Since its inception, Lollapalooza has relied on clashing genres: Perry Farrell and Ice-T pairing on Sly and the Family Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey"; Courtney Love and Sinead O'Connor bonding over diapers backstage; or Ice Cube getting 20,000 rednecks to like him.
Few stories, however, illustrate the dichotomy of this year's Lollapalooza better than the afternoon in West Palm Beach, Florida, a few weeks ago, when a girl came up to Rancid's Tim Armstrong and begged him to get her backstage. Scantily clothed, she pleaded her case: "Please, Tim, I've got to go there," she insisted. "The drummer from Metallica said he'd do a line on my tits!"
Tim, who shaved his mohawk a few weeks before but spent 10 years in hard-core heaven, responded, "Do a line? You mean, he's going to a draw a picture on your tits?" Armstrong's words sound impossibly naive--unless you consider just how low-key bands have become in the past five years; Guns N' Roses-style antics are over.
Or are they? This is the question that animates Lollapalooza 1996--the same one that has seemingly kept audiences across the country at bay. On one side, the indie heroes in Rancid--straight-edge DIY punk rockers; on the other, Metallica--champion of humorless heavy metal complete with thudding bass lines and high-neck guitar solos, naked babes and pyrotechnics. In theory, a tour that joins these populist elements should create a mighty metal synergy, but in practice the two have turned out to be more antithetical than gangsta rap and Euro-disco.
Punk and metal--antithetical? Get outta here! It seems the least daring mixture ever: Second stagers The Melvins have been welding the Dead Kennedys to Black Sabbath since Kurt Cobain was knee-high to Dee Dee Ramone. Initially, thinking was that a Lollapalooza featuring Metallica and Soundgarden--both with No. 1 albums this year--would be far too popular to cram into undersized amphitheaters. But to audiences in the heartland the combo proved scarier than an Ice-T/Butthole Surfers double bill; ticket sales--although similar to other years--were about half what was expected.
How come? "I don't have any idea," shrugs tour manager Stuart Ross. "One theory says that Metallica audiences are waiting for Metallica to do their big production in an arena and don't want to come wade through eight hours of alternative music. Theory two is that the alternative audience has been turned off by the fact that Metallica's on the bill. Third is the fact that we raised the ticket price. Then there's the issue that we're in fields; some of our audiences are too young to drive, and their parents may have been hesitant to take them to a venue they don't already know as a nice, safe environment. Lastly, it's a slim music summer. I hear that no show except for KISS is doing well."
Newport, Tennessee, had an attendance of 19,000. The week before the New Orleans show, only 10,000 tickets for it had been sold. (That number rose to 18,500 by showtime.) In Ferris, 50 miles south of Dallas--a huge Metallica market--attendance was approximately 20,000.
The irony is that the festival was nine hours of hard rock as eclectic as it comes: punk, metal, new wave, glam, grunge, and goof-rock. Critics have charged that by excluding more so-called "alternative" acts--including the token female and rap acts of previous tours--Lollapalooza retreated to the safety of the old white-male mainstream; what it really returned to was sheer entertainment. Tour T-shirts proclaimed a "summer of noise," and for such a season you couldn't assemble a more disparate--or appealing--group. There was no ultra-hip indie act this year, no Pavement or Guided by Voices, but there was great nonstop rock.
"What I like about these acts is that there aren't trendy flash-in-the-pan acts like Bush," says 20-year-old Mark Weinberg, guitarist for third-stage band Crumb. "They all have really deep roots...My favorite bands are Sebadoh and Pavement, but for Tennessee, Rage, Metallica, and Rancid are so much more appropriate a definition of alternative."
Joey Ramone agrees: "Everyone I've met here so far is pretty cool and kinda like grass-rooted, you know what I mean? Soundgarden, Rancid...It's a rock 'n' roll show. Alternative? I don't know. Half those bands, like the Presidents of the United States [of America]--I don't know what the fuck to make of them, you know? But this is a cool bill. It's kind of a real sobering bill--bands that are unique and rooted and grounded. They're not bullshit. I'm happy about being on this bill."
Forks in the River Speedway in Newport, Tennessee, is an hour and a half from Knoxville, but only a few miles from Locust Ridge, the childhood home of Dolly Parton in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. Tourists pack Dollywood for the legendary "dinner stampedes," but the speedway is another spectacle altogether: Lollapalachia.
Folks thought Lollapalooza would draw a scary crowd--after all, Metallica's fan club is based in Knoxville--but they were wrong. This year's line-up was critically regarded as the most mainstream ever, a travesty of commercialism and testosterone. But that was wrong, too; at least here: As anyone who's ever spent a Saturday night in Knoxville knows, Lollapalooza was the biggest thing to hit what passes for alternative culture in the Smokies. Of course, "alternative culture" has become a pretty loose term--thanks mostly to Lollapalooza itself, one of the main subverters of musical hegemony in America. Along with MTV, Lollapalooza took punk out of the clubs and into the malls.
That's obvious here. First up is Psychotica, a glammy, Bowie-influenced act led by a former drag queen (Pat Briggs) sporting a silver body suit, silver mohawk, and orange eye make-up. Carried on stage lying on a giant silver cross, Briggs offends a few young girls in the audience, one of whom calls him sacrilegious. "Hello, hillbillies!" he offers. "We're Psychotica, and our whole mission in life is to piss the Bible Belt off!" The crowd roars with pleasure, raising the two-fingered devil-salute with the same playful spirit that attends a KISS concert; Psychotica's making fun of metal, and it's clear that people get the joke. The Screaming Trees provide a counterpoint to Psychotica's outrageousness: Few musicians look more like their audience than the large, lumbering Trees, and their sound is equally unpretentious--a loud moan of anguish; a hard, lovely wail. Next come Rancid, the Ramones, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, and Metallica.
Rancid's Armstrong blows into the tour bus about an hour later; he's just finished watching the Ramones, as he faithfully does every night. "There have been so many rock-star moments on this tour," he giggles. "We pulled up around 4 a.m., and me and some of the others went walking in the field where everyone is camping out, and you wouldn't believe it. They were blasting Ted Nugent!"
Rancid was nurtured at Gilman Street, a punk-rock mecca in Berkeley where da Nuge is banned for life, but Armstrong et al. have taken to the stadiums of America with the same poise as their pals in Green Day. Two years ago, at Woodstock '94 and Lollapalooza, Green Day used nudity and rudeness to capture the crowd; Rancid has been a bit more pragmatic, augmenting its natural energy with a horn section and keyboard player. "Everyone here is so cool," Armstrong insists. "The Ramones! Psychotica! Even Metallica; they've been so nice to us. Jason [Newsted] from Metallica--he's traveling in his own bus with a recording studio in it; the other day he recorded us with it at his hotel."
Newsted reportedly travels in an entire bus by himself because he wants to get to hang out and be "ordinary"; his band mates travel on a Lear jet rumored to have two stewardesses and a humidor full of $100 cigars. They use it to go see KISS in Charlotte after the Knoxville gig or to hop over to Las Vegas while the other bands are bouncing along the road between Dallas and Phoenix.
The Ramones, by contrast, are traveling by minivan--all except C.J., who rides his Harley, escorted by a couple of Hell's Angels buddies. Held up at the border, C.J. was almost late for the Toronto gig. "Everyone was all worried," Armstrong recalls. "And then he roared up the center of backstage on his Harley--just in time--and we're all cheering, 'Yeah, C.J.!' Another total rock 'n' roll moment."
Rancid is barely breaking even: Every band is taking a salary cut when ticket sales are slow. If nothing else, though, Rancid will profit on merchandise: The band's T-shirts--$12, half the cost of others--are selling like crazy. Their popularity underscores the irony: Although the least successful in ticket sales, this year's Lollapalooza was the tour's best in terms of value and artistry. Co-headliners Soundgarden and Metallica are superstars, and no one--not Rage Against the Machine, Steve Earle, or the Ramones--is less than acclaimed.
Call it your money's worth: For seven straight hours, each group is topped by a band even more adored, one reason this year's midway has been scaled down considerably. Gone are the peripheral (or is that "Perry Farrell"?) cyberspace displays and sideshows: This year's nonmusical fare consists only of a couple of "freak" displays, the Chill Room (full of activist literature and couches), and the mist tents.
The vibe is more musical. In New Orleans, Waylon Jennings shows up and goes over extremely well. In Des Moines, however, he's booed until Metallica's James Hetfield comes on stage and chews out the audience. In Ferris, rehabbed rebel country-rocker Steve Earle is pelted with plastic bottles; unimpressed, he reminds the audience that he plays places where the bottles are glass.
Meanwhile, the big joke backstage is Metallica's new look: neat jeans and muscle shirts, clipped facial hair, make-up and piercings. Despite the fact that one of Metallica's guitar techs carries a case plastered with pro-gun, anti-liberal, and anti-gay bumper stickers, several of the band members look just like the Castro Clones of 1978. The band's motto is "we don't give a shit"; after the third or fourth song, singer Hetfield habitually announces the same.
"We don't give a shit!" he yells, again.
"But what does he mean?" I wonder aloud. "He means that they don't give a shit that everyone thinks they're queer now," says a singer from another band; everybody cracks up.
Poor ticket sales and fashion sense notwithstanding, Metallica is not about to fade away: Its new album, Load, was No. 1 for three weeks. If Lollapalooza sends the record biz one message, it's that punk rock is able to assimilate the mainstream better than anyone thought. "There's a much healthier attitude in music right now," Joey Ramone insists. "Everything's a lot better, and I feel like rock 'n' roll's better because of the Ramones. I mean--I don't want to sound all full of myself--but I know how things were back in the dark ages...Everything's open for business now."
At 6 o'clock every Lollapalooza morning, a little village is erected. It includes miles of fencing, three stages, three sound booths, and countless food stands, toilets, and showers, and people to set them up. Add the seven main stage and 10 indie stage bands and their separate crews and management, and you have a lumbering circus that's an incredible thing to see; but is it worth it? Do kids need to see 17 bands in one day, bonding in the blistering heat? Tour manager Ross, involved with Lollapalooza since its birth, thinks so.
"The problem," he says, "is that the press takes Lollapalooza from rock concert to lifestyle, assumes that we have an agenda, and criticizes us for wavering from that. We don't have an agenda. We produce the best rock show we can, give people a lot of things to do: see a wide variety of music, get political information, shop the little stands that are out there...at the end of the day they can say, 'I had a good time, it was safe, I'll come back next year.' That's our agenda."
That said, there is a sense that Lollapalooza has lost its constituency, that by combining punk and metal, the festival has allowed H.O.R.D.E.--with its raft of pseudo-'60s impersonators--to take over the Zeitgeist. On the coasts, Lollapalooza is oft-criticized for an equally fake vision of "alternative," but in New Orleans, The Times-Picayune still covered the show as if it were exotic and bizarre, sending a reporter into the crowd to report snidely on piercings and weird clothes. In Ferris, the local paper called Lollapalooza's arrival an invasion by "a nest of Satan-worshippers."
In places like these, the necessity of Lollapalooza becomes clear. To kids who live where rock is the devil's music (everybody cut footloose!), the opportunity to see the Ramones is still special. Fans in New Orleans moshed to Waylon Jennings and the Ramones; in Ferris, they came out in 100-plus-degree heat and sang every word of "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." Then there were those fans in Newport who camped out all night blasting Nugent, then responded rabidly to Psychotica.
Even the artists are being enlightened. "I was with some friends," Joey Ramone reports. "We were watching Soundgarden, Rancid, and Metallica, and we kept saying, 'Oh! I didn't know they were like that.'"
Psychotica's Briggs has done three tours with Lollapalooza. "When I went out that first year, I realized that what I'd been told--that the Midwest was very closed-minded and stuff--wasn't true at all," he admits. "We were really making rash judgments [and] had no idea what we were talking about. These kids pay $40 to come and be entertained, and if you provide that, they're pleased. It's a very simple arrangement, really. Even a staunch Metallica fan wants to be entertained."
Briggs reminds us of the good in Lollapalooza: Whether you're a Smashing Pumpkins fan watching Jesus Lizard for the first time or a friend of Joey Ramone's being converted by Soundgarden, you'll have your judgments challenged. What constitutes alternative has been a moot subject for many moons, but now that Metallica is sporting eye make-up and facial piercings--and the Ramones are Monsters of Rock--those questions are less than irrelevant; they're dim. There are no Monsters any more--only hard-working people, undisguised and undistinguished, playing their workmanlike songs, doing a job and doing it well.
As Soundgarden takes the stage in Ferris, Armstrong decides to take a bike ride through the goldenrod and bluebonnets around the venue. "Outshined" fills the sky around us; the arena glows in the distance. Tim is silent for a second. "You know what?" he offers. "In 1986, when I worked at La Val's Pizza, James Hetfield came in with some friends and ordered a pizza. The next night I saw him at the Berkeley Square, and he yelled out, 'Hey, pizza boy!' Pizza boy. That's an insult, right?"
Tim pauses. The light from the sky has suddenly become achingly beautiful. "Back then, I wasn't even in Operation Ivy," he continues, referring to his first band. "I never thought I'd ever go to a concert like this, much less be on stage and be like...popular."
He ducks his head shyly. "You know, in a way I feel like this is sort of my revenge. Revenge of Pizza Boy!" He laughs, standing up on his pedals and tearing off into the dust, back into the arena and the belly of the beast.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.