Lollapaloser

Screaming Trees had just ripped into "Nearly Lost You" when I spotted him -- a dusty-haired kid of about fourteen, standing alone, mouthing the words to the band's 1992 hit. He was like a lot of the other people who gathered in West Palm Beach last Thursday beneath a scalding and merciless sun for Lollapalooza. He was swaying subtly to the chunky, power-chord rock, his hands jammed deep into the pockets of a baggy pair of army-green shorts, his white Sub Pop Records T-shirt soaked with sweat, his Nike-clad feet shuffling in the off-white sand poured over the South Florida Fairgrounds. He caught my eye because he kept looking over his shoulders -- first the right side, then the left, then back again toward the stage, like a kid huffing on a joint, waiting for his parents to catch him midtoke.

Turns out the kid wasn't stoned, nor was he fourteen. He was sixteen and his name was Bill. He and four other guys made the three-hour drive down from Orlando for the festival. He said his friends -- die-hard punk purists all in their late teens -- wouldn't have been caught dead at the festival were it not for the appearance of the Ramones, the punk-rock lifers who have decided to hang up their leather jackets in retirement when Lollapalooza wraps up in early August. Bill, on the other hand, was interested in nearly all of the seven acts lined up for the main stage: not Metallica, really, but the Ramones definitely, and also Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, and Rancid. He said he didn't care much about Rage Against the Machine, and was unimpressed with what he saw and heard of festival openers Psychotica (both good calls). He didn't know much about most of the second-and third-stage groups also slated for the afternoon and evening, but was curious about the Cows and the Melvins (again, both good calls).

Asked if he was having a good time, he grimaced and fished a crumpled Marlboro Light out of a damp, flattened pack. "Not really," he grumbled, turning against the wind to light the wrinkled cigarette. "My friends have been giving me shit all the way down here 'cause I like some of these bands," he said of his punk pals, who were milling around at the second stage on the other side of the fairgrounds. Bill went on to explain that in order to catch the Trees without his buddies giving him shit, he told them he was heading to the portatoilets, figuring he could catch a couple of songs and head back before they got suspicious.

This seemed to me a lousy way to spend a day at a rock show and I said so. Bill shrugged his shoulders and agreed, and we both turned our attention back to the stage, where the Trees had been working the hypnotic groove behind "Gospel Plow." About ten minutes later, the last song crashed to a halt and the band left the stage. I glanced back over my left shoulder, then my right, but Bill had apparently gone back to his buddies to sit tight for the Ramones, a prisoner of his own passions.

That was the last I saw of Bill -- not surprising, since nearly 30,000 people had converged on the fairgrounds for Lollapalooza. Still, I couldn't shake his pitiful story nor the elitism of his buddies, which, unfortunately, echoes the general sentiment concerning the sixth annual version of the event: It's just too damn popular. Because this year's lineup is heavy with hard-rock hit-makers (Metallica, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees) and commercially established punk outfits (the Ramones, Rancid), pundits and purists have dubbed the festival a sell-out of the alternative-minded ethos that once defined the traveling caravan. Even the festival's co-creator and spiritual advisor, Jane's Addiction/Porno for Pyros mastermind Perry Farrell, has disowned Lollapalooza. The highly profitable venture is apparently too much for his alt-rock conscience to bear, so he's set up another package tour, dubbed ENIT, which will debut this September.

Actually, the conservative lineup for this year's Lollapalooza isn't surprising, since festival organizers took a bath last year with a roster loaded with underground darlings such as Sonic Youth, Pavement, and the Jesus Lizard. It only makes sense that some moneymaking sure things would be brought in to help recoup losses. And that's fine: They don't call it a music business for nothing, and frankly, I'll take Metallica over the Jesus Lizard any day or night. However, that doesn't excuse the lack of adventure or imagination in this year's edition. Con-sider: For its maiden voyage in 1991, the package included a seven-act roster that, in addition to Jane's Addiction, paired industrial with Goth (Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie and the Banshees), metal with rap (Living Colour, Rollins Band, Ice-T), and the singular skronk of the Butthole Surfers. None of the bands were financial risks, true, but putting them together was both a risky move and an inspired move. And, surprisingly, it paid off. Subsequent affairs balanced a similar mix of the established (the Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam, Hole) and the oddball (Boredoms, Pavement), adding pure shots of hardcore rap (A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube) and, in 1994, a straight-up belt of raw funk served by George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars.

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