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Two Days in the Coachella Valley

Two Days in the Coachella Valley


What's it all about? The adventures of a gay Coachella virgin in search of meaning, misters, and Madonna in the scorching heat of the desert music festival



As I weave around sky-blotting SUVs at 80 miles per hour, my anticipation rises with the sun. I am to finally witness the spectacle of Coachella, though it still isn't clear what that is, exactly. Political activism? Hedonism? Commercialism? A straightforward display of great music and art? With Madonna and Tool performing at the same event, all I can picture is an awkward culture clash between West Hollywood and Silver Lake, akin to Chelsea and the East Village being stuck in the same elevator.

Life lesson alert: One of the things I learn at Coachella is that my thinking is too myopic. There are lots of people who appreciate Madonna and Tool--and those people usually have really cool hair, but they pretend not to know it.

As I close in on the condo I'm sharing sorority girl-like with a bunch of other amazing people (more on that later), I liken myself to a queer Hunter S. Thompson of the '00s: a gonzo journalist driving through the desert at breakneck speed, dispatched to report on the cultural signifier of my day. (Even better, I don't have to stay at the Circus Circus and experience all those scary drug hallucinations he put himself through.)

I get off the freeway in Indio (about 25 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) and almost slam head-on into a mile-long line of cars idling in the Saturday morning heat. Besides the vehicles, there is nothing except sand, palm trees, and hazy mountain outlines.

Oy, still six miles to the condo, so I pump the A.C., throw in the new Flaming Lips CD, and stare at my fellow 'chellas. As you'd expect, most are between 18 and 35 (and somewhere a marketing person wept at the lost opportunity to force merchandise on these trapped consumers). A lot of white people too, which strikes me as odd, though I do live in diverse Los Angeles. Feet air outside windows, mouths puff on cigarettes, and fingers reach for Fritos. Coachella's first band doesn't go on for about another hour, so people relax and I do too.

"Many, many gorgeous men. And all with their shirts off and their underwear sticking out of their jeans."


I eventually find the condo, located on an enormous golf course. It is so Palm Springs-y that as I wait in the visitor gate to get my parking permit, two old biddies driving golf carts pass me in the resident lane. I walk to the deceptively large condo that welcomes the street with its garage. A golf course is the backyard, and the foliage is as green and lush as the Brazilian rain forest, which is disconcerting considering it rains about an inch a year in the California desert.

My roommates open the door wearing smiles and flip-flops. Everyone is nice as pie and just awakening from a night of debauchery. Strangers are introduced and fast friendships are made. Lots of beer moves this process quickly along.

The consensus is to head to Coachella about 1 P.M. The concert starts at noon, but the most obscure bands play at the beginning, and no one is in a rush to expose themselves to the elements as the mercury passes 90 degrees.

I really don't need to get to the polo fields before 4 P.M., since Common, the Chicago hip-hop artist, doesn't start until then and I'm not too familiar with any of the preceding acts. This is Coachella, I tell myself. Come on! Am I going to sit around drinking cold delicious beer, languidly yakking to friends, flirting with the idea of dipping in the pool or Jacuzzi, and idly hanging around a luxe, air-conditioned condominium all afternoon? No. That would be tomorrow.


So we all carpool to the venue and park almost a mile away to avoid the bone-crushing parking lot traffic we anticipate at the end of the night. I have my omnipresent green H&M boho bag with me (I think I am so Sienna Miller--or better yet, Kate Moss when she went to that U.K. music festival with Pete Doherty and carried that big bag and those really cool boots...oh, sorry) that's stocked full of sunscreen and cell phone and camera and pens, etc. I tell you this because having a good bag at Coachella is absolutely necessary. Maybe you think you don't need one. Maybe it's fey to have a bag. But when your eyes and lips are so dry from the wind and zero moisture in the air that even Karen O doesn't distract from the burn, you'll be glad you have a man (or woman) purse that contains a bottle of Clear Eyes and a tube of Blistex.

It's a long walk with no shade. My roommates are so excited (most being Coachella sluts) that their energy is beyond infectious. Brave Claire, the only girl among nine gay men, says Coachella is her favorite thing, and you can tell she's being honest. It's cool to see people do something they really enjoy. It's also fun for them to see through a newcomer's eyes an experience they love. Sort of like introducing someone to AbFab.

It's hot but not unbearable. I have a short-sleeved shirt draped over my head Lawrence of Arabia-style and am oiled up in SPF 40 like a pig. We finally arrive, and there's a long-ass line for will call, but Matt and I head to the press booth, get our credentials, and zip right through (suckas!). We're given VIP bracelets and are cleared through security.

Ooh. It's huge. People everywhere, but not crowded. I walk over with Matt and his partner, Rick, to a Porta Potti their friend designed. It's all decked out like a piano, and there's a bunch of other portable latrines decorated for each decade of the 20th century.

We walk onto the VIP area and it's an oasis. I feel very bourgeois. There's more shade and less crowd, and there are not only water fountains to drink from but a large decorative one to sit near and stare at. There are fruit smoothies and margaritas and bathrooms with mirrors and running water. I love it. But best of all, there are huge misting machines that cool you down in two seconds flat. I plant myself in front of one and roll my head back and forth as my hair blows around. I imagine myself like Sophia Loren in some sweaty Italian movie, but people probably thought Macaulay Culkin was getting hosed down.


The roomies realize we can see the Coachella main stage from the VIP area, and I'm told to camp with them near a picnic table in that direction. My roommates and I consume some beer and food, then people start dispersing to see acts like Wolfmother and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. I decide to walk to the un-VIP area, to a dance dome where people in tribal outfits are shakin' it on platforms while others are shirtless and getting their groove on back on the ground. My boho bag still attached to my body like a conjoined twin, I start dancing too, and it's really fun. The music is loud and people are happy (many, I assume, are on drugs). After 10 minutes I have my fill and wander on.

Many, many gorgeous men. And all with their shirts off and their underwear sticking out of their jeans. On women it's trashy; on sculpted hipster men a little Calvin Klein poking through is amazingly hot. After feasting my eyes, I head back to VIP Land to check out Common. He's arrives exactly on time and sounds great. I love his music but had heard murmurs that his earlier records carried antigay epithets, so I'm a little wary. He starts talking about all the beautiful women--of which there are many--and invites one young lady onstage who screams she's "from Palm Springs--wo-o-o!" and we're all suddenly on TRL. She's half naked and starts gyrating against Common's crotch, and I realize I'm witnessing my vamoose cue.


I walk back to un-VIP Land to see the British electronica-pop artist Imogen Heap perform in one of the tents where the dance and smaller rock acts play. I get to Imogen's tent early and land in a prime spot near the stage. She arrives looking all ethereal and weird like Bjork and starts fiddling with a computer setup on the stage. She starts getting frantic and speaking with the techies, making sounds like she can't hear anything. The crowd grows restless as the minutes pass by her start time of 6:20. She takes off and emerges with an outfit change. She has donned a satiny cream light jacket over a bright red bra, and there are weird flower things spouting out of her hairdo, which looks like a scared porcupine. I love her.

She apologizes for the tardiness and starts singing, with her computer doing all the musical backup. She sounds great, and the audience is enamored. The former Frou Frou singer introduces us to a new song, but she forgets the lyrics halfway through. She's so cute about the brain fart that we all fall in love with her. Sadly, I must leave Imogen early to catch the gay-membered Sigur Ros on the main stage.

I catch up with my roomies in VIP Land, where we all listen to the exotic, grand, operatic sounds of Iceland's Sigur Ros. I enjoy it and drink heavily. Franz Ferdinand is next, but I'm too busy talking to the roomies, taking contacts out of my burning eyes, and staring at people on drugs to pay too much attention. No one on drugs is really out of control--just lolling around on the grass thinking how beautiful life is.

What's strange, though, is that there are babies running around. Anywhere from 6 months to 10 years old. Running among drunk/stoned people and really loud music. I know you gruppies think that even though you're parents you're still cool, but by showing up at Coachella with your children, you confirm the fact that you are not. Get a babysitter--this is not a place for sensitive baby eardrums or impressionable baby minds.

"There are huge video screens of lead singer David Gahan strutting onstage in a leather vest."

So I'm drunk and getting over the mild crankiness that involves my burning eyes and the deaf babies. We all go to un-VIP Land and see Depeche Mode out in the main field. Awesome. So loud and rockin' and visually stunning. There are huge video screens of lead singer David Gahan strutting onstage in a leather vest. I leave early to get another drink and head over to the dance tent to see the techno act Daft Punk. I miss "Personal Jesus"--yes, it's very sad, but I can hear it as I walk away.

I arrive at the dance tent and the fever is rising. People are psyched for Daft Punk and ready to do some serious dancing. I have had too much to drink, and as the deafening beat begins, instead of dancing I am throwing myself and the boho bag around like a fool. My roomies are supposed to meet me outside the tent, but there's a human wall around me the LAPD couldn't bust up. After a while I realize my roomies aren't finding me and I must get to bed. I head toward the car, and we meet up at the festival's exit. I'm a little too inebriated for witty repartee, so I remain quiet as we walk to the vehicle. We get in and put the car's top down and it's really nice. The mountains are beautiful, and I think of them as I fall on the couch with my clothes on and sleep for eight hours.

LAZY SUNDAYCoachellamain

The roomies are groggy and bleary-eyed, reaching for the coffee, Marlboro Ultra Lights, and soon enough, Amstel Light and Smirnoff. It's very college dorm-y and I feel like I'm 19 again. We're all thick as thieves, shocking the old-people golfers with our gutter talk, morning drinking, and loud music. My friend Kevin, a trained dancer, decides to give the old farts a show and runs onto the golf course, doing flips and pirouettes that would make Johnny Weir seem butch. I hear one scandalized fogy gasp "Oh, my God" and the afternoon has officially kicked off.

Much drinking and pool swimming takes place (though not for me, because it's hotter than Saturday and I don't want my albinoish skin to turn scarlet). We all wander lazily around the condo and pool--eating, chugging, and smoking, getting to know each other. Pretension is put aside for appreciation. This will be, by far, my favorite time of Coachella weekend. Without sounding like a loser teen at summer camp, I have found many new, interesting friends.


So at about 4:30 we head to the cars. It is hot. We have to park farther away than yesterday, and as we cross the desert on foot the roomies wonder if Lady M will arrive by Gaultier jet or Versace helicopter.

A roomie has a little trouble at security when his "prescription" is confiscated by a guard even after he informs the woman it's strictly for his glaucoma. Well, Whitney can get away with it, but not roomie. Once inside I buy sad roomie a drink because his eyes are starting to hurt, and all is soon forgotten.

The roomies I am with don't have VIP passes, and at that point I need the misting machine, so I tell 'em it's the end of the line for now. We make plans to meet up for girl rockers Sleater-Kinney, but those plans don't happen 'cause it's too crowded.

After misting, peeing, and obtaining alcohol, I manage some celeb sightings. I see hottie Scott Speedman looking Felicity-licious in a ripped T-shirt. He's waiting in line at the ATM. Isn't it great to see celebrities waiting in line?

Walking by the actress Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy's sister), I think I overhear her admiring someone's Hummer. Isn't that in bad taste, to lavish praise on a Hummer at Coachella?

"I check out Sleater-Kinney without the roomies and enjoy the band wholeheartedly."

I check out Sleater-Kinney without the roomies and enjoy the band wholeheartedly. They're energetic and can work their instruments something fierce. They communicate a lot with the audience too.

Thankfully, I reunite with the roomies, because next are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and oh, my God, they are amazing. Karen O is so into it--rockin' and getting the roomies and me dancing like crazy! We're flailing around, not giving a fuck. I'm heartbroken when I have to leave early to get a good spot for Madonna with the other roomies who are already there. We bid adieu.

The ingenious roomies have found there's a VIP area with bleachers near Madonna's dance tent (though it's quite far away from the actual stage where she'll be). I finally find them and chat to catch up. One of the roomies peed behind the VIP area and some of the urine landed on an electrical cord. He keeps asking if he started a fire, which frightens me, because hordes of people are now everywhere waiting for M and a fire would kill us all.


So, no fire, but as expected, the Lady is running late. She starts 20 minutes tardy, emerging out of this disco ball thing to the tune of "Hung Up." She's wearing sunglasses, a tank, and some sort of bulky pants. The crowd goes wild and she dances her keister off, though I must say I've seen this performance on the Grammys. It's still fun, and her dancing and energy are incomparable. After the song she reminds us this is her first festival appearance and asks to share our drugs. There are 30,000 people surrounding her.

She goes on to "Get Together," a rave-alicious track from Confessions on a Dance Floor, which is a good choice for her Coachella dance tent performance. Next is "I Love New York," when M straps on a guitar for some heavy-duty rockin' out. I am proud of her musicianship but not happy with the song. So many better songs than that one, M. And when the line about L.A. comes on ("Los Angeles is for people who sleep") she screams "But not you guys!" Poor consolation--I don't want to hear about New York when palm trees and mountains surround me.

She redeems herself completely when she plays "Ray of Light." It's a perfect choice--her first real toe-dip into electronica as an artist--and she sticks with her guitar. It's an orgiastic musical and visual feast, with dancers flipping and jumbo screens jumping. After that she heads to "Let It Will Be"--sort of an obscure Confessions track. Odd choice, but it's remixed and very dancey. She turns it out, as Idol's Randy would say.

Someone then throws water on the stage, and she's not havin' it. "Don't throw water on my stage, motherfucker!" she screams before getting on her hands and knees to wipe it up. She masters the expletive with such assurance, it sounds as if she's said it more times than "hello." My heart swells. She then announces how hot it is and takes her pants off before asking us if her ass looks good. Um, yeah. My ass will probably look like a deflated challah when I'm her age.

She asks if we want to hear an old song, and of course, everyone does. She goes with "Everybody," her oldest. I think it is a good idea at first, but it doesn't pan out incredibly. People don't hate it, but they're not super jazzed. She closes with that song, and I think people are expecting more tunes, but it just ends and it's a little anticlimactic (no goodbyes). In the end, good performance, but not great. I give the girl huge credit, though, for coming out here and shakin' her ass.


We all descend the bleachers and it's a major cow herd. For 20 minutes it's wall-to-wall people (many gays). It gets a little scary, but no one shoves, which I'm very appreciative of. Coulda gotten real ugly. Roomies and I decide that we have had enough of being around a huge mass of strangers and decide it's back to the condo for us (sorry, Scissor Sisters!). We eke our way out and stop at a supermarket for supplies.

We get back to the condo, have some beers, and dip into the Jacuzzi. Tomorrow is all about work, commitment, and scary newspaper headlines, but for the next few hours before we lay our heads down we revel in the music, camaraderie, and escapism Coachella brought to the lucky members of our strained generation who managed to find their way out to the California desert. Oh. So that's what it's all about.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Neal Broverman

Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.
Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.