Coachella - The Kids are Alright
By Matt Cutugno
Indio, CA, USA
I dreamed it was nighttime and I was in a huge field of grass under a starry sky. There were paths winding through the green expanse. Strings of balloons, fixed to the ground, floated above. Each balloon was lit with a different color of the rainbow. I saw a grouping of angular shapes of metal and glass, bright in neon colors, like Stonehenge stoned. With me in the dream were all different kinds of people, most of them young. There was a mechanical caterpillar, some thirty feet long, moving slowly toward me. Now its path crossed an equally large and mobile mechanical butterfly. Both contraptions were illuminated in whirling colors and accompanied by cheering crowds.
Imposing structures, hangers, loomed ahead. Inside the hangers were masses of fans moving to high-powered, DJ-driven, house music. Was the very earth beneath my feet shaking? Wide-eyed, I traversed the field. The sights and sounds came in waves, kaleidoscopic. There was an immense Ferris wheel, a spinning circle of flashing lights. Riders on the wheel were cheering and taking pictures from high above with their smart phones. One of them waved to me and I waved back, it was a nice moment. Food stalls abounded, with cuisine from all over the world. I ate a gyro as I trekked. Some in the crowd were dressed in outlandish costumes and waved props. They pranced and danced as if their presence was essential to the fun. What a dream, I mused as it unfolded, it's like another world.
It was not a dream, though it was otherworldly. What I describe is the renowned Coachella Music and Arts Festival. It is held annually in Indio, California, where I retired. In previous years, I listened to the Festival from my backyard, about a mile away. I could hear the boom-boom of the bass. At night spotlights crisscrossed the sky, the sharp beams finding small planes that witnessed the spectacle from the heavens. I fancied myself an ear-witness to it all.
Now I have been an eyewitness. "Coachella" – as it is known to everyone – is truly a singular experience. Perhaps because of my age, it was more an epiphany. What a far cry from driving with my roommates in 1971 to Bucknell University to see the Grateful Dead, or taking a bus to Asbury Park in Jersey to catch Jefferson Airplane or Jethro Tull. Even the many concerts I attended over the years in Central Park, New York, pale by comparison. Coachella is nothing less than an Event. It is a Happening, a mind-blowing trip.
It all takes place at the Empire Polo Club in Indio. Founded in 1987, the club has hosted regional and international polo matches. For two weekends in April of each year it is home to Coachella, a tradition since 1999. Acts from Morrissey to Blur, Radiohead to Cure, Paul McCartney to Björk, from Kings of Leon to Kanye West, have performed. Joining the fun are dozens of lesser-known, up-and-coming acts, each with their own fans and musical style.
This year's Coachella featured Drake, Jack White, St. Vincent, AC/DC, The Weekend and Steely Dan among many others. As great and varied as the music and art is, Coachella's appeal is proof that the whole is greater than the sum of parts. What a grand experiment this phenomenal coming-together of diverse music and art cultures is. Three days and nights of Coachella is almost exhausting in its exuberance. There I was a cultural anthropologist with a Woodstock perspective, visiting the future.
There are the main stages – Coachella Stage, Outdoor Theater, Gobi, Mojave, Sahara, and Yuma. There are smaller venues. In one of them I saw an excellent 3D animation show, complete with white-cardboard glasses for viewing. At the Heineken House, I listened to booming club music. Not my thing, but still cool. A cute girl who worked there took my picture. She emailed me the photo, a digital memoir from her tablet. At the Do Lab, performers onstage shot over-sized plastic water guns at the crowd, cooling us down in the desert heat of day.
What impressed me most about Coachella was the "feel good" vibe that abounded. The vibe is omnipresent, from Security to Vendors to Fans to Performing Artists, it's all about a good time. There was neither overmuch drinking nor drug use. I saw groups of police, but their presence was a light touch. There was no rowdiness, though 100,000 fans attended each day. One young guy and his girl inadvertently laid a blanket down where I was standing. I gladly offered to move, and the kid thanked me. We shook hands. "Have a great evening," he said like he meant it.
This is where my epiphany comes in. I worry about the future. I worry that young people know lyrics to songs and intricate dance moves, they know how to play sports, but don't know who the Vice President of our country is. Some youth have a materialistic bent, and are oblivious to social responsibility. But then I think about older people when I was young. That generation lamented the Beatles' long hair and the decadence of rock music. I know it's a different world now with different rules and dangers. Still it was a revelation to experience Coachella with a new generation. I'll say this about the Millennials: They may have short attention spans, they may even be shallow, but they're fun loving and good hearted. Who knows? Maybe at their age that's enough.
As once was intoned by a band from a now forgotten era, The Kids are Alright.