A Hollywood Producer's "Oldchella" Diary: "The Largest Sweat Lodge Ever Constructed"

Photographed by Koury Angelo
David T. Friendly (center), who began his career at Newsweek, covered the event for THR in the pit.

Woodstock? Hardly. Oscar-nominated producer David T. Friendly takes off for a once-in-a-lifetime weekend of the Stones, Dylan and McCartney at Palm Springs' Desert Trip — but forget the tent in the mud, he's got a mansion, luxury golf and a VIP skybox.

At 14, I talked my folks into letting me go to my first rock concert. The Who played ear-shatteringly loud in the shed at Tanglewood [Mass.] as Roger Daltrey stuttered through what became an insta-classic lyric for my generation: "Hope I die before I get old!" Fortunately, he didn't. Neither did I.

On Oct. 9, 45 years later, that same lyric boomed across the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs as The Who performed at Desert Trip, the three-day fest condescendingly nicknamed "Oldchella" that featured legends including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Neil Young and Roger Waters. For us aging boomers, it was a chance to return to the sights and sounds of our youth. Well, not quite.

FRIDAY, 7 A.M. Headed east on the 10 and anxiety kicks in. Will it be hot? Will it be dusty? Will it be hot and dusty? Will the bathrooms be clean?

FRIDAY, 9:30 A.M. I am one of the first "reporters" to check in. I learn that my THR credential allows me into the pit directly in front of the stage. However, like any self-respecting journalist, I jump back in the car and head straight to the golf course.

FRIDAY, 3:30 P.M. After 18 holes with my host for the weekend, Steve Rader of Clarity Partners, we arrive at his home at the upscale Madison Club. As we drive in, we spot two police cars and several black SUVs stationed in front of the house two doors down. Dylan is our neighbor.

FRIDAY, 5 P.M. The Madison Club staff escorts our group in shuttle buses that drop us off less than a quarter-mile from the stage. Outside the venue, there are picnic tables and a pricey culinary experience, rendering the scene entirely too civil. I run into my friend, clothing manufacturer Richard Clareman, 56. "My parents had a house near Bethel [site of Woodstock in 1969], but I was too young to go," he tells me. "I ain't missing my second chance at a perfect, happy music moment."

FRIDAY, 6:50 P.M. Against a burnt-orange sunset, silhouetting a grove of palm trees that bookends the enormous stage, Dylan emerges decked out in a white top hat, black pants and white boots. "Everybody must get stoned," is the first lyric out of his mouth. Dylan works his way through classics like “Tangled up in Blue,” “Highway 61” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” The voice may not be that pure but, let's be honest, it was the words that mesmerized us all, never the voice. As he settles into one of our favorites, “Comfort from the Storm,” I sling my arm around Priscilla, my wife of 25 years, and the moment hits me. In a world filled with global stress – terrorist threats, wars that seem like they may go on forever, the very future of our country – for these three days we are indeed sheltered from the storm.

FRIDAY, 9:50 P.M. As the Stones rip into "Start Me Up," the night takes an unexpected and frightening turn. The pit, jam-packed now, is getting hotter than the 90-degree temperature. I feel a tug on my arm and hear these words from Priscilla: "I need to sit down." Then she faints. Maybe it's the excitement of being so close to Mick, maybe it's the heat, but she's on her back and out cold for a good 15 seconds. When she regains her senses in the first-aid tent, she looks at me and asks, "When I fainted, did I look beautiful, or did I look like someone too old to be in the pit?" At this point, I’m completely convinced we’ll be leaving for the night. Instead, she says, “We’re going back in.”  So, it’s back to that sweaty pit to hear the rest of the set. By midnight, the Stones are wrapping up what has been a spectacular and energetic set filled with the requisite hits along with a couple new ones (“Out of Control” was a standout). During the rousing finale — “Satisfaction,” of course — it is clear the bar has been set at a high level for those to follow.

SATURDAY, 6 P.M. There are so many levels at an event like this. You could sit in your favorite beach chair and watch the proceedings from the polo fields, or you could end up (as we did) in one of the over-the-top VIP suites. High above the stage, accessible only by private elevator, suite South 7 is as far from the mud- and rain-soaked fields of Woodstock as you could get. Hosted by former PIMCO chairman William C. Powers at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, it comes with two full bars, candelabra lighting, sofas and a gourmet feast. There is a higher purpose here, too. Powers is raising money to teach music to high school kids in Colorado.

SATURDAY, 6:45 P.M. Young takes the stage with just his guitar and harmonica, launching into "After the Gold Rush." There are two giant teepees framing him on stage, and for some reason, I start to think about Spinal Tap and those malfunctioning oversized pods the band emerged from. Maybe with the blazing heat, we are all part of the largest sweat lodge ever constructed. Young is backed by the gifted next-gen band Promise of the Real, and the crowd is into it. But after a few less well-known songs, Young senses some frustration: “We’ll get to ‘Down by the River’ when we damn well want to!” It’s vintage Neil Young attitude. Later, of course. they launch into a 20-minute version of the classic, which lands him a standing ovation.

SATURDAY, 9:45 P.M. Back in the pit, the energy is palpable. McCartney, fully up to the task, covers "I Wanna Be Your Man," which he and John Lennon wrote for the Stones. He opens with "A Hard Day's Night" and performs with precision. The two-hour-plus set is exhilarating. As someone who never had the chance to see the Beatles live, watching Sir Paul play everything from “Blackbird” or “I’ve Just Seen a Face” to a rousing version of “A Day in the Life” (with Young joining in the only “mash-up” of the weekend), creates an emotional journey that is incredibly satisfying. People in the pit are singing along to every song. They are hugging one another and many have tears in their eyes (some from the ever-present cloud of weed smoke). Moments like this make you feel like you are truly at the center of the universe. Far from exhausted (with no more fainting) we are energized by the set, which culminates in a five-song encore from the B-side of Abbey Road.

SUNDAY, 1 A.M. Back at the Madison Club, a crowd has gathered for an impromptu afterparty. I bump into Julia Louis-Dreyfus, my classmate at Northwestern. Cindy Crawford is at the bar. Harvey Weinstein is chatting up CAA's Nick Styne and MGM head Gary Barber. I find Doug Ellin, creator of Entourage, and we get into a spirited conversation about the merits of the pit versus the distance of reserved seats. We decide that having to stand is a small price to pay for the intimate relationship between the band and audience. People seem genuinely happy to have made this pilgrimage. CAA music agent Mitch Rose sums it up perfectly: "I would argue that to see pros like McCartney, The Rolling Stones or The Who performing their hits brings you back in time and gives you comfort and happiness. And who does not want that?"

SUNDAY, 6:15 P.M. Just when you thought the best of the weekend has passed, The Who take the stage and launch into what might be the best set of the weekend. From the opening lines of "I Can't Explain" to the soaring power of "My Generation," the decibel level is exceeded only by the quality of the performance. Maybe it's because it was my very first concert, but this show takes me right back to that stage at Tanglewood.

As I head back to L.A. high from my three-day journey, I’m feeling a deep sense of satisfaction. I'm grateful that this time, I was there to experience it all. I know, it's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it.

David T. Friendly was nominated for an Oscar for producing Little Miss Sunshine and is an executive producer on USA’s Queen of the South.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.