Photograph by John Gilhooley
Backstage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on a December night, Gary Tovar is looking at a temporary gallery of old pictures, show posters, all-access passes, and vintage flyers. They’re the framed remnants from the hundreds of concerts he staged as a young man—shows by the likes of Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. Wearing baggy jeans and a crisp white shirt, his black hair slicked back, Tovar is here for GV30, a three-night celebration of Goldenvoice Productions, the concert promotion company he founded 30 years ago. These days, at 59, he’s a consultant to the company and out most nights seeing new bands and posting pictures to his blog, as insatiable as he was in the ’80s.
“Gary was the only promoter who would take my calls,” says Andy Somers, the longtime talent agent for the punk bands X and Social Distortion, at GV30. Nearby, in a plaid shirt and black Angels baseball cap, stands Paul Tollett, 46, the soft-spoken president of Goldenvoice. In his front pocket is a cell phone containing top-secret information that is already the subject of intense online speculation: the 2012 lineup for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the annual gathering in Indio that Goldenvoice set in motion 13 years ago. Only a handful of people have seen the list, Tovar among them.
When the names of the bands and DJs are released several weeks later, the headliners include Radiohead and Swedish House Mafia, the Black Keys, and the hip-hop duo Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Farther down the list are dozens of forward-leaning rock, hip-hop, and dance artists, from Wild Flag and Justice to Feist and Le Butcherettes, each an essential part of the three-day gathering at the Empire Polo Club. “Paul has a great ear for that undercard,” says Kevin Lyman, a Goldenvoice alum who is creator of the Vans Warped Tour. “It’s how you build the undercard that gives strength to the package.”
Everything that Coachella has become is rooted in the original Los Angeles punk rock scene and the collisions of noise and euphoria Goldenvoice has hosted since 1981. They’re where Tovar, Tollett, and his business partner, Rick Van Santen, learned how to create shows—in clubs along the Sunset Strip, in forgotten restaurants and union halls across the state, and in bunkers like the Olympic Auditorium.
The company, whose offices overlook the La Brea Tar Pits, puts on nearly 1,000 shows a year, bringing both the insurgent and the mainstream to wildly disparate audiences. But Coachella is the main event, drawing 80,000 visitors last year. Regarded as an important showcase by connoisseurs of new music (people fly in from all over), the festival has become so popular, two of them will unfold this year: Tollett has scheduled the identical lineup for consecutive weekends this month.
At GV30, X is midway through a set of punk-noir tunes about decadence and woe. Tovar stops to look at an old black-and-white photograph of the Ramones, the Queens, New York, act once viewed by the concert industry as a mostly underground oddity. “Ohhh, people loved the Ramones,” Tovar says in a warm rasp, remembering nights in Hollywood, Anaheim, Santa Barbara—anywhere there was a stage. “I talked to the Ramones and I said, ‘I’ll put you everywhere.’ The other promoters treated them like they were nothing.” Having said that, Tovar heads out the door and wades into the moshing crowd.
ovar got his first taste of punk rock early. In 1978, he picked up a pair of hitchhikers in his hometown, Huntington Beach, and drove them all the way to San Francisco, where he joined them for the final Sex Pistols concert at Winterland. Tovar was intrigued. The sound and culture were already earning alarming headlines, with pictures in Time magazine of young Brits in safety pins and raw meat (decades ahead of Lady Gaga). Riots were not uncommon. Traditional rock venues were scared off.
While still in his twenties, Tovar was making vast sums as a pot smuggler. He owned homes in Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach and had plenty of cash left over to support his nascent punk rock habit. He put on his first show on December 4, 1981, a typically chaotic concert by T.S.O.L. at a tiny community center in Santa Barbara. By the time he threw his second gig, Tovar had named his new business Golden Voice (two words originally), after a powerful strain of cannabis. Music was his new obsession, and he lost millions that first decade, flying bands in from England, covering damages from concert riots, even paying for early-morning cab rides home for stranded punks.
Operating out of a small office in Huntington Beach, the company tapped into a vibrant music scene ignored by mainstream promoters. Tovar says that changed after a pair of sold-out nights with Siouxsie and the Banshees at the Civic got everyone’s attention in 1984. “They were undaunted by pressure from the LAPD to stop dealing with controversial bands,” says Chuck Dukowski, bassist for Black Flag and creator of the Goldenvoice logo, which is designed using “Chinese” lettering. “The world would be a different place if we’d had to wait for the mainstream promoters to wake up and pay attention.”
Tovar had become the ringmaster of choice for a generation of the young and the reckless. His shows were inspired. A ska night headlined by Bad Manners at Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach began with a crosstown rally of scooters rolling up to the venue in style. Paul Tollett was a young show promoter and a committed Mod in suit and tie when Tovar handed him flyers for a show. “His energy was just incredible. He wanted to talk concerts all the time, and so did I,” Tollett says. “I started working for him immediately.” That was 1986.
On the morning of March 9, 1991, federal drug agents raided Tovar’s home in Huntington Beach, kicking down his door. He was arrested on conspiracy charges. After battling the charges for two years from L.A. County Jail, he pleaded guilty to four counts related to marijuana trafficking, was sentenced to seven years, and signed over ownership of the company to Tollett and Van Santen. No money was exchanged.
By then Goldenvoice had built a reputation for paying bands fairly and even bailing musicians out of jail. But it was also hemorrhaging $100,000 a year. While the ’90s alt-rock explosion and copromotion of local stops of the Lollapalooza Festival helped them to a couple of profitable years, a cloud of debt hovered. Tollett often spoke of producing their own festival, learning the science of Porta-Potties and crowd control. A success could pull them from debt. Van Santen finally called him on it, insisting that they had to make it happen.
They commandeered Empire Polo Field, a 78-acre site in the Coachella Valley. It would be a two-day festival in October 1999 featuring live music on a pair of main stages, with smaller ones inside several large tents and huge kinetic sculptures scattered across the lawn. (In later years a giant Tesla coil would crackle with purple blasts of electricity into the night air.)
Headlined by Beck, the Chemical Brothers, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine, that first year of Coachella delivered an astonishing collection of modern rock and electronic artists. But coming so soon after the spectacular meltdown of Woodstock 1999 and its frenzy of fire and rape, the desert fest attracted just 38,000 people. Goldenvoice lost nearly $1 million. Tollett and Van Santen sold the company to the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which had just built Staples Center and needed to fill it with concerts, but they remained in charge.
Things were finally on track, with Radiohead booked to headline opening night at Coachella 2004, when Van Santen died of a heroin overdose. Tollett, in Brazil looking for drum-and-bass acts, was relaxing on the beach when his phone kept ringing. The messages were puzzling: “Call me, Paul, call me.” “Oh, I heard about Rick.” “My condolences about Rick.” The last one got his attention. He hopped a plane to L.A. “I cried all the way back in that middle seat in coach,” Tollett recalls.
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Months ahead of Coachella, Tollett is in a Pomona warehouse. Stacked on one side are the steel tubes used as fencing at the festival. There are boxes of ancient LPs and 45s of rock, pop, and soul that are destined for the shelves of the local record store Tollett owns with his older brother, Perry. With their partners they’ve also renovated the Fox Theater Pomona and opened the Glass House concert venue and an adjacent bar amid the boarded-up stores and neighborhood warehouses. Tollett stocks the record store himself with used vinyl. “I can’t wait until Coachella is over,” he jokes as he looks at boxes of discs. “It gets in the way of my record sifting.”
In the morning he will drive out to the polo field for more planning and adjusting. The festival has lost money for at least three years since its beginning, but it is now almost a given that it will sell out. Repeat customers make plans to return before the lineup is even announced. In June the 2011 edition had been over for barely three months when tickets for this year’s two weekends went on sale; 68,000 were sold in seven days. When the remainder became available in January, tickets for both weekends were gone in less than three hours. Demand for Coachella keeps growing.
“Last year it sold out so fast that we estimated there were maybe 80,000 people who wanted to go who couldn’t, which is crazy,” says Tollett; he calls the additional weekend “an experiment.”
Broadening the event’s repertoire from its early focus on alt rock is one reason for the bigger draw. Prince was a late addition in 2008, the same year Roger Waters performed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. In 2009, Paul McCartney delivered an emotional two-and-a-half-hour performance with dedications to his late wife, Linda, as well as to John Lennon and George Harrison. Jay-Z erupted on the main stage with hard funk in 2010 (and a cameo by wife Beyoncé), and last year Kanye West brought epic psychodrama (with sideman Justin Vernon of Bon Iver) to the venue.
Of course, for some of the hard-core fans Tovar has spent a lifetime slam dancing with, having broad appeal is the same as having no appeal. At GV30 there are punks who sneer at the very idea of the gathering. The music is not loud enough or angry enough. Out in the lobby Rachel Barnes, a 23-year-old from Long Beach, is fresh from the mosh pit, scuffed white Creepers on her feet. She will not attend Coachella. “It’s too artsy-fartsy and fuckin’ hipsters everywhere,” she says, her lip curled and pierced. “I don’t like it.”
Tovar understands. Not that he is about to miss the festivities himself. Leaving his home in Venice Beach, he expects to spend the entire weekend on the polo grounds—crashing in a trailer on the concert site—and then return the following weekend. “Music, beautiful scenery, happy people, and beautiful girls. What more do you want?” he says dreamily. “When I die, I want to go to Coachella.”
ALSO: See a slide show of Steve Appelford's photos from Coachella 2012.