The Growlers headline Beach Goth 2015 in Santa Ana. All photos by Frank Mojica
“Beach Goth” is a ridiculous and yet surprisingly accurate term that refers to a certain type of Southern California cool person who enjoys the chill vibes and sunny climes of his or her home region, but who’s also in touch with the darker, weirder sides of life. Beach Goth is also a music festival held in Orange County every year that’s put together by garage rockers The Growlers, who have become synonymous with the term in recent years thanks to their legendary antics and darkly charming tunes.
This year’s Beach Goth fest—going down October 24 and 25 at the Observatory in Santa Ana—is a testament to the “Beach Goth” mindset. Beach Goths know that life can be serious, but they don’t take themselves too seriously; Beach Goths are never afraid to bare their souls, but they also know how to party. Thus, the venue and surrounding parking lot was converted for the occasion into a sprawling grounds done up in faux-ghoulish decor, featuring giant statues of hands giving the “shaka” and devil-horns signs as well as fake tombstones bearing epitaphs like “OD’D ON WEED.”
Saturday was the first day of the fest, and I got there around nightfall. By then thousands of young people were drinking and partying in their shabbiest Halloween gear. It was the kind of crazed, packed environment that makes you feel like you’re on drugs even though you aren’t. It probably would’ve been a good setting for a horror flick (simply switch the Scream mask for a Burger Records hat). The lineup was ridiculously eclectic, with Grimes, Sir Mix-A-Lot and The Growlers headlining. Here are some important life lessons I learned while attending the first day of Beach Goth 4.
The suburbs were designed by the devil himself.
I grew up in the Southern California suburbs and so am very familiar with the long, winding roads and indistinguishable tract homes that Beelzebub uses to give suburbanites a false sense of security. Now, every time I visit the Observatory, I am reminded of the Fallen One’s evil genius. This particular stretch of Santa Ana is filled with corporate office parks and wide boulevards, offering bountiful parking options completely cut off to outside visitors because the corporate parks are “private property,” and many of the city streets are designated no-stopping zones. It took me 20 minutes to find a legal parking spot on Saturday, but a true experience of Hell would be embarking on this simple task for eternity.
Wanda Jackson will outlive us all.
The Observatory’s indoor main stage was packed to the gills around 8 p.m. The front, back, second floor, even the backstage: People were everywhere. At the center of it all was famed singer and songwriter Wanda Jackson, who at 78 years old was not just the coolest, but very likely the oldest, person in attendance at Beach Goth. Her hair was done up in a voluminous ’do, and she was wearing a pink jacket studded with rhinestones. Backed by a four-piece band, she sang classics like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Shakin’ All Over” and Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” and occasionally even did some folksy yodeling. The stage was dubbed “The Graveyard”—above it, directly above Jackson, hung a gnarly yellow skull with bat wings—and yet her raspy-sweet voice was timeless.
The machines will never win.
One of the many great things about Grimes is that she has her keyboards, samplers and drum machines do her bidding, not the other way around. The Canadian avant electro-pop artist isn’t a part of the pop music industry that New Yorker writer John Seabrook describes in his new book, The Song Machine. Her songs aren’t manufactured by teams to achieve maximal impact for the widest amount of people. She takes the opposite approach, molding her electronic sounds to fit her songwriting vision, and to move people. On the outdoor “Beach Goth” stage, she howled and screamed into the skies in spooktacular fashion, playing familiar songs as well as some new ones while her backup dancers made robot movements and posed with what looked like big sais straight out of Raphael’s Ninja Turtles arsenal. Next to me, during “REALiTi,” a dude dressed as a construction worker danced deliriously. Grimes: 1, Skynet: 0.
Darkness lurks among us.
Towards the end of the night, The Growlers came onto the “Beach Goth” stage dressed in skeleton suits. The audience rushed forward in excitement, and suddenly out of nowhere came a beach ball. But not just any beach ball—a beach ball painted solid black. Black as a black cat. Black as black metal. Black as night. The beach ball bopped around as the crowd sang and danced along to the band’s chill riffs, sea-shanty shuffles and raspy croons. The mood was lighthearted and the Black Ball of Evil bounced off peoples’ hands and sailed merrily through the air. And then the set was over, and the ball was gone.
Costumes are what you make of them.
I’ll be honest: Festival-goers were not on their top Halloween game Saturday night. The costumes I saw were basically sideshows, things you’d slap together at the last minute because you’re still prepping your real Halloween costume that you’ll be unveiling at that big party on actual Halloween night. And yet… what are Halloween costumes, really? What do they say about our hidden vulnerabilities and desires? How do they speak a greater truth than the secret ones we wear in our day-to-day lives? To ponder these queries further, I leave you with the image below. They’re some folks I met who showed up dressed as the wizards from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour:
Photo by Peter Holslin.
Peter Holslin is totally beach goth. Follow him on Twitter.