As an Angeleno, I feel a certain civic pride in the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. It’s a bit of a Popsicle up the ass to all those East Coast snobs who still consider SoCal a cultural desert. And yes, those people do still exist — in the Midwest as well, and all over the country. These people are essentially jealous of our weather, and our inherent glamour. And Coachella proudly offers them one more thing to be jealous of: The nation’s premier, most talked-about, arguably coolest pop music festival. On top of all that, it’s also the first choice for any seminal ’80 or ’90s band looking to stage a reunion. This year, that group is our own Rage Against the Machine, whose breakup was actually quite recent, but feels like it happened ages ago. I suspect that’s because it happened way too soon.
The Jesus and Mary Chain are also playing at Coachella. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a funny thing: During the nü-metal era, I think Rage and the Chili Peppers both felt a certain loathing of the rap-metal scene that had sprouted around them. So did a lot of people, like me. O! what have you (and Rick Rubin) wrought? we asked, tearing our hair from our heads. Fortunately, the nü-metal fad is over. Unfortunately, I now must turn and ask the same question of the Jesus and Mary Chain — forebears of way too many poopy shoegazer bands in Silver Lake and elsewhere right now.
But anyway, I can’t front: Personally, I find music festivals to be brutalizing ordeals, and in some senses the worst possible way to experience music. True, I have had to attend many more music festivals than the average person would ever choose to attend. It started with the L.A. Street Scene in 1986, which featured a still-feral Jane’s Addiction, Guns N’ Roses and the Chili Peppers, among many others. I would describe to you the Guns N’ Roses riot, except I am certain I’ve done that many times before. (Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, who of course founded the Lollapalooza festival, must have gotten a taste for festivals at a young age. His new band, Satellite Party, is also playing Coachella this year.)
Over the years, as attending festivals became part of my job, I experienced all manner of nonsense, from Lilith Faire (Did it have an “e”? Seems like it shoulda.) to Ozzfest, Warped, Family Values, Smokin’ Grooves, Almost Acoustic Christmas, all that crap. There was even a New Country festival at a football stadium. And the very first Coachella, which had its moments, but I think also taught the organizers some painful lessons about what not to do again. (Damn, Perry Farrell played that one too.) And none of this includes the odd warehouse rave I may have voluntarily attended back in the day, as well as the hippie freakouts (Rainbow Gatherings, Nevada Nuclear Test Site encampments and so forth) — which were more Hacky Sack–focused in nature, but certainly did feature music.
Throughout this Festival Phase, I believe, ?I was searching earnestly for a true Woodstock experience — the hippie Holy Grail, the moment when you feel in your cells and your very breath a connection to All That Is. Unfortunately, I have discovered that most music festivals connect me, instead, to All That Should Never Be: bad music, terrifying fans, brutal sunburns, muddled sound and the painfully familiar sense of being utterly disconnected from — yet crushed by — humanity. Worse still is the soul-ache one feels when confronted with not one or two but loads of middling bands, who collectively represent a kind of State of the Music report. Too often, the news is not good.
The state of music is actually much better than it was in 1999, but I can recall one festival that year where I found myself quietly reading a Lester Bangs essay just offstage, while some awful band performed 10 feet away. (Let’s call them Flyspot. That sounds exactly like an “active rock” band from 1999.) Flyspot were extremely loud, but it was easy to tune them out, as the piece I was reading (about the Clash) was literally louder and cooler than the band playing before me.
My Festival Phase concluded around the time of Sonic Youth’s gig at Sunset Junction a few years ago. At that point, due to acute overcrowding, I reached a Festival Toxicity level, triggering a condition not unlike allergic asthma. It is also associated with conditions such as Morbid Misanthropy and Body Odorophobia.
Fortunately for the organizers of Coachella, many thousands of people have no such problems, and find the festival an annual delight. And fortunately for myself, I have learned to implement certain behavioral modifications whenever I find myself unavoidably in a festival situation. The most important technique (which has proved invaluable at the South by Southwest music conference) is to constantly remember: You don’t have to see every band. You can take many time-outs. You control your destiny!
This sense of personal sovereignty can be a creative thing as well. For someone like me, the beauty of Coachella is that it is so huge, you can — and must — literally curate your own minifestival within the festival. You can make your own Coachella, to a large degree, based on your mood and tastes. Strictly for kicks, I’ve outlined four potential Coachella Menus for imaginary friends, and one for myself, with kicky names.
1. The Gen-Ex-Junkie
Mood: Nostalgic for darker, younger days
Currently re-reading: Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis
Friday: Björk, Interpol, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth
Saturday: Red Hot Chili Peppers (too peppy?); the Good, the Bad and the Queen; Sparklehorse
Sunday: Rage Against the Machine, Air, Happy Mondays, Willie Nelson, the Lemonheads
That menu features a solid bunch of junkies and ex-junkies.
2. The Bitch Is Back
Mood: Ready to be entertained by proper divas
Currently reading: I, Tina, by Tina Turner
Friday: Björk, Amy Winehouse, Brother Ali, Rufus Wainwright
Saturday: Girl Talk, Pop Levi
Note: Lily Allen is absent on this list. I suspect Amy Winehouse could cream her at Boggle.
3. What Would Bowie Do?
Mood: Snobby; all postmodern & shit
Currently reading: Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Friday: Björk, Of Montreal, Gogol Bordello
Saturday: The Arcade Fire; the Good, the Bad and the Queen; Justice; the Black Keys; Hot Chip
Sunday: Manu Chao, Radio Bemba Sound System, Air, Ratatat, Klaxons, Teddybears
More bands should perform in character costumes like the Teddybears. Let’s start a band called the Flowers, and wear giant flower heads.
4. The Real Me
Mood: Honest about who I’d personally like to see
Currently reading: Mary Poppins, by P.L. Travers
Friday: Of Montreal, Amy Winehouse, Brother Ali
Saturday: The Frames, Girl Talk
Sunday: Rage Against the Machine, Willie Nelson, Crowded House, the Lemonheads (If feeling fantastic, I’d also check out Ratatat, Teddybears and Mando Diao.)
I told you, I hate festivals.
5. The Funny Name
Mood: On drugs
Currently reading: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
Friday: Tokyo Police Club, Comedians of Comedy
Saturday: The Chuck Dukowski Sextet
Sunday: Infected Mushroom, Spank Rock, Teddybears, Rage Against the Machine
This list consists solely of entertainers with funny names.