To successfully sneak into a big rock and roll festival, it helps to either be incredibly smart or really stupid. For the really stupid, it's an easy gig. You either use brute force or you take advantage of your willingness to put yourself at great risk. The really smart will get in because of extensive planning, extreme cunning and flawless execution. Some of us, though, are neither smart or stupid; we're just desperate to see the greatest of all bands, the goddam Pixies.
I am going to tell you how my wife and I snuck into this year's Coachella festival, the closest thing southern California has to a cultural event. Every year, 100,000 music fans crowd into a polo field, located in Coachella, a small town in the California desert. They gather from all over the region for a two day celebration of performance art, good music and drug-fueled hedonism at it's finest. A dizzying array of bands play this show. This year, the headliners alone are staples of every smart rock fan's record collection; the Pixies, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, and the Cure. Plus, hundreds of bands, performers, artists, short films... It's an old, burned out music critic's dream come true, and, gas and drinks notwithstanding, it didn't cost me a dime. I wasn't on any guest lists, I didn't schmooze anyone, no bands or record companies helped me to get in. It was much simpler than that.
Now, I tell you how I pulled this off with some reluctance. First, I'm totally biting the hands that feed here; the whole reason that record companies and PR firms allow people like me to go to shows, send us CDs and allow us to meet musicians is that they think we can dupe you (the reader) into BUYING concert tickets. If we tell you how to go see shows for free, well, it won't exactly be good for business. Also, if I tell you how I managed to pull this off, and all you little bastard readers catch on and try it, concert security will catch on to my grand scheme and it will be much harder for me to pull it off next year.
So, please, for my sake and for yours, just read this review for information and amusement. Don't follow my advice here. Hell, I could just be making all this up. Over the years, I've given Night Times readers every reason to doubt my credibility, and I've gotten nuttier as I've gotten older. So, yep, I'm probably just full of shit. At least that's what I'm telling my editors, record company reps, and various members of the Coachella police department.
I used to believe that the most effective way to sneak into a show was to use the front gate. Generally, front gate employees at venues are busy and easily distracted. They're not expecting anyone to just walk in without a ticket. Keep an eye open, move briskly, time it perfectly. It's better if you do this alone; you have a much better chance of getting in. This is how I snuck into past shows and it's worked pretty well.
I tested this theory Saturday night. Mind you, I couldn't do this alone, my Flaming Lips/Cure loving wife wouldn't let me. Arriving late, because of the day job, we rushed to the show in hopes of getting there by 7:20 PM to see THE PIXIES. I barely made it... by the time I rushed to the front gate, I heard a huge roar from the crowd and "Bone Machine" started. Dammit! The Pixies, a band I am in love with and discovered just after they broke up, were playing and I was missing it.
I panicked. I clamored. A phalanx of intimidating cops stood at the front gate. I didn't want to go to jail and miss the rest of the Pixies' set. Luckily, near the Red Cross tents I could not only hear the show, but also got a view of the large screens inside the venue. Frustrated and seemingly defeated, we watched The Pixies' reunion from the distance--like looking out your window and watching a show on your next door neighbors' television. You can see enough to tell that it's an amazing, worthwhile show (and it was; the Pixies played brilliantly) but the lack of context left it an ultimately unsatisfying experience.
After their set was over, we caught a break before the evening's headliners Radiohead. In a fenced-in area, directly behind the front Red Cross tent, I found a loose part of the fence. I've installed fences before, and this fence was very loose and easy to push and move. Creating a gap long enough to squeeze through, we cut and ran. A quick ten yard dash got us into the gate and onto the massive lawn to see RADIOHEAD. Thom Yorke and the boys did a good show, they always play together well, even though I don't like their last three albums nearly as much as I like the old stuff. They did have a massive light show that was amazing and they played their best songs, including "My Iron Lung" and "Karma Police". Despite missing the one thing I'd come there to see, we left the first night of the show semi-happy.
We had no place to go for the night, but we were definitely going to see tomorrow's show, albeit entering in a more effective way. In the meantime, we had 12 hours to kill and no place to sleep. Many Coachella goers stay at a nearby campground or get a room in hotels in Palm Springs. On my huge www.NightTimes.com salary, these things weren't an option, so we ended up driving through the lonely streets of a nearby small town called Indio. Every place was packed with concertgoers in the same prediciment as us. It was quite fun; local police were so obviously freaked out by the whole spectacle.
We spent the night in the bed of our pickup truck, lacking any alternative. When you're almost 30, sleeping in the parking lot of an In and Out Burger in the middle of the desert is enough to make you question your commitment to the rock and roll lifestyle. We awoke the next morning at about 7 AM; The gates to Coachella opened at 11. We headed towards the polo field for the show with no specific plan for action, only an urgent desire to get in.
Future Coachella crashers, take note. At my wife's suggestion, instead of snooping around the front gate, we explored the back of the festival grounds, heading down a road along the back wall. The festival gates were minutes away from opening, and most of the security crew is watching the front.
The wall was covered with tall and intimidating flower bushes and, unless you're a Marine or a world class athlete, impossible to scale. (This is all along, I think, Avenue 50. You see it when you drive into the festival. When you first glimpse the stages of the festival, on your left is a street that is blocked off and marked "Residents Only". This is where you walk, if you want to try this. But remember, don't try this. I'm making this all up.) Halfway down the street, right past a backstage gate, there was a cement address marker. I climbed on top of the marker, pushed through the rosebush, scurried over a hidden chain link fence, and hopped to the ground.. On the other side of the wall, peeking through the rosebushes, I saw a large tour bus. Backstage!
My wife followed suit, hurting her hand in the process. Some things are worth the small prices you pay for them. This is Coachella, dammit!
We were both backstage. No security in sight. Now, as any gate crasher can tell you, the most important part of sneaking in is LOOK LIKE YOU BELONG. Don't hesitate, don't look anyone in the eye; look like you know what you're doing. That's what we did. We took a hard left and searched for a way onto the large Coachella lawn. Near the backstage exit, local cops and security guards were eating breakfast.
You might think that this is cause for alarm, but I can tell you as an experienced lawbreaker, there are very, very few things that you can do to make a cop stop eating. Besides, for all the police officers know, I could be goddam Robert Smith. We walked past calmly, smiling.
We made it through, no one even glanced in our direction and a female cop, walking in, held the gate open for us. We were in Coachella. We walked the grounds. We even bought T-shirts. We were the first audience members in that day. We decided we'd camp out by the stage that day, to secure a spot toward the front for the evening's headliners. With visions of being close to The Cure dancing in our heads and T-shirts dangling in our hands, we head for the mainstage. The audience comes running in. We did it. It's the show of the year, and we're seeing it for free. Nothing's going to stop us now. I'm quoting Jefferson Starship...the sun must have made me sick.
After a long wait, the mainstage music started with THELONIOUS MONSTER, a cool LA funk/metal band that featured longtime LA scenesters and a cameo appearance from Flea on his first instrument to garner him attention, the trumpet. (He was introduced under his real name "Michael Balzary.") The band gave a good performance, and they've got a cool novelty; they name their songs after the bands or artists that influenced them; "Elton John", "The Cure", etc. The only weak point in their set came at the very end when their obviously drunk guitar player grabbed the microphone and made a silly, nonsensical anti-Bush speech. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a day full of silly political rhetoric. I mean it, more than half the bands I saw at Coachella jumped on the anti-Bush bandwagon, and, while I won't be starting a local chapter of the Bush fan club anytime soon, it all came across as empty and annoying. Should John Kerry win the election, what will most of these Coachella bands have to say for "witty" between song banter?
The next act offered such political rhetoric in abundance, poet SAUL WILLIAMS. His recitation of his fiery, militant black poetry was compelling to watch, his delivery was uncanny, but, like most left-wing propaganda offered at rock festivals like this, also ultimately felt like empty gesturing.
Next to hit the stage, the terrible ANTIBALAS AFROBEAT ORCHESTRA, a Brooklyn based group, comprising mostly of pot-smoking white guys, seemed to revel in its butchering of world music. Their black, dreadlock sporting lead singer, dressed like an Afrocentric Neil Diamond, awkwardly danced around and chanted gibberish. These guys obviously had one bad Santana album too many lying around their frathouse. One of their "songs" (using that term very loosely) seemed to imply that every famous right-wing politician be put on trial and executed. This whole silly spectacle may have been entertaining as a 6 minute Saturday Night Live skit on the absurdity of dumb Americans who fancied themselves as "knowledgeable" and "worldly", but it got really old after 45 minutes and no punchline.
After that horror, the audience finally got a break from absurd political posturing. The band was MUSE, from Australia. Now, if you liked what Radiohead was playing ten years ago, then Muse is the band for you. The audience was excited to see them, as their current single "Time is Running Out" has been played quite a bit on the radio here. When they first started their set, they set off the "hack alarm" in my rock music critic mind. But, truthfully, Muse, by virtue of their embrace of rock cliche and their pure musical talent, won me over. Sure, the singer sounds a little too close to Thom Yorke for comfort, but he moves well, and is a hell of a keyboard player. And the bass player for this band is incredible, he not only plays the standard rock basslines...he also, really, is playing lead. I've never played bass, so I don't really know how to explain exactly how he pulls this off, but it's a hell of a trick and makes this band well worth watching. They're good, and they're smart enough to let their music speak for itself.
Not so, for THURSDAY, the cheesy faux-metal band that played next. Now, this is just a little lesson on how music works, for all of Thursday's fans....whenever the lead singer of a band you like makes a statement like "I've been sick lately, but I love all these bands and all of our fans so much, that I had to show up and perform for you guys", and then proceeds to collapse onstage during the very next song, uhm, that means that he's done enough drugs to take down a bull elephant. Such was the case with the Thursday guy...unfortunately, his illegal substance intake didn't slow him down enough to stop him from making his own nonsensical anti-war speech.
A breath of musical fresh air came in the form of BELLE AND SEBASTIAN. Employing a string section and woodwind instruments, Belle and Sebastian.......well, how the hell do I describe this? Imagine if the songwriters who came up with early "Sesame Street" material started writing songs about fucking British chicks. They'd sound something like Belle and Sebastian. Combining Beatles-like songcraft with Blur-like satire, Belle and Sebastian songs seemed both highly original and clever, and comfortable and familiar. I liked them.
There was no anti-Bush rhetoric from the next act onstage--they didn't have that luxury. If they attempted anything like that, they would have been speared by drunken rednecks. You see, AIR is from France, a country known to have a certain anti-American fervor. (France is also known for having beautiful cities, gorgeous women, great wine, and really crappy musicians.) Air is probably the first French band in history that anyone from outside of France can stand. However, I cannot count myself as a member of their growing American fan base. In my mind, these two Frenchmen should just add the word "Supply" to the end of their band's name and get it over with. Whenever I see two gay guys from Europe onstage, and there are no white tigers involved, I tend to zone out.
Now, at this point, I should say, for the sake of journalistic accuracy, my wife and I were completely tired and dehydrated. See, when you want to be upfront for a show like this, you have to deal with slave ship-like conditions. You can't leave to get a drink, because the crowd is packed so tightly that you'd never get back to your hard earned positioning. You can't sit down, you can't move. We were sore, we were tired, we were irritable.
This was the vibe upfront before THE FLAMING LIPS played.....what the hell can I say about this? Well, first, while it wasn't much of a concert, (The musical genius displayed on their albums wasn't in evidence here at all) this was a hell of a show. As people in furry animal costumes descended the stage. their lead singer, Wayne Coyne, was rolled out into the audience in a giant beach ball-like device and they passed him around, as the band played a heavy metal march and a giant screen showed scenes from "Wizard of Oz". It was weird, but it was completely interesting and visually arresting. When Wayne and his beach ball were rolled back to the stage and he emerged, the music started. They played a grand total of four songs, animals danced, Coyne sang a duet with a puppet nun, and made the concert's weirdest anti-Bush speech of the weekend. (This was delivered while he was surrounded by the furry animals and wearing huge Frankenstein gloves, diminishing all affect it could possibly have had. I swear, as amusing as I find them to be, I don't think I'd hire a band with an obvious furry fetish whose last album was devoted to fighting robots to be my campaign spokesmen.) Their concert was a circus, a spectacle, alternately hilarious and, frankly, a little creepy. It totally energized the crowd. I just wish the music would have been better and more plentiful.
After a long technical delay (which, unfortunately, destroyed much of the energetic vibe the Flaming Lips created) THE CURE emerged. Technical problems marked their first few songs (and being close, my wife and I were distraught to find that not only were Robert Smith's wrinkles were highly visible through his makeup, but he also has a very disturbing pair of man-tits). Eventually, this band found their vibe and had an awesome set. It was a rarity for The Cure, who are known for the variety offered in their setlists. Honestly, even though a couple of new songs from their upcoming album were featured, Robert and the boys actually played mostly hits, including the extremely rarely played "Lovecats". And there was nothing political here, Robert Smith didn't say anything. He just let his music do the talking, and the music is great. The Cure, all said, with as little rhetoric as I can muster, have to be put on the list of greatest live bands ever. They're unpredictable, their musicianship is impeccable, they offer a simplistically great light show, and Robert Smith is completely underrated, not only as a songwriter, but as a guitar player. If you've never seen The Cure, even if you don't count yourself among their fan base, even if you've never cut yourself with razor blades or worn eyeliner, you're missing out. There's a good reason that Robert Smith has been on the cultural landscape for 25 years.....he's earned every minute of it. The Cure is great. And that's not just the dehydration talking.
And then it was over. The crowd streamed out, the wife and I found our truck and rolled out into the desert......and, just for a night, all seemed right with the world. I think it's fair to say that Coachella was certainly worth much more than I paid to get into it.
[You can email Brian Dowell at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Photo of Thursday from Alternative Press