Text and image by D.B. Miller
The first time I saw her, lost to the music, I turned away and pulled out my phone. After a disingenuous sweep of the crowd, I stalled long enough to catch the sway of hips and hair, and a few twirls of the short pink skirt. I had no intention of sharing the footage—filming her was bad enough—but I found myself studying it, now and then, on the unsparing screen at my desk. I wasn’t sure if I had captured a cautionary tale about the indignities of aging, or a star. From behind, she looked twelve. Head on, twelve times five. But she danced by herself, danced with abandon, and strutted like she’d had decades to practice and not care.
When I spotted her a year later, up near the stage, I decided to say hello. Even in the darkened tent, she glowed—an effect of the lipstick, rhinestones or burning refusal to believe any of this was all for the young.
Train, tram, trek—by now I know the way. It’s my sixth Zürich Openair festival, the first that I’m hell-bent on hitting all four nights. I hang a quick left before the sewage treatment plant and start up the dusty path to the grounds. Soon a bassline absorbs the pops from a shooting range, and with a flick of the wrist-bracelet I’m in.
Some friends will be coming for Imagine Dragons, but for now I’m stuck with a burger, beer and wasp. I stop in front of the small styling tent, where three pros weave sparkles and streaks through the hair of those banking on a night to remember. I’ve always wanted Dutch braids, I think. The dozen women waiting their turn might in some contexts still be called ‘girls’.
A few seconds into The Vaccines, my first gig of the festival, I detect the familiar undulations to my right. Sure enough, my favorite pensioner is back, with her freewheeling chartreuse get-up and hair. I approach, attempting a few shouted greetings, and sashay back to my spot. My 1980’s-style moves demand it, I tell myself, as we dance not together, not apart.
There are open-air festivals of smooth skin and entitlement, of hearts not yet broken or hard—and there’s this. After a lush set from The War on Drugs, I gird myself for the vaguely porcine screams that I attribute, based on experience, to large groups of girls. The main stage area is packed, but I manage to locate the revelers in the front row. I squeeze in, ignoring the stink eye of more committed Imagine Dragons fans, and try to adjust to the mounting frenzy.
My ringleader-friend, seeing the band for the first time without her kids, prepares me, plus those in earshot, for the shirtless wonder ahead. “When you’re older, this is what happens,” she explains to the students behind us. In the thundering build-up to ‘Radioactive’, she yells, “I think he’s already got his shirt off,” and then, at a pitch straight out of Hitchcock, the kicker: “I wouldn’t even care if he voted for Trump.”
On Day 2, I pump my arms like a champion speed-walker and make it to Goat Girl in time. The clammy tent smells like barnyard, as usual, and I circle wide on the uneven grass. I take up my normal position, right near the barrier, to be able to see more than the backs of happier people. At some point during the set, I notice the rest of the crowd has backed up behind an invisible line, giving the poor band too wide a berth. With the dancing ‘star’ nowhere to be seen, I feel exposed to both band and audience. I keep my sways to a minimum and focus instead on the twangs and barbed lyrics—on the women doing their thing without seeking approval.
It’s hard to find people, let alone people I like, who are willing to block four straight nights for heavy carbs and toilet stalls. While that has never stopped me, I count as much on the fleeting company of diehards as I do the caliber of the tunes. Which is why, after a wildly mediocre falafel, I’m relieved to see another friend, who has come just for Kendrick Lamar.
She’s got a decade on me and knows his music, maybe as well as the girl on the shoulders of her mom. I can’t sing along, no call and response, but am content to listen and move. The body takes over and the instructions to dance come straight from the buckling earth. Through the electric shards of the beat and the lightning, I watch my own hand rise and wave back and forth, tracing the swollen sky.
The storm explodes on our way out, and no umbrella or poncho will do. On the train home, I see the teenage friend of my daughter, also soaked in the run from the grounds.
By Friday, I can hardly keep the line-up, timetable and train schedules straight. I bump into two more friends on the way, with another flying in from Vienna for the final two nights. We dodge the first patches of mud, roped off after last night’s storm, and try to ignore the edge in the air. Even she, donning the pink dress I’ve seen so many times before, has covered up with a sweater.
I’m too preoccupied to look for her in the Liam Gallagher gig and can’t find her in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s, either. While the mesmerizing singer takes full command of the tent, I break a sweat between a few gaping yawns.
On the last night, my friend and I pack the weatherproof gear and stop for hot soup along the way. The walkways sag, pasted with grit and used earplugs, and almost everyone looks embalmed. As we squelch through the mud, dumplings and churros in hand, I look but can’t find her.
We take shelter in a dance tent, where college boys chant the words to my favorite songs. We take shelter in the light show of alt-J, where beams turn the rain clouds to fire. Maybe she sat this one out, or took a night off, or is just too sensible to be out here, with us.
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