It's nice to be reminded occasionally that, as the Canadian-born Leonard Cohen sang in "Democracy" last Friday to an adoring crowd, there's much more to America than those rabid right-wingers with their hateful teabags that have dominated television this past week. As Cohen sings of his adoptive country, we live in "the cradle of the best and of the worst/It's here they got the range/And the machinery for change/And it's here they got the spiritual thirst."
VIDEO: Leonard Cohen, "Hallelujah" (live at Coachella)
I kept thinking about this while walking the grounds at Coachella, the California festival that began in 1999 as an alternative to Lollapalooza and the Woodstock reduxes but has grown into its own kind of phenomenon. Everybody was mixing and sampling the varied musical buffet, from hardcore Chicano fanatics of Morrissey (an urban tribe I had never seen before, here in full force) to neo-hippie girls with glittering headbands to black metallicos headbanging to Mastodon. Out-and-proud gays and lesbians of different subcultures mingled with everyone else without having to raise any defense against prejudice. People looked good and comfortable in their various types of bodies, had a really laid-back attitude, and seemed fully satisfied with the good-time value they got for their pricy tickets.
I talked to some 10-year veterans of the festival, folks who have witnessed the event's evolution from the pre-millennial last legs of "indie rock" into something much more diverse in terms of music and audience. With its carnies, food stands, and dime-store lecturers and philosophers, Coachella 2009 is the result of a decade of creative expansion, adopting elements from Burning Man (mechanical sculptures, fire displays, installations with light), rave culture, and even tent shows.
There was a lot of music to sample. (Some of the festival vets longed for the days when it was a more manageable two-day card.) The organizers have adapted the act selection to these leaner times by maximizing the demographic appeal. Friday headliner Paul McCartney and special treat Cohen brought in an older concertgoer; Saturday's Killers show delivered carloads of giggling teens, all supplementing the festival's core constituency and widening people's exposure to the good shit.
The heavy hitters (with one important exception, a sensitive and Mancunian one) delivered to the mixed crowds. McCartney played a really long set bookended on stage by enormous twin projections of his full-length body. The man's still gigging strong, still unnaturally cheerful in spite of all his trials, and able to elicit from his pipes the same sounds that have been in everyone's collections, from 45s to (ripped, for now) MP3s.
Earlier, the 75-year-old Cohen had been a class act all the way, but following his portrait of dignity and craft, Morrissey's rambling set of drunken Smiths karaoke backed by a bar band satisfied only the true believers and those with a taste for disaster. Throughout, Morrissey behaved quite erratically, complaining by turns about the smell of barbecue ("I smell burning flesh — I hope it's human"), the sound, and life and generally behaving like a man who'd rather be somewhere else.
On Saturday, M.I.A. got people to dance with a serviceable set, though she was very nervous on the main stage and kept whining about not being back in the performing tents close to "the people." She also couldn't make up her mind whether she wanted to instigate a dance riot on stage. It's hard to be punk rock these days, with the baby, the security goons, and all. The Killers, with that whole Vegas-through-LA thing, were at home in the desert and surrounded by their adoring fans, so their endless anthemic rave-ups made for a wholesome all-ages party.
The final night came the closest to the original spirit of Coachella, with the deafening beauty of My Bloody Valentine (for many the highlight of this year's festival), the joyful showmanship of Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (finally willing and able to graduate into a large-venue threat), and the road-tested phantasmagoria of the Cure, at this point a band who've defied the early odds to become a cross-cultural, cross-generational ritual.