Music Memories – Going to California pt. 4

The week in between Festival of Disruption (Saturday-Sunday) and Desert Trip (the following Friday-Sunday) we did a whole bunch of touristy things in L.A all leading up to the grand finale. Each day was something special and new, and while at the time we were totally immersed in whatever we were doing (e.g Amoeba Music for the umpteenth time), it was no secret that some strangely colourful, yet equally hidden pocket of our brains had dedicated itself and was preparing for Desert Trip. Before we had witnessed it, the size and scope of the event was unfathomable, even one of the two acts per night would have been incredible. For perspective, I had seen Neil Young twice before, but the anticipation was such that I might as well have never seen a concert in my life. Just to confirm, the line up was this:

Friday – Bob Dylan – Rolling Stones

Saturday – Neil Young – Paul McCartney

Sunday – The Who – Roger Waters

Friday the 14th of October arrived, and we were awake early enough to arrive at the Greyhound station in Downtown L.A by 7.30am for our bus at 8am, scheduled to arrive in the Palm Desert at 11.30. This doesn’t seem too bad, I thought, Greyhounds were supposed to be bottom of the barrel. We loaded on the bus and it wasn’t until a large bunch of older ladies got on and had to sit in the aisle on top of their luggage that I had the “ahh” moment. Our second experience with Greyhound would be on the way back to L.A the next Monday when the bus simply didn’t show up. Luckily that time we had a flag-draped Australian couple to keep us entertained. Arriving in Palm Desert we didn’t have any time to waste as we couldn’t check in to our accommodation until 2pm, which might give us an hour to sit down and relax for a bit before we had to leave for the gig (allowing plenty of time , scarred by Coachella horror stories) which started at 6.30 so we wanted to be an hour early at least, accounting for Woodstock-level traffic jams.

By the way, the Desert isn’t just called that because it’s hot and dusty, it’s a literal desert with some houses and a wal-mart plopped in the middle. A bird’s eye would show a green grassed backyard, a thin concrete wall, then sand for miles. Quite striking visually for a Kiwi. So when we arrived at 11.30 with all of our 30 or so kilos each of luggage, in 30C+ heat, we didn’t have many options. We decided we’d go to a shopping centre and sit in the foodcourt for an hour or something, at least it’ll be air-conditioned. Apparently in America there is a major difference between ‘shopping centre’ and ‘mall’ as our Uber driver didn’t feel comfortable leaving us on our own at the outdoor shopping centre which had only a few fast food places, and some furniture stores. He convinced us to stay at his house, unsupervised, while he finished his shift as it was much closer to our accommodation than either the mall or the shopping centre. We stayed at Joe’s for about an hour with his dogs, watching Key and Peele, at which point it was about 1pm. So we went to the McDonald’s inside the Wal-mart (‘Murica!) and then went on to our accommodation.

Arriving at Desert Trip was a trip in itself. The largest gathering I’d ever been to would have been either AC/DC or Eminem, both at Western Springs with around 60,000 people. In my own neighbourhood that was impressive, and ‘new’, enough. In the middle of California, with an extra 30,000 or so people was something else. Everything flowed really well, not like the Big Day Outs in Auckland of days’ past. To get in there were never any lines longer than 10 or so people, and even then security was a breeze. The scale of the venue was monstrous, and to use the term ‘fine-oiled machine’ is a pretty huge cliche, but that’s what it was. The planning and care gone in to the event was palpable – yes its goal was to make a profit, and they would have done so even if all the performers just stood on a box in the field and played – but it felt very special, curated just for you. 

Taking our spot 3 heads from rail separating performer and attendee, Bob Dylan took the stage not long after, in a black blazer, shirtless otherwise. I honestly never thought I’d ever see Bob Dylan’s nipples, much less in the flesh, but I did. Dylan, as he often is, was the dark horse of Desert Trip, in that people weren’t sure if he was just going to get up and play Sinatra covers all night, although we knew he wasn’t going to treat us to a greatest hits set. Any fears were alleviated when he tore through his first few numbers, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. He started his encore with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, another Dylan-related thing I thought I’d never see. It feels like a disclaimer now, that there are going to be at least a few people walking away from a Dylan gig slightly disappointed, but if that’s still the case then it’s your problem for being 25 years late. He hasn’t pandered to an audience in decades, arguably ever, I don’t know why anyone expects he’d start now. To be honest, I’d have been slightly disappointed if the set list didn’t contain any songs I was familiar with, but that’s still not his problem, and I still would have (and did) enjoy songs and/or arrangements I didn’t know. Dylan ruled with a smoky enigma, but the spectacle that was the Rolling Stones, complimented his subdued set in the most awesome display of yin/yang.

Two 10/10 acts in the same night. Less than an hour change-over, even. We love Dylan, everyone loves Dylan but I was extremely intrigued as to how the Stones’ set would pan out. They have the hits that are always going to go off – ‘Start Me Up’, ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, to name but a few – but I’ve always been more or less content with the ‘hits’, never delving much further. From the second they hit the stage and the first chords of Jumpin’ Jack Flash rang out, I simply didn’t care. Even songs I hadn’t heard before I was catching on to and belting out the last choruses like they were the songs that shaped me. Keef and Ronnie jamming acoustic together on ‘You Got The Silver’ was something I won’t ever forget. We were close enough to see the hairs on their arms, lines on their faces, and I remember thinking that they actually look older in the photos and videos than they do in real life. We met a guy we aptly nicknamed “Michael Shannon’s Dad” who claimed it was his 51st Stones show. During ‘Miss You’ he made a note of bending down and checking all the immediate people around us to see if we were “Ooh Ooh OOH Ooh Ooh Ooh Ooh-ing” properly to the chorus, giving thumbs up in approval or a shaky palm if you needed to improve. Some guy caught Ronnie’s guitar pick and literally screamed for the rest of the gig. The passion was awesome and contagious, no one in the ‘elite’ $1600 pit was a ‘casual’ fan – unless they were very rich, which, ok there were probably a few of those people too.

The gigs ended around 12.30am, we got on to our pre-paid shuttle and were home around 3.30 – a trip that on the way there took 20 minutes. We got frustrated with how long it was taking and how many stops there were so we decided just to get off and get a Lyft the rest of the way, which was lucky because we were actually on the wrong bus. The shuttles were the only glaringly obvious inconsistency in how smooth everything else was running, we had plans and ideas in place for the next night to combat both foot and vehicle traffic on the way out. Collapsing in to bed, my head filled with visions of Richards, Dylan, Jagger – music’s equivalents of Windsors, or Obamas, names synonymous with power and the elite – I could only imagine what it would be like to see a Beatle in less than 24 hours.


Review: Naked Lunch


Author: William S. Burroughs

Release: 1959

Admittedly late to the party, my first introduction to The Naked Lunch was in a hazy lounge trying to make sense of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation (1991) of the same name. For perspective, it wasn’t until much, much later that I made the distinction between David Cronenberg and David Lynch at all – to me they blended together to form ‘that crazy director with the cool hair.’ Perhaps it was a Lunch/Lynch thing?

Having enjoyed the film for what it was, regardless of references or metaphors I (definitely) may have missed, the book had long since been in my ‘To-Read’ list, especially considering the greatness that is Burroughs’ 1953 semi-autobiographical novel Junky. One thing that sticks in my mind about Naked Lunch is a review left underneath the book in a shop in which a staff-review noted simply that the book was “literary LSD”. If that person had ever tried LSD they mustn’t have had a very good time. Not that Naked Lunch isn’t a good time – some passages are laugh out loud funny, which is rare to me – but to compare a ‘trip’ to this book is telling. The extremely graphic depictions of talking assholes, constant consumption of ‘shit’, torture, rampant pedophilia, governmental abuse – the list goes on – is not a fun time on acid I’d imagine.

You can see what the reviewer was getting at, though. Naked Lunch makes for an extremely head-scratching read. The subject matter can change completely from sentence to sentence. I am all for non-linear art, or anything that requires a bit of thinking as opposed to being spoon-fed by Michael Bay, and I can totally respect things that I don’t understand. However, there were parts of Naked Lunch that I simply couldn’t follow or get in to no matter how I tried. It was of no surprise to learn that it was intended to be read in no specific order, which leads me to believe that perhaps there were parts of the book that weren’t exactly meant to be understood by anyone except Burroughs himself. Parts of it read like one giant poem, seemingly lacking any solid base. Although poets and the author himself might disagree.

There are, however chapters, or ‘vignettes’ as they are officially known, that follow more closely the writing style of Junky, which is interesting as these specific parts focused on the central character William Lee, the name in which Burroughs initially released Junky under, as opposed to the many other characters populating the world of Naked Lunch. It was these parts also that reminded me heavily of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), especially the extremely incompetent government departments, and loosely framed vignettes. These parts of the book were much easier to read, however once you start to get a sense of understanding and something to stand on, the reader is just as quickly thrown back in to Interzone madness. Actually, I felt seeing the movie before I had read to the book to be somewhat helpful in a sense. My memory of the specifics of the film is sketchy, but I’d have had a much harder time picturing the bugs and ‘black meat’ had I not seen the movie first, which I’m aware isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally respect William S. Burroughs and everything he’s done – even things I haven’t read/seen/ or even know exist. He’s just one of those guys, one of those artists, who you can’t help but at least respect whether or not you actually like all of their work, or any of their work as the case may be. In no way do I regret reading Naked Lunch, I also think there will come a time when I will re-read it with a more knowledgeable mindset, or at least knowing fully what I am in for now. I’d just be very interested to hear peoples’ opinions on what it means, or have the thousands that cite its influence explain what they thought of it. Since it’s so widely revered, am I stupid for not getting it? I honestly don’t think so. It is the epitome of the novel as art. It doesn’t have to mean anything in particular, but can still be just as beautiful as any Louvre-housed painting.

Naked Lunch is definitely a thinker, and although I was relieved to read the last page, I know that at some point I’ll go back there. It seems to be a reflection of Burroughs’ mind at the time which was evidently sick with ‘junk’, as he calls it – I’d be very surprised if anyone understood Naked Lunch like Burroughs did. Although a lot of the stuff went over my head, it is an incredible display of vocabulary, and craftsmanship. Not understanding it doesn’t have to make it a bad book, in fact it could arguably mean the author is so good that you can’t even comprehend it yet. Defining the term ‘wordsmith’ I am by no means deterred from any of his other works, bring on Queer!