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Day 1: There’s Hay in My Free Trade Coffee
Never buy drugs in San Jose. Don’t buy anything in San Jose. There’s nothing there that can’t be acquired with equal ease elsewhere. It’s a bedroom community masquerading as metropolis: an endless ring of Red Lobsters and Bed Bath & Beyonds, Rosses and Best Buys. Homes that have been architecturally CC’d. Its most distinguished historical artifact is a witchy mystery mansion built by a mad munitions widow to house the ghosts of men killed by Winchester rifles during the Civil War. You would think that fact alone would make it the perfect place to buy drugs. It does not.
Under no circumstances would I advocate such totally awful decisions, but the first day of the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco warranted the acquisition of ruthless efficient mind-altering agents. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise: everyone is high, drunk, coked up, shrooming, rolling…wobbling. Every generation deserves their own Woodstock, the festival rite of passage, replicated two dozen times to varying degrees of success all across summer in America. Except acid is now infinitely more to difficult to come by.
"In three years, you will only remember the few mind-blowing bands, who you were with and what drugs you were on—if you’re lucky. The festival is a $300 guarantee to have a strange trip if you’re down. So if everyone is going to be on molly at a festival, I am going to do what the bromans do."
This is not an era for psychedelics. Peyote, LSD, mescaline, and ayahuasca are golden tickets rarely found and usually only in conjunction with some fringe hippie hustler who tries to seduce girls by telling them he’s a shaman. That’s a bad look, and besides, the festivals of today are not conducive to the lysergic bug-out. The music is too fast, the crowds too fist-pump intense. Sets are 45 minutes, and there are few extended guitar solos to ostensibly see infinity through. The body high is king. That’s the long explanation of why I’m searching for molly, pure MDMA, on the outskirts of San Jose.
There is an unspoken rule with drug dealers. The shadier the drug, the flakier they are. There are no statistics to back me up, but if Breaking Bad is to be believed, the traffic of methamphetamines will lead to you murdering children. Despite their preference for brostep, molly dealers are somewhat less homicidal. But they will never show up on time—even if they work in accounting for Price Waterhouse. This is the day job of our street pharmacist, so the friend of a friend who procured the connection tells me. Times are hard when even the CPAs are slanging. I am told that he is new. Tax season has only been over for four months.
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At the moment, White Denim are shredding through an opening set in Golden Gate Park, but I am idled curbside in a Modern Family burb… waiting… imagining that McNulty is listening to the entire conversation in the Go-Go Rooter van across the street. But soon our chemical consort comes through, clutching two cherry-sized bags of white powder. The gas tank is full. So is a medical marijuana bottle of science-mastered OG Kush. A fifth of Jim Beam. A 24 pack of beers. And the car stereo is loudly blaring a song called “Midget Cough.”
* * *
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Bros in 49ers snapbacks chug Bud Lights. A girl in a Viking helmet sells black-light mushroom stickers. There are withered Deadheads making a buck selling beers. A mustached 20-something in short shorts and a Day-Glo tank top plays the flute while his unwashed girlfriend fondles a kitten on its back. Fog is everywhere and the sky is the color of clam shells. Welcome to San Francisco.
This is the entrance scene. 65,000 people collide in Golden Gate Park on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Bay Area invented the modern rock festival with Monterey Pop, and Outside Lands is the only regional heir. It’s not really a traveling destination festival, and the organizers project local vibes with a vertiginous array of craft beers, esoteric wines and epicurean foods. All organic everything. There is a Beer Land. A Wine Land. A Chocolate Land. Half shell BBQ oysters. Malaysian nachos. Plantain burritos. It is the festival as Action Bronson song.
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Beck is the first performer, and he does not sing about Zankou Chicken. We are a long way from the Midnite Vultures carnivore with the revolving bed on stage. Beck is singing “Devils Haircut” when I walk in, but his hair looks fairly God-fearing. He is wearing fuck-you sunglasses and a leather jacket, and he is speaking loudly rather than singing. Occasionally, he blows into his harmonica to fully punctuate the Dylan in ’65 vibes he’s trying to project. As if that isn’t enough, he does a cover of “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat” that sounds like it’s being played by the Black Keys.
This is the Beck-bot. One of the most gifted singer-songwriters of the ‘90s on autopilot—still better than 90 percent of the booked bands. Even at his most numb, Beck is far superior to the alternative, the nihilistic entertainment of Die Antwoord. But there is no banter with the crowd. He is staring through us like he only sees the Wall.
The reconciliation comes with the hits. “Where It’s At.” “Loser.” A young girl with red and white hair waves two orchids hypnotically. Everyone sings about cocaine nosejobs and folk singer slobs. Then we stumble into the ballads of Sea Change and the mood turns melancholy, like we should all be forlorn on the beach in some early ‘90s Herb Ritts video. My cousin whispers to me: “Beck has lost his swag.” 23-year-olds know those kinds of things.
* * *
I am inside Wine Lands, which I insist on calling WineTopia. The bag of powder is open. So I lick my index finger, take a massive swipe, and repeat three times. So do my friends. I look up and no one is paying attention to “our attempt to recreate a Danny Brown song”. The patrons are hypnotized by the array of wines to taste. Portuguese reds. Fermented grapes courtesy of the “Scholium Project.” Faust wine. Wines grown nearby in Napa and those imported from all over the world sold for $10 per plastic cup and named after historical vintages. And then I notice that my mouth has gone completely numb.
“This tastes like cocaine,” says the group member with the Stanford degree.
None of the rest of us has ever tasted cocaine, but I have tasted molly, a bitter alkaline flavor that gives you an after-twitch like Jack Nicholson nipping whiskey in Easy Rider. This does not taste like molly. It tastes like bleach, and it’s not supposed to make the back of your throat feel like it’s been stitched shut. And this is why you should never buy drugs in San Jose.
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If I were about to undergo experimental dentistry, things would be ideal. Instead, my saliva feels like rubber cement, my tongue is swollen and my gums feel like dry wall. The five of us immediately rack our brains and phones for knowledge about the pros and cons of eating coke. It can be used as a topical anesthetic, a pleasurable additive to soft drinks, and the fuel supply for half of young Hollywood. Ghostface told us about the benefits of sprinkling a little snow inside the Optimo. But eating a line or two is utterly useless. And still, two people in our group claim they’re rolling.
So I wait. After all, there is no hard evidence that we’ve just ingested coke. It could merely be a scarred batch of molly. Antibalas is set to play in 20 minutes, and if an Afrobeat dance party can’t induce chemical euphoria, then the worst drug-dealing accountant in history has scammed us.
Meanwhile, the walls of my throat continue to close in. I drain a bottle of water in three gulps and head toward the coffee bar. The cold and wind has incited a 30-person deep line — stocked with bearded San Franciscans in sunglasses and scarves selecting among the Tesora Brew, the Greater Alarm mocha, the decaf Ethiopian or the ecstatic ice coffee. All seem excessively complicated, so I purchase a cup of free trade coffee from a nearby empanada stand — the one next door to the place selling $8 cups of vegan split pea soup. My cup is adorned with a map of the world and a sermon on the virtues of composting.
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I sit on a barrel of hay, rolling my eyes at a sign that says “Hey, hay.” There are puns that even I can’t condone and my throat is still sutured shut and my serotonin stays low. So I twist up a spliff and smoke it while watching an impromptu dance party detonate. Amayo, the lead singer of Antibalas, is rocketing around, smothered in white face paint and an outfit that looks like something that Jake the Snake would wear if he were from Lagos.
Antibalas are immaculately recreating vintage Fela Kuti funk, and a dance circle forms a few feet away. It’s led by three 20-something males wearing powdered wigs, cultivating their hipster Robespierre swag. There is a woman dressed like Charlie Chaplin who is freaking her girlfriend. There are several Vikings and a woman in a flaming red leotard. There is an Asian man with a bleached blond pompadour who is wearing a basketball jersey that reads “Van-Fleet Brown”; he’s executing moves usually only seen in viral dance videos. Then a gray Kris Kringle doppelganger comes out of nowhere and starts doing the twist in the middle of the circle. I stand up, stoned, and take several steps towards the stage. I take a sip of coffee and spit it out. It’s filled with hay.
* * *
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The kids are not all right. Maybe they were once, but I doubt it. Pete Townshend is a liar. You can’t trust a band where the coolest member is the drummer. Keith Moon never would’ve told you that the kids were all right. He was too busy drunk-driving into swimming pools, which on certain days seems like the sanest response to modernity. No one will ever spontaneously ram a car into a swimming pool again. It’s too expensive. Profligacy is out of vogue in an empire on the decline. The only way it could happen is if Converse paid Wavves and Best Coast to do it while sipping a Mountain Dew Code Red, eating a Doritos Locos Taco and simultaneously broadcasting it via Vevo, Instagram and closed circuit televisions embedded at every Urban Outfitters store in America. And even then, it’s doubtful. Do you know what the environmental impact would be? I’m sure you can find the answer on Wikipedia.
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If the kids were all right, they wouldn’t be at Justice instead of Neil Young. But the crowd at Hellman Hollow is equal with the gathering for old Shakey on the Lands End Polo Field. 90 percent are under 25. They are Indian-feathered, dreadlocked, face-painted, tank-topped bros and bra-less Kaitlyns. And they’re fucked up. Maybe figuratively, maybe literally. Maybe both. While the old man down by the river wails, they wait for the drop.
You can judge them, but you can’t blame them. They were busy being born the last time Neil Young was considered cool (even if the whole point of Neil Young is that he was never about being cool). And even though Justice’s Parfums de Coeur reeks of 2007, “D.A.N.C.E.” is going to do a better job making you move than “Harvest Moon.” And most of the crowd is berserk off that Ringwald.
I am not rolling. It turned out to be coke. This was confirmed when two of my friends hoovered the bag and didn’t stop talking for the next two hours. The numbness is now gone, and I am sober off of three spliffs and two beers. Things are getting excruciating. Neil Young & Crazy Horse are probably burning down the other end of the park, and Justice are standing behind a giant cross and pressing play on a CD.
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If you’re correctly wired, the French Ed Bangerites can be a dance party. I am with a group of seven, all a few years out of college and very faded. Most of them hate their jobs, make low salaries and are confused about almost everything. I can see where Neil Young howling about them-kids-with-their-fancy-doodads (loose translation) can be less preferable than a big dumb dance party.
The rave sticks leave a glowing stain across the sightline. The bass thumps with steroidal efficiency. Going forward, the money lies in escapism. So Justice play that first song from their first album that they still start every set with. There are only so many times you can say “fuck this,” but everyone’s phones are dead and there is no cell phone reception in the park and getting separated is surefire disaster. After 20 minutes of diet Daft Punk, I finally peel my ride away.
* * *
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Neil Young sings like he knows something about bunk drugs. He’s sounded like he knew about death, sadness, lost love and other ordinary ailments since the days when he didn’t. He has the voice of a man who sings songs to the ocean when no one is looking. This is my best explanation for the cover of On the Beach.
We’re a mile from the water and it’s very cold and Neil Young is feeding off of the tension. Mostly, he jams. He triggers howling guitar solos and his voice is craggy and he introduced “Cinnamon Girl” with the description “this is a song I wrote yesterday that sounds the same.” He is still wearing flannel, because Neil Young looks like he was born wearing flannel. He sings “Hey Hey, My My,” twisting his lips with wry irony. His elements are always warring—the sentimental romantic and the disgusted rebel. He was sarcastic when it was just called being a dick.
It’s impossible to avoid thinking about death when you watch Neil Young. The crow’s mane and scowl are replaced by wispy granddad hair and a permanent hunch. This is to be expected from a man who wrote “Old Man” when he was the age of the molly masses. Bob Dylan’s voice sounds he gargles with paint thinner. The Who play with their original rhythm section in the grave. And Mick Jagger looks like Steven Tyler, who now looks like a lady. Neil Young has aged slanted and enchanted like the Monterey Cypresses dotting the park, strung up with soft yellow lights.
The encore is “Mr. Soul.” Before Young leaves the stage for the first time that night, he tells the crowd, “clear your mind.” It goes silent for a breath and he smirks. “That’s easy.”
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Day 2: I Want to Roll Like the Guy in the Bear Ears
By now, you may have asked yourself: why the drugs? Can’t you or I have a good time without resorting to potentially dangerous stimulants, narcotics, and psychedelics? The answer, of course, is yes. If a band or rapper is gifted enough, they can entertain you sober (except Phish). But this is America. We fry Twinkies, we stuff hamburgers between doughnuts, we make $300 million movies out of board games. We are deranged maximalists. That’s the short way of explaining why I’ve just ingested enough molly to murder several mules.
Jump the fourth wall. All summer, major and minor publications pay a pittance to hacks and hobbyists to cover every single act of every single festival. It’s due diligence in case something crazy happens: a lead singer melts down, a stage collapses, a kid dies of a drug overdose. But those occurrences are rare. More often, it’s an excuse for a free ticket, an opportunity to glad hand, a paid vacation.
In return, you are expected to turn in some cliché-riddled batch of 100-word blurbs—where you break down every band’s outfit, think of a few esoteric adjectives to describe their guitar tones and make a few “clever” jokes. Maybe your editor gets cute and tells you to pick a random Chad or Allie, or the guy selling vegan Malaysian tacos, or a roadie to tell you THE REAL STORY. But fuck that. That’s not a real experience. That is manufactured copy. In three years, you will only remember the few mind-blowing bands, who you were with and what drugs you were on—if you’re lucky. The festival is a $300 guarantee to have a strange trip if you’re down. So if everyone is going to be on molly at a festival, I am going to do what the bromans do.
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Bros like Big Boi, but bros lurve Outkast. So Daddy Fat Sacks gives them what they want, which is the Outkast Super Happy Fun Hour. I don’t know what else Big Boi is supposed to do. He is one of the greatest rappers of all time and is playing before crowds of 20,000 people who just want to play hacky sack and scream “Hootie Hoo.”
Everyone knows what’s up with Outkast: there‘s nothing up with Outkast. While Andre 3000 perfects the art of shaving, it’s Big Boi’s fate to trudge on solo—before fans who demand the hits. Dude, AJ in the plaid shorts and stunner shades needs to “throw his hands in the ay-yair.” So Big Boi obliges, the good soldier, delivering double time raps backed by a 50-foot tall projection of Outkast videos.
Like all things inherently nostalgic, there is an aura of sadness. However, I am the only person in the crowd who seems to think so. Everyone sways and chants and phantom Andre raps on screen, and it almost feels like Outkast is back. But the headbands and flamboyant suits belong to the audience. Big Boi and a hypeman try to summon memories from a decade ago or more. It’s fun, and he’s an energetic, generous performer, and “Bombs Over Baghdad” still sounds a decade away in the future. But then he starts to play new songs, and someone mumbles something about how no one wants to hear anything made after “Hey Ya.” And Andre’s face remains enormous.
So the drugs have not begun to kick in.
* * *
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His name is Jackson. He loves Passion Pit. Like totally thinks they’re swag as fuck. He is 15 years old, decorated in white face paint, bear ears, and Native American buckskin, and he is running against the stream of people oozing towards the stage at Hellman Hollow. He can’t weigh more than 120 lbs. and he’s half drowning in the neon swamp. But Jackson is determined, even if his name may or may not be Jackson.
“PASSION PIT!!! PASSION PIT!!!”
Jackson lisps, Daffy Duck-style. The headgear hasn’t yet curved the overbite, but Jackson is plucky. Jackson is going to eradicate the minor speech impediment, and he is going to see Passion Pit, which is his favorite band. I keep fighting off the urge to call his parents to ask them if they know where their Jackson is. But they probably do. I imagine they live in the Noe Valley and he goes to the tony Urban School, and in roughly eight years he will wear nothing but sweaters.
The lead singer of Passion Pit is not in a sweater, but he’s close. He’s wearing an American Apparel-style cardigan, skinny charcoal jeans, a violet shirt and a blue and white stripe tie. His beard is neatly trimmed in the permanent shadow of the bad boy in a boy band. He sings like the sound of being strangled, but sped up.
Passion Pit make post-Vampire Weekend yelp-pop for a major label. The Columbia muscle helped their sophomore album Gossamer debut in the Billboard top 5. They have jumped from being Internet-famous to being the background wallpaper on Jackson’s Macbook. The lead singer is now singing the BIG single, “Sleepyhead.” The crowd foams, one spirit hoodie short of crazy—a heave of hoodies, plaid, snapbacks, glowsticks, flags waving, girls on shoulders, phones filming. Jackson is having the time of his life. He flails and fist-pumps, shouts PASSION PIT, PASSION PIT. Then he disappears into the crowd like it was an Iowa cornfield.
Okay. The Ziploc pouch is re-opened.
* * *
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When good E hits, it hits all at once, like fireworks exploding in your brain. That’s a pretty simple description, but molly is a pretty simple drug. Rare are the revelations and bad trips expected from psychedelics. It allows even white people to dance on-beat and makes you say uncomfortably emo things to everyone within reach. If some stranger tells you that they love you, they are either on molly or a missionary. Trust neither.
This is weak. The fireworks are more like sparklers, but the drugs have worked. I’m not on Cloud 9—more like Cloud 6. Sigur Rós is on stage, and any desire to dance is deadened by their hypnotic glacial soul. I am transfixed and grinding my teeth, and my phone is about to die. Spliffs are being burned to wring out any extra juice from the molly (simple mathematics).
These are the notes that I wrote during the set: Burst of glowsticks. Red smoke background. Mystical. Memory music lodged in the fat glands of your body. The wind has stopped. This is Al Green for white people. No, it’s not. Al Green is Al Green for white people. Sigur Rós is the best band in the world on Molly. Every band is the best band on world on molly. That’s sort of the point.
Day 3: Skrillex’s March to the Sea
“I might walk into the woods somewhere."
This is the first jag of eavesdropped conversation that I hear as I enter the park. The disembodied voice has the right idea. After three days of these festivals, you are alienated enough from normal civilization to blow off your day job and inhabit the forest—provided the savannahs sell plantain and pepper burritos with sour cream and cheese.
The only sensible option is to confront the Ginsu realities of the looming workweek with one final day of derangement. There are no ill effects from the mound of MDMA consumed the previous night. A late night cure for the speediness was administered via the based decision to order wonton soup at a Chinese restaurant. My fortune: you would prosper in the field of wacky inventions.
All afternoon, I cadge free Sierra Nevada after Sierra Nevada from the press tent. We kill the last particles of molly, which in small doses functions like Adderall. Everyone is feeling good. Especially the guy in front of me in an Ibiza shirt, who is trying to bond with a girl also wearing an Ibiza shirt. As I walk back to the polo field, I step in vomit. That madman Jackson has returned for his last stand.
Franz Ferdinand is named after an assassinated Austrian nobleman, but they’re from Scotland and are playing at the crack of 2:50PM. They have been around eight years, which might as well be 80 in the Internet era. They’re a band whose greatness is taken for granted since they have long ceased to be considered novel—even though they make Passion Pit look like poseurs.
Franz Ferdinand has been my uncle’s favorite band for the last half decade. Probably because they project a refined late-‘70s cosmopolitan cool. As though it’s totally okay to put on that smoking jacket. Lawyers need to be reassured of these sorts of things.
Franz landed one MTV smash with “Take Me Out” and has the common decency to neither close nor open with it. They slip it in casually towards the end, alongside “Michael,” “Do You Want To,” and others performed with smooth Glenfiddich groove. They play several new songs that sound like old Franz Ferdinand songs, but that’s fine. They’ve mastered the art of being Franz Ferdinand, an elegant bespoke band seemingly dreamed up by British GQ: filled with witty repartee and guitar lines as clean as their haircuts.
* * *
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The sun only emerges once all weekend. It is Jack White’s only obstacle. He explains that it’s “hard to play electrical equipment during the daylight.” Then he starts babbling about body heat. It’s White’s first major tour as a solo artist, and he’s succeeding in his unspoken goal as last rock star standing. No live act in rock is operating with this combination of virtuosity and vaudevillian flair. He is one of the few non-senior citizens on earth who can gainfully pull off suspenders.
White shreds through “Black Math” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” He understands that people want the White Stripes but has re-envisioned his songbook. He can turn an electric guitar into a bass or a synth or an act of war. He exhales a plaintive harmonica riff on “John the Revelator.” He plays bluesy piano ballads. He morphs “Hotel Yorba” into giddy-up rockabilly, using a steel pedal guitar that sounds appropriate for coffee with hay in it. His first words to the crowd are “Yeah, it’s like that.”
Three hippie girls in front of me fall into a funky blur, arms akimbo, elbows flailing, hands on their hearts. Between them, there are four rhinestone piercings, three butterfly tattoos, two Indian feathers and enough face paint for a Busta Rhymes and Hype Williams video. We share a joint, and they offer free hugs and tell us that they love us, thus proving that we were the only people all weekend lacking impeccable drugs.
The temporary be-in is shattered by when a tie-dyed, star-painted and stoned Deadhead pirouettes into a grizzled vodka-sozzled homeless man. They exchange territorial grunts. The hippie shrinks away and mumbles, “Whatever mannn.” Crisis averted. Then White plays “We’re Going to Be Friends;” the ashen hippie guzzles a 5-Hour Energy drink and invents a new dance somewhere between theBernie and the flight of the bumblebee.
* * *
I can’t lie to you. I didn’t see Skrillex. But I’ve seen him twice—thrice if you add the time I’ve spent on the GirlsThatLookLikeSkrillexTumblr. So it’s safe to say that I possess paranormal telepathic powers and you should totally trust my assessment about what went down. Believe no other publications. Accept no nonsensical hearsay or threats of libel. This is how Outside Lands ended in 2012.
It starts with Jackson. The Indian face paint had faded. He hadn’t slept in three days, feeding himself off organic fruits, fair-trade Persian pistachios and vegan nachos given to him by a charitable Malaysian. He had made spending money by passing out Mentos, the freshmaker before each day’s show. But no matter how much he loved Justice or Passion Pit, his swag was much more copacetic for the man with the roadkill coif.
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Enter Skrillex. The sky is immediately illuminated with enough glowsticks to power Las Vegas. Skrillex raises his fists to the sky to suckle all the delicious dubstep energy. Then he hurls his arm down like Zeus sending a lightning bolt. The drop drops. The bass hits. A wave of 40,000 ecstasy-jangled teenagers bobs up and down. Jackson has never felt more alive. Never before has he seen the cheap thrills of pornography so seamlessly transferred to music. Somebody has finally combined his twin 15-year old passions.
A Star Wars-worthy explosion of laser light ruptures the air. The crowd unanimously utters the phrase, “whoah, brah.” Skrillex smirks confidently and rubs his hands together a la Birdman. “My Name is Skrillex” thumps from the speakers. Everyone is in communion with their chosen one, Skrillex, the dubstep icon and Holy Broman Emperor.
The crowd writhes in ecstasy, the energy at fever pitch. This is exactly where Skrillex wants them. To shock them out of their slumber, he delivers the largest drop ever recorded in the geologic history of Golden Gate Park. The San Andres is activated. Over the loudspeakers, he instructs the crowd to march all the way to the sea—a dubstep swim to occupy Alcatraz, to protest against poverty, zoning laws that prevent the expansion of Hot Topics, and persecution of people with unorthodox hairstyles.
At that moment, no one in the crowd had ever felt more alive. Jackson understood that he had found his calling. He was special. Ten years from now, he would be headlining at Outside Lands, he would ensure that the WineLand never turns back into water. He would start every dance party. He would be free. This is what he thought through his entire swim.