Only the promise of a paycheck lured me to San Jose on Aug. 2 to see my first Lollapalooza. Depraved behavior was thankfully minimal; dumb behavior was of course omnipresent, with tastelessness in tow. Shirts came off where they should have stayed on, revealing male physiques like sourdough starter (and the occasional washboard stomach). Watching the stage from field level afforded a view of Lilliputian musicians and hundreds of sagging, pimply backs. A young fellow walked by in a Hustler T-shirt -- obviously a gent who gets lots of dates. Multiple Dr. Seuss hats, or their human hosts, bobbed about nonstop, craving attention; a barbarian in glitter boots paced in front of the bleachers, screaming for it. An acid casualty Morris-danced with power and precision, waving a black rag. All over the tarped-down grass, big American flesh accumulated, sunburning pink as pork.
At ground level, I witnessed Psychotica embarrass humanity. A profoundly silly outfit that, uh, recalls Bowie, Echo and the Bunnymen, and trick-or-treating, they strutted about the stage in all manner of dumb costumes. Silver-suited lead singer Patrick Briggs, apparently capable of shouting platitudes like "Are you ready for the new age of glitter?" without flinching, did correctly point out that Psychotica was the only big-stage band with a woman in its lineup. (This claim was somewhat tarnished when he introduced her with the words, "Representing the power of pussy!") What was patently the most metal-driven, male-dominated Lollapalooza ever was nonetheless described in the program as diverse and balanced. At the scene, balls were clearly tipping the scale. Toward the end of their set, Psychotica released a fetid green and red fog upon the stadium: a gosh-neat visual effect and possible future class-action suit for cancer.
For me, what made the show tolerable and enjoyable in the long run was wimping out -- becoming one of what Chris Cornell of Soundgarden graciously called "those cunts in the box seats." The press boxes were empty except for me; my crony, Lisa; and members of San Jose's finest, who surveyed the opposite bleachers with binoculars and a video camera. For all their attention on the distant crowd, the cops didn't seem to notice the pea soup of pot smoke billowing in from right under their noses.
The Screaming Trees at times made distorted guitars sound like sitars, and didn't suck, but didn't particularly wow me, either. They are, at best, a reliable, likable band. There is, however, something endearing about watching an obese man make windmills on his guitar.
Next up, the Shaolin Monks demonstrated martial arts to a Windham Hill Oriental soundtrack. One monk smacked another with a pole; another leaned against a spear tip with his throat; another broke off lengths of an iron rod against his skull. All tricks were met with the same enthusiastic whooping given to maneuvers at professional wrestling bouts. The Lollapalooza '96 program guide offered prose regarding the Shaolin entourage about as sensitive as the skull that broke the iron rod: "Fifteen shaven-headed Chinamen in orange robes may not seem incredibly out of place among the dyed hair, body piercings and other human oddities floating through this year's Lollapalooza grounds."
Rancid is a fine cover band, doubly intriguing since they change lyrics and titles -- it becomes a game, figuring out which punk original they've camouflaged -- but I'd heard all of it before.
Within 10 minutes of seeing the Ramones for the first and allegedly last time, I was as ebullient as a Forced Exposure correspondent. Police surveillance tripled in the press box next door during the Ramones' set. The classic onetwothreefour intro heralded oldies ("Teenage Lobotomy," "Rock 'n' Roll High School," "Rockaway Beach," etc.), which seemed to be what everyone wanted to hear. Zippy the Pinhead pogoed out at the end with a "Gabba Gabba Hey" sign -- according to Lisa, a classic gesture. Unfortunately, in the crowd below I witnessed the usual macho crap: mosh-pit attendants fistfighting, then shaking hands or hugging, smeared in sweat and, on one occasion, blood. Guys -- it's OK. Go ahead and touch each other if you like. If you're gay, so be it. Being a caveman doesn't necessarily make you straight.
Devo came out in yellow jumpsuits, assumed a fascist line of scrimmage, played their hit ("Whip It"), and grew tedious. The shtick was groundbreaking, once, and the songs fun, but it's a shtick. Imagine watching James Brown go down on his knees with the mike, get escorted off stage draped in a blanket, shrug off said blanket, and go down on his knees with the mike again for half an hour straight.
Soundgarden is still good, but hadn't acted so stagy when I saw them for $5 at the I-Beam in '89. (Though they did pretend to hump each other.) Cornell held his guitar aloft to the audience and commanded them to stand. Most obeyed. To the left of the stage, gurneys took neck-braced victims away for medical treatment. I thought, "Is this really necessary?" The majority of the audience would have responded, "Shut up, you old fart," had they heard me. And they'd be right -- at 28, I was an old fart at this bloated foofaraw, where only 19-year-olds could have the endurance (and perhaps naivete) to last an entire day.
During the wait for Metallica, I noticed that other people's anticipation can indeed be palpable. I felt the collective nattering, foot-shuffling, and whooping in my stomach and the small of my back. Many people left the stadium, but more took their places. As the roadies worked, any change in the stage environment provoked the crowd into cheering: guitar and drum checks, stage light adjustments, and even two seconds of PA static. WOOOOOO! How people do enjoy being led.
When the four-man deity arrived, 40,000 hands rose without any questions. Lisa, who had never gone to a stadium show before, pointed out that green and red spotlights appropriately made everything onstage look like a comic-book panel. Old songs ("Creeping Death," "Whiplash"), recent songs ("Sad But True"), and mediocre new songs ("Ain't My Bitch") were all performed with the same strong-armed, hunched-over attention that does indeed make Metallica fun to watch. All the same, I was beat -- lighters flaring up for the suicide ballad ("Fade to Black") swam in my vision, and Metallica wasn't about to stop their multimillion-dollar production and apologize to me personally for releasing a lame album. As we departed, pyrotechnics announcing the imminent performance of "One," the quadruple-amputee paean, set off car alarms all over San Jose. I was full. As depraved as the Romans may have been -- with their death sports, their orgies, their inbred emperors -- at least they had vomitoriums. In America, where depravity is apparently a matter of scale, we have to puke in the parking lot.