It’s been 10 years since the last Best Friends Day Weekend in Richmond, Virginia and 20 years since its founders first came up with the idea of visiting a local water park to celebrate the end of summer. What they didn’t realize at the time was that this visit would turn into a four-day fun-filled weekend that has gone down in history as one of the craziest fests of all time.
Recently, BFD alumni Shelley Callahan, Anna Virginia, and Erin Briggs sat down with Richmond photographer and musician Randy Blythe to discuss the beginning of Best Friends Day, how it evolved, and the upcoming Best Friends Day Yearbook, set to be released on June 26th, 2021.
Shelley: So, do we want to hear the real story first or do we want to hear the myth?
Anna: I want to hear the myth first. I mean, the lore will probably be funnier.
Randy: Well, it’s not too in depth, and forgive me if I am wrong, it was many years ago. but I thought it was Tony [Foresta] and maybe you [motions to Shelley] and your sister [Erin] went to Hadad’s [Lake] one day and got wasted, and called it Best Friends Day.
Anna: Just swap Tony for me, that’s the first Best Friends Day. [laughs]
Shelley: Yeah, but there is a little more to it – it was a little more structured and planned.
Anna: Yes, one of my roommates worked for a company that had a work party there…
Randy: So that’s how you found out that Hadad’s existed?
Anna: Exactly! We went and my first thought was, “We need to bring more people back here!” So planning the first Best Friends Day was much more about bringing people to Hadad’s itself. I remember specifically being at 821 Café in the summer of 2001 with Shelley and talking about wanting to have an end of the summer party at Hadad’s and it was a good time because Shelley and Erin’s birthday is at the end of August anyway.
Shelley: Totally – I remember that I thought the idea was great because I was in college at the time and even though Anna wasn’t, our age group had this all-encompassing feeling that the summer was over when VCU started again every Fall.
Randy: That feeling that you wanted to do something before the invasion begins again, because local summer is over when VCU students return.
Anna: Right! While the city still felt like it was ours. So we planned this in a time before cell phones, before social media, and we made handbills and folded them up and overnight went to all our friends’ houses and left them with invitations to the first Best Friends Day.
Randy: How many of these invitations were made?
Anna: Hmmm, well back then, everyone kind of lived in the same house. [laughs]
Shelley: Less than 40 people showed up to the first BFD but maybe we went to eight houses to drop off flyers since most of our friends lived together – and I remember thinking that day that I couldn’t believe 40 people showed up!
Randy: Massive rager! [laughs]
Anna: And the fact that that many people went all the way to Varina – at the time that felt like going out of town to do something.
Shelley: Totally! That was back when we mostly only rode our bikes everywhere – and when people did go somewhere in a car, everyone got in the same car and there was very likely someone riding in the trunk. [laughs]
Anna: I remember that it rained that morning and the general public who might otherwise have come to Hadad’s on a nice day didn’t show up so when we arrived in the early afternoon we had the place to ourselves and it made turning that corner into the park for the first time that much more magical for everyone.
Randy: Well, you guys were really pioneers of Hadad’s. I mean, of course, on top of the Best Friends Day line-ups, later there was GWAR-B-Q and that also brought huge national acts to play in Richmond.
Shelley: Yeah, definitely, and I attribute a lot of it to establishing a very close relationship with the owner, Ron Hadad, that very first year. He was the only reason we were able to come back every year, and he encouraged us to get bigger – to rent out the whole water park. We went from 40 the first year to 130 in just one year.
Anna: Yeah, by the second year I was calling friends in Florida and telling them to come up for BFD.
Shelley: By the second year, Anna really started to make it more of an event by having a show after Hadad’s on Saturday. That was at Plaza Bowl on the South Side, and it was easier to convince people to come from farther away when it was more of a weekend event.
Anna: It was like an exchange program – our friends from St. Augustine and Gainesville came for Best Friends Day and then we went down there to Gainesville Fest in the Fall.
Shelley: For sure – both events were so fun! So, not to jump ahead too much to the end of Best Friends Day, but we started with talking by mentioning the lore of the beginning of Best Friends Day. But I wanted to know from you, Randy, if you ever heard a myth behind why Best Friends Day stopped happening?
Randy: Yes! I have heard rumors – I have described Best Friends Day as the greatest punk-rock-run event in the history of all punk-rock-run events, but let’s face it – between BFD and Gwar-B-Q being held at Hadad’s, both were some of the sketchiest events, and it was disaster waiting to happen. There is no way that anything like that could happen now.
Shelley: Absolutely not!
Anna: It had a perfect run.
Randy: Yeah, but back to the rumor – I thought that I had heard that someone got drunk and got run over in the parking lot at Hadad’s.
Shelley: I heard that rumor! I forgot about that.
Anna: That never happened.
Shelley: No, no one ever got really hurt.
Randy: I didn’t hear that there was a death, just that someone got seriously injured.
Anna: I want to know what year the rumor started — did the rumor start after BFD 9 in 2010 and then there was still another one? Or did the rumor start at BFD 10 after it was over?
Shelley: I do think the rumor started before we ended Best Friends Day — and we made a conscious decision to end it. Not because of the rumor, though. For other reasons.
Anna: Yeah, the marketing for BFD 10 was all about “The Graduation” which was great — and made it obvious that it was ending.
Shelley: That was so intentional. Whether people wanted to believe it or not, it was us signing off and saying we are done — and it had everything to do with speaking with Ron Hadad, and him saying, “You had 5000 people here, and if you want to keep going, the county is going to require you to hire police officers for an event this size.” Which would mean that we had to get really legit and have a huge budget, instead of just having enough money left over to do it again the next year without ever having corporate sponsors.
Randy: Yeah, but you all were doing it the way you knew how — doing it the punk rock way — which is why in today’s world, it could never happen. Not in the United States. So… sorry kids! You fucking missed it! (laughs)
Shelley: Yeah, we had one security guy for every 1000 people at Hadad’s. We had five dudes, and everyone was doing 10 jobs. The security guys also worked the gate and gave out wristbands.
Randy: I am sure that over the years there had to have been a scuffle or two, but I personally never witnessed violence at Best Friends Day.
Anna: I think from the very beginning not having sponsors, calling it Best Friends Day, not calling it, like, Punch Fest [laughs], made it a more chill event.
Randy: Best Friends Day is not the place to come and fight.
Anna: Exactly. With a thing that starts by word of mouth and is called Best Friends Day, and at first, you had to have known someone to find out about it and you kind of had to be punk. And to us, in our youth, punk did not mean getting into fights and stuff, it meant high-fives and hugs.
Shelley: For sure. The Best Friends Day Yearbook project started by us talking about these things last year. Around the beginning of quarantine Anna, Erin and I started calling and getting on Zoom and checking in and we were like, “Wow, that was 10 years ago next year, 20 years since we started, and we could never do something like that again. It had its special time and place, and it left us with a lot of amazing memories.”
Randy: It would never be the same if you tried to do it again. It would not have the same character. If you tried, it would get out on social media and the whole spirit of it would be different. I remember that I would tell friends of mine, and only the nicest other people in bands that I knew, I would tell them, “We have this thing in Richmond called Best Friends Day where everyone has an amazing time – you need to come,” and they would say, “That sounds so sweet.” [laughs] You don’t want any assholes at an event like Best Friends Day was, and when you open it up to the public on the internet, there is no controlling the vibe.
Anna: Yeah, you especially don’t want a million out-of-town assholes landing in our city. [laughs]
Shelley: And ten years later, it is just the lore of what it once was, so a lot of people don’t know that it was this really different kind of event than any other music festival around.
Anna: Yeah, and talking about the book …
Shelley: Oh yeah, it was just an archiving project at first, just a way to get all the Best Friends Day photos and our memories collected together.
Anna: It was our quarantine project.
Shelley: And the archiving got kind of big fast, because I think Anna and I refuse to do anything little. Because why not? We figured why not see what could come from doing what we have always done — ask our friends for help, ask our friends to participate, reaching out to people and asking for their support of a project. And so many people that we had not talked to in years were willing to dig through old photos on old hard drives…
Anna: And figure out how they work. [laughs]
Shelley: Before we knew it, we had a lot, but I still had gaps. So I started digging through Flickr and Googling “Best Friends Day” and reaching out to strangers to ask for their photos and so many were willing to share those too.
Anna: And all this was before digital cameras. We never asked anyone to take pictures officially at Hadads’s – and this was before everyone documented everything on their phones.
Randy: Back when we just used to do things only for fun and not for photos [laughs]. And now everyone is constantly documenting. But thankfully there were people with cameras at Hadad’s. I mean, I have gotten to know a lot of photographers in the punk rock scene who were shooting in the 70s and 80s, and its like, thank God you were there to get all this.
Shelley: Well, now that we all have a phone in our pocket every second of the day, it is crazy to think that back then, even only ten years ago, someone had to think, I am going to take this really nice camera…
Anna: This really expensive camera…
Randy: And really expensive film…
Shelley: …into a dangerous situation like a punk show at a water park. And not only is that a risk, but in ways as a photographer you are committing yourself to not always participating because you are behind the camera documenting.
Anna: And hopefully not drop your camera in the water while you are doing it.
Shelley: I am sure in a lot of ways it allowed photographers to get closer to bands and to people to take pictures. With your [Randy] experience with photography, is some of the motivation that it allows you to be more “in” something and closer to it than without a camera?
Randy: I became a photographer by accident. I got a camera to shoot video so I could film skateboarding shit and then one day I just decided to try to take a picture of my coffee pot and I was like “I’m a genius!” [laughs] Obviously it was an average photo, but it was a bug. So for me, photography is a way to step back and observe. I am a writer — I write prose and lyrics — so instead of that being just me thinking and in my mind, with photography I become more observant of the world around me and appreciate things aesthetically more.
Shelley: I would love to ask the photographers involved in this project more about their motivation. You know, a lot of what I did with collecting pictures was over email and I haven’t had the chance to ask them about what motivates them. Is it being closer to the bands? Is it just the love of the music?
Anna: It could be the opposite too – it can be a way for someone who might be shy to be behind the camera but still participating in the action.
Randy: For me, photography allowed me to engage in a visual artistic process, and I think for a lot of photographers it the same thing – at least for serious ones – because they are creating art.
Anna: For sure, and it’s amazing to see two different people take pictures of the same thing in the same space and it doesn’t look the same.
Randy: 100 percent. It is wildly different depending on the perspective of the photographer.
Shelley: I tried to show some of those different perspectives in the books — two photos from two different photographers in a spread at the same event. And seeing the various outcomes felt pretty magical.
Anna: I think Best Friends Day in general is like that. Different people, different ideas. It started with a few organizers but grew over the years. And then you had a real collaboration of amazing artist doing posters, and a ton of bands, a real collective.
Shelley: Yeah it was never really just Anna and I — maybe the first year, but then the second year it was also Erin and more with Ron Hadad, and then Tony and Ward [Tefft] joined by year four or five, and then Curtis [Grimstead] later, and venues book unofficial shows. And then we had local businesses contributing to the guidebook — and working with guys from Fine Foods was awesome.
Randy: Did the cops ever come to those early morning Fine Food parking lot shows?
Shelley: No, which is surprising, because the shows were at like 8 am.
Randy: I remember Tim Barry played one year, but it was too fucking early for me [laughs].
Anna: Fine Foods was the place also to get the To The Bottom and Back bus, so people were going to be congregating there no matter what.
Randy: I never rode the bus, but I did ride mopeds out to Hadad’s several times. One time I had driven an old cop car that my friend had sold me. On the way back from Hadad’s through downtown, the brakes went out, and me and my buddy rode all the way back with him leaning out the window yelling, “MOVE! We ain’t got no brakes!!!” [laughs] It was very nerve-wracking, but no one died.
[Erin arrives and we take a brief intermission while Erin and Randy talk about surfing.]
Randy: So the Kickstarter really got the project going?
Shelley: Yeah! It was great that so many people contributed to the Kickstarter. It was a really great way to hype of the book and get to let people know about it about seven months before. And then we got to shirts and buttons and other fun stuff — like we used to every summer during Best Friends Day.
Randy: So you designed the book?
Shelley: Yeah, I did. It was a crazy experience; I went from only having ever designed maybe an eight-page booklet to designing a 356-page photography book. And the bulk of the actual design work took place in Mexico, where I was living over the winter. I basically moved into this coffee shop in Baja California so I could get wifi that could keep up with the photo files I was sending to the printer. It is something I will never forget. It was hectic but a lot of fun.
Randy: Well it looks great. So will these be at Chop Suey?
Shelley: Yep — Chop Suey in Carytown and in Tiny Space in Church Hill. We are going to have an event in Church Hill as an official release when the book is available to the public on June 26th. It will be great to see people again safely since the vaccine rollout.
Anna: I can’t wait for it to be out. I think that it is such an important part of Richmond history, and I think even for kids who never went, they will see it and be blown away.
Erin: Yeah, it’s incredible that this thing happened in Richmond for 10 full years, and now its documented.
Shelley: I really want it to be a reminder of how things were, how we used to do things, the friends we had, and how that doesn’t really have to change. We should see something like this book and be reminded that we can still live in a lot of ways the same, with the same intent…
Randy: To live life with the ethos of it…
Shelley: Exactly — we don’t need to stop doing stuff like we used to. Even though this time in our lives won’t ever happen again.
Randy: It can’t ever happen again.
Erin: Yeah, there are not enough paramedics in Richmond to deal with what we used to do [laughs].
Shelley: Speaking of not enough of anything, do you remember the year we had only one bar-b-que food truck at Bike Lot for like 1000 people? It was during the Nacho Jump in 2009.
Erin: Yeah, and there was nothing vegetarian – I don’t think anyone ate that day –– although I guess people were supposed to eat the nachos.
Randy: Didn’t Dave Brockie [Oderus Urungus] dive into the nachos?
Shelley: Yes, and there are some amazing photos of that.
Erin: I remember one year someone brought a kiddie pool to the Bike Lot — and that made sense! That was such a Best Friends Day thing to do — bring something weird to an event.
Shelley: So, I haven’t lived in Richmond for the last three years, so I just might be out of the loop, but is stuff going on, like underground DIY shows? I mean, I know it’s been more than a year of COVID, but are younger kids doing stuff like we used to?
Randy: I don’t think there is as much happening in Richmond these days.
Anna: I agree — I have access to young people and what they are doing through my work and I don’t think they are doing as much when it comes to things like house shows or events.
Randy: I do know people within the hardcore scene that are doing shows, have a space, but that’s really the only thing I definitely know about.
Shelley: Then what are young punks in Richmond doing, then?
Randy: They are doing social media.
Erin: I guess that stuff is pretty time consuming. [laughs]
Shelley: Is it the idea that if it’s not Instagram-able it’s not worth participating? Because if something is secret, or like, a word-of-mouth show, you can’t put it on Instagram.
Randy: Yeah, and I think the nature of the internet has changed. And maybe the term ‘underground’ isn’t even viable anymore. Like, we grew up mail-ordering records, or at the least, you had to go to the record store, like Plan 9, to find out what was going by seeing a flyer for a show. Now you can find and download extremely obscure music from around the world on your cell phone while you are standing in the middle of the jungle. And how do I know this? Because I have done it. [laughs] And how ‘underground’ is that, when you can get something anywhere? It doesn’t take any work. I mean, when we were growing up in punk rock there was no internet. I am from a small town, so my access to anything was limited.
Anna: Yeah, growing up I learned to meet other punks by seeing them with patches on their jackets and going up and talking to them about bands.
Randy: Yes — and it used to be that you’d go to different cities without knowing anyone, see someone on the street, and just go say hey and start a conversation about the scene there.
Shelley: That’s how I made some of my best friends in Richmond when I first moved here in 2000. I lived on the corner of Belvidere and Grace, and I walked down to Hole in the Wall and started talking to the first two people I saw outside — and those are still friends of mine!
Randy: Yeah, something as simple as someone seeing me in a Bad Brains shirt and saying ‘nice shirt’ sparked a life-long friendship, and I don’t know if that really happens so much anymore.
Anna: I also don’t think people are in bands as much. It was the way that we hung out then — we started a band so we could be around our friends more. And I don’t see as much scene building now.
Randy: It’s interesting because, from a musician’s perspective, I used to get asked questions by younger fans who wanted to know how our band first got started, asking if we got a practice space, asking how we met each other, how did you book your first tour, where did you go — basic stuff. The questions I get from young kids now go like this: “Hey, I am thinking about starting a band. Do you have any advice on how I can succeed in the music business?”
And those are not the right questions because we formed bands because we wanted to make music. Kids now just want to know how to make a living off of music.
Erin: Yeah, it’s as though they just don’t realize how much time and effort and years of not succeeding first go into it.
Randy: It’s kind of terrifying. And I tell them, if you really want to do this, to be a musician, you have to be prepared to make no money forever. And there is a real possibility that you could fail.
Anna: Yeah. With Best Friends Day, when we did year one, we weren’t trying to make it to year two or year ten — we just wanted to have a good time and hang out. And every year it did get bigger, and every year we did figure it. But just one year at a time.
Randy: So is there anything with Best Friends Day that you feel like you didn’t get to accomplish?
Shelley: There are some bands I really wish I had asked to play, but probably thought they wouldn’t be interested in it, because I always thought of it as a local event even though it was bringing in a global audience. But yeah, should have asked some of my favorite bands to play. They probably would have.
Anna: I would have gotten a Best Friends Day tattoo during a scavenger hunt if I had to do it again. I would have participated more in the fun parts.
Erin: I honestly don’t have any regrets. I think we quit while we were ahead, because we would have had to level up so much to keep doing it.
Shelley: Yeah, the instant someone got hurt, we would never forget the good times. So we stopped on a high note.
Anna: Yeah, and we went 10 years without sponsors. The next step would be to get cops involved. Like — absolutely not. We are not involving cops so we can keep doing this.
Shelley: Yeah, that felt like the least punk thing I could think of, was [having] to talk to the police about Best Friends Day.
Erin: Yeah. For us it was about friends and going over to Tony’s once a week to plan, and having that sense of community — that sense of community among us all is how it all started.
Shelley: All right, it’s getting late – any last words?
Randy: Damn kids! [laughs]
Anna: I like the idea of this being a Call to Action. Like, we should be asking younger people to do as much DIY stuff as they can. And we, as older punks, want to come to whatever it is that you are doing. All your shows, all your events.
Randy: Yeah, definitely. It’s time to set it off.
To pre-order the Best Friends Day Yearbook, and for more BFD goodness, including t-shirts, koozies, and more, go to bestfriendsdayrichmondva.com.
*Shoutout to Shelley Callahan for wrangling this piece together*