There may be people who only attended the third session of the 2008 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, but as a wise man once observed about his questionably unclothed behavior on a famed bathroom floor, "It Wasn't Me." So the remains of Days 1 and 2 -- The French Fry Diet, crap sleep, SPF 45 caked on like Steven Tyler's mascara, temperatures reportedly reaching a singeing 112 degrees, feeble showering, lost glasses/cell phone/dignity -- inevitably mar any memory of what occurred on Day 3. This is no grievance, since I was giddy at the flurry of activity all weekend, but eventally your physical shell slows to a crawl, turns on you with a tense glint, and shuts the whole charade down.
"Forget it, [your name here]. It's Coachella."
That moment happened for me when I hopped on a golf cart headed to the Sahara Tent with a couple of other stragglers -- one of whom was straggling a bit less because she'd just gulped a mysterious green capsule and was commenting on how the muddy road looked like a glowing, beautifully textured tapestry, or some shit. As we dodged what looked like members of Gogol Bordello (scarfs, mustaches, heavily accented cries of "Fuuuck!"), I glanced to my right and saw an enormous creature parked backstage, with "Fear Builds Walls" crudely scrawled on its side. It looked like an oversize piggy bank (is that where they're keeping Prince's $4 million?), but peering through the haze, I realized it was, of course, Roger Waters' infamous inflated porker.
Now I could've experienced a sense of wonder, like a child watching the Macy's parade balloons get blown up for the first time on Manhattan's Upper West Side the night before Thanksgiving. But for some reason -- a mix of fatigue, hunger, and a general loathing for Pink Floyd's never-ending bombastic trough-feeding -- the pig came to represent everything that Coachella shouldn't be, yet could easily become. The bloat. The greed. The baby-boomer rehash. The "anti-capitalist" rhetoric and imagery via monied hacks. The pointlessly boorish political theater (Waters hired a plane to drop thousands of flyers urging locals to vote for Barack Obama; and Coachella had to hire a crew to remove the litter from the yards and gardens of the lavish vacation homes that ring the site).
In a desire to always top themselves and never ever sell any fewer tickets than the year before, the organizers have to keep upping the ante. Seek out a buffoonish, wannabe-activist movie star like Sean Penn and indulge his crackpot, pseudo-Merry Prankster, bio-diesel, cross-country caravan of 300 "young people" to New Orleans "to do whatever they feel inspired to do." And give him a main-stage platform to pat himself on the back. And set the festival adrift on Waters' massive quadraphonic, surround-sound, greatest-hits video barge, with the politicized pig supposedly tearing away from its tethers by mistake (and ultimately landing in nearby La Quinta's Hideaway Golf Club, in "crumpled heaps of shredded, spray-painted plastic," according to report by The Desert Sun). Of course, it's difficult to believe that the whole wayward-swine incident wasn't just a planned publicity stunt, since the pig has a suspicious history of evading its moorings, even back in 1976 during a photo shoot for Pink Floyd's Animals album, when it caused flights at London's Heathrow Airport to be delayed and police helicopters were sent up to retrieve it.
But as the golf car puttered on down the service road, past the endless rows of palm trees, I decided to put all that tsoris behind, relax, and try to get lost in the sparkly fantasia of lights that my 'shroomy sidekick was rapturing on about. "It's like Christmas and New Year's and Mardi Gras all at once, like colors exploding..."
Eyes. Closed. Breathe.
OK, let's proceed.
"Baby, you set my soul on fire / I got two little arms to hold on tight / And I want to take you higher / Baby, you never should say never / I got a hurricane inside my veins / And I wanna stay forever"
Jason Pierce's new Spiritualized album Songs in A&E is for the battered but shakily defiant, the wounded but still willing, the self-destructive suckers who keep haunting both dens of iniquity and pews of sanctity vainly searching for answers to questions that they don't even know how to ask properly. In other words, all of us, and particularly those of us who were sweating like drunk stepdads watching Pierce sit on a chair and manfully strum his acoustic guitar in the Mojave tent on Sunday.
Spiritualized / Photo by Mark C. Austin
Backed by three violins, a cello, and three back-up singers -- all women, all dressed in black, all seated -- Pierce, sunglasses firmly in place, barely moved at all, facing toward keyboardist Doggen Foster (not the crowd), who was seated and dressed in black, also wearing shades. Whether Pierce was whispering or working up to a full-throated moan, the ballads from the new album (which was the majority of the set) cast a quiet pall over the crowd, which was part-transfixed, part-impatient, part-bewildered, and gradually thinned out over the course of the set. And to be honest, it's not surprising that this music, in the harsh daylight, is not going to work for everybody, and I can't tell you exactly why I was so moved, or which particular songs did the moving, partly since my notebook was a sweat-soaked blur of blue-ish scribble. Here are some words I could make out: "withering," "fucking self-assured," "don't mind dying," "dehydration deathmarch blues," "midget burnout bogarting a joint," "Amen."
Over on the main stage, My Morning Jacket were casting more of a spell than a pall, and though it's still hard to pin down what that spell is (which is probably to their credit), it's only growing deeper and more nuanced and dynamic. Bandleader Jim James' vocals, though still somewhat indecipherable, tap into a timeless wail that seems to float across fields and mountains and hollers and deserts and still be capable of nudging up to you while you're locked in your bedroom or imprisoned in traffic. The songs are intimate but expansive, and he and Carl Broemel's Gibson-guitar interplay -- Flying V vs. Les Paul -- effortlessly slides from warm to savage to silly-ass to grandiose to a flat-out roar. The stiff funk falsetto of "Highly Suspicious" left some baffled, but not for long.
My Morning Jacket / Photo by Mark C. Austin
At this stage in their career, MMJ have become the kind of artistically evolved band that I can imagine playing at any number of milestone events in your adult life and legitimately (almost) evoking the emotions involved -- from the terrifying loss of your innocence to the realization that you're glad it's finally fucking gone, from the first real shattering of your heart to the first real surrendering of your soul, from the first time you take yourself seriously to when you mercifully stop and actually laugh at all the pathetic bullshit you put your friends through, from the death of your parents to the birth of your first child, et al.
My Morning Jacket / Photo by Mark C. Austin
And there's not a pretentious bone in their bodies -- or at least they're skilled enough to keep it hidden. James just seems immersed in the immensity of music, which was apparent when he stopped the show to express his Portishead geekdom, and try to explain the impact of their Day 2 performance: "It's like a horrific funhouse and Beth [Gibbons] is like a spirit angel guiding you through it." I could insert a smart-ass, rockcrit punch line here, but sorry, I know exactly what the guy means.
Unfortunately, the oncoming, faux-Floyd fuckwittery seemed to distract the rapidly enlarging crowd, so I bailed to the aforementioned Sahara (a.k.a. "Dance") Tent, where the general idea was to bang one's body into an extended delirium to a series of mindlessly crowd-pleasing, frequency-tweaked electro-jams and blot out whatever enervating thoughts might be intruding on the closure of your weekend's pleasure. But strangely, for whatever reason (fear that too many bad little kiddies were putting too many bad little things into their systems?), the police presence had been ramped up markedly, and even the artists were having a difficult time accessing the backstage area. Credentials that had been honored all week were suddenly denied, and a series of new authorizations were supposedly needed (at one point, I had five different wristbands on my arm) and members of Chromeo (set to perform shortly) were locked outside and Justice (who were set to headline) couldn't even load in their equipment. Considering the retarded chaos of the situation, and the arrogant mook behavior of security, people didn't really freak out. They just milled around wondering why the usually best-run festival in the world had suddenly turned into an asshole-controlled, velvet-rope superclub on Washington Street in Miami Beach. For Simian Mobile Disco, Chromeo, and Justice! Not exactly the Monsters of Rock.
After a time, the stress level lessened backstage, though the numbers of security seemed to increase, and the crowd outside appeared to get more and more anxious to go off. Simian Mobile Disco's James Ford and James Shaw huddled around a futuristic DJ kiosk and cranked out a well-paced and occasionally spine-tingling barrage of Big Beat blast-offs. Chromeo's tongue-in-cheek, Zapp-derived nursery rhymes faired less well, despite the mob's appetite for anything remotely funky or freaky. They're a hoot in a dive, but the enormity of the scene overwhelmed them.
There's not much more that can be -- or should be -- said about Justice these days. They're French, they're bankrolled by Daft Punk's manager, they're marketing a line of leather jackets, their records are funny and catchy and sleazy. And oh yeah, their fans like to get massively fucked up. And if the blindingly goofy nature of the entire operation wasn't obvious enough, before the duo of Gaspard and Xavier took the stage, the PA blared Supertramp's "Logical Song," Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train," and most revealingly, Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," which is synonymous with the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park (it's played every game before the bottom of the 8th inning).
Let me be clear, the most significant difference between the Justice crowd (which enthusiastically belted out the songs's chorus) and the Fenway faithful was that you were much more likely to get groped by a creep on drugs in the Justice crowd, which was pretty ironic considering that Coachella started in response to the 1999 Woodstock festival, which was a sunburned grope-athon that quickly turned disastrous and tragic. Luckily, most riots aren't started to the strains of "Do the D.A.N.C.E. / Just as easy as A.B.C." I'm not necessarily blaming Justice for any of this -- the Coachella staff needs to do some reassessing before next year -- but having experienced, say, Daft Punk in a similar setting, and having watched the childlike smiles they inspire, as opposed to this array of leering desperation...
Maybe robots really do know what's best for us.