Outside Lands

“They’re going up by the inflatable squid.”

It wasn’t until D-Man shouted this that I actually took stock of our surroundings. The squid? That tiny fucking squid way up there? It seemed a mile away, within the heart of chaos and excess. I figured we’d lose those two for the rest of the night. “Meet at the empanada stand if you get lost”, we had said earlier.

The scene was grander than I had imagined – more people, bigger stages. The only other time I was in a confluence of energy so giant was Munich, six years ago.

Odesza was impressive. It was what it needed to be. In a way, they delivered what I expected them to – positivity, movement, energy – and it was fulfilling. Seeing them was long overdue.

The shirtless guy, however? The nutcase chugging wine, doing brainless sketches with his bandmates between songs? Even with flowebrother’s insight, I wasn’t prepared for Mac DeMarco. He was a maniac. A carefree goon. An accidental superstar. I wasn’t witnessing a polished band play for a paycheck, I was watching a crew of pals – jokesters – simply making music and having fun. Bravo, Mac, bravo.


Day Two brought sunshine, and with it, steadily flowing beer. When we gathered the motivation to leave the backyard and head to the park, we arrived to the experimental sounds of Bon Iver. It wasn’t the vibe we desired – too calming. Give us something to move to.

We found it at Jamie xx. Mesmerizing, intense and unpredictable, he wasn’t there to cater to the casual fan; he was there to craft a genuine DJ set. He played songs I’d never heard; songs that made the crowd uncomfortable; songs that gave me flashbacks to warehouses in southern Spain.  He did not play two of his biggest hits. As daylight faded and darkness took over, he turned the crowd into a frenzy, and I loved it. Charley didn’t quite get it. Sam was a goner. Everybody was doing something.


It’s a surreal feeling to see a performer after they’ve only previously existed ever so frequently within your headphones.  Since I first learned about Tash Sultana, she has captivated me. Her energy, her spirit, her flare. I saw her come alive on that final afternoon, and she did not disappoint. As the sun set – physically on the evening, metaphorically on the festival – we tapped our feet to the vibes. It was tribal, passionate, authentic.

I never even saw the damn empanada stand.

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Played an escapade just like you

All it took was some traffic outside of Monterey for me to start second-guessing the trip. One by one, radio stations were cutting out. I clung onto a hippie based out of San Luis Obispo playing The Grateful Dead for awhile, but then I swung around a cliffside and he cut out too.

I wasn’t lonely. Just a bit bored. I’d made this same mistake before, forgetting to bring CD’s or make an offline playlist – misremembering what hours of silence feel like. They kind of eat at you.

I’d just left Santa Cruz – which was insane. Perfect waves – thick ropes, round and symmetrical, sucked kelp right off the ocean floor, but with so many people in the water complaining about all the people in the water, I gunned it for Big Sur.

A park ranger eyed my Hurley t-shirt wearily and said she did have an open site. A guy standing nearby looked shocked – told me I was lucky as hell. He had a potbelly framed by a sweaty baseball tee and a beer in-hand. He seemed friendly with the rangers and mentioned several times he was having a party later if any of us wanted to stop by.

I set up camp and drove down the road to surf before dark. There’s a current at the south end of Sand Dollar that whips you out into the lineup. It saves a lot of paddling but it’s disorienting. Within seconds I was a hundred yards out at sea – umbrellas shrinking into tiny, colorful dots.

The water was shallow and clear as vodka, but the more I looked, the more I disliked seeing the grains of sand beneath me, the peaks and valleys, divots, and caves. I felt my heart pounding in my wetsuit.

When I got back to camp, I met up with George, the guy with the baseball tee who looked shocked about my campsite. He said he had some, “tweaky bud.”

I followed him to a clearing where a fire was roaring. I expected to see others gathered around but there only a few dusty tree stumps. He handed me a beer and we started talking about Big Sur. George was from a town inland and used to come here as a grom for birthday parties, surf trips, or just to get wild.

“Now we got fuckin’ trailers rolling around and kids spilling out,” he said. 

The fire spit and George smiled slyly, the gaps in his teeth shining in the moonlight. He swung a bottle of vodka clutched in his right hand towards the night sky.

“We’re in fucking Disney World, man! We’re in the fucking blue tea cup goin’ round and round.”

He paused, as if lamenting a lost brother.

“But as least we’re in the blue tea cup and not the fucking pink one.”

George’s musings got increasingly more scattered. He asked if the moon ever reminded me of a frog holding onto a tailgate, told a story about a time he’d caught a fish to impress a Hawaiian, stumbled through a shitty joke, spoke dearly about his love of kayaking, and made me promise I’d look up a waitress in Lake Tahoe – his girl.

After a few beers, he was reluctant to see me go. I told him I needed to go write, and thanked him for the good fire. Truthfully, I was starting to wonder. He told me that the guy who was supposed to meet him that night was also named Duncan.

I brought my buck-knife into my sleeping bag just in case George turned out to be a nut, realizing that the weed was probably making me anxious – tweaky. And of course, I woke up the next morning to gorgeous sunlight and the sounds of kids squealing and RV’s beeping, and realized that we were in a fucking theme park – at least there were still a few of us weird enough to visit alone.

modern mixtapes

I flick my laptop open.

Music, stifled when the screen was last closed, resumes abruptly. It’s jarring when a song launches from the middle, like waking up mid-flight, momentarily unsure of where you are, where you’ll land.

I smash the pause button and punch in my password.

Unlocked, my screen is a collage of open windows, half-formed thoughts. Chrome with a stack of tabs – maps, unfinished articles, shamefully titled porn, swell reports, the Aftmth – all of which I close rapidly, not wanting to be reminded of yesterday’s highs and lows.

Spotify looms in the background.

I bring it to the front and scan the listening activity of my Spotify buddies – D-man‘s deep in an ambient playlist, flowebrother‘s stuck on some bad 90s rock, which I’ll give him a hard time about later, el gringo is doing his stomp and holler thing, Francois is playing Ciara, odd for him, but then again, the guy listens to a bit of everything. Most people are dialed into new Travis Scott.

I think about listening alongside D-man but quickly reconsider, I’m feeling too blue for the ethereal sounds of Tycho. If I go down that road I’ll probably end up with a joint in my hand and really turn my day upside down.

Nope. Instead, I scroll through my playlists, our modern mixtapes.

For decades, friends, crushes and lovers, shared albums and made mixes. We, music listeners and music lovers, expressed ourselves by cassettes, or through the prismatic shimmer of a scratched CD.

Now we use playlists, which allow for shared, disparate listening. Two people, or millions, worlds apart, can simultaneously jam to the same set of songs.

Which, of course, brings me to her. Back to her playlist. It’s what I select now, what I knew I’d be listening to before I opened my laptop.

Her playlist… it’s a mountain of alt-rock, that, according to time stamps, she’s been consistently piling for the past couple years. I tuned in a couple months ago, after meeting her briefly and finding commonality in our musical affections.

We have no contact outside of Spotify. We’re not familiar enough to text back-and-forth and I’m not engaging in the flimsy like-this, like-that tennis of social media. Our only connection, the only signs of her being out there at all, is every couple days she adds a song to her playlist.

And when I listen to that song, her newest jam, latest anthem, I find myself above my desk, a thousand miles away from Portland, somewhere in her atmosphere. I hear RKS wail and I can’t help but imagine her working in the coffeeshop she described, or aux-ed in on the drive to one of the weekly folk-rock shows she goes to. And overtime, patterns emerge. Moods take shape. This music, her playlist, is the soundtrack of her days. It stethoscopes her nature. She’s happy, she’s sad, in love, heartbroken.

In college, I’d sometimes ask girls I was sleeping with, or wanted to sleep with, what they were reading. That way, when time passed inevitably, and they disappeared from my twin bed or from that semester’s class, I could pickup the book and share with them the words on the page. To read the words they’d read was to participate in something together again.

Sometimes, feeling pathetic about my musical voyeurism, I snap shut my laptop. Get a life, quit listening to someone else’s. But curiosity and catharsis bring me back. Music has the capacity to fill (and yes, also widen) the voids of longing and loneliness. Not with her in mind or body, I can be with her in the shared experience of her playlist. In memories made, in futures possible, and now, above my desk, silently listening to the musical choreography of her days.

She’s just added a song. Let’s listen together.

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

Alberto Balsam

Pushing open the door of the Play It Again Sports in Portland, ME, I’m reminded of being a kid, eyeing the Vapor skates displayed on the rack, weighing a Synergy in my hands.

It’s a grey, New England morning and we’re on our way to visit my brother in Vermont, making a quick pit stop to sharpen our skates, and for me, an opportunity to record a Music That Moves Me Segment at Maine Public Radio.

We try on a pair of red and white gloves with an enlarged thumb to ward off vicious hacks, and then it’s time to head over, so I slip out, nervous to put words to something so wordless.

The studio is just two hundred yards from Play It Again Sports. There’s a good amount of snow on the roads so I clomp my boots out front, and suddenly I’m in the studio, in front of a microphone, watching the audio levels rise and fall.

“Want me to read from here?” I say, holding up a crumpled piece of paper.

The producer smiles, as if anticipating the question. “Why don’t you just talk to us.”

Washtown

To pass the time I scan the wall. Above the coin machine are flyers, stuck with sharp, metal tacks. There’s a poster promoting a liver detox, an ad for arigatou classes, and a photo of a sad-looking cat named Dwight. He’s been lost since Friday.

A woman in a khaki jacket sits across from me. She’s leaning back in a plastic chair, her iPhone perched upright in a wrinkled palm. I insert my ear buds, which are tangled around each other like jungle vines, and hit play on Elder Island’s feverish, twangy Bonfire. 

Inspiration comes at the weirdest times, no? Too often I sit down at a computer to write, headphones on, then headphones off, sitting, then standing, trying to squeak out something new. But when I have the time, nothing pools.

The woman across from me exhales and Jim James’ wobbling Here in Spirit starts to play. Truthfully, it’s the only protest song I’ve ever liked. I want to pump my fists.

The dryers click and whirl. My mind is moving, swishing through avenues of past, present, and future. I find it odd that it’s happening now, in Washtown, details jumping out like fireworks.

Bringggggg!

My clothes are dry. The woman in the khaki jacket coughs, wipes her nose, and heads for the exit. I start to sort through a pile of crispy t-shirts. The fluorescent lights descend and the playlist resumes, shooting me back up into space.