Concerts in the American Sun

Late last night I went to the rock show. Or so was what I was hoping the other day, but I ended up being unable to float along, and thus alas had to miss the Frogs, a severe pity but not life threatening. However, that would have been your usual gig-in-a-club deal, where the drinks were overpriced and where the clink of pool balls would likely have drowned out the quieter moments. I would not be surrounded by about 20,000 of my closest unfriends or rather nonfriends slathering on the sunblock and experiencing that unusual frisson of feedback blowouts combined with fresh breezes and the desperate hope that the speaker stacks would provide enough shadow to mosh in peace with. And yet for all that such a description sounds horrible, I’ve been there more than once and don’t really mind — too much.

All-day rock festivals: discuss. One reason why Woodstock was so fetishized in America was its perceived uniqueness — bolstered by the film, a hit single or two, and Incipient Rock Legendaria, not to mention Altamont’s messy collapse and equally high level mythologizing. They were both seasonal gatherings as well — you can’t get away with such things in winter, even in some place as relatively temperate as Southern California, and they seem just perfect for the times when the days are longest, the weather warmest and everything’s supposed to be happy, in the good ol’ summertime. Other folks took notice of this thing and while America was just too damn big to recreate a national gathering again along the level of Woodstock and all, in Europe the principle was first established and then let run riot. Reading’s earlier life transformed into a regular rock fest, while Michael Eavis made Glastonbury a household word, while on the continent itself Roskilde in Denmark was just the tip of the iceberg. The ‘festival circuit’ became common currency for Euro tours, while in America the mainstream rock audience had nothing like it in the eighties, say. There were the abortive attempts of the US Festivals, to be sure, theoretically epochal but now just dated, odd one-offs aiming at full inclusion of styles that didn’t quite connect — then there was Live Aid, but that was even more of a grotesque orgy of posing than anything else, the bastard child of Geldof’s good intentions, now nothing more than a blip.

Things started to get a little more in the swing of things with the Monsters of Rock tour in 1988, where Metallica was the opening act and the Scorpions near the top of the bill — as bemusing a snapshot of the times as anything else — while Ian Astbury came up with his ‘Gathering of the Tribes’ idea and managed to pull off something where Public Enemy and the Indigo Girls could share a stage. Leave it to Perry Farrell, however, to dream up something at once perfectly sellable and mushily air-headed enough to seem deep and wondrous, and thus was Lollapalooza born ten years ago. Theoretically it was supposed to be a celebration of Jane’s Addiction’s break-up (which I still believe is the case, so let’s all pretend the current walking corpse is just that), but whatever it was, it brought the idea of ‘alternative’ ever more closely to the public audience at large. Right when it finished, Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and that finished the job (and arguably a lot of music, but that’s another story).

Lollapalooza and all its bastard and often more entertaining offspring now have made the idea of American rock festivals as regularized an intrinsic element of the calendar, with ever more widening circles from there — consider all the various radio station festivals now in place, all across the musical spectrums, especially when one realizes how many bands play that particular ‘circuit’ instead of something like the Warped Tour or Ozzfest or what have you. And as such they provide a new series of memories and experiences, helping to define something that couldn’t have as easily existed in previous years. And mine, well, they’re an odd bunch.

I was actually at the first Lollapalooza thang back in 1991, and it was, well, an all-day rock concert. It most certainly was not a life-changing experience, but it did provide amusements. Not least of which was the fact of sitting way the fuck up on a hill, looking down towards the stage from the lawn area, and seeing Henry Rollins emote rather loudly about things with his band while the cars on the freeway in the distance kept driving along and planes landed at the nearby US Marine base. This while baking in the sun, no shade in sight, overpriced drinks, bootleg T-shirts being sold inside the concert area itself (an admirable approach, I think, especially since they were clearly better than the real ones and went for half the price), the whole shebang. Yay! Other interesting sights — seeing Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers wield a shotgun and then start firing it off, Trent Reznor’s invoking darkness and fog machines…while it was still light in the sky, Jane’s itself firing up an amazing live show and then all of a sudden discovering bodies hurling past me and realizing I was right on the edge of a huge mosh pit on the hill’s 45 degree angle dancing around open flames. It was perhaps mystic, but I had no need to die, so I carefully positioned myself so my ex-high school linebacker friend was between me and said pit. Things were then happier.

The next three summers after than brought more Lollapaloozas and more such experiences (most priceless — Jim Reid to departing hordes leaving after Pearl Jam’s set, in broadest Glaswegian, “Hey! The way out’s over there, you fucking cocksuckers!”). There’s something about the flat, caustic feeling of hearing full volume assaults in dead heat which is absolutely enervating, it’s where you want to be listening to something like Loop more than anything else (or maybe the Meat Puppets), but instead feel surrounded by the invocation to be part of the Carbonated Caffeine Generation and thus become part of happy youth enjoying the music today that the kids seem to like. Savage torpor vs. becoming part of the live video clip for Alternative Nation or something like that — 1993 on an endless loop, right there. And thus I also found myself thanks to a free pass seeing Suede as part of that year’s first KROQ Weenie Roast, arguably a major catalyst of the summer radio festival trend. Suede didn’t belong there at all, really, but neither did anyone else — still, it made for an interesting collision of styles in the year when KROQ thought it was a college radio station, sorta. Thus amidst people like Stone Temple Pilots and Terence Trent D’arby, you had Bettie Serveert and the Posies and at one point John Reis of Rocket from the Crypt pointing up towards a video screen showing a bunch of grilling hot dogs and saying, “I don’t know about you guys, but those things look fucking foul!” Said dogs also looked about the way I felt, mushily parboiled and then crisped. 4 pm in an LA summer outside with, again, no shade is not an idea of perfection. The Lolla later than year was a bit better — there was shade at various places — but was there really any call for the security people to take everyone’s food and water from them and then consume it in front of everyone’s faces?

Sometimes things worked, though — Front 242 in ’93 and Nick Cave at ’94 at Lolla, since most everyone didn’t know who they were and went to get ‘smart drinks’ and other such things and experimented with talking ‘on-line’ when not sitting at the ‘poetry slams’ (ah, the early Bill Clinton years). The advantage was that the area in front of the stage was just shaded enough, happily, and so all the goths and their spiritual friends like myself gathered and had a fucking great time with all the usual mosh denizens and their ugly-ass sunburnt torsos gone. Let me tell you, hearing a song like “Headhunter” or “Loverman” coming out of two-story high speaker stacks is a dream come true, especially when you’re in no immediate danger of being crushed for once. It made all the zoning elsewhere worth it, though sometimes there were joys — sitting under trees and hearing Dos from a distance or ending up sitting next to Tim and Laetitia from Stereolab and chatting about life. Or in my own case (Orange County reference coming up!) running into Mike from Naked Soul unexpectedly while heading for the water-mist tent, or listening to friend Chris do imitations of Billy Corgan’s on-stage rants all the way home. I think I heard the whined line “And when your churches abandon you…” about twenty different times on the way back to my house as a result.

The last summerfest type thing I’ve been at was ‘This Ain’t No Picnic’ two years ago — it was perfectly scaled for what it was, a college-rock fest, a Lolla in a much smaller locale. Type of thing where Guided By Voices, Superchunk and Sunny Day Real Estate were on the bill (who I desperately tried to ignore in favor of the Boredoms, Rocket From the Crypt again, and Sonic Youth, who played a perfectly pleasant if utterly unsurprising oldies set — nice job with “Mote,” though). There was heat and there were bugs and all the usual stuff, but it all felt friendlier, and even the moshin’ fools in front of the Boredoms for their one-track fuck-off art-Kraut-slam of a set seemed more intent on having fun than splitting skulls. By that time everything was perfectly codified and set-up, all the hippies enjoying HORDE and then endless Phish and Dave Matthews Band tours, the punks gone to Warped, the nu-metalheads splitting time between Family Values and Ozzfest, gentler wordsmiths and AAA types settling into Lilith Fair, and so forth. Festivals for niche markets, a pleasantly inevitable solution. I can’t mind, it’s the typically limited way. Just bring proper sunglasses with you when you go.