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There's a need for communion with aspects of reality that can't be accessed during business hours.
Mystical Trendydom in the Year of the Apocalypse
I was going to write a piece about Coachella, and it was going to be something like the paragraph you just read. Like some kind of romantic, Kerouac-Thompson-esque traipse through this year's festival. As it turns out, I don't keep great notes, and writing wasn't exactly accessible during my three days in Indio. I never was a great journalist. So, I guess I have to ditch the much cooler present-tense narrative and tell of my experience with a bit of hindsight.
To get to why I felt like writing this article in the first place: Why do we find Coachella to be so meaningful now more than ever? Though the music industry in the biggest state of flux it has ever been in, music festivals seem to be the place of solace, the decompression from the sucky demands of student loans, unpaid internships, and colorless 9-to-5 grinds. Burning Man, Bonnaroo, EDC, and Coachella are the big players, and I could probably spend 1,000 words alone spelling out all of the smaller music fests that have recently sprouted across the country in tandem with the DJ revolution. Not only do they allow us to see the bigger acts live, in the flesh, but they introduce us to artists and bands that don't get a lot of exposure. Let's face it, MP3's are easily pirated, and the novelty of vinyl is selling more than the easy accessibility of compact discs these days. People aren't going to Tower Records to get their music, they're going to music festivals.
There's a reason that Coachella, whose momentum has drastically picked up in the last five years, is now a two-weekend, sold-out cultural spectacle.
To get the point, my weekend at Coachella 2012 was an elating one to say the least, shamanic even. Actually, my first two days sucked. It was the third and last night that exposed me to a dreamlike and enthralling element (and no, it wasn't because of the rapping Tupac hologram, even though that was pretty fucking cool).
The first day was grey and wet and cold. It had started out nice. Once we left the rainy outskirts of LA the desert skies were blue and the sun felt good. We got out there early, by noon. We enjoyed a few early acts like Wallpaper from Oakland, and I was trying to figure out if the girl in front of me was Whitney Port, while we drank $9 domestic beer. Around 3pm the afternoon sun that we were blessed with, the sun that had proved the dreary weather reports wrong, was swallowed by an endless blanket of grey. The wind picked up, and the girls huddled together as they walked; hoodies, hats and jeans became more and more common.
Even with more layers, you could still spot Aziz Ansari with messy hair and white boat shoes; Emile Hirsch in an old bomber jacket and a weird, plaid Dodger hat; Katy Perry in black goth gear; and Jared Leto with a beard and fedora. But after six hours into the schedule, the idea of staying for another six didn't sound doable, or sane. After seeing Yuck and Neon Indian, we ditched the fairgrounds as the sun was setting, drove back to Palm Springs and ate somewhere downtown. Palm Springs was a mad woman that night, howling and spitting outside my hotel room window. The liquor we bought was too sweet, and my Coachella buddy was starting to get agoraphobic while bad local TV played from a crooked flat screen.
The second day I awoke sometime around noon to find my weekend buddy gone and a four-part text message on my phone. A seasoned Coachella veteran, she had dashed back to LA for reasons I'll never understand. Whether it was her broken heart, her sobriety, or her registration for classes on Monday, I was left alone to my own devices.
But a smile came easy as I looked out to blue skies. I got in touch with some old friends, LA bar industry juggernauts, and they told me to join them at an old house turned hotel from the 1960s up in some desolate hills in Palm Desert. Various photographers were present and when you walked through the front door they made you check-in with Instagram. It was a prototypical, though small, Coachella pool party'just what I needed. Plaid shirts, dark sunglasses, good dance tunes and lots of skin. I soaked up some vitamin D and quickly felt the effects of well-crafted vodka drinks. Thinking it was a good idea to entangle myself with some illicit stuff around 2pm would soon prove wrong (by 10pm my head would be splitting and no amount of overpriced Coors Light at the festival would make it better). At 5pm the temperature cooled down. I ditched the party and headed over to the fairgrounds.
It was a long drive. The parking and the walk to the security gate were awful. I tried not to think too much about it. Just go through the motions. Inside, the festival was packed to the brim. Access to the beer gardens was a luxury at that point. It was on this day that I felt a little irked by the whole scene. Imagine being hopped up on cheap blow and already hungover from a pool party while struggling to weave your way through 90,000 or so people with their walls up'90,000 or so beautiful Urban Outfitter mannequins. The walking was endless. The beat and bass from the several music tents around me permeated everything and rattled my ribcage in rhythmic throbs, while my phone told me it was one text message away from being dead.
Coachella's daylight persona is almost completely contrary to that of its moonlight persona. The day is sweaty and tan. Beer flows freely, and there's a more aggressively fun ambiance. The night is neon and colorful, playful and soothing. Pupils are dilated and minds are open. Day and night. Neither is better than the other. But I just wasn't in the state of mind to deal with the scene around me; my hangover/comedown migraine was getting worse.
I was able to enjoy St. Vincent, Feist, and Miike Snow, but I cut out in the middle of Radiohead's set once every thought through my head was a like jackhammer. I drove back to my hotel alone. I swore at myself, feeling like an idiot. I took a bunch of Advil and burned some grass until I passed out. Take it from an avid live music junkie: cocaine's the wrong drug for Coachella, absolutely worthless, which makes me wonder why it isn't legal. Why hasn't it joined the ranks of capitalism's favorite vices alongside booze and nicotine? Would it shock you to see "Alcohol-Tobacco-Cocaine" signs out in front of liquor stores in North Hollywood? Not me. I'll address this later, but as the late comedian Bill Hicks once said: "lt's interesting that the two drugs that are legal'alcohol and nicotine'are two drugs that do absolutely nothing for you at all...and the drugs that might open your mind up to realize how badly you're being fucked every day of your life? Those drugs are against the law.... Coincidence?"
On the third day, I check out of my lonesome hotel and joined the party people over at a house in Palm Springs. I decided not to take the reins that day, to join a big group, go with the flow, and see where it took me. There were about a dozen of us relaxing by the pool for a while. After several Bloody Mary's they get restless, and I go with them to a bigger, cooler pool party at the Saguaro Hotel. The exterior of the hotel around the pool was colored in a rainbow spectrum, and the DJ was playing some Kavinsky beats and the people numbered in the hundreds'chatty and always moving, walking, dancing, swimming, drinking'and everyone's perfect. After several surprisingly cheap ($5) beers, I was told we had to head to the festival.
Everything was in full swing. We drifted from one stage the next. An old friend of mine handed me a pill and told me to take it. "Everyone else has one, dude," he said as the sun was setting and the beer gardens were at maximum capacity. It was a small, transparent capsule. I could see powder rolling around inside and assumed it was MDMA (which was later confirmed as 2C-B, a synthesized psychedelic phenethylamine that served as a legal ecstasy replacement in the mid-'80s). I pocketed it for later in the night.
Later in the night came quicker than I anticipated. I took the pill just as we were on the brink of nightfall. I took note of the dusk that night. It didn't seem as if the sun was leaving us, the way it had all my life, it seemed as if we were slipping away from the sun, slowly descending into some rabbit hole in which conventional social codes and boundaries began breaking down and dissipating altogether. We were planning on watching Justice at the main stage. But when their set went from five to ten to fifteen minutes behind schedule, we decided to leave the massive crowd and head over to Calvin Harris' DJ set in the Sahara tent. And I'm glad we did, because I think it contributed greatly to what was about to hit me.
It had been awhile since my last interaction with any kind of psychoactive drug. After a while I wrote it off. But between Calvin Harris' impeccable production value, and the tent's intense and multi-layered light/lazer display, my mind, unbeknownst to me, was slowly being prepped for a psychedelic breakthrough. It hit me all at once, though it took me a minute to realize what was happening. The familiar feeling of overwhelming anxiousness surged throughout my chest and all I could do was sway my body to the beat of the hundreds of people crowded around me, all jubilant and riding the crests and troughs of the electro-soundscape that was blasting us out of our bodies. It didn't take me long to observe that I wasn't the only one tripping balls, to put it lightly. There was something innate and tribal about it. These weren't strung-out, burnt-out lowlifes around me. These were young American kids who come from decent families, who attend respectable universities, and who will soon be in positions to direct and dictate our socio-political environment.
There was a feeling that I can only describe as self-centralization'like I was my own black hole, transcending the laws of time and space, accessing other frames of reference that aren't part of our conventional consensus of reality. I wasn't even fazed when Rihanna came out for a surprise number. My mind wanted to go universal. In the middle of the last night at Coachella I began assessing society at large. The idea of getting or attaining objects and things, like money and a career, seemed counterintuitive, even crazy. We inherently possess all we will ever need, I thought to myself, and the notion of "going somewhere" or "getting something" in order to be "fulfilled" was alien. There was an impression that nothing mattered, that nothing holds any significance over anything else. It wasn't nihilism. It was closer to the Buddhist notion of emptiness, that the world is full with a wondrous emptiness, and that fear is not only unnecessary, but inapplicable. Though it's difficult to convey, it was one of the most liberating revelations I've had. This world belongs to us, I kept hearing, a voice told me the world belongs to the youth. The idea of older American generations telling us how to conduct ourselves and our lives suddenly seemed grotesque and inappropriate.
But we're still so good about it. We're so good at doing what we're told. I didn't see it as anything negative, just a reflection of how hard we work, how we just want to make the people around us happy. I found myself starting to get very empathetic, no longer cynical toward my peers, but compassionate. I had a sense that everything was going to be okay. I looked around and thought about how we're all professionals, or well on our way, and how we're systematically scrambling to attain the things that are supposed to make us happy. We've taken on the roles of cogs in some machine, but we're not totally fooled. Not only are we professionals, but we're professional party people, ritually escaping to the desert just to get the pangs of our brand new adulthood off our backs.
But why should it be that way? Why must we experience the mundane and the exotic in such polar extremes? By now, mystical experiences and altered states of consciousness are no stranger to American culture. Though still taboo, there was an entire generation who made it their life's pursuit to master their own inner universe. There's even a term now, which was coined around 1970 by the German author Ernst Junger, called psychonautics. Similar to the word astronautics, psychonautics claims that entering other states of consciousness can be just as treacherous as space exploration, and that it requires a set methodology and careful discernment just like anything else.
I began wondering why the youth aren't more competent psychonauts. Did the social-political-spiritual revolution of the 1960s not take place? Why are we still struggling with the same institutions that our parents and parents' parents were breaking away from? Half a century later, why hasn't the experience and prospect of other states of consciousness been established and integrated into our educational system? In my opinion of a better world, our children would be psycho-spiritual adepts, competent leaders in their own right, rather than trained test takers who use college as a drunken battleground to play out their scattered frustrations and resentment toward their parents. The result of which, generally speaking, is a generation of adults who wake up one day and ask themselves why they're doing what they're doing. And on go the cyclical habits of rampant divorce, broken homes, and pharmaceutical overdoses. We were raised by a generation who were given the world on a platter that they didn't know what to do with: the blind leading the blind. Does such a thing come from a contentious affirmation of the status quo, or a subconscious regression to the safe and familiar?
My high soon mellowed and became more manageable. Once Calvin Harris' set was over and the crowd dispersed I ambled along behind our group, clinging to the person's shirt in front of me, trying to internally communicate with my newfound access to another world. The roaring crowd of 90,000 wanderers that I was fighting against during the day was now as fluid as a river, as if we were all apart of some divine flow. The fairgrounds came to life. Scattered across the acres of darkness were neon beacons, multicolored tents, and man-made landmarks that projected soothing, beautiful colors and images. I certainly wasn't bored of my visions that night. Geometric shapes spawning from the colors and the music like we were walking through one big sea of liquid glass. Nothing that I did or said or thought was based in fear.
Once the Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg closing set exploded onto the main stage, things got a little less mystical. But it became something other than hearing some live classic tracks from LA's most notorious artists. We summoned Tupac. We brought him back to life. Maybe we didn't physically construct the stereoscopics that projected that 3D image, but there was certainly a subconscious yearning for a long past idol to come back to us. Even I was surprised to see how quickly the Tupac appearance went viral. Popular content on the internet is a reflection of our collective, cultural mind. Even if only 90,000 or so people were in attendance, millions more witnessed the resurrection. The two remaining icons of Los Angeles rap were onstage before us, and like one big s?ance we all called on him to join us. It was uncanny, and a bit chilling.
In prehistoric cultures it was understood by shamans, sages, and seers that artistic expressions and rituals were vital to everyday life. Art was seen as a method to acknowledge the hidden, or dark, aspect of the psyche and to expose it to the conscious mind. Thus, one was able to acknowledge, confront, exorcise, and eventually be at peace with the aspects of themselves that they found undesirable; making for a healthy individual and, with Rupert Sheldrake's theory of "Morphic Resonance" in mind, a healthy collective whole.
"[Art] was very literally viewed as psychic therapy," Ben Stewart, director of the acclaimed internet film Kymatica, tells us. "Ritual was based around astrological dates. As we've learned, the study of the stars and planets reflect our own astro-psychology. The shamans would perform rituals on astrological dates that would correlate with circadian rhythms, or psychological cycles. These rituals kept the human participants aware of their inner self, and prevented the repression of psychological content."
Though the traditional April weekend on which Coachella has been held for the last 13 years may be an arbitrary date, it has now become a yearly ritual, sacred, even if we don't overtly treat it as delicately as going to church. Nearly every human culture to come before us recognized the spirit, or immaterial, realm to be just as "real" as the material realm. We westerners have a problem with what's immaterial because it can't be rationally measured by our methods of science. But that's not to say it doesn't exist, or that it's trivial. We have cut ourselves off from our divine counterparts, our spirit-selves, and we wonder why political revolutions never yield utopic results, or why our daily lives seem so mundane and mechanical. There's a reason we drive out to the desert for three days and brave the painful parking and the long walks to TSA-like security gates. Sure, we want to see the main acts and bask in the euphoria of pool party inebriation. And sure, Coachella is trendy, corporate-sponsored, and more mainstream now than it ever has been. But that doesn't necessarily discredit the inherent and unseen intention behind such a colossal gathering.
There is a subconscious need for communion, not only with each other, but with the aspects of reality that can't be accessed during business hours, aspects of our reality that have been an integral part of human consciousness since we decided to start walking on two legs.
The drive back to LA is an exodus. Three endless lines of cars along the 10 West cruising, almost reluctantly, at 50mph or less. Everyone's dust-beaten and hungover and riding in the wake of a kaleidoscopic night in wonderland, trying to process the fact that Coachella has already come and gone.
I don't buy into the 2012 Doomsday rumors perpetuated by our media. Some cataclysm probably won't wipe us out on December 21. And yes, on December 22, 2012, life will simply go on. But is that what we want? Can we keep going the way we're going? Will fleeting music festivals continue to give us the satisfaction and contentment we need to deal with our world forever? Our current apocalyptic obsession may not be some trend or misreading of an ancient calendar, but an opportunity to assess ourselves, and to envision what it is we're looking for, not what's already been laid out before us.
Brent Smith, Contributing Writer: Brent was born and raised in Los Angeles. He received an MFA in Prose from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. He lives in West Hollywood. (more...)