At the Desert Hearts festival, a chance to escape life and start over

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Imagine a place in America without the bubbling turmoil of our political situation. A cloister where cellphones are useless, social media just a bad memory, and the only concerns about painful service cuts are whether the couple dancing next to you might offer a swig of their boxed wine or if you’ve got to run back to camp for your own.

The last time I went to Desert Hearts, the dusty, exhausting triathalon of SoCal dance music festivals, it was a little revelation: a 3,000-capacity utopia on a mountaintop Indian reservation where a small crew of deranged techno-hippies tried to make a new reality. In more optimistic times, it felt something like a way forward.

Last weekend, however, it also felt like a last resort.

For club-music fans across Southern California, 2016 was a body blow. Between the election and the Ghost Ship tragedy, it felt like the dream for a better, more inclusive future had been snapped in half. This year brought fans together with some new green shoots of activism. But you can’t stay angry all the time. Tension like this can’t hold forever.


This time, Desert Hearts had a twinge of what clubs in ’70s New York or ’90s Berlin must have felt like: When the world falls apart around you, there is solace — and maybe a bit of radicalism — in putting up your blinders for a few days and giving yourself over to another world.

The festival itself was pretty much the same as it has always been: One stage of relentless deep house and gritty techno, 3,000 fans in silly bangles and flowy tunics and about as little sleep as the human body can allow. The actual lineup wasn’t quite an afterthought, but it was definitely more mercenary this year, meant to keep the blood pumping so fans could make their own connections.

The Desert Hearts principals — Mikey Lion, Porky, Marbs, Lee Reynolds — looked like they needed this as much as anybody. Passing jeroboams of champagne, gender-bending in fluorescent wigs, hailing down the hundreds of pals and fellow travelers who made it out to this corner of the world: That was the real show they put on. Even when the sets were a bit fritzy (and many were), it didn’t feel like a gig as much as a stand to try to stop the world for a few hours.

Is doing absolutely nothing ever a radical act? Is decadence in a time of scarcity a kind of rebellion? A lot has been made of “self care” lately, usually bound up with a pitch to buy something. Desert Hearts isn’t cheap or easy (tickets and the necessary pack-it-all-in supplies will set you back hundreds of dollars), and the physical toll that that much partying takes can hardly be described as “care.”

But as much as the fight for civil rights, dignity and hope continues in America, sometimes the mind needs a hard reset. Unplug the darn thing and turn it back on in a few days . The world will be there back down the hill. But for 96 hours last weekend, Desert Hearts felt like a chance to burn it all down and start over.


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