She was holding a giant slice of watermelon nonchalantly with her runny, juiced covered right hand like an Egyptian goddess lazily spilling some drops of a wine filled chalice onto a lion skin rug. There were a few half-moon shaped bites along the top of the melon with black seeds scattered around her. Wearing a white bohemian sun dress with a slew of gold bracelets on both arms, and a gemstone necklace that seemed to reflect the Indio desert sun from every perceivable angle, she kept repositioning herself on the Empire Polo Club grounds inside the Heineken Beer Garden. Playing the director and actress, she kept telling her friend what Roger Deakins’-like shots she wanted from her iPhone 6 Plus that had a crack down the left side of the screen.
I was resting against a small recycling container made from reclaimed wood, drinking a $10 Heineken underneath a tent trying to cool off in the 105 degree weather. Little by little the tent began to fill up after the crowd of 500+ twenty somethings came back from the vendor stations after making their lunch choice of $7 pizza slices or $12 tacos. Given we were on what seemed to be a desert island, there were no surprises they had their knives out for our dollars and cents.
We still had a ways to go before indie rock band Grouplove was set to play at 5:30 PST, so I soaked up every bit of the conversation that was playing in front of me.
“Can you get the ferris wheel in the back left?”
“Why don’t I peer over the watermelon like this?”
“Are my sunglasses reflecting too much of the tables?”
“Tilt your head back. No, no, back. Yeah, there.”
Sweat beads started to form around her withering lotus flower crown which was on its last leg of its three day journey. Her friend handed her phone back to her. She ran through the various shots, analyzing them like an editor racing against a deadline.
“Oh these are cute. They’re a little bright though. I’ll just wait for the sunset.”
Welcome to Coachella 2017.
We would wake up on a pull out couch in an Airbnb in Riverside, 80 miles west of Indio, California. We grabbed Coronas out of the mini fridge and grabbed a lime slice from the night before and pushed it through the bottle opening with our thumbs. I watched the acidity from the lime create a bubbly fizz and took a sip. I started chewing on a Clif Bar as I made a sandwich with sun dried tomato turkey and muenster cheese. This would become breakfast for the weekend.
I can think of worse routines.
Our group of four piled into the weekend rental. A beige 2012 Hyundai Elantra. A huge let down from the 2015 Ford Mustang Convertible we had just returned after driving up the Pacific Coast Highway.
As we got out towards the windmills out into the desert on I-10 East, the wind started to pick up and the side mirrors started to shake like a Pomeranian who is confronted by his owner after defecating on the living room carpet. With a grand total of 138 horsepower, you could tell this car served one purpose. Getting you from your house to your job as a middle school principal.
We took a longer than expected detour in Joshua Tree National Park, where I tried scrambling along boulders in Sperry Topsiders with little to no avail. I was quickly reminded why Sperry only shows ads for their famous shoe featuring recent finance graduates navigating their fathers’ sailboats in Martha’s Vineyard, and not rock climbing in the desert. As much as I want to believe they are an everyday shoe, they are not.
Sidebar: President Trump recently donated his first quarter salary to the National Park Service, and I think the entirety of this donation should go to providing Joshua Tree National Park with street signs. They have arguably the least detailed map in the National Park System. It doesn’t help that the entire park looks the same.
We arrived in Indio. Their city motto is “The place to be.” I found this fascinating because without Coachella, the city (town) is really a sprawled out truck stop in the desert for drivers who need gas to get to LA or Phoenix. I thought about what it would be like to be a local in Indio during the event. For two weekends you have 125,000 millennials swarm in like wolves at the door looking to complete their Mecca of pilgrimages.
After being motioned by 43 locals with bright neon vests and lightsabers from the local Walmart (most of which could have been replaced with signs) we parked and made the quarter mile trek to the security checkpoint along a dusty path lined with porta-johns.
After a very lazy security checkpoint that would make TSA cringe, we had finally entered the land flowing of milk and honey.
Only a few minutes into the walk towards the main stage, all of my sensories were being entertained. People were milling around, aimlessly walking towards whatever was calling their name in this desert adult playground.
I panned around among the commotion as I saw attendees with outfits ranging from full cycling jerseys to simply tape covering the bare necessities. For a few minutes, I forgot this was a music festival.
As Father John Misty aka Josh Tillman walked onto stage I heard a loud thud behind me. My friend lunged a little forward. We both turned around to find a woman lying on her back staring up into the sky, with a ghostly expression on her face. We along with a few others pulled her up as we motioned to security. She exclaimed she was OK, but collapsed once more. Security quickly grabbed the woman in the dehydrated/altered state and walked her out of the crowd.
“Make sure you drink water. Stay cool out there Coachella” Josh Tillman said, a little too late.
Promoting his new album Pure Comedy, Tillman’s stage presence was as much as a show as his actual music. On the two mammoth sized screens to the left and right of the stage, you could see his pensive eyes peering into the crowd analyzing his audience like a psychiatrist through his sunglasses as he swayed his body back and forth.
With a hundred lights on the stage and visuals on the screens, you were catered to with every angle of Tillman and his legion of bandmates and orchestral members. In the sea of Coachella attendees in front of him he sang his single Total Entertainment Forever off of Pure Comedy.
For a better part of 4 hours we stood with the mass amongst a never ending cloud smelling of marijuana, sunscreen, and body heat. I kept bending my legs to keep the blood flowing. As The xx finished their set and Radiohead came out, I felt packt like sardines in a crushed tin box. My friend and I started striking up a conversation with a few people standing with us.
“Is this is your first Coachella?” my friend asked a large hispanic man in his late twenties.
“Me? No, I’ve been going since 2004. It was really cool back then because the whole purpose was to cut out the middleman and make it an intimate music experience. Now? Not so much.”
We asked him and the group if they had seen Radiohead before. None of them had. We had seen them in Chicago the previous summer and were so impressed, we made a vacation out of the Coachella week to see them again.The group generously offered us a Christmas morning stocking list of various drugs they managed to smuggle in past security. We kindly declined as we watched them take their various hits and tabs to enhance their entertainment a mere 15 yards from the biggest stage in the North American music circuit.
Thom and Co’s show went off without a hitch after their set the previous weekend was marred by technological issues. Not much of a talker, Thom Yorke would shout unintelligible gibberish into the mic in between songs, making sure the crowd was awake as it was getting close to midnight. As the rifled through high energy tracks such as “Bodysnatchers” and “Ful Stop”, single handedly causing 100,000 people to lose their marbles, they began their encore. As they played arguably their most popular song “Paranoid Android” off their 1997 groundbreaking album “OK Computer”, a record highlighting the dangers of a society controlled by technology, everyone’s phones around us went up as they grabbed Thom’s crooning of Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy/You don’t remember/You don’t remember.
They finished their set with their acoustic ballad “Fake Plastic Trees” off their 1995 album, The Bends amongst the imported palm trees lining the grounds and all of us, wearing our Sunday best.
He used to do surgery
For girls in the eighties
But gravity always wins
And it wears him out
It wears him out
It wears him out
Wears him out
She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love
I looked back at our new friend who decided to take the liberty to drop acid during the set and he simply stared at the stage with the largest grin I have ever seen.
We had two more days.
The entirety of my body hurt from head to toe from the six hours I stood to catch a good glimpse of my favorite band. Life is full of sacrifices.
I rolled off the pull out bed and grabbed two Coronas. I was too tired to cut a lime so I slumped back into the bed and handed one over to my friend. We started laughing at a mutual friend who sent us a Snapchat about how she admitted essential oils were a hoax after a year of using them.
It was refreshing to see someone come to terms with the absurdity of the $5 billion dollar industry.
We showered off the desert filth from the previous day, packed our Clif bars and sandwiches and got back into the Elantra which by the mile felt less and less safe. Today the steer wheeling was shaking.
On the way we were notified by the official Coachella app that there were complimentary shuttle rides from the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens to promote energy conservation on Earth Day. We all were excited about the gas we would be saving from the grand total 15 mile round trip to ride in a giant bus so we parked and walked towards the shuttle tent.
We walked up to one of the staff members sitting in an air conditioned booth asking her where the complimentary shuttle was.
“What do you mean complimentary shuttle? You don’t have a shuttle pass?”
My friend pulled out her phone and showed her the notification on the phone.
“Well, I need to see it on all your phones.”
We realized only two of us had this notification and the staff member told us to wait near the fence until they figured out what the status of the complimentary shuttle rides on Earth Day was.
I gathered they had no prior knowledge of this offer and told us to wait because they didn’t have a solution. After about five minutes we got back in our car and drove the 7 miles to the grounds still in disbelief a $90 million event could not inform their own staff about free shuttle rides on Earth Day.
As our Elantra polluted God’s earth carrying ourselves into the dusty parking lot, I could envision the sky turning a pale green. Dinosaurs are no longer roaming Indio, just us and our Hyundais.
It was another 100 plus degree day as I tried to avoid the sun’s deathly grip underneath my Budweiser straw hat I picked up at a Walmart in Riverside. I was never aware of how absurd the hat was until I was walking around the Craft Beer Garden gathering intel on what they had on draft. I then thought about the guy walking around in a cycling jersey and I realized I was on the low end of the absurdity spectrum. It’s very hard to look out of place at Coachella. You don’t have to explain yourself for any outfit or behavior. It is the one event where you can truly be whoever you want.
This idea of being different but the same fascinated me. Maybe I’m the weird one for wearing khaki shorts and a plain grey shirt. Where’s my astronaut helmet? Where’s my cowboy vest? Where’s my cycling jersey?
It’s at home. Sitting in my drawer until I get on the bike again.
Maybe that’s what I needed to disappear completely.
We slogged our way to the iconic ferris wheel where we briefly lived a life in a glasshouse as we looked out upon the minions of people walking around. One man was sprawled out like he was on a Roman cross resting his eyes from the fantasy we were all living in. It really could have been a beautiful view as we were stuck in limbo for a few minutes as they tried to get as many people into each spinning plate as possible, but all the lights were creating reflections of ourselves.
Coachella had become a videogame-like dream I just couldn’t wake up from.
Lady Gaga began belting out “Born this Way”, one of her endless barrage of hit singles she managed to hit every note with a god-like accuracy. Truly an impressive entertainer and vocalist, Gaga had what seemed full control of every glass eye watching her.
As the fireworks created a smog above us we meandered our way through a field of empty plastic water bottles, scatterbrained like a herd of cows trying to find what path led to which lot we parked in. I still had Gaga’s line stuck in my head.
I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby I was born this way
Happy Earth Day.
We awoke and finished the rest of la cerveza mas fina.
We had some time before Grouplove was due so we ventured to the Antarctic Tent that promised a virtual reality experience that only Coachella and the minds of HP and Intel could muster together.
We stood outside in the long line that snaked its way around black meshed covered fences with our hats and bandanas blocking the sun from the third triple-digit degree day. Our group got quiet as the sun was sucking our young blood of any remaining energy we had. It is easy to bend your perceptions into a fade out of heightened curiosity of whatever is in front of you. One of my travel companions started eyeing the other’s tattoo on her left shoulder. He started poking it like a small cameleon waiting to bite off his finger. She seemed entertained by this exploration as he then starting pinching the circular shaped artwork which contained an intricate landscape of mountains and oceans. He was waiting for the waves to spill their ink over the peaks outside the frame. But alas, nothing came.
Total entertainment forever.
We entered the Antarctica tent under a dome screen as we sulked into our marshmallow of a seat waiting to close our eyes and melt into a gooey chocolate mixture. Ominous music played as we watched a desert night sky shape and morph into a myriad of colors and scenes ranging from the international space station to an ancient pyramid; songs carrying us into the next world the giant computer companies had created for us. Every jigsaw falling into place. We were mesmerized.
Some musicians have the ability to levitate yourself into sixty minutes of pure ecstasy forgetting for a brief moment you have a cubicle job as you get carried away by the wave of bass lines enveloping you like Saran wrap as you taste every note.
You find yourself into what a friend once described to me as a “locked groove.”
It is usually a silent loop which keeps the needle and tonearm of a record from drifting into the label area. However, it is possible to record sound in this groove, and some artists have included looping audio in the locked groove.
This keeps continuing until you lift the needle.
As we started to leave the mainstage area, there was a convergence of forces between the worms of people being towed into several different directions. You had no choice but to follow whoever was leading the march. At one point I was being squeezed between two opposing lines, trapped. Even if you got the chance to break away from your line you would inevitably hit the bottom of the desert floor. After about five minutes of our 50 foot trek I could finally breathe.
The desert breeze started to pick up which provided a small taste of heaven after another eight hours in the sun. I was parched. I needed a drink.
We caravanned our way to a lemonade stand where two vendor employees were slicing whole lemons, juicing them, and pouring ice cold water and ice over the top. As I waited in line trying to stand up straight, I looked down and saw a folded one dollar bill covered in dust blowing around near my feet. I picked up the bill and flattened it out. I got to the stand where a woman was frantically taking orders as a man was pumping out juiced lemons like a machine with one function. I asked for a lemonade.
“$9” she said with a faint smile.
I handed her my card and placed the dollar bill in the tip jar that was struggling to stay on the to counter with the blowing wind.
I quickly drank my lemonade and began sucking on the lemon. The shot of acidic zest seeped into my gums making my eyes water. I wouldn’t stop till I got every penny out of it. The four of us sat on a wooden step watching the ferris wheel spin around and pulse its lights in a continuing formulaic pattern.
I laid on my back with the lemon rind still in my hand. We all started laughing at nothing in particular.
Funny thing this life we live.