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.
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.
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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."
Whether or not you agree with Armstrong's assessment, that kind of passion is what rock and roll should always inspire, whether you're playing it or listening to it, buying it or selling it. It's not about wearing the right clothes or making records for the right label or whether you sell five million records or five hundred. It's not about adhering to some murky concept of cool or staying true to some lofty principals no one can even clearly define. I don't know what it's about exactly, and I would never pretend to. But I think it has something to do with belonging -- the feeling that comes when you hear the right song the right way; like you've found a kindred spirit, a kindred voice, even if that feeling lasts only as long as the song is playing. That's what makes paying attention to this stuff worthwhile, worth the time, money, and effort. Sadly, there were few such moments during last week's Lollapalooza. There were just too many voices missing, and too many other voices griping about too many stupid things. It's hard to have fun amid that kind of nonsense. I think Bill would agree.