As soon as my friend and I got out of the car to begin our mile-and-a-half-long walk from "Coachella: The Parking Lot" to "Coachella: The Music Festival in the Desert" a couple weekends ago, I could hear them, faint but instantly recognizable and uniquely heartwarming to a girl of a certain age: Ponies. Ponies neighing. Coachella kicks it upscale--instead of spreading out a zillion-band lineup on the sticky blacktop of a sports-arena parking lot, the fest rents 78 acres of manicured fields from the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California. And before you get to the bands, or even to the long snaky line for the sun-ripened Port-O-Lets, you walk past the sheds and corrals that house the scene's year-round residents. When I got there they were stamping and saying hello to a few of the roughly 96,000 people who'd come to pass out facedown in the grass, relive their goth teenhood, and/or see the Arcade Fire.
The line for admittance, even for press, was half an hour long. I immediately lost track of my friend and wound up tagging along with Kelefa Sanneh, a pop critic for the New York Times. Once inside the festival grounds we started making our rounds like dutiful interns, visiting the main stage, the side stage, and the three performance tents--Gobi, Sahara, and Mojave. Our conversations went like this:
Me: "What band is this?"
K: "The Raveonettes" / "Snow Patrol" / "Eisley."
Me: "Really? They're awful."
K: Makes razor-sharp joke referencing the band's audience, influences, or publicist.
(Repeat for three hours.)
I noticed that Kelefa was barely taking notes on the groups we were watching, and because I didn't want to look like a fastidious cub reporter by comparison, I only pulled out my own notebook once all afternoon. When I opened it again to remind myself what I'd been inspired to write down, all I found was "Jamie Cullum: piano = awful."
I decided to skip UK hype victims Razorlight, since I felt like I already knew everything I wanted to about them--sitting behind me on the flight from Chicago, they'd spent the entire time talking loudly about how fucked-up they'd gotten at such and such a party and which extremely famous persons they'd been hanging out with. Instead I went to the VIP area, where I saw the very sweaty editors of several major American entertainment magazines shaking hands with the bassist from Snow Patrol. Then I overheard a couple of them trying to decide which one of the two black dudes wandering around the tent was the black dude from Bloc Party.
Around 7 PM, just as Wilco was starting up, the sun began to set over the mountains that surround the Coachella Valley. Maybe people just needed a rest after spending hours cooking in the desert sun or getting sloppy with the mamis in the beer tent, but it seemed like everyone was prone on the grass, taking in the scenery. Wilco's breezy sound, trilling Hammond organ, and soft-thrill solos turned out to pair well with sunsets and swaying palm trees--I felt the majestic rightness of it in a sudden easy swell, my first "Ahhh . . . Coachella" moment of the weekend.
Biplanes circled in the purpling sky, towing banners reading "NEW GORILLAZ ALBUM OUT MAY 24" or "SIRIUS (heart)s WEEZER." That was the only way they could deliver those messages--the festival's promoter, Goldenvoice, refrains from slutting the audience out to corporate sponsors. More than anything this is what separates Coachella from major U.S. festivals like Warped, Ozzfest, and Lollapalooza: no Yoo-hoo truck, no free Slim Jims, no army recruiters, no 20-foot inflatable women doubling as water slides. The relatively few booths were far from the stages, and most were pushing stuff at least tangentially related to the main event (music magazines, silk-screened concert posters, etc). The only vendors you could find near the main stage were selling churros and lemonade.
After sunset three-story TV screens flickered to life on either side of the main stage, each displaying a rotating Weezer logo. It looked like almost everybody at the festival had crowded around the stage, and they were screaming--nay, roaring--for the band. I watched Weezer do "Undone--the Sweater Song" from the bathroom line in the press section of the backstage area, three quarters of a mile away.
Wandering the grounds, I had a hard time crediting Coachella with being America's only European-style festival, as it's often described: instead the nobody-asked-for-it eclecticism of the many small attractions called up the ghost of Lollapaloozas past. (It was also pretty much guaranteed to be lost on folks who'd driven across six states to see Coldplay.) A quick sampling of the random crap on offer: 50 garbage cans decorated in bargain-basement outsider-art style, a DIY playzone with a bike-powered merry-go-round, a "chill-out tent" with giant misting fans and a sound track of the sort of lite house you hear in the dressing rooms at Express, and a wacky-hippie amusement consisting of a large metal sculpture and an armload of mallets. Lower-tier bookings, especially club acts, played to mostly empty tents whenever the headliners were on (the Coachella people owe James Lavelle of U.N.K.L.E. an apology if they didn't warn him that folks come for the white indie guitar rock), and the outdoor film screenings drew similarly sad crowds--maybe two people were watching the Minutemen movie, We Jam Econo, at 11:30 PM.
Like the Pixies last year and the Stooges the year before, Bauhaus was the big story at Coachella. Gossip about the band circulated like currency among the band's fans: that Peter Murphy is now a Sufi Muslim and lives in a village five hours by car from Istanbul, or that the other members of the band, though they all live in southern California, hadn't played together since the 1998 reunion tour and only decided to when Coachella offered them a giant pile of cash. (Based on what the other big names got paid, it had to be well into six figures--the ticket money really adds up at $150 a pop for a weekend pass.) Bauhaus had wanted to release 50 bats during their set but abandoned the plan, provoking an unfounded rumor that the city of Indio had intervened by stretching an ordinance that forbids bird releases at night.
I was never goth, and back when it mattered I never liked Bauhaus enough to own one of their records. But I am telling you now that the band's performance at Coachella was unfuckingbelievable. They hit the stage obscured by fog and white light and struck up the descending bass line and graveyard rattle of "Bela Lugosi's Dead," and everyone was craning their necks because you could hear Peter Murphy but not see him. He finally entered stage left, suspended upside down eight feet off the ground with his arms folded like bat's wings, being towed slowly sideways toward center stage on almost invisible cables and crooning "Undead undead undead." It wasn't till Murphy had been pulled back offstage, still upside down, and returned on foot that I first noticed his outfit, which was probably astronomically expensive designer stuff but looked like 70s ski pants and a top from Jacques Cousteau's clubwear line. He gave up the zillion-watt drama nonstop, brandishing a long staff that looked like a martial-arts weapon--he slung it around for emphasis and almost took out bassist David J twice. (Murphy, sans Bauhaus, plays the Metro on Wednesday.) Whatever Coachella paid these guys to reunite, it was worth it.
Still, Bauhaus wasn't all I'd come to see, so midset I raced back to the side stage and caught the end of Mercury Rev's epic space-rock blast. (They're at the Vic on Friday, opening for the Doves--see the Treatment in Section 3.) They were dressed like pirates, if pirates could order from International Male--lacy women's blouses are the new look for dudes in bands this season. Spoon was up next, and doled out terse, gorgeously ragged versions of both old and new songs for an impressive crowd--easily the best set on the side stage. Between tunes you could hear Chris Martin of Coldplay--at that moment headlining the main stage--rhapsodizing about the band's new record to the 70,000-deep barf-drunk crowd, suggesting that it might be the greatest album of all time. I took this as my cue to call it a night.
I didn't make it back out to the festival till 4 PM on Sunday, but of the 16 bands I missed, I'd seen half of them recently and hadn't heard of the other half. I checked out the Fiery Furnaces for two songs and then managed to get within 30 feet of the Gobi tent for M.I.A.--the only act I saw do an encore all weekend. In fact there might've been a minor civil disturbance if Ms. Arulpragasam hadn't come back on for another few minutes of her Neneh Cherry-goes-favela-funk bassplosion--clearly she shouldn't have been stuck in the littlest tent, which was kind of like a 500-capacity yurt. I ate some more churros, caught Tegan and Sara's hit song, then sat in the shade and ignored the Futureheads from a half mile away.
A friend commandeered a golf-cart transport by convincing the driver that he was in Bright Eyes, and we sped across the grounds in hopes of making it to the Arcade Fire's side-stage set. The entire back side of the stage was 30 or 40 people deep with members of other bands, and out front the audience was as huge and ebullient as it'd been for Weezer. Trent Reznor whizzed past us on another golf cart, a girl half his age tucked under each arm.
Sunday's sunset slot belonged to the reunited Gang of Four. I almost didn't watch, afraid that my favorite band might suck. The guys in Gang of Four are nearly as old as my parents, but took the stage spry and lively and jumped immediately into "Damaged Goods"--a song that is, more than a quarter century later, still inarguably the template for dance punk as we know it. Front man Jon King threw himself around the stage in a slate gray suit, wild-eyed and vitriolic, spitting "Sometimes I'm thinking that I love you / But I know it's only lust" as Andy Gill's guitar jutted and slashed--and then, when the frenzied final choruses stopped and switched to the outro, bassist Dave Allen flubbed it, not only playing through the pause but continuing to play the wrong part. Despite his shit-eating grin, the rest of the band glared at him openly. And he kept fucking up--by halfway through the fourth song I was disgusted with him. His mind-breakingly subpar playing was forcing Gang of Four to fake their way to the ends of the tunes, band-practice style, in front of 50,000 people. I left too early to catch the set closer, but it was in a local paper, the Desert Sun, the next day: King destroyed a microwave with a baseball bat.
I went to see Aesop Rock on the side stage, and with Mr. Lif as hype man he was better than usual--an audience of a few thousand yelled "Life is a bitch" along with him. The wind picked up, bringing in the aroma of the Port-O-Let villages. By the time Nine Inch Nails took the main stage it felt like a sandstorm was in the making, and I was headed back toward the parking lot. I turned and saw, a mile away, Trent Reznor's snarling head, as big as a house on the Jumbotrons and framed by illuminated palm trees. Over the distant din, I heard ponies.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jessica Hopper, Jason Squires--Wireimage.com.