For at least its first two years of operation, the Lollapalooza tour was subject to journalistic searches for some semblance of meaning, some hint of cultural significance. Surely this large new thing attracting these large new crowds of funny looking kids must in some way symbolize the Zeitgeist, we all thought.
First time around, every reporter and his editor tried to draw parallels with Woodstock, which failed to fly on any number of fronts. If the Age of Aquarius spawned a hippie mud bath in Bethel that came to symbolize the we-are-all-one mythology of the 1960s, the dawning Age of Alternative celebrated a splintering of the tribe into individualistic factions, where the greatest goal has little to do with community and everything to do with being as identifiably different from everyone else as possible, and common ground means, hey, at least we all buy the same records. Of course, given the herdlike nature of human crowds, everyone ended up being different together and distinguishing themselves from nobody but their parents, but the basic point made itself clear: there's strength in numbers, even if the numbers don't add up to anything.
Despite deliberate overtures to educational and political awareness through the presence of "alternative" organizations advocating hemp legalization and voter registration at the festival sites, the strength Lollapalooza tapped into turned out to be largely commercial, and alternative rock became a new force on the sales charts. The Zeitgeist so many folks thought they saw coming with the first Lollapalooza turned out to be nothing more than another generation of kids coughing up the dough for another generation of bands that another generation of parents didn't really understand, and nowhere was that point made more clearly than at the entrance to the parking lots of Houston Raceway Park last Friday. While cars piled up on the feeder roads waiting to get in, a steady stream of sedans and minivans flowed in the opposite direction, driven by middle-aged adults who, having dropped off the kids for their day at the circus, were off to occupy the intervening hours until time came to shuttle the young ones back to the 'burbs.
But if Lollapalooza is just a $30 vacation from the daily grind, it was a vacation well spent. Tattoos hidden at school were flaunted, and haircuts that must cause great discomfort on the family front of the 15-year-olds wearing them served here as badges of like-minded rebellion. Apparel mores were as lax as they're ever likely to be for kids who go to schools with dress codes, and the entire day was, among other things, a multi-gender breast-
On the drug front -- and any kid faced with a more-or-less unpatrolled crowd of 20,000 peers and a potential ten hours of music can hardly be blamed for indulging a little mind twister -- acid wasn't hard to find and there were more joints in circulation than nose rings, which meant an awful lot of dope.
Easy drugs and teen fashion, though, are secondary to the draws that cause a crowd this size to congregate in a dusty Baytown field beneath a petrochemical sky and stay there for up to ten hours at a stretch. Those draws are the bands, and even if nearly every main-stage group in the lineup had toured individually through Houston in the past 12 months, that didn't make the conglomeration any less appealing.
The Bay Area's Green Day -- much in the rock news for its sudden ascent from a die-hard Berkeley punk scene to mainstream acclaim -- played the day's first set to an audience that unfortunately didn't include me, but from the excited chatter of "did you see Green Day?" heard passing through the crowd for the rest of the afternoon, they made an impression beyond their status as afternoon openers.
L7 played second, and their punk-rock enthusiasm set a good mood that lasted the better part of the day. Highlight: bassist Jennifer Finch thanking local underground socialite Kathy Kowgirl from the stage.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have a reputation for gloom that's not undeserved, and to see them out in broad daylight made for a not particularly successful concert-going experience, but none of the Goths-for-a-day I ran into after the set seemed anything less than ecstatic. For me, Cave was a downer. Highlight: a post-set conversation about the relative virtues of a second-rate Tom Waits in a world where a first-rate Tom Waits continues to render competition futile.
Hip-hop's entry on the Lollapalooza bill came this year in the form of A Tribe Called Quest, and their set put the afternoon back on track for me. With only three energized emcees and a backing track, ATCQ managed to make the pit bounce and give a lecture on hip-hop and end
heir set with a rap detailing the band's name, their album's name and instruc-tions on how to purchase same without coming across as anything other than deeply funky. Highlight: watching a very white, very middle-class teenager turn to his buddy and say, "I think I'm gonna buy that."
ATCQ was followed by the Breeders, who haven't been seen in Houston since they opened Nirvana's final tour, and between bouts of giggling they played a likable, nondescript set of hits that was received politely because, after all, the sun had stayed mostly hidden behind clouds and there was a steady breeze blowing through the field and the crowd was just settling in for a relaxed mass party. Highlight: drugs started to kick in.
The party the crowd was readying for came next, when George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars took the stage dressed with more circus-style absurdity than the entire crowd could muster. Clinton's presence on the tour could be Lollapalooza's bid to shun ageism -- Clinton is, after all, a good generation older than most of the other performers -- but it was more likely a nod to the power of the greatest party band presently gracing the planet. Sir Nose the contortionist was there, the nerdy white roadie who looks like your high-school physics teacher was on stage rapping, and this time through Clinton introduced a buff-and-cut white female rapper who looked like a poster child for Santa Barbara and flowed in a squeaky chirp that was mixed too low to hear properly. Clinton and company drew the biggest response to that point, and, by the looks of things, made more than a few converts. Highlight: yes. Of the entire day.
If I were a Beastie Boy, I'd be scared shitless to follow George Clinton, but if the Beasties were frightened, they hid it well. The sky went dark midway through their set, the stage lights came into play for the first time and the Beasties hit on everything from punk rock to industrial grade hip-hop and soundtrack funk. Highlight: by this point the day had started to turn grueling, and my attention was easily swayed to the frozen fruit juice stand whose lights dimmed every time the blender was turned on, much in the manner of a prison block at execution time.
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And then headliners Smashing Pumpkins came on stage and played all of their hits, most of which sound quite similar to one another. Singer Billy Corgan -- who's going to stop being described as cherubic if he keeps letting that ugly hair grow -- made a goodwill effort to defuse any tension left over from his last Houston appearance, during which the band left the stage early after Corgan got beaned by a shoe. This time he told the crowd to "throw all the shoes you want, we're not leaving this fucking stage." A shower of shoes ensued. The Pumpkins' take on multilayered arena rock is fine, if musical overindulgence and rock-star posing is your bag, but I'd been primed with a pretty serious dose of funk by this time, and the stylistic clash didn't go over very well with me. Highlight: when half the crowd sang along to the Pumpkins' smash hit "Disarm," drowning out Corgan, who owns the single most annoying voice in all of rock.
On other items: from a spectator's perspective, the greatest improvement this year was the fan's ability to bring his or her own water into the grounds. The second stage was located in such a far corner that it was almost impossible to catch any music between main-stage acts. I managed to catch a bit of Shudder to Think, who suck in the most generic way, and later a snippet of Tibetan dance with monks blowing blasts of air through 12-foot horns. Nobody in the crowd understood thing-one about the performance, and the monks looked equally confused over the makeup of their audience.
The Chameleon virtual reality ride looked like it might have been fun if it weren't so damned expensive, but I never saw much of a line. The Revival Tent was located as far from the main stage as geography allowed and housed early afternoon poetry slams characterized by poor organization and vapid feminist ranting from the touring poets. Local word manipulator and occasional poetry slam host Malcolm McDonald, by the way, walked away, and into the history books no doubt, with $100 for his triumph over a panel of judges who seemed constitutionally incapable of giving, on a scale of one to ten, a score lower than nine. The fabled computer networks escaped my eye undetected. The food was pretty darned decent and, not surprisingly, expensive.
It was, in the end, a lovely concert. Really just lovely. And all the more enjoyable for holding no more cultural or generational significance than a mall outlet record store.