Youth in Retreat at Spring Awakening

The line at the water fountain was long and barely moved. Once they reached the front, each person took a few sips and filled up their bottle, cup or CamelBak. People trickled in and out of the bathrooms on either side of the line for the fountain — guys on the right, girls on the left — and even more people rushed around the end of the line in either direction, making their way along the main artery that wraps around Soldier Field.

“Don’t you have a bottle or something?” Diego asked me. Claudio stood next to him bobbing his head, chill as usual.

“Didn’t think of it,” I said. “I’ll hafta find where to buy a bottle of water.”

Diego nodded. He bounced to the music along with most of the others in line. Everybody was looking around at everybody, and everywhere I turned, guys and girls were undressed as though they’d arrived from some sweltering, futuristic planet.

In the center, beyond rows of seats, was a rippling lake of partiers, the throbbing heart of the action. Towering scaffolds rose up from the field, and at the front, the mothership: a giant stage covered with enormous flashing screens and pulsating lights.

Music shattered the air into infinitely smaller particles. I could barely make out the tiny figure standing centerstage behind a large black platform. Their head was down.

Diego tapped my arm with the back of his hand and when I turned he pointed his chin toward a concrete pillar at the edge of the seats. Sitting on the floor with her back against the pillar was a young blonde. Her eyes bulged out of her head as she chewed on a candy neckless, her tongue frantically corralling parts of the necklace that fell out of her mouth. She stared at the stream of people pouring past, most of whom took a few mental snapshots, like drivers slowing down to take in some gruesome accident.

I pointed her out to Claudio, who just smiled without stopping the bobbing of his head.

A middle-aged beer vendor made his way through the crowd selling 24-ounce cans of Coors Light for 10 bucks a piece. Not far behind him came a big black guy, also about 40, selling bottles of water. Dude looked ready to knock me out when I grabbed him by the shoulder to get his attention. I asked him “How much?” and he tapped a pin on his shirt that read $6.75.

As I made my way back to where Diego and Claudio were in line, a shady-looking dude heading the opposite way leaned toward me, stared me in the face, said “Molly,” and kept walking.

When it was Diego’s turn at the water fountain, a scrawny kid wearing tight shorts and boat shoes sauntered up to the front of the line holding a closed fist in front of him, palm up. “Can I go real quick?” he asked, his eyes half open. “I gotta take a pill.”

Diego glanced at the kid’s fist and said, “Yeah sure, man,” pulling his CamelBak away.

The kid filled his mouth with water, turned to the crowd, popped the pill into his mouth and strolled away, all in one dramatic gesture. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed the kid, but nothing.

The weatherman had predicted rain, and I was hoping we wouldn’t receive a classic Chicago drenching, even when the windshield saw sprinkles as I sewed my way down the Eisenhower earlier in the day. The sky had still been blue, the clouds still white and innocent. I took that it was sunny and raining as a good sign, for no reason other than my grandma once told me rain during sunshine was good luck. Something about baby deer being born. I’m old enough now to know how ridiculous that sounds, but no matter how many books you read, it’s hard to erase the nonsense forced onto you as a defenseless kid.

Driving from where I live in the burbs to the lake meant the usual 15-degree drop in temperature. I got to Soldier Field at about four — later than I preferred, but perfect timing for the people I showed up with. They weren’t there to cover the festival like I was and had spent most of the afternoon dragging ass. The parking lot seemed a lot emptier than the year before, and I chalked it up to the combination of a bad forecast and more public transportation riders, though I never really verified that.

We made our way down to the festival entrance under the overpass that has SOLDIER FIELD engraved on the side. When we had gotten out of the car Diego asked me if I could tell he had something tucked in his sock. I let him walk ahead of me to check, but I couldn’t see anything.

The others got in line while I made my way to the press tent to pick up my pass. Dude behind the table eyed me with suspicion, half expecting a wiry Latino mutt like me to be lost, drugged out or up to something — maybe all three.

“Hector Alamo, from Gozamos,” I said, removing my sunglasses and hanging them on the collar of my t-shirt, a douchy yet convenient way to store one’s sunglasses when not wearing them.

“What’s the name?”

“Hector? Alamo?” as if I didn’t know my own name.

“No, the name of the venue,” he said. “Doh—what?”

Goh-sah-mose,” I corrected him.

He nodded his head and began rifling through a box of white envelopes next to him. Pulling two of them out he asked, “Is your plus-one Sal García here?”

I pointed my thumb at Sol, who was standing next to me and is used to people messing up her name.

He checked our IDs and then handed us the envelopes. I opened mine as I walked back to find the rest of the crew. Inside were three blue guest bracelets, one for each day of the festival. Some young Latino kid stopped next to me when he saw me holding the bracelets and asked, “What’s that?” He wasn’t sure what I was holding since the normal general admission passes were orange.

“They’re press passes,” I told him without slowing down.

“How much are they?”

“What’d you mean?”

“How much?”

“They’re free.”

His eyes got wide but then narrowed.

“You have to apply for them,” I added.

“Man,” he said, still walking next to me. “I could wear it today and give it back to you right after.”

I looked at him like he was on crack, shook my head and told him that his plan wouldn’t work since I needed my pass to, you know, cover the event. Dude’s expression dropped, his shoulders sank, and he walked away.

Diego was still in line where we’d left him, but Claudio and his girl Laura had gone off to find another, quicker way inside the festival. When Diego saw the blue passes in my hand, he gave a confused look.

“Press passes,” I said. “For all three days.”

His eyes got wider than the other guy’s had. “Dude, you could sell them!”

“They have the days on them,” I said, handing him the one with FRIDAY printed on it.

He studied it for a second before handing it back to me.

“So what?” he said. “No one’s gonna fucken notice that.”

I just smiled and shook my head as I put my sunglasses back on.

SAMF costume

We waited in one of two lines that fed into a great migration of ingrates — club boys, cholos, douchebags, THOTs, stoners, roiders, jocks, bulimics, gays, homophobes, cokeheads, potheads, hipsters, atheists, Wiccans, slacktivists, PC police, gamers, larpers, misogynists, feminists, porn addicts, reality-show imitators and aspiring microcelebrities — all of them there to get shwasted, blunted, turnt up, blown, fucked up, tweaked, and hopefully some ass later on. Beyond them stood the retrofitted stadium looking like someone dropped a cruise ship on the Parthenon.

It took at least 20 minutes to get inside the place, which must’ve been too long a wait for this black dude who whipped out his veiny, purple dick and pissed in an empty Powerade bottle right there in front of everybody. A couple blondes dressed as hippies almost got slapped when they thought it cool to weave their way toward the front carrying a huge plastic sunflower as their standard. A gang of bicycle cops posted on the overpass chatted amongst themselves behind black sport sunglasses.

Half an hour later I was tearing into the best motherfucking chicken on a stick I’ve ever had in my life, which I got on a bed of pilaf for 10 bucks from a booth directly opposite a line of Porta-Pottys. We headed first to one of the stages erected outside the stadium and caught a set by the Turkish-Dutch DJ Ummet Ozcan. It was still too light out for people to be going H.A.M. just yet, and nearly every last person was swaying around. This blonde chick, one of those supermodel-next-door types, did her best to keep rhythm as she moved through the crowd, but ended up looking like an injured swan.

Sol pointed out a tiny Asian girl puking in the grass. Her ginger friend held her hair. The Asian was either wasted or tweaking. I would’ve thought the two were fresh meat in high school had it not been for the festival’s new 18-and-over policy, which is what had held up the line at the entrance.

About 15 paces from the two girls sat a fat, middle-aged man with his less-fat wife. They could’ve been parents of one of the artists. Most likely they were merely wrinkled relics of the early Nineties, Gen Xers who’d hoped to win the social revolution launched a generation before but eventually said fuck it, dropped their protest signs, and picked up their tv remotes. Now, when they’re not shopping for the best sunscreen or watching ABC, they come to music festivals to think of what was and what might have been. These two were there to see us have our fun while we still can, to watch us dance on the tracks as white-hot reality barrels toward us. I thought I saw a smile ooze across the bastard’s face when he caught me staring, as if to say This will be you soon enough.

It would. Not just me either, but everyone around me too. One minute we’re at Spring Awakening, the next they’re remaking movies from our childhood. Then it’ll be time for a chilling retrospection. And once we begin to reflect on the world and our place in it, we’ll start realizing just how much we’ve been bullshitted by the people who were supposedly looking out for us — teachers, parents, priests, the Democrats.

As veterans of a lost cause, they’ve all known for a while now that this generation and the one after it is fucked. When they tried to fix the world back in the Sixties, they wound up with assassinations, Watergate and the so-called Moral Majority. The Clinton years led to two wars and a second Great Depression borne only by the 99%. The election of our first black president wouldn’t prevent Ferguson or Charleston; in fact, it incited the violence.

Sure, you could point to how drastically things have changed since the Fifties, but I could just as easily point out how woefully things have stayed the same. We’re still debating abortion, for shit sake! Black lives are still disposable. People of color remain invisible. Chicago’s nearly as segregated as ever. Politicians still spend more on bombs than books. And a miniscule group of people enjoy gilded lives on the backs of over 300 million peons.

And that’s only in America the beautiful. Don’t get me started on Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa or Asia. Impossible debts, a crumbling education system, the profit-driven prison-industrial complex, ecological deterioration, religious fundamentalism and the Kardashians — soon the baton will be passed and Millennials will have to contend with all of it.

But not yet. For now the powers that be will come up with newer and newer ways to keep the youth from getting pissed off and ripping shit down. They’ll herd us up in these massive stadiums and let us zone out and dance our angst away. All that waits for the Millennial generation is the same thing that greeted every preceding one: heartache and disillusionment, another crashing wave. All we can hope for in the meantime is a few decent distractions to calm our march over the cliff and into the void….

Around 6 we headed to the main stage inside the stadium to catch Jack Ü at 6:30. Jack Ü is what DJs Diplo and Skrillex call their superduo, a fact I had pretended to already know when our group was mapping out a plan of attack for the festival. We all agreed to a strict schedule, since a strong dose of bright lights and warm feelings the year before had sidetracked us, leading us to miss Diplo’s set. We’d been kicking ourselves for it ever since. This time we had to see him.

As we made our way through the stadium we came across the Silent Disco, undoubtedly one of the highlights from the previous year. In a cordoned-off area partakers wore brightly colored headphones and were shambling around to what seemed to the passersby to be the distinct sound of nada. Had we not stumbled in there for a bit last year, we would’ve had no idea the Silent Disco offered some of the best music at Spring Awakening. We would’ve stopped for Round Two this time, but we were on a mission.

Photo: Spring Awakening Music Festival

Despite the line at the drinking fountain, me and the boys still had to wait for Sol and Laura to come out of the ladies’ room. They had taken their first pills — one each — and it would take at least half an hour for Molly to work her magic, by which point we hoped to be in the middle of Jack Ü’s set, and thus plunging into an uncontrolled delirium. It took us too long to get onto the field, as we couldn’t find our way out of the stands and were forced to join a train of revelers up, around and back down to the field.

The Molly hit Sol first. I only think that because she was the first to say, “I think I’m feeling it,” with a big cheesy grin on her face. Next came Diego, who danced a few yards away from us with his eyes closed and smiling. Laura puked in her mouth a little bit and quickly swallowed it. The Molly was making her nauseous, just like last year. Me and Sol gave each other disappointed looks. You can’t be worrying about anything or anyone when you’re rolling. Even letting your friend go to the bathroom alone isn’t advised, unless you want to spend the next 10 to 20 minutes keeping an eye out for them. The brain can’t juggle you looking after your friend on the one hand and the carefreeness induced by the drug on the other. You’ll give yourself a headache or, worse, it’ll fuck with your roll.

At that point we were dancing to DJ remixes of popular songs, still waiting for Jack Ü to start. Weed smoke floated on the breeze like the aroma of freshly baked cookies. When the duo finally took the stage it was to a song known in Chicago as the Bulls theme song, which I’m sure knows a separate existence somewhere else. That was followed by a rendition of “We Will Jack Ü.” A troop of white frat-boy types sang along behind us, adding a loud “off!” at the end of each refrain. Full cups of beer flew over the crowd as everyone danced as though they were auditioning.

Then I started feeling it, like warm plasma cascading down the inside of my body from my skull to my fingers and toes. I slipped into pulsating, multicolored lights spraying out from the stage. Music flooded my eardrums, the bass was in my bones. I was dancing automatically. Droplets of water splashed on my freshly shaved scalp. They grew larger and more frequent. Soon we were in a light downpour and the crowd unleashed an ecstatic roar. “This rain feels amazing!” Sol howled. I wrapped my arm around her and reached out my other hand to place it on one of Diego’s massive shoulders. He nodded at me real quick and went back to dancing and smiling at the sky, eyes closed. I joined him, savoring every raindrop that landed on my face, individually and all together. The rain was a sign of approval, that I was exactly where I needed to be at that moment in my life.

The moment would last for the next four hours, give or take. We stayed on the field through the following act — another Dutch DJ calling himself Sander van Doorn — waiting for Chicago’s own superduo, Flosstradamus. They must’ve come on at around 8:30, according to the schedule, which was about the same time we each took a second pill. We only stayed for the first 20 minutes of their set, as Diplo would be at the first stage at 9.

Just before we left the field they played “Flicka Da Wrist,” 2015’s equivalent of “Teach Me How to Dougie” from five years earlier. Everybody was doing the dance, or what they thought was the dance, which is easy enough and only requires that you occasionally roll (or flick) one of your wrists. I’m no expert at it, but I’m not bad either. As with all hip hop, a little rhythm goes a long way.

We glided through the players’ tunnel, high-fiving strangers headed in the other direction like a bunch of excited downsies. A ton of people were already crashing inside the stadium’s south entrance, sitting shoulder to shoulder on a stone ledge along the inner facade. In their hollow eyes you could see they didn’t want to be there anymore and were tapping out. They reminded me of tired commuters bumming around the Great Hall at Union Station, waiting for their trains back home. Across from where they sat on the wall, however, the Silent Disco was still turnt up, driven by spite toward those who couldn’t hang, fueled by a seductive cocktail of good drugs and good music.

Diplo began his set just as we got to the bombastically-named Equinox Stage. The lights were too bright to actually see the man, but I remember him saying something like, “I wanna thank everybody who was at the Jack Ü performance earlier. That shit was crazy!”

What followed was a whirl of light, sound and color. I was in a freefall with no up or down, where the material world dissolved into luminous energy and music became the only discernible language. My physical envelope was left behind on a frantic autopilot as the rest of me — the actual me — became an extension of the lights and music, doing whatever they did. Not merely responding to them, but moving and feeling symbiotically.

I flew toward the beginning and end of everything, only occasionally aware of how retarded I must have appeared to a normal person — mouth hung open, constantly licking my lips, eyes wide and staring at nothing, like I’d had my forehead dented in. I didn’t care: I couldn’t care. Every attempt to regulate my face proved useless, as I immediately slipped back into a euphoric stupor.

Photo: Spring Awakening Music Festival
Photo: Spring Awakening Music Festival

Then the music stopped and the lights returned to normal. Had it been an hour already? The crowd turned around and started toward the stadium. We followed the mob instinctively. Suddenly we were being squeezed through a narrow doorway by our collective lust for more music and lights. Sol grabbed my hand but the rest of her quickly disappeared in the crowd. Another girl got pressed against me so tightly I couldn’t tell what was me and what was her. We smiled at each other, our noses only a few inches apart, as the crowd surged forward step by step, packing together tighter as we neared the door. A girl three people away shrieked, “My feet aren’t touching the ground!” causing more screams and wails to rise up from the frantic mass. My ribcage became constricted and I puffed up, desperate for enough space to breathe.

With one deep groan we crammed through the door and spilled out the other side. I had to scramble out of the way of people pouring in behind me. I regrouped with the rest of the clique and we headed back to the main stage.

By the time we were on the field, Hardwell was already a third into his set and the Molly was wearing off. Coming down from Molly is like falling out of love — you recognize the glow dimming, and you know that as much as you don’t want it to, the spell is lifting. Only in hindsight can you pinpoint the exact moment the party was over.

It ended for me around 10:30. By the time Hardwell said goodnight and the stadium lights came up, we were ready to dip. Our only complaint was that it had all happened so fast.

We headed up the stands and stopped to sit in the last row of seats. Sitting felt better than sex. People shuffled past us as others trickled off the field. Lord knows how long we would’ve sat their peoplewatching had it not been for one of the workers coming up the aisle and kicking us out.

Everybody, including me, thought it absolutely vital that they high-five the attendants standing at the gates on the way out. It was raining again, or maybe it had never stopped.

Out in the parking lot, Diego volunteered to drive, which was fine by me and everyone else. We decided to head to Wicker Park and see what we could find. Evil Olive would be pretty badass tonight, but if we didn’t want to pay that much for cover, there was always Shambles. We only needed a dark room, bright lights and beat. Maybe a little sticky, to make the coming down not so depressing.

Our excitement evaporated into dread when Diego swerved onto Lake Shore Drive and nearly slammed into a car.

“What the fuck!” I said from the passenger seat as the car jerked to the right and the other driver pounded his horn.

“Oh, shit!” Diego said, eyes zombie wide. “My bad. I didn’t see him.”

“What’d you mean you didn’t seem?”

“I don’t know! It’s hard to concentrate. But I’m good now.”

“Fuck, I hope so.”

I sank back into my seat and gazed at the street lamps flashing past. Music from the radio massaged my brain and my eyelids grew heavy. The world rushed by all around as we sat their wondering where we were going, or if we’d even get there.