part one of a three-part series
This is the diary of a converted Coachella fanboy.
I’ll admit it. I’ll admit it.
Over the past three years, Coachella has been built up in my imagination as a fantastical desert paradise where details are sparse and music is tangential. No one ever gave coherent representations of their experience, only “I wish I could go back,” or, “It was amazing,” or, “TUPAC IS ALIVE!” I had stress dreams of being permanently trapped in the back of the infinite crowds that seemed to populate every video I’ve seen of Coachella shows. It was not something I was planning on getting into.
After rabidly following the rumors of an OutKast reunion and their eventual announcement as Coachella headliners, however, I impulse-bought a ticket hoping that A) I wouldn’t just be seeing OutKast, Nas, and Chance, then twiddling my sunburnt thumbs not having fun at a dozen DJ sets in oh-yeah-this-is-a-desert-heat before caving and spending most of my quarterly stipend to cry into a bowl of shitty Pad Thai, and B) my friends would also happen to get tickets.
Check and check.
Want to know what Coachella boils down to? Seeing 8 marquee concerts a day, for three days in a row, split only by twelve hour breaks of doing whatever the fuck you want on a campground full of 20-something music lovers who are disconnected from the real world, and present.
If you like music and can get your hands on a ticket, you should go.
After averaging 95 MPH down I-5 to get into the campgrounds before the 2 a.m. cut-off on Friday morning, we pulled into a campground line behind four cars filled with Stanford friends. We got through the car security check. We built a small Stanford village. We drank until we fell asleep. It was a good start.
(Note: This is long. If you want to skim, artists’ names are in bold and sections are demarcated by three asterisks, like below. I won’t be offended.)
The sun woke us before 10 a.m. We tried to keep cool under the canopies that made up our campground. We stayed hydrated. A plane circled around the Empire Polo Club, the Coachella grounds, advertising Trojan condoms.
I took a look at the line-up for Friday and wrote the acts that I would see in felt-tipped pen on a ripped piece of cardboard that I stashed in the inside lining of my hat. Coachella’s tents are largely named after deserts: Sahara, Gobi, Mohave, and Yuma — no one went to Yuma. The two larger stages are Coachella and Outdoor. Which is bizarre because they are both outdoors, and all the stages are part of Coachella. It made it difficult to figure out at first, until the stages became like homes away from home.
The camping sites are satellitic to the central festival grounds, organized by a few main ‘avenues’ with numbered streets jutting off to make it easy to find your way back. There are centrally located food stands, bathrooms, and general stores. There are portable showers, if you’re willing to wait an hour. Our camping spot was about one mile from the entrance to the festival grounds.
The grounds entrance have long lines for relatively lax security. As I stood waiting, a security guard wearing sunglasses said, “Empty your pockets, take your drugs out and throw them away, or give them to me!” He leaned over the railing to a girl behind me. “Can I tell you a secret?” He said. “I’m high as fuck right now.” More power to you, officer.
The grounds have huge installation art pieces, ranging from full sized popsicle stick houses to rectangular prism mirrors the size of shipping containers. There’s a lot of open space, but there are also a hundred thousand people there. It’s a skeleton of food stands, music tents, and stages. And a Ferris Wheel. They obviously have the Ferris Wheel.
A$AP Ferg lit up the mid-afternoon Outdoor stage, wearing an earthy-toned poncho and camo shorts and jumping around the stage yelling. It was exactly what I expected from an A$AP Ferg show. At one point he gestured towards the middle of the crowd and asked them to ‘split this motherfucker up like the Red Sea’ so he could run out into the crowd out to the speaker. It never materialized. The (predominantly white, probably hadn’t listened to him) crowd went buck wild to ‘Work’, despite Ferg botching the intro [“I know it’s Monday tomorrow and most of y’all gotta go to work — but fuck that, we’re gonna go to work RIGHT NOW.” (It was Friday)] Regardless, the Trap Lord brought it. I was yelling lyrics to ‘Shabba’ all weekend — EIGHT GOLD RINGS LIKE I’M SHA-SHABBA RANKS.
Aloe Blacc had one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen. I think it’s his eyes. I’ve watched videos of his fantastic shows, and was excited to see him live, especially after his slew of recent pop hits. I also talked to him on the phone once. He was playing a small venue in my hometown of Cleveland. A friend of mine got backstage, called me and told me to stay on the phone, and shoved the phone in his face saying, ‘This guy is your biggest fan and introduced me to your music please talk to him on the phone,’ and suddenly I was sitting in my dorm room talking to Aloe Blacc. I called him ‘Mr. Blacc’, and we talked for about five minutes. Much has changed since that evening in 2010, when he was relatively unknown aside from writing a short-lived HBO show’s theme song and working with underground Los Angeles rappers, to today being the main vocalist on a track that has been number one in 22 countries, Avicii’s ‘Wake Me Up.’ When he played his acoustic version, a guy next to me said, ‘Wait, he’s this guy?’, and his friends shrugged and nodded. Every cell phone came out. During his dance break he said he was ‘dancing like a grandpapa,’ and everyone laughed, and he smiled. You are the man, Aloe.
(Note: I also saw Bastille, Ellie Goulding and Zedd. They were just okay. I was there for their hits, which were satisfying, but the rest was underwhelming (Sorry, Bojan). Bastille’s Dan Smith’s hair-do and cut-off Jurassic Park tee, however, were on point. Ellie Goulding had a unique singing voice that sounded like she was gargling water in her mouth. (If you’re reading Ellie, I mean this in the best way possible.) We referred to her as Ellie, like we were good friends. Zedd just made me feel like I was at a frat party. Which is fine, you know, but, like, not really.)
After, ahem, Ellie, I had a short break written onto the cardboard slip in my hat (gotta follow the cardboard schedj), so we made our way back to the campground. It was hard to coordinate our sub-group of about seven people, largely due to dead phones, and various states of exhaustion and inebriation. I sat in a canvas chair and almost fell asleep. Then I drank a Red Bull and we all got slices of Spicy Pie pizza for nine dollars each. I never have, and will never again, spend nine dollars on a slice of pizza.
(This slice was, admittedly, delicious.)
Throughout the festival, I was really anxious when I was not at a concert. We’re not talking FOMO here — I was largely, with only a few retrospective regrets, happy with the shows I decided to see. I just felt like I was messing up by not milking the expensive and talent-filled weekend for all it was worth. Being at the campsite or taking time to eat a meal was like filling up on the salad bar and fried plantains at an all-you-can-eat Brazilian Steakhouse.
My first foray into the Sahara EDM tent was to see the 16-year-old Dutch wunderkind, Martin Garrix. Garrix’s set was out of control. I’m far from a seasoned EDM-er and thought I’d be overwhelmed, but the show was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever been a part of.
Garrix’s set revolved around his monster hit ‘Animals,’ and banquet table-sized light panels descended from the ceilings and pulsed during his drops. Lasers created false ceilings and walls. PLUR was in full effect. The tent was packed. I danced dance moves that I didn’t know I had in my repertoire.
Yes, Martin Garrix is 16 years old. Here are some things I did at 16 instead of rocking an entire airplane hangar full of ravers at one of the five biggest music festivals in the world:
- drove without an adult chaperone
- had a relatively brief run in the high school soccer district tournament
- got my wisdom teeth removed
- thought very seriously about how I would lose my virginity
OutKast had the headline on Friday night, an 11 p.m slot on the Coachella stage.
OutKast has been a formative influence on my life since I began listening to real music. Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below was the soundtrack to my first year in Cleveland when I was eleven. I used to (read: still) sit on the edge of my bed opposite a large speaker listening to Aquemini from front to back when I need a break from reality. If you ask me for my favorite song, I’ll tell you ‘Rosa Parks.’ Two OutKast Rolling Stones covers are tacked on my dorm room wall directly above my head as I write this article.
After Andre apologized to the crowd following their mixed-reviewed Weekend One performance (“I know it’s kinda weird, but thank y’all for coming out”), and as I heard grumblings and warnings about the show throughout the week, I was a little nervous. What if ‘Kast didn’t bring it? What if their chemistry was off, and they weren’t the artistic shamans I had built them up to be? What if they were old?
From the moment I heard their voices over the loudspeakers as a video monitor / projector cube sat on stage with images of fire, American flags, and street signs, all doubt disappeared. I lost myself in their powerhouse twenty-four song set which exploded from the jump with high energy renditions of ‘Bombs Over Baghdad’, ‘ATLiens’, ‘Aquemini’, and ‘Ms. Jackson’. The casual fans were hooked. My heart melted with the horns of ‘SpottieOttieDopaliscious’, and I remembered times I’d been in love. It gave me the dickens reminiscent of Charles. I went word for word with a song that I never believed I’d have to chance to, ‘Rosa Parks’.
Kast ventured into territory that rewarded hardcore fans but was risky for the average listener, little-known, relatively low energy tracks like ‘Prototype’ and ‘Crumblin’ Erb’. The audience grew quieter. I sang louder.
I furiously scribbled notes as I observed the waxing and waning of the crowd. Andre 3000’s outfit was a not-so-subtle commentary on their first weekend critique and the festival atmosphere, a bright orange winter hat with a braided wig; a half black, half white jumpsuit, with an oversized two-sided tag hanging off that read ‘FOR SALE’ and ‘SOLD OUT’. Dre’s self-deprecating resignation came alive in this costume design, a tongue-in-cheek, grim smile to signing onto a forty music festival-tour in the coming year. Kast is getting paid headliner money to play to massive crowds who came expecting ‘Hey Ya!’, ‘Roses’, and ‘Ms. Jackson’, and who have never heard ‘Gasoline Dreams’ or ‘Elevators’. Before playing ‘Hey Ya!’, he walked off the stage playfully (?) bantering with Big Boi:
You gonna give it to ‘em, Dre?
I don’t wanna.
You gonna give it to ‘em, Dre?
I don’t wanna.
You gonna give it to ‘em, Dre?
ONE TWO THREE, HA—
But the tension appeared significantly curbed relative to the previous weekend, and when they closed with ‘The Whole World’, the atmosphere was jubilant and mutually appreciative.
After they left, we sat in the grass. I knew I had experienced something that I perhaps never again would.
Part Two is HERE — drug-induced confessions at Lorde, sober confessions to BANKS, Busta Rhymes hanging out with Tony Hawk, and a Coachella love story.