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Desert Daze Took Us Into the Void and Out of This World

We sent one of our writers to the three-day psych fest in Joshua Tree to smoke grass, catch bats, and pretend that reality doesn’t exist for a fleeting chunk of time.

by Lindsay MaHarry

by Lindsay MaHarry

All photos by Cody Lynch, courtesy of the author

The three-day circus of psychedelia known as Desert Daze descended upon Joshua Tree last weekend. Countercultural monoliths like Iggy Pop, Sleep, John Cale and Spiritualized headlined, while a mix of veterans and rising acts — from Terry Riley and Ariel Pink to goddesses like Hope Sandoval and Weyes Blood — sparkled on stages of tinsel and colored lights. Through the kaleidoscopic lens of one of the most elevated and surreal experiences of my life, my faith in music's ability to allow us to transcend the hell-scape of our current human condition was restored. I left the desert reeling in thought, still hallucinating, and certain of only one thing: Spiritualized is the best band.

Spiritualized during the band's Sunday night set

With hot winds, alien landscape, and an utter lack of inhabitants, the desert has always embodied the idea of freedom. In Joshua Tree, this expression exists in distinctly opposite forms: the new age optimism that's inundated the town with crystal shops and vegan food, and the meth-addled horror show that carries on along the wrong side of the only highway. It's a strange, beautiful place where the hipster saloon with a clientele straight out of Silverlake sits directly adjacent to a Circle K that's often locked during business hours so the jarringly terrifying staff can sell meth in the bathroom.

My group for the weekend, a rotating cast of artists and writers, was lucky enough to stay at the only privately-owned property in Joshua Tree National Park, a vortex of energy steeped in rock and roll history that embodies both sides of the desert's dichotomy. Purchased in the sixties by the heir to the Columbia Pictures fortune, now owned by his daughter, designer Andrea Cohn, the property was frequented by the likes of Jim Morrison, Donovan, and the experimental filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Timothy Leary got married in a cabin about a mile from the main house, and Mick Jagger had a helicopter pad so he could fly in to party with Andrea's mom at his leisure.

Medieval swords lay stacked on the mantle and a half-inch of dust covered the floor. Bats flew around the bathroom in the daylight. Both of Andrea's parents' ashes were piled in the closet of their empty bedroom. Some warped original prints from the shoot of Jodorowsky's seminal film Holy Mountain littered the bed and dressers. The house typically stays vacant, without power or running water. Tweakers stole the solar panels, among countless other things. Nestled within the park's massive stacks of boulders, the presence of a dark and glamorous past is tangible, from the artifacts of rock's golden era strewn about dirty rooms, to the static energy of souls that seem to zoom past when you're alone beneath the twinkling black sky.

The house our writer stayed at with her trippy-ass coterie of artists and musicians

While the house held insane energy, the festival managed to rival its esoteric power. For Desert Daze's sixth and most successful year, they took over the grounds of the Institute of Mentalphysics, the oldest and largest spiritual retreat center in the West. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his son, the site sits atop a rare geological occurrence, the meeting place of three underground aquifers, which has a measurable magnetic field and supposed energetic effect on those who visit.

Each of the three days offered its own stylistically unique experience. Friday, which I would deem The Weird, saw Panda Bear perform under a swirl of wild liquid projections. Boris smashed their iconic gong in a haze of blue smoke. Ariel Pink strutted about the stage, confidently attired in a wife-beater, with a large backing band in his most epic performance to date. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile headlined, in what was the most disappointing set of the night in terms of pure sonics. Despite the fabulous tracks off their new album, Lotta Sea Lice, the sound on the main Moon Block Stage was hollow the first two nights, something not lost on the audience or disgruntled musicians clamoring in the VIP.

Saturday could be described as The Heavy. Sleep performed Holy Mountain, their festival go-to set, which was again more hollow sounding than usual. Thurston Moore continued to make those terrible shrieking sounds everyone pretends to love. Iggy Pop shot about the main stage, a seemingly immortal bag of bones and skin that never disappoints. John Cale wowed with a number of Velvet Underground tracks, the pinnacle being "Waiting for the Man." During King Gizzard, I got matching finger tattoos with a Noisey editor, then bought a $200 sequined cloak. Hours later, I found myself in a backstage room smoking a joint with Terry Riley and his son Gyan Riley, who had played one of the most interesting and experimental sets of the night.

Sleep playing 'Holy Mountain' during their Saturday night set at Desert Daze

Despite a number of issues musicians had with sound quality — plus, there was a hill separating the main stages from the electronic tent that became a bit of a chore — the festival was perfectly executed. The crowd was evolved, a group of expert trippers attracted by the lineup that would only appeal to people who truly love psychedelic music. Among the music, the weed, and the copious amounts of psychedelic drugs being passed around, I felt a camaraderie I'd never before experienced at a festival. Despite the numerous, horrifying email updates I received, 300 dead in a Somali truck explosion, North Korea's promises of war, any email with Trump in the subject line, we existed outside of all this, if only for a ephemeral chunk of time.

The author chilling by some chill cacti

Sunday, which I'm deeming The Epic, was defined by two bands for me: Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions, and Spiritualized. After making the extremely regrettable mistake of missing Weyes Blood to eat ribs at Pappy and Harriets, we arrived in a tizzy, rushing to Sandoval's stage. Shrouded in coming darkness, she was barely visible. In contrast to the other acts, defined by next-level projections and an onslaught of lights, Hope's set was marked by her signature lack of pretense. A disembodied voice haunted the desert twilight. She stood proudly, chin high, moving through some favorites like "Suzanne," "Blue Bird," and "Into the Trees."

Then, Spiritualized broke my brain. The life-changing set cemented what I had loudly proclaimed earlier in the day, that Spiritualized is the best band, better than all the other bands, capable of stylistically encompassing all other bands with ease. Moving freely between gospel, psychedelia, punk and back, it was a dream set list, including "Ladies and Gentleman" and "Cheapster, that culminated in the most exciting rendition of "Come Together." It was truly a, well, spiritual experience that seemed to be speaking to all of us, reminding that in this horrifying time of division and hatred, love is real. Tears streamed down the faces of everyone I turned to see. We all felt it.

The crowd at Desert Daze

After Spiritualized ended Sunday night, no one knew what to do. We drove straight into the desert, terrifying our Uber driver named Mike, who kept double checking we weren't going to rob him and steal his car in the middle of nowhere. We ran into everyone else staying at the house, all who came separately in a haze, not able to experience more music, all glad to be with like-minded people capable of feeling the artistic phenomenon we witnessed so deeply.

The next morning, all I could think about was the theory Sartre explored in his existential work Nausea — how music is the only thing capable of transcending the human condition, lifting us from the nausea of existence. In the current political and cultural landscape, we desperately need musicians like J. Spaceman of Spiritualized, places like Joshua Tree, and substances like cannabis, to offer respite from the constant onslaught of horror and malaise that's come to dominate our world. "But I am like a man completely frozen after a trek through the snow, who suddenly comes into a warm room," wrote Sarte, upon encountering music at the end of Nausea. For us it was not warmth, but the car's air conditioning as we drove out of the desert. The feeling was the same, and it was good.

See more photos from MaHarry's tripped-out festival experience below

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile performing at Desert Daze

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

Boris

Ariel Pink

The Make-Up

Follow Lindsay MaHarry on Instagram and photographer Cody Lynch on Instagram


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Lindsay MaHarry

Lindsay MaHarry is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Observer, Bullett, Gawker, Fanzine, and others. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.



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