LOLLAPALOOZA once had the chance to be the greatest rock’n’roll circus the planet had ever seen. But, in spite of the live spectacle of VERVE, NICK CAVE, L7, SMASHING PUMPKINS and BEASTIE BOYS, this American dream no seems to have become no more than the sum of its musical parts. KEITH CAMERON, however, still finds the bands in high spirits in the face of half-full parking lots.
MAYBE IT’S ALL to do with things looking better from far, far away. Improbable as it might seem, in the alternative rock-worshipping portals of America, the dear old Reading Festival is cast in the same mythical awe as a long-dead jazz great or sporting hero. “That Reeding Festival,” young men and women of unkempt demeanour are wont to drawl. “Dude, you mean you’ve actually been there? Five times?!”
Well, like the song suggests, the difference between ‘tomayto’ and ‘tomato’ is small but significant and, over on this side of the pond, we naturally have our own version of the tale to tell. Mention that you’ve been to Lollapalooza in any reputable record shop of a chain with no name persuasion and the response is the same. Wow! Really? Go on, you’re kidding. You’ve actually been to Lollapalooza?! Um, what… what’s Perry Farrell really like?
Who knows whether the hardy US citizens who actually make it to Reading regard the event in a similarly exalted light once they’ve stood in a damp Thames Valley field for three days pondering the wisdom of making a visit to the Portaloos, but there’s nothing like in-the-raw experience for hurrying up the demystification process.
So it is with Lollapalooza, that freaky deaky travelling harlequinade of far-out far-outness built around the hedonistic impulses of His Perryness to lay on a ’90s Woodstock for all his mates, lavishly appointed for the purposes of turning up, tuning in, rocking out and passing the taco sauce.
For a start, Mr Farrell’s presence is elusive. He owns the name; that much is certain, not least to the Ford Motor Company who recently bowed to Perry pressure in the courts after he had objected to their use of the L-word in an Escort ad. Yet beyond this, with appropriately Farrell-esque logic, things get a bit fuzzy.
According to the official Lollapalooza newspaper Teeth, Perry “defines in the creative sense what Lollapalooza will be in any particular year”. He claimed recently that last year’s ‘Looza wasn’t as mind-jarringly great as it should have been because he didn’t get very involved in its conception. “Some people just stopped thinking it really was more than just a rock’n’roll concert,” he told Spin magazine. “To me, it’s more about youth culture…”
Hmmm. A tricky, hard-to-define chappie, ol’ youth culture. But as it wheels into its fourth year, Lollapalooza is such a huge business machine that one wonders exactly how easy it is for Farrell and his co-producers to legislate for anything other than a top rockin’ day out with decent nosh stalls. The regimented precision required to move 15 bands from one location to another for two months seems to inevitably mitigate against the spontaneity and laissez faire vibe Farrell presumably envisaged when he dreamt up the whole gas in the first place.
This brave attempt to replicate the annual happening in a different place every other day is variously alleged to be: the greatest rock event on the entire planet ever; a cash cow for its notorious patron; both; neither, just a top rockin’ day out with decent nosh stalls. How depressing it would be to find that the truth of the matter lies closest to the last of these. Step this way, friends…
IT IS a searing hot late afternoon when we arrive at Harriet Island, St Paul, Minnesota, apparently a dustbowl version of Reading with the Mississippi guesting as the Thames. It is Tuesday and Dee Plakas from L7 has green hair.
This year’s Lollapalooza features a main stage line-up of Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, George Clinton, The Breeders, A Tribe Called Quest, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, L7 and The Boredoms (to be replaced for the second month by Green Day). The second stage bill shifts over the two-month period, but for St Paul and the next two shows in Milwaukee and Chicago it reads: The Flaming Lips, Verve, Luscious Jackson, Rollerskate Skinny and The Frogs.
Aside from the tragic fact that Nirvana were to be the original headliners, there is a consensus agreement that this line-up works well, balancing both esoteric and financial concerns, giving all-over excitement to the ’90s MTV kid’s palette. It could conceivably claim to be daring (Nick Cave means very little to most Americans), educational (most of those present would be unwittingly familiar with George Clinton due to the faithful reproduction of his best grooves by the likes of Dr Dre and Cypress Hill) and with no preponderant bias to American acts (a criticism of ‘Looza ’93).
And hey, St Paul looks like a festival. A flat field with a big stage at one end and a little one stuck in a corner, lots of food stalls, smelly toilets (courtesy of Port-A-John) and beer tents operating a complicated (to an unsophisticated European, at any rate) ticket system. As dusk falls fires are lit and people start fighting. Yup, it’s Reading with sunshine that even Boots Maximum Factor 25 is powerless to resist.
Backstage, too, all is harmonious and as it should be. Billy Corgan shoots basketball with various Beasties, Kim Deal steals cigarettes from the NME photographer and Gallon Drunk’s James Johnston, temporary Bad Seed, is trying to open a bottle of wine. “All my new friends,” he guffaws in the general direction of everyone else. “Would they lend me a corkscrew? Would they f—. That’s the Lollapalooza spirit for you!”
While onstage George Clinton and his ever-shifting mass of P-Funk All-Stars pull off the impossible by paring down their regulation four-hour set to a mere 50 minutes, the hospitality area entertainment chores are handled by Tom Hazelmyer, head honcho at local label Amphetamine Reptile. The vast quantities of alcohol he has consumed over the previous five hours do not seem to have diminished his comic acumen, which essentially revolves around charging a star with real or imagined crimes.
Example: Kim Deal, trying to stop smoking, is “on the patch”.
“Hey Kim!” yells Hazelmyer in his best dumb-ass steelworker drawl. “You take the patch, that makes you a quitter! C’mon, you started smoking, you gotta see it through to the end…”
Billy Corgan is next. “Corrigan, Corgy, whatever the f— you call yourself, tell us the truth. You play the guitar, right? Are you into wadda-wadda-wadda-wee (mimes guitar solo complete with facial histrionics), or wadda-wadda-wadda-way? C’mon, we need to know, it’s important. C’mon boy, what’s your gimmick?”
“Oh, you know, dysfunction.”
Tom interestingly claims that Steve Albini’s number is now listed in the Chicago phone book under ‘Dead Cobain’. “Can you believe that? He only earned maybe $100,000 from the guy. And he ain’t about to give it back, either.”
Billy: “I’d been in a band in Chicago for four years and he had made not one comment about us, not a peep, so I thought, ‘Great, I’ve managed to mean nothing to him and his circle’. Siamese Dream comes out and wham! I’m an asshole all of a sudden…”
Tom decides it’s time to start chasing Billy round the table. Everyone else decides it’s time to go and watch the Beastie Boys incite a stampede on Harriet Island. They finish with ‘Sabotage’ and completely mess it up, so they start again. Faced with this unscheduled interlude, the audience goes bananas and creates a duststorm that will eventually leave all present caked with a thin layer of Minnesota muck.
Although the crowd is notably appreciative to all the performers, in truth most people are here for the Beasties and the Pumpkins. The latter make for what must be close to the ultimate open air rockfest show: perfect sound, a lighting spectacular, slow songs, fast songs, songs that are both slow and fast and sound not unlike Queen. Corgan is a natural performer, emotional, demonstrative, but not unaware of the humour and ridiculousness inherent in what he is doing. His Morecambe & Wise routines with guitarist James Iha get better, too.
B: “We’ve been talking to the people backstage and they all say this is the best day yet.”
J: “Yeah, but we’ve just been talking to the catering people. So it’s been a good day for catering.”
Yok! For an encore, James goes bonkers.
“People of Minnesota, we applaud you. Now let’s see some evil hands. C’mon you f—ers, EVIL HANDS! NOW!!! I wanna see ’em! Get those evil hands in the air! C’mon, Ronnie James Dio, you know what I’m talkin’ about! Er, or maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. Oh well…”
Verdict: apart from the voracious local mosquitoes, a success.
IT IS an overcast early afternoon when we arrive at the Marcus Amphitheatre, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The World Cup semi-finals took place the previous day. It is therefore Thursday and Dee Plakas from L7 has purple hair.
The venue, in the considered opinion of one Lollapalooza official, is “a dump”. And she’s right. A purpose built concrete bowl, two-thirds covered by a roof, fixed seats, no atmosphere. As opposed to the second stage and the stall areas, which have all the atmosphere of a car park. This could have something to do with the fact that they are in the car park. The various vendors, stall-holders and rentaloonies try their best but there’s not much you can do with ambience about as ambient as a Kwik-Fit forecourt.
Grunge-On-A-Stick is one of the more enterprising sales pitches, as two girls attempt to flog plaid shirt squares masquerading as lollipops. Free Marijuana! is another, until you realise that in this context “free” is a verb rather than an adjective. Oh well, signing up for the Cannabis Action Network passes a few seconds before joining The Bad Seeds in partaking of those near-legendary Boredoms.
Not one person could be found to offer a less than fulsome opinion of these Osaka crazies. Nick Cave was especially appreciative. And as it turns out, no-one at Lollapalooza is more appreciative of Nick Cave than L7. At Glastonbury, they had intimated their chief ambition for the tour was to discover how much the Caveman drank each day. Now it seems they had found out and were determined to exceed it.
With Dee providing side-of-stage aerobics to the Bad Seeds’ set, it’s all ready for Donita to don her best sombrero and go roller-skating across the stage to the understandable astonishment of all concerned. Afterwards, the burgeoning L7-Cave mutual let-love-in continues apace. Dee announces that her fella’s coming to the Chicago show, “so if you see the bus rockin’ don’t come a knockin’!” Mr Cave raises a quizzical eyebrow, then hastily decides to engage your correspondent in conversation.
“So what do you think of Lollapalooza?”
“Er, good concept, pretty horrendous reality.”
“Seem to have made your mind up awfully fast. But to be honest, you’re absolutely right. We’ve done so many pointless tours of America before, that with this we’ve decided to just give it our best shot and then leave it forever. We’ve made a great album, done a video and we’re doing Lollapalooza. And if we never come back, at least our consciences will be clear this time.”
And how. If anything, the adverse circumstances impel The Bad Seeds onto new realms of regal authority. Cave surveys the rows of empty seats, peers for the few pockets of support randomly distributed around the bowl, shrugs, then performs with all the bullish logic of a man with nothing to lose. Not even Donita’s death-defying traverse of the stage can faze them, with freshman Johnston maintaining a suitably Blixa-esque demeanour in the face of this unscheduled infiltration, as well as hawking an unexpected German accent from the depth of his boots.
For whatever reason. Cave’s unique package of vaudevillian soul-baring continues to leave this audience cold. This is depressing, not least for the fact that A Tribe Called Quest’s drab, one-dimensional set manages to present their impressive body of recorded work in the feeblest of lights and yet still brings the Marcus Amphitheatre to its feet for the first time in the day.
They’re on the bill at the behest of the Beasties, a nod to one of hip-hop’s core innovators, yet serve only to resurrect the usual clichés about blokes shouting incomprehensibly over a bunch of records with no treble.
The Breeders too have a rep for wobblesome stage manoeuvres but the only item not nailed to the floor in their impeccably zestful 35 minutes was skin-smacker Jim McPherson’s generously bared midriff. Oh, that and Kim’s patch, which went for a ceremonial burton prior to ‘Cannonbal’. This Deal’s no quitter, OK?
The last words come from B-Boy Ad-Rock, who’s still on a high from Glastonbury, wishing there was something like it in the US. Implying, therefore, that this place — capacity 23,000, less than half full — is not it. An astute young man.
AN HOUR’S drive south from Chicago city centre brings you to Tinley Park, a pancake-flat stretch of green scrub into which some bright spark has dropped a larger replica of the Marcus Amphitheatre. Same fixed seats, same narky security people insisting everyone sits in their allotted bucket pews, same prevailing car park vibe. Called the World Music Theatre, The Eagles played here two days ago. It is Friday and Dee Plakas from L7 has a hangover.
Mind you, the rapidly burning sun means it’s all kicking off in the Mist Tent, a cooling haze of spray which easily stands out as the only worthwhile innovation Lollapalooza has over Glasters (apart, perhaps, from the ludicrously vaultable perimeter fences).
It’s a struggle to have anything like a quorum at the second stage in time for the 1 pm kick off with The Frogs, veteran folkcore japesters out of Milwaukee dealing in gratuitously offensive nursery rhyme ditties such as ‘Rape, It’s Not A Big Deal’, and ‘Homos’ — “they’re the best”. As if mega-crap stage-outfits and crowd-pleasing bouncer-baiting were not enough, they decide to wheel on an extra guitarist for the climactic ‘Star’. “Here’s a young man trying to break into showbiz,” our Froggy mainman announces. “I won’t do any interviews,” sings the vaguely familiar new kid. “I won’t sign any autographs/Don’t give a shit about the fans — don‘t you hate the star?”
In this case, no, ‘cos it’s the boy Corgy himself, laying down some yummy lumps of self-parody in the name of what Lollapalooza is supposed to be about — The Unexpected. A clutch of girls who’ve just arrived to check out what’s happening here on Bay, sorry, Stage 2 all but swoon when they realise what’s going on. To their relief, Corgy (or “James Iha” as those crazy Frogs call him) hangs around for more, lending authentic irony and guitar histrionics to ‘In The Year Of Our Lord Grunge’. A hearty vote of thanks to all concerned.
There’s just time to catch enough of The Boredoms’ set to realise they’ve achieved the impossible and outdone the previous day’s performance simply by the careful addition of one cardboard box (over Toyohito Yoshikawa’s head) and a Tasmanian Devil T-shirt. “We are playing Club Metro tonight,” announces drummer and trumpet operative Yoshimi P-We. “All welcome.”
Well, any excuse to get out of this place. But attendance for L7 is compulsory, especially if you’re a Bad Seed. The boss has clearly cracked the three-line whip and every last one of his crew makes a toe-tapping side-of-stage appearance, reciprocating the gels’ generous support the previous day.
For no immediately obvious reason, L7 have bedecked their stage with a cheap’n’cheerful winter scene: snowflakes, giant snowman, the whole Rudolph. They ham it up good. “Oh aren’t you nice! You’re so nice!” Donita admonishes the less than animated scattering. Some hard-won audience participation eventually ensues but another six weeks of this can hardly be the most edifying prospect to take to bed every night.
This much is confirmed by Jennifer. “Oh well, never mind, it’ll all be a distant memory by tomorrow. Until it happens again…”
The Bad Seeds, once again, are stupendous. Today’s garnish on another enthralling stagger along the precipice of heartache takes the emerald green form of Martyn P Casey’s sharpest suit, plus Nick’s decision to embark upon an impassioned session of Let’s Kill The Roadie With The Microphone. After limbering up with a few matey lobs, he soon goes for it in concerted fashion, hurling the troublesome item squarely at the poor lad’s head. It was nothing personal, Nick assures us later on. Clearly in a particularly trenchant frame of mind this afternoon, he is soon ordering his only over-enthusiastic local fan to “sit down and behave yourself”.
The Old Country contingent on this stretch of Lollapalooza number but two: Rollerskate Skinny and Verve (or The Verve as your local friendly lawyer would now have it). Both are doing battle with the vexatious beast that is the second stage, both with varying degrees of success.
The ‘Skinny are rapidly discovering that with a lunchtime slot their audience is dependent on how many punters have made an early trawl out to whichever suburban backwater we’re in that day. In the badly undersold Milwaukee it was very few indeed, but Chicago sees a respectable and moderately appreciative showing for their well marshalled brand of grooveocious clatter. In their spare time they opt against mingling with the natives and play football with The Verve instead.
“We’re happy to be here,” considers Not At All Mad, Actually, Richard. It wasn’t looking so good for the slinksome Vervemeister four days ago in Kansas City when, the afternoon after an ill-advised drinking bout with The Bad Seeds and The Breeders, he complained to his manager of feeling a little off-colour. “Yeah, right,” came the heard-this-one-before response. Richard, however, upped the ante by collapsing into convulsions, thus prompting the arrival of a paramedic team.
“All I can remember is lying in the ambulance with a drip sticking in my arm thinking, ‘Shit, I’m in an episode of 911!’ It was every day of the past six years catching up with me all at once. Still, time of our lives, this.”
And, indeed, it must be, for how else would Richard get to drive around in a golf cart with members of fellow second-stagers Luscious Jackson or happen to bump into George Clinton and receive an autographed Funkadelic T-shirt for his troubles?
About the only cloud raining on The Verve’s parade belongs to a busload of Tibetan monks parked next door to the boys’ cruisemobile, who in Chicago decide to vent their chemical toilet a little earlier than would have been hospitable. “Holy water!” grins Richard, holding his nose.
The monks are at Lollapalooza to open proceedings on the main stage with a bout of no-holds barred chanting and round off each day on the car park stage by dancing in full costume accompanied by what one presumes to be the Tibetan version of the Alpine horn. They’re here at the instigation of budding Buddhist Beastie Boy Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch, who advises us that the daily chant session serves to bless the space and all who occupy it that day.
“Originally, the idea was to give away some information at a booth,” he says, “and then we managed to put this idea of having the monks here doing sacred arts. It’s just so people can get a feeling for Tibet, ‘cos most of what’s shown in the media is just about the genocide the Chinese are committing on them. People have to see how amazing their culture is.
“That’s the way I got interested in it. I was over in Nepal, I went to a monastery and saw the monks, met some Tibetan people, went to a Tibetan wedding and just fell in love with the culture. Then I started finding out what was actually happening there.
“In terms of the Tibetans’ understanding of reality and humanity and their own minds they’re probably the most advanced culture on the planet and it’s a pity that’s on the verge of being destroyed. Some people might think it’s a little far-fetched but the way I see the world is that there are no accidents and the reason this is happening to their culture is to export their understanding of reality to the rest of the world.
“It’s like a crossroads for the planet. Either it’ll go one way and people’ll move on to higher consciousness or we won’t cross the bridge and we’ll just blow it up in the process of trying to figure it out. We’re at the brink.”
Scoff if you will, but this is quite a way from ‘Fight For Your Right To Party’.
The success of Lollapalooza in provoking thoughts beyond where the next bean burrito is coming from is inevitably tough to ascertain, but such ideals crave a sympathetic environment, and no amount of virtual reality interactive gizmos like the Electric Carnival (“A world in which the machines that count out days are transformed into marvelous (sic) contraptions of creative delight”) or the Chameleon (“Take a trip with the Labyrinth Rangers and engage in an interplanetary battle against evil Graak forces” et bleeding cetera) are going to lift people even temporarily out of their petty little selves when the entire shebang is so blatantly set up to MAKE AS MUCH MONEY AS POSSIBLE.
There can be no other reason for holding the event in clinical, prefab enormosheds like the World Music Theatre. At least in the case of Glastonbury, any impression of lascivious Mammon-worshipping is diluted almost completely by the sheer other-worldliness of the setting.
This much is not lost on the performers, who all express a preference for the fields — like Harriet Island — over the amphitheatres. In this context, according to Billy Corgan, the second stage and its attendant sideshows are doubly important.
“The second stage is vital,” proclaimeth the Pumpkinhead. “You could still draw a good 20,000 people with just the Pumpkins, the Beastie Boys and maybe one other band. So what’s the point beyond just making money? The point is by some form of loose solidarity you embrace the reason we all play music in the first place, which is that it’s a great environment to be around.
“And ultimately the residue is that a lot of kids who haven’t even heard of The Flaming Lips or whoever are gonna go, ‘Wow, this is really f—ing cool, I didn’t know this existed’.
“Hopefully, the end result enhances the idea that there’s room for everybody, that just because it doesn’t sell a million records doesn’t mean it’s any less important or any less vital. Larger bands tend to have a greater impact in the long run, but it’s really what goes on at the grass roots level that affects music more than anything.
“Because that’s where the energy comes from. The energy does not come from this,” he waves at the grey bulk of the WMT. “I’m sorry, it doesn’t. This is like a Broadway show and we’re just doing the Broadway version of the Pumpkins.”
The Pumpkins do Broadway as well as any band with a brain could be expected to. But the clear-headed, immensely astute Corgan is forced by the prospect of another six weeks to consider the long-term implications on his band of what amounts to yet another US tour in support of an album now over a year old.
“We’re not gonna take it out on these people because we’re bored, we’re gonna do the best we can, but I think mentally we’re ready to move on to other territory. The success has really made me reassess what I want out of this.
“On a strictly penis ego level, being able to draw 10,000 people is flattering, it’s like having a pretty girl come after you. But what if the pretty girl’s got no f—ing brains? And that’s what it’s like. Playing to masses of people is ultimately soulless. It can be transcendental and you can have your U2 moments when you bring everyone to their feet, but what you have to give up to get that is not a fair trade. It’s definitely time to pull back and think things over.”
The Beasties’ Mike D takes a similarly realistic, very un-Farrell-esque, view of proceedings.
“It’s all compromise. Our only concern was to get as far away from doing a ‘rock’ festival as we could. We did that somewhat with the line-up. In the end, though, when I walk around the whole event sometimes I get… not depressed but I think audience-wise this is still a rock festival.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re not bringing different people into it. But maybe we’ve exposed different things to those same people. Adam Yauch always reminds me when I get frustrated about this that it’s a much slower process than I think. I guess I thought, OK, you put all these cool bands together, you put out your message and all of a sudden you’re gonna change the face of what’s going on. But you’re not.”
Maybe if it was rearranged into, say, ten three-day festivals across the country. Maybe if genuinely unusual venues were sought for every show. Maybe it should never have been allowed to exist beyond its original function, i.e. so Jane’s Addiction could split up in style.
Maybe. But as it stands right now, in the concrete and steel Armageddon of mall-belt America, Lollapalooza will only ever be as good as the bands who choose to fall in under its banner. Is that really good enough?
© Keith Cameron, New Musical Express, 30 July 1994