"Look," the voice on the line was saying, "rock concerts are like ice cream or sex. Even when it's bad it's still pretty ... good. If you're young, if you got your friends, you got a new haircut to show off -- then any concert can be great. But this one, well, people say this one here is really, really special. That's why we're excited about coming. We got to see for ourselves."
The voice belonged to Wayne Coyne, singer of the furry-suited, fuzzy-loving Flaming Lips, and I assured him that what he had heard was exactly right. This weekend's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio is special, as the festival has been since its opening day in 1999. For one weekend, you can forget everything you thought you knew (and hated) about Southern California rock festivals. Coachella is ice cream, sexy good. Coyne whistled low and long into the receiver. "The bands say that too. What makes it so good?"
What makes Coachella so good is everybody else is so often so bad. The radio-station stadium shows that pack in too many hot-right-now acts and make them play sets as short as music videos. Or the rock festivals that set up on the sand and concrete fringe of L.A. and leave your skull baked. Or those well intentioned, poorly organized "cerebral" festivals where much thought has been given to the latest Icelandic DJ trend but no one knows how microphones and parking plans work.
What makes Coachella so good is the lineup, which skips out on the latest pop-punk hit band of the week and instead opts for the Pixies and Bright Eyes and the Lips. Check out the DJ tents and drop in on some of the baby bands you know only from music-magazine margins. "I want to check everyone out," Coyne said, noting that the weekend will be truly magical if "the Cure plays all their hits and Kim Deal blows her top and goes berserk right in the middle of the Pixies' set. I would love that."
What makes Coachella so good is the place. It's a vast, emerald polo field, and the crunch of grass beneath your feet makes the long walks between stages bearable, and the water fountains and $2 water bottles help tame the heat. Coachella is massive, but the crowd has always been thin enough that you could plop down on the lawn without getting trampled.
This year there are plenty of challenges, though.
The most pressing matter: Will Radiohead actually play?
It was a splendid valentine to the festival that Radiohead picked Coachella for the band's only 2004 U.S. show, but on Wednesday the news arrived that singer Thom Yorke had a severe throat infection. The band canceled its Tuesday night show in Melbourne, Australia. The band's U.S. publicist said the Indio show was still on, but a statement released by the promoters in Australia was far less sunny. "It was advised [by doctors] that if Thom was to sing in the next few days it could cause irreparable damage to his voice."
Will it be too hot? Forecasts say Sunday could top out at a staggering 106 degrees.
Will it be too crowded? The 50,000 expected Saturday would blow away the record of 35,000.
Don't worry. Coyne predicts that, somehow, some way, everything will work out again.
"I can't wait. Sex and ice cream."