Indio is a man-made oasis in the desert of California, near the better known Palm Springs. Were it not for the millions of gallons of water sprayed onto the land, the area would quickly return to its barren, brutal state. The polo fields of this town, and the concert being held upon them, is where our story takes place.
It was a Friday afternoon in late April when my friends and I arrived at the Coachella music festival. We parked the car, lugged our equipment across fields of inefficiency, passed through security, got our wristbands, and set up camp for the weekend. Those of us paying to camp in the compound adjacent to the concert venue were clumped into sectors, well defined by rows and columns. There was sufficient space to allow people to organize organically into spread out groups, but then how would the security and police patrol on their golf carts, motorcycles, and horses?
As the afternoon sun beat down, we decided to leave our shady base of operations and head into the concert. After passing through some more fences and security checkpoints, we were finally inside. There were many bands, DJs, performance artists, installations, and sculptures to be heard and seen. Porta-potties were inconveniently quarantined behind fences into large rows of defecation, Heineken provided caged-in "beer gardens" to sell their over-priced beverages, and behind some more links of chain, food was available for purchase. But the acts were spectacular, the vegetarian food delicious, and the beer cold, so I had no other choice but to enjoy myself with my fellow humans.
The first night of the concert was headlined by Jack Johnson. His performance was laid-back and fun, but that was to be expected. I was able to catch the end of Fatboy Slim's set after, wherein I was informed that the each of the demi-gods of the music world are "just a band." The vibrations coming from that tent of music made me wish I had not spent my whole first night at the main stage. I pushed any thoughts of "regret" out of my head and headed back to the campgrounds. Before I could get back to my tent, I had to hold my wrist high up in the area and file single-file through a security checkpoint, behind which mounted police watched menacingly from their high horses. Unthinking beasts upon obedient animals, these police officers were meant for intimidation. Too bad they were not providing an useful service; when we got back to our tent, we found that our chairs and a bag had been stolen.
The next morning, the spinning earth brought my tent into sunlight, forcing me to rise. I lay out underneath the canopy, watching others as they improvised their morning rituals. Looking toward the sky, I noticed planes repeatedly "crop-dusting" the entirety of the concert area. These planes were specialized, quiet, and left distinct trails in the sky, and everyone else seemed to take them for granted. I decided not to speculate as to the chemical make-up of the dust, the party ordering the spraying, or the crops they wish to affect.
The second day was somewhat uneventful. Irish dancing at the Flogging Molly show was exhilarating, but the headliner for the night, Prince, left something to be desired. Sure, Prince is an outstanding guitarist, but there is something very depressing about partying like it is 1999 in 2008. Radiohead had been scheduled to appear, but was unable to make it. I left halfway through the show, passed into the faux internment camp, and called it a night. Apparently there was a great mass of people storming around the tents that night, riling others up, and protesting the police who were trying to ruin their fun. I slept through the shenanigans. At twenty-four, fighting for my right to party seems a bit ludicrous, especially with so many more important rights being lost every day.
The final day at Coachella promised to be the most interesting. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd was headlining. As the time for the concert approach, we managed our way close to the stage. With much anticipation, fanfare, and fog, the show began and did not disappoint. For the first half of the show, Roger and his band played songs from The Wall, Animals, and Wish You Were Here.
During "Sheep," video of people behind fences played on the screen while out came a massive pig. It deftly flew around above the audience. On one side, it had a message warning Americans against being led to the slaughter, with Uncle Sam holding two bloody cleavers. On the other, it stated that fear builds walls. On the underbelly of the beast was "Obama" and a check-mark. On its neck, a dotted line labeled "cut here." Above the pig, a plane with a shark mouth painted on the front circled and dropped some kind of smoke on the audience. (Of course, I later saw the Associated Press got the story wrong, stating that the pig was released during "Pigs," which was not even on the set list, but what was even worse was that Drudge picked up the story proclaiming that "Roger Waters plays 'Dark Side,' unleashes giant 'Vote Obama' pig." That is not the message I received.)
Roger informed the audience that Dark Side was up next and took a break. We took a seat and waited as the moon on the screen got bigger and bigger. After a short while, we were back. The visuals were incredible, the performance good, and the songs classic, but yet something was not sitting well with me. A knot had formed in my stomach. I wondered whether my queasiness was a result of bad food, the haze being pumped into the crowd, the thought that we had been explicitly dusted during the course of the show just like we had been secretly sprayed during the whole weekend, the interesting coincidences between my writings and the topics discussed in the songs I was hearing, or that it really felt like we were all animals being led to the slaughter. I toughed it out for the whole album and then the double-negative encore of "Another Brick in the Wall, part II."
Walking out of that concert for the last time, I had a very strange feeling. No, my hands did not feel like two balloons, but it did feel odd that no walls, literal or metaphorical, had been torn down. The fences that had kept people penned in remained intact, the cross-shaped corridors that separated the audience into quadrants had not been breached, and the boarish imbeciles still held guns and positions of arbitrary power. The gates of the complex could be locked and the spotlights that had shone into the sky, dazzling the audience, could be turned inward. With no lighting at all on the crowd as it dispersed, I felt that I was not leaving a concert, but a very expensive prison camp. Order and control had been maintained only because the animals had been kept docile.
So now here I sit, watching from afar. As we work to tear down walls, their construction continues incessantly. Would that animals would not always follow each other so easily..