"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.
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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.
At the Outdoor Theatre, Ghostface Killah's hype man got off to a shaky start by shouting, "Ghostface in the building!" Uh, it's an outdoor theater. The sound here was much weaker than in Sahara, with only drums, bass and voices audible. After a snatch of the theme song to The Little Rascals, we got a truncated "Ice Cream," then a lot of banal chatter from Ghost, such as "How many y'all motherfuckers smoke weed out there?" and "Niggas like to get drunk and fuck." We got a half-assed medley of Wu and Wu solo-artist hits, then Motley Crue's Tommy Lee came onstage and flashed his tits. When Ghost began shouting out Cameron Diaz and begging girls to come onstage and dance with "Pretty Toney," the reek of bullshit competed with the human counterpart from the crappers.
So I bounced over to Sahara to witness Justice (more Ed-Bangin' Frenchies) re-define the powers of bass. Justice played thick, filthy, distorted, funky techno that could prepare a superpower for war. I found the big glowing-white cross before their gear disturbing; sure, their logo is probably harmless iconography in their hands, but with music this overpowering and Nuremberg Rally-esque, it made this atheist pacifist uneasy.
That feeling passed as soon as I hit the wild party in session that is a Girl Talk set. About 50 revelers reveled onstage as Gregg "Girl Talk" Gillis manipulated and/or mashed together on his PowerBook a radio or club hit every 30 seconds. I detected Styx, Aerosmith, Missy Elliott, Bob James, Khia, the Jacksons, Panjabi MC, Rick Ross, Lady Sovereign, Spank Rock and many more in 10 minutes. People danced and text messaged simultaneously. I
LCD Soundsystem blasted out the most blazing set of the fest, for my sweaty currency. They drew a crowd that spilled well out of the Sahara tent and raised the roof with songs from both of their albums that blew away their recorded versions. Inspirational rave-up "Yeah" displayed the power of positive shrieking and rapidly hit timbales and Roland 303 churn and squeal. LCD should've ended it on that overwhelming adrenalin (c)rush, but they closed with the Lou Reed-ian ballad "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down," a rare, schmaltzy misstep by this unstoppable live unit.
My night ended with Cornelius' Japanese quartet, who finessed out ultra-vivid prog-pop fusillades with bright electronic embellishments and more wind chimes than I've ever seen on a stage. Neil Peart would've been jealous. The incredibly artful and surreal visuals complemented the band's Day-Glo™ Boredoms sound. Senses duly surfeited, I trudged to the exit, much more familiar with horse ass than I ever could've imagined.
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Sunday dawned hot and stinky—again.
Flustered from the ordeal of reaching Empire, I bought a $3 Gatorade (best deal of the fest) and hustled to the Sahara to view Richie Hawtin work his techno magic in scorching daylight—strange after seeing him multiple times late at night in warehouses and other cavernous places. The crowd at the start of his set was shockingly sparse but gradually filled up as Hawtin spun (or Serato'd) a series of bleep-intensive tracks by Canadians, Germans and Americans you've never heard of. This music is at once alienating, sexy and eminently danceable. The Sahara's system miracled this minimal techno into immensity.
During Hawtin's performance, I had an epiphany. A stocky 30ish guy stood motionless amid several writhing dancers. Dressed in navy button-down shirt, gray slacks and sensible black shoes, he wore his auburn hair slicked back; his severe mien suggested "Bulgarian bureaucrat." He seemed to be tabulating the BPMs as they were booming out of the speakers. This stoic, stock-still character, I decided, is what Coachella is all about. Well, it was either him or the fortysomething moms wearing tie-dyed overalls or platinum-blue bob wigs with matching mini-skirts who were tripping the light klutztastic. Really, the full spectrum of humanity represents here.
At the Gobi tent, Konono N1 were producing joyous undulations of cowbell, congas, snare drum and sprightly metallic tones from likembs (thumb pianos). Imagine: These seven folks traveled from central Africa to do this simple, timeless trance music for us spoiled Westerners. Tears welled up in my eyes—and, for once, not from the odor, but rather from the beauty and purity of Konono's sinuous, ramshackle sound. And then somebody asked me if I had any X for the third time in an hour. "No, but how about some killer Advil?" I rejoindered, proving that my snark could be just as unbearable as the climate.
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The beauty of Coachella is that its multiplicity of stages and its proliferation of performers and punters make for wildly divergent experiences (the bands I missed on purpose or through bad luck could've launched others to sonic satori). Furthermore, Coachella offers one of the few chances for coddled scenesters to rough it on an epic scale. I'm sure many people also had blog-worthy sex or mortifying diarrhea or underwent spiritual transformations or scored mind-blowing drugs or stepped in puke and ruined their furry fuschia boots or concluded that music has become as meaningful as a hacky-sack kick. It's all a roll of the dice, innit?
So many variables go into any one Coachella experience, that to make generalizations about the festival is foolhardy. (Survivor with a cooler soundtrack and more competitors? Pah.) But this fool is concluding that I will never again attend Coachella . . . unless Boredoms get booked . . . or My Bloody Valentine's Loveless lineup regroups . . . or Scarlett Johansson asks me to be her plus one . . . or . . .