The most surreal thing about this Desert Trip experience wasn’t Roger Waters’ hundred-foot, crowdsurfing pig, with its reminder to “Fuck Trump and His Wall,” and the Red Staters in the audience who walked out, middle fingers raised at the insult. Nor was it the fact that he erected Battersea Power Station in a desert.
The most surreal thing about Desert Trip wasn’t Neil Young planting seeds on the stage, nor the crazy dove-shaped piano that descended from the rafters like Spinal Tap's Stonehenge, nor the full moon casting its soft light as he played “Harvest Moon” with Willie Nelson’s sons.
The most surreal thing about Desert Trip wasn’t Keith Richards’ and Ronnie Wood’s incredulous, delighted smiles to one another on this stage, their songs carried on the wind toward Joshua Tree, where the Stones once sat on rocks and dropped acid with Gram Parsons 50 years ago.
The most surreal thing wasn’t Sir Paul McCartney lovingly sharing stories with the audience like we were 75,000 of his favorite grandchildren — “Don’t forget to tell your friends you love them, because you never know when they might disappear” — reminding us that this pop star’s heart is still breaking from the loss of two utterly irreplaceable soulmates.
The most surreal thing definitely wasn’t Bob Dylan turning his back on us, so he could show us his soul. Nothing new there, were it not for the faintest hint of happiness about him, roused no doubt by the Nobel Prize that placed his words alongside those of Pablo Neruda, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney.
The most surreal thing wasn’t Pete Townshend’s bleeding face as he snarled “It's only teenage wasteland” with Ringo Starr's son on drums (his injury may have been sustained during one of his many guitar-shredding windmills). Nor was it when Roger Daltrey generously reminded us that Townshend wrote all these brilliant songs. Nor when Daltrey faltered on the impossibly hard end vocals of “Love, Reign O’er Me,” causing the audience to reward his vulnerability with a standing ovation.
So what was the most surreal thing about this concert? The branding — because there wasn't any.
No giant AT&T banner waving above Neil Young’s set. No Office Depot or Ford logos adorning the Jumbotrons as Roger Waters played. No “phone charging stations presented by T-Mobile” dotted around the grounds. No Coors branded beer gardens, or photo exhibits presented by Red Bull, or Urban Outfitters-sponsored porta-potties. Food stands served (mostly) affordable, delicious dishes by independent food trucks and small restaurants. Signage told you only what you needed to know.
I looked around and pinched myself. For the first time in many years, I was at a major music event where the contents of my field of vision had not been partitioned and sold off to the highest corporate bidder, in the hopes that my weakened mind would, through bombardment, learn to associate an energy drink, car or deodorant with a feeling that only music can create.
The artists on this bill came of age in a time when selling out and marriages of convenience between artists and corporations wasn’t cool. Selling out was the opposite of what artists did, rather than something they aspired to. They didn't have to team up with brands because their fans were buying records, and their labels were investing millions of dollars into their development, taking risks, giving them the resources, time and freedom necessary to create, experiment and live the lives that can give birth to songs that are this good.
As Roger Waters thumbed the sound of a ticking clock on his bass guitar, I flashed forward in a panic to a time when this kind of musicianship will have faded into history, monuments to a time when a song could start a revolution.
I thought about my friends up the road partying at Desert Daze, the tripped-out, scruffy, radical, underground kid brother of this event, and I imagined the kind of music some of those brilliant musicians and songwriters — Washed Out, Kiev, Thee Oh Sees, Connan Mockasin, Pond, Drab Majesty, Toro y Moi and many more — could be making if they hadn't come of age in a world where their greatest hope for financial viability rested in the hands of some suit at a car manufacturer or fizzy-drinks company who has determined that their song might help the right demographic engage with their TV commercials. Because for most independent musicians today, that's their only hope of ever making a real living.
I tried to imagine what it would be like if the Desert Daze performers still working bartending or graphic design side jobs could quit and focus 100 percent on actually writing good music and becoming the very best musicians, poets, philosophers, artists they can be. We need them to do this. Someone has to provide the world with a genuine alternative. Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, stars of the hyper-branded social media age — they can and will entertain and engage us, but they will never ask us to question our realities. Because the companies that helped create them don’t want music that starts revolutions. They want music that trains us to consume.
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