Scenes From Nowhere
The rich man can have his green grass back next week. This is our field tonight.
I stand surrounded by tens of thousands of party people on this terra-formed oasis. They look happy, smiling, throwing Frisbees, disco napping in pockets of shade, dancing in celebration, rushing from one attraction to the next, walking arm-in-arm. Some look stoned, a reward for a weekend's worth of escape -- and for winning the surreptitious security game.
Towering palms wrap around the rectangular, emerald grounds, their fronds waving like pom-poms in a stiff breeze. That breeze itself is sublime, welcome relief after a day of broiling sun. Night is falling; the excitement of the day is at its peak. With a mixture of orange and purple light from the setting sun and spotlights fixated on the palm trees, the scene is gorgeous, an Apocalypse Now intro without the napalm.
On the stage in front of me, a giant rock concert unfolds. The Queens of the Stone Age, stoner rock savants, play "Song for the Dead" with Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan on vocals. Their speed-metal very nearly spirals out of control.
The masses on either side freak out like ceiling fans -- or subtly crouch to inhale more weed. A few songs later, the band stomps through the sensuous "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret." It's the one song the Queens don't willfully butcher onstage. I close my eyes, collect that stiff breeze and relax. This is inspiring. This is beautiful.
This is in Indio, California.
To attend Inland California's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, approximately 7,000 other Sonoran dwellers and I had to drive from this desert to another.
In between, we drove through a whole lot of nothing; proof this is the mythic Southwest. The barren, solemn 240-mile stretch is marked by undeveloped lands from Buckeye to the Western front; patches of scraggly brush; the Palo Verde nuclear plant; the General George S. Patton Memorial Museum; long spaces of highway between exit signs; less-than-handsome truck stops; and Blythe, California, home to a Best Western, fast food and a strip of gas stations. It was a meditative exercise, as much "Why am I here?" as "Why am I here?"
It wasn't until I reached a double-take-inducing row of Indian-run casinos in the town of Coachella that I knew physical life was upon me again.
And it was only after I traveled down a series of Shady Acres-Twilight Zone-style back roads and walked across two open fields of yellowed grass (forget the sunscreen in the car, and that becomes six fields) that I finally realized the whole point -- I hit the somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
The Coachella grounds on the Empire Polo Field are astounding; a gigantic, open grassy field, with the palm trees hugging all sides and mountains on the horizon. With its art, music, desert locale and natural eccentricity, it's a grand experiment in Utopia. It's a place to frolic, sleep when you want, run around, ingest drugs without much in the way of hazard, fraternize with total strangers, marvel at a sunset while Primal Scream blazes through its surprisingly clean blend of electronic rock and, mostly, scramble from one plain black backdropped concert stage to another to catch any of 80-plus artists that make Coachella the closest Arizona will ever get to a Woodstock or an Isle of Wight.
Now in its fifth year, Coachella, which took place April 26 and 27, is an increasingly popular trek for Arizonans. Paul Tollett, president of Goldenvoice, which promotes the festival, says roughly 12 percent of the 68,000 tickets sold this year went to road trippers from this state.
"It's their show," says Tollett. "We definitely do not think of this show as Los Angeles' show. This is the Southwest's answer to festivals."
The musicians perform at Coachella in any of five concert areas -- a main stage, a second outdoor stage and stages in three white domed tents. The busy itinerary keeps festivalgoers switching gears and struggling to make decisions. At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, for instance, the choice is between former Radish singer Ben Kweller, the Neptunes' rock band N.E.R.D., Fugazi's Ian MacKaye on a spoken-word soapbox, post-hard-core New York trio the Rapture and underground trance favorite Christopher Lawrence. Tough one.
After hanging out for a few Kweller songs (his power-pop crunch sounds humongous live), I eventually settle on Lawrence, an American equivalent to Paul Van Dyk. He's on the turntables in the Sahara Tent, a huge open space reserved for the ravers and dance-music fanatics, where the polyrhythmic Deep Dishes and mystical Underworlds and pioneering Masters at Work perform. It's the grounds' main depository for freaks. We all need a few freaks to hang with, and I find them here and now.
Roughly a dozen in number, they dominate a patch of grass to the right of Lawrence's stage. They wear circus costumes, belly dancing outfits and other spectacularly pastel garb, and they play with an impressive assortment of toys -- Hula-Hoops, bolos, streamers among them. This, I discover, is a "Burning Man community," named for the anarchic, amoebic arts festival held in northern Nevada every Labor Day weekend. They've come from Los Angeles to burn an extraordinary amount of energy. "We're all over 35!!" giggles Ishmael Diaz.
Diaz, a short but athletic man, demonstrates the art of Hula-Hoop to an exotic, twisting beat, somehow keeping the large multicolored ring swinging around his torso for several minutes at a time as he dances. After a while, I presume, the mere twisting isn't enough of an artistic thrill. Diaz finds a companion in blindingly silver lamé pants. The two take turns running and leaping through the hoops with the grace of dolphins.
Then there's the girl on the pink roller skates. She's a tall, smiling figure in pigtails and one-shouldered pink tube top. She's built like a gymnast of the Nadia Comaneci era, lithe and angular. Moist and glowing from the heat, she prances with her friends and passes out fliers to bystanders -- she's a performer with Los Angeles carnival troupe Mutaytor. She's a standout. She's also on skates in grass.
"I can't roll, but it's easy to just dance around on them," she says.
What's her name? She writes it in my notebook. It says, "Super Smushy." She fondles her right breast, flashes a deep smile and hops away.
Coachella, like other megafestivals, tries to infuse as much art as it can into the midst of all the music. Yet the art at Coachella is not about pretense. Here, it is just massive, absurd, mind-boggling distraction.
Take a 30-foot-high Tesla coil, for example. For the unscientific, go to the nearest science museum and look at the metal ball with the electric shocks and lightning bolts shooting out of it. Pretty cool, huh? Now picture it as an overgrown prop from a KISS show -- ridicufuck purple bolts blasting into the air with the exaggerated sound of a Boris Karloff flick -- Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! Whoa!
Christian Ristow's imagination extends way beyond mere electricity. His exhibition, called the Subjugator, features a mock suburban front yard overtaken by giant babies, fire-craving metallic robots, and a business-suited mannequin on a metallic swivel -- all made from auto parts, iron and various other machinery. The metal gods roam within the picket fence, swinging their might and, every few minutes, shooting balls of fire into the air (a few tents down, the players of Thunderball, a bizarre mix of soccer, American Gladiators and Blade Runner, engage in their own pyrotechnics).
As progressive hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas plays "Let's Get Retarded" from the second stage behind them, the gathered festivalgoers look on at the Ristow machines in either tripping amazement or mock zoo excitement (Oooooh! Aaaaaah!).
White people between the ages of 22 and 37 boo the Beastie Boys. I swipe my ears with my fingers, making sure a day's worth of walking around in the heat hasn't stung my hearing. But young white people do in fact boo the Beastie Boys.
Perhaps our hip-hop-appropriating superheroes, dressed tonight in black jumpsuits, have lost their way -- complaints also surface about the Red Hot Chili Peppers' headlining set the next night. A maturing threesome, no Wiffle ball bats or Sadaharu Oh angel-dust references infiltrate the Beasties' set. But bored-sounding pleas for their audience to have a good time and not hurt each other do. And they let it be known, in between their greatest hits reel ("Pass the Mic," "Root Down," "Disco Breakin'"), that they don't particularly care for George W. Bush. "We've got to get this fool out of his office," Adam Yauch bemoans. Perhaps God actually is on the president's side. A strong gust of wind knocks one of two vinyl discs off DJ Mixmaster Mike's turntables just as the group launches into "In a World Gone Mad," its new protest song that features the line "George Bush you're looking like Zoolander/Trying to play tough for the camera."
These preachings inspire the boos, and several flocks of fans leave for concurrent sets by Gomez, Amon Tobin or Roger Sanchez. The group must sense the tension. "This doesn't have anything to do with not supporting our troops, because we've got mad respect for anyone defending this country," says Mike D.
The Beasties play the old-school funk-you-up "Intergalactic" for an encore. They're the Beastie Boys, not Desmond Tutu, and non-defectors stick around to experience the joys of shutting up and playing.
Book your Coachella shelter weeks in advance or suffer. Thousands of us pay for our oversight Saturday, when finding a hotel room or campground in the middle of the night for those of us dumb enough not to make prior arrangements is positively misadventurous.
I sleep in my car across from a McDonald's 40 miles to the west in the quiet burg of Beaumont, California. Some are luckier. Party at the Indio police station, anyone?
Two Tempe motorists, a DJ and a graphic designer who for obvious reasons ask to keep their names under wraps, say they found themselves as lost as others before deciding to pitch camp behind a dirt mound in a tract home development.
The cops, of course, find them and whisk them away to the Indio station, where others have been told they can hang there, sleep in their cars. When the cops leave, someone rolls Wonderjoint and supplies the bake before the wake, right there in front of headquarters.
"We were victorious," says one.
"We damn near convinced everyone we should pitch our tents on their front lawn," brags the other.
Goldenvoice's Tollett may insist this isn't Los Angeles' show, but in the VIP tent, it might as well be David Geffen's luxury box at the Staples Center. Everyone chats. Everyone networks. Artists, roadies, publicists, pals, agents, party hearties and groupies act like it's a fashion show. A good percentage of the women wear cowboy hats or stunningly chic boots, some with fur for an Eskimo motif -- in the desert.
Surrounded by the chain-link fence, the VIP tent sits to the left of the main stage, the one ostensibly featuring the best music. But that doesn't deter the gamesmanship. Try to listen to the Mars Volta and become enveloped by giggling and small talk (they sucked ass anyway, like a Rush cover band manned by 8-year-olds). Eat a burger and spot a blond-Mohawked Kelly Osbourne, whose pronounced pout suggests she thinks this is minor league.
Looking over the stone railing that doubles as a rest area, I notice Chris Dangerous, guitarist for the Hives, and Fredrik Sandsten, drummer for the Soundtrack of Our Lives, sitting side by side. Their bands are from Sweden -- in our minds, they represent a new garage-rock movement coming from their homeland. So is this the case, and what do they get out of playing a scene like this?
"It's a strange thing," says Dangerous. I know it's him -- dressed in black, his shirt says CHRIS DANGEROUS in white letters, and the shades and blank expression make him look like he doesn't give a shit. "You get one band from Sweden that makes it big, and then a lot of other bands follow."
He pauses and looks at his friend. " I mean, we don't play the same music at all."
For his part, Sandsten is happy to be here. "At home, [a festival like this] is supposed to be as dirty as possible," he says.
Sandsten's uniform includes a ruffled light-blue shirt; he's hip to the late '70s. Is he dying in the heat? "This one is very light," he remarks. His singer should be so lucky: Ebbot Lundberg is being treated for sunstroke as we speak.
Hip can be perilous.
I meet Fun Yung Moon in the parking lot Sunday. Moon is a sound engineer and musician who lives in Tucson and works in Phoenix. He's 33 years old, friendly, and pumped. With a frighteningly skinny frame, pot-leaf-decorated fanny pack, beard and balding head, he resembles a street guru. Moon recites his love for the Beastie Boys, and recalls his favorites who've played Coachella over the years (Björk, Jane's Addiction). He contemplates our good fortune.
"It takes a long time to stir shit up back in Rhode Island, New York, Long Island, Philadelphia, Boston. I mean, we're talking straight-arrow blue bloods, basically," he says. "But out here in the West, you can come and bust 'em on horses for smoking pot, but you can't stop the people. You can't stop what's going on out here."
So here we are, two Arizona boys exchanging pleasantries. Suddenly, Moon says, "Can I hit you with one thing so you know I'm legit?"
Sure. And then he freestyles into my recorder.
"No product placement of gangstas or spacemen, just your friendly neighborhood inner child locked in the basement. The cellar/Not the sellout/The underground dweller/The boy next door/I can predict the next war . . . Syria/But that's not what this text is for/Why should I/When we're all going to out and get wrecked some more/Like I did before."
Sounds about right.
Moments before the White Stripes walk onstage Sunday night, the atmosphere around me grows alarming.
Until now, the weekend has been a musical show-and-tell. Kinky and Café Tacuba, with quirky beats and varied influences, rocked the Mexican avant-garde; Joseph Arthur kicked it folky for what he called his "hippie" minions; Franti, in a solo-spoken word jaunt, inspired an overflowing tent of people to hold hands and absorb his powerful anti-war speech; Timo Maas and Deep Dish dropped jaws with simultaneous worldbeat-informed spins; Jack Johnson and Ben Harper aimed to hit their crowds with acoustic spark but mostly served up wet firecrackers; and Perry Ferrell played amped court jester with an unannounced DJ set. But this is the zenith, the beginning of a one-two Detroit jab and hook along with Iggy Pop and his Stooges.
But in the darkness, a flashing red-and-yellow medical light and siren makes its way through the crowd. Someone is hurt. Not more than 30 seconds later, I peer at a girl standing next to me. Her eyeballs are rolled back into her head. She stands as stiff and straight as lumber. And then she collapses, smacking her head on that beautiful grass, tensing up like a fish out of water, convulsing. As onlookers hover to watch and friends rush to help her, I'm pushed away, and she disappears into the masses. The Stripes launch into the frantic "Black Math." Guitarist Jack White strains like a strung-out CC Deville.
"We can't hear a damn thing onstage," White, wearing a red outfit draped in white tassels, screams with what has to be a phony bluesman inflection (or maybe he really is that much of a throwback).
The onstage disorder and my nervous hopes for my stricken fellow attendee continue for several minutes. Doesn't help that some yahoo walks through the masses with a nude blowup doll on his shoulders, slapping everyone in the head with cheap, plastic porn. This can't possibly he happening right at the height of the weekend, can it? Fortunately, Jack and drummer Meg White settle down, and with "Jolene," a cover of the old Dolly Parton obsessed-woman-on-the-edge tune sung creepily by Jack, emerge as the weekend's patron saints, shredding through one great blues-rock nugget after another. Their status as a two-piece band is a strength, not a hindrance, in a festival setting. They capture the bare-bones essence of rock, gesticulating and attacking their instruments with the rabidity of an asylum fan club.
As for the girl, she shows up at a first aid tent to stage left. She breathes from an oxygen tank, and through her terror, looks blessed to be alive.
The late hours in the Empire Polo Field are psychedelic. The blackness leaves me no compass; I am Pinocchio without Geppetto. I have no idea exactly where I am, and when people shoot into my vision from the periphery, it feels detached, a television documentary on middle-class Western life. The joy I see certainly is not my joy. It's all very weird.
Eventually, in the minutes between when Iggy & the Stooges finish their amazing revival and an uninspired Chili Peppers fronted by a flat Anthony Kiedis deflate expectations (whose choice was that for them to finish things off, anyway?), I find my car. By now, it's a welcome reunion. I am back in control.
Exhausted, I drive toward Blythe. The return trip feels lonely -- scraggly brush ain't so bad compared to pitch black and monotony. I pull off the highway and check into that Best Western in Blythe. The palm trees are a memory now. The only breeze in my room comes from ventilation. There's no music, no openness.
Holding onto my thoughts, I turn off the light and reluctantly slip back into normalcy.(David Holthouse contributed to this report.)
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