Has it come to this? Songs of youthful longing and rebellion, transformed into the electrified wail of ultramillionaires in their seventies who hang out with other rich people. Onstage, before the inhabitants of the world’s largest open-air old-age home, caught in the middle of a desert dust storm, is Pirate King Keef, the original dancing bag of bones, dressed in a billowing shirt of royal purple. The shirt shows more than a comfortable hint of a gut. I can see it from my seat in the fourteenth row at Oldchella, i.e., Coachella for old people.
Desert Trip, as the weekend-long, see-’em-before-they-croak festival is officially known, occupies the space of seven polo fields. With bleachers on either side and a flashing neon Ferris wheel at the very back, there’s room for 85,000 people of whatever age. Tickets cost between $250 and $1,000 per night. Wisely, no one smokes.
The surrounding landscape suggests a different planet, like Tatooine in the Star Wars movies, a giant necropolis in shades of sandy-beige monotone. Del Tacos, Starbucks, and Cold Stone Creameries are sprinkled among the specialized hospitals and compounding pharmacies that stand at key intersections between gated communities. Streets with sibilant Spanish names alternate with streets named after Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, and some streets identified only by numbers to make retired engineers and accountants feel at home. The cold hand of death touches everyone here, mussing the hair of one and turning it white, squeezing someone else’s heart so hard that they can no longer walk without assistance. Here and there you might see someone in their mid- to late fifties, red-faced but still healthy, pedaling= furiously on an expensive bike in the dry morning heat. It’s not too late, it’s never too late, please let it not be too late.
Keith Richards is a hero to many of these folks because he had the courage to live out the late-stage consequences of his self-mythologizing without recourse to golf or Xanax, even after his wife got cancer. How many in this desert can say the same? A few, perhaps. Some may count themselves young at heart, but they are clearly in transition, as we all are, beneath the banners of aging and departed greats like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tom Weiskopf, the golfing champions of yesteryear who lend their names to the streets of PGA West, the gated community with the nicest lawns. Soon, there will also be Jagger Drive and Richards Way, which followed to the end of its gentle, undulating cul-de-sac will deposit you at the Keef Leaf Teahouse.
Tonight’s headliners are the Rolling Stones, who are nearly halfway done with their set, and Bob Dylan, who this evening began the next weird chapter of his life as Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. Tomorrow will feature Neil Young and Paul McCartney. The Who and Roger Waters will close up shop on Sunday. Next to me are two wildly overweight old guys staggering around in yellow Rolling Stones 50th anniversary tour T-shirts with the Ferris wheel glowing acid-trip red, white, and blue behind them, lost somewhere between Las Vegas and Woodstock. Fifty years! Wishing and hoping to feel the gobsmacked excitement of something that long ago acquired the rubbery gray stiffness and mien of chewed-over gum.
During “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” I zoom in on the royal-purple billows of Keith’s shirt, which appears in black-and-white on the giant screens flanking the stage, threatening the tiny, wizened stick figures below. How to describe the enormousness and placement of these screens? Well, there are many of them, towering over the performers, and also strategically located at the halfway point of the field, deep into the crowd, from which the majority sees the action. The footage on the screens has an old-timey feel that allows the audience to imagine they are watching the real thing, in real time, on a way-back machine. Up close, there is something disconcerting about watching a 73-year-old Mick Jagger strut down a hundred-yard-long runway while barking, “Hey! You! Get off of My! Cloud!” flaunting his skinny buttocks like a crazed drum majorette, his enthusiasm for performance undiminished by a half-century of experience.
“They say if you can remember Desert Trip 1, you weren’t really there,” he deadpans. Desert Trip 1 was last week. During “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (But I Like It),” he rips open his Members Only windbreaker and does a weird shimmying thing that Tina Turner probably taught him once backstage. “I still refuse to do any age gags. I refuse,” he announces, in a pitch-perfect New York City fuck-me-no-fuck-you downtown queeny sidewalk tone that matches his vintage vinyl jacket.
Purple Keef grins, standing off to the side. On the big screen, he looks at least 300 years old, like an alien king in a science-fiction movie who has imbibed a potion that grants him eternal life and now must watch his subjects grow old and die. Ron Wood is a better technical guitar player than Keith, for anyone who cares. In the middle of “Tumbling Dice,” Wood does a nice if oddly outspoken little solo in the middle, as if he has something to prove, which Keith clearly doesn’t. When the pirate king hits three wrong notes in succession, he winks at the camera, which dutifully relays the wink, followed by a wince. At least one person in the row in front of me has taken out his hearing aid. When the band performs “Sweet Virginia,” again from Exile on Main Street, the crowd reacts on cue to the line “Thank you for your wine, California.”
For “Midnight Rambler,” Jagger breaks out another number from his windbreaker collection, a silk Italian tie-dye floral jacket, which inspires a campy catwalk strut like he’s someone’s fancy grandma; all that’s missing is a face full of cold cream and a silk umbrella to shield his delicate complexion from the sun. “It’s great being in the desert with all you guys,” he says sincerely. “Even if it’s like sitting in a hair dryer.” Bob Dylan may thrill the college professors and Scandinavian lit-crit perverts who award the Nobel Prize, but did Dylan actually write anything better than the wailing crescendo of “Gimme Shelter”?
It’s just a shot away
It’s just a kiss away