Coachella Festival

Reelin’ in the Years

… and what a long, strange fest it’s been.

Geoff Boucher Arts & Entertainment

Coachella Festival
PHOTO BY KOURY ANGELO

What does a visionary look like? There are all kinds of visionaries and their shared common trait is not the way they look. It is the uncommon ways in which they see. But if pressed for an answer, I would say from personal experience that a visionary might be a soft-spoken guy in a black ball cap who sees an oasis of possibilities in a place known for tumbleweeds.

“For Southern California, this could be the start of something really special,” concert promoter Paul Tollett said from beneath the bill of his ball cap. It was a scorching afternoon late in September 1999 and shade was hard to find at the Empire Polo Club in Indio. No one was sweating more than Tollett, who was less than a dozen days out from the biggest gamble of his career: transforming the equestrian venue into the home field of a world-class destination festival. Tollett had already put two years of work into the venture but ticket sales were not going great. I was there as a Los Angeles Times reporter and Tollett was eager for me to share his optimistic view — to see the canteen as half-full instead of viewing it as a leaky canteen and wondering if its owner might have holes in his head as well.

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PHOTO BY KOURY ANGELO

“You never know what is going to work, really, until you take a leap,” he mused as he steered a golf cart past the bright white fountains and statues dotting the polo club’s gardens and entrances. I tried to keep a poker face over the course of our day together, but the more I heard, the more I agreed with Tollett’s gamble. It had potential, though I winced when I heard the project’s name: the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. I judged it to be too long, too forgettable, and as square as a county fair dance.

While I don’t think I was totally wrong in my judgment (and I do take some solace in the fact that most fans use the shortened term “Coachella festival” or the shorter-still “Coachella”), the long, creaky name added up to a formal nonfactor — a desert rose by any other name, it turns out, still sings as sweet.

Amplifier stacks will thunder anew in April when the festival returns for its 18th year with 149 acts playing over two weekends to a collective audience of almost 600,000 people. That’s a jaw-dropping turnout by any measure, but it inspires a bit of box-office vertigo for those of us who were there in 1999 when the festival’s ground-floor effort topped out at 37, 000 fans.

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PHOTO BY DRIELY S.

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PHOTO BY COLLIN ERIE

In 2015, the festival set a new franchise record with $84 million in revenues. That is a lot of money, so much, in fact, that it has become the contemporary reflex to view the brand’s history as a clear path that was followed easily and destined for a slam-dunk at the end. That could hardly be further from reality. It’s hard to fathom now but in September 1999 there weren’t a whole lot of people who thought the Coachella idea was a good bet. That’s why Tollett was running grim numbers through his head as we cruised the perimeter of the venue. I could almost hear his own nagging doubts nip at the heels of hopes and on some level he may have worried that it was all mirage.

“It would not totally ruin us,” he said with surprising candor as he mulled over different shades of failure. “It wouldn’t be the end of us.”

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PHOTO BY KOURY ANGELO

Clearly, the affable promoter’s ambition was also his angst. He is quiet by nature but there was enough worry in his eyes for me to wonder if he was a gambler motivated by thrilling wins. It’s something I thought about over the next six years as Tollett and the aptly named Goldenvoice proved to have a Midas touch with Coachella (as well as two spin-off festivals at the same venue: Stagecoach, the country music festival, has 12 years in the saddle and was a moneymaker right from the giddyup; and Desert Trip, the one-off show in the fall of 2016 that brought together a half-dozen top-drawer acts of classic rock such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Who). From the interested near-distance of my vantage point I had a front-row seat for the misfires and missed chances that didn’t always reach the public view.

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PHOTO BY BRINSON + BANKS

That first year offered a lot of legroom for the relative few who experienced Coachella in its infancy. They are the ones who can say they were among those who saw the near-legendary bill led by Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Underworld, Moby, Beck, and The Chemical Brothers. When the dust settled from its debut, the attendance numbers had fallen short of the profit mark. The two-day event lost money, but it won the battle for credibility and marketplace traction. It was on its way to becoming a mecca for guitar heroes and turntable alchemists despite the sun-bleached environs requiring some acclimation for artists and fans alike. At the first Coachella I blinked in disbelief when one of the DJs was sabotaged by the furious furnace heat — the turntable beneath his palms was suddenly the site for a droopy vinyl derailment as his LPs warped wildly in the triple-digit sunshine. There would never be another Coachella so hot nor another staged in the fall when the Santa Ana winds can transform the Coachella Valley into a wood-fire stove stretching from the Chocolate Mountains to the Salton Sea.

The same week Tollett showed me the grassy expanses of the soon-to-be festival grounds, a new drama called The West Wing premiered on NBC. That month also marked the premiere of the Oscar-bound film American Beauty and Serena Williams’ 18th birthday celebration as well her U.S. Open triumph. Williams is still a force on the court but even her prowess can’t touch the Coachella juggernaut success. In 2007 I asked Gary Bongiovanni, of the concert industry trade magazine Pollstar, how he would frame the success of the desert franchise. “Coachella,” he said flatly, “is king.”

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PHOTO BY DRIELY S.

Coachella is more than the sum of its onstage talent. The tribal confluence of young Americans and the sonic youth of the globe is now a rite of passage for millennial music fans and, in a way, it became a rite of passage for me as a not-so-young music fan writing passages for The Times about the surreal sights and potent sounds that washed over the scene through the first seven installments of the franchise. 

Covering Coachella became a touchstone topic for me during my winding 21-year career at the paper. It was a pleasure to cover the festival’s early stages and that’s true even when the pleasure was mixed with pitfalls, be they traffic calamities, illness, missed interviews, irate editors, hotel hassles, a bee sting, a sprained ankle, comatose cell phones, lost photographers, windstorms, garbled quotes, or unreasonable deadlines. The road trip with Tollett and his guided tour of the grounds yielded the first of my many Coachella articles. It was a splashy piece that ran with more prominence, devoted pages, and photographs than I expected. Tollett was effusive about the feature and for years made a point to cite the ink commitment as “a make or break moment.”

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PHOTO BY DRIELY S.

Some of the linchpin developments happened far from Tollett’s control and beyond the reach of the Santa Ana winds. The blistering pressure on Coachella that first year was partly inherited heat from Woodstock ’99, the New York concert that went up in flames just three months prior amid looting and reports of sexual assault. It was an especially ugly sequel to 1969’s Woodstock, considering the original was billed as “three days of peace, love, and music.” The insurance costs for Coachella’s first weekend increased 40 percent in the wake of the East Coast debacle. Tollet vowed that his festival would take the high road.

It was Tollett’s music taste, attention to creature comforts, and faith in the venue’s scale and setting that set the festival on its course to become the gold standard of the Golden State stage. Over the years that followed, we connected through the love of music and the story unfolding around us. We both grew, personally and professionally, alongside Coachella. 

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PHOTO BY DRIELY S.

For me, Coachella was a fresh new territory. After seven years at the paper’s Orange County bureau covering crime and local news, I was a newly hired feature writer for the L.A. Times calendar section. My predecessor on the music beat had won a Pulitzer for covering rap murders and my boss was music critic and newsroom legend Robert Hilburn. Coachella represented a fresh story I could make my own. It was also a chance to use the skills I learned as a street reporter covering breaking news, interviewing crowds, and filing on deadline. After penning stories on house fires and plane crashes, the summer-camp atmosphere was a welcome change.

In a way, Tollett put Indio on the map for me twice the day we met — in the morning, he used a red felt-tip pen to circle the highway town on my Chevron road map; in the afternoon, he underlined his view of the venue. Tollett would do a similar service over the next decade for fans across the globe. And for the entire music industry. That was clear to me in 2009 when I sat down with Sir Paul McCartney in New York ready for a wide-ranging interview. First, he had a question for the interviewer: “They told me you know all about Coachella. What is it then, what’s the Coachella magic?”

My answer was maybe muddled but I mentioned the uplift of the fan community set against the evocative desert landscape. Go to a festival like KIIS FM’s Wango Tango and you might leave feeling good about the performances. At Coachella you leave feeling good about the people you met sitting around the beer gardens, camping, or dancing next to you. The former Beatle strummed his guitar and smiled. He and his band were headed west in a matter of days. They were to headline the 10th anniversary Coachella. He worked out in his head what it might be like while we chatted. “Right, the desert’s the best one then isn’t it? I like that name, too, Coachella.”        

Through the years Tollett often asked me what I thought of a proposed lineup choice or some new wrinkle he was contemplating. I tried to always be candid. The McCartney booking was one of the few times my opinion caught him totally off guard — I love the Beatles songbook and have great respect for McCartney, but I thought the edgy appeal of Coachella was in its opportunity for discovery. Seeing The Killers, Daft Punk, My Morning Jacket, and Belle & Sebastian for the first time are indelible and quintessential Indio memories because they were about music of the moment. They were about realizing new sounds. Hearing Sir Paul sing “Hello, Goodbye” or “When I’m 64” felt like an awkward journey to the past.

The ragged charm of the fledgling first-year Coachella remains my defining memory. Its early days fostered a laid-back spirit with free parking and fair prices. Though that picnic vibe on the lawn didn’t extend to the dance tents (named Gobi, Sahara, and Mojave to evoke the mystical aura of the wild, arid world). The tents were a sweat-plastered swelter of gyrating bodies right from the start.

Snapshot moments through the years linger as postcards in my head and, in some instances, in my heart.

In 2004, Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne told me backstage what a big influence The Wizard of Oz had been on his band and his music. That’s an interesting anecdote on its own, but it was made better because Coyne was squatting inside a giant see-through plastic bubble when he gave the spiel. Not long after that, he was rolling around the crowd performing from inside the ball held up by fans’ outstretched hands, clamoring to touch the thing as if it were imbued with some sort of healing power.

When a passing golf cart with a church choir caught my eye in a backstage area the same year, I had to jog to catch them. Serendipity was worth the extra hustle in the heat. In robes of white and gold, the singers from Mt Calvary Holy Church in Indio had been drafted by a young Nevada band hoping to make its Coachella debut memorable. I interviewed the choir director, Dieann Simmons Williams, who told me the impromptu gig was a curious booking for her group, but “wherever we can witness, that’s where we go.” Williams didn’t seem especially impressed with the band that day. Perhaps her mindset changed as the band rose to fame in the years that followed or when the group — The Killers — returned to the festival to play the main stage.

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PHOTO BY DRIELY S.

Not all of my memories involve music. The deep darkness of the desert night, the dust, and lack of landmarks make parking lots a chaotic mess as fans searched for their car or an exit, in some cases for hours. I must admit, with some embarrassment, that one year it took me 50 long minutes to find my own driver’s seat. At least I had it better than a fan I passed during my search — a confused, young European girl looking for her missing boyfriend. She was evidently frustrated and couldn’t seem to understand why the hordes around her responded in unison every time she called out. The boy’s name was Marco. And every time she called it out a legion of voices in the dark called back, “Polo!” 

The wackiest stage moment in Coachella history might’ve been the 2012 “appearance” by the late Tupac Shakur. The strangest thing about the hologram that made history, to my mind, was that anyone actually thought it was a good idea. He danced onstage with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, close enough to take a puff off Snoop’s blunt. But I found there to be a lack of substance and I worried about the precedents it might set for endless reunion tours by stars who left the building long ago.  

Coachella reunions have become a hit-or-miss tradition. Few came together better than the 2004 reunion of Black Francis, Kim Deal, and their fellow Boston compatriots who finally settled the beefs that first made the Pixies call it quits. That reunion allowed me to hear the oddly tender sound of “Wave of Mutilation” live for the first time in my life.

There’s no way for me to really know what it means to be a rock star, but I got a glimpse in 2015 as I stood off the edge of the main stage in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd just 15 feet from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. He bellowed out the chorus of “Closer.” I could feel the audience energy radiate at him. The sea of faces shouted back, “I want to pluck you like an animal!” (Although, I might be getting that fourth word wrong.)

Over the years, Coachella has attracted more and more celebrity attendees, and with them come opportunities for stargazing. During the Red Hot Chili Peppers set in 2007, a giggling Paris Hilton climbed atop a stack of amps on the side of the stage, to both see and be seen. A few yards away, Tom Morello, the firebrand guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, bobbed to the beat and tried to blend in. These are moments that make you realize famous people can be fans too.

It’s a fitting and fitful time for Coachella to reach the milestone age that separates child from adult. In a political year like no other the festival reaches the legal voting age and the age where military service becomes an option. There is little doubt the roiling political season in Washington, D.C., will spark a significant amount of guitar feedback and microphone messages roaring out of Indio. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a politically charged Coachella. Will artists choose to rally their fans? Will the message be one of engagement, protest, or anger?

The festival feels like family to me at this point. I expect a lot from it. In 2015, the year my daughter Addison celebrated her own 18th birthday, she and a friend wanted to make the quest to find the famed Coachella magic themselves. I found myself joining them and undertaking my first Coachella pilgrimage in eight years.

The crowd was far denser than I had ever seen it before. The headlining performance by Drake was a disappointment. He unwisely channeled the Rat Pack tradition by talking between songs and over songs. I lost interest. I realized how much Coachella’s success has become a challenge for its future and a break from its traditions. The influx of pop and celebrity has changed the event’s offbeat sound. The easy comfort in the early days was feeling the crush of humanity. Still, I had a great time.

I assumed I would hand off the torch. Instead, I chose to return last year. This time it was with Addie again and also with my fiancée, Serena. Families change and expand and change again, in much the same way that festivals do. It’s still easy to lose track of time in the desert, but when you plug the amps into California’s festival spirit and feel the backbeat of family and old friends, a day in the sun can shine with new possibility and connect an audience with a warmth that feels tribal and timeless. And that’s no mirage.

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PHOTO BY JOSEPH LLANES

Reelin’ in the Years was last modified: May 4th, 2017 by Geoff Boucher