I woke up on a couch in the Inner Richmond. Josie, my friends’ sweet old yellow dog, lay on the floor nearby, in a patch of sunlight indicating the day had started. I’d stayed up late talking to my friend Pablo about his job at Lucasfilm. He’s been there 20 years and knows so much about the Star Wars characters and stories that J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson now call him when they need advice about the forthcoming new movies.
I know Pablo because his wife Kristen and I were members of the same forum on Café Utne a million years ago, along with friends who now own the (in)famous Atomic Bookstore in Baltimore, another friend who’s a literal rocket scientist who puts together machines that fly to Mars, yet another who edits a lifestyle magazine in New Zealand, one who’s a New York musician and producer… the list goes on.
The internet was a magical connector back then. The fact that you could meet people with similar interests online and then meet them in real life was crazy. Kind of like the first time someone called you on a car phone. Whoa. You’re calling me from your car? That was back in the ’80s, the era of my adolescence, the years when I stopped listening to my parents’ albums and discovered Agent Orange, The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Social Distortion, X, The B-52s, Oingo Boingo, Siouxie and the Banshees, Elvis Costello, all that post-punk new wave and, because my best friend was a dancer, hot jams from Newcleus, Prince and Michael Jackson. Music was everything.
Which is why when my mom wouldn’t allow me to go to the US Festival, my world imploded. She was worried people would be smoking marijuana. I was 13 and naive – I didn’t even know what pot was, not really. I just wanted desperately to see the Divinyls and INXS. Things changed dramatically over the next few years: I learned all about pot and my friend’s coke dealer neighbor eventually took me to see INXS at Irvine Meadows.
My lifestyle choices have evolved for the better, but my adoration of music, how it can change my mood in an instant, holds steady. With that in mind, I packed up, said my goodbyes to Pablo and Josie, and set off for my second day of Outside Lands.
But, first, a quick relocation to the Outer Sunset, where my other set of SF friends, Adam and Lauren, awaited.
I couldn’t believe what I saw when I pulled up alongside their house. A parking spot. A full-sized parking spot, just sitting there in all its glory as if a hundred thousand people weren’t attending a music fest a mile-and-a-half away. I parked. Got out. Did a little happy parking luck jig.
Soon after, I was fast-walking to Golden Gate Park in my sandals.
Now, sandals are a bad idea at a fest. People might step on your feet. Your toes will be filthy and possibly cold. I know this. But the Mary Janes I’d worn the day before, the ones I remembered as comfortable, proved to be comfortable only in the sense that, if I were sitting at my desk all day, fine. Walking miles to-and-fro, not so much. Multiple blisters illustrated this fact. So I’d switched to my sandals.
The number of people walking along the streets doubled, tripled, quadrupled. Slow-walkers took up the whole sidewalk in front of me. I Vined them in silent rage. Everyone converged, too many people, thousands of people, all bottlenecked into the entrance lines – lines being an inaccurate description of the chaos looming. Now, the pink-green-purple piece of fabric looped around my right wrist entitled me to bypass the wait – if I could get around the crowd. I slipped behind some VIPS making their way along. “You people are all taking cuts!” someone yelled. “Cutting sucks!” another person hollered. “You fucking suck!” another cried. “Way to make it personal,” someone scolded. I felt like Tilda Swinton’s character from Snowpiercer.
But I also wanted to catch The Kooks, who’d surely started, so I kept moving until I’d squeezed past the mob, shown security my nearly empty bag – unfilled water bottle, chapstick, ID, debit card, cash, lip gloss, portable phone charger – received the green light from the scanner and bam, finally through.
The Kooks! Happiness! Joy! Why they were playing so early in the day, I had no idea – they’re popular and established enough to have a pre-headlining slot, but whatever. I swayed and clapped, welcomed the energy being channeled from stage to audience, smiled and cheered. Oh, lovely Brit pop band, your songs can catch me any time.
Next up, Local Natives. I watched from the press tent, wanting to save my standing energy for later. Also, free beer. And free sake! Kibo, making its debut right here at the fest. The name means “hope” in Japanese, a reference to rebuilding after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and resultant tsunami. Crisp and clean like an apple, the sake cleansed the beer taste away, reminding me how much I prefer most anything to beer. After savoring another sample, I returned to observing the band and realized the lead singer was crowdsurfing across the screaming throng. Always a win.
Also a win, the fish tacos – well, advertised as “tacos,” but really, it was just one single taco. One single delicious taco, with some sort of spicy aioli-type sauce and several sweet potato fries topping the battered pieces of fish. Gourmet food permeates Outside Lands – we’re in San Francisco, after all.
I licked my fingers clean and braved the trek to the fiftyseven-thirtythree booth.
Fiftyseven-thirtythree operates in Oakland, where founder Loretta Nyugen and her boyfriend create art and hand screenprint graphics onto T-shirts, etc. We discovered them in 2009, I’d bought a shirt the day before, now was back to buy a particular tee for whomever in my life is an A’s fan.
Back to the press tent for the free wine and ice cream sampling. A panel of business owners, plus Bay Area musician Tycho, sat on stools and talked about their companies, art, beliefs, etc. I don’t really know, because like most of the other media mooches, I was just waiting for the free wine and ice cream. Both were outstanding.
After the Arctic Monkeys experience, I’d considered watching Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers from the media tent. The upside of having room to stand and an uninterrupted view might make up for the downside of being far away. But I remembered when we saw Kings of Leon in 2010 from the same vantage point, how I ended up watching them on the big screens, which made me feel like, why was I even there?
I opted for the lawn, VIP side. I wanted to be close, to see Tom Petty’s expressions as he sang, his fingers as he played guitar. That meant crowding up during Death Cab for Cutie. So I did. They played to a crowd who appreciated that Death Cab has big songs that need a big space. They shine in concert settings, the complexity of their instrumentation on full display. People sang along. I inched forward, then over to the barricade dividing the VIPs (and me) from the more common folk. The grassy moat between us allowed for an uninterrupted view.
And then – with “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took the stage. The crowd cheered, screamed, whooped, clapped. Rock stars. All that love. And we were happy to worship. They went into “Last Dance With Mary Jane” next, one of my very, very, very favorites. I’d moved back to my hometown during the time it was a hit, a place I’d only returned to because I’d made some mistakes and had, I believed at the time, run out of options. “Tired of myself, tired of this town”? Oh, my, my. Oh, hell, yes.
They tore through several other familiar songs, a couple new ones, a Grateful Dead cover and a Traveling Wilburys tune. Some banter in between. The only times I stopped grinning were when I sang along. And then they left and we had to do that thing where we beg for an encore and they make us wait even though we all know it’s going to happen and then they came back and played “You Wreck Me” and – introducing it as “a song we first played in Palo Alto in 1976” – “American Girl.”
Thus the dream that had become reality came to an end. Ten minutes later, the exiting process turned into a nightmare of too many people in far too small a space, barely able to shuffle forward, bodies pressed together so tightly it felt like we were assaulting each other and I had to tell myself sternly to hang in there, be patient, and at last, expelled onto Lincoln, I could breathe again. And I thought about the day and the grin returned to my face as I bounced along the street back to my temporary home.