Saturday, December 22, 2012

Coachella on the high seas

Hadley Freeman/The Gaurdian

Photograph: Gustavo Caballero/Getty
"There is something about a mass-market luxury cruise that is unbearably sad. It's maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it's not these things, quite. It's wanting to jump overboard."

Thus wrote the late American writer David Foster Wallace in a 1997 essay about his week on a luxury cruise, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

What Foster Wallace would have made of the SS Coachella, a music festival that had its maiden voyage last week, can, alas, only be surmised. But at least Jarvis Cocker, who headlined the festival with Pulp, was on hand to point out the occasionally startling gap between the concept of a music festival and a luxury ship, the Celebrity Silhouette, sailing between Florida and the Bahamas.

"If someone told us 15 years ago we'd be singing this on a cruise," mused Cocker about Common People – a song about those who pretend to be prolier than they are, now sung to a roomful of people rocking out less than a stone's throw from various duty-free Estée Lauder and Bulgari concession stands – "I'd have said, are you sure?"

Like Cocker, I, too, was initially puzzled about the SS Coachella, and one of the things that puzzled me was what the hell he was doing on it.

Other brain ticklers before boarding included whether an annual American festival associated with beautiful, monied, west coast hipsters could really lure its customers to spend $900-$2,000 (£550-£1,250) for a few days on a vacation mode more generally favoured by grandparents than festivalgoers – even if they included bands and DJs such as Hot Chip, Grimes, James Murphy and Pulp, instead of more traditional activities such as conga line dancing.

Also, wasn't this begging for a repeat of the Titanic disaster, of which, as it happens, this year was the centenary? Once again, we would have a giant liner carting around people brimming with self-entitlement and hubris. Admittedly, there would probably be a few more trucker hats and "ironic" tattoos than in 1912 but, really, have we learned nothing from history?

Happily, the SS Coachella did not sink. In fact, the ship has just finished the second leg of its tour, a round trip between Fort Lauderdale and Jamaica, with a new set of extravagantly hatted passengers but the same bands, Gawd bless 'em all, especially the exhausted-looking crew. As for the other questions, by the time the boat docked back again in Fort Lauderdale, most were resolved. But when we first boarded there last Sunday afternoon, hastily arranged into separate queues and brusquely informed not to worry about our luggage, it all felt terrifyingly unknowable. What on earth would a floating music festival be like?

The answer, it turned out, was like a combination of Las Vegas and summer camp, with what looked like the vast majority of passengers there more for the "sitting round the pool and getting buzzed on Heinekens" portion of the festival than the "listening to music" element, which, to be fair, is not unlike your average festival. But the imbalance felt more notable here as there were far fewer people on board than there are at your average music festival. When Pulp performed on the first night, organisers were so worried about how few people were attending that they temporarily shut off part of the theatre.

But it was hard to tell how many people were on the boat anyway. It certainly did not feel like it was anywhere near its 2,885 capacity and one Coachella employee told me that tickets had sold "um, medium well".

The problematic part of the equation of SS Coachella was not Coachella but the cruise. SS Coachella was extremely fun but cruises are, quite frankly, ridiculous and no amount of many supremely hipster activities such as "wine tasting with James Murphy" (of LCD Soundsystem) and "nail art with Alexis from the Sleigh Bells", which the Coachella people might gamely put on the schedule disguise this, especially if you have to walk past a store selling Chanel handbags every time you leave your room.

In fact, some parts of cruises are downright appalling. Let's talk food, shall we? Aside from the canteen-style Oceanview Cafe, where the food was included in the ticket price, there were various fancy-pants restaurants around with names that suggested in certain corners of the Celebrity Silhouette that it was still 1987: Tuscan Grille, Murano, Aquaspa.

Out of sheer masochism, my friend and I decided to dine at Qsine on our last night, where eating would be, we were promised, "an adventure". What it turned out to be was an irritation even greater than the name of the restaurant. Qsine resolved the question of what would happen if the Aberdeen Angus Steak House attempted to copy the Fat Duck with dishes on the menu (which was on iPads, obviously) such as "sushi lollipops" and "puréed cauliflower and apple". I could not imagine Jarvis partaking in Qsine.

And where was Jarvis anyway? Hot Chip were frequently spotted, playing with their babies by the pool or tucking into breakfast. But few had seen Cocker offstage and by the third day rumours began to abound. Someone saw him eating pizza on his own in the cafe. Someone else claimed to have seen him sitting in the hot tub at sunset. But really, his presence on this boat, which by the second night was beginning to feel like an outtake from The Hangover 3: Chaos on Water, seemed so improbable that some suspected he was helicoptered off after his set on the first night.

He would have left on a high if he had. Pulp's set was thrillingly good, and even more so for feeling so intimate (ie undersubscribed). Cocker, stunned at finding himself on what he superfluously mentioned was his first cruise, had fun with it, strutting like the classy front man he is and dropping plenty of "m'hearties" and "ahoy" in between songs fromDifferent Class, His'n'Hers and a semi-striptease during This is Hardcore. Then there was Grimes, who performed twice, and filled the cheesy Sky Lounge with songs so entrancing that some in the audience appeared to be having a religious experience and the ceiling's disco ball quivered. And it was lurking at the back of Grimes's gig on the last night that I resolved my final question, for there was Jarvis.

In his tweed suit on the high seas, Cocker looked utterly unflappable, even when surrounded by loud people all asking extremely irritating questions, including and not limited to "Can I take a Facebook photo with you?" and "Can you tell I'm from Australia?"

Had he had any qualms about performing on a cruise ship, I asked?

"Not qualms, exactly, but I didn't know what to expect, you know? But it's been good fun, hasn't it?" he replied. "And the gig was great because everyone was so close so you could see the audience for once."

But what on earth had he been doing for the past few days – learning nail art? Chugging Heinekens? Shopping at Bulgari? "Bits and bobs," he said, and then laughed: "Oh you know, I've been writing a novel."

No comments:

Post a Comment