“See, Baltimore to me was just a fucked-up place. I mean, some neighbor lady of mine is like, ‘Wa, wa, wah! Your weeds are growing over onto my side of the lawn’ and I just want to grab her and yell, ‘Hello!? Lady, why don’t we talk about the fact that my husband is fucking your daughter?!”
This comment comes from the mouth of Laura, a shuttle van driver hired by the good folks at Coachella to drive pampered rock stars and their publicists from lush afterparties to their five-star luxury spa resort hotel. Only, as she’s saying this, she’s sitting on the edge of her hotel bed, brushing her long, purple hair into two tight buns on either side of her head. The plentiful metal jewelry hanging from her neck and ears clanks against itself as she pulls the brush along the length of her hair, only stopping at the end of her sentence to thrust it out before her, like she’s gripping a plastic exclamation point.
As Laura speaks, I’m across the Holiday Inn Express room we’re sharing, applying some SPF 45 sunscreen to my already burned cheeks and nodding back at her through the vanity mirror reflection. “Mmm hmm,” I say. I’m not really sure what the proper response is to such a sentence.
Then again, I’m not exactly sure how I even ended up in this hotel room on a blisteringly hot, sunstroke-inducing Sunday afternoon. Because my cell phone has been dead for a day and the thick blackout curtains are pulled, I’m not exactly sure what time it is, but my best estimate is 2 p.m. I know I’m missing some amazing bands playing just on the other side of Indio at the Empire Polo Field, but I can’t quite muster the strength to tackle day two of Coachella until the 107-degree ocean pushing against the door of room 217 cools down to two digits.
As my cohorts and I finally venture through the sand-encrusted one-lane roads that lead from Highway 10 to the biggest music festival in North America, we decide that Laura will henceforth be known as our guardian angel for having saved us at 4:15 a.m. as we idled outside the Esmeralda Resort and Spa earlier that morning.
As can only be expected with a festival of its colossal size, our first day at Coachella had left us without functioning cell phones and, as a result, with no chance of finding our respective friends with whom we’d made sleeping arrangements for the weekend. We were stranded, desperate, dirty-footed, and feeling about as fresh as a discarded rattlesnake skin. Only able to find some friends partying at a nearby hotel, we’d come to terms with the fact that the night might only entail sitting by the lobby, watching rock stars return giddy and drunk from their parties.
Then, dear Laura looped through the roundabout driveway and, seeing our sad state, leaned out the passenger window of her monstrous, white van.
“Do you guys need a ride somewhere?”
Laughing, we said, “Well, sure. If we had somewhere to go.”
“Well, are you guys just hanging out or are you actually working the festival?” Laura said.
“No, we’re college press. Everything just got completely bungled tonight and now we have nowhere to stay. Every hotel out to Riverside is completely booked and we can’t all fit in the car to sleep,” I responded.
“What? And you’re working? That’s fucked up,” she said as she shook her head. “Look, if you guys can wait for me to finish my shift, you can stay in my hotel room across town. I have some extra sleeping space and a shower.”
Our hearts collectively swelled into one big heart-shaped balloon. Even though everything your mom tells you about accepting favors from strangers means this situation is a no-no, it would take someone with severe dementia to refuse this kind woman’s offer.
“Oh, god. We’d be so grateful. We’ll totally pay you for the room. Anything would help.”
And so, as the sun glided over the Coachella Valley mountains at 6:15 a.m., we pulled into the Holiday Inn parking lot and met our savior as she stood outside the door with a small pile of fresh, teeny hotel towels.
“I thought you guys might need these in the morning,” she said.
Laura had to leave earlier than we did to get back to work on Sunday. That day she was working as a runner for the headliners, the Cure, getting bird’s-nest-maned Robert Smith whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it.
“He’s a funny guy,” she said, after expertly rounding off her hair buns and brushing out her smooth bangs. “He was really hungry last night and I offered to go to Denny’s to get him something and you wanna know what he said?”
“‘I’ll wait.’ So he waited!”
Before leaving us in her hotel room, Laura has managed to touch upon a variety of topics, including how she grew up in a pretty rough-and-tumble neighborhood and sometimes blacks out when she gets in fights. Every time she leans enough toward any one direction, massive black tattoos peek out from the edges of her tank top. As she tells these stories, I can’t help but find myself amused by the contradictions of her cherry-print sun dress that hangs in the closet and the plate of breakfast pastries she brought back for us from the hotel’s continental breakfast we slept through.
Sunday is a much better day for everyone. Though we don’t arrive at the festival until late afternoon, we don’t enjoy the feeling of near-death while watching musical acts, so we save our mental and physical health for the bigger acts to come later in the day.
As we walk through the gates for the second day in a row, I can’t help but flash back to high noon Saturday, when we bounded inside the Polo Field walls. In a matter of hours, we’d taken in the beautiful string arrangements of the Section Quartet as they covered a bevy of songs, including the Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.”
Before cell phones crapped out and the heat began crawling upward, the first day of Coachella held so much promise. As one of the first people inside, my jaw almost knocked against the yet-to-be-trampled grass when I saw how closely the amount of people inside already rivaled the peak attendance last year. My shock would only rise, alongside the heat, as thousands poured in, creating a human traffic jam I’d yet to experience in any festival before. Compared to last year’s 33,000 attendees, this year saw figures well above 50,000, an amount of bodies I personally hope never to feel pushed against me again.
Though being in the tents created a sensation akin to being headlocked in a strange man’s armpit, it was well worth it to see acts like Erase Errata, the Black Keys, Q and not U, Sahara Hotnights, Junior Senior, Moving Units, and headliners like Electric Six and the robot-loving Kraftwerk. Escaping the tents and bearing the sun meant being able to enjoy bands like the Stills, Desert Session – with a guest appearance by Ms. Distiller herself, Brody Dalle – the dancey delight of Rapture and lightning-paced hip hoppers Eyedea & Abilities.
But the outdoor stage took precedent come 7:20 p.m., when the audience held its breath and welcomed the return of the almighty Pixies. Which could, of course, only be topped by the only North American stop of the biggest band everyone hates to admit they’re in love with, Radiohead.
As for Sunday, sleep and showers made it that much easier to get lost in acts like Sage Francis, Cooper Temple Clause, Dizzee Rascal, Mogwai, !!!, Cursive, Black Rebel Motercycle Club and even the thumpy fun of the Basement Jaxx.
Yet, again, come sunset the night belonged to acts almost too big for one venue, like AIR, the Flaming Lips, Le Tigre and, finally, the Cure. The music was phenomenal; you just couldn’t argue with that. There just exists this inexplicable excitement about being able to turn to your concertmate and say, “Yo, the Cure’s song is sort of dragging. Let’s go check if Mogwai’s done or if Le Tigre’s onstage yet.” Wait… what?!
And that, in essence, is the only exclamation that my brain seems to be able to offer when I try to think back on this year’s Coachella. Between sleeping in a car, brushing shoulders with Jared Leto – who is totally metaled out, by the way – frying in 107-degree heat while Beck chats about being goth (“I thought I might become goth earlier this week but I thought I would wait until after the festival”), getting my car stuck in a ditch while trying to leave the parking lot, watching a crazy woman climb the smaller outdoor stage during the Le Tigre set to throw T-shirts and fliers into the crowd, and, ultimately, sitting and eating a muffin in the air-conditioned hotel room of a woman I’ll likely never see again, Coachella 2004 will decidedly exist as one big “what?!”
And, as if that nutshelled succession of curious events wasn’t enough, we couldn’t help but almost simultaneously become slack-jawed when we picked up the Catholic votive candle perched above the minibar in Laura’s hotel room and saw the docile face of St. Jude staring back at us. For those like me who aren’t quite well-versed in Catholic saints, it turns out he’s the patron saint of “desperate situations and lost causes.”
That’s right, the perfect saint for a carload of college kids lost in the desert with nothing but a wad of worthless cash, some duffel bags of sweat-soaked clothes, melted fruit snacks, a few packs of cigarettes and a whole lot of faith in our patron saint of Coachella 2004, Laura – the most embittered yet sweet shuttle driver I’ll ever know.