September 3, 1982: The Us Festival, an extravagant music and technology event staged by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, kicks off in California. The festival costs $8 million to stage, and boasts appearances from some of the biggest musical acts of the day.
It’s a wild venture for Woz, who is on hiatus from Apple after surviving a serious plane crash in 1981.
Us Festival: A change of direction for Woz
Rather than returning to Apple as soon as he could after the crash, Wozniak pursued a variety of other interests. He even attended engineering classes at the University of California, Berkeley, under the name “Rocky Raccoon Clarke,” apparently to avoid drawing attention to himself.
With a personal fortune of $116 million, Apple’s lovable geek put together a far bolder venture with the Us Festival. It was an attempt to stage Woz’s own version of Woodstock.
The name “Us Festival” was not short for “United States,” but rather the collective term for everyone. It was short for “Unite Us in Song.” It was supposed to celebrate the passing of the “Me” Decade that had been the 1970s. Whether purposely or not, it also referred to Wozniak as a new family man. His wife went into labor the night before the festival opened.
Us Festival showcases top bands
To bring his festival to life, Woz enlisted legendary rock promoter Bill Graham (whose name is used for San Francisco’s Bill Graham Auditorium, where Apple occasionally held events over the years). Graham filled the Us Festival card with rock luminaries ranging from The Grateful Dead and The Ramones to The Kinks and Fleetwood Mac.
Because of the scale of the festival, many artists charged obscene amounts of money to perform.
“I would see the money going out — my God, so much more money than these bands have ever been paid!” recalled festival controller Carlos Harvey years later.
Woz throws a massive party
Graham kept Wozniak on a tight leash, but he allowed the Apple co-founder to choose one progressive country singer for the event. Woz went with Jerry Jeff Walker, the singer who scored a 1960s hit with the song “Mr. Bojangles.”
Wozniak insisted that the event not take place in a stadium, but rather happen outdoors like Woodstock. The site, the 500-acre Glen Helen Regional Park in Devore, California, was chosen for this reason.
It was a vast arena — with 1,800 porta-potties, a couple of helipads and one of the biggest staging areas ever assembled at the time. It also allowed attendees to camp for the duration of the event.
Us Festival: Technology and music together
Woz being Woz, technology was also a big part of the Us Festival. It was described as a three-day “celebration of contemporary music and technology.”
Robert Moog attended to give a demonstration of his famous synthesizer. A “Sensadome” offered a 360-degree multimedia light show. And jazz legend Herbie Hancock led a discussion about the Apple II/Alpha Syntauri music system.
Woz’s status as Apple co-founder was signified by a large hot-air balloon, emblazoned with the Apple logo, which floated by the main staging area. Several members of the original Macintosh team attended the weekend festival, although Apple co-founder Steve Jobs did not.
Memories gained, money lost
Woz considered the event a massive success, even though it wound up losing a massive amount of money. Although the audience for all three days proved impressive, a large percentage of people who turned up never paid. They either used counterfeit tickets or simply climbed over the perimeter fences.
That didn’t stop Woz from staging a follow-up Us Festival the next year. This time, his losses came to $13 million. At that point, he called a stop to his concert-promoting days.
“If I do this for another 55 years, I’m in trouble,” Wozniak said at the time.
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