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I was exhausted – too busy dreaming of celebrity and backstage access to get any real sleep. The original correspondent slept worse, I’m sure – after having secured our first ever press passes, work prevented him from attending the festival. The job of rock-star interviewer and VIP then fell on the broad shoulders of your humble and responsible Editor.
My plan was ambitious but achievable: interviews with bands and festival organizers, a sober comparison to other events in North America and Europe, and a picture of the overall mood and scene by way of a crisp narrative.
These are the first two paragraphs from my notebook:
“The rented Prius purred silently as I drove to the house of our cute little rideshare from Paris, France. I waited ten minutes outside before she finally emerged from the basement suite, despite the warning call I had given upon leaving my house. She smelled of stale liquor and cigarettes, and had obviously been up late.”
“She was friendly but a little uncomfortable with such an early morning stranger. To put her at ease I suggested she plug in her iPod. Booka Shade and idle chatter occupied us on the way to the photographer’s house. He was already waiting out front, drinking a beer. His backpack was filled with the implements of photography and nothing more. He had neither tent nor sleeping bag, but he did carry a very large cooler.”
The Fearless Photographer burst into my tent, wearing only half his pants and laughing uproariously. “Dude, we just woke up her friends!” he said.
By “friends” he was referring to the Texans who had pulled up two days earlier in a white van with wholesome phrases like, “Sasquatch or Bust,” and “Time of Our Lives,” painted on its sides. By “we” he meant himself and the petite 25-year-old blonde he’d been courting for the past 24 hours or so.
For me there was no morning joy. I could barely open my eyes, my mouth tasted like gasoline, and I was still wearing all of my clothes, including my hat. Instinctively, I patted at my front pocket, checking for my iPhone. It was gone. As was my wallet. My keys and passport were the only things of value I still had. Worst of all, I had lost my backpack, which contained the Fearless Photographer’s driver’s license and passport.
“I lost my phone,” I told him.
“And my wallet.”
“And my backpack.”
“So it had your driver’s license and passport in it.”
He stopped pulling up his pants for a moment. “So?” he finally asked.
The drive to the border was pleasant.
“Where are you from?” barked the officer in the booth.
“Vancouver, Canada,” I said, motioning between the photographer and I, “and Paris, France in the back.”
He asked the Parisian if she had a visa. She didn’t understand. He thumbed through her passport and informed her that she required a six dollar stamp to enter the United States of America – something she should know. He handed us a bright orange piece of paper: “Pull into the parking – they’ll tell you what to do.”
A lifetime of harmless, illegal activities played out on the dirty projector in my mind. I wondered vaguely if today would be the first day that a man would touch his finger to my anus, or that I might spend the night in jail. Just as we were about to step inside the French girl seized my wrist:
“I have weed in the car,” she said, desperately.
I stared at her, trying to comprehend what I had just heard. “Why?” was the only response I could muster.
She didn’t respond. It was more of a rhetorical question, anyway.
“Well, according to my pictures the last place you had your backpack was the techno dance party,” the photographer said.
“Techno dance party?” I asked, taking a small pull from my water bottle. Even water made me want to retch.
“The school bus with the DJ and the enormous pole with the LED lights on it?” he suggested.
“Must have been a different festival.”
“Do you remember Moon?” he asked. I shook my head weakly. “Emily, the blonde that kept asking you to marry her?” I shook my head again. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “What do you remember?”
“Eating ecstasy and getting on the back of the golf cart.”
“You’re worse than me,” he observed, cracking another beer.
“Worse than you? Have you even eaten since we got here?”
“Only if you count bloody marys. Now, let’s go find that passport, champ.”
We walked for an hour, the sun beating on our backs, picking our way through the endless maze of cars and crushed Keystone Lights – the evidence of the night before. A pineapple top here, a D battery there, the occasional wild-eyed wanderer still in the grips of Molly – what the American kids call ecstasy.
“Have you seen our backpack?” we’d ask random strangers sitting with their heads in their hands at their campsites.
“Nah man,” was the inevitable reply, “have you seen our keys?”
Inside, the agent ordered the Parisian Drug Mule to place the four fingers of her right hand onto the green screen on his desk. “Press hard,” he told her, but she trembled to the point that the machine couldn’t read her fingerprints. He reached out and held her hand tight against the glass. It shook in his grasp.
Suddenly, the officer in the next stall spoke: “Are you eating an apple?” he asked the Fearless Photographer, incredulous. Hearing this, a senior man at the back rose from his desk and marched over.
“Are you eating an apple in front of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer!?” he boomed, “That’s incredibly disrespectful!” and he turned on his heel and marched back to his desk where he dug out a plastic bag. The photographer dropped the core in and just as the supervisor was about to tie a knot, the photographer motioned for the bag again. He leaned forward and spat out a mouthful of brown apple.
He shook his head and scowled: “ugh, that part was all bruised.”
I imagined the cruel penetration of my new cellmate’s shiv. Jail seemed the only logical outcome.
But the border agent’s physical contact with the cute little Frenchie had changed something. Or maybe it was her accent. In any case: “Sasquatch, right?” he asked.
“The ratio’s like a hundred to one there, you know – you don’t need to bring any girls,” he said, smiling. And then, addressing the Mule: “Normally it’s $1,000 but I’ll let you go for six.”
We walked towards the door, certain that it was a cruel trick and that we would be arm barred and beaten at any moment.
Instead, we drove in silence for at least twenty minutes. “How much do you have?” I finally asked her.
“Only a joint,” she replied.
“Well, you better spark that fucking joint, Frenchie,” the photographer said.
The young woman at the lost and found did little to convince us that we would see our bag even if it was turned in. “What colour was it?” she asked, uninterested and speaking in the past tense.
“Purple,” I said, weakly.
She looked around without leaving her chair. “Nope.”
We traded the lost and found lineup for the espresso one. An iced mocha prepared me as best it could for the two-mile march from the campground to the venue. I paused every fifty feet to gather myself and stave off vomit. Our Fearless Photographer was somehow full of energy, calling out to all the beautiful freaks to come have their picture taken by the infamous Dependent Magazine. Body paint, feathers and neon glasses were committed to digital memory as group after group posed for the camera.
“Go be a pussy somewhere else,” he told me, sensing my anguish, “you’re killing the mood.”
I opted for a nap on the grass beneath a tent inside the venue. What sounded like the Arcade Fire’s “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)” pulled me from a fitful, sweaty slumber. A trembling hand produced the schedule from my pocket – no mention of Arcade Fire. Was my insanity now complete? I opted not to care, joining the swaying crowd and feeling life become nearly bearable again as the band broke into a shining rendition of “Intervention”.
The Mule only had a ticket for Sunday. The folks at the media check-in had been there for days already and were too weary to fight with the Fearless Photographer when he claimed the Mule was shooting video for our interviews. “Next time, play by the rules,” they told us, wrapping a blue wristband around her anyway.
We walked straight to the beer tent and were directed to a man with a stack of yellow wristbands reading, “Drinking Age Verified”. I handed him my passport and asked what percentage of the folks he was approving were from Canada. “85%,” he claimed, “most of them are from Alberta, B.C., and what’s that other one between them?”
Eleven-dollar beers in hand we strolled to the crest of the natural amphitheater. I leaned forward through the crowd and took it all in. The Mule gasped when she first saw the stage, framed as it was by ten thousand people and set against the red rock of the Columbia River Gorge. “Oh my gosh,” she exclaimed in her thick French accent, “this is huge.” She meant amazing. I nodded, awestruck, even having seen it all before. On the stage were OK Go – the geniuses behind the infamous treadmill video, and incidentally, our first interview.
I made my way to the press area to wait for Tim Nordwind, the fellow hopping about the stage in a powder blue leisure suit and slapping the bass while thousands danced around him. I was ill-prepared. Still, I was confident that I would be able to make it up as I went and that a minor celebrity such as he would be no match for my wit.
I was wrong:
I fought the urge to vomit for the duration of my interview with The Heavy. I would later skip interviews with Booka Shade and Boys Noize for similar reasons. As Band of Horses played, the shakes and the heat and the guilt of losing all my valuables proved overwhelming. I resigned myself to the long walk back to the tent where I would grab a quick nap and return, re-energized and at peace with my sins, to catch MGMT and Neon Indian.
Arriving at the campground I found the Fearless Photographer playing a game of “Flip Cup” with two of our Texan neighbours. “Oh, brew!” he cried out. I couldn’t see his face, obscured as it was by his hood and sunglasses, but his voice informed me that we was completely shit-faced. Apparently he had come back for a nap but the girls woke him up and demanded that he join their game.
“Did you even see a show today?” I asked.
“Oh, brew, I was so close, brew!” he said, cackling and putting an arm around the blonde at his side. She wore a tank top and skirt to his jeans and sweater. Her face paint had been smeared all down her neck and in her hair.
“Come play with us!” she insisted, drunkly.
I waved a finger and gagged at the prospect of consuming another drop of liquor and made a bed in the long grass instead. I was no match for the corn-fed charm of those girls from Texas and the relentless insults of the Fearless Photographer though. For my weakness the savvy veterans punished me with drink as I figured out how to balance the cup on the edge of the table and flip it over, to land on its top.
MGMT’s “Kids” pealed from the main stage and echoed through the canyon behind us. An hour later and my brain was sufficiently lubed to be motivated again. “Let’s go back to the festival,” I suggested.
“I want to see Band of Horses!” exclaimed the blonde, their set long finished.
“One more game!” shouted the brunette, again.
We exited the press area and headed to the main stage where Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk” was bursting from the sound system. Neither Broken Social Scene nor The National before them had the crowd so obviously engaged. I’d never been a fan of Vampire Weekend, but the clean, African sound of those middle-class Columbia boys set something in my soul alight.
The big screens zoomed close as the lead singer laid out the crowd’s responsibilities in “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)“. He looked more like the kind of boy that mum would like to have for dinner than the kind who’d be killing the main stage at an indie rock festival.
“For those of you who aren’t familiar with our work, this one has a little call and answer,” he explained. “When I sing … You sing …” and when the chorus hit and the band went silent and the crowd crooned, “Blake’s got a new face,” in that ridiculous falsetto, I couldn’t help but join in.
It was the best moment of the festival.
“C’mere,” the Fearless Photographer hissed at me. He was slouched in one of the neighbour’s fold-up chairs, arm draped over the blonde who was telling the brunette how great the photographer was.
“I need you to get that brunette out of here,” he told me, loud enough for everyone to hear. “I don’t care how you do it, but I need you to help me out here, brother – for the team,” and he held out a limp fist. At this the blonde giggled and gave the group a guilty shrug.
I weighed my options.
“All right, grab your shit, honey – we’re going to the concert.”
“But what about these guys?” she slurred. “They have to come too!”
“They’re going to meet us there,” I assured her. She nodded and for the next twenty minutes buzzed about the campsite while the photographer and the blonde groaned and pleaded for me to take her away. Cathy packed provisions for a two-day expedition: leggings, blanket, jacket, sausages, chicken burgers, advil, tampons and twelve beers.
We made it as far as the portable toilets at the campground entrance, Cathy leaning heavily on my arm.
“You’re cute,” she said. And then: “I have to pee.”
Ten minutes later she emerged, stumbled a few yards and collapsed in a heap. “Let’s just watch from here,” she suggested, sensibly.
I fished beer after beer from the bag and listened to the strains of Neon Indian, Ween and Boys Noize from the hill beside the toilets a mile from the stage while Cathy retched and heaved beside me.
“Are you having fun?” she asked.
A flash of our media wristbands and the three of us entered the pit just as My Morning Jacket stepped out. Four songs in and the photographer, the Mule and I exchanged a wordless glance that we all knew meant it was time to leave.
We caught the last few tracks of Z-Trip’s set – the best being a schizophrenic marriage of Jay-Z and Nirvana. Beside me a shirtless man with long hair pulled a small bag from his sock. He held it open as the Fearless Photographer licked a pinky finger and plunged it in, sucking the white powder off and grimacing as he did.
We danced like fiends in the pulsing, sweaty crowd until the music stopped and we pushed our way with everyone else to the late night stage. “Why the fuck didn’t you mention Z-Trip earlier?!” the photographer demanded. The Mule nodded her head enthusiastically.
Deadmau5 (pronounced Dead-mau-five to those sarcastic fans in the know) appeared to ferocious applause. With the nod of his head and flick of a switch, nasty, stinking bass burst from the speakers. It seemed especially filthy when compared to all the indie rock that had preceded it. The crowd cheered and surged. People shoved their way to the front. Young women balanced on young men’s shoulders and exposed their painted breasts.
We were treated to the most fantastic light show I’ve ever seen – the trademark mask becoming animated as the set progressed, culminating with its freakish, glitched out face singing “Sometimes Things Get Complicated”.
But it all came to a cruel and unexpected halt with a rising track that hinted at one last enormous bass drop that never came. The crowd moaned and the word “Deadmau5″ dominated the chatter of the energized masses heading back to camp for more booze, drugs or sleep.
The Fearless Photographer burst into my tent, wearing only half his pants and laughing uproariously. “Dude, I love those Texas girls!” he said.
“What’s all that yelling?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.
“How the fuck should I know?”
“Well it sounds like your lady friend.”
“Oh. Yeah. She locked the keys in the van and someone’s got a flight to catch.”
“Should we remind them that the batteries are dead?” I suggested.
“Let’s wait a minute.”
“Can I have a sip of that beer?” I asked, sitting up.
“Sure. And hey, I called the Canadian Embassy – they can’t turn down any Canadian Citizen at the border.”
“Excellent, now we’ve just got to prove you’re Canadian.”
“Well, if we can’t I’ll just wait until next year. Meet me here?” he asked, passing the beer over Cathy.
“Fuck yeah,” I grinned.