, paying no one and bribing volunteers with beer and shirts.

The entirely volunteer-run event was started in 1972 by some of the same people who help run it today. They don't take much credit for their work, but usually can be spotted in the crowd because they're having the most fun. Back in the early 1970s they were looking for a way for everyone involved in protesting the Vietnam War and struggling for gay, women's and black rights to voice their views to the community. 

Thirty-one years later, the fest's politics have not changed. Strolling around ComFest you'll see same-sex couples holding hands, booths for the Green Party, numerous antiwar messages and a bookstore selling works on Communism. Partly because of this, as well as its Marxist-ish name and the abundance of pot and tie-dye, ComFest has a reputation as a hippie festival. This is something longtime organizers take mild offense to because it often is used dismissively, but most would not dispute the label. 

Though the politics and core principles have stayed the same, it's also clear that the crowd hasn't. People carry cellphones. Many probably have never read “The Communist Manifesto.” Others shop in suburban malls (gasp!). The party in the park has become a place that's OK to drop by on your way to the golf club. You can see how the other half lives and remember your college days, when you may or may not have inhaled. 

This is just fine with the ComFest folk, who wouldn't dream of excluding any one person. They do, however, pride themselves on excluding corporations. It's obvious, with the handpainted signs and flotilla of decal-free golf carts, that you will not be winning any promotional Bud Light frisbees during the festival.

So despite the fact that after Saturday night you were going to take it easy Sunday, you're now looking around the crowd, noting the setting sun, diggin' the free music and starting to think about hopping back in the beer line for just one more. Your hangover from last night is almost gone anyway. And even more convincing is the argument that by imbibing you're actually supporting the festival.

Surely this selflessness is what drives the hordes of parched partiers waiting in line at beer tents around the park. ComFest sells two beers, neither of which have run any television ads with big-breasted women wrestling in a water fountain. Rolling Rock is $3 for 16 ounces, Pale Ale from the Columbus Brewing Company is $5. Beers also come in a 32-ounce size, in a nifty souvenir mug that doubles as a wash bin. 

There's also a lot of pot. 

Saturday night on the blanket in front of the Main Stage, three groups of friends sit in three different circles, each passing around marijuana. The group of teens has a sloppy-looking loose joint. The late twentysomethings use a handcrafted glass pipe. The middle-aged hipsters a few feet back have the most elaborate contraption, perhaps a sign of experience. Almost simultaneously the click-click of lighters sounds and small red embers can be seen glowing in the night. The dope is passed around as each generation of friends takes turns exhaling puffs of smoke into the summer air. It mingles with the soulful groove of the band Controversy. The band is the only controversy in sight. 

Organizers believe it is a testament to the festival that the special-duty police officers who work ComFest are known for peacefully looking the other way. Columbus police Sgt. Dallas Lykins, who is walking the food vendor section on Sunday, says if he saw a violation he would enforce the law. But he admits it isn't a priority. “Do we try to sneak up on somebody? No," he says. “From what I get, they're not out here rolling up in front of somebody." 

He adds with a shrug, “Am I going to spend all my time trying to catch people who are smoking pot?" 

Officers do not expect much trouble at ComFest. In the early days there were what one organizer calls “hassles" with police, but the festival does not have a history of violence. When a man died following a drug-induced heart attack two years ago, organizers took it personally. The festival program repeatedly reminds revelers to drink enough fluids, stay out of the sun and generally take care of themselves. Medics and first-aid teams are nearby if someone overindulges. 

The relative lack of trouble is part of the reason the police like working ComFest. "It's fun," says Columbus police officer Mike Justice. “It's a really nice crowd, pretty laid back." 

Justice says when police get involved it's typically in instances like the one happening a few yards away by the tennis courts. Medics are assisting a homeless man, wearing this year's bright blue volunteer shirt, who appears to have had too much to drink. 

“It's strange," Justice says about the absence of altercations. “Last year I had to make an arrest when a guy had too much to drink and even he didn't resist. He turned and said, 'OK, let's go!’ " 

Despite the crisp uniform and official presence, Justice sounds oddly like a ComFest convert. He parrots the ComFest rhetoric as he tells the story of a firefighter who was new to the festival. “One guy came down here and said, 'Man, it's great,' ” Justice says, looking around the sunny park as the Poetry Slam is about to begin on the Live Arts Stage. “You know, you've gotta come down here and experience it for yourself." 

This is what Columbus native Sara Fitzgerald was thinking as she convinced her friend Leslie Phillips to come to the festival with her this year. “I brought some Pittsburgh friends to experience ComFest," she says. On Sunday, sure enough, they were walking around the Gazebo Stage, plates of Indian food in hand, experiencing.

***

 At 8:38 Friday night, there are 22 guys in line for a men's Port-a-John. The women's line is longer, of course. Timing your bathroom breaks with the bands you want to see is key. Somehow, listening to your favorite band from hundreds of yards away inside a hot unventilated portable toilet just isn't the same as chillin' on your blanket. Later your bigger-bladdered friends will tell you, what you've missed and you'll give some serious thought to those nearby bushes. You would not be the first. 

The musical lineup at ComFest is nearly the only guaranteed source of dispute each year. Inevitably, there's carping by bands who aren't selected and fans who feel their favorite act was slighted. It's been a long standing tradition that musical acts are local and unpaid. “We like to see bands that help out in the community," says Mark Fisher, a domestic relations lawyer who's on the music committee. “We especially like bands that help us put out ComFest, help us do other things. But you know, there is no scientific method. We've just got a group of people who are very passionate about the music scene." 

This year, organizers selected 152 of the approximately 300 acts that applied. The lineup can be mystifying for those not hip to the Columbus music scene. It's hard to gather a lot from band names such as "Wigglepussy, Indiana" and "I'm with Stupid.” But the lineup includes bands that play reggae, or honky-tonk infused with rock. Bands with banjos and accordions (the Randys should have just played the entire festival, they are that delightfully good). Bands playing the blues in the special blues garage—literally a garage on Russell Street. Bands such as the Jive Turkeys, the Favors, the Bygones, the Rancid Yak Butter Tea Party, Gil Mantera's Party Dream. 

Then there are the jazzies. During the day the Jazz Stage is an unassuming little covered area on Goodale Boulevard that has the added convenience of being located next to a beer tent. At night it becomes a vibrant, shaking, quaking, pounding, pulsating mass of music and humanity that also has the added convenience of being located next to a beer tent. Friday night's frenetic performance by Soulstarr forever dispelled any notion that moshing to jazz is a musical improbability. 

On Sunday, music talk revolves around who'd been lucky enough to catch the last jazz tent act the night before when Flypaper funked the place up. This is the joy and frustration of ComFest. Even if you aren't in a beer line, bathroom line or line for your third funnel cake, you still won't see every band you want to. There are simply too many. ComFest's semisecret music selection committee delights in creating this dilemma. 

Getting on that exclusive committee isn't an option open to just anyone. Luckily, other volunteer jobs are. This includes supporting by pouring, for those over 21, of course. Each task has its own T-shirt color, 13 in all. Those working at volunteer central get a yellow haze colored shirt (“By Sunday night we are all under a haze," the program explains). The color for cleanup and recycling is, of course, green. And if you serve suds, you'll become the proud owner of a “prairie dust"-colored shirt, a blah color chosen because it camouflages beer spills. 

Volunteering at the beer tent is a microcosm of the main party. Beer is sold using a token system—that is, if you don't know anyone working the beer tent. There could be a special T-shirt for this. It means, "I didn't volunteer, but my friend did and I got lots of free beer. Happy ComFest." 

It's also a good way to meet new people. Sometimes you meet the same new person three or four times. “Wait, you're Chris? I thought you were Mike," one young woman at the Goodale beer tent says Saturday. 

She was supposed to volunteer with all her friends, but they bailed. She was going to split, too, but started having too much fun. By the middle of her four-hour shift, she's invented a beer-drinking game with Mike (or is it Chris?). If they see a topless woman with her breasts painted they have to chug whatever remains in their 32-ounce megamug. There are a lot of painted breasts. 

At the beer tent, there is the sense of doing something worthwhile, even if it is easy and fun. Bartenders, businessmen, young professionals and recently turned 21-year-olds talk to each other as equals. "There are people who wouldn't talk to each other in high school, but they look and smile at ComFest," says Jim McNamara, a civil rights attorney and an early festival organizer. “You feel like you're the majority for a while." He's seen how the festival has grown since 1972. “As many people probably worked at this ComFest as came to the first one." 

He speaks as if he doesn't believe it's possible to overstate the social impact of such a big volunteer event, one that isn't afraid to wear its politics on its sleeve, shirt, program or bare chest. “We created our own language, " McNamara says. “ ‘Happy ComFest,' it's more meaningful to me than ‘Merry Christmas!’ " 

***

Each year countless new fans are made. Some are newer than others. Catherine and Cabot Dison brought their 6-week-old daughter, Carina, and settled on their blanket in front of the Gazebo Stage on Friday afternoon. They live in the neighborhood and wouldn't miss it. But Carina is not the youngest ComFester. That honor probably goes to 3-week-old Ellie Muñoz, who is with her parents, Maria and Chris, just one blanket away, listening to a not-at-all-scary band named Monster Movies. “We brought her to expose her to the music," Chris Muñoz says. “She's been very content." 

While Sunday historically has been family day at ComFest, every day is dog day. Considering the abundance of pooches all weekend, the absence of their byproduct is remarkable and a credit to people's willingness to pitch in and scoop up. Dogs of every breed are part of the pet menagerie that includes cats on leashes, ferrets, a bunny, a parrot and very large snakes—at least two people walked around with snakes on their shoulders, boas draped like boas. 

People-watching at ComFest is some of the ripest you'll ever find in Columbus. By the end of the day Sunday, if you've made it all three days, you're beginning to recognize faces. The people with tattoos on their scalps; a guy with long, flowing hot pink hair; a girl with green pigtails; various hues of blue and purple mohawks, flattops, mullets, fades, weaves, shags, bobs, comb-overs; a dunce cap (that'd be "Nate”), cowboy hats, visors, ball caps; little stuffed horns on a headband, and a woman with long blond hair to her calves. 

Then there are the people who really stand out—the men in khaki shorts and polo shirts and the women who at no time are possessed by the urge to take off their tops and have their breasts painted at the inaccurately named face-painting booth.

By Sunday evening, in the waning hours of ComFest daylight, you've learned many things. It is impossible to come to ComFest and not see someone you know, unless you're new in town or live in New Albany. And you had no idea that a certain guy in your office even owned a tie-dye shirt. 

The ComFesters call their shindig a "party with a purpose," but leave it to each person to divine what that might be beyond peace and respect. Maybe you're thinking about this as the Shantee, the last act on the Main Stage, wraps up Sunday night. Maybe you've volunteered, or have plans to next year. Maybe you didn't really get what the whole thing was all about, but you still had fun. Maybe you're going right home and marking next year's ComFest, June 25 through 27, on your calendar. Or maybe you know that the Tony Monaco Trio is jamming right now in the jazz tent and ComFest isn't quite over yet.

This story originally appeared in the August 2003 issue of Columbus Monthly.

***

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine, as well as our weekly newsletter so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.