Viewed from the consumer standpoint, Lollapalooza '92 was one of those bargains with a downside. Financially speaking, of course, it was a deal. For roughly $30 you got a lineup of unquestioned value: the British band Lush, masters of the gorgeous feedbacky guitar wash; demistars Pearl Jam; Ur-noisemakers the Jesus and Mary Chain; Seattle phenom Soundgarden; scary rapper Ice Cube; Chicago industrial rockers Ministry; and the rather slight but top-five-single-boasting Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The show was also designed as a festival; since not everyone was going to be into every band on the bill, the tour's organizers--notably Perry Farrell, late of Jane's Addiction, and several hipper industry types--provided a sort of midway of political groups and nouveau hippie merchandise, a side stage of lesser acts and novelty goings-on, and a variety of food stands proffering better-than-usual shed fare. (Among the novelty goings-on: a guy called Mr. Lifto, who had the ability to lift a surprising amount of weight with very unlikely body parts.) Viewed against the cheesiness that generally plagues large-scale undertakings like this, Lollapalooza was a relatively worthwhile and empathetic place to spend your money.
So why did it seem like such a drag? Two reasons. The first was that there wasn't an artistic draw of the first rank on the bill: Last year the lineup included one important band (Jane's Addiction), several respectable pretenders (Living Colour, Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T, the Butthole Surfers), and only one bona fide mistake (Siouxsie and the Banshees). This year there was one pretty good group (Ministry) and the influential but now rather passe Jesus and Mary Chain; the rest, to be blunt, all have an ephemeral air about them. (To be fair, these were probably the best the producers could get for the money they were offering. Last year the show boasted a Woodstockian aura of togetherness; this year it was plain that the producers were out to make some money.) It also didn't help that many of the bands had recently played Chicago: What's the appeal of seeing the Jesus and Mary Chain from a quarter of a mile away when they just played the Riv?
The second damper on the day was rain. Life in the age of the shed--those half concert hall, half grassy hill mega-arenas that can handle anywhere from about 20,000 people (Poplar Creek) to nearly 40,000 (Alpine Valley)--means that when it rains much of the audience gets wet and then sits in mud for the rest of the show. For those of us who were there, the rain that began around the time Pearl Jam started their set and quickly grew to downpour proportions meant that the words Lollapalooza '92 will forever conjure up the pungently aromatic memory of tens of thousands of soggy teens.
I know what you're thinking: If you don't want to chance getting rained on, buy a pavilion ticket. But in the case of Jam's 28,000-capacity World Music Theatre in Tinley Park, that solution was only partially amelioratory. The World's pavilion is designed with huge open "windows," 40, maybe 50 feet square, flanking the stage. These allowed sheets of rain to drench the pavilion audience during much of the first half of the show. In the event, this did not end up to be an entirely bad experience, for reasons I'll go into, but in principle charging people for a roof and then soaking them is hardly cricket.
The debacle was compounded by the sheer size of the World. Having brought nearly 30,000 kids together, about two-thirds of them drenched, the facility offered no place to go. Not too many shows at the World sell out: when one does traffic is a problem (that's another story), but once you get inside the venue manages to work for the three hours or so that it has to. The Lollapalooza festival, by contrast, asked a capacity crowd to occupy themselves for three times as long. The festival did offer its diversions, but they weren't enough: everywhere you went there were hordes of people, crowding around flower boxes, standing in lines for bathrooms, food, or drink, aimlessly pushing this way and that. The options of the 17,000 or so unlucky lawn dwellers involved (a) sitting in mud or (b) huddling like wet rats on the crowded midway and waiting patiently to dry out.
I'd seen Lollapalooza outside Saint Louis a week or two earlier. There the promoters didn't have to contend with rain, and the event was less crowded and less harried all the way around. It was almost idyllic, if idyllic is a word you can use to describe a scene that included a churning mosh pit 1,000 strong. To my unprofessional eye, the venue--Riverport Amphitheatre, where Axl Rose sparked a riot last year--seemed to have more open space than the World. That, combined with its 20,000 capacity--about 50 percent less than the World's--made for a calmer and more peaceful day. You didn't have to wait in line 30 minutes or longer for food; stretches of grass let fans maintain a few feet of personal space for a few minutes; and merely walking around to see the sights didn't feel like pushing your way into a vast, extremely crowded elevator.
If any more daylong festivals are in the works, the World should fence off some additional milling area and maybe even stock it with picnic tables so people have a place to sit. The venue's not inhospitable: when access to the lawn became a mud slide, a team of crowd-control folk laid down fencing to provide footholds and patiently and cheerfully helped fans climb up and down the hill. But I've said it before: kids who are treated like sheep will end up acting like animals. I wasn't surprised that as the day wore on, first paper plates and cups, and finally chunks of turf, were pitched into the air by the cranky masses on the lawn.
Jane's Addiction was led by Farrell, a strange guy who took the band's very weird metal base and alchemized it into an abrasive and disturbing brand of alternative rock. The band's '91 Lollapalooza shows, set against a glowing, cosmic landscape of strange figurines and ghostly apparitions, provided grand and scary theater. By contrast the Chili Peppers are pretty mild despite their name, though they're big news since the soggy "Under the Bridge" became a fluke top-40 radio hit. (The tone of the song, an obvious ballad about addiction, is adequately summed up by the fact that singer Anthony Kiedis refers to LA as "the city of angels.") The band's genre is college-division ultrafunk; they have a good bassist in Flea, but nothing approaching a songwriter. More dismaying are the Chili Peppers' offstage activities: Like Def Leppard and Guns n' Roses, they're one of those bands you can watch shrink in slow motion as death, drugs, and psychoses take their toll. Original guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988; after that, drummer Jack Irons split, tired of Kiedis's continuing addiction. (Kiedis says he's now cleaned up.) Just a few months ago Slovak's replacement, John Frusciante, left the band with no explanation, right in the middle of a tour. In the meantime the band keeps busy collecting criminal charges for activities such as indecent exposure, sexual battery, disorderly conduct, and solicitation to commit an unwanted and lascivious act. (This last happened when Flea jumped into the audience and threw a female fan over his shoulder, allowing drummer Chad Smith to spank her. Flea then threw her off and yelled obscenities at her--and that's just the Chili Peppers' version of events.) That the band was chosen to headline seemed dictated more by ticket-selling considerations than anything else. (On the eve of the tour members of the band complained that they couldn't even get in touch with Farrell.) Anyway, having the Peppers close the show just made Lollapalooza easier to deal with: you could leave early with a clear conscience, which is what I did.
With the exception of an impromptu speech by Ministry's Al Jourgensen at the World and a genuine lollapalooza of a move by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder in Saint Louis, the two shows I saw ran like clockwork and were fairly indistinguishable. Even the sideshow stuff was the same: a Chicago appearance by the rap group Cypress Hill never materialized. The high point of the non-main-stage activities was an outfit called the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, which featured acts like Mr. Lifto, who kept attendees transfixed with feats like lifting weights via a rope attached to his genitals. Rose himself, who's quite an emcee and isn't above a little charlatanism, talked a lot about people fainting during some of the weirder acts. I thought it was all hype, but when a performer stuck a wire skewer through his cheeks, a heavy guy who'd had too much to drink pitched onto the asphalt right in front of me. (It wasn't a plant; he hit face first.)
Lush started both shows off adequately, if in somewhat low-key fashion. Part of the new wave of British bands greatly influenced by the Jesus and Mary Chain, they craft gentle, almost lulling sweeps of guitar noise and then let the odd melody rise up out of the murk. Lush are much poppier and far less radical than the best of these bands, My Bloody Valentine, and somehow not as interesting. Barely moving and dressed in unnotable cutoffs and T-shirts, they were a bit lost playing such large arenas. (Lush benefited, though, from the fact that Pearl Jam, who are on the verge of becoming genuine stars, played immediately after them, and people arrived early so as not to miss Vedder and his cohorts. Last year's first two bands--the Rollins Band and the Butthole Surfers--played to an almost empty pavilion.)
The Pearl Jam set in Saint Louis was a dilly. On one level the band is merely another Seattle sludge slatherer, but unlike a lot of their compatriots--Soundgarden for example--these guys aren't in it merely for the sound. Instead they use the sludge as a setting for actual songs. Not that many of them, you understand, and nothing too daring--Pearl Jam is no Nirvana. Where Kurt Cobain's twisted psyche bubbles to the surface like a blister in each Nirvana song, lyricist Vedder tries far too hard to convey his feelings on such subjects as abused kids, the terrors of our modern world, and so forth. And both live and on video he tends to glare out into space with a portentous gleam in his eye--a clear case of advancing Bono-itis.
Anyway, at Riverport, playing at about three in the afternoon, the band had the entire venue bounding along to the songs. On the last number, Vedder, an inveterate stage diver, looked around for the best place from which to make his obligatory leap into the outstretched hands of the crowd. (The higher the better, is his motto.) He took a fancy to one of the giant pillars holding up the pavilion at the side of the stage. From the front, the pillars consisted of giant squares, six or eight feet high, each with a single diagonal beam bisecting it. Climbing it looked difficult but not impossible--indeed, large plastic plates had been placed over the bottom two or three squares of the pillars that anchored the back end of the roof, way out in the crowd, to stop kids from climbing them. The only thing between Vedder and the pillar was a bank of amplifiers pushed to the front of stage right. Grasping their wire-mesh fronts, Vedder pulled himself across, reached the pillar, and started clambering up it, giant rung by giant rung. The crowd started frothing at the mouth and clustered below Vedder in anticipation of his jump. But he didn't stop climbing; he continued to the top until he could, gingerly, reach out, grab hold, and swing himself up into the superstructure beneath the pavilion roof.
From there, he slowly, carefully half walked, half stumbled his way across the roof's undercarriage, some 50 feet above a frenzied crowd and a very hard floor. There was no catwalk, no handrail: Vedder essentially had to do a high-wire act, walking across a surface narrow as a balance beam about half the way. Beneath him was sheer pandemonium: The crowd, to put it mildly, was going nuts; the remaining members of Pearl Jam kept blasting their way through some riff onstage; from backstage, this or that manager type kept bursting out, barking into a walkie-talkie, and disappearing. Up on the lawn, people could tell something was happening, but were a little less certain in their excitement--until Vedder, after five minutes or so, reached the back of the pavilion, poked his head out, and waved to the crowd, eliciting a roar that was probably heard in Saint Louis, about 10 miles away. Vedder started shinnying down the breezeway pylon, only to discover the plastic shields. He half sat, half crouched, breathed hard, and watched the crowd grow some 20 feet below him. With nothing else to do, he jumped.
If a movie had been made of the incident, the moment he leapt off the pylon the picture would have switched to slow motion: we would see him stretch out his arms and hang for a moment or two in space before beginning his downward plunge. In real life, though, a guy who jumps off a pillar 20 feet up drops exactly like a stone. The kids' upstretched hands broke his fall; Vetter then pushed through the crowd, raced across the breezeway, tore down an aisle, and leapt back onstage. The band finished up the song and took off, just in time, I heard, to allow Vedder to throw up.
That was the high point for both shows. Pearl Jam's set in Chicago didn't boast anything as spectacular--the World's infrastructure didn't provide anything like the sort of toehold even a master improviser like Vedder needs. But the band's grandeur on "Alive" and "Even Flow"--and the pleasant memories of the Saint Louis show--made me happy to bounce around to the music even as the rain lashed my face.
The Jesus and Mary Chain, who followed, didn't have much to offer: their heavily feedbacked pop songs require the sort of concentration that is difficult to command in an arena. The crowd liked Soundgarden, but the band bored me to tears; neither was the sort of band I'd recommend enduring rain to see. Ice Cube, the writer of "____ tha Police" back in his days with N.W.A., and now a sometime actor (Boyz N the Hood) and mildly interesting solo rapper, was so loud that anything he was trying to communicate was unintelligible. If he said anything controversial besides the occasional "bitch," I didn't hear it. By the time I got up at the back of the lawn, where he was audible, he was doing a tired routine that pitted the men against the women in a contest to see who could holler the loudest. I think the guys won, or maybe it was the girls.
The best band of the day was Chicago's Ministry. In Georges Franju's Le sang des betes ("Blood of the Beasts"), a 1949 documentary on the Paris stockyards, there's a dreadful tool that the workers use: You could think of it as either a huge pneumatic staple gun or a miniaturized version of those massive construction machines that drive pylons into building foundations. Workmen would hold the thing up to a horse's or cow's forehead, and the machine would inject a metal rod into the animal's brain, killing it instantly. The poor thing would rise a foot or so into the air, its legs would fold up under it, and it would fall to the ground.
Ministry is the sound of that machine. The music is roughly the hardest metal you've ever heard, but it's played out over an unyielding, dehumanized industrial base. On the top comes leader Al Jourgensen's growling, largely unintelligible rants, fighting for dominance with slashing, screaming samples. Onstage the band--on record it's just Jourgensen and bassist and programmer Paul Barker--was filled out with about five guitarists, all blasting in unison.
By the time Ministry came on, the crowd on the lawn had gotten riled up and was pitching thousands of beer and pop cups, paper plates, shirts, shoes, just about anything up into the air. Ministry's unspeakably loud "N.W.O." started the show, and I thought that with their ears gushing blood the crowd might calm down, but no: they started digging up the nice damp turf from the lawn and pitching chunks of it around. Finally, after a couple of songs, Jourgensen, who sports a garish goatee and a hugely exaggerated black cowboy hat, had had enough, and in a blistering, sarcastic speech he told the crowd that it had to choose between grass throwing and music listening. This is a good way to get laughed out of an arena, but Jourgensen's a scary guy, and the crowd actually calmed down. Ministry went back to trying to shake their spines apart. As for me, after seven hours in Tinley Park, a third of it in one line or another, and another third being rained on, I was ready to go. Only Mr. Lifto, I was convinced, had had a rougher day.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.