I should take better notes, be less fragmentary. I’m piecing together haphazardly scribbled notes from my orange Moleskine notebook, a few social media posts—”Stand back and watch me glow” I tweet from the road July 21—and those rare flashes of vivid scenes burned in my memory, which create the mythos for my five-day adventure journeying to Chicago for Pitchfork Music Festival 2013.
Afternoon, Thursday, July 18: I pack a carry-on suitcase, grab a stack of CDs, and hit the road for a twelve-hour drive northeast from my apartment in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It’s the first solo road trip I’ve taken since becoming a mother, only the second ever in my thirty-five years. I am giddy for the luxury ahead: a long drive alone with only music, highway, and all that slowly changing scenery unfolding along the expanses. My company consists entirely of songs. There are the brand-new albums I’d never listened to, like DIANA’s debut Perpetual Surrender (Jagjaguwar), which would become the trip’s soundtrack. There were also albums that run so deep they deserve an essay. Björk’s Homogenic was one of those. Although I rarely listen to her anymore, she remains one of my earliest music idols. I’d never seen her live, and she was headlining Pitchfork Fest this year, along with M.I.A., Belle & Sebastian, and R. Kelly—a decidedly odd grouping of heavy hitters.
Hazel Dickens’s Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People has a permanent home in our car: “She was waiting for tomorrow, but tomorrow’s already lost” is perhaps one of the best lines in any song ever. Also along: a two-CD recording of partitas composed by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, two Emmylou Harris albums (Luxury Liner and Elite Hotel), Cat Power’s Jukebox, Dinosaur Jr.’s Beyond, and Frida Hyvönen’s Silence is Wild. Those are the albums I remember, anyway, the ones that framed the hills and the skyscrapers and all that road construction along I-55. A solo twelve-hour road trip means I can obsessively listen to one track over and over and over again if I want, and I do.
I’ve made this drive many times. It’s still the Ozark mountains as I hit Missouri about an hour in, but they’re different from the Arkansas Ozarks. I’m suddenly inundated with billboards for XXX shops, anti-abortion organizations, and a million alternate-route signs telling me where to get off the interstate for a drive on historic Route 66. The hills rise in elevation, and I fall in love with the stretch of towns on I-44 north of Springfield, where Bourbon leads to St. Clair, which leads to Cuba until I see the arches of St. Louis, where I sleep for the night.
Morning, Friday, July 19: I hit a snarl of roadwork along I-55 in Southern Illinois, land of silos, many, many cornfields, and random signs exclaiming that guns make people safe. There’s an accident. I don’t see any ambulances, though. I am going five miles an hour tops for about an hour. I let DIANA play again and again, mishearing lyrics in the second track (“That Feeling”) as “Sit back and watch me glow.” It’s a phrase that becomes my trip’s mantra.
I arrive at my best friend Abby’s childhood home, a high-rise apartment along Lake Michigan. It’s about 3 p.m., a few hours after my estimated ETA. Her mother welcomes me in with a litany of all the food available: fresh dragon fruit cut in half, homemade meatballs with peppers, sweet-and-spicy sausage, fresh coleslaw, and dark chocolate with sea salt. I eat dragon fruit for the first time, glance at the expanses of Lake Michigan—dreamy blues all around—shower, and we’re ready to venture to Union Park for the first evening of Pitchfork.
The sea of hipsters—cue beards, ironic tees, skinny jeans, arrow jewelry, blunt bangs, retro shades—is not the monochromatic scheme I expect. Though diverse might be too generous a word, the array of sartorial choices ranges more widely than I imagined, from massively overdressed (leather fringe, tights, and knee-high boots at a scorching outdoors summer music fest?!) to full-on costumes with wire frames, metal jackets, and knee-high rainbow socks.
T-shirts include No Age, Kurt Cobain, Nine Inch Nails, Ted Nugent, Misfits, Joy Division, Velvet Underground, the Smiths, etc., etc., etc. When Abby spots a Kurt Cobain tee, she says, “I thought it was cool, until I thought, Did you buy that at Hot Topic?” There’s a lot of ’80s and ’90s floral patterns and a woman in a crushed-velvet dress. There are so many patterns that the abundance of patterns become patternless.
What strikes me is how random and unconnected the crowd looks. It’s my first Pitchfork, but Abby’s a veteran. She remarks that there are now so many groups who look like they’re here simply because seeing a hip summer music festival boasting forty-six bands in three days is the thing to do. Some of them even come equipped with those folding lawn chairs with arms. I can’t imagine any of those chairs making much of a splash back when Pitchfork began.
I’m looking at my notes now and thinking of Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook.”
There’s a lot of fragmentary descriptions of scenes, most of which do not describe sounds: “excessive fringe,” “seagull flying above Joanna Newsom,” “colored studs up his earlobe,” “girls kissing, both with short haircuts in fluorescent orange shirts with black and white roses,” “fedoras,” “lots of pot smoke,” “I’m not a fucking hipster,” “moon in phases,” “clouds a dust pink,” and “shaking bass.”
The last three are from Björk’s set, the Friday-night headliner. We’re so far away from the stage that she appears as a golden radiance—dressed in a glittering gold, loose-fitting, floor-length gown, and I can’t make out what appears as a spiky orb radiating from her head. There’s a full women’s chorus in floor-length gowns, each singer with her own cordless mic, and a stage full of all sorts of keyboards and organs. A rotating metal cylinder hanging above the stage generates sparks of electricity—a Tesla coil. In the distance, as the day turns to dusk, pink-gray clouds flash with far-off lightning.
“I am the hunter, I’m going hunting.” As she sings one of her hits from Homogenic, I scrawl, “Spastic beats!!!” There’s an oceanic “Hidden Place,” and then “Unravel,” which I’ve just listened to on repeat probably twenty times on the drive up. The intensity of that song is so sophomore year of college for me. Then there’s “Army of Me” and some of Vespertine too, but my notes have become unnavigable.
She says little between songs besides an enthusiastic “Thank you” or “Gracias.” Then, nearly an hour in, she says, “I’ve been informed by the weather man that we have to get off the stage.” Boos from the crowd, of course. Björk is killing it, and none of us want it to stop. “It wouldn’t be considered much in Iceland, I can tell you that much,” she adds as she and her chorus and backing band clear the stage. A Pitchfork representative thanks everyone for coming and tells us when the gates open the next day.
There’s no thunder, barely any rain or wind. We walk a few blocks, hoping to pass a cab or a place for food and a drink, but there is really nothing. There are tons of cyclists overtaking the side streets in a hurry to rush out of the impending weather. The hundreds of bikes in all makes, models and colors that previously decorated the high metal fences around Union Park are now being pedaled frantically to bars, or perhaps to festival-goers’ third-story walk-ups in nearby Ukrainian Village.
The wind picks up, and it begins to rain slow, fat, heavy drops. There’s a quaint rumble. We keep walking. We pass patches of weeds overrun with Queen Anne’s lace, jutting around gravel and chain-link fences, and then more wind, louder thunder. This goes on for fifteen dark residential blocks as the weather turns severe. There’s a corner bar we run toward as we realize the storm is about to pounce, and it does, just exactly as the bouncer checks our IDs under the awning. We order whiskey cocktails at the mahogany bar and spend a couple hours at a candlelit table, waiting for the downpour to subside. We’re starved at this point and head to the High Dive for a late-night meal. We split a turkey club and a salad, but mostly we are in love with the tater tots.
Morning, Saturday, July 20: I wake at 7 a.m. for no reason other than I’m a mother now. I retrieve a glass of water and retreat back in to the guest bedroom, call my husband, then try to write. I’m reading on the theme of “D.I.Y.” for the Vol. 1 Brooklyn event at the Book Fort portion of Pitchfork later today. I’m used to drafting on a keyboard, but wake up with a stream-of-consciousness flow and start furiously writing in cursive about how I didn’t ever feel punk rock until I became a mother. That’s when feeding my baby trumped all and I’d breastfeed wherever: at a restaurant, a big-box store, my car, or even while taking a dump.
“I am improvising and the beauty of what I improvise is a fugue.” A charged line from Clarice Lispector’s slender Água Viva etched in my brain. I read it in one sitting—another small luxury—one recent Saturday night. I nearly picked up Goethe’s Faust but my husband implored me to read Lispector instead. This thought leads to the refined fury of the fugue from compositional geniuses like Bach and Scarlatti. All the random threads lining up for a three-minute D.I.Y. story.
I head back to the kitchen and Abby’s mom offers me scones and berries from the farmer’s market, and summer butter. I’ve never heard of summer butter. She French-presses me coffee. I stare out the window to Lake Michigan. Abby wakes, and we eat more leftovers before heading back to Union Park for the day. I’m nervous about the reading, so we head straight to the Book Fort. We are missing Julia Holter and Phosphorescent, playing at the Blue and Red stages, respectively.
The reading goes well. I mean, there are like twelve readers and we each only read for three minutes, but there’s relief when it’s over, and it’s about time for Savages, a hot post-punk band from London formed in 2011. Frontwoman Jehnny Beth is the most charismatic rocker I’ve witnessed in a long time. Dressed in a black T-shirt, black pants, and tan kitten-heel round-toed pumps, she’s tiny with buzzed hair. But her presence is electric, framed by a ferocious band of players who cast sparks with each beat and strum.
Directly after Savages: Swans. To see Swans live for the first time in the bright gleam of full summer sunshine is otherworldly in a way you’d never imagine listening to Swans could be. We’re up front, right by the speakers, and I am not wearing earplugs. “I see it all. I see it all.” Michael Gira dances as if in a trance, snake arms flailing as his bandmates heap their sorcery onto our daylight crowd. Watching Savages and Swans back-to-back in the hot July mid-afternoon has done me in. Breeders are about to play all of Last Splash, an album that helped get me through high school, but we only linger for a few songs before going for concessions.
Belle and Sebastian close out Saturday night, but honestly, I stopped caring much about them after Isobel Campbell’s departure. They play a peppy set, all cute and fun, but their cozy, rosy sounds seem weird outside among a huge crowd. Or maybe my head is just still with Savages and Swans. It starts raining, but unlike the night before, there’s no threat of lightning, so the band keeps playing. We meet friends at the Book Fort and head for drinks in the Ukrainian Village. We barhop and stay out until nearly 4 a.m.
Morning, Sunday, July 21: I sleep in until about nine. We have brunch with Abby’s parents at a French restaurant. I remember a giant bathroom with vibrant floral wallpaper and an asparagus omelet, perfectly cooked. Abby doesn’t have a pass today, and we say good-bye. I don’t catch a set worth writing about. I wander the craft booths and record fair. I’ve heard a lot of buzz for Waxahatchee, so I wander over for the first couple songs of their set, which is when I realize there’s no way I’ll make it to 4:15, when Yo La Tengo is scheduled to play. By now, all I can think about is getting back on the road and returning home to my husband and four-year-old daughter. I walk down the path of the El to where I parked my car at brunch. I make it to Saint Louis, where I crash with friends.
Morning, Monday, July 22: When I hit the Missouri Ozarks, feeling close to home, I blare Emmylou singing Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” and the line that lingers most is “out of kindness, I suppose.” I alternate this with another track from Luxury Liner, “Me and Willie.”
“And I’d rather be singing my heart out in a dark and dingy bar,” sings Emmylou, “hitting those high notes with Willie’s sad guitar.”
I realize I am exactly where I want to be.