Singer-songwriter Nicholas James Thomasma packed up his flawed-but-fabulous ’73 VW bus and made the 2,200-mile trek to California to see a half-dozen rock legends. This is his story.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Nicholas James Thomasma, frontman for the Grand Rapids band Nicholas James & The Bandwagon, crossed the country to attend the first weekend of the epic Desert Trip, an unprecedented concert spectacle starring the legendary Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, The Who, Neil Young and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. It was a journey fraught with mechanical ups and downs, but one that ultimately proved to be an ‘amazing’ adventure. He shared his tale from the road for the Local Spins Musicians’ Soundboard just as Desert Trip’s second weekend unfurled for 75,000-plus fans hankering for rock ’n’ roll vigor and nostalgia. Perhaps the most important lesson Thomasma learned? “This country is full of good people.” (Unfortunately, his VW bus broke down again after Desert Trip, requiring extensive repairs. For those who want to help him get back home, he’s started a GoFundMe campaign and you can donate online here.)
“You’re driving that thing across the country? What if it breaks down?!”
I heard that from a lot of people while preparing for this 2,200-mile trip to the California desert from Grand Rapids.
It didn’t take long for me to get to “what if.”
Somewhere around 3 a.m. just outside of Gary, Ind., “Kelly Jo,” my bright orange 1973 Volkswagen Bus, sputtered out.
I coasted in the dark along I-80 as far as I could, leaving me about ¼-mile short of the next exit. This definitely wasn’t how I wanted this trip to begin. After about 20 minutes or so, a service truck came along and offered me a jump. I drove to the next exit, and parked her for the night at a truckstop.
I kept saying, “If it breaks down, I’ll get it fixed.” That’s the beauty of these vehicles. Anything that breaks can be fixed and there’s a whole network of VW guys out there that want to see me get back on the road – and this car has been on the road since 1973.
In the morning, my friends at BusesbytheBeach.org helped me locate a mechanic about 70 miles away. I called AAA and had her towed all the way there only to find out the alternator had a loose connection. The battery was dead. Easy fix. It was a 12-hour delay, but it didn’t cost me a dime. The mechanic didn’t charge me and the tow truck driver even bought me breakfast.
This country is full of good people.
So now that I’d gotten the inevitable breakdown out of the way it was time to focus on my destination: Indio, Calif., for Desert Trip.
THE MISSION: A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE
When rumors of this festival started circulating I didn’t believe it. “No way. No way that Bob Dylan is gonna play with the Rolling Stones, The Who, Neil Young, Roger Waters and Paul McCartney. I don’t believe it.”
When the artists themselves started announcing it on their websites, I said, “Ok. If it’s affordable, I’ll go.” Affordable. What does that even mean for concerts these days? $399 for general admission. Add a camping pass, fees and taxes and it was around $550. That’s less than $100 per act. I guess that’s how I defined affordable in this situation. (Check out The Washington Post’s take on the first weekend of Desert Trip online here.)
Then I started looking at plane tickets and a hotel room, or renting a car to camp in for the weekend. I found a cool place in California that rents VW Buses by the week. It was nearly $1,500 to rent a VW bus for the weekend. I decided instead of paying all that money to rent a bus, I would just spend it on my bus and drive her there. And I decided that if I was really going to take this trip I needed to take the whole month of October to do it. After all, this is a big country and there are a lot of things to see.
My first real destination was Colorado.
I’d never been to Colorado, but everyone told me I would love it there. They were right. You know what’s cool about Colorado? Everything.
On my first night I found a Grateful Dead tribute band playing at a Grateful Dead themed bar called Owsley’s Golden Road in Boulder. I’d been driving for waa-a-ay too long and slept in the parking lot behind the bar that night. I woke up at dawn and was stunned by the beauty of the mountains. Later that day I visited a friend at Avery Brewing Co. and went for a hike at Red Rocks. And because I was driving right past it, I stopped at the Coors brewery in Golden, then went to see some friends of mine near South Park.
I exited Colorado on Highway 285, which was one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen in my life. Kelly Jo Bus went about 35 mph maximum uphill and I just kept it steady and slow as cars went whizzing by me at every passing lane. The scenery was incredible: Around every corner was another lookout or vista. It was sometimes hard to keep my eyes on the road and my hands upon the wheel, but I did my best. Coming down the mountain I managed to reach 75 mph; I thought Kelly Jo might take off and start flying.
The beautiful scenery and surroundings carried right on down into New Mexico. I stopped at a brewery in Taos, ate some incredible fajitas with mole sauce and stumbled upon an open-mic night at the winery next door. I played four songs to a lovely, attentive audience and shared my story of driving across the country in my VW Bus with them. I sold a few CDs and accepted a few dollars in tips. I earned almost enough for a tank of gas. I wasn’t planning on working while I was on vacation, but I’m glad I did.
I left Taos in late evening and drove until I hit Albuquerque. I slept in a Walmart parking lot that night and when I woke up I made a wrong turn trying to get to the gas station. Yes, I took a wrong turn in Albuquerque. What’s up doc?
GET YOUR KICKS ON ROUTE 66
When you’re going on “The Great American Road Trip” you almost have to drive on Route 66. I knew at some point during this trip I would.
It happened in Arizona. While in Winslow, I took a moment to stand on the corner and it was, indeed, “such a fine sight to see.”
They have a gigantic Route 66 sign painted on the street in the middle of an intersection and on the corner is a statue of Glen Frey, complete with a flatbed Ford parked just a few feet away. I parked my bus on the corner and went in to the gift shop to buy her a new Route 66 sticker. Volkswagen Buses can never have enough stickers.
I started making my way by the Painted Desert and considered stopping at the Petrified Forest, but I really wanted to see the Grand Canyon. I had reserved the last available campsite just 2 days before and had already paid for it. I arrived at the Grand Canyon National Park just after sunset.
At dawn, I awoke to an elk walking through my camp and headed to the visitor center to take an early morning hike. I took pictures. Everyone took pictures. You have to. But I’ll tell you this, there is no camera in the world that can capture the Grand Canyon. You have to see it in person to really experience it. It’s absolutely breathtaking and even somewhat terrifying. If I had planned better I would have spent more time at the Grand Canyon, but as it was, I had to get going. I had to get to Desert Trip.
I was still at least eight or nine hours away from my destination in Indio. Desert Trip didn’t technically start until Friday, but camping opened up at 10 a.m. Thursday and I just wanted to get there. I was really looking forward to not driving for a few days. I stopped at an auto parts store and bought a pack of eight amp fuses. I blew two of them on the way and I was really hoping that would be it, but about 50 miles outside of Indio, my generator light came on and stayed on.
The good news is that I knew I could drive for about three hours or more on the battery because I already gone through this at the start of the trip. I drove Kelly Jo into Desert Trip with no further incidents.
I made it.
At least now I had a few days to figure out where to take her to get a new alternator. I put out some feelers on the Internet and decided to enjoy my weekend and hope for the best on Monday.
SMOOTH SAILING AMONG 70,000-PLUS CONCERTGOERS
Desert Trip was billed as the concert experience of a lifetime. I go to a lot of shows. It’s not that I’m hard to impress, it’s just that I’ve just seen a lot of incredible shows and festivals over the years. I have my reservations about the big festivals. I get overwhelmed in large crowds. I don’t like waiting in line. I don’t like having my vehicle searched. I don’t want to have to walk two miles back to camp. I don’t like porta-potties. I don’t want to spend a ton of money on food or water.
To my surprise, NONE of these things were an issue.
I coasted through security upon arrival. I think they were more interested in the bus than what I had in it. I was directed by about 50 staff members with glowing wands to my campsite and parked for the weekend.
Close by my camp there were a few porta-potties, but they also had air conditioned trailers with bathrooms all over the campgrounds and inside the venue. There were free showers too, which came in really handy in the desert.
Inside the concert venue I found a real bathroom and didn’t wait in line once. They also had a camping center with charging stations, free wi-fi, yard games, an arcade, a vintage thrift store, a casino (chips, not money) and a silent disco. There were plenty of food vendors, an organic farmers’ market and even a camp store full of essentials.
In the morning, they had Yoga and Pilates classes, and there was an improv/open-mic stage open all weekend.
Just inside the venue was a Ferris wheel, a record store, a merchandise booth, tons of food vendors, several bars, and even a record store. I didn’t spend much time at any of these places. To be honest, it was just too damn hot to do anything. I did use the wi-fi and charge my phone though, of course.
When camping, your neighbors can make all the difference between a good weekend and a bad weekend. You never really know how that’s going to go. Right off the bat, I noticed my neighbors had a ton of stuff in their vehicle so I offered for them to use the space behind mine since I didn’t need it.
They thanked me, noting they had a large group with a ton of stuff. After they were done setting up, I grabbed my guitar and went to meet the rest of the group. They were thrilled that I had a guitar and we laughed, sang and had a good time Thursday night.
I told them of my travels from Michigan and they told me about their jobs, lives and kids. In the morning one of them made me a breakfast sandwich with eggs from the chickens she raises at home.
That trend continued the whole weekend. Every time they made food they offered me some. Even when I wasn’t at camp they made me a plate for me and left it in my bus.
DEPENDING ON ‘THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS’
Once inside the venue I realized that beer was $13 a cup and decided not to drink. When they found out why I wasn’t drinking they started buying me drinks. I never once asked for anything. They kept saying that it was their pleasure and I believe it was. It was my pleasure too.
I knew that I would need to depend on the kindness of strangers during this trip and instead of trying to be independent I just accepted it. When the show was over some of them offered for me to come stay with them if I needed or wanted a place to stay for the night.
I might go see them. I haven’t decided yet.
This country is full of good people.
I awoke shortly after the sun came up on Friday. The acts for Day One of Desert Trip were Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. I’ve seen Bob Dylan many times and know firsthand that he has good days and bad days.
I don’t want to call this a bad Dylan show, because it wasn’t. His band sounded great and his voice was mixed perfectly. I could understand every word. The set list was great, and full of popular songs with almost nothing from his last few albums. He opened with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” which is one of my favorites. When the crowd cheered along to the refrain “Everybody must get stoned,” we did. The haze was immediate.
My new friends and camp neighbors, who don’t normally smoke pot, even agreed saying, “Well, everybody must get stoned!” It was great.
Dylan played for an hour-and-a half, then came out and played an encore. Weirdly, about three songs in, he became noticeably uncomfortable on stage. He started yelling and pointing to someone off stage from his piano.
Shortly afterward, the gigantic video screens switched from images of the band and the legend himself to black-and-white, stock footage of street scenes and people from the 1950s. It was puzzling.
The venue holds 70,000-plus people so if you’re in the general admission area (which I was) you could barely even see the stage. It didn’t seem to be a problem though because of all the massive video screens all around the venue. That is, until Dylan demanded that they turn the cameras off.
Dylan is a weirdo and I wrote it off as Dylan being Dylan. It’s not one of those legendary, career-defining type of shows like when he went electric at Newport Folk Festival, but Bob sure did manage to upset a good chunk of the audience. Surely The Rolling Stones would not behave this way, right? Right. (Editor’s Note: Grand Rapids HopCat and BarFly Ventures owner Mark Sellers is attending the second weekend of Desert Trip and called Dylan’s performance on Friday the best of the 11 times that he’s seen him in concert.)
THE ROLLING STONES’ ‘FULL-ON’ ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SPECTACLE
Historically, The Rolling Stones are much more crowd-pleasing than Dylan ever has been and day one of Desert Trip was no exception. From the moment the Stones took the stage, you could tell that an epic rock ’n’ roll show was about to happen.
Mick Jagger came out in full-on rock ’n’ roll regalia with a red-and-black leather jacket and pants to match. A few songs in, he unzipped the jacket to reveal the signature Lips logo T-shirt underneath. He took the jacket off mid-song and swung it over his shoulder without missing a beat or a note. I assume he’s done this at pretty much every show since the 1960s. Everything he did looked very natural.
Every step had swagger and he used every inch of the stage.
Meanwhile, Keith Richards’ guitar sounded like a chainsaw as he shredded the solo on “Sympathy for the Devil.” Later in the show, Keith sang a song from his new solo album. I was surprised to hear such a delicate and tender song coming from such a rock madman, but it was a nice change of pace at that moment in the evening.
The Stones show ended with fireworks, lasers and explosions. It was a shining contrast to the opening act. I don’t know what’s actually on The Rolling Stones’ “Greatest Hits” album, but they pretty much played it.
VIDEO: The Rolling Stones (Desert Trip, posted by Lary Thomson)
I walked back to camp and my neighbors asked me to get my guitar out. I said “I just saw The Rolling Stones. What am I supposed to play after that?” They agreed and we all admitted that we were pretty tired. I went to bed. The show ended around midnight, which, for this Midwestern boy is actually 3 a.m. according to my internal clock.
I’m glad I went to bed right after the show on Friday night. The hot desert sun came out at 7 a.m. in full force. The temperature ranged from the mid to high 90s every day of the festival. I sat in the shade most of the day and took a shower mid-afternoon. The free showers were a lifesaver.
They also had water refill stations so I made sure to fill up my empty bottles before heading into the venue. Car camping was adjacent to the venue and it was just a short but dusty walk to get inside. Once again, the security checkpoints were a breeze. I set my bag on a table, stepped through a metal detector, picked my bag up off the table and walked away. They didn’t even open the bag.
BABY BOOMERS POPULATING ‘OLDCHELLA’
This was probably the most relaxed festival I’ve ever attended, partially because of the heat, but mostly due to the age of the crowd. “Welcome to the retirement resort for aging British rock stars,” Mick Jagger had joked the night before. The Internet had even dubbed this festival “Oldchella” and so it was. Baby Boomers were out in full force and the RV camping was surely the biggest trailer park in California that weekend.
I’ve never seen so many large RVs. Must be nice to have your own bathroom.
The lineup for day two: Neil Young and Paul McCartney. Neil came out just after sunset with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica rack for the first couple songs. He then switched to the piano and shortly after brought out his current band, The Promise of the Real.
The band was on fire. At different times in the set, they lit into the giant agricultural corporation Monsanto and later Donald Trump with pure fury and anger. They clearly came prepared with an agenda, seeing this as an opportunity to reach such a large audience.
Unfortunately, Young seemed bothered by something and made a few strange comments throughout the show. “How about it for all these lights? Yeah. It’s even better when they work,” he said at one point. “That’s called saying something without saying something.”
I’m not sure what he was getting at but I think he almost let on when shortly after he said, “You know what? … Naw. I’m not gonna tell ya.”
At the end of his set he said, “Apparently, we’ve only got 40 seconds left. I guess we gotta keep this thing on time, so we’re gonna play ‘Rocking in the Free World’ in 40 seconds. We’ve never done that before.”
Thankfully, it lasted more than 40 seconds, but my guess is on any given night they could probably extend that song to 10 minutes or more. I never wanted it to stop. I just wanted to keep on rocking in the free world, but before I knew it, the set was over and the lights came up.
Young played for about an hour-and-a-half. He played some hits, some songs from his more recent album with the Promise of the Real and even debuted a brand new song for the Desert Trippers, most of whom probably couldn’t care less. People mostly just want to hear the hits. I thought Neil Young was amazing, but I get it if all you wanted to hear was “Cinnamon Girl” and he didn’t play it. He did, however, play “Harvest Moon” which is the only video clip that I took the whole weekend.
VIDEO: Neil Young, Harvest Moon (Desert Trip, posted by Nicholas Thomasma)
Paul McCartney’s stage entrance was probably the most colorful of the whole festival.
He was magical.
He was also cool and calm and sounded great. When he played “Blackbird,” he asked the audience “A lot of people say to me, ‘I tried to learn this song on the guitar.’ How many people have tried to learn this on the guitar?” I raised my hand just like countless others around me as he said, “Well, you probably got it wrong.” We all laughed and sang along.
ONE OF THE BEST PERFORMERS THOMASMA HAS EVER SEEN
McCartney is a tremendously gracious performer and at different points in the show he paid tribute to different people, including Nancy, his current wife, as well as his former wife and Wings bandmate, the late Linda McCartney.
“I was over at George Harrison’s house one day and, of course, he had learned all of my songs over the years and so I said to him, ‘I learned one of your songs.’ ” The audience went wild as he grabbed a ukulele and started playing “Norwegian Wood.”
At one point, they tagged the riff from Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” onto the end of one of their songs, and when they finished, Paul told a wonderful story about Hendrix. The Beatles had just released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on a Friday and they all went to see Hendrix on Sunday. When the guitarist found out The Beatles were in the audience, he came out and played the opening of “Sgt. Pepper’s,” only two days after it had been released.
McCartney said it was shocking, calling it one of the best moments of his life. He went on to say that Hendrix was just wailing on the whammy bar that night which, in those days, would really knock a guitar out of tune quite badly. It got so far out of tune that he looked out in the audience and said “Is Eric here? Hey man, will you tune this thing for me?” Hendrix was asking for Eric Clapton to tune his guitar for him. And Clapton was in the back trying to hide his face because Hendrix was so good he felt embarrassed. The audience roared with laughter at this intimate look into the cute Beatles memory bank.
But the best moment of the whole show came when he invited Neil Young back on stage to join him for a few songs. They harmonized on the same microphone to pay tribute to John Lennon while sending a message to us all by singing, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
The show ended with everyone singing along “Naaaaah, nah nah, na na na nah, na na na nah, hey Jude!”
Fireworks, strobe lights and lasers once again exploded at the conclusion of the show. I wept like a baby, danced like a Sufi and sang along, word for word, with almost every song. He played for nearly 2-1/2 hours, and he’s really one of the best performers I’ve ever seen.
In fact, Paul McCartney alone was worth the price of admission to Desert Trip. It was hard at that point to even imagine that it wasn’t over yet.
It definitely wasn’t.
THE DAY 3 EXTRAVAGANZA
One more day at Desert Trip and one more show: The Who and Roger Waters.
Day 3 was just as hot as Days 1 and 2 so again, I didn’t do much during the day. I played a little guitar, drank a couple of cold beers and took a little nap. As I walked into the venue, the sun was almost set and the music was about to start. It was hard to believe that it was almost over.
I started thinking about all the great acts I’d seen over the weekend and thought to myself, “How can tonight possibly be as good as the last two?”
I guess I was underestimating the caliber of the performers because The Who proved to be a rock ’n’ roll force to be reckoned with right out of the gate. Pete Townsend wasted no time showing fans his signature windmill attack on guitar and Roger Daltry looked as fit as he’s ever been. He’s probably put on weight, but he looked more like a blue-eyed, curly blonde-haired, California bodybuilder than an aging rock star. They played everything I could have asked them to. It was great. Again, the opening act played for about an hour-and-a-half.
There was a lot of debate about why Roger Waters would be the final act of the festival. I love Pink Floyd and am familiar with pretty much everything they’ve ever released, but my camp neighbors were only really familiar with the songs you hear on the radio. I urged them to keep an open mind saying that out of all the performers of the weekend, I had a feeling that Roger Waters show would be special. I don’t know if they agreed with me in the end or not because the moment the music started I was transported to another place and time.
Clearly, Waters has been playing with this band for quite some time because every movement of every band member was calculated and theatrical. The lead vocalist had long curly hair which blew wildly in the wind as he sang “Comfortably Numb” from an elevated platform above the stage. The female backup singers were bleach blondes with bangs and clad head to toe in black. They sang like angels. Hearing them during “Mother” made me want them to come sing me to sleep every night.
The crowd roared at the familiar sound of a cash register and everyone sang along when they launched into “Money” (from “The Dark Side of the Moon”). One of the coolest things about the performance was the use of all the different speaker towers at the venue. The had a massive wall of speakers up by the stage, of course, just like you would see at any show, but they also had speaker towers throughout the venue.
At one point, I heard a helicopter flying in from behind me and when I turned around there was nothing but a giant, inflated pig floating through the air over the crowd. Then the sound of the crowd startled me from the other direction, as if a riot had broken out, but when I turned around I realized the crowd was just as puzzled as I was. The sound was coming from the speaker tower. It was literally surrounding the festival. It was incredible. Roger Waters knows how to use a sound system that big, that’s for sure.
The highlight and theatrical climax to the show came during “Pigs.” Waters was singing the words “Ha-ha, charade you are,” while quotes from Donald Trump appeared in massive text across the screen. Several of the performers made anti-Trump statements from the stage, but none were as direct as Roger Waters. One thing was clear at Oldchella – the rest of the world is just as terrified of what is happening in American politics as we are.
Just like the previous two nights, the set ended with fireworks, strobe lights and lasers. The spectacle of lights was amazing. I stood there for a few minutes in the field, realizing that my neighbors had left long ago and that all I had left was the short walk back to camp.
SAYING GOODBYE AND ‘LIVING THE DREAM’
It was over. I wasn’t ready for it to be over, but I certainly got what I came for.
On Monday morning, I awoke with the hot desert sun and to the sound of neighboring camps packing up. I passed out some CDs to my new friends and gave hugs and thanks for all the hospitality and good times. They gave me some food for the road and asked me where I was going next.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve got to get a new alternator, so I guess I’m gonna go find someone who can help me with that. There are people all over that know how to work on these vehicles and most of them really want to see me get back on the road. I’m living the dream. I’ll find someone. This country is full of good people.”
I ate breakfast at a small joint down the road and started making calls.
Did I get the new alternator? Where did I go after that? Did Kelly Jo Bus make it home without any more trouble? Is Nik James ever coming back?! Follow along on Facebook or Instagram or join us at Local Spins Wednesday at Speak EZ Lounge on Nov. 2 to hear the rest of the story.
MORE DESERT TRIP COVERAGE
• Follow Thomasma’s journey on Facebook by adding him as a friend here: www.facebook.com/nikthomasma Or follow him on Instagram at nikthomasma.
• For more about Desert Trip: http://deserttrip.com/
• “At Desert Trip, Dylan Doesn’t Acknowledge Nobel” (Wall Street Journal story): http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2016/10/15/at-desert-trip-an-upbeat-dylan-doesnt-acknowledge-nobel/
PHOTO GALLERY: Nicholas James Thomasma’s Desert Trip Journey
Photos by Nicholas James Thomasma (Dylan photo by Mark Sellers)
Copyright 2016, Spins on Music LLC