PLUS Fest 2
Randy Agarn had a vision—actually, a series of visions. And like any great visionary, he was able to make his vision come true. Well, about 98% of it.
It was the summer of 1979, and A. Randolph Agarn was restless. The only son of Walter and Helen (née Endicott), Randy was mostly content to live off his trust fund (which was prodigious, as he was the only great grandson of Pennsylvania zinc tycoon Andrew Endicott). Although he did obtain a bachelor’s degree—in art history, from Swarthmore, taking six years—he never held a “real” job. He backpacked around the world and was something of a playboy thrill-seeker; an expert skier, he had the hours (but not the commitment) for dive master certification, and he completed his first solo skydive at 19. He liked to drive fast. Now 28, he was bored and was looking for a new challenge.
He had settled in New York City. At some point in the mid-‘70s, he had picked up a guitar, which led to playing in a string of not-particularly-successful bands, all of which ultimately terminated their relationship with Agarn because, well, he could be a prick. Still interested in music, he bought a struggling record company (Preposterous Records, which he stupidly renamed Preppie Records in an attempt to capitalize on the then-raging pink button-down fad). This evolved into Agarn putting out a string of self-produced albums by “groups” he fronted. In fact, his nine self-penned albums—which remarkably were recorded in one 17-month spurt—featured Agarn playing every instrument, which accounted for their mediocrity. (An exception to his solo DIY philosophy was November 1978’s “big band with guitars” album Faking Maces by Randy Agarn & The Hidden Messengers; for this ill-conceived project, Agarn was forced to hire a bunch of local high school jazz ringers to emulate his vision of a big band (with guitars).)
(a few of Agarn's albums and tracks)
Randy Agarn & The Fops--"Bag Holder"
Randy Agarn 7--"The Duke"
Randy Agarn & The Beavers--"Fairest Creatures"
Randy Agarn & The Resistance--"To Marry"
Randy Agarn & The Hidden Messengers--"Vixen"
Randy Agarn & The Vaqueros--"Sucker"
Although his one semester of studio art had been a bust, Agarn insisted on crafting his own LP artwork, typically featuring images of either Eastern European women (Agarn had quite a collection of souvenir snapshots from his travels) or of flamboyant Preppie receptionist Wilton Parmenter, a perpetually aspiring actor. Agarn never could settle on one musical genre; he mostly played some variation of rock, but he also dabbled in styles as varied as Chicago blues, norteño and even spoken word. (March 1978’s Eagerly consisted entirely of readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets over dirge-like drones—unintentionally presaging post-rock.) But his limited chops—and even more limited vocals—proved an impediment. By the summer of 1979, Agarn had thrown in the towel, selling his unnecessarily large (and mostly untapped) guitar collection and boxing up his notebooks full of bad poetry. He had discovered that, while having virtually unlimited resources may allow you to make your own records, it unfortunately can’t make anyone listen to them.
But he still enjoyed music. One day, he was playing “random album lottery” or some similar game he invented at a used record shop in the Village. After selecting a dozen albums (mostly based on that day’s theme, “orange”), he returned to his apartment and started a listening session. The third album he put on was unusual. The gatefold LP contained a compilation of songs recorded live at something called the Peace, Love & Understanding Festival held in 1971.
The liner notes described how the event came about, and Agarn found it fascinating. But, like most things that piqued his interest, he almost immediately forgot about it (particularly after nodding off to the seventh album in the stack, David Bowie’s Low (which sounded a lot like Eagerly, only way better)).
Several days later, he awoke one morning after having the strangest dream. He kept seeing the Liberty Bell (which he had viewed countless times as a child growing up in Philadelphia). It was juxtaposed with a huge clock (which he surmised was Big Ben in London, where he had spent the summer of ’74 fruitlessly chasing a girl named Penelope) chiming at 11 o’clock. And then he kept seeing the phrase “100 MILES” flashing in red neon letters, while a guitar power chord rang in the background. What?
The epiphany hit about 4:00 p.m. on a Wednesday. The message was clear! He was supposed to put on his own version of the PLUS Fest—a decade after the original—only somehow involving Philadelphia and London! What did those cities have in common (other than that whole 1776 thing)? And what about that “100 MILES” vision? He thought about it and went to a bookstore to get an atlas. Looking at the Pennsylvania map, he decided to draw a circle with a radius of 100 miles around Philadelphia. There wasn’t much of interest until he saw it—98 miles north of Philly, in roughly the 11 o’clock position, was Long Pond, PA, the site of Pocono International Raceway. The Indy car track had hosted “Concert 10” in July 1972—and Agarn (along with over 200,000 other people) had attended! What an awesome festival; ELP, Humble Pie, Three Dog Night, Edgar Winter, Faces . . . that show had everything. Was it a sign?
And what about London? Turning to a map of England, he drew the same 100-mile radius and wasted no time going to 11 o’clock. There it was: Leicester, 101 miles from London. All he knew about Leicester was that it was where one of his favorite ‘60s bands (Family) had originated. A sign indeed!
He never had been to that part of England, so he quickly booked a trip. Scouting around Leicester, he soon found what he was looking for: Filbert Street Stadium, home to Leicester City F.C. with a capacity for well over 20,000 fans. Fantastic!
And so, by the summer of 1980, Agarn had his plan: he would put on PLUS Fest 2 and hold it on a single day in both England and the United States. How awesome! Who would ever think of such a thing?
He instructed the Preppie Records promotion staff (most of whom had given up trying to sell his solo albums) to start contacting bands and organizing the event. Not surprisingly, most of his first choices were either already booked or politely declined—some not so politely. (Maynard Krebs & The Hipsters refused to play in a quick-change festival format, preferring hours-long jams that frequently tested their audience’s patience.) But by the spring of 1981, using his considerable financial resources, Agarn had a full slate of bands—a collection of aging rockers happy for the paycheck and brand-new upstarts hungry for exposure—ready to go. (The delay in booking resulted in the event being lined up for October—perhaps a little chilly in the target climes, but Agarn figured the audience could just bundle up.)
The Leicester show featured quirky genre-blenders Past The Slip, English-American punk-pop trio Banks Of Chaos, Australian roots rockers Hear The Thunder, British pub rock icons Sound Salvation, Baltimore new wave outfit Nuclear Boots, English dance rockers Lipstick Cherry, New York power pop quintet The Cyclone Rangers, and East Village rock darlings Real Atomic. The Leicester show was equally diverse, including English rock semi-royalty Ragged Co., pomp outfit Galileo Figaro, heartfelt Irish rockers 4 Walls Down, New York troubadour A. Youngman, London sometimes-punks Knuckle Merchants, Mexican/Canadian prog rockers Bright Antennae, Rhode Island art punks Tain’t No Disco and eclectic Alabama foursome Goes A Narwhal.
In addition to the novel bi-continental same-day aspect of this radical concert extravaganza, Agarn felt like he needed one other element to really put the event on the map. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders? Free caipirinhas at the gate? (He was very familiar with both.) He just didn’t know. And then he stumbled on it at an Easter gathering while talking with his favorite uncle, Rear Admiral Martin “McFly” Agarn (a former naval aviator now stationed at the Pentagon). Randy explained another vision (he didn’t call it that) which involved one of the musicians in England also performing at the U.S. show—how cool would that be? Of course, it was logistically impossible. But Uncle Martin, always interested in new recruiting concepts to reach the younger generation (particularly given the lamentable non-draft era, notwithstanding a very hot Cold War), started brainstorming an idea. The Navy conducted military exercises all the time, and pilots needed flight time. What if a plane could bring one of the performers--it would have to be one of the early ones--straight from England to the U.S. while being filmed for a promotional video? Martin started sketching out some diagrams and numbers on a napkin and came up with it. A fighter (obviously a two-seat F-4 Phantom) would pick up the performer near Leicester, cross the Atlantic (with at least one, and most likely two, in-air refuelings), and land on a carrier off the East Coast, probably the U.S.S. Heimlich, then scheduled for maneuvers; a Seasprite would ferry the performer and a cameraman to Long Pond. Yes, it would be extraordinarily expensive, but the PR value could be huge—plus the Admiral had something like $35 million that was unallocated in the fiscal year budget that he was itching to spend. Randy fell in love with the plan. (It didn’t dawn on Randy that video footage of a supersonic Vietnam-era war machine landing on an aircraft carrier might conflict with the “peace, love and understanding” message of the ’71 festival—he just thought it would be super cool.) Uncle Martin started moving the gears at the Pentagon.
Ticket sales to the event were modest at first, but as the day approached, demand skyrocketed. Scalpers were selling tickets for up to $40 each in the U.S., an unheard of price. (The fever had not caught on in the East Midlands, and tickets could still be had for five pounds fifty.)
Agarn had a difficult time finding a musician at the England show willing both to perform early and to be wedged into the back seat of a Phantom for seven-plus hours. (Real Atomic frontwoman Blair Warner was game, but Uncle Martin, being a dinosaur, didn’t think a combat jet—even the passenger seat—was any place for a woman.) Ultimately, it dawned on Agarn: he could be the one! He could introduce the show in England, including singing one of his 432 songs (probably “Fairest Creatures”), take a waiting chopper or jump jet to RAF Coningsby (where Uncle Martin had lined up the waiting Navy Phantom), fly to the Heimlich (hopefully catching a snooze in the process), then take a chopper to the Long Pond show, where he could close the event in magnificent style with another of his songs. Win-win! Fantastic!
And why stop there, Agarn thought to himself. If he was going to close out the Long Pond show, why not do it in style with a one-of-a-kind entrance that was sure to be talked about for years? Yes, he decided, he was going to skydive into the event from the Heimlich’s hovering Seasprite, trailing red, white and blue smoke and carrying his guitar (well, a guitar; he was pretty sure the Phantom wouldn’t have room for him to bring one along). Totally awesome!
And so, on October 24, 1981, 19,451 fans streamed into the Filbert Street Stadium in Leicester to catch Part One of PLUS Fest 2. Agarn welcomed the crowd at 11:30 a.m. (an unusually early start time for a rock concert, but necessary to ensure the success of Agarn’s transatlantic travel gimmick). Already wearing his flight suit, he kicked-off the show by singing not one but three of his originals before dashing to the Harrier that had started to whine on the pad at the far end of the pitch. The crowd loudly cheered Agarn’s departure (not so much for its dramatic nature but because he mercifully had quit singing). The VTOL aircraft slowly ascended as Lipstick Cherry took the stage (with their minor hit “Rijo”) and the rest of the show went off without a hitch. (Well, mostly; show-closer Banks Of Chaos' lead singer and bassist Blister walked off stage following an argument over harmonies, leaving the remainder of the trio to attempt some kind of freeform drum/guitar jam to complete their hour.)
Fifteen minutes later, the Harrier landed at RAF Coningsby and Agarn dashed for the waiting Phantom, piloted by Major Barnabas “Boom-Boom” Collins. The trip across the Atlantic was uneventful, although Agarn definitely did not take a nap, particularly when Collins elected to take it briefly to Mach 1.3 (followed by an inverted roll) to show off. The refuelings were smooth and the aircraft landed on the deck of the Heimlich (sailing 45 nautical miles due south of Montauk) precisely on schedule. Within minutes, the Seasprite was airborne for the hour-long flight to Long Pond.
Agarn saw the raceway from over the horizon, the track lights and stage spots supplemented now by three searchlights, combing the sky. His heart raced. He strapped on his parachute (packed by one of the two Navy SEALs Uncle Martin had tasked to accompany Agarn to the ground for additional PR effect). His smoke grenades were attached and a crewman handed him a guitar painted like the American flag. (Someone had removed the strings, which of course is one of the military’s SOPs when jumping out of an aircraft with a guitar.) When the helicopter arrived over the raceway, Agarn saw an immense crowd (at least 40,000 people) all pointing up in the air and jumping to the rhythm of Ragged Co. (then playing their classic, "(I Can't Get No) Explanation"). One searchlight locked on the chopper, and quickly the two others joined. AWESOME!
The helicopter climbed to 10,000 feet. With no time to waste, one of the SEALs (masked, name unknown even to Agarn) started a countdown using hand signals, and once he gave the go sign, Agarn hurled himself out of the Seasprite’s door (quickly followed by SEALs 1 and 2, who executed maneuvers to steer clear of Agarn—which turned out not only to be proper procedure, but a smart move). After 10 seconds of freefall, Agarn found the wire pull for the grenades and yanked, setting off a dramatic trail of patriotic smoke.
He then thought he would mimic playing the guitar, just to give the audience an extra thrill. This proved to be a poor choice, however, as the distracted air-guitarist fell through 5,000 feet (the point at which his automatic deployment actuator should have triggered). Agarn glanced down to the left and saw the chutes from the SEALs, whom he quickly zipped past. Oops, briefly thought Agarn. Still clutching the inoperable guitar, he regained composure and manually pulled the ripcord at 1,700 feet. Maybe this will work, Agarn thought. Refusing to drop the guitar, he had no means to control his direction.
The searchlights followed Agarn to the ground. Well, not technically the ground. At an unreasonably high rate of descent, he crashed through the sturdy canopy of the backstage hospitality tent, landing squarely in the middle of the seafood station just as the non-vegan members of Knuckle Merchants were about to enjoy some shrimp.
Unfortunately, Randy Agarn was incapacitated (to put it mildly) and could not perform to close out Part Two of PLUS Fest 2. (Instead, Ragged Co. did a fourth encore, during which guitarist Wendell Gibbs apparently fell asleep standing up.)
Agarn’s recuperation took months, but by the spring of 1982, he was back on his foot (the other having been substituted with a military-grade titanium prosthetic). Aside from Agarn's catastrophic but dramatic entrance to Long Pond, PLUS Fest 2 was a huge success. Record sales for the participating artists (other than Agarn) jumped, and the U.S. military saw a slight bump in enlistment numbers.
Agarn put on 47 rock festivals over the next two decades—only two of which involved skydivers with guitars (thankfully, mishap free). In the late ‘80s, Agarn resumed making his own records. His lack of sales and airplay didn't bother him. In his mind, he was living the rock and roll dream.
Agarn married Blair Warner in 1993. They adopted two orphaned twins from Oaxaca. Luis Agarn went on to front the multi-platinum punk-pop band Sneeze 47. Beatriz Agarn (Iater Youngman) became an in-demand Nashville songwriter (most famous for Pearl Bodine’s crossover smash, “You Can Take the Man Out of Tennessee, But You Can’t Make Him Think”).