Security was very tight for the 2005 edition of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Police officers and concert security officials kept a close eye on all entrances to the festival, and confiscated any item banned by the concert’s long impossibly long list of rules. They also scanned the entrance for those that dared to tried to sneak through the venue’s front gates (an oft-successful method last year) without paying the very high admission fee. Pretty much a bummer if you follow the rules to see shows, yet dislike being treated like a criminal. Or, like me, you’re a no-budget rock journalist determined to get into the show of the year without shelling out any cash.
For the second year in a row, my wife and I drove from my LA home, 120 miles to Indio, a small desert town, to see some great bands (2005 headliners included Nine Inch Nails, Coldplay, Weezer, and a reunited Bauhaus), to participate in the general debauchery that occurs at any such gathering of young people, and to document the goings on. We had no credentials, no connections, no tickets, no authorization and no surefire way in. As an old-school, experienced concert gate crasher, I snuck into every concert venue in my former home of St. Louis at least twice, and, along with man others, the wife and I enjoyed the savagery and general fun of Woodstock ‘99 without paying admission fees. Last year, we managed to sneak into Coachella without being detected at all. However, this year Coachella presented me with my greatest challenge. Beware, kids; there’s a ‘Don’t try this at home’ warning here. This stuff isn’t easy.
Inside the gates, Coachella is one of the most fun, positive experiences and atmospheres a rock fan is ever likely to find. Looking from the outside, however, Coachella is fascist in its front gate policies and have lost their general sense of humor. Luckily, dealing with humorless people is something I do often and am quite good at.
Now, bless me, Reader, for I have sinned. It has been one year since my last ‘I snuck into Coachella’ confession...
We left Los Angeles at about 9 in the morning, headed east on Interstate 10 for about two hours, to the polo field that hosts the annual Coachella Music And Arts festival. We got off on the wrong exit, took a weird back roads route, accidentally found festival parking AND avoided most of the concert traffic. We took this as a good sign. Eyeing the big crowd of ticket holders at the festival gates, we made our way along the huge wall of rosebushes—nature’s barbed wire--surrounding the festival grounds. After ominously passing a Law Enforcement parking lot, our two mile hike got us to our destination, a large concrete address marker on Avenue 50. We climbed the marker, hopped the fence, and emerged from the rosebushes, finding ourselves backstage. Last year, we had walked straight through with no problems. This year, a guard stood stationed at the gate. We strode through, hoping to look like we belonged, counting on him to be incompetent. We underestimated him.
The guard interrogated us as to where our wristbands were. Access to every area of the festival was controlled by a complicated system of colored wristbands. I played dumb, and claimed to be a lost roadie. He eyed me suspiciously and motioned for his supervisors, who were watching the scene from a nearby golf cart. They didn’t look very happy to see us. After a series of questions, they escorted us out. Just as we were leaving, a muscular security guard asked, “Is there a hole in the gate or something? How did you get back here?” I stayed silent. A good journalist never gives away his tricks. At least, not until he publishes his misadventures online.
We walked out. My initial instinct was to climb right back over the wall, just to piss them off. My wife talked me out of it, explaining that Coachella was a two day event, and that we may want to save this route to sneak in to the next day’s proceedings. Against a lovely backdrop of cars lined up and waiting to get into the parking lot, we started the long hike back towards the front entrance. The mainstage bands started to play, and I could hear the RAVEONETTES bitterly spitting out a 60’s girlie pop cover, (“My Boyfriend’s Back,” I think) I identified with their sense of outrage. As we walked, the wife spied the Vendor’s Entrance, a large fenced in parking lot, with a gate to the festival grounds on the other side. An obviously stoned teenage security guard sat by the gate. Otherwise the lot looked pretty empty.
“Think we could get in this way?” the wife asked.
It was worth a try. The worst they could do was throw us out again. I asked the stoned guard, “Where’s your supervisor? I have a delivery for him.”
He started to look around and stammer.
I reassured the stoner, “Don’t worry, we’ll find him.” and motioned the wife to follow.
Our explanation (or lack thereof) seemed to satisfy him. I walked to the inner gate that led straight into the festival. It was guarded by three security guards and a uniformed cop that looked like a drunken Bob Newhart. It would be virtually impossible for me to slip through without being noticed. Still, I put on my best business demeanor, and the wife and I tried to walk through it, when we were stopped by a fat female security guard.
“Passes? Wristbands?” she said, staring at us.
I started looking through my pockets and pretending that I actually had access to such things. The guards weren’t buying my act. I pointed towards the stoner that had let us into the lot. “I was just looking for a bathroom and, uhm, he sent me this way.”
The uniformed cop flinched, “How did you get into the lot?”
I truthfully answered, “The front gate,” and flashed him a mischievous grin.
He didn’t return my friendly gesture, instead saying, “You’d better get out of here.”
He escorted us across the parking lot, all the way to the front gate where we’d come in. He then proceeded to tear the gate watching stoner a new asshole. We cleared out of there and walked along the wall all the way to the festival’s front gates, checking out the scene in the Coachella parking lot: frat boys with their beer bongs, the pretty girls on the arms of their older VIP pass possessing boyfriends, the endless parade of goths. (I, for one, find it a joyfully sadistic exercise for Coachella to book a handful of decent bands listened to by a sizable goth audience, forcing the pale, sad fans of this music to spend two days camping in the desert sun, dressed in black, to hear their dark band of choice.) By this point, it was about three o’clock in the afternoon. We could hear the music inside, and both the wife and I grew increasingly frustrated.
I began to play a mental game called, ‘Which Front Gate Security Guard Looks The Most Incompetent?’ I narrowed my field of front gate security contestants down to two; a Mexican teenager who wasn’t doing much beyond hitting on women, and a bored-looking black guy. My wife voted for Don Juan-Wannabe. We inched towards the gate he ‘guarded’. Ahead of us, Don let a golf cart full of paramedics through. Then, out of no where, Newhart rushed to the gate and start barking questions at him like, “Who was on that cart? Did you check their wristbands?”
We hurried away, hoping the security guard wouldn’t notice us. We walked over to the other contestant’s gate, the bored black kid. Looing past him, I could see he was virtually surrounded by members of the local sheriff’s department. My fear and strategic calculation was interrupted by a question from the wife: “Brian, how much do you think it would take for your incompetent security guards to just let us in?”
“Like, a bribe or...?” I’d never considered such a possibility.
She replied, “Yeah, they probably don’t make very much money. It would be cheaper than buying tickets, and more productive than sitting in the parking lot all night.”
I decided to try it. I’d do it in the name of fair and balanced journalism... How much would it take to bribe a front gate security guard at a big rock concert?
I pulled five bucks out of my wallet, and me and the wife walked towards the bored black security guard and I tried to discreetly hand him the money as we walked past him. He stopped us.
Staring at the money he asked, “What’s this?”
“It’s, uhm, five dollars, I think.” I answered, not suppressing my natural desire to be a smartass.
He ignored my smarminess, “What’s it for?”
I pulled him off to the side, away from any wandering ears, to level with the guy.
“Look, I’m a reputable journalist. My wife and I have come a long way. We’re going to get into the show. You really have nothing to gain by keeping us out here--you get paid whether we sneak in or not. However, if you’d just keep silent for ten seconds, you could get paid a little more, you know?”
He let the words sink in, and then asked, “How long have you been out here?”
I shrugged, “A couple of hours.”
“How much money have you got?”
I had sixty five dollars in my wallet, but I wasn’t going to let him know that. “Uhm, twenty five bucks.”
He mulled over that for a second and said, “You’re not a cop?”
I shook my head. “No. Quite the opposite.”
This satisfied him. He instructed me, “OK, get your money together, walk towards me, hand me the money, don’t let anyone see you, and just hop on in.”
Within thirty seconds, we were on the massive lawn of Coachella. Sure, we paid to get in, which I suppose was cheating, and did go against my original intent. But, for most, Coachella tickets cost 170 dollars for a day. I pulled off the same feat for 25. Not a bad deal.
Security guards are entirely corruptible, you just have to find the right one. That was this year’s first Coachella lesson. Here is the rundown of the bands we saw the first day:
SNOW PATROL- English (I think) very poppy punk band. Very catchy songs with a likable lead singer. I wasn’t too familiar with their work, I’d heard a couple of their songs on the radio, but during their set, I found myself singing along in spite of not wanting to.
KEANE- Superficially, Keane sounds a bit like Coldplay. Very pretty melodies played on a piano with a competent backing band. Keane could be on a Time/Life collection of 1970’s singer/songwriters--Elton John, Billy Joel, Harry Chapin, Cat Stevens--those type of guys who I don’t really mind, but it’s not exactly what I want to hear at the nation’s premier ROCK festival. They did dress in all black (usually a good sign, as far as bands go.) and their singer inappropriately danced like David Cassidy the whole show, which was a bit annoying. The songs were pretty, though.
WILCO- The pride of Belleville, IL, Jeff Tweedy’s band Wilco laid out their usual brand of creatively presented, spacey country-tinged rock. Consistently stepping on the distortion pedals, their set seemed to emphasize jam band histrionics, as opposed to the clever song craft offered on their albums. Still, it was interesting, and always nice to see some St. Louis area locals make good. Jeff Tweedy did have some of the day’s best quotes: “I hate festivals, but I guess we have to play this one, right?” and, “We were supposed to play here last year, but I was too fucked up.” Nice to see a rock band be honest.
WEEZER- A giant W was lowered on to the stage, and then lit up, a la Kiss. Then the four ultra-nerdy members of Weezer wandered out and proceeded to rock Coachella. One thing I love about this band (Arguably, the most surprisingly influential band of their era) is how the theatricality of their concerts contrasts with the utter simplicity of their songs. They started with amazing version of “Say It Ain’t So”. They proceeded to play about half of the songs from their much loved debut album, (They did not play my favorite Weezer song, the brilliantly chauvinistic “No One Else”, but they did play a stellar version of, “In the Garage”, almost making up for it.) and also played a good chunk of songs from their upcoming album, Make Believe. The new stuff sounds good, the old stuff sounded great. The performance of the day.
BAUHAUS- Well, uhm, they’re weird. In what is promised to be a one time only occurance (until, of course, the next time they need money) the original members of one of the most-loved goth bands, Bauhaus, graced the Coachella stage. During their first (and best) song, lead singer Peter Murphy was lowered on to the stage like a vampire bat, with ropes binding his ankles. Later, with his feet actually on the ground, the David Bowie lookalike proceeded to grab a long pool cue and nonsensically threw it around the stage, while uttering stuff like, “This is not a rock and roll show,” while his bandmates played what sounded an awful lot like rock and roll. I didn’t get it, but, admittedly, it was an interesting spectacle. The huge Coachella video monitors showed the band in black and white, adding quite a bit to their theatrics. The musicians, particularly Daniel Ash on guitar, are brilliant. (Ash and the Bauhaus bassist went on to form a band called Love and Rockets, who, in this reporter’s opinion, are much better than Bauhaus. I wish Love and Rockets would reunite and play Coachella.) I think Bauhaus has gotten a little too old for their goth/vampire schtick, so, as a show, their set looked slightly ridiculous. At least the music was pretty good.
COLDPLAY- A relatively young band that mainly older people seem to enjoy, Coldplay closed out the night showcasing their well known hits and songs from their upcoming album, and displaying the considerable wit and charms of front man Chris Martin. All and all, a very solid performance with some incredible moments. Highlights included replacing the title of their big hit song, “Yellow” with “Coachella,” a brilliant song that Martin wrote for Johnny Cash but Cash died before he had the chance to record it. Also played was a too-brief cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and, during a new song called “Love,” Martin instructed everyone in the crowd to take a flash picture at the same time, causing the whole festival grounds to light up. Now I understand what all the fuss and hype is about.
When the main stage action was over, we walked through the festival grounds, which can be quite magical at night. The whole grounds are surrounded by big skylights pointing upward, and they all meet up, in the sky, in the middle of the festival, forming a big imaginary circus tent. Weird modern art installations on the grounds spit out flames and sparks and lightning, film images are projected on the tops of white tents, and palm trees surrounding the place are garishly lit up. It s all so strangely beautiful and fun to walk through. We were tired. It had been a taxing day. We had no official place to stay that night. Still, we walked giddily into the Coachella night and fell asleep in our car in the large Coachella parking lot, as gridlock traffic surrounded us.
See Brian Dowell’s coverage of COACHELLA 2005’s DAY TWO
Want more specific details on how to pull it off yourself? Email Brian at email@example.com, and visit www.briandowell.com
Pictured: It's me, Brian Dowell, on top of our address marker, what we used to get over the Coachella wall. This is a couple of seconds before I jumped over. Photo by Beth Dowell.