You're Never Too Old for Coachella
Marc Ballon with Charles Bradley
"You can ask me anything. You've opened up to me, and now I will open up to you."
Charles Bradley, the 66-year-old soul singer extraordinaire, spoke those words to me a couple hours after his fiery Friday afternoon Coachella set. I had just told him how much his spellbinding performance had moved me. "I saw James Brown in the 1980s," I told the former JB impersonator. "You were every bit as good, man."
Bradley put his arm around me, pulled me close to him, and kissed me on my neck.
It was perfect.
I had come to Coachella to write about the festival through the eyes of a 52-year-old AARP member with a suburban home, two kids, a wife, a dog, thinning, gray hair and an expanding waist. This weekend would also answer a question that had gnawed at me: Had I become too old to rock 'n' roll?
Music has long been my muse, sheltering me from the storm and taking me higher. As Jack White said during his slamming Saturday night set, "Music is sacred."
I have bought more 2,000 albums over the years and attended more than 250 concerts.
I slam danced to the Clash at the Santa Monica Civic, giving full reign to my adolescent rage. The Stones rolled me in Paris in 1990, while Pearl Jam rocked me at Lollapalooza. More recently, the Flaming Lips took me on a psychedelic journey of "Terror" at the Pacific Amphitheater, replete with black confetti and flashing bright lights.
That was then. This is now.
How would I fare at the nation's premier music festival with most attendees young enough to be my children?
My worries fears quickly vanished after seeing senior citizen Bradley shimmy, sweat and shout his way though an incendiary set, which at times felt like a church revival.
"I love Coachella," he said. "The people let me open my heart. If you ask me from one to 10, I'd have to put it at 11."
Fountain of Youth So would I. The music and good vibes that enveloped the festival gave me the greatest escape I've had in years. I had found the fountain of youth.
Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes blew me away with powerhouse pipes that channeled the ghost of Janis Joplin. Father John Misty's shambolic stage presence mesmerized. Steely Dan cast aside studio perfection in favor of tasteful jams. St. Vincent owned the stage with her mechanized dance moves and good old-fashioned charisma.
So it was just like the old days for me, right? Not exactly.
Whoever said 50 is the new 30 can't count. Fifty is old, man.
My post-Coachella aches and pains bear this out. My knees and hamstring feel rickety. The after-midnight Del Taco and Five Guys runs have unleashed a river of acid in my stomach. Turns out I need more than five hours of sleep a night - a lot more. Finishing up this piece Monday morning at 3 a.m. hasn't helped.
Like my ageing body, my musical tastes have changed.
I love AC/DC - at least I thought I did. When I was 17, I bought "Back in Black," put it on my new $500 stereo, cranked the volume, and promptly blew out my speakers. At Coachella, though, I enjoyed their serrated riffs and sandpaper vocals as much as a sledgehammer, which actually sounds better. And seeing a 60 -year-old Angus in a schoolboy outfit gives creepy a whole new meaning.
Since when did Coachella become a giant fashion show? Everywhere I looked I saw half-naked young white girls in designer shorts, fringed vests and floral headbands flashing peace signs. Call it hippie-by-Gucci - and pretentious.
Then there are the drugs. Back in the day, I enjoyed dabbling now and again. I once shroomed at a Grateful Dead show and spent the entire concert on my back watching cat- and dog-shaped clouds gently float overhead.
But the older me has become more aware of drugs' downside, although I generally favor legalization. At Coachella, I saw lots of gorgeous 20-somethings bathing in Molly's good vibrations. But I witnessed far too many of them strung out and balled up in a corner sleeping or even shaking in fear.
And I don't get this need to document everything. Some scenesters spent more time taking selfies during shows than actually watching them. Even Marina Diamandis took one from the stage. For this generation, it's almost as if something doesn't exist unless it can be posted to Instagram and Facebook.
From left to right: The Coachella Weeklings are Niyaz Pirani,Music Editor Nate Jackson, Calendar Aimee Murillo (below), Marc Ballon and Taylor Hamby
I had been schooled.
That good cheer extended to my new friends from the "OC Weekly" and "LA Weekly." They made me feel welcome from the get-go. Nothing made me happier than sitting around the kitchen table every morning while writers and photo editors silently typed on their Macs. Our shared love of music and the printed word made the 20-year plus age difference melt away.
I leave Indio feeling spiritually cleansed, recharged, and optimistic. Fifty might not be the new 30, but it's closer than I ever imagined. See you next year at Coachella.
Marc Ballon is a former "LA Times" and "Forbes" reporter. He teaches journalism at Cal State Fullerton.
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