By Jacqueline Howell. Photos by Dave MacIntyre with Jacqueline Howell.
In our new series about traveling for live music, we’ll discuss live music that forms the basis of our travel, feature in-depth or capsule live music reviews of shows and festivals and review these unique experience of travel done our way: off the beaten tourist path, loosely planned wherever possible, and with appreciation for local culture, flavours and random discovery.
Pasadena is an appealing L.A. suburb which is probably best known to outsiders for its Rose Bowl and for my generation, the site of Depeche Mode’s legendary 1989 concert / live album / concert film Depeche Mode 101. “Good Evening, Pasadena!” (shouted in our best Rock Star) was the defining theme of our months leading up to our first-ever trip to the West Coast. We could see that Pasadena seemed somewhat walkable (something we are used to at home and the great benefit of all safe, walkable cities) and had all the conveniences that make travelers comfortable and the transition easier, but with a too-easy familiarity that makes the need and effort to find “real culture” of a given city a more deliberate one. There’s Starbucks, as it often is, in strip malls and in satellite form at major hotel chains that are the same everywhere as a matter of branding. There are the chain restaurants that blanket the globe, and there are uniquely American ones, regional and California ones, and there are real places – mom and pop shops, diners, what we think of when we think of finding America. More on those later.
We visited for a short trip built, like most of our trips are, out of a combination of writing and photography and a very short vacation. In our loose plan to see at least one new festival in a new place once per year – which evolved this year to mean several trips including one especially to see The Cure in a new city / one-day festival of Robert Smith’s own design – the L.A. Pasadena trip was to be even more unique for us, combined with a reunion with an old friend from back home, and her daughter we’d not seen since she was small. All of us are big fans of the Cure and so the trip was planned as a reunion and celebration of all of these milestones, and for some, a correction of time too long away from live music.
For the day-job having music traveler on a budget, you find that you are naturally driven for reasons of time and economy away from the norms of international or even typical vacation travel. While conventional thinking (much of it leftover from an earlier time when trips were always thought of as once-in-a-lifetime, an almost aberration / lottery-win) would dictate that Canadians must do three weeks and propel themselves on fumes to conquer all of the U.K. and half of Europe (or not at all) or that a trip to California MUST include the brutally expensive and highly-specific sort of exhausting fun of Disneyland, Universal Studios, Star map tours, and the reportedly seedy & sketchy downtown stretches of the Hollywood Walk of Fame X 8 or 10 days, there is another way, a better way, for folks like us. Our kind of travel also allows for a moment of radical rock star weirdness to friends and co-workers who live differently. “You’re going to California? For FOUR DAYS?” That look alone is worth the jet lag. (Sorry to disappoint, but I have no answers for jet lag, and my jet lag is another story shared with me, one stoic traveling companion, sometimes passing strangers in random airports, and more intuitive Uber drivers.)
Pasadena Daydream was announced in April amid a steady stream of announcements from The Cure who’ve been on a beautiful 40th Anniversary buzz they’ve shared with their fans in far-flung & more expected places for the past year and a bit. The Cure lives outside of time, adhering only to the 40th in their fluid, spiderwebby way. Around now was the first time we played a gig as The Cure. This is close to the release date of that record or single. (A band races to play 10:15 Saturday night at that time). And, one feels in her bones, a number of quietly acknowledged and rarely spoken private milestones beheld like contents of a locket by one of the most romantic bands left alive, who thrive and are in their finest form in decades despite any of the ravages of life, or time.
During the second year of the anniversary period, The Cure is still on a beautiful, elegant, and quietly ass-kicking roll. They were always different, and they still are, now with the keys to their own kingdom. They produce their own music, on their own schedule. There will be a new album, sometime soon. When it’s ready. Hyde Park was a legendary day in July 2018, and it was made into a globally screened concert film by Tim Pope, which the whole world of Cure fans watched on the same day, as close as possible to the anniversary, of the anniversary show (you see?) We will always treasure that we were at Hyde Park in London last year with 60,000 others singing out loud, and this year, in the cinema reliving it (by kismet, no planning needed) with Toronto friends who also attended Hyde, who love and pursue Cure shows both at home and anywhere else they can afford to go.
When you start to indulge the strange little voice inside that beckons you forth to do offbeat, tourism-free, bursts of music-based travel, you get the nagging in your gut that often must be ignored (though Scotland seemed like the magical one, maybe) and occasionally is given into. You run, or pretend to run, on a clock and a map that is radically different than the one you were shown as a child. You listen to signs and invent the same, and so you have to use care with such invented mysticism and calls from the universe. Sometimes the universe seems to be shouting. Occasionally it warns you to stay home. It runs free of life’s ups and downs and the unforgiving inflexibility of airline commitments. It’s a bit of a risky way to live. But it’s living.
Due to traveling with friends who were getting their first passports, old friends who (along with myself) always liked to obsesses over details as a way to look forward, the plan for Pasadena was different than our other music trips as a couple and the simplicity of answering only to ourselves and our weird, self-invented photo-journalism ways. All spring, I indulged myself in endless hours looking at suitcases and backpacks (for carrying on as well as a festival day bag) and mapped out where IN-and-OUT Burger and Target were, only to end up with my old (fine) suitcase and in the end, missing ample chances to try the Double Burger with Animal-Style Fries. My friends joining us have less travel experience but are yet more focused, becoming able packers and clear pre-planners – with foreign airport transfers booked months ahead while I laze into my usual Uber mode.
The Pasadena / Daydream plan is the sort people need to get through a long, dark spring in the northern part of the world, where short days and inconsistent weather including snow, ice, sleet and cold rain feel like a seasonless purgatory for 8-5 workers. And it gets us through. My friend and I find each other late at night in chats that need only the same Cure gifs we overuse as private shorthand or a line of a song to set our tired hearts right. And we all feel romantic too – not that we’d ever admit it. New tattoos to mark the occasion are planned, and in some cases carried out. Some of us can just never decide, or should maybe stick to T-shirts. All summer, while The Cure snakes through Australia, Japan, and headline almost every major UK and European festival at a pace we can only marvel at, we stay close to home and look forward to the end of summer. Pasadena Daydream will mark the official end of a band’s summer season, and at the precise end of summer.
And so it unfolds.
Here are the most important and most romantic things I take from that trip, that was over planned for the good of our spirits and under executed due, in part to jet lag; that led us down magical roads of stardust while we never saw any hand prints in cement at all; and where the Hollywood sign was just a distant blur in the smoggy fog spotted from a freeway, captured in a photo I had to define as “alleged”.
Pasadena Daydream is a smaller, two stage, well-curated line up of bands who make sense together. The scale and scope of the thing is one that ought to, and I think will, set the new bar for what festivals in North America should be aiming for and a format that can be scaled logically within most budgets whether in rock clubs, city parks or stadiums. Look at what The Cure did, organizers in Canada and U.S., and even modest capabilities. We dream of being part of such new festivals here at home, where we truly need to embrace the very British “one-dayer” in all its perfection. It must be noted that the promoter / administration at the Pasadena venue (getting in during record high heat waves on melting tar) has been widely criticized by attendees, and rightly so. We’ve been to a lot of festivals – mostly, but not only at home – and never seen such disorganization, lack of signage or void of people in charge of making sure customers have the few arrows to what they need to enjoy themselves or be wrist-banded correctly to access areas, a gap in organization creating rough and avoidable situations for too many. Time is money, and too much of it is spent in lines, full stop, to enjoy the first half of the day. There are long lines everywhere, VIP seems oversold and inconvenient, and it becomes difficult to enjoy any of the day’s offerings besides the bands themselves. We’ve avoided complaining about festival logistics in the past, but the things we and others experience here are especially frustrating both as they are easily correctable and also because they serve to undermine the good aspects of the day and take some time to recover from (physically). Logistics like this do a disservice to the bands and the name atop this whole thing, something all of us fans are protective over and believe in unconditionally, too.
The festival occurring on two stages, on the other hand, is executed very effectively. Here, it’s apparent that the people in charge of this side of things are more than qualified. While the always excellent and tireless Twilight Sad has some frustrating sound problems during their set, most of the rest of the day goes smoothly, and while internet service is patchy, attendees and a few media-types are able to exclaim about the excellent time had, notably at the reunited Throwing Muses, who bring an impressively devoted draw who’ve waited for this as well as followed Kristen Hersh’s extensive solo work.
Unwilling to travel anymore, we settle for the rest of our day with views of the main stage, where Deftones, Pixies, and The Cure deliver lengthy, flawless performances and crowd positions are found and held onto for dear life. We work out an awkward, mobile-less field system of landmarking with our friends, knowing I sound like my father back in another century, but putting in the time so I can at least find my oldest friend doing her one of a kind dances to “Caterpillar Girl”, which she is. I think, then, and later, of my friend Craig, who once united three groups of us in the pitch dark in a mass of thousands with no landmarks at all but with blinding lights and pyro coming from a faraway Prodigy stage, somehow intuiting a certain garbage can and eyeballing metres like the skilled tradesman he is, working a miracle of boy scouting, helping Dave find us all the way back there from the photo pit where he shot his bucket list band while dancing compulsively. Such achievements are what help define these experiences, when the frustrations, the money splashed out, and the sunburn fades away. These little wins make us real, proud music people.
One can evaluate the success of a live show, in a certain sense, by the churn of the crowd. The churn is minimal on this beautiful evening, especially as the sun starts to relent and Pixies deliver a headline-worthy epic set of 25 songs. I say this as a Kim Deal / current day Breeders and early Pixies devotee, they kill it. “Wave of Mutilation” is still my anthem in my heart. Find me another such line that you can dance through a crowd so (obscenely) happily uttering aloud: (sung breezily, without a care in the world):
“They think I’m dead, but I sail away…on a Wave of Mutilation….Wave of Mutilation….Wa-a-a-a-ve. Wa-a-a-ve.”
In moments like that, your enemies are more than just thousands of miles away and behind you. They are in another orbit, and you are free. The Cure, in their quietly vampiric-romantic fashion, through planning this day as they did, tonight honour their contemporaries, Pixies, with an almost co-headline length set. It has all been done, one thinks, to remind all who remember outside of time as we true music believers live, of the triumphant 1989 Prayer Tour, when Pixies opened for The Cure on their US dates through the shimmering, meteoric heat of the instantly iconic Disintegration. At home, people who forget or wish to believe that the best is behind us for alternative music (or for culture) circulate The Prayer Tour poster online for likes. But we are free of nostalgia. We are all here, tonight. In the hard-won moment. Despite health concerns, fear of travel, sadness and stresses waiting back home, or the constrains of money itself.
One of the only drawbacks of Hyde Park (like Bestival Toronto before that, when the sun had the bloody nerve to beat down on Robert, Simon, Roger, Reeves and Jason, each clad in defiant black and gravity immune hair) was that the time of early /midsummer they occurred meant our heroes had to appear before the earth turned to meet them at the appointed time of dusk-where-dark-falls within minutes. Magic hour. But tonight (as me and my friend obsessively figured out a month ahead of time) the fading season is at last ideal for The Cure to take the stage.
This is a band who needs no extravagance or welcomes-to-the-stage, but we are in the age of necessary high-calibre screens and we appreciate the attractive effects, and tonight for our first time live, we get to see these things done to full effect (reportedly Bestival Toronto in 2016 was an early test / debut for the new feature, one interrupted by weather and sound issues outdoors, as well as having a limited impact due to that infernal daylight). Everyone, now, standing at every corner of this large golf course-by-day, can enjoy some sort of view. Everyone gets the full show, even if getting close to the stage is just a myth for most of us who like to eat, drink, move and get merch. The Cure is perfect tonight, the set not unfamiliar to those of us who’ve imbibed to near-overdose all summer on the joy of official live streams and secreted BBC footage, watched and cheered from our homes in midday from across time zones with dregs of old wine in hand at solo parties before the triumphant shows in Sydney, Glastonbury, and Rock en Seine.
This is the capsule of emotions and memory I write post-show through jet lagged ( / panic attack) tears, for social media in a writer’s sleepless hours. I have learned to find the romance in life, all of life. It took me ages. We who found all this music long ago in the unromantic circumstances of young loves, follow the sounds of romantic music like a beacon. There can be no regrets. Enough of all that:
Trip comedown well underway, even while still here, as friends leaving early am. We’ll never forget you, Pasadena, your lovely warm people, The Cure’s music ringing as perfect & timeless as ever in the dark summer night, our special reunion with our dear friend & her beautiful daughter and your palm trees.
Nothing is perfect. Travel is hard. Nervous excitement is exhausting. Some caterpillars bite (true story) real, authentic Diners (and the people who understand real food) still exist. American people are good & full of heart, and almost every single local person we’ve met here has the kind of faces Tr*mp & co. would disgracefully target. Shocking. Real America will not be bowed by hate or politicking. We heard none, we felt none, we were in a safe place – while a part of my mind finally admitted much relief that no shots rang out, in a large gathering such as it was. Whether in range or in earshot, it would have destroyed me.
When your hotel room is positioned just like your childhood front doors were for 20 years with your friend you are seeing for the first time in a decade, it is a sign.
Home is in your hearts. Like love, Music is immune to time, age, trends, loss or polar ice caps melting. It is tribal, transcendent, primal, religious. There are 100 ways to enjoy a festival, none of them wrong. Many of them bumbling, costly, time-wasting. It’s OK. You were there. Your very own words brought your own new group of near strangers here, now. And nearby, swirling around you, are eight-year-old wild-eyed children playing hide-and-go-seek in the dark in the crowd during the music that defines your personhood, which makes you finally relax, ignore your programmed tension and be fully present, in that magic. That’s what you’ve been looking for since you were their age, and before, it seems. That’s what you will keep. A souvenir, worth all of it. All of it! Those kids are not a strange family of four like you thought but really total strangers who had become a gang for a moment in time (not) lost in the dark. They insist with their peals of laughter that they can’t hear inside their giant ear protector headsets, this music of their parents’ youth the backdrop to their own burgeoning lives, that your worries are but a sand trap, everything will go on and real life is organic, sustainable, innate, stubborn, messy and beautiful.
And through this trip and all the best laid plans I am reminded that kids often want nothing more than endless hours in a bathwater warm swimming pool in the endless sun. For we rarely get strong, endless sun in the north. A pool that is almost private. It’s never, ever warm as bathwater in our north. Teens are right to maximize their time in the sun and under the moon, they are banking it for the long Canadian winter not far enough ahead. They are pretty smart.
Here are the unplanned discoveries we made in Pasadena and our short time going through downtown LA en route to LAX:
ANDY’S COFFEE SHOP: 1234 East Colorado Blvd. Pasadena
Located on a quiet stretch of the old Route 66 that runs through Pasadena, we visited Andy’s twice for full, hearty, traveler-fueling breakfast, avoiding the hotel restaurant & fast food chains. This is a classic, authentic diner and a place where locals eat. The prices are reasonable and the menu is large, as are the servings, and the coffee is of course, bottomless, a detail almost forgotten in today’s climate. Andy’s offers all manner of classic diner fare and was the perfect place for morning after Huevos Rancheros. While the dish is a staple in the few diners that remain in our part of the world, Andy’s felt truly authentic, with style and fresh tortillas to spare. Like true diners and the best authentic eateries everywhere, Andy’s dining room and kitchen are run by long time restaurant pros who’ve worked together for a few decades. It felt like home.
CANTERBURY RECORDS. INC.: 805 East Colorado Blvd. Pasadena
A man who’s stayed with records through more than a few music format changes tells me without apology: “We don’t have T-shirts or any of that stuff.” I’m a hopeless tote bag collector and now slip mats have become an easy and useful souvenir, and they have none of this stuff for sale. We’ve stumbled onto this record shop, a real one. Two large rooms carry a wide inventory of original pressings and quite on point reissues from the range of genres only possible for older record collectors and surviving record stores. I’m drawn by a range of very inexpensive Christmas albums from earlier eras I’ve never seen, but we ultimately buy a handful of well-priced reissues to fill holes in our collection.
AMOEBA MUSIC: The World’s Largest Independent Record Store: 6400 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
Obviously. Amoeba is a LA institution where you are as likely to find your favourite touring musician shopping as to find ways to spend all your money in minutes. The place defies description, and photos don’t do it justice. It overwhelms. It’s simply everything we miss and have almost entirely lost in the world, certainly in my hometown, and that cannot be replaced even if vinyl were to come back strong forever. It is an endlessly layered but organized hall of wonders, with added-on rooms opening up around corners and with all the old film and music posters for sale to the height of very high ceilings you’ve missed since they silently disappeared, a place chock full of memorabilia, rare out of print music books you didn’t know existed but you need urgently, T-Shirts, and music, music, music. Visit one of their three LA area locations while you can.
TREJO’S CANTINA: 1556 N Cahuenga Blvd, Los Angeles
Around the corner from Amoeba Records sits actor Danny Trejo’s joint, Trejo’s Cantina. Trejo has a few taco spots including one at LAX Terminal 1, as well as a coffee and donut business, and the Cantina has a delightful casual vibe and intimate atmosphere. Most importantly, the tacos are delicious, traditional, varied and you have no choice but to try one of everything and then try a few more. My favourite was the Carnitas, and Dave loved the Beef Barbacoa best. The O.G. Margarita is perfection. The servers are friendly and laid back (as should you be) and rumour has it that Trejo pops in pretty regularly and is happy to say hello tableside, as he did with us. You win some, and you lose some. The trip feels appropriately Hollywood. Trejo’s brand, simple, well made and utterly downtown L.A. is poised and perfect for wider expansion, and would surely be a hit worldwide. It would shake my hometown to its core.
Special mention: We made our first trip to Trader Joe’s, the amazing grocery store of that region, for supplies. The cashier happened to notice my partner’s T-shirt, featuring The Twilight Sad’s newest album cover art. She says, out of the blue, “I love your T-shirt. I always thought it looked like a picture of Robert and Mary Smith.” “Get out! Me too.” I say. She asks us what brings us to town “A festival at the Rose Bowl…” I say. “DON’T EVEN!” she cries. “I’m dying to go to that and I’m stuck working. My favourite bands!” Oh how I wish we could have brought Arin along. By the time our groceries are bagged, we’re hugging goodbye. This was the mood we found in Pasadena. Friendly, open, and pure.
Pro tip: Unlike where we’re from, Uber in L.A. sometimes subcontracts out calls to outside companies. This was a surprise to us on the low-speed chase to always, always, traffic snarled LAX, where our driver entertained, chatted, and used the politest techniques we’ve ever seen to get other drivers to co-operate, and because of him we got there instead of hitting the road shoulder in desperation like other travelers. As Uber is cashless and the tip is entered on the app, this type of driver deserves a proper cash-in-hand tip. On the upside he said he’s paid hourly, so maybe it works out well for them.
With thanks to my partner and my travel companions, all the nice people we met in L.A. and Pasadena and our fellow music fans, especially the one with “The Smith / “Smiths” Tshirts featuring the hero of that sunshine-y day.