Note: Ben Westhoff is Music Editor of L.A. Weekly and Senior Music Editor of Voice Media Group.
Oakland, Calif. resident Kimchi Truong was 24. She passed out on the Coachella grounds last weekend, likely due to an overdose. Her death this past Thursday was shocking. But what's really shocking is that this kind of thing doesn't happen more often.
This story is about very young people doing a shit-ton of drugs, but let's start with the old folks of the Coachella Valley. Fooling themselves into believing they're not going to die, they populate ticky-tacky communities behind guarded gates, with giant televisions, preposterously lush lawns and mammoth green hedges. They've bought into the illusion that this is a lush paradise, rather than a punishing desert that will remain hospitable only as long as politicians willingly waste the diminishing stash of Western water. The men, who are tan, and the women, who take walks in the morning, came from greater L.A., arriving to places like Indian Wells and Palm Springs to escape the smog, traffic, crowding and chaos.
How betrayed they must feel, then, when the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival brings the riff-raff back to their doorstep for two weekends every year - the biggest, most unruly traveling circus imaginable.
Marked like convicts with green, yellow, and blue wristbands, the young people are regarded with distrust. With good reason: they make only the slightest effort to assimilate into their temporary communities. Drunk on their parents' money and preparing to descend into squalor, they rent houses or apartments for $400 or more per night, cramming each room with three or four of their best friends, laying down sleeping bags they'll barely touch and stocking the fridge with water they'll forget to drink. Upon arrival, they immediately break out the vodka, or the molly, and blast off: Coachella is their Christmas, the greatest time of the year, as much for the chance at unsupervised recklessness as for the festival itself. (Many won't even make it inside.)
"It's common for my friends to wake up, start drinking and taking Adderall," says one early-twentysomething festival veteran. "Then they mix acid and molly together in a water bottle and take that into the fest. They drink this mixture throughout the day and night while continuing to supplement it with booze, weed, and Adderall. They'll lick their fingers and dip them into bags of molly."
The thrifty ones don't even purchase tickets to the festival, instead hitting up the Valley's exclusive parties timed to the event, flush with celebrity DJs, rappers, fashion designers, models, and young millionaires. At these parties, branded within an inch of their lives and held at places like the Corona Yacht Club -- whose signature feature is a freshwater lagoon -- the drinks, kale salad, gummi bears, and Aerie-brand bras and panties are free. The girls, having dieted for months beforehand and brainstormed outfits that will make them not, technically, naked, travel in packs, the guys inflate their resumes. Absolutely everything is photographed.
When the parties end the kids drive home, at the mercy of their oft-failing GPS systems, drunk out of their minds. But though it's well past midnight it's not too late for psychedelics, chocolate-covered mushrooms or Sour Patch Kids laced with LSD. The drugs, combined with a lack of sleep, lack of food (In-N-Out Burger is closed, yo), and a general, half-assed sense of artistry inspire all sorts of late night shenanigans: impassioned guitar performances, EDM dance parties by the pool, impromptu outdoor photo shoots with old-timey popping flashbulbs.
By early afternoon the next day it's time to go into the festival, and despite last night's insanity the kids are far from depleted. (Before long they'll have sinus infections and crushing depression, but that's still days away.) And so they head over to the Polo Grounds, only sometimes remembering to pack sunscreen into the fanny packs they've brought because their swimsuits don't have pockets.
They have, however, remembered to stash drugs on their person and in just about every orifice.
"Guys smuggle joints and molly by putting them in a plastic bag and then taping the bag with duct tape in between their legs, between the ass and the balls," says the twentysomething. The way to get coke into the festival is either by putting a small baggie in the tiny pocket of your jeans, or else inside a necklace. Says a female college student: "Girls use a bullet necklace or cylindrical cross, which they fill by unscrewing the bottom. No one thinks to check for coke in a necklace."
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Coachella security guards sometimes pat people down pretty seriously. The trick when you're searching a girl is to tug lightly on her bra wire in the front -- which will cause baggies of ecstasy stashed in the cups to drop. But the thoroughness of searches varies widely, and many folks are let through without having their bags examined. Not that the guards stand a fighting chance anyway; from bras that let you smuggle in an entire bottle of wine, to shoes with a pocket where you can hide your weed, the people who want to party will always find a way.
Once inside, you'll see young girls rubbing their gums during Disclosure, boys in the midst of a three-day moon rocks binge pogoing to Calvin Harris, or groups of excited, muscled bros cranking out to Haim. "My friend had a large bag of molly he was dipping from during a set," says the twentysomething. "The bag spilled all over his hand when he was jostled, and the crowd of friends around him immediately began licking his hand like a bunch of crazed lizard people."
At the campgrounds, populated largely by college students (and Marines) with seemingly no concern for their health, things are even crazier. One guy took molly for the first time, and may have also eaten something bad. He didn't drink enough water, and when he woke up the next day he began boozing, and before long was vomiting. He was too nauseous to keep down water at this point, and so a friend advised him to smoke weed. While some of the brightest up-and-coming bands in the world were playing inside the grounds he was doubled over at the campsite.
Yet somehow the festival has been tied to only one other death over the years. There's no telling how things will play out after Truong's death, but until now Coachella has had a good reputation for safety, unlike, say, Electric Daisy Carnival. But anyone who thought the festival wouldn't be rocked by tragedy -- and that giant music festivals until the end of time won't continue to be rocked by tragedies -- is delusional.
In fact, that's probably the best word to describe the Coachella Valley every April. It's a strange moment in time when thrill-seeking kids escape suburban ennui by funneling their pre-tax inheritance into the local economy. But that economy and the Coachella Valley itself is, because of its geography, ultimately doomed. Just like its year-round inhabitants, and just like the kids who only want to live while they're alive.
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