This is the first part of a two-part series. Read part two here.
I never thought I’d be cool enough for Falls.
The costumes. The camping. The late-night dance parties. The obscure Unearthed bands. The floral hair arrangements. The drugs. The Happy New Year kisses.
It all seemed a bit too out of my league.
Until now, only my cool friends ever went to Falls. For four days, their only contact with the rest of the world would be tagged Facebook photos, featuring friends you didn’t know they had. In each one, they’d be laughing or smoking a cigarette or looking more hippy-like than you’d ever imagined them to be. I’d flick through them with mixed feelings: part jealousy, part cynicism, but mostly unfamiliarity.
It all looked pretty cool. But a bit too cool for me.
I hadn’t even entertained the thought of going to Falls until a media pass to Lorne turned up in the Farrago inbox. I felt conflicted. Would I like it? Would I fit in? Would my appreciation of live music overcome my cool complex?
In the 2003 Linklater classic School of Rock, not being cool enough was the psychological barrier Lawrence placed in front of himself. “I don’t think I should be in the band; I’m not cool enough,” Lawrence confessed to the fake Mr Schneebly. “People in bands are cool. I’m not cool.”
Was I Lawrence? Was going to Falls my rock band?
As I packed my bags, I re-played the wisdom of Jack Black in my mind. “You could be the ugliest sad sack on the planet, but if you’re in a rockin’ band you’re the cat’s pajamas, man, you’re the bee’s knees,” Mr Schneebly explained.
Lawrence didn’t understand the bee’s knees metaphor. But I did. And I was ready to rock.
I arrived at Falls on a pleasant Tuesday morning, the third day of proceedings but with two full days up my sleeve. As I entered the main area, I was immediately caught off guard. Expecting everybody to be wearing their summer outfits, I strutted into the main area ready with my most fashionable tee, shorts, and socks combination (I naturally assumed that if I looked cool, then everybody would flock towards me and become my friend). But before me was a sea of hoodies, puffy jackets, and raincoats, some not dissimilar to the ones my Dad wears at home. People still made their fashion work for them, but the collective dress sense was more weather-smart than stylish.
Aside from cold-weather gear, the main thing that distinguished these people from myself was that they travelled in groups. It was that—their collective identity—that appeared to define them, not their normcore wardrobe choices. I saw bad moustaches, footy beanies, capes, oversized sweaters—all the things society had taught me were fashion faux pas. Yet it didn’t matter if the people sporting these were hip or square; they were walking through this mammoth crowd surrounded by the people they loved. For them, Falls promised to be the same regardless of whether they were surrounded by tens of thousands, or just their closest group of mates.
I found this observation both depressing and comforting: depressing because I didn’t have my own wolf pack, but comforting because I was free of expectations. To everybody else, I was just another one of the thousands they didn’t know. That can be an isolating feeling, but for me it was a cause of peace.
As an outlier at Falls, I didn’t need to worry about a thing. I could wear whatever I wanted, go wherever I wanted, and play Falls at my own speed. It also reminded me why I came to Falls in the first place: to relax, and to listen to some awesome music.
It wasn’t all blissful independence though. A few hours into Tuesday, I bumped into a friend, the kind of person Malcolm Gladwell might call a connector. This friend similarly went into Falls han solo, but had befriended over a dozen fellow members of the volunteer team. Through this connection, I went from being a face in the crowd to being in a wolf pack. I suddenly resembled all the people I had been watching hours earlier.
Alongside this group, I got to the heart of Falls. Campsite banter. Vodka gummy bears. Face glitter. Fashion compliments and putdowns. Free drink tokens. Improvised dance moves. Sneaky tips of how to hide alcohol on your person.
This was the Falls I imagined, but it wasn’t being masked by an Instagram filter.
Over the remainder of my Falls experience, I came in and out of contact with this group, entirely dependent on whether or not I could lock eyes with any of them among the swarms of strangers (phone reception was a luxury reserved only for Telstra users). They were my posse when alt-j hit the stage on New Year’s Eve, an hour before midnight.
While satisfied in finding a group with whom to count down the new year, I felt uneasy about how far they were to the stage. Keen to get a closer view of the band, I forcefully tried to slide some loaded questions into the group.
“Should we head into the crowd?” I asked my connector, hoping his influence over his new friends might get us into the action. But he seemed untroubled by our position.
“Ahh, I’m happy wherever, so long as I can dance with my friends,” he replied.
And with that, my friend unintentionally painted a beautiful portrait of the true value of our wolf pack.
When the clock struck midnight, I didn’t get a New Year’s kiss, but neither did many around me (I hypothesise that it’s a pop culture myth, reserved for couples and drunkards). Instead I slipped away to the peripheries of the crowd. The final days of 2014 had given me a taste of what Falls was all about, and I had enjoyed the flavour. However I wanted to begin the new year with a more familiar taste. Sitting alone with my oversized winter coat on, I took a sip from my water bottle and watched the revelers down the bottom of the hill.
I was doing my own thing. And I was cool with that.