The atmosphere was intoxicating. A proliferation of smoke was brought to the forefront of my awareness by the scents of tobacco and cannabis, giving way to pungent notes of amyl, alcohol, and sweat only when carried away by an all too rare breeze.
Within the sea of people, the air was stale and warm. One could only breach the surface by standing on their toes to take a breath of anything that wasn’t an odious mixture of carbon dioxide. My shoulders were pressed against five other people; personal space was a foreign concept here. I was in Melbourne, Australia, standing among a crowd of hundreds in solidarity. I was in the suburb of Footscray at Laneway Festival. I was in my element.
However, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of anxiety; I had never been outside of the country in which I was born, the United States, until less than one week ago. In this respect I was very much out of my element, and so that day I decided to integrate with my new surroundings and groove to some of my favourite musical artists in a setting that felt at home, a music festival, albeit without any friends to groove with.
The social animal within me yearned for some kind of human contact, so I was relieved to find that mingling with the people around me was unusually easy; we all shared a similar taste for music, which in addition to their friendliness, is how I took so well to Liam and Steph, two larrikin Aussies going to university in the city. As a solo festival attendee, I was thrilled to be passing the time between Anderson Paak and Mac DeMarco’s sets in their company. We celebrated the conditions that had brought us together and talked of travel and past music festivals between sips from a yogurt tube Steph had filled with vodka. I felt a sense of accomplishment having secured acquaintanceship.
Suddenly, Mac took to the stage and the mingling ceased as he instantly captivated the crowd with the vaporwave synth hooks and crooning vocals of “On the Level”. Yesterday’s dream of seeing one of my favourite artists live had become today’s reality with the impulsive purchase of a ticket to Laneway. At the apex of charisma, talent and showmanship, Mac is a model entertainer. He had also released one of his best albums, This Old Dog, just last year, making my decision to leave his set midway especially painful. Furthermore, I would be leaving my only companions in the country, and a visceral feeling told me that I would not see them again. But I had also come to Laneway with the intent of attending a set on the opposite side of the festival happening at that very moment.
As I tore myself from the stage and began to make my way through the crowd, Liam’s parting words rang clear above the noise of the audience: “Don’t change who you are”.
This didn’t strike me as overly sentimental, because although we had only known each other for less than a couple of hours, our substance-affected mental states made it so that love flowed freely. Furthermore, I had been conditioned to consider this phrase as a truism, a banal mantra highlighting the importance of authenticity, that rang as validation when offered by another person. I regarded his choice of words as gratuitous, if not a bit cliche. However, as I continued through the crowd, I was struck by how inapplicable those five words were to my current situation. I had only a slight sense of my identity and had left my country in a bid to discover who I was. Remaining true to oneself implies the presence of a self-identity, a construal assembled by a series of memories. As I considered this, it seemed apt that the chorus of “This Old Dog” began:
This old dog ain’t about to forget
All we’ve had, and all that’s next
‘Long as my heart’s beating in my chest
This old dog ain’t about to forget
I stumbled through the audience as I mulled over these lyrics and my final encounter with Liam. I began to question the value of authenticity and kindness and the purveyance of wisdom, when such wisdom was only valuable inasmuch it related to me. And how severely inefficient and ambiguous matras were in their attempt to reduce guiding principles to only a few words? Don’t change myself? Not only did I not wholly comprehend my sense of self, but the phrase seems to contradict the importance I assigned to personal growth.
All while these thoughts raced through my head, I was speeding towards Laneway’s east stage where I would soon arrive to witness one of the most iconic shoegaze groups entrance a hillside of festival goers. Seeing this band was a massive occasion, not only because they had recently come off a 22-year hiatus to release new material and tour internationally, but because their immediate presence was gloriously preternatural. As I entered their sonic sphere of influence, the turbulence within my mind subsided.
The band was named Slowdive. To view the stage on which they played was to gaze into a dream; the place was bathed in a fog, begetting spectres of diffused light that slowly drifted among four silhouetted figures. Even more spectacular than the vision before me was the sound that poured from the stage, and greater still, I thought, were the minds that brought the sound to life. Between them, they were constructing an unscaleable wall of sound that grew infinitely taller and wider with each passing moment.
In one of those moments, I was convinced that this was the kind of music that would save the world. There were no lyrics to construct language barriers, and the entire composition seemed to manifest the controlled chaos of human experience; droning guitars reverberated wildly in space, guided through time by the unfailing pattern of drums. Reflecting on this feeling now, I realize that my appreciation for art, regardless of its form, has been conditioned over 21 years of being. The music emanating from the stage was no more and no less spectacular than any other miracle. Majesty is subjective; to understand this is to understand that there is beauty in everything, whether that beauty be perceived by myself or another.
But the version of myself who sat upon the grassy knoll overlooking the east stage didn’t consider this. I was completely spellbound, until the beating of drums suddenly stopped with a final, resinous downbeat. The guitars ceased and left a slowly dying echo to hang in the air. As the shadows on stage separated from their instruments and as the echo faded, so too did my feelings of serenity and bliss, leaving a void inside of me.
Feelings of frustration and remorse crept into the void. I traced them to their origin; these ugly feelings were a symptom of covetousness. In the short time that Slowdive was onstage, I had a glimpse of divinity. The vision disappeared as quickly as it came, and I wasn’t prepared.
I sat stunned for a moment, lamenting the fact that I had left Mac and the only social ties I had in Australia to see a five-minute show. I waited for the next and final set of the night alone.
That last set was put on by Pond, an Australian psychedelic rock band whose booking at Laneway compelled my ticket purchase. Even their presence and otherworldly sound couldn’t subdue the discursive thoughts that ran through my mind: thoughts of my desire for companionship, of the ethereal nature of relationships, of Slowdive and temporality, of life, existential conflict and my blind, desperate attempts to grasp the significance of it all. I wondered how it was possible to feel so lonely in a city of four million people.
As a distraction, or another hopeful try at making a personal connection, I struck up a conversation with a Pond fan beside me. She was finishing school and would be traveling to America in a few weeks.
“It’s really not that different,” I told her, “here and America that is. We’re all just people.”
“Same people, different places,” she agreed.
It was not until a month later that I found more eloquent words to convey the truth of that reply, declared by none other than Carl Jung: “We meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises on the path of life”. She left the set early, and that was that. I texted Liam and Steph after the festival, suggesting that we should meet up, only to never see them again. Despite having seen some of my favourite bands, I left Laneway with a sunken heart.
As I continued to ruminate over my time at Laneway days afterwards, I came to terms with my experience. Some things are out of my control. Sure, I’m self-determined, but I will never find peace among the tumultuousness of life if I do not learn to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and become wise enough to know the difference. A friend once told me that every person I come into contact with, no matter how short the interaction, adds colour to the palate that is your personality – a splash of paint to the canvas of your life. To have simply attended Laneway and met the people I did that day was a blessing.
There is no point in lamenting the decisions I make and the friends I don’t. The only moment that exists is now, and right now I’m thousands of miles from “home” as I attempt to create a new one.
And upon reflection, I realize that I began building a home in the laneways of Footscray that summer day.
Written by Jackson Lembke