Never Mind the Shit, Here's Coachella

Is this annual desert festival an ordeal or orgasmic experience? Yes

"Hipster Guantanamo," quipped a Coachella participant on LA Weekly's music blog. While somewhat hyperbolic, the phrase contains more than a grain of truth.

This first-time Coachella attendee came to a similar grim conclusion after spending portions of Saturday and Sunday at Empire Polo Field in Indio, California. For every pleasure the festival provides (and they are many and profound), there is a frustration that almost cancels it out. Or maybe it does cancel it out, depending on your degree of urban wussification. It's as if the organizers decided to build suffering into Coachella's overall equation to make the highs seem that much more spectacular.

Organized by Goldenvoice, the eight-year-old fest boasts a $15 million-plus budget, and its three days showcase hundreds of quality musicians, unconventional visual art, and side orders of green propaganda and other specimens of right-on activism. Coachella is like Woodstock, Burning Man and the Iron Man Triathlon combined (except for the latter, replace swimming, biking and running with absorbing live music and visual art, photographing goofy stuff for your MySpace page, and surviving portable toilets). Existentialist author Jean-Paul Sartre could've written a much livelier No Exit (money quote: "Hell is other people") had he experienced Coachella. More than 50,000 humans per day converged here, and few of 'em smelled very good by Saturday afternoon, which reached 103 degrees. Temps usually hovered near three digits, and their toll was grossly evident. The heat also produced ingenious coping methods, like the unit that doubled as shower spigot and mini-fan.

Besides intense desert climate, another chronic complaint about Coachella is the traffic, both vehicular and human. If camping is your bag, do so on the grounds. Once you exit the freeway, you will inch along at an arthritic granny's pace to the vast parking lot. Add an extra two hours to your plans for that excruciating crawl, plus negotiating the entrance clusterfuck as security searches every bag and body before waving you into the venue. There, you'll encounter teeming masses of hipsters, hippies and thrill-seekers, many of whom wear clothes emblazoned with snarky statements. Type A personalities shouldn't even think of attending.

The other major drawback of Coachella is the perpetual olfactory assault. Once you enter Empire, you'll notice an odor foreign to urban wusses: horse manure. The grounds have absorbed decades of the stuff, so every breath is tainted by eau d' equine anus. Once you commingle with your fellow homo sapiens, your nostrils are further besieged by cigarette fumes, though this is tempered by frequent burning of the sweet leaf about which Black Sabbath sang so long ago. How these crafty individuals sneaked the contraband past security is a mystery, but I tip my OC Weekly cap to them. Finally, when you just can't hold it in any longer, you'll have to confront the feculent fiasco misleadingly dubbed "rest rooms." Arrayed in long rows and scattered over Empire's vast verdant plains, these septic wonders test your ability to hold your breath and relieve yourself at the same time. By Sunday, the stench was literally staggering.

*   *   *

But enough about the auxiliary shit. Let's discuss the real reason thousands worldwide annually endure these hardships: to ogle hot young bodies in scanty attire. I mean, for the music, man.

I arrived Saturday and made a beeline to the Gobi tent. Onstage, this old paunchy dude with a hideous mullet strummed and sang. Could it be . . . Roky Erickson?! It appears so. He seemed very focused and poised. The cult legend's voice has lost its Janis Joplin feralness, but his guitar playing was solid, and he said "thank you" with brio. Joined by three grizzled vets, the quartet tore through "Before You Accuse Me," "Two Headed Dog" and a nondescript blues/rock number that made me wish live bands had SKIP buttons on them. Then came the expected finale, "You're Gonna Miss Me" (you know, that song from that Dell Computer commercial). The lack of Tommy Hall's electric jug riffs detracted from this 1966 garage-psych classic, but I'm glad I lived long enough to catch it performed in the (sagging) flesh, and Roky recaptured some youthful ferocity for its rousing climax. MSTRKRFT followed this with some raunchy acid house and dirty disco, all of which hit several G spots. I also caught the one Peter, Bjorn and John song worth catching—"Young Folks," duh—and heard one of the guys onstage crack, "My mom is picking me up soon," as I finished the blandest dinner I've ever eaten (paid $7 for the privilege, too.)

Next up, !!! (the New York band, not an expression of general outrage over food prices). Singer Nic Offer observed, "Tent ain't shade; it just keeps the heat in." !!! further heated up the joint with some uproarious party funk that often became massive, psychedelic and intricately percussive. Think Gang of Four covering Fela Kuti's '70s back catalog, except when !!! sounded like Norman Greenbaum's immortal "Spirit in the Sky." Back to Sahara for Ed Banger Records DJs Busy P and Mehdi. The crowd had really dispersed after MSTRKRFT. Nevertheless, the French jocks spun the rough, maximal, libidinous shit that makes Daft Punk's Homework sound like a collection of Pet Shop Boys B-sides, especially Justice's "Waters of Nazareth," which blooms apocalyptically on this seriously impressive sound system. The girl dancing with the illuminated rabbit ears seemed to agree.

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