Coachella 2012: Three Days and Three Nights of Unicorn Mating Dances, Hip-Holograms, and Satisfying Cash-Grab Reunions

Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

I haven’t stepped a foot inside Coachella and already I’m being propositioned into minor illegality. While I loiter outside the gate before heading in, a young man named Edgar, who is smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes, approaches, having taken me for a potential fence-hopping accomplice. I insist that I have a valid pass and official business to conduct, but he’s not so convinced. He tells me he’s broken in the last two years, and that while security has intensified this year — at some point he uses the phrase “tighter than a dolphin’s butthole,” or something similarly hilarious — there are always weaknesses, and he’s going to walk the perimeter to unearth some. And it almost sounds badass enough to try. Ultimately, though, I wish him well and head inside the normal way. Hope you made it in, Edgar.

Inside the festival grounds, I come to see, is a lax take on a futuristic totalitarian society. Your Coachella wristband beeps when you head both in and out of a string of fenced-in areas, so your movement is being monitored at all times. There are also tall security guard turrets manned by men and women in bright-yellow shirts (and armed, I hope, with walkie-talkies, not rifles). All of which doesn’t stop some tenters from loudly and proudly declaring exactly the dollar value of the amount of low-level narcotics they need to sell and the time by which they hope do it. On the softer side, one nice girl offers me pot cookies and, when I politely decline, she goes for the hard sell: the “secret ingredient,” she promises, is “cinnamon.” A good way to get into conversations with strangers is to ask about their smuggling techniques. Surprise! Putting things inside your underwear seems to work.

At some point I mention to the campers next to us that I’m covering the festival, and they ask for shout-outs in print. So hello, Aaron Glick and Bianca [I did not get your last name]! Would I ever let you down?! Nearby, another tent is flying both a German flag and an Israeli flag, a potent, ambiguous political statement. The next day, things get ominous, and also more ambiguous, when the Israeli flag mysteriously comes down. There is also campsite yoga, run by a super-competent, compact blonde lady with a microphone snapping out directions and encouragements at a rapid clip: “Beautiful rabbits! Don’t stack that vertebrae. OK, final compression, final spinal twist.” Nearby there is water runoff from the port-a-potties and the scraggly lines for the showers; in the background there are looming snow-capped mountains. As far as fake futuristic totalitarian societies go, this one’s not bad.

DAY 1

Death Grips, the Sacramento rap group anchored by manic drummer Zach Hill, have a mid-afternoon slot. Hill’s spastic mechanics made every song by his old band Hella a total head trip, and Death Grips bring forth chaos as well; they’re fuzzed out and always all the way turned up, with front man Stefan Burnett — the kind of guy who just does not own a shirt — barking out every verse. There’s footage of a Pulp Fiction–style leather-bound gimp on a screen to the right, a fellow in a lifted hotel bathrobe rocking out to my left, and what looks like an inflatable life raft surfacing to the stage right in front. Behind me, a marauding mini-horde of latecomers comes hopping in already swinging their fists.

Fast-forward to the evening, and there is Pulp, the Britpop survivors. Front man Jarvis Cocker had been solidly solo for nearly a decade before announcing in 2010 that he was bringing back the band’s best-known lineup (this had been one of those revolving-door deals) for a few festival dates. Sure, yeah, maybe he did it for the money. Or maybe he did it because he wanted as many people as possible to hear him ramble into a microphone. Guided By Voice’s Robert Pollard once put out a whole album of his stage banter, called Relaxation of the Asshole. I think it’d be cool if this ever became a series, and I think it’d be cool if Jarvis went next. He made us all feel better about it being Friday the 13th: “You have to say, you do not intimidate me [unnamed evil forces], I’m not afraid of you, fuck you, I’m at Coachella.” He took responsibility for the gloomy weather: “The reason it was all gray and miserable is because there’s a Sheffield band on.” And, when they ran long on their set time, he made sex metaphors: “Usually my timing is impeccable. [Pause.] Ask my girlfriend. OK, Coachella, we kissed earlier. But now I’m going to have to penetrate you.” That was the cue for “Common People,” which Cocker rocked with all the peacocking disaffected lit professor swag he’s got.

Later there was The Rapture, the barbed-wire-sharp dance-punk lifers who kindly pointed out that there’s nothing quite like a band being really on their game; and there was M83, whose giant electro dance jams would work even if lead dude Anthony Gonzales didn’t keep gushing about how happy he was to be here; and then, to close out the night, there was hugely internationally famous supergroup Swedish House Mafia, whose massive bass thumps were bolstered by giant screens freaking out with static blips all at the same time, and also fake digital flames segueing into real actual flames, and then also fireworks.

DAY 2

By the end of Saturday, Coachella is feeling less like a totalitarian society and more like an Outward Bound–type survival skills death challenge. I’d long ago given up the idea of taking a shower, or changing my pants, or actually removing my pants in any way, at any point. The temperature’s a little lower than this festival usually reaches, meaning at night I must expertly bind myself in both a hoodie and a sweater. I also can’t find any more plastic knives and so craftily resort to spreading my peanut butter on my bagel with a spoon instead. I can’t say for sure it’s the survival pressures making people act weird, but at one point an observation circle forms as a girl in a unicorn mask bumps into a guy in a unicorn mask, and some unspoken social pressure directs them into an impromptu ritualistic mating dance. But nowhere are the casualties of festival warfare more acute than they are at the charging station. It is a hut, lined with outlets, in which dazed concertgoers wander in with no cell battery at all, plug in, hang out watching their phones charge while trippy, fast-cut subliminal message videos play on TV screens above, and entertain harried fever dreams of finding their friends before Andrew Bird. It’s wretched stuff.

But, yeah, worth it, of course. On Saturday, the fast-rising New York MC Azealia Banks takes the stage decked out in black-and-white-striped spandex that wouldn’t look out of place on the basketball courts of White Men Can’t Jump. It’s an early afternoon set, but, Banks lets us know, it’s “the biggest crowd I’ve ever performed for,” and they respond in kind. Flanked by one male dancer and one female dancer, Banks stomps around the stage in big black boots, grinning big. She flits from one pole to another, at one point expertly crooning The Zutons-via-Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie,” at another raging a bit of The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” via a mild British accent. On the way out, her DJ shouts out, “Give it up to Azealia Banks from Harlem, New York,” and then drops Harlem’s own Dipset’s “Come Home With Me.” Perfect.

On some other faraway point of the spectrum, but only a few hundred physical yards away, is Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum. When Mangum first began playing shows again last year after years of good old-fashioned American genius hermitness, it felt to the superfans “like the once-in-a-generation appearance of some endangered bird.” Now that Mangum’s been out in the world for a bit, and away from hushed basements and onto big-ass festival stages, some normalcy has been instilled. That said: Sitting by himself with an acoustic guitar on that large space, with the giant screens to his sides turned off, Mangum progressively lures the crowd into a closer and closer huddle, and manages to make his set feel weird and intimate and raw. Shout-out to the guy behind me for proving you don’t need to know any words to sing along; just some melody and some guttural noises and some screeching wordless Mangum-esque vocals, and you’re fine.

Back on the main stage is Bon Iver. Justin Vernon’s one-man operation has evolved into a muscular, do-it-all steamroller (I’m pretty sure one guy was tuba soloing?), and they crush Vernon’s heartache jams. Last time I saw the dude was during his Grammys acceptance, where his disheveled manner inspired a too-accurate SNL parody. He’s still not the best at talking: Since he was playing before the headlining Radiohead, he shouted out a “tight little group coming out of the U.K. next. [Pause.] Unbelievable. [Pause.] Cool.” But inside his haunted house set — crumbling fabric overhead, glowing spokes on the stage — he looked much better. (Was that a spiffy white cardigan?) One question, though: How the hell did the sign language translator tasked with working out Bon Iver’s inscrutable lyrics about “arboretic truth” and “furling forests” and all that shit cope up there?

Afterward, I head over to A$AP Rocky, who’s either just really, genuinely psyched to be at Coachella, or has possibly found some potent cinnamon-laced products. At one point, in fact, Rocky asks if anyone might be able to get him high, and baggies go flying onto the stage (Radiohead is on at the same time, so everyone here is super into being here). “They throwing weed onstage!,” he yelps out, before rummaging through his piles and finding something else. “Oh, this n**** threw me coke. They throwing coke onstage!” Eventually the set ends and the crowd thins, but Rocky’s having too good a time to leave. His DJ throws on Three 6 Mafia’s “Slob on My Knob,” Rocky mumbles endearing non-sequiturs (“lick my balls, lick my butt,” etc.), and the A$AP crew end the night by having themselves an onstage dance party

DAY 3

A lot of stuff happens on Sunday. At AraabMuzik, a giant mosh pit breaks out in which a tiny, fearless, crowd-surfing child is lifted miles in the air, over and over, possibly to his imminent doom. At The Weeknd, I enjoy a lucid conversation about the Lakers’ Ramon Sessions with the fellow in front of me when he suddenly cuts himself off to intensely stare at the “beautiful” palm trees. I remind him he’s from L.A., and therefore probably sees palm trees all the time, but he insists that these ones, right at this moment, are particularly mind-blowing. (Later, he lets me know that if he jumps up and down he will probably vomit. I ask him to projectile forward, and he’s cool with that.) At Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, I see 50 Cent, Eminem, and also a goddamn hologram.

It turns out that the rumor of a Nate Dogg hologram was not quite right; it was Tupac himself that Snoop and Dre decided to bring, in a move tempting fate and nature and the benevolence of a righteous God, back from the dead. From my vantage point the effect, which was delivered via a see-through screen that rose up in the middle of the stage, only worked on the monitors and not live onstage — but it looked pretty good! Pac, as he was ordered to do by his overlords, graced us with “Hail Mary,” and then he and Snoop rocked “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” The synchronicity on the latter was commendable, leading me to believe that Snoop rehearsed alongside the hologram, and then leading me to really want to see the footage of Snoop rehearsing alongside the hologram. When Tupac was done, they made his hologram blow up into a thousand pieces. Then Dre tells us to “make some noise for Tupac,” all casual like that. At first I think about whether or not I’d be cool with it if I had famous rapper friends that wanted to bring me back from the dead for a high-profile festival appearance. I decide that, yeah, sure, fuck it, bring me back as a hologram. Later I think about how I might have been able to make good money selling “I’m only here for the hologram” T-shirts.

But Sunday, ultimately, for me, is about At The Drive-In. I’ve never before had a band that I love and have never seen reunite. And nothing — not the kid in the campsite asking his friends, “Does anyone know who At The Drive-In is? Ah, its probably some pussy indie band to distract us from Avicii”; not the fact that ATDI was almost explicitly doing this for the money — could wipe away the giddy feeling of watching the backdrop go down and the band trot out onstage and the rolling drums of “Arcarsenal” kick in. As soon as the first words leave front man Cedric Bixler-Savala’s mouth — “I must have read a thousand faaaaceees” — it is on, an unstoppable blur of supercharged fans running on years of pent-up adoration. I’d like to tell you I carefully observed Bixler-Savala’s famed stage acrobatics, but for the most part I spent my time throwing my arms around pretty much everyone in my vicinity and screaming out the words with my eyes closed for longer chunks of time than I care to admit. I can’t tell you exactly what the show was like; I can tell you I ended up sweat-drenched, dazed, elated. And when it was over, Bixler-Savalas told us, “We’re done. Go take a shower.”

Filed Under: Azealia Banks, Bon Iver, Coachella, Dr. Dre, Live Music, Music, Snoop Dogg, We Went there

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad