The San Gorgonio Pass marks the beginning of Coachella Valley. The San Bernardino Mountains to the north of Interstate 10 are draped into stream canyons. To the south, the San Jacinto range, luminescent with schist, looks like mounds of fire ash. Beyond the blades of the Cabazon wind farm, forty miles of cinders and alluvium and ash-mounds sift by, before the hydraulically engineered oases of Palm Springs and Indio, where my route zigzagged between golf course after golf course – to the Empire Polo Club: the site of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival.
The site takes up all of the thirty acres of the polo fields, with the Coachella Stage in one corner, the Outdoor Stage set on an angle a quarter of a mile away and, marching south for another quarter of a mile, one tent after the other, the gaping maws of Gobi, Mojave and Sahara. In the middle of the field, breaking up the swarms under the arcing chains of balloons, stood a giant snail made out of Perspex, a couple of Tesla coils dormant until nightfall, a crane with the head of a preying mantis on the top of it, a vaguely Indonesian structure called the Empire of Love, a building called the Mirage (a ‘tribute to the celebrated mid-century modern architecture of Palm Springs’), the Coachella Power Station – a couple of smoking chimneys and a control room manned by hippos in overalls – and the Do Lab where dance music thumped in a crowded glade swathed in water vapour, between four upended horns made of sailcloth bands coloured from saffron to plum.
Hard by the main stage were white plastic canopies of the ‘Olympic Peak Tents’ – one of the two areas on site given over for the hordes of VIPs. The other, the Rose Garden, was tucked half a mile away in the far corner of the field. In the west, towering above the site, with the mountains behind – cindery by day, but at night like torn paper the colours of lavender, iodine and ink – turned the giant, illuminated Ferris wheel.
It was hard to imagine the polo fields resounding with the thundering of hooves, the clack of mallets and the whistling of balls. At around eleven thirty in the morning, the thump of drum and bass started up, augmented throughout the day as band upon band kicked off, by guitars, MIDI controllers, keyboards, brass sections, orchestras, decks, computers – and, on Sigur Rós’s stage, what looked like a rack of steamrollered cutlery. Each night the cacophony reached a sustained, concussive climax at about seven, which lasted until half one in the morning.
At three in the afternoon, the fields were clear enough to cross without collision. But the later it got, team-leaders lofted pool noodles, lights, dolphins, hats and rags on sticks, inflatable chickens, kangaroos and bananas. Screams erupted, rending the already rent air, as knots of teenagers streamed with flying hair, to fling arms round other knots in a carousel of embraces, as if some ghastly winter of separation had ended. Just as suddenly, the reunions were over and forgotten, though fingers reached back for one last lingering touch, before the groups went on their way – skipping, wheeling about with arms aloft. Coveys of garlanded girls in sawn-off jean shorts, string-strap bikini-tops under macramé blouses or draped in diaphanous negligées, lashes dense with mascara, legs the colour of Baileys poured into suede boots or flip-flops, swirled from stage to stage, along with the odd tidal bore of semi-naked boys, linked in a chain and travelling across the main current – in shorts, gardeners’ hats and baseball caps, with hydration packs, bandanas, many with torsos the shape of a spade, with ripped caps, lats, traps and bitch tits. As the sun turned the powder blue of the mountains to lavender, the Olympic Peaks VIP tent crashed with bellowed conversations, and the fluxes of people across the polo fields turned into complicated spates, squeezing thousands into a shuffling crush of cross currents across the mouth of the Sahara tent to the point that it was impossible to banish disasters like Hillsborough and the annual pilgrimage at Kerala from my mind.
My first slog across the polo field in my Clarks, suit trousers, shirt and straw hat – hanky in my pocket to mop my pate with – was to see Jake Bugg. He came out onto the Mojave Stage on Friday afternoon, unsusceptible to adulation, in check shirt and jeans, and with all the unabashedness of the Artful Dodger. He’s as proud to hail from the Clifton Estate in Nottingham as to have escaped it, yet he stands up to his waist in the confluence of Country and Rhythm and Blues – crowing rockabilly with a hayseed Southern accent and the vocabulary to go with it. The guitar talks Eddie Cochran and Scotty Moore, but he hollers the songs in a voice now Peter Noone, now Tommy Steele.
I stood with a misty-eyed group at the front of the Mojave tent waiting for Leeds University student band, Alt-J, to come on, their hands raised to form the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet with their fingers. Joe Newman’s lyrics seemed lifted directly from his diary – generous maybe in sharing his innermost thoughts, but to my mind stingy with the thrill of art.
On my way to get a drink in the Olympic Peaks VIP bar on the Friday evening, I skirted the crowd in front of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the Main stage – to the ‘Bop bop bop bop bop bop bop bop’ of ‘Pin’. Karen O looked like she had jumped out of Disney’s Babes in Toyland.
Saturday afternoon, I played accordion on a couple of songs with the Dropkick Murphys. I had practised in my motel room against the recordings, but the monitor mix on stage coupled with the arrangement in ‘Shipping Up To Boston’, which called for the backing to fall away, flung the accordion melody and me into Wile E. Coyote moment after Wile E. Coyote moment.
Sigur Rós played on the Outdoor Stage, in black uniform highlighted by a single red strip and with tassles down their right arms. Dry ice drifted across the stage as if from fissure vents. Broken hairs on Jón Þór Birgisson’s cello bow streamed in the wind. At one point, Birgisson held a note in his falsetto so long that, once I’d given up trying to detect where the sample joins were, it became the vocal equivalent of a rimless ice field.
The Sahara tent was a rave-cathedral, whose stained glass behind the altar where Moby was fist pumping was an LED wall of epileptic intensity. As I was leaving, a boy shouted out: ‘Hey! Old guys ru-u-ule!’ Outside, in the middle of the shuffling hordes, I mistook four flashing red wands for team-leaders. It turned out to be medics awaiting a golf-cart ambulance. A guy lay unconscious at their feet in just his shorts. One of the medics shone a torch. In a tableau reminiscent of Caravaggio, another knelt under the beam, feeling the boy’s jugular for a pulse. I shamefully followed in the wake of the golf-cart stretcher, thankful to be able to walk unimpeded through the crush, until it sped off towards the service road.
On the Outdoor Stage on Sunday evening, Tame Impala smashed into shards the marble statue of everything I listened to when I was sixteen and seventeen, and reassembled it as a series of Russian dolls – unscrewing Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ to tip out ‘Elephant’, twisting apart Cream’s ‘Disraeli Gears’, to pull out ‘Half Full Glass of Wine’.
Father John Misty’s presence – the re-invented Joshua Tillman, once Fleet Foxes’ drummer – wrapped the voice of Elton John in the sexuality of Barry Gibb, but in cricket trousers and patterned shirt which kept coming untucked. He twitched his hips, backstepped, crouched, shook his hair all out, clamped his long fingers to his face, and sang songs about his adopted Los Angeles from the vantage point of his Laurel Canyon retreat, while a couple of girls next to me shouted ‘Take your pants off! Show us your dick!’
As I peered up at Gaslight Anthem on Sunday afternoon playing a set of songs made of satisfying chord progressions, the loops of cables under the stage canopy began stirring in the wind, making the rope ladders twitch, the rear-projection screen yaw and the lighting trusses swing. Soon, hats were being blown across the grass, paper plates emptied of tortilla chips and the plastic covering of the Sahara tent was billowing. A silk rainbow-dyed sarong clung to a girl’s legs in the wind. The fountain in the Rose Garden shed sheets of water across the pathway. The sun became a baleful blob in the sky. The mountains disappeared in dust.
The wind buffeted the microphones stationed in front of the inaudible orchestra brought on for the 20th anniversary of Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album. I sheltered deep in the crowd but became trapped in what turned out to be a quasi-rally, with insignia and salutes, while the Clan brought out a series of songs as if they were taking turns at charades. Maybe my disrespect was evident. A hand came down to swat me on the crown of my hat as I tried to squeeze back out.
By the time I managed to escape and was walking with my jacket pulled closed in front, back to my car, blinking from the flying grit, people were going about with bandanas tied to their faces, some wearing swimming masks. The lights pointing up into the flailing palm trees round the chain link fence turned into shining columns of dust.
It was as if a giant scuttle was slinging ash into the now-demonically active propellers of the Cabazon wind farm blasting it deep into the Coachella Valley. I got to my car with gritted eyes and a stinging face. On the interstate back to the San Gorgonio Pass, powder snapped in sheets across the road. It slashed the bodywork and sizzled across the windows. The traffic slowed to ten miles an hour, all hazard lights pulsing in the haze. It’s at times like these that the scale of everything in the United States feels just dangerous.
Three hours later, the interstate was shining from drizzle, and the monstrous high-rises of downtown Los Angeles were looming into view.