If you've lived in Missoula for any time at all, you've probably heard people grousing about how much better it used to be and how much it's changed, generally for the worse. Among Missoula's ex-hippie baby boomer elite, it seems generally agreed upon that the Golden Age began as soon as they arrived (a window of roughly 10 years from 1968 to 1978), and ended somewhere around 1981. They're endearingly vain about it, some of them, but in a new documentary about that era's great Missoula shared experience—the Aber Day Kegger—one can see what all the fuss is about. Kegger is a one-of-a-kind window into this fabled golden era.
Before seeing Kegger, it brought my mind to a halt, trying to picture an outdoor stein-hoist with 10,000 people, 1,000 kegs of beer—yes, one thousand—and a handful of cops on horseback able to keep the peace with just a few firm shoulder-pats here and there, all of this spang in the middle of a scantly inhabited Miller Creek. Many of the organizers and participants interviewed in Kegger seem scarcely to believe it happened, either, and not just once, but once a year for nearly a decade.
From 1972 to 1979, the Aber Day Kegger was Missoula's biggest party, the biggest benefit beer-blast in the world. It was in Guinness. Its reputation reached far and wide, and toward the end of the run, the party drew young hitchhikers and VW bus caravans from every state. The live entertainment graduated from local acts (Black Cat Bone! Sweet Smoke!) to top national talent like Heart, Jimmy Buffett and Bonnie Raitt, though local boys the Mission Mountain Wood Band were always the sweethearts of the rodeo.
Kegger's interviewees talk about beer-slides down grassy hills, thoroughly befouled porta-potties and kissing complete strangers while standing ankle deep in beer mud waiting for refills. (After a messy first go of things up Deer Creek, the organizers of this remarkably streamlined event banned plastic cups and glass, instead selling bottomless plastic pitchers that made excellent souvenirs when the party was over.) I agree completely with those interviewed for the movie who believe you could never do anything like it now.
It wasn't completely utopian, however. Drunk driving accidents—one gets the impression that open-container laws back then were never enforced and people actually preferred to drive drunk—weren't much of a problem with cars backed up for miles trying to leave, but former organizers acknowledge the deleterious effects of turning 10,000 drunk people loose on the town afterwards, squatting and screwing in every yard along lower Miller Creek once the bands stopped playing and the kegs ran dry.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Aber Day Kegger is that this singularly rumbustious, un-universitylike drinking event was always staged to benefit the school library, and, with notable exceptions, the school and community put their weight solidly behind it. Missoula banks donated one teller apiece to stack and count the massive piles of ones and fives collected at the gates. One veteran organizer recalls getting a second chance on a failing grade in history from no less a figure than K. Ross Toole, who was so pleased with what the kegger meant for the library—hundreds of thousands in today's dollars—that he administered a brief one-on-one oral exam and passed the fellow with a B+.
The yearly tradition ended when the mounting cost of staging the festival overtook the proceeds it generated, going out gracefully if to much lamentation. In Kegger, you get a taste of what it was like to stand in a May-green valley, watching the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and drinking beer out of a muddy pitcher, surrounded by 10,000 people all wearing the same flannel shirt. Kegger is a solid, well-made documentary—if nothing groundbreaking in its basic approach—but it benefits enormously from a trove of archival footage, some of it shot quite beautifully, in color and with good sound, of today's grandparents when they were still in their 20s and partying their faces off.
Other traces of this bygone era are everywhere. The famous "A Place, Sort Of" T-shirt sold at Rockin Rudy's with the flying platypus creature is one example. Another of the era's living fossils (just teasing!) is Monte Dolack, official artist of the Kegger and all its posters, beer labels and related ephemera. As grateful owner of all three issues of Missoula Comix (yet more relics of the age, with art by Dolack and the equally old-school Dirk Lee), I have to bite my tongue when visiting relations start cooing over displays of Dolack prints and greeting cards to keep from telling them about the naughty giant space penis that violates planet Earth in #3. (Strange, I haven't been able to find it on a card.)
The Aber Day Kegger has been gone for 30 years, and perhaps with it halcyon days of an exclusive sort, but much of what Kegger says about the Missoula of 1979 rings just as true in 2009. Women's hair and men's beard styles have hardly changed, for starters. And souvenir pitchers to prevent litter and not waste plastic? Sigh. So Missoula, or anyway it still should be.
Kegger screens at the University Theatre Thursday, Oct. 8, at 6 PM and 8:30 PM. $10.
This story was updated on Friday, Oct. 9.