When critics groused that first year about the lack of any independent-label artists on the bill, festival organizers responded in 1992 with a second (and later a third) stage designed for lesser known acts. Since then, underground groups ranging from Sebadoh and the Dirty Three to Superchunk, Flaming Lips, and Guided by Voices have been featured and have probably sold more records as a result of the exposure. However, discontent still lingers. When I interviewed Melvins guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osbourne a few weeks back, he complained of his group's relegation to the second stage for Lollapalooza '96. "I think we should be on the main stage," he said matter-of-factly, and really, who could blame him? His band has been around longer than every main-stage act except the Ramones and Metallica; worse, for the West Palm Beach stop on the tour, the Melvins were stuck in a time slot that pitted them against the Ramones.

Punk rockers have always been obsessed with notions of musical purity and alternative aesthetics and concepts of selling out to major-label corporations. Never mind that those ideas fly in the face of the embracing and communal spirit that rock and roll has always embodied. Punk's greatest power when it arrived in the mid Seventies was its determination and ability to make people reevaluate their preconceptions of what rock and roll should sound like, what it should do -- its insistence upon drawing a line separating what was new from what was old. The Clash defined the moment best with its aesthetic-setting anthem "1977," when Joe Strummer shouted the oft-quoted refrain "No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones." It's a great song, one that holds up surprisingly well considering its of-the-moment obsession, but it hardly diminishes the power of something like "Hound Dog," "Twist and Shout," or "Jumpin' Jack Flash." And besides, trying to live by the oppressive edict of "1977" is as foolish as it is impossible, as the Clash found out for themselves when, in the early Eighties they started having hits and, thus, became a target for a new wave of punk-rock standard-bearers. Try to live by those rules and you can wind up like Kurt Cobain, a punk purist who thought heroin and suicide were the only ways to deal with the stardom and celebrity he achieved with Nirvana. For hard-liners like Bill's friends, those rules can turn something like Lollapalooza into a punker-than-thou pissing match, a confrontation between the "cool" and the "commercial" where no fun is had by all. And where does that leave someone like Bill? Ashamed of his own tastes, reduced to copping a surreptitious groove like it was a dime bag of weed.

Beyond vague concepts of artistic purity, et cetera, the most troubling aspect of this year's festival has mostly escaped the wrath of embittered critics and scorned fans. Has anyone noticed the lack of any female artists or African-American artists on the bill? Last Thursday the only black voice I heard from the PA arrived between sets, when N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" came booming from the system; the only female voices came from the audience. This is disturbing not just because those voices should be heard, but because in the past Lollapalooza has done a very good job of getting those voices heard. This year, though, there was no Living Colour or Elastica; no Breeders, Fishbone, or Babes in Toyland; no Hole, L7, or Ice Cube; no Ice-T or Arrested Development. Instead, you simply had an endless succession of white guys playing loud guitars. Diversity was at a minimum and no one was the better for it -- not the punk kids in the mosh pit breaking skin and bones to the roar of Rancid and Rage Against the Machine; not the air-guitar masses rocking in unison to Soundgarden and Metallica; and not the thirtysomething oldsters shouting the words to "Cretin Hop," "Pinhead" and other Ramones staples.

Not that there weren't some revelatory moments during the 10-hour endurance test. Rancid's three indie-label albums sound to me like derivative relics of the '77 punk era, but the dynamics of their live show are timeless and ageless. Ragingly alive with the same determination and sense of purpose as their heroes in the Clash, Rancid were an on-stage riot of motion. Co-vocalists Lars Frederiksen and Tim Armstrong zigzagged from mike to mike, banging the bejesus out of their guitars and delivering a ska-laced kind of punk that rocked with an authority I hope they someday capture on record. The moody classicism of Screaming Trees did it for me best, with the gravelly rumble of vocalist Mark Lanegan cutting through the maelstrom conjured by flange-guitar king Gary Lee Conner, culminating in an epic version of "Julie Paradise." And only a cynic could fault the Ramones for hauling out the two-minute oldies just one more time. It was a beautiful sight: a band that's been around for over twenty years pummeling with professional force an audience that, for the most part, wasn't even born when the band knocked out its 29-minute debut album back in 1976. Rancid's Tim Armstrong -- who shared vocals with the band during "53rd and 3rd" -- got it right when, midway through his own band's set, he called the Ramones "the best fuckin' band in the fuckin' world."

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