Hurrah for Coachella, the Fest that Should Never End!

Poor lineups, corporate spaces, violence, and cost have kept many of us wary of music festivals. But with the tragedy and lessons of Woodstock, a quality festival atmosphere may surface yet. FrictionMagazine found one such powerful and promising atmosphere at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival.

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by Gabe Ryan


I can't say when and if the feeling was stronger. While Iggy Pop wriggled over my head in an aging man's interpretation of crowd surfing I noticed the faint humming of it. When somewhere between Weezer and Janes Addiction, I found myself dancing alone to the Talking Head's "Once In a Lifetime," the sensation swirled above my head. In the swimming pupils of my comrades was the sentiment brought to life.

Flashes of the sublime and surreal -- the background and foreground of existence falling away leaving nothing but naked tangibility; an affirmation of the realness of living. This is why music means the world to me, and this is what I seek when I go to live shows.

People experience music in different ways. People use music in different ways. Music is an expression of joy, of anger, of pathos. It's evolved into a million twisted images and personalities that amuse us and tease us to question ourselves. It has given us messiahs and pariahs, and it continues to give many of us the inspiration to move from one day to the next. Despite its many diversities, it is a unifier and a tool for understanding, as long as it is used in such a way.

For years now, the mention of large music festivals has brought a sneer to my face. Whether it's rioting, raping, trampling, or thieving, the music festival has frequently brought out the worst in the so-called counterculture. Need I mention the most recent attempt at recreating Woodstock? Where was the peace? Where was the love? It was a pathetic display of misguided and aimless rebellion by spoiled youth.
Sponsorships and profit clearly take precedence over substance at many of these events. I shiver at the thought of Rancid at the Vans Warped Tour this summer singing of Rwanda's troubles underneath the banner of an American sneaker company. How defeating, how frustrating. Musicians are fond of saying, "It's all about the music;" however, the largely corporate-sponsored music festival says quite the opposite. The effect on the audience is difficult to measure. How much does a gigantic corporate logo on the side of the stage divert ones attention from the message presented in the music? How much does it poison the energy?

It's hard to say for sure how such variables affect people, but one thing that can be measured easily is the vibe of an audience. If a crowd is out for blood, the energy is palpable and infused into everyone present. Aggressive and defensive mechanisms click into place and the tension is stifling. Some folks feed off of such an environment, I don't. So as I shot down California's barren Route 5 in late April to attend the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, my expectations were low. Of course I was excited to see Janes Addiction, The Roots, Dandy Warhols, and the countless other quality acts featured on the bill, but I also expected the creativity to be tainted by dollar signs and lavish sparkle. I rolled my eyes after noting that Virgin and Sony were among the sponsors.

As I waited in the centuries-long line to get into the polo fields where the festival was being held, I glanced around. I wasn't sure if it was those stinky brownies I had eaten an hour before or if it was the 95 degree sun beating down on my head, but these people all seemed to be friends I hadn't met yet. People were quite literally beaming. Pure excitement and jubilation was everywhere. Not a cloud was in the sky and we were surrounded by palm trees. Everyone seemed well aware that we were living' large.

Hippie kids stepped in horse shit with their Birkenstocks and laughed as it gushed between their hairy toes. White gangster wanna-bes from Malibu tripped over dips in the lawn and made self-deprecating remarks. The Dave Navarro fan club walked by with their eyeliner and black fingernail polish singing Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl." I got the sense that Dionysus was in town, drunk as a sailor, and conducting a dog whistle orchestra -- not audible, but pervasive and soothing.

Upon entering the polo fields, I was attacked by a barrage of electronic beats from all sides. They didn't coincide or make any sense and I was immediately lost in a rhythm swamp. I mucked about in a daze for quite some time before regaining my composure and moving on. The beats were exploding from various tents all around. Some tents were barely larger than a living room, while others were as large as a hockey rink. Each was full of sweaty ravers and hip-hop junkies. I bobbed my head relentlessly as I wandered. In a small clearing, a large metal junk sculpture had been erected with hundreds of drumsticks tied to it. About 30 people of all shapes, colors, and sizes were pounding a scattered rhythm out on the gleaming surface. Later that night, the sculpture was pulverized into the ground by two huge and goofy looking robots -- Burning Man meets "Lost In Space."

I was detained at the main stage (which, to my relief was bare of any corporate logos) for several hours as Dandy Warhols and Iggy Pop played in succession. A young man with no pants or underwear slam danced violently to "Raw Power" in front of me while some misery-soaked glam rocker behind me searched in vain for his lost ten dollar sunglasses, his image temporarily ruined. I felt grounded and real, yet elated and high as hell. After Iggy's set, I set off in search of shade. A young Mexican man was taking a break from painting a mural to speak to a group of women about the ideals of the Zapatistas while less than 20 feet away, a Virgin Megastore tent was largely ignored. An enormous 18-wheeler with the Sony Playstation logo on the side was parked near the medical tent and pale zombies were moving in and out of it. I went over to a young Boris Karloff look alike who was exiting the truck and asked him what was going on inside. "Video games," he mumbled lifelessly. I ran away before he could eat my brains. Who goes to an outdoor music festival to play video games?

I found shade in the form of the Coachella Film Festival tent, where I happened to slip in during the middle of Radiohead's banality laden tour documentary, "Meeting People Is Easy." A couple of candy ravers kissed passionately in the front row, glow necklaces eerily luminous. Soon I was back at the main stage shamelessly shaking my ass to The Roots' fiery set. It was short-lived, however, as I was whisked away rapidly by friends to a tent where Squarepusher was playing. I tried dancing but was unable to keep up with the frenetic stop-and-go pace.

The sun began to set during Weezer's performance and the crowd size seemed to increase tenfold. By the time Weezer finished their set with "Only In Dreams," it was dark, crowded, and I was flying. I stopped briefly to ponder where the joint that I was smoking had come from, then scurried off into the darkness, stuffing the roach in my pocket. Still I sensed no enmity from anyone except the dark clad bodies lying about on the grass that I accidentally stepped on in my blind stumbling. Trash dotted the ground everywhere due to a lack of garbage cans but it was OK because the plastic and paper shined in the minimal light, allowing you to see where you were stepping.

I was seeing the positive side in everything. I was riding a gigantic wave toward a welcoming and mysterious beach, and so it seemed were the rest of the stumbling masses. The moon was a crystal sliver above our heads and the quiet palm trees surrounding us were like a mirage, fuzzy, and otherworldly. Stopping briefly to watch a group of fire dancers, I fell into contemplation.

I thought about Whitman and Rimbaud, Dickinson, Wilde, Bukowski and all the other sad, restless and joyful spirits who have walked this earth, grasping at the present, inevitably dying. It seemed, at the time, that the most logical thing to do was to loose one's self completely in revelry.

I began slowly to make my way toward the main stage, positioning myself for Janes Addiction's set. The wait seemed like a small lifetime. Everyone's bodies had turned to rubber and we struggled to stay upright. I had another mysterious joint in my hand and the girl in front of me kept trying to sit on my knees. James Brown was pumping out and I played air bass for a while, pretending to be Bootsy Collins. Then, just as I was running out of ways to occupy myself, the stage lights went on and the crowd of 25,000 uncorked itself. The band broke into "Up The Beach," and when Perry Farrell came out, bottle of red wine in hand, I knew I had been right about Dionysus.

He seemed to exude the electric joy and lack of restraint that I had been sensing all day, and he immediately had the crowd in the palm of his hands. You could barely make out his voice over the deafening roar of the audience. I'm not sure how long they played but as the set was winding down, Perry stopped to engage the audience. "Aren't we having fun down here in southern California?" he screamed. The crowd screamed back affirmatively. "Now while that's something that we need to appreciate and celebrate, we also need to remember that all over the world, people are not as happy as we are right now." The crowd screamed it's collective understanding again. He then brought out a friend of his from Sudan who had escaped from the cycle of child slavery and patricide that exists there. It brought the day's events sharply into perspective and the audience seemed to understand completely.

This experience had nothing to do with Virgin Megastores, it had nothing to do with Sony or the radio. This was special, and we were all quite blessed to be there in our place and time.

Reading the Coachella message board several days later, I realized that this feeling of appreciation was mutual. Most of the complaints were simply people wishing that the festival could have been two days instead of one. Some complained about high cigarette prices and the lack of garbage cans, but these were the complaints of spoiled children who need something to bitch about.

By and large, a beautiful time was had by all. There were no fights reported and few people complained about assholes ruining the vibe. Nearly everyone swore that they'd be back next year. So Coachella managed to get it right. They had an amazing and diverse lineup of music, a great crowd, and security that behaved almost like human beings. They even managed to achieve the peace and love that Woodstock so miserably failed at. It gave me hope and a new insight into music festivals. Perhaps the original Woodstock was not just a fluke. All you need is a collective understanding, space to wander, plenty of good music, and joints that appear out of thin air.

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