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Scenes From Nowhere

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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.

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Christopher O'Connor