A year ago at this time, I truly believed that I had lost my ability to experience joy.
This was not a dispassionate observation — I was actually in a bit of a panic about it.
I’d just laid down a not-insignificant amount of plastic (tickets, shuttle passes, lodging) to attend the three day orgiastic paean of indie rock at Indio’s Empire Polo Club, aka the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. I’d been looking forward to it for months — me and my GP’s Hilary and Julie having a grrrl power weekend in the desert, forgoing good hair, healthy eating and the wearing of shoes in exchange for a group love experience in this musical mecca in California’s Inland Empire.
Coachella’s Wonder Wheel of Wonder
Months earlier, I was in enough of a daze to not have such sobering thoughts as I’ll Never Be Happy Again. I was crazy-headed, and elated to learn that My Favorite Band of All Time (that would be Radiohead) would be headlining at Coachella 2012. The rest of the lineup really didn’t matter. I signed up for my number to buy tickets online, got up early the day they went on sale, elbowed my way through the idiotic digital queue, had three credit card fails, and FINALLY returned with the elixir. Two months later, this arrived in the mail:
Our tickets were for the second weekend, April 20-22nd (luckily, since the first weekend will forever be known as the Coachella when it rained). And, coincidentally but not insignificantly, exactly six months from the loss in my life that plummeted me into this pit.
Hilary flew down from Seattle and we were joined by our adventurous and music-loving friend Julie, who sacrificed three days of mommy and work time for SHE time (an important thing to preach AND practice).
We sort of knew of what to expect — Hil and I had fested in the desert in 2004 — the last time Our Favorite Band of All Time played there — and the first year Coachella drew sellout crowds. (In those olden days, you could purchase a day pass for the one-weekend event. Now one has to take out a small loan to finance a three-day pass for one of two weekend shows — and they STILL sell out in hours.)
The car was packed, the playlists were loaded, we headed into the desert on a Thursday evening, honking at the other musical pilgrims we passed, wishing we’d had time to paint Julie’s Prius with flowers and peace signs.
DAY ONE – ONE STEP BEYOND
The next morning, we met for breakfast with my friend Zach and his wife Madora, who were also festing, then drove to the Indian Wells shuttle station. (In ’04, we’d stack-parked and had to wait FOUR HOURS to get out of the parking lot, prompting Hilary’s mother to suggest that next time we bring our knitting). Shuttling is a vast improvement, although it does require a one mile walk from the shuttle drop off to the festival gate, through two security checkpoints and past campers and horse poop and probably people poop.
So far, and yet so far….
Next year we’re booking the safari tent.
But we were IN. The hat went on, the shoes came off. We strolled from stage to water station to tent to beverage cart, sipping iced berry juice, acclimating to the crushing heat and merging into the gathering masses. At first we were guided by the excellent Coachella iPhone app, but had to abandon that in favor of a printed map when my phone overheated just because it was in my pocket, and I was in the desert.
These are not your children
We got doused at the DoLab stage and twined past Big Art blooming from the desert floor. We found the bands WOLF GANG, DEAR HUNTER, GIVERS. I split off and made my first “discovery” of the weekend — GARY CLARK, JR., a talented, magnetic guitarist and bluesman who is the love child of Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz. I rejoined the gals in the Mojave Tent in time for GROUPLOVE and danced — with JOY — to Tongue Tied. Maybe things would be okay after all.
The night’s headliners were the peerless BLACK KEYS, rocking and wailing into the desert night. And another Coachella Check Mark — the surprise guest appearance. The world had heard the news days earlier that The Band’s Levon Helm had just died, and JOHN FOGERTY came out and he and Dan Auerbach and we all sang “The Weight.” Those are the kind of moments that you hope for, and here we were, on just the first night.
So who are these guys? I mean, it’s three DJ’s. Yeah, one of them is Sebastian Ingrosso, but… Hey, why are they on the main stage? OHHHHHH.
My friends, this might have been the performance experience of a lifetime. I had no idea what to expect, then they put the paddles to our heads and we were plugged in for the next hour. Lights that could be seen in outer space — probably in other galaxies. Lasers, strobes, smoke, fireworks, the gnarliest beats I’ve ever heard or felt. Someone turned on a switch in me and I danced the way we humans are supposed to dance. The packed earth of the polo field became a giant trampoline and I didn’t stop bouncing for an hour.
And then came the flames. Who’s gonna Save The World? Maybe it doesn’t need saving.
I’m glad we stayed. Thank you Hilary.
DAY TWO – GIVING UP THE GHOST
It only took us one bruising day to realize we were going to have to pace ourselves. We had another nice breakfast with Zach and Madora, and a lovely laze by the pool. And we won because the drummer from Madness also likes to chill at the pool in the morning.
World’s Funniest Cat Video, this is a band that deserves attention. These guys shine with surfer intensity and joyful jams, and Aaron Bruno gets props for crowd-surfing on an actual surf board. Their set was fun and catchy and made me a fan — Megalithic Symphony is one of the few full albums I purchased after the festival (and that I still listen to).
Maybe it was something I, uh, ate, but by the end of AWOL I was feeling very mellowed, and we eased into the rest of the afternoon with HEAD AND THE HEART and MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA before we split off — the gals opting for SQUEEZE, while I really wanted to see JEFF MANGUM. I love his Neutral Milk Hotel (I’ve obsessively analyzed the lyrics to Three Peaches), but his energy was wrong for me. I rejoined the gals for Squeeze in time to hear their cheerfully sordid “Tempted by the Fruit of Another” (and they and Glenn Tillbrook sounded amazing).
The main stages were calling — we listened to a bit of the SHINS and BON IVER, but they, strangely, couldn’t fill the space. We took a meal break (pizza? hot dog? does it matter?) then hugged the back of the Outdoor Stage crowd for MIIKE SNOW. I’d been lucky to see them at Stubb’s in Austin at SXSW a month earlier, and I’m a fan, despite lead singer Andrew Wyatt’s oddly Manson-esque persona. But we didn’t linger long, because They were starting at 11PM, and we needed to find 12 square inches of space (apiece) to stand in.
At one point in my life, Radiohead was a problem for me. Now it’s just a healthy obsession (but if you’re looking for “Nude” from Amsterdam’s Heineken Music Hall, 2006, email me). I’ve had more moments of musical nirvana at RADIOHEAD concerts than at any other time in my life. I was prepared to have a Moment, even if I was leaning against a chain-link fence, surrounded by roughly 50,000 sweaty souls.
In an embarrassment of riches, I’d seen them two weeks prior at the Santa Barbara Bowl (can you say proximity clause?) with my 20 year-old nephew, Max. The full show had been stunning, and their festival playlist was only a few songs shorter, and changed up delightfully.
The boys never disappoint with their musicality or stagecraft — a dozen tethered mobile video screens creating light landscapes that enhanced the twisty music — shifting from crunching rock to disturbing electronica to melancholy, ethereal ballads, all tied together by the soulful string of Thom Yorke’s voice.
By the time Thom stood on stage for the encore of “Give Up The Ghost,” with his acoustic strapped over his shoulder, his sweet voice looping over itself and us, the magic was complete. The dual laments of “Don’t hurt me” and “In your arms” built to a dense, layered crescendo unmarred by the distant, thrumming backbeat from the Mojave tent. Finally, the closer — no longer “Everything In Its Right Place” — the new denouement is their freakishly cheerful opus “Paranoid Android.” For a minute there, WE lost ourselves — in a crowd-lyric trance. And while I was too distant to see him up close, I’m sure even sober, angst-y Thom Yorke was smiling himself silly. We all gave up the ghost to him and his boys, and floated home in a dream.
After the one mile hike back to the shuttle.
DAY THREE – SHAKING IT OUT …Or, The Day Security Stopped Caring
Maybe his locker code is written on his hand.
The main event, as far as I was concerned, was over — this day was icing. And since it was the morning of Rancho Las Palmas’s Bloody Mary Brunch, we didn’t get to the festival grounds until 3, heading to the Coachella Stage for Santigold.
Santi White’s alternately childlike and alien voice combined with infectious beats got us moving, and her lyrics aren’t slight. Her sequin-spangled cheerleaders seemed to disregard the humidity and helped the crowd do the same, as Santi gathered handfuls of audience onto the stage to dance with her at the close of her set — after admonishing everyone to put their “freaking phones down and look around you — this is what’s real!”
We spent the afternoon into twilight into night light camping out in the Gobi Tent for GOTYE’s evening set, parked in the rectangle of shade, inching closer and closer to the pit. Wally de Backer and his crew had certainly been booked to this distant outpost before the popularity of his “Somebody That I Used to Know” skyrocketed him to at least Outdoor Stage status. We knew we’d have to secure a good spot early.
AARAB MUZIK provided a suitable bridge between Beats and GOTYE, who was rightfully greeted by screaming girls and boys (yep, I’m one of those girls). Mr. de Backer seemed humbled and abashed by the attention, but he’s not a flash in the desert — “Somebody…” was the hit of 2012, but Gotye’s catalog is brilliant pop dance music, and de Backer and his band are crazy talented. Still, the show was made when he asked the crowd in the Gobi Tent to stand in for the absent Kimbra (who’d made a guest appearance at the previous weekend’s show) for “Somebody’s” second verse — well-rehearsed in many a shower and car. We obliged, to hilarious and happy effect.
We wended our way from the Gobi (Gotye?) Tent to catch FLORENCE + THE MACHINE on the Outdoor Stage. I don’t own any Florence music — we were just looking forward to closing out the weekend with something fun and light (early on we’d pretty much opted out of staying for DR. DRE & SNOOP DOGG, holographic Tupac appearance or not).
Florence leading the choir
Florence Welch has the legs of a Vegas showgirl and the throat of an angel. Her sweet, girly speaking voice gives no hint to the power of her lungs. Her church-like set and priestess robes were just two parts of the equation of my subsequent and unexpected religious experience.
“Shake it Out” was the message I needed to hear. I didn’t just need to learn I could feel happiness — I needed to shed old skin and emerge as a new being. It was not something I could do on my own. I needed to be immersed in a collective consciousness of tens of thousands of young, old, exhausted, enervated, blissed and blessed souls moving in the same current of music and energy. It was sexual, powerful, vital; youth and eternity. It was singing loudly and badly, grinning like a joker, dancing with your eyes closed, limbs directed by…joy.
I didn’t know I was crying until my nose started to run. I wasn’t small and alone, I was part of something huge, connected to something infinite, and it came together in that song, in that moment, because the universe knew I needed to hear it.
I could have floated off like the the DoLab balloons…
I wanted to be nowhere else, I wished it could have lasted forever. The music, madness and mayhem-infused, open air sweat lodge of this not-yet-extinct desert dinosaur opened a portal. There is a dimension of belonging to a human — no, a universal tribe — that I imagined existed and that I finally felt part of, for the first time in my not-short life.
You are here
And even though I couldn’t stay there forever, the feelings I learned that weekend will last through my life. I cry spontaneously when I hear “Tongue Tied” or “Give up the Ghost,” and Florence simply stops me in my tracks.
Maybe a music festival didn’t actually save my life as much as it reminded me that I was alive. And not only could I feel joy, I discovered that there are levels beyond joy — a feeling of deep connectedness — to one’s self and every other self that exists or ever existed. I might have never found that if I hadn’t felt it that night, surrounded by and belonging to tens of thousands of complete non-strangers, and two best friends.
The headliners are THE STONE ROSES, PHOENIX, and festival vets THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS. The not-at-all-second-rate second fiddles include SIGUR ROS (at which concert I think I first floated out into the cosmos on Jonsi Birgisson’s bow-struck guitar), the YEAH YEAH YEAHS, JURASSIC 5, BAND OF HORSES, BLUR, FOALS, VIOLENT FEMMES, NEW ORDER, VAMPIRE WEEKEND, NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS and SOCIAL D (!!!). If you’re not lucky enough to be there, do yourself a favor and catch the first weekend’s live stream on YouTube.
You can guess what I’ll be doing all weekend – and I’ll be doing it joyfully.
Thank you! For listening again, Or for the first time, Or for the last time, that we share this moment, And I am grateful for this….
AWOL NATION Megalithic Symphony