To a lot of people I know, Coachella is something like a religious experience. To them it’s not simply a weekend, but the weekend, where much of the various pleasure of life culminates into three days of chaotic hand-grabbing and reaching for fistfuls of entertainment and glory in the form of something like musical enlightenment. It is, in that, vaguely spiritual in nature — a type of mecca toward the grand mesh of hyper-debauchery, music, sex, drugs and whatever else one can jam into what seems, by its conclusion, a very short three days in the desert of Indio.
Coachella 2012, weekend one, was my first Coachella but probably not my last. I jammed a lot into my three days: bearing witness to the very brief resurrection of Tupac, Radiohead exploding heads with their absurdly superb talent (metaphorically) and the mad house that was Super Tall Paul, probably the most bizarre thing, let alone performance, I’ve ever seen (for you weekend two kids, go check him out Sunday morning at like 3 a.m. — you will not be disappointed).
There’s so much more, though, that slips through the hands of a single Coachella experience, and one leaves with the feeling that, as much as you got your greedy, dirty fingers on, you didn’t get enough. I say so because there is always more to be had at Coachella. More beer. More drugs. More music. More. More. MORE.
We want all the festival.
Strangely, Coachella is sad and infuriating in this way. That is, there is a pervading sense of loss that runs like a current through much of the festival in that it is a temporary island, or a fleeting retreat, and everyone knows it.
Yet there we all find ourselves trying desperately, it seems, to latch onto that which we all know will soon be over, like a one-night stand extended graciously to three where in the morning you’re sent packing, back into the real world that is, by comparison, drab and cold.
Or, more grandly and poetically, Coachella is like a microcosm of youth expiring toward old age. Practically every direction one looks there is a horrifying sense of struggle against the nature of brevity, a terrifying “this will soon be over and we will be old and burnt out” sensibility that is always resisted but acknowledged in every facet of the event. You can see it in the faces. You feel it in the energy. You think it yourself.
I realized this most poignantly during my second day, toward the end of the night when Coachella was more than half over – during Bon Iver – which was fitting, given all his wistful melancholy.
My friends wanted to leave during Bon Iver’s set. Not because he wasn’t excellent. He was. He was phenomenal, transcendent and haunting. He and his band were pouring out their souls, directly it seemed, from somewhere deep in their heaving chests — a bunch of guys expressing the most genuine kind of sorrow and beauty.
Yet just over the way someone else we wanted to see was teasing us with a promise of more. So we went and turned our backs on Bon Iver, which felt foolish to me at the time because why would we leave when he was so good? Where are we rushing to? Why would we walk out on that?
Because, the promise of something profound was just over the way and we were foolish and greedy enough to think we might find it there. Did we? I don’t know. Everywhere we went was good, but so was everywhere we left.
Of course if that is my greatest complaint, that there is too much good, that the festival is overwhelming and maddening because we can’t have it all, that it ends too soon, that it reminds me of the fleetingness of enjoyment and life and youth, it is an awfully flimsy one. Or is it?
My advice would be, though, don’t treat the festival like a checklist. You can’t see all the performers. Rushing from one to the other and trying to catch stints of each set, which some attempt, struck me as a futile and ultimately unsatisfactory endeavor.
Many of the performers are true artists on stage, and their sets are worth their entirety.
Radiohead, probably the best set of the weekend, was so organic and passionate I could not sing along with the lyrics I’ve had memorized for years. Some tried, but Thom Yorke’s vocals are simply alien — they are not replicable by us mortals.
M83, also, was so excellent I found myself in an idiotic stupor that was something like awe. They surpassed all my weighty expectations, and I found myself asking afterward if they are aware how much better they are than practically everyone else.
All in all Coachella is a lot of fun, but it can’t be sustained. It’s a massive feast, and by the end you ought to feel full to bursting. I did. Yet at the same time, I wanted more. It’s funny, and maybe a little sad, that Coachella allows you to be unrepentantly greedy in that way.
JAMES O’HARA can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.