Ticket to the Festival: Coachella from a Performer’s Perspective

[Editor’s note: When we heard that one of our favorite bands, Titus Andronicus, was playing at Coachella, we knew had to have guitarist/violinist Amy Klein, an accomplished and original writer and musician, cover it for us. We asked her to write about the mega-festival from a performer’s perspective and sent her a copy of David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “Ticket to the Fair” (PDF). The essay she gave us recalls Wallace in the best way possible: Honest, reflective, intelligent, and unsparingly critical, Klein chronicles everything from the jaw-droppingly exploitative moments when she realizes she’s been trapped into marketing a product to the transcendence she feels on stage and watching heroes like Lauryn Hill from the crowd. This is, without question, the longest piece we have ever posted on Flavorwire — and that’s because it’s well worth reading in full, after the jump. Photo of Klein performing at Coachella via The Stranger. Credit: Josh Bis.]

April 15

7:30 a.m.

My band and I have driven all night from the tiny town of Felton, California, where we played to an audience of 25 sleepy burrito-eaters in a Mexican restaurant, to the city of Indio, California, where we will play to an audience of 75,000 die-hard indie nerds. The absurdity of this equation is not lost on me, and the coming day appears every bit as surreal as the Coachella valley itself, a glowing circle of sunlight that is slowly rising towards me from out of the deep bowl of the mountains.

I have somehow chosen the seat in the van that offers the least likelihood of sleep — I mean the one that doesn’t quite extend all the way to the backseat door, so that there is nothing to lean up against, and there is not even the remotest possibility of stretching my legs out for a night of relaxation. In the past eight and a half hours of driving, I have not slept one bit, and now my legs seem to be demanding that I unbend them at the knee, and sullenly threatening that they will refuse to support me for the coming day of rocking if I don’t start paying attention to their demands.

At this point, the palm trees seem like soldiers guarding the entrance to some kind of dream world, and the festival itself is still as unreal to me as a mirage hovering in the desert. I can’t even think about anything besides the possibility of a power nap. If it were a choice between Coachella and a couch-ella, I would probably go with the later. Hallucinating, I seem to see the figure of Rihanna, her velvety voice taunting me like an oasis in the heat: “You can sleep on my couch-ella, ella, ella, ay, ay, ay….”

8:30 a.m.

In the Coachella Valley, all the buildings are the color of sand, and there are huge pits of sand that seem to be excavated in the middle of the highway, and the grass is also the color of sand, and the heat is shining on all of it as if it were trying to turn the sand into glass.

But the site of the Coachella festival is something else entirely — the private estate of someone very rich who has translated every dollar into an acre of green. The grass is the color of AstroTurf at roadside mini-golf. (As a Jew, this is my only real point of reference for what must be the Platonic form of the country club golf course.) Technically, these are polo fields and not a golf course, although the WASP quotient inherent in the twin histories of golf and polo must engender a degree of spiritual equality.

As a man in a golf cart whizzes over to us, waving his hand and shouting, “I’ll give you a ride!” it crosses my mind that the Coachella festival costs something like $300 at face value, and that scalpers bought up so many tickets in the first few hours that many concert attendees will have paid even higher ticket prices on eBay. I wonder who will be attending this concert. The general demographic of Coachella the music festival must be significantly whiter than the Coachella Valley, which is predominantly Hispanic. A flatbed truck transporting Hispanic workers passes us as we putter down the dirt road that leads the inner fields. All the workers wear identical uniforms of khaki pants and navy polo shirts, and look very much like golfers. They are headed in the opposite direction around the perimeter of the festival grounds.

It is my first time in a golf cart. I am thrilled and slightly embarrassed. It’s so small! How does it work? It reminds me of an ill-fated bumper car ride I took at the Jersey Shore when I was six. That one ended badly for me. I cling onto the side of the golf cart as it makes a particularly fast right turn.

The golf cart deposits us 20 yards away at the entrance to the artist-only zone, which is bordered by a white picket fence and evenly spaced, manicured pink geraniums. I keep expecting someone to tell me I’m not allowed to be here. But I pass the checkpoint with flying colors, flashing my artist wristband with great aplomb at the black security guard wearing khaki pants and a navy blue polo shirt and a yellow baseball cap. She looks about my age and has long hair and a bag of Cheetos sitting on her chair.

All of a sudden, I feel like a titanic douchebag.

9:30 a.m.

The artist enclave is a vision of 1950s suburbia recast as a Hollywood trailer park. Each artist has a suite in a pristine, white trailer. Trailers are grouped into neighborhoods, facing each other, with each trailer sitting on one of three sides of a square. The fourth side of every square is a white picket fence. At regular intervals, red and pink and purple plastic flowers are stuck into the spaces in between the fence posts. The area bordered by the picket fence somewhat eerily resembles an artificial front yard, and each front yard has three umbrella-shaded picnic tables and with a tin of candy lying on each one. It is surprising how easy it is to build suburbia.

Indeed, there is something Pleasantville-esque about the whole scene, identicial houses and pristine yards all empty of people in the early morning. The place is so perfect and unreal it has a decidedly uncanny feel, a village for Stepford wives. The name “STAR WAGONS,” in the same font as the title in the opening credits of “STAR WARS,” decorates the side of each trailer, and actually, it seems like this whole suburban trailerville in the middle of the fucking desert must have been created by aliens or something. Or maybe the aliens are just about to land here, and I am one of the first to arrive.