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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Coachella 2007 in Fragments

I Am Getting Too Old for This Sort of Thing

“Looks like you’re planning on doing some camping!”

This was the Target cashier, very pretty and less than half my age. I started to explain, aiming for a friendly-but-definitely-not-predatory older guy vibe, but as soon as my explanation hit the word “Coachella,” she stopped ringing up my adult-size disposable poncho and exploded.

“COACHELLA??!! Oh my GOD! Are you gonna see RAGE?” she demanded, but before I could answer, she turned to shout at her friend, stationed at a register in the “10 items or less” lane.

“Sandy! This guy is going to freakin’ Coachella!

“NO WAY!” Sandy shouted back, and now I was holding up two lanes. “You are so LUCKY! Are you gonna see RAGE?” Sandy demanded, wide-eyed, oblivious to the line of customers at her register, tapping their feet impatiently, clutching their 10 or fewer items.

To speed things along, I promised that, upon my return from the festival, I would immediately visit Target and tell them all about it.

“Bastard!” shouted Sandy, by way of farewell, then added helpfully: “Dude, Rage is gonna be CRAZY. Try not to get killed!”

Walking out of the store, I buzzed with the rare excitement that an encounter like this brings to a middle-aged married guy; an excitement that was only partially diminished when the cashier yelled after me that I had forgotten my travel-size package of Kleenex.

* * * * * *

It was a bad time for me to attend a 3-day rock festival in the California desert. For one thing, I had some kind of cold that would not let go. It had worked its way through several unpleasant stages, and had now settled into a sharp pain on the right side of my throat, lung congestion, and a mild sinus headache. Maybe it was something worse, like pneumonia. Plus, we were in the process of selling our home, buying a new home, and preparing to move from Seattle, WA to Springfield, MA. And my sister was due to give birth during the same week, and I had promised to be there. And, to be completely honest, I was a little frightened about what might go down during the Rage show; I’m 40, ferchrissakes. But the tickets had already been purchased. And to back out now would supply the final proof that I had become too old for this sort of thing. I imagined walking into Target a month hence, and seeing those cute young cashiers with their nose piercings and their low-slung jeans, and having to admit that I had bailed on the long-awaited reunion of Rage Against the Machine because I had a cold, and that humiliation was intolerable to me, so I had to tough it out. Even if I had pneumonia, which I suspected.

* * * * * *

Waiting for my luggage to arrive at the LAX baggage carousel, I looked around and saw 10 or 20 groups of young people, all wearing the t-shirts of their favorite bands, or simply dressed like the most recognizable members of their favorite bands, and I started to feel like I was living in the opening scenes of the Woodstock movie – all these kids, from all over the world, gathering here for 3 days of peace, love, and music. It was sweet. Then someone’s duffel bag tumbled down the chute, and there was a… light flashing inside it. Like a bomb. Everyone noticed. What in the hell? Then I realized that it was MY bag, and thought perhaps it was some sort of warning beacon placed in there by a Homeland Security inspector. As it turned out, it was just the new battery-powered lantern I had purchased at Target; I had forgotten to take the batteries out, and the switch somehow got jostled to the “emergency beacon” setting. As soon as I could reach it, I shame-facedly grabbed my bag off the carousel, tore it open, and fumbled around with the lamp until the batteries spilled out across the floor and it stopped flashing.

* * * * * *

The Coachella organizers, eager to prove that a 3-day rock festival in the desert can also be environmentally conscious, urged all attendees to carpool. They had an online message board, where you could post hook-up details: When your flight would arrive at LAX, whether or not you had a car, whether or not you were weed-friendly, etc. I posted a message offering a ride from LAX to Coachella on Thursday afternoon, and within an hour, had several replies. I chose one based on his cool name, and on the similarity of our arrival times, and that’s how I ended up sharing a car with NME music journalist Hardeep.

After some confusion about how to actually start the Nissan Altima (There’s no KEY? WTF?), we successfully navigated our way onto I-10 and headed East into the desert.

On the way, Hardeep and I debated the merits of the Fratellis (I liked them, he didn’t), agreed on the excellence of Nick Cave’s “Grinderman” disc, and talked about the acts we were jazzed to see. He recommended The Cribs (“old mates of mine”), and told me about his most cherished rock moment: guesting on drums during an Ash soundcheck.

When we arrived in Indio, we had to find our way to a house that some (rich) friends of Hardeep’s had rented for the duration of the festival. Indio is in the desert, but this rental place was inside an elite, gated community, landscaped with lush grass, palm trees, and made-to-order lakes. It took a good ten minutes to get the gate attendant to understand and transcribe Hardeep’s name onto the appropriate forms (“Hardy?” “No, Har-DEEP.” “Harpy?” “No, Har-DEEP.”), but eventually we were granted access to the Promised Land beyond the gates.

The rental house was beautiful: white stucco and red brick, with black wrought iron fencing, on the shore of an azure man-made lake stocked with Japanese Koi, surrounded by pools and Jacuzzis tiled with locally-mined turquoise. Hardeep’s friends, as far as I could tell, consisted entirely of wealthy, tipsy, string-bikini-wearing young women. They had draped a huge poster of Iggy Pop over the French doors which opened onto the smaller of the several swimming pools, and reggae was playing loudly through some expensive speakers that had been dragged out onto the patio. I was offered a cold beer by one of these young women, which I gladly accepted.

We made small talk for a few minutes, they expressing their love for the Rapture, me expressing my eagerness to meet the members of Fountains of Wayne, after which one of the bikini models half-seriously ordered me out of the house. The single beer after a long, hot drive was clearly affecting my judgment more than I expected; Fountains of Wayne? What was I thinking? They began talking about how much they loved Rage Against the Machine, and I agreed, eager to re-establish my street cred.

“Hey, if I was gay, I’d totally do Tom Morello,” I stated loudly, gesturing vaguely with my empty beer bottle. “In fact,” I continued, “I’m not gay, but I’d still consider doing him!”

I thought this comment would signal that I was a modern, open-minded, metrosexual kind of guy, but instead it was met by a prolonged, uncomfortable silence, broken only when the more attractive of the two bikini models responded (with apparent disgust):


I left pretty soon after that.

* * * * * *

I found the festival grounds, parked the rental car, and lugged my bags through the mile-long entry line in the sweltering heat.

After setting up my tent (borrowed from my ex-wife), I spent some time talking to the folks in the tent next to mine. A nice bunch of guys, friendly, very knowledgeable about a broad range of music, and, in keeping with the general makeup of the crowd, ethnically diverse: White, Latino, Hawaiian. Amazingly, they had all come from Seattle, just like me.

“No kidding!” I exclaimed. “Whereabouts in Seattle do you guys live?”

“Around 85th and Aurora.”

I had flown a thousand miles, driven a couple hundred more, and in a crowd of 180,000 people, I ended up camping next to some guys who lived three blocks from my home.

The first night at the campground, they showed movies outdoors, projected on a giant inflatable screen.

After nightfall, they showed “The Song Remains the Same,” which probably sounded cool when the festival organizers were talking about it: “You know, the Led Zeppelin concert film? I haven’t seen it for, like, 30 years, but I seem to remember it was pretty awesome! I mean, everybody loves Zeppelin, right?”

30 years on, it’s easy to forget that “The Song Remains the Same” is the worst concert film ever made. I can barely sit through it, and I consider myself a Led Zeppelin fan. It starts with some interminable nonsense involving Zeppelin’s manager (who appears to be played by Grizzly Adams wearing a pinstripe suit) machine-gunning some other guys, then drags on through various bucolic (read: crushingly dull and preposterously staged) scenes of the band members relaxing at their country estates, and eventually gets to the part where they play actual music in front of an actual audience, but even that part sucks. Why, you ask? How could a Led Zeppelin concert film NOT be awesome? Instead of answering that question directly, I’ve imagined the following conversation in which the members of Zeppelin choose the setlist for “The Song Remains the Same”:

“Okay, lads, so far we’ve got ‘Dazed & Confused’… Now, we can stretch that one out for 45 minutes – 50 tops – but we should probably pick at least one other song to play after that one.”

“Riiiiiight. Well, I don’t want to play too many songs, so what other songs do we have that lend themselves to endless, mind-numbing wankery? You know, our least melodic, most aimless songs; songs that we can pad with plenty of rambling solos and ridiculous vocal improv shite?”

“Um…. ‘No Quarter’?”

“Perfect! With my theremin solo, and the fantasy sequences we got those art school hippies to shoot for us -“

“Yeah, we got that great footage of me in a rowboat? Y’know? With all that fog? That’s gonna be a bleedin’ crowd-pleaser!”

“- right, so we can stretch that one out for at least an hour.”

“So… ‘Dazed & Confused’ and ‘No Quarter’ – is that gonna be enough?”

“Oh yeah, definitely.”

“Quite honestly, Jimmy, after the last several years of flying all over the world, banging pre-teen smack addicts, worshipping our Dark Lord Azgoroth, and snorting metric tons of cocaine into my bleeding sinuses, I just want to grab the cash and retreat to my idyllic country estate.”

“Too right, Robert, too right. Say, that reminds me – I saw some bloke selling bootleg posters outside. Send Grizzly Adams out to kick that punter’s arse.”

Anyway, about ten minutes into the film, some new kids arrived on the lawn, and asked their friends about the movie.

“I dunno, it’s some weird British movie.”

“Let’s go see if the Bloody Mary Buffet is still open.”

They left, and I followed.

Some Things to Keep in Mind When Camping at Coachella

  1. Several people told me, “Bring your own toilet paper; they always run out.” I, however, had faith in the festival organizers. “These people are professionals!” I reasoned. “Surely, they have made the necessary preparations! After all, this isn’t Woodstock.” As it turned out, my faith was misplaced; the campground ran out of toilet paper on the morning of the second day. Moral of the story: heed the lessons of those who have gone before you; bring your own toilet paper.
  2. They ran out of the protective toilet seat covering tissues even earlier. Without being too graphic, I’ll just note that it’s more difficult than you’d think to accurately drop a load into the center of those porta-potty holes when hovering above the seat. Especially when it’s dark outside, and there are people waiting impatiently to use the same porta-potty, so you’re trying to get everything done quickly in there, and you’re also awkwardly holding your backpack because you don’t want it to touch the suspiciously wet floor, it’s easy to… overshoot the runway, if you know what I mean. I bring this up only as a warning for those of you who may think it is perfectly safe to sit your bare skin on the porta-potty seat. Let me assure you, it is not.
  3. When other options have been exhausted, there’s a nice stack of thick, soft napkins next to the Bloody Mary Buffet in the clubhouse. Just as a point of interest.
  4. When the truck pulls up to drain the porta-potty tanks, move as far away as possible. Go make a phone call. Purchase some sunscreen wipes at the General Store tent. Anything. I’m warning you; just the sound of that 600-horsepower Shit-Hoover will stay with you for the rest of the day. Hours later, you’ll be rocking out to the icy-cool sounds of Interpol, and, without warning, the sound will come back to you: the whine of the industrial-strength vacuum engine, the gurgling, throttling sound as large clumps of God-knows-what fly up the flexible hose, the whistling, slurping sound as the vacuum cleans out the last remnants at the bottom of the tank – trust me, these are sounds you do not want burned into your memory. When the truck pulls up, walk away.

* * * * * *

It’s tempting to compare Coachella to Woodstock, but that would be reductive. Music, sexual mores, political awareness, drug availability – all these things change, and the past can never really be recaptured. Also, most of the people at Coachella took a shower – every day!

They had these portable showers in truck trailers that they parked all around the perimeter of the campground – each one had five stalls for men, and five for women. (I’m assuming they had the same number as the guys, but how would I know? They could have free foot massages, a fully-stocked bar, and Jacuzzi tubs on the women’s side, and we men wouldn’t have a clue.) The first morning, none of us had any idea what time they opened, or how they worked (or about snagging those napkins at the Bloody Mary Buffet), so we just groggily lined up at the shower truck nearest our tent, hoping for the best.

Unbeknownst to us, the shower trucks didn’t all open at the same time. Somehow, we had chosen the shower that opened last, but there were no signs or shower attendants to explain this, and the people in our line started to lose hope. As the faithless defected to other lines – lines for showers that were already open – our line got shorter and shorter. Which, you know, was a good thing from one perspective. I mean, some of the folks who had left our line were now standing in lines behind 30 or 40 other sweaty, ill-tempered UK soccer hooligans, and there were only, like, six guys in our line. We laughed at the people in those other lines, but not too loudly, since we were standing outside a shower truck that still had a hand-lettered “CLOSED” sign taped to the door.

Finally, the “Shower Guy” arrived to redeem us from our unclean state, and we began fantasizing about how wonderful those showers were going to be, once Shower Guy hooked us up. Nothing like a hot shower in the morning to get you going! Yessirree, I cannot wait for that sweet, sweet shower.

While we rubbed our hands in childish, gleeful anticipation, and shared stories about memorable showers from our formative years, Shower Guy, cigarette dangling from his lip, was taking his own sweet time. First he slo-o-o-owly unlocked the door enclosing the water controls, and swung it open dramatically, as if it were the sandstone door of an Egyptian crypt. Then he carefully checked every single fucking dial. Then he lit another cigarette and took several deep puffs, savoring the cool menthol flavor. Then he adjusted one of the dials by a fraction of a centimeter. He tapped something that looked like a tuning fork against the dial and held it against his ear, a look of deep concentration on his face. Apparently satisfied, he walked back to his pickup and consulted with his wife on the C.B. about what they were having for dinner. Then he opened his thermos and drank some coffee. Then he unspooled the water hose from the back of his truck, examined the end of the hose, set it carefully on the ground, and returned to his truck for the appropriate wrench. After trying the wrench on the hose, he found it not to his liking in some unspecified way, and returned to his truck for a more suitable wrench. The grotesque pantomime went on and on, with no perceivable progress toward the goal of actual, you know, hot water cascading out of the shower head onto my face. As discontent grew, those of us who remained in the line began to mutter amongst ourselves, giving voice to what we imagined Shower Guy might be thinking:

“Goddamn hippies! So NOW you need a shower, huh? You didn’t seem to need a shower when I came back from ‘ Nam, did you?? I get paid hourly, bitch! I’m a Teamster, and I’ll take just as long as I can to hook up these frigging showers, so shut yer pieholes. If you don’t wipe that grin off your hippie face, I might just have to go back to the supply shed for a different wrench! You’re the same hippies who wouldn’t let me join your stupid Gaming Club back in junior high! Well, I ain’t gonna let you into my club, either – my SHOWER club! Who’s laughing now, freak? WHO’S LAUGHING NOW??”

We had a whole history worked out for Shower Guy.

Then he went in the shower truck to make further adjustments, and it took a lot longer than seemed strictly necessary, and we speculated about what he might be doing in there, what private ritual he might be employing to “christen” each stall before the first customer of the day.

Once he got those showers running, though, all was forgiven. The water was hot, the pressure was good, there was free soap and shampoo… if anything, the waiting and the irritation made the shower itself doubly satisfying. After brushing my teeth and gulping down half a dozen generic Actifed to make my nose stop running, I was ready to get in the REAL line: the line to enter the festival grounds.

* * * * * *

The gates separating the campground from the actual festival grounds opened each morning at 11AM. The line started forming at 9:30 or so, and it stretched on forever, in the direct sun, past several battalions of porta-potties, all the way back to the AT&T Internet Oasis tent.

Just before the gates opened, a cranky old lady who looked like Nurse Ratchet wearing a blue-and-yellow “Security” windbreaker and aggressively wielding a bullhorn came out and gave us the lowdown:


Someone in the crowd asked which line was for Men Without Hats, but she ignored this interruption and bulldozed ahead:

“If you are a man and you are found in the line on my right, you will be EXPELLED! If you are a woman, and you are found in the line on my left, you will be EXPELLED! If drug paraphernalia or open cigarette packages or open water bottles are found on your person, you will be EXPELLED! There will be NO EXCEPTIONS! My people have been working for hours in the hot sun, and if you make them angry or refuse to cooperate, or sass-mouth them in any way, you will be -”

“-EXPELLED!” the crowd dutifully shouted in unison.

“Thank you, Mrs. Krabappel!” someone shouted from the back, but she continued her tirade, unfazed. Eventually, the local police contingent took over, and gave us a similar speech, except they told us that men should go to the right.

“I thought men were supposed to go to the left?” came the inevitable voice from the crowd.

“No, men to the RIGHT!” snapped the leader of the police, un-holstering his nightstick.

“Whose right? Yours, or ours?”

While the police officers and private security employees conferred on this conundrum, the crowd grew restive. Again, the questioning, insistent voice came from the back.

“But the security lady told us that -”

The police officer whirled on us and interrupted tersely: “I don’t know or care what the ‘Security Lady’ said, but we are in charge now. We do not work for the ‘Security Lady’ – we work for the City of Indio, California, and we say men go to the RIGHT!” he told us in no uncertain terms, while pointing to the left.

This settled the argument to everyone’s satisfaction, and men went in the direction indicated by the pointing, whichever direction that was.

There was still some confusion, however, over what could and could not be brought in to the festival. I asked a nearby security guard if I would be allowed to bring in my tiny, still-sealed plastic bottle of soft contact moistening drops. After discussing the situation with two supervisors, she returned with a verdict “Yes, that should be okay,” she reassured me, then added, “Just… hide it in your shoe or something.”

The guy next to me had a Winstons cigarette package that was completely full of high-grade weed. He handed the package to the security guard along with all the other contents of his pockets, raised his hands and turned around for the pat-down, after which the security guard handed him back the box o’ weed, and sent him merrily on his way.

Even though it made me limp awkwardly and eventually caused a painful blister, nobody noticed the eyedrops in my shoe, and I felt that I had scored a defiant victory against the oppressive state. By sneaking in the 8-milliliter bottle of contact moistening fluid, I was “Rage(ing) Against the Machine” in my own small way.

“FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME! FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!” I chanted furiously – but, you know, not out loud. Just in my head.

Various Observations on the Coachella Crowd

  1. This was, by far, the most ethnically diverse crowd I have ever seen at a concert. There were people from all over the U.S., all over Europe, and lots of Rock Fans of Color. Note to Self: Why am I always surprised/intrigued when I meet Black people with British accents?
  2. Huge UK contingent: Based on a recent experience at a Kasabian show in Seattle, I have formed the opinion that UK rock fans are loud, obnoxious, violent borderline sociopaths. This may be a generalization, but I’m standing by it. In the campground, you were supposed to quiet down after 2AM, but the UK soccer playing continued each night until well into the morning hours, accompanied by vigorous shouts of “BUGGER THAT!” and “Get FOOKED” and “Tha’s RUBBISH, MATE!” which effectively prevented any actual sleep from occurring. One night, an ill-advised soccer match between the UK and Australian delegations ended in a messy brawl, so the usual scuffling and Brit-inflected profanity was accompanied by police sirens and some asshole yelling orders through a megaphone. I got the details the next morning from the Mexican maitre’ de at the Bloody Mary Buffet, while I was stealing napkins.
  3. If you want (visual) access to a seemingly unending supply of eye-candy in the form of impossibly sexy, tanned, barely clothed young women OR men, Coachella is the place to be. If, however, you are a hetero guy, and you’re looking to actually parlay the situation into some sort of hook-up, you’re probably out of luck, my friend. I saw a ton of apparently unattached young guys roaming the grounds, but every hot young gal was on the arm of a protective boyfriend. I saw one or two (presumably) lesbian couples holding hands, and no gay couples holding hands. Plan accordingly.
  4. While you will undoubtedly see lots of hot young things of both sexes, don’t expect to see any actual nudity. This is a family event! I saw one young woman on her boyfriend’s shoulders who was picked up on the huge video screens; the moment she tore her shirt open to display her forbidden, delectable breasts, the camera cut away to some guy waving a Scottish coat of arms. I consider myself an enlightened guy, and do not approve of this public display of women’s bodies to appease the insatiable male gaze. Still, I hoped something might happen – you know, spontaneously – and that I would be there to witness it, after which I could cluck my tongue in disapproval, while also being titillated. No such luck.
  5. While I was mostly focusing on staying hydrated and avoiding sun stroke, there were a lot of people actually dressing up for the weekend. There were a whole group of young men (and one young woman) roaming around wearing nothing but Adidas sweatbands, headbands, sneakers, socks, and much-too-small Adidas running shorts. Upon request, they would do push-ups or form a human pyramid while you took pictures. There were a group of friends wearing British Raj-style pith helmets, and one dude wearing a giant plastic skull over his head, which I never saw him remove, not even in the 100-degree heat, not even when he was eating, not even in the frightening chaos of the Rage mosh pit.

* * * * * *

Overheard conversation between two women blazing up in the crowd, prior to the !!! performance:

“This shit is good. Damn, how much are you paying for a baggie of this?”

“Twenty or thirty.”

“No fuckin’ way! I used to get mine from a skinny little jerk who lived downstairs, but he went all Christian on me, so I had to hook up with some out of town connections, and that shit is so weak, and the asshole is charging me fifty!”

“The thing I can’t get anymore is E. I used to be able to pick up E from everyone, on my way to the fuckin’ supermarket, but not anymore. It’s like all the E dried up in my fuckin’ town.”

“Are you kidding? We’ve got some E – Honey, give this girl some E!” (motions to boyfriend, who obliges)

Thirty seconds later: “Hmm. I’m not feelin’ it yet.”

“Give it a few minutes. This is good stuff, believe me, sister. We got it from some dude who works at the furniture warehouse.”

“Shit, yeah. Now I’m getting it. Hey, who’s playing next?”

This was the only drug-taking that I witnessed all weekend, however. As I said, this is a family event.

Other General Observations on the Coachella Festival Grounds

  1. The food selection was much better than expected. Especially yummy: French Fried Artichokes. Where can I purchase these in the Northgate area?
  2. There are five stages on the Coachella grounds: the Coachella Stage, where all the headliners play; the Outdoor Theater, which is a slightly smaller version of the Coachella Stage; and three stages (Sahara, Mojave, and Gobi) covered by tents. To my ears, the sound was uniformly excellent at every stage.
  3. Plenty of porta-potties and hand sanitizer dispensers, but not a single sink with running water, and no soap. No Dove, no Lava, no Irish Spring, nothing.
  4. Once you’re inside the festival grounds, there’s no turning back; you cannot return to your car, or go back to your tent to get something you forgot. “No Re-Entry” means you’re inside the festival grounds each day from 11AM to approximately 1AM the following morning.
  5. They’ve got cool, large-scale artwork everywhere, with fire-breathing machines and giant Tesla coils blazing after sundown.

All weekend, anticipation had grown for the performance by Rage; there was a staggering abundance of other, equally excellent bands to see, but every single person I spoke to was there to see Rage. Me, too, though Crowded House and The Jesus and Mary Chain were tied for a close second. Rage had split up 7 years prior, and I never had a chance to see them live. In my former life, looking at them from a distance, they seemed so… angry, even frightening. To my eternal regret and shame, only as they were in the process of breaking up did I get over my fear of them. Many of the kids at the festival were too young to have seen them the first time around, so we were all in the same boat: perhaps too desperate to see our idols.

The audience area for the Main Stage was subdivided into four quadrants by intersecting “Security Corridors” bordered by steel fences. Security guards roamed these corridors, muttering into their walkie-talkies, monitoring the crowd, pulling out dehydrated fans, and mostly just making sure that no unauthorized personnel breached the sanctity of the Security Corridor.

Rage was scheduled to perform at 11PM Sunday evening on the Coachella Stage. To secure choice positions, single-minded fans began arriving in front of the stage at 11AM, fully intending to stand in the direct sun, without access to food, water, or bathrooms, for the next 14 to 16 hours, through all eight of the “opening acts.” I wish I could mock these people, but that would hardly be fair, since I was there with them, planted at the rightmost front corner of the left rear section.

Before staking my claim, I bought several “Veggie Wraps” from a stall in the American Food Court, and jammed them into the pockets of my shorts. Before the second band had left the stage – at least 10 hours before Rage was scheduled to appear – the sweltering heat and jostling crowd had rendered the wraps inedible, so I simply went hungry. That was the least of my problems. I have what you might call an “active” bladder, so I avoided fluids entirely. A brave young woman next to me found another solution to the problem. Flouting all normally accepted rules of public behavior, she simply held a Gatorade bottle under her skirt, yanked her panties to the side, and let fly. When the bottle was full, she carefully placed it on a ledge on the inside of the Security Corridor. After I realized what she was doing, my first thought was, “That’s disgusting! Kids these days have no sense of decency!” followed almost immediately by my second thought, which was, “Where can I get one of those empty Gatorade bottles?” By the time the third band of the day had taken the stage, the lack of fluids had left my mouth dry and my lips cracked. Also, I felt dizzy.

Every couple of hours, I wiped myself all over with a sunscreen-impregnated tissue purchased at the General Store tent. Sadly, I neglected to wipe my feet where my sandals left my skin exposed. By the time the fourth band took the stage, bright red stripes (which would not fade for several weeks) had been branded into the tops of my feet. To prevent muscle strain, I tried to bounce lightly back and forth, shifting weight from one leg to the other, but sometimes I forgot and locked my knees, and then remembered again when the shooting pains started in my lower back. Sometimes, I was able to actually sit on the ground for a minute or two, but that became impossible as the day went on, with tens of thousands of impatient Rage fans packed up against me, trapping me tightly against the metal fence.

The sun was relentless. Searching for some way to shield themselves, people in the audience began dismantling all of the cardboard recycling bins in the area to create a motley assortment of hats, lean-to’s, and other improvised shelters.

Around 3PM, too neurotic to utilize the “Gatorade solution,” I had no choice but to seek out a bathroom, so I negotiated a deal with my neighbors to save my spot in exchange for some frozen lemonades. I navigated back through the crowd to the nearest porta-potty, sprinted to the frozen lemonade stand, then jogged back to reclaim my spot, only to find a newly-arrived couple just settling in. After some tense discussion, we struck an uneasy truce and agreed to share the spot, with the result that there were now three people in a location that previously had seemed too small for one.

As each band left the stage, some guy in my section would stand up on the security corridor rail and shriek: “Only 8 more hours until Rage Against the Machine!” (or however many hours it was) and the security guards would swarm over and yell at him to get down from the rail (“This is the LAST TIME we’re going to warn you!”), and the crowd would go berserk. On top of the punishing heat, lack of water, and general lack of much-needed elbow room, there was a hovering ominous feeling, a simmering apocalyptic menace, wild-eyed fans confiding with all seriousness that “I’ve been waiting my whole fuckin’ life for this moment, man…” and “After tonight, I don’t care if I die…” and “Rage is gonna blow this place UP” and stuff like that. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a lefty, I’m sympathetic to their politics, I’m angry about the current administration and our country’s history of oppression, and I Love Me Some Rage. I’ve been to plenty of big concerts, and I’ve even ventured into a mosh pit or two in my time. Still, I was starting to feel a little apprehensive, and I wasn’t the only one. I had seen hardly any security personnel all weekend (except at the entry gate), but, throughout Sunday afternoon, scores of tough-looking Security people arrived in the vicinity of the Coachella Stage, all nervously eyeing the crowd and signaling one another with S.W.A.T.-style hand gestures.

As the day dragged on, and the number of audience members collapsing from heat stroke continued to climb, Security realized they’d better do something. The most obvious solution would have been to spray cool, refreshing water over the audience, thereby lowering dangerously high body temperatures, but there was no plumbing to make this possible, and Shower Guy could not be located for consultation, so they did the next best thing: pelting the audience with plastic bottles half-full of water the temperature of urine.

Dusk fell, and yet another not-Rage band appeared. These guys looked like a bunch of college music nerds, the kind of dudes that might work in a CD store near the local university, recommending the latest Magnetic Fields album. They seemed a bit overwhelmed by the scale of the stage and by the roiling mass of the continually expanding crowd, which by this point stretched back past the sound engineer’s platform, completely engulfing the frozen lemonade stand and the self-sustaining biosphere exhibit, back and back and back until the crowd waiting to see Rage was indistinguishable from the crowd waiting to purchase Decembrists t-shirts.

One member of the band of nerds approached the microphone. “Hi,” he greeted the crowd, in a curiously subdued and genuine “non-rock-star” voice. “We’re Explosions in the Sky, from Austin, Texas, and we are so psyched to be here in Coachella. We’re really looking forward to playing our songs for you guys, so thanks a lot for listening…” As his meek introduction trailed off, he stepped back from the microphone, made some last-minute adjustments to his guitar, and began playing a gentle, repetitive melody; almost a lullaby. “These guys are going to be killed,” I thought to myself.

As the guitarist played, he closed his eyes and swayed back and forth, like someone in a trance, or maybe like an autistic child. From that moment on, it was almost as though the 60,000 heat-deranged people in front of the stage didn’t exist; the four members of Explosions in the Sky were focused exclusively on their instruments and on each other. Just at the moment when the hypnotic main melody began to lull me into a stupor, something intangible shifted. The melody become more insistent, aggressively demanding an answer from someone, anyone… then the second guitarist added his own commentary, pushing against the original melody, sometimes joining its questioning refrain only to break away and respond with angry counter-argument. The members of the band stood in a circle, facing each other, swaying in unison, seemingly oblivious to the unruly crowd and the spectacular surroundings. A row of magnificent, spot-lit palm trees encircled the festival grounds and stage. In the middle distance, the slanting rays of the evening sun turned the desert air bright orange. A range of purple mountains, flecked with blood-red highlights, marked the horizon.

The music became louder, more complex, and the energy pouring from the stage was a palpable thing. What began gently had transformed into something monstrous, something that threatened to spiral out of control. Not being familiar with Explosions in the Sky, I wasn’t sure if they had begun playing a new song, or if the original song was being angrily dismantled. All four musicians were now fully lost in the swirling, towering hurricane of sound, flailing at their instruments with actual violence. The first guitarist was crawling on the stage floor, tearing at his strings with spastic, erotic movements, then kneeling over his effects pedals, coaxing ever more terrifying squalls of noise from his damaged instrument. Half-empty water bottles arced lazily over our heads, spilling their contents in slow motion, individual droplets illuminated by the setting sun. The audience, threatening to riot just 15 minutes before, was now mesmerized. To me, the moment was so rapturous, so beautifully cathartic, that I couldn’t stop laughing.

I think many of the people in the audience – like me – had never seen Explosions in the Sky perform live, and – like me – were absolutely floored. The crowd signaled their approval with deafening applause. Other bands were not as fortunate.

Clearly, there was a sizable minority of open-minded music lovers in the audience, willing to give a listen to the many bands who appeared that day on the Coachella Stage. Those people, however, were the exceptions. The clear majority came out strictly to see Rage and nothing but Rage, and any other bands were nothing but annoying filler delaying the appearance of Rage. These single-minded fans expressed their frustration by chanting “RAGE! RAGE! RAGE!” during every set, and occasionally screaming at the non-Rage performers to “Get off the fuckin’ STAGE!!” They were mostly tolerant of Willie Nelson, in honor of his rep as a pot-smoking outlaw, and Manu Chao was given a pass because he played some punk riffs really fast, and because he had some rabble-rousing political things to say. But Lord help the unfortunately-scheduled Crowded House.

By the time Crowded House took the stage, wearing tailored suits, to showcase their elegantly baroque classic pop stylings, the desperate and dehydrated crowd had worked itself into a Rage-obsessed fury. Even worse, thanks to the well-intentioned efforts of the Coachella Security staff, that minority of the audience inclined to actual violence had stockpiled an intimidating arsenal of empty and half-empty water bottles.

At first, the audience seemed content to just throw these bottles up in the air, or into another section of the audience. Which was kinda fun, unless you were the poor sucker who got brained with a still-mostly-full bottle of Aquafina. Then it was slightly less fun. After a couple of songs’ worth of chiming guitars, harmonized vocals, and clever lyrics, however, the audience began directing its anger squarely at the members of Crowded House. “RAGE! RAGE! RAGE!” they chanted, expressing their displeasure. “Get off the STAGE!” they shrieked, eyes blazing. When Crowded House inexplicably refused to obey this direct order, the bombardment commenced. The kiwi pop purveyors soldiered on, hoping to win over the haters, but the tipping point had clearly passed, probably during the chorus of “Four Seasons in One Day.”

Halfway through their biggest hit, “Don’t Dream it’s Over,” a water bottle hit singer Neil Finn directly in the face. His microphone, collateral damage in the attack, was knocked off its stand and disabled. Rather than conceding defeat and leaving the stage, Finn signaled the rest of the band to stop playing, and tried to convince the audience to sing the chorus. By this gambit, he shifted the mood just enough to win a momentary reprieve. “It was a good shot, it has to be said,” he noted wryly once his microphone was replaced. “But I’ll be watching for the next one.”

After playing a few more songs to a slightly less violent but still completely disinterested audience, he tried again to engage the crowd. “Well, it’s a beautiful night,” he began. “It’s an honor to share the stage with artists like Willie Nelson, Manu Chao, and Rage Against the Machine…”

“RAGE! RAGE! RAGE!” the audience replied.

“Yes, totally awesome,” Neil agreed, grimly.

“GET OFF THE STAGE!” someone screamed. Crowded House played a couple more songs and then complied with the request.

11PM eventually arrived. With some difficulty, I was able to turn around and then lift myself up on the security railing. I literally could not see where the crowd ended; it seemed that the entire festival grounds was full of people, all facing the main Coachella Stage, all awaiting the long-hoped-for reunion of Rage.

It was crowded in my section, but it was much, much worse in the front two sections. People up there, fenced in on three sides by security railings, were jammed in so tightly that they were unable to move. Or breathe.

Every so often, someone would pass out, eyes rolling back, and slide downward, out of sight. Some wisely conceded defeat before collapsing, and a steady stream of limp, sweat-drenched quitters were being passed, hand over hand, above the heads of the audience, to the relative freedom of the Security Corridor. Security personnel, trying to maintain the integrity of the Security Corridor, would scream at these half-conscious, red-faced, hyperventilating émigrés to “MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!”… ignoring the fact that the crowd had now grown so large that it completely blocked the open ends of the Security Corridors, leaving no destination toward which the displaced fans could “MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!” The rapidly-growing immigrant community soon filled the Security Corridor, until it was almost as densely populated as the oppresive land from which they had escaped. Security personnel, baffled and frightened, barked unintelligible questions into their walkie-talkies and unenforceable orders at the refugees.

The lights dimmed, and the audience erupted. Lights came up at the back of the stage, illuminating a mammoth backdrop, slowly unfurling; Rage’s well-known red-star-on-green-background symbol. Drawing out the build-up for maximum impact, it took a full minute for the red star backdrop to completely unspool, during which the cacophony and violence only intensified. Video screens revealed Zack de la Rocha at the side of the stage, jogging in place, which drew an even louder, more crazed response from the audience. We could see the other band members walk onto the stage in the partial darkness, then a spot picked out Zack de la Rocha at the mike. “Good Evening!” he shouted. “We’re Rage Against the Machine, from Los Angeles, California!” and then shit really blew up.

I have been to something close to a hundred live music shows in my lifetime, and never – NEVER – have I experienced anything like the intensity of this moment, at the beginning of Rage’s performance at Coachella 2007. First, the ugly bass riff which the crowd immediately recognized as the opening of “Testify,” then the drums kicked in, and the spots erupted, bathing the audience and stage in white light, and then… complete pandemonium.

We could not turn around, sit down, or breathe without difficulty, but the entire audience was violently leaping up and down in time with the ferocious music. Water bottles and other debris sliced through the air. Some guy, desperate to escape, clambered up onto his friend’s heads, scrambled across the roiling mass of humanity, then leaped off, somersaulted in mid-air, and landed on his feet in the Security Corridor.

A young woman attempted the same trick, and landed with a CLANG as her forehead struck one of the security fence supports. She also knocked over the bottle of urine, but I doubt she noticed that. She staggered to her feet, a ragged gash on her forehead, urine spilled across her t-shirt, and began wandering dazedly toward the stage. “TURN AROUND NOW! GO BACK THE OTHER WAY!” Security personnel screamed, as they physically propelled her back the “correct” way, which meant she walked about 10 feet before reaching the traffic jam of other refugees also trying to escape, like in the movie Independence Day, when everyone is trying to leave the city at the same time and Jeff Goldblum gets stuck in the traffic jam with his Dad, played by Judd Hirsch. He was great in “Ordinary People.”

For some reason I never figured out, the agreed-upon escape route from my section led directly over my head, and I found myself spending less time watching the band, and more time straining to look over my shoulder, trying to avoid getting my neck broken by the next desperate escapee. Inevitably, as soon as I focused on the stage for more than a few seconds, I would feel a foot or a knee or a grasping hand on my shoulder, and some half-crazed young man or woman, frothing at the mouth, would shriek into my ear, “Jesus Christ HELP ME GET OUT OF HERE!”

There was some kind of commotion with Security, as they couldn’t seem to decide how to get injured people out of the crowd. My own panic had been rising for some time, but when I saw the Security people yelling at each other and gesturing angrily, obviously out of their depth, my panic bloomed, threatening to engulf. Then someone fell on my head, snapping my neck to the right. Scared, I heaved the body off me violently, and the young woman crumpled to the ground inside the Security Corridor. In front of me, three Security guys were trying to pull someone who looked unconscious out of the front section. Unfortunately, the crowd was wedged in so tightly that they couldn’t pull Unconscious Guy’s legs out; it looked like his shoes might be snagged on a hidden part of the security fence or something. Eventually, they just propped him up on top of the security fence until they could figure it out.

For a few seconds at a time, my position against the fence would be relatively comfortable, and I would think, “Everything’s okay; I can do this.” But without warning, the combined weight of the 40,000 people behind me would suddenly shift forward, pinning me to the fence, and then I would think, “Fuck, one of my ribs just snapped.”

After about four songs – none of which I can remember – I had had enough. I waited until the crowd’s weight shifted away from me for a brief moment, then hauled myself over the fence into the relative safety of the Security Corridor. Before I even hit the ground, a Security guard was screaming at me to “MOVE!” By this time, they had cleared a path through the Security Corridor that led directly to the front of the stage. As I was hustled past, I had a brief, unobstructed view of the band, a single undistracted moment when I could listen without anxiety and you know what? They sounded awesome.

As Zack de la Rocha advocated the armed overthrow of the federal government, we were marched past the front of the stage and on into the First Aid Tent, stage left, now filled to capacity with wounded audience members. Several people lay on the ground with eyes closed, unconscious or possibly dead.

Not visibly injured, I was rejected from the First Aid Tent, and Security herded us further and further out to the fringes of the audience, until we reached a dead zone where we could no longer see the stage or hear the music distinctly. We tore down a chain-link fence and escaped through the now-abandoned Beer Garden, and my Coachella weekend came to an end.

Stuff I Saw on Friday:

  1. The Comedians of Comedy – the first stand-up comedians to play Coachella, apparently. Like any collection of stand-up comics, about half good. Unfortunately, the other half was painfully bad, the low point being a DJ with the supposedly humorous moniker of “Scratch-utory Rape.” Um… yuck?
  2. Tokyo Police Club – I heard a lot of good things about this band, but they didn’t do a thing for me. “Amped-up new wave infused with a bit of emo” says one reviewer on Amazon, and that’s about right, but I can name several other current bands who do this kind of thing much better.
  3. Of Montreal – Glammy gay disco, with excellent costumes, tons of energy and stage presence. Not something I’d go out and buy, probably, but they put on a fantastic show, and the audience was jumpin’.
  4. Arctic Monkeys – What do you mean, you never heard of ‘em? They’re bloody HUGE in the UK! HUGE, I tell you! Snide, clever and very British, they’ve got those wry observational lyrics (Ray Davies comes to mind) down pat, attitude like Oasis but smarter and scruffier-sounding. I only knew a couple of songs by these guys, but they were tight as hell and funny to boot and now I’m gonna check ‘em out.
  5. The Jesus and Mary Chain – They started off a bit creaky, but grew more confident with every song, and by the end, this was one of my favorite performances of the weekend. Scarlett Johansson (yes, THAT Scarlett Johansson) appeared on stage to sing the female vocal part for “Just Like Honey.”

    Jason’s Favorite Part:

    Jim Reid: “Are you all feeling good tonight?”

    Audience: “YES!”

    Jim Reid: “Well, we’ll see what we can do about that…”

  6. Interpol – Yes, the first few songs on their first album are peerless. Yes, lead singer Paul Banks looks real moody and intense and has a cool haircut. Live, though? Meh.

Stuff I Saw on Saturday:

  1. Fields – My favorite band of all time (this week). Draw a straight line connecting the pagan Brit-folk of Fairport Convention to the swirling psychedelia of Sky Cries Mary, and you’d be close to the sound of Fields. Mysterious, dramatic, with a stunning mastery of song arrangement and sonic dynamics. Their mixture of the emotional and experimental also brings to mind bands like Mew or possibly Film School. Lucky me; I was only in this tent to get a good spot for a band playing later. I had never heard of Fields before I saw their name on the schedule, but they utterly blew me away. To top it off, they’ve got style to spare. Thorunn Antonia looks like she stepped out of a British spy movie from the 60’s. Jason sez: Check ‘em out.
  2. The Cribs – NME scribe Hardeep recommended these guys. Energetic punk pop, but all the songs sounded the same to me. Seemed like nice blokes and all…
  3. The Fratellis – I read a review that described the Fratellis’ sound as “hoary old clichés exaggerated until they’re interesting again” and that’s not untrue. Swaggering Brit-pop with bits of Blur (circa “The Great Escape”) and the Kinks thrown in. Every song seems to end in a joyous, drunken singalong chorus, which can be annoying, but in small doses, intoxicating (intoxicated?) fun.
  4. DJ set by members of Autolux – My son Max and I are huge Autolux fans – I even have a copy of “Future Perfect” signed by drummer Carla! – but, alas, they are not professional DJs, not by a long shot. Still, I got some cool photos:
  5. Peter Bjorn & John – I know they’re kind of a big deal right now, but I don’t know a thing about ‘em, except they’re from Sweden, and they write super-catchy pop songs that have a bit more depth and range than I expected. Nothing revolutionary, but I’m still humming some of the songs I heard, and they had plenty of stage presence, so I’ll probably do some iTunes prowling later…
  6. !!! – First off, there’s like 10 dudes onstage. There are a couple of drummers, two other guys who look like accountants, two singers who both remind me of Will Ferrell, and they all just sort of randomly switch from one instrument to the next as the mood strikes.

    They play hyperactive, hedonistic, unbelievably tight dance-funk-rock, with self-aware song titles like “Take Ecstasy with Me,” and they put on, without question, the sweatiest set of the festival. At one point, I got clocked in the ear by the heel of a guy flying over my head, and at the end of the set, the band assaulted the audience with Super-Soakers. Awesome.
  7. Ghostface Killah – I only saw the last 10 or 15 minutes of his set, but it was exactly what I expected/dreaded: 10 or 15 minutes of a guy shouting “Give it up! Yo! Yo! Give it up! Yo! Yo!” while running around the stage, which was populated by 20 or so hot women dancing, and it ended with Ghostface admonishing the crowd to abandon violence: “Peace OUT!” I found it laughable, but the audience seemed to love it, so what the hell do I know from hip-hop?
  8. Blonde Redhead – Like a less adventurous My Bloody Valentine or Mazzy Star. They looked nice, played well, and the lead singer had a beautiful voice that suited the drony music perfectly, but I didn’t hear anything that made me want to investigate further.
  9. Gotan Project – Like Deep Forest mixed with The Buena Vista Social Club, with some nice Spanish guitar and a cool video backdrop of tango dancers and whatnot. I heard them on the smaller outdoor stage, just after sunset, with a relaxed and attentive crowd. The sound was crystal clear, their musicianship was first-rate, and it was unlike anything else I heard at Coachella. Not groundbreaking by any means, but very pleasant on a warm night outdoors. It would probably sound great in the background at your next cocktail party, especially if you have a nice buzz on.

Stuff I Saw on Sunday:

  1. Mika – What in the hell? Who IS this guy? How did he get scheduled on the main stage? Is he big in Japan or something? Reminded me of the acts that played in the lounge at that “all-inclusive” resort in Mexico.
  2. Lupe Fiasco – Well… he’s obviously in excellent physical condition, and clearly he’s got some verbal skills, but, uh, maybe I just don’t understand current hip-hop. Why is it that every song, even if it starts with a bumpin’ groove, has to eventually break down into boring shout-outs and audience call-and-response bullshit? Give me some Public Enemy or even LL Cool J any day. Hell, I’d prefer Young MC to this nonsense. Did I mention that I know nothing about hip-hop?
  3. The Feeling – Again: How did these guys get scheduled on the main stage? Kind of a Crowded House pure pop sound, but much simpler and punchier. Actually, I liked them quite a bit, but they’ve got a bit of maturing to do as songwriters. Their next album might be great.
  4. Explosions in the Sky – Cathartic, beautiful, awe-inspiring.
  5. The Roots – Hip-hop with live instruments, these guys can play like mad but receive a few demerits for playing almost nothing but cover songs. Again, I wish they would stay in the groove, instead of noodling all over the place with tuba solos and stuff, but still: an exciting live act. Devastating take on Dylan’s “Masters of War.”
  6. Willie Nelson – He had his two sons playing in his band, and his sister playing piano, and his set had a loose, family get-together vibe that was a nice break from the general intensity of the day. Willie still has a strong voice, a crackerjack band, and a humbling back catalogue. The audience loved him, and so did I, but the truth is, his set was a little sloppy, with false starts, missed cues, and fumbled lyrics. Still, I’m glad I saw him. Star sighting: Johnny Knoxville was at the side of the stage, clapping and grinning like a loon.
  7. Crowded House – Why, Lord, why? Someone should get fired for this scheduling. The most disappointing appearance ever by one of my absolute favorite bands.
  8. Manu Chao with Radio Bemba Sound System – Manu Chao is (according to Amazon) Parisian, but sings in French, Spanish, English, Arabic, Galician, Portuguese and Wolof (?). He used to be in a more punk-ish band called Mano Negra, but now his sound (with Radio Bemba) is a mixture of reggae, salsa, afro-pop, jazz, and, seemingly, just about everything else, covered with a thick, chunky frosting of garage rock. Also, his bass player looks like Anthony Quinn in “La Strada.” The Latino/Latina kids standing near me knew the words to every song Manu Chao played and sang along with fervor, but I had never heard of him before (it’s almost like we live in different cultures or something…). He and his band played an exuberant, crowd-pleasing set, and between songs, he had some surprisingly blunt things to say about current U.S. foreign policy, which made him points in my book. First complaint: Too many of his songs sounded like simplified, rocked-up glosses on various world music styles, and left me wanting the more nourishing “real deal.” Second complaint: Almost every song ended with a thundering, monotonous punk riff, the chorus shouted over and over by the entire band. The audience loved this, but me, not so much. Despite those caveats, an impassioned, exciting, joyous performance.
  9. Rage Against the Machine – Holy crap.

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