Blasted with toxic sand, pulverised by blaring EDM and genitally grazed by security, our correspondent found Coachella hard work until he had an unlikely epiphany

I dont know if Coachella agrees with me. Ive already outed myself as the crusty old sea captain of music journalism but after experiencing three days of thumping bass and $17 lobster rolls, I might never be able to recapture the jaunty spirit. In short, Coachella is a hassle. Im in awe of the fact that no one gets trampled or chokes to death on a big wad of toxic sand. Perhaps that is its own triumph.

Coachella attracts more and more people every year, which is a testament to its enduring popularity and its status as the pre-eminent American festival for witnessing the emergence of new artists and the valedictory statements of legacy acts. But the overwhelming crowds can throw someone like me, whod rather sit in a dentists office with an old copy of Golf Digest, into a fit of panic.

Upon entering the Empire Polo Club, the dusty venue that houses the Coachella music festival, you are greeted by posters commemorating the lineups of the previous 15 years (minus 2000, in which the event did not take place). Its a bit like thumbing through an old CD collection thats been stowed in your parents basement since you got your first iPod. You chuckle to yourself about the bands you havent thought of in years, the music youre embarrassed to have ever liked, and marvel at how unrecognizable the culture is today. Not better, just different.

Coachella
Coachella at dusk, before lockdown commences. Photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Kasabian! Wow, what are they up to? you might ask yourself. Look at how far down and tiny LCD Soundsystem is on the poster! Name one Hot Hot Heat song and pat yourself on the back for retaining a modicum of your memory. (Bandages. Didnt even have to look it up.) The posters are a monument to how modest the festivals origins are, but they also serve to remind older festivalgoers who still fancy themselves tastemakers that the chances of their favourite new discovery making it to Coachella 2017 are slim.

Ive gotten a bit ahead of myself, actually. Before you enter the festival proper, you must venture down a long dirt path divided up by a series of ticketing and search checkpoints. The paths are color-coded, which allows you to find the exit you need in case youre too devastated by the power of Calvin Harriss light show to guide yourself. In my wildest fantasies, I had hoped Coachella would be the Silk Road made real an open-air market for illicit substances, automatic weapons, juices made out of placentas, and bootleg DVDs of Garth Marenghis Darkplace (not available in the US). A vaguely sinister Willy Wonka type would guide you through a wonderland of human depravity, while being sure to stop to explain each and every law youre breaking as you do it.

The reality of it is that its just a very hot trail that leads into a very hot field. And each day, the security in this festival antechamber becomes more and more aggressive about shaking you down. By day three, they were making people trash their sunscreen and I received my first accidental security genital graze of my entire life. I was half-expecting to be forced to sing It Was a Good Day by Ice Cube backwards just to prove I was of sound mind.

Festivalgoers
Festivalgoers are showered with balloons during Matt and Kims set. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

The proper debauchery, the kind you hear about the following Monday from the resident weekend warrior at your office, is limited to the tents and offensive port-a-johns filled to capacity with steaming human refuse. When three young women exited a toilet clearly having just done a cheeky bump or two, I silently asked myself how they could stomach inhaling so much for so long. If I could have peed through one of the hazmat suits from Breaking Bad, I would have done. Hopefully, Goldenvoice will have them for sale in the General Store next year. After all, they sell plenty of other junk.

Outside of the usual merch trough, there was a jewelry outlet and a store called Perverse Sunglasses. At the sight of the sign and the windowless bunker that doubled as a retail location, my overactive imagination started to wander yet again. How perverse were we talking, here? Upon entrance, would a man in a dog mask ask me if Id ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight? How would I be able to find all the sunglasses among the pile of severed fingers and used heroin needles? Once again, reality disappoints and adjectives are meaningless. The only perverse thing was how shoddy these sunglasses looked. Even Bono would have to say, these look a tad silly. Also, there was a scantily clad female go-go dancer in a cage in the middle of the store who was clearly itching to text someone out of sheer boredom. Feel bad for this person being forced to represent an antiquated, stone-age image of sexuality and objectification if you want, but remember: she got to spend Coachella in an air-conditioned room.

Disabused of my dream of a frothy desert bacchanal, I chose to focus on the music. After all, is that not what Coachella was invented for? You pay for your pass, drive out into the wasteland, and hopefully have a life-altering experience through the power of song. By about 5 or 6pm, the period I like to call lockdown begins. You have to pick where you are going to be for the rest of the night, because theres no way to get anywhere through the bulging swarm of human flesh.

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A Do LaB crew member sprays water on fans to counter the searing heat. Photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

If Donald Trump cant get the Mexican government to pay for his wall, then he should just erect a stage and pay a rotating set of EDM DJs to play music non-stop. The only thing stronger than steel is an impenetrable mass of drunk people at a festival. I made the mistake of needing to use the restroom during a Jack U performance and was tossed about like a tugboat in a hurricane. I thought I would be swallowed up and no one would hear my screams over the beat drops. Either that, or the crowd would wise up to the fact that they shouldnt be paying $10 for a slice of pizza and would carve me up like a Christmas ham. Eventually I turned around before I stopped breathing.

Feeling like youre going to die in a field in the middle of the desert isnt what I signed up for. There were some great performances LCD Soundsystem, Ice Cube, Sia, Vince Staples but I couldnt quite find the transcendence that would make the time, hassle and money worthwhile. I wanted to feel free of my own anxiety and neuroses. I needed to cast off my own inner critic and take a second to embrace real joy. After two days of standing in the back, tucked away in the beer garden sipping Heineken and silently judging, I was going to hop into the shit with the people.

Fortunately for me, I didnt have to go in alone. I had booked an interview with Tom Sandoval, one of the stars of the Bravo reality show Vanderpump Rules. For the uninitiated, Vanderpump Rules follows bartenders and other restaurant staff at Lisa Vanderpumps West Hollywood restaurant SUR. Its a favorite of celebrities and unironically one of my favorite shows on television. I figured if I was going to find true happiness at Coachella, it would have to be with a group of very attractive people who get paid to appear on TV. I look like a round log of cookie dough in a blazer not advantageous at an event where 80% of the attendees are some level of gorgeous. Maybe a crew of good-looking reality stars would counteract that?

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A pool party thrown by the Las Vegas #WHHSH offsite. Photograph: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

I met Tom along with his girlfriend and fellow Vanderpump star Ariana, plus new cast member James in the beer garden near the Outdoor stage. We started chatting while watching Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, but, as I came to realize, no one stands still for that long at these things if they want to have a good time. In short order, I was dragged out of the garden and into the Coachella Stage crowd to see Major Lazer. It was easier to find people without shirts than it was to find shirts down there. In order to conduct an interview over loud dance music, one must scream, which we did.

Tom is a festival veteran and an aspiring musician of his own. I came here in 2010 with money and no ticket. Finagled tickets at the door. 2010 was like the first amazing year I experienced here. Id never heard of Portishead. Id never even heard of MIA, he said. I asked if he had any dreams of performing here with his group, the cheekily named Charles McMansion. I would love, one day, to play Coachella. Fuck Wembley.

I went in on my own experiences, trying to figure out what Id been doing wrong. Was I picking the wrong music? My festival diet was pretty heavy on the EDM. I can only handle so much electronic music. Thats why I love Coachella. You can see Ice Cube, then Axl Rose is, like, next. And he rocked out too, he said. As I had done all weekend, I had to bring up Axl playing in a giant throne. That was Dave Grohls chair, he reminded me. Apparently Tom and some other cast members had been to the Foo Fighters show where Dave Grohl played from that very same chair. Pat, the guitarist from Foo Fighters, hes a big fan of the show, so he got us, like, backstage.

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A fan gets into the spirit. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

Should I have camped out? Would I have gotten the real experience that way? We usually stay in a house. I would never camp here. Burning Mans a different story. Yeah, houses are great. Houses are great, arent they? If I were in a house instead of a hotel, maybe I could have cooked a proper meal instead of microwaving DiGiorno pizza at 2am. Or maybe I should be grateful I wasnt sleeping in a tent, running the risk of being nuzzled by a coyote in my sleep. Lifes all about small blessings.

What about the VIP area? I was still a bit sore about not getting in. Is that the way to go? To my surprise, Tom revealed he doesnt get VIP passes. To him, its not worth it to pay extra to be away from the action. With a twinkle in his eye, he looked at me and said: The real VIP is on my shoulders. At that time, I was not aware that this was a precursor to my being lifted up on his shoulders. Once he finally broached the subject, I tried to beg off. Im a pretty big guy, after all, not a waifish model type. Little did I know that its unwise to tell a fit person that they cant lift something. Thats like telling me theres no way I can finish that burrito. What you gotta do is as soon as we go up, you gotta tuck your legs behind me, he explained.

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A night view of the art installation Portals, by Philip K Smith III. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

After flailing around a bit, my legs dangling like a pair of shoes hanging from an overhead power line, we went up. First of all, I felt like a baby up there. I hadnt been on anyones shoulders for years. Youre truly unmoored, with nothing to do but put your hands in the air and wave them like you just dont care. I was overcome with the urge to participate, a feeling I havent had outside of a sporting event. Plus, I could see so much more from my new perch. Instead of a wall of bodies, I could make out a sea of blissed-out people who maybe only get to indulge themselves like this once or twice a year. Coachella is not an experience you can intellectualize. That might be why substances play such a large part in the activities. You need something to inform your brain that it wont be needed today and to wake your pelvic region up so that it can do its job. It never occurred to me that one could feel more a part of something by being on top of it. In a way, its like seeing your hometown from an airplane. Its rare to be able to take it all in like that, so you find yourself appreciating the place and the moment more.

Once I came down, I snapped back to the ground. It sounds better up there, doesnt it, Tom said. I said yes, but I wasnt totally sure I agreed. I could hardly focus on the music while I was contemplating being on his shoulders. The music was secondary to the act of existing there at that time and in that place. It was a brief glimpse into a world I am comfortable saying I dont fully understand. Tom and his group said their goodbyes and went off for yet more adventures, leaving me to try to recapture whatever it was I had figured out just a few minutes ago.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/18/coachella-2016-experience-reality-stars-music-epiphanies