Nestled between a bout of off-season flu and an eight-day existential crisis, the scheduling gods aligned for one foggy day of freedom. I decided to spend it weaving amongst the clumps of rancid porta-potties and artisanal taco trucks we call a music festival.
Defying all common sense, I brought my 12-year-old along for the ride. My stomach bucked and bobbed along the snaking entrance lines, wondering at my foolishness. At last propelled through the narrow nozzle of security, my bladder was already at maximum capacity, my bag dragging at one shoulder to counterbalance forty pounds of water and snacks. Must. Not. Complain. My job was to have a friggin’ awesome time, and to make sure it was contagious. Otherwise, why were we here?
As expected, the park was chock full of twenty-nine-year-olds—the “new nineteen!”— popping molly and strolling in white spa robes, or dressed as Super Mario, or waving totems plastered with Bill Murray’s face. I looked at my own ensemble of ripped jeans, Vans, and flannel. What a bunch of overgrown children, I thought, eyeing my sensitive child anxiously and forcing a weak smile.
But Miss Twelve grabbed my hand and plowed into great clouds of marijuana, into 50,000 fans abuzz with bass and adrenaline, bumping and dragging me until the warm bodies became an impenetrable wall. There in the epicenter, one could sing along at full volume, shout and laugh and pogo with abandon, all without attracting attention or judgement. So we did.
At one point, half a dozen strangers hoisted a man in a wheelchair over their heads. He sang too, arms afloat, head thrown back, silhouetted by a blanket of bright fog. The crowd was delirious.
From punk-hip hop to jungle house to indie folk, throngs throbbed and bore us six miles back and forth through the urban forest, laced and lit with a thousand colored lights. Bare limbs stretched like Dementors’ arms, now bright pink, now glowing green. Spotlights pierced the fog, rays of rock band sun, and music shuddered through the shadows to reach our ringing ears, even as we stood in line for $6 gluten-free cupcakes. And for eight hours straight, there was no middle school drama, no teenage drinking, no job search, no overdue bills.
On the bus home, Miss Twelve asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if Outside Lands was every day?”
Once I stumbled across Phoenix’s “Lizstomania,” the song went into impossibly heavy rotation. Were it not for an occasional, palate-cleansing round of “Today’s Hits,” my kids would have defected to your house long ago.
Not only did I love the song–and all their other songs, for that matter–I was charmed by its reference to music history, to Berlin and Paris in the 1840s.
Just in case I’m not the only one who had to look up the title:
“Lisztomania was characterized by a hysterical reaction to Liszt and his concerts. Liszt’s playing was reported to raise the mood of the audience to a level of mystical ecstasy. Admirers of Liszt would swarm over him, fighting over his handkerchiefs and gloves. Fans would wear his portrait on brooches and cameos. Women would try to get locks of his hair, and whenever he broke a piano string, admirers would try to obtain it in order to make a bracelet. Some female admirers would even carry glass phials into which they poured his coffee dregs.“ –the benevolent geniuses at Wikipedia
I must have caught a mutation of the bug myself. Since then, I became obsessed to see Phoenix live, which is odd since I haven’t gone to see live music, for quite some time. For nearly two years they refused to cooperate–touring little, then touring anywhere but San Francisco. I may have even sent a few messages to their band manager in protest. Why were they avoiding my fair city? How could I snag their hankies if they insisted on hanging out in Europe all the time? That’s so French.
And then, a wee miracle. A friend offered me a ticket to Outside Lands, and I jumped on it without thinking.
After all, it was a single ticket. I was going to a humongous music festival:
a) By myself, and
b) As a grown-up.
I got a little nervous. What was I doing?
The spouse offered to drop me near the entrance. How long did I want to stay? Let’s see. How many trips to a porta-potty was I willing to endure?
Answer: two. And after giving birth twice, that means four hours, tops.
When I got to the festival grounds, I consulted the schedule, feeling old, wondering who the 39 other bands were. To buy myself a minute of think time, I wandered over to get an id bracelet. The security guard took one look at my driver’s license and blurted, “oh, my god!”
Dang. I am old.
He tried to smooth things over, like it was no big deal, but it was too late. The youth of America were staring at me, perhaps figuring the odds that I might know their parents.
I tried to blend into the crowd, meandering toward Jurassic Five. I guess they were making some sort of comeback on the music scene as well. I stepped politely over a number of glazed-eyed tokers and their hairy friends. Lurching twenty-year-olds grabbed the arms and shoulders of strangers nearby or, when they missed, fell face first into a carpet of crushed keg cups.
Along the way, I made peace with my age. It’s ok to be past the age of white crocheted pants over black undergarments. Or bear hats, fox tails, bad beards, and ginormous fake flowers dangling like hippie antennae.
Well, maybe I could still rock a bear hat.
And it was a relief not to have to find anyone in particular. In a crowd of 60,000, finding a friend entails spearing stuffed animals on ten-foot poles or clutching Hello Kitty balloon bouquets like overgrown toddlers, cursing vehemently at AT&T and Verizon in equal parts.
I felt like an anthropologist, watching the herds ebb and flow around crowd surf misfires.
As the music grew louder, though, the crowd ceased to exist. Jurassic Five were awesome, and I stood, transfixed.
When they finished, I stayed and walked against the crowd, filling in the empty pockets closer and closer to the stage as they opened in front of me. I itched for the center of the action, whichever band was up next. What is the point of listening to live music from the comfort of a seat, miles from the performers and their die-hard fans? How is that different to listening to Pandora at home? I mean, other than the sewage truck and the other 59,999 people between you and the performers. I like to be close enough that the drum and bass override my heart beat.
Then, by some divine intervention, Karen O sashayed out in her shiny, shiny suit.
I almost went home after her band played. If I start practicing now, I thought, maybe I could be a rock star before I kick the bucket.
In a delirious happy daze, I finally found my way to the other end of the festival, where Phoenix were about to take the stage. Since I was solo, I plowed into the tight fist of people, smiling sheepishly, apologizing profusely, thinking I could eventually make it to the very front. “Excuse me,” I said to a woman’s neck. She turned and accidentally gave me an Eskimo kiss. “Exactly where do you think I can go?” she asked, not unkindly. She was right. At that point it was literally impossible to move closer. Or get out, for that matter. I tried not to think about it.
I could barely see the stage or even the screen for a while, thanks to an extremely tall man next to me. He was the only grumpy person out of tens of thousands.
“Why aren’t your arms up?” an incredulous teenager asked him. “I guarantee you’d have the highest hands in the whole crowd.” Still, tall man stubbornly abstained.
Meanwhile, a few people to my right, a supremely enthusiastic fan gushed uncontrollably. “Oh man!” “Yeah!” He pumped his fist each time they played a first chord. “This song, too?!”
Smoke and more smoke and fog of all sorts poured out of machines and skies and people, climbing up the spotlights like animated streamers.
Now I remember: it is an extremely pleasant feeling to be in a big mob of people singing big happy songs. That’s something Pandora can’t give you.
Low points were few:
Initial lost feeling
Wondering if I would be crushed.
Well, everything else.
Plus, since the event took place in Golden Gate Park, city ordinance dictated that the festival shut down at 9:55 p.m. Perfect for mature music enthusiasts.
Since that day in August, my Lizstomania has mutated. Now it’s the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s station that makes my kids roll their eyes. Perhaps I should hold a vigil for their next visit.