Where The Wild Things Are: A Report From Lollapalooza 1994

Originally published by Kade Magazine on September 8, 1994

Posting this here because on last week’s podcast we had a discussion about seeing The Smashing Pumpkins during their post-Siamese Dream phase, as well as Kirk’s assertion that the Pumpkins were better than Nirvana. This article touches on all of that, and is also representative of my take on indie/alternative just as it was beginning to peak out, commercially.

. . . So I was standing on line for Lollapalooza ’94 bumping backpacks with thousands of other cool undergound rockers and there’s this really annoying loud guy right in front of me. He’s pontificating about Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols. Only all of his ideas are completely wrong, which pissed me off. After a few minutes, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I tapped him on the shoulder and went “excuse me, but I’ve been listening to your little lecture on The Pistols and you’ve completely missed the point about McLaren, punk rock and everything.”

He was offended: “Look ‘ere, Mate,” he went with a fake English Accent, “I’ve been writing about Malc for years, and I think I ‘ave a smashing insight on punk.” “Oh yeah,” I went, “well, I just happen to have Malcolm right here, and let’s just find out what he has to say,” and with that I produced Malcolm McLaren, who went to the guy: “Your theories are absolute shite; how you ever got to write about anything is beyond me.” Needless to say, the guy was flabbergasted . . .

Well, maybe that really didn’t happen to me, it happened to Woody Allen in Annie Hall, only they were discussing the theories of Marshall McLuhan. The topper was Woody looking right through the fourth wall at the audience and saying “if only real life worked this way.”

Which is how I feel. Every year during Lollapalooza, there is a lot of soul-searching and breast-beating among the former and current underground community on what it means now that “alternative” is big business. I’d love to pull some all-knowing expert out of the woodwork to verify my gut feeling that its ok; this the way it always should have been.

But not Malcolm. Last time I saw him, he was reduced to hobnobbing with King’s Road drunks on VH-1’s fashion show. He’d hardly be the one to ask about punk rock’s origins and how they relate to Lollapalooza ’94. There’s a direct line from the early punk rock through the post-punk through the 80’s American rock underground through the first Lollapalooza and the “alternative” explosion which makes a yearly Lollapalooza artistically and financially feasible.

Nevertheless, I’d never been to a Lollapalooza before. They’d never had a lineup which interested me top to bottom. But when rumours leaked out over the Internet that Nirvana was going to headline this year and they were going to be joined by the Smashing Pumpkins, George Clinton & the Breeders, I knew it was time to take the plunge and check out Lollapalooza for myself.

Then Kurt killed himself . . . Which will be debated & discussed for the rest of our days, but had a real-life effect on Lollapalooza ’94. Whether it was the opening line of Perry Farrell’s rant in the program, or people cheering and singing along with “All Apologies” when it was played between bands, or even that I noticed more Nirvana T- shirts than any other band’s (though the coolest was a vintage 1988 olive drab Miss Alans shirt on some woman I didn’t recognize), part of this year’s Lolla zeitgeist was the very palpable abscence of Nirvana.

Which meant that the spotlightapalooza fell on an unwilling (“I really have nothing to say”) Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. Just like the media focused on Michael Jordan at the outset of the baseball strike. Except that a lot of people figure Smashing Pumpkins are about as alternative of a band as Jordan is a major league baseball player.

Which is probably true, in the strictest sense of the word: Smashing Pumpkins are a fantastic art-rock band — Billy Corgan’s batting average is way higher than Michael Jordan’s — but they’ve now sold too many copies of the brilliant Siamese Dream to be considered as anything but mainstream. Like Lollapalooza itself.

But it’s my kinda mainstream: I prefer walking into a big show and seeing the Lolla travelling bazaar in additition to the usual T-shirt & concession stands. Lots of neato things for sale: foreign foods, leather, jewelry, piercing, hemp clothes & accessories, rave gear and even Tarot readings. Of course, these are many of the same things you can find in big city bohemian districts from Telegraph Ave to Greenwich Village. but probably not, say, at the Mall of America. Not yet, anyways.

Politics, too. Mostly left-wing, natch: Rock for Choice; Handgun Control; Rock The Vote; Cannibis Action Network; Amnesty International, etc. While most of these people are preaching to the choir, they probably view it as a way to get names on mailing lists and sell or distribute their various propaganda. Pretty one-sided, though: no NRA or DEA to be had. There were, however, grungy-looking pro-life kids standing ground under relatively viewable posters of dead fetuses.

While I applaud their balls for venturing into the belly of the beast, I wondered how they got chosen for the assignment. Did the guy have to grow his hair? Did the girl really get her nose pierced? I wanted to ask them these questions, but I figured they’d think I was hassling them.

Nevertheless, it really makes me wonder what the anti-choice people are thinking when they have Gen X archetypes pushing their message. It reminds me of the Christian metal & rap artists I see while channel surfing. It’s as if their reasoning is: “we’ll sucker them in with their own type of people, heh heh.” Like we’re that dumb: “Hey, dude, lets see what the Christian grunge rocker dude has to say!”

All of these people feel false: the medium of rock and roll (which is, bottom line, about dancing and fucking) conflicts with the message of hardcore Christianity. And yes, while I’ve danced and fucked to many wonderful exceptions, I’ve always felt that co-opting Satan’s music for Jesus’ message insults everybody. I’m sure Marshall McLuhan and Malcolm McLaren would agree.

Not to mention P.T. Barnum. Or at least he’d be impressed with such money-snatching items as the “LSD FLIGHT SIMULATOR” (why bother, when the real thing is so cheap and lasts longer?); and the “ELECTRONIC CARNIVAL.” Not knowing what this last one was all about I asked some guys in line. Turns out they didn’t know either, but they were still waiting. “And we’ve been here for awhile, too,” one of them said.

And of course, there was the spoken word tent, a few minutes of which brought up some questions: Why are these people all so angry? Can’t they just chill out? Aren’t there any role models other than Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra? Are they trying to combat the age-old stereotype of wordsmiths as wimps? Poetry slam, indeed. I guess a sociologist might say they’re trying to verbally parallel the rage prevelant in so much of today’s music, where’s the spoken word Breeders? The happy performance artistes?

The Mallapalooza all adds up to more choice overload for the backpack nation; one more “too much stuff to choose from” for a generation so terrified of being bored, they’ll do virtually anything for outside stimulation, even jump into a mosh pit.

Which is what people started doing the second Green Day kicked off the show. Green Day are riding their punky atttitude to the top 20, and while their smash-em-up schtick been done before and ususally better, what’s cool is that their success signals that, just like metal before it, punk rock has achieved perpetual motion. In other words, every couple of years or so, there will be another set of angst-filled fans and bands to play the same old riffs about the same old things.

Primarily, punk’s perpetual motion mostly means more awesome angry anthems like “Longview,” which really got the slamming I mean thrashing I mean moshing going. It was weird, though. Because of how the Shoreline Ampitheatre is set up, the mosh pit — traditionally right in front of the band–was hundreds of feet away from the stage.

I just gotta say, as a wimpy wordsmith, that the whole point of the the pit has always escaped me. I mean, back in the early hardcore days it was barely defensible as a symbol of the scene’s overriding angst: “look! we’re so alienated we’ll even do this to ourselves! We just don’t care about anything! (Did you get the shot?)” Now, its just an excuse for a few jock assholes (the same type who used to hate “new music” until they discovered girls like it) to beat up on everybody in sight. Actually, back then, it was pretty much an excuse for a few sociopaths to beat up on people. I mean, if’s just physical release these guys are looking for, what about dancing and fuckin–oh, wait, now I get it. Still, it is good clean American violence, and as such is highly entertaining.

Certainly more entertaining than Green Day, whose stage energy was lost in the distance, and, after using the 3 or 4 good songs on Dookie! early on, decided to jam on riffs from MTV metal faves from the 80’s. While I’m sure they thought playing bits from songs like “Metal Health,” “Rock You Like A Hurricane,” etc was equal parts annoying, snotty and funny, it reminded me of the tres lame 50’s jam at the end of Uriah Heep’s live album. I doubt that was the effect they were after. Not that it mattered to the boys in the pit, after all, the band was too far away to exist as any real entity — just as a live soundtrack for their punkrock frenzy.

People who really like L7 or Nick Cave or A Tribe Called Quest probably really liked them here in the same manner I liked the Breeders: i.e. I’m a fan, they were cool, ’nuff said. (Except the Breeders were great, playing new songs, a Guided By Voices cover and their ususal conglomeration of sunny pop, surf instrumentals and amaturish garage punk. The Breeders rule.)

Nonfans of these bands were probably checking out the overpriced food, which comes with the territory. They even had girls in tights walking the grounds selling overpriced candy bars. $2.00 for a Tootsie Roll? Outrageous!

(I bought not one, but two of those $2.00 Tootsie Rolls, not to mention a couple of the $2.50 cups of bottled water, but I stayed away from the $14.00 liter of margaritas, though just barely. What the hell, I get paid for writing this: Michael Kaye has promised to cover all of my expenses for the rest of my life just as long as I squeeze this copy through my faxmodem by Thursday midnight. So what’s a couple of overpriced candy bars compared to that?)

Even nonfans got a kick from George Clinton’s P-Funk All Stars. They turned the whole show into a huge twilight dance party during “Flashlight” despite the fact there were more African Americans onstage than in the entire audience. For a bright cool moment — when the sun had gone down but the light was still up — even the pitboys got the funk, and they were jumping up and down and throwing their hands in the air and not slamming into anybody.

Which lasted until the precise moment the Beastie Boys kicked it onstage and re-ignited the pitboys.

Well maybe, “re-ignited” is too weak of a word. Actually, when the Beasties came out blazing with dope shit like “Sure Shot” and “Rhyming and Stealing” the mosh pit was upgraded from tropical storm to hurricane. Everybody else grabbed their backpacks and held on for dear life. For a moment, it looked as if the pit was going to turn into the Tazmanian Devil, or even worse, THE PIT, bouncing randomly from point to point, destroying all in its wake. It even had an eye, from which articles of clothing, water bottles, unsecured backpacks and even people came flying.

And so it went throughout the Beasties’ fine set.

Well, when they went into the soul instrumentals which marred Check Your Head but enhance Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys might have slowed the pace down a bit, but those jams seem to be where their hearts are right now. They showed more enthusiasm for playing their instruments than the MC stuff which is still their bread and butter (though there seems to be less three-way vocal interplay on IllCom). It will be interesting to see where they’ll go from here: can they combine the live instruments with the hard-rock rapping? Surely the artistic and commercial success of a track like “Sabotage” bodes well for their future.

Smashing Pumpkins’ future, I suppose, depends on the mental health of Billy Corgan, another in our long line of reluctant rock stars. You know, kids, you can be a rock star and not be Axl Rose. You don’t have to smash hotel rooms, do new drugs or screw models.

No really: if you you wanna make your music and you sign a major-label contract to get the greatest amount of exposure for your music, then deal with the consequences if people respond! You make a record, people buy it or they don’t. If you don’t want to deal with it, don’t sign the major-label contract. Go lose yourself in drugs. That’s way easier. But if you buck the odds (and I’m sorry, despite every ounce of record company hype, I’ve seen act after act after act fail, which is why I don’t believe in selling out–nothing’s that certain) and make it big, fucking deal with it. Like Chris Cornell, like Michael Stipe. Face it, you ain’t gonna like every single person who responds to your art, no matter how personal you think it is. Get over it already.

Well, after a video of the “streets-of-SF” car chase scene from “Bullit,” the Pumpkins came on and kicked ass on songs like “Cherub Rock” & “Disarm.” The early sign that there might be something wrong was Billy’s five-minute rant during the middle of “I Am One” which climaxed unironically with “I don’t believe in rock and roll, I don’t believe in MTV, I don’t believe in TV, . . . I just believe in me.” Good lord, I was waiting for him to follow that up with “Yoko and me, that’s reality,” but he just cranked out some killer guitar instead.

Then he apologized for playing such a huge impersonal show, and vowed “you’ll never see Smashing Pumpkins play a place this big again,” and they played more tunes from Siamese Dream, some new and/or unreleased stuff, and couple of songs from Gish. From my perspective in the stratosphere, all of this was fantastic — I mean, if you gotta see a band at a big show, let it be a band with a big sound. But it was increasingly obvious none of this was emotionally satisfying to Smashing Pumpkins, because they became more and more confrontational.

Finally, they just disintegrated, ending their set in a Billy Corgan feedback breakdown as guitarist James Iha grabbed a mike and raved incoherently. I don’t know exactly what he said (or what he was on, for that matter) because the sound crew was drowning him in massive amounts of echo, but I do know that: a) the word “motherfuckers” came up a lot and b) with Billy doing Hendrix noise underneath him, it was still more entertaining than the spoken word people, though not nearly as good as early Patti Smith. Nevertheless, it didn’t exactly end the concert on an up note.

And while I can only guess what led to the Pumpkins onstage breakdown, I’ll bet its some sort of super-sensitive reaction to what happens when any “alternative” band achieves a serious measure of success: the stormcrows come out of the woodwork wielding their big dis machines and start attacking said band with charges of inauthencity and that all purpose bugaboo, “selling out.”

“Sell-out” or “Posuer” are a common chants from indie-types who feel the mass audience can’t like anything good and a band which has attained popularity must have somehow lost their specialness. These people are idiots. What they want is to feel superior to everybody else on the entire planet, hoarding and hogging their little bands and scenes and hiding their selfishness behind elitist attitudes. Fuck ’em. It was from exactly this type of scene Kurt Cobain came from, and when he was truly confused and ambivalent (which means love and hate) about his stardom, the very scene he came from, the only scene he knew, turned its collective back on him.

Then Kurt killed himself . . .

Which will be debated and discussed for the rest of our days, but had a real-life effect on Lollapalooza ’94.

So what did we learn from all of this? Fuck if I know. Not that it really matters anyways, cos opinions are like backpacks: everybody’s got one, and you can never find what you’re looking for in ’em. Ohwellwhatevernevermind.

But if you need a conclusion, here goes: Lollapalooza isn’t all that different from any other big concert. And that’s ok. I saw some great bands and heard some great music. It was a fun rock concert. And believe me, I still ain’t so cynical as to devalue a fun rock concert. And hey, I can and will still go to clubs and watch the underground bands who will be playing Lollapalooza 2004. Which is what’s so great about rock and roll.

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