It’s Lollapalooza weekend in Chicago, where it’s been berthed since 2003. But this isn’t a story about that Lollapalooza; this is a story about my Lollapalooza
It’s spring 1991 and a buddy of mine mentions a festival coming around this summer, making its lone Canadian stop in Toronto. Jane’s Addiction, Living Color, Ice-T and a bunch of other bands. He was scoring tickets that weekend and asked if I wanted one.
“Sure,” I said. “Sounds fun. What’s it called?”
“Lolly-pop festival, or something”
Flash forward to August 1991 and me and a few friends pile into my car for the three hour drive to Toronto for Lollapalooza (not “Lollypop” as it happens, and not even Lollapalooza 91 as this is the first and probably only tour). The line-up at the Toronto installment: The Rollins Band, Butthole Surfers, Ice-T and Body Count, Nine Inch Nails, Living Color, Siouxie and the Banshees, and headlining, Jane’s Addiction. Lollapalooza is the brainchild of Jane’s frontman Parry Farrell, and this is their farewell tour. It turns out they can’t give tickets away either, because Alternative rock is still very much in the underground.
Toronto’s Lollapalooza is held at Exhibition Stadium, which is also the worst possible venue for this. No general admission, rows upon rows of plastic chairs all the way to the stage. We’re lucky enough to be on the floor, maybe half-way back from the stage, but the problem with chairs at concerts is that they encourage people to sit. And sit people do, through the Rollins Band’s set, through the Butthole Surfers, through Ice-T –
Well, actually, not through Ice-T. Because the first thing he does is berate our lazy asses for not showing respect to his homies Henry and Gibby and the rest. In fact he refuses to do shit until we get off our asses, and grudgingly everyone does, because being reamed out by Ice-T is scary. Then Ice-T performs, and blows the roof off an open air-venue. This is the debut of his hardcore punk band Body Count, who are about to gain notoriety and public condemnation for its single “Cop Killer”. Remember this is 1991. The Rodney King verdict. The L.A. Riots. Daryl Gates. And the end result is a stadium of normally polite Canadians chanting FUCK THA POLICE over and over and over again. By the time Body Count leaves the stage to thunderous applause, the party is well underway. And it stays that way through Nine Inch Nails, Living Color, Siouxie and the Banshees, and culminates in Jane’s Addiction’s mesmerizing performance. By the time it’s all over those make-shift floor seats have been trashed beyond repair. The stadium clears out as the PA plays Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” duet with her dead father. We wonder if Lollapalooza will be back next year, who will headline, and if they’ll find a better venue.
None of us suspects what’s about to hit.
One year later, the Alt Rock revolution has hit in full force. Nevermind has dropped, Ten, Badmotorfinger, Blood Sugar Sex Magic … what was the underground has rapidly become the mainstream, and Lollapalooza 1992 reflects that shift. Red Hot Chili Peppers headline, and joining them are The Jesus and Mary Chain, Ministry, Lush, and two Seattle based bands of some note, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. The venue has moved north of the city, to Molson Park in Barrie. Unlike the year previous, driving up the highway from Toronto on the day of the show is not going to be an option, so me and a few friends head up the day before and grab a room at a Holiday Inn just up from the venue. And we’re glad we did, because the hotel is packed with concert-goers, several of the bands are already there, and a party rages all night. Despite facing a day out at the concert, none of us sleeps very much. Heading out for the venue the next day, we get a lift from a passing pickup truck and enter another world.
This was Lollapalooza as it was meant to be. The entire park is turned over to the festival, and there’s secondary stages, pop-up shops, drum circles – a carnival atmosphere. And that’s before the main stage area even opens. When it does open there’s a mad rush into the main area, which is silly because pretty soon it splits into two sections anyway – a mosh pit covering the entire first third of the space, and further back a place to go and sit, hang out, watch from a safe distance, and take in the day.
And what a day. From the first act to take the stage – Lush – to the RHCP closer it is a full ten hours of musical nirvana, despite the lack of Nirvana on the bill. Pearl Jam could easily headline given the hysteria that greets them on stage, but they’re the second act and seem to be having as much fun as the crowd. The day unfolds like some weird fever dream, everything blurring into the next. The mosh pit is an exercise in punishment and by the time Soundgarden takes the stage I’m content to hang back and watch. I planned to sit out Ministry because I was less interested in Ministry … but that was before I saw Ministry. Picture the scene. The sun is setting, and as night falls these dark clad figures — Goths — have appeared in the crowd, seemingly out of nowhere. A wave of them is washing towards the stage, and the moment the sun slips below the horizon, Ministry takes to the stage. And the place goes insane. They are loud. Their stage set-up is intense. Lights blasting, sound blasting, very theatrical – as a budding film student the show’s imagery has me in its spell. I am barely able to remain coherent during the Chili’s raucous set. And when it was over it felt less like a concert than the cultural event the organizers had promised. I started college that fall, and the site of another fellow student wearing their Lollapalooza 1992 shirt was a cause for conversation and new friendship.
When people talk about Lollapalooza, 1992 is the one they remember. The one considered the greatest year.
And how could it not be? The party was just getting started.
1993 saw us back for more, and this time we were seasoned Lollapalooza veterans. We party late into the night but make sure to get some much needed sleep. Come morning when everyone starts making for the venue, we hang back, grab some breakfast, partake of the hotel’s pool facilities, and make our way to Molson Park, passing bumper to bumper traffic on the highway leading from Toronto to Barrie. Last year was epic. Would 1993 surpass it?
Short answer: no. Primus is not the headliner the RCHP were, despite putting on a great show. Fishbone and Arrested Development bring some much needed energy to a crowd that while enjoying themselves immensely, aren’t losing their minds like they did the year before. And while a lot think Alice in Chains, the lone Grunge band on the bill, should headline, their set is identical to the one I saw the previous fall in Toronto. Plus the sheer number of bands I’d seen since the year previous had muddied the waters somewhat.
Plus the creeping commercialization of the venue – outrageous price hikes for water – has everyone on edge, to the point where Rage Against The Machine refuses to sell any of their merchandise, because “five dollars for a bottle of water is a crime”. The mood is blacker this year, where the one previous was bright and sunny. Most agree that unless the next year’s headliners are a step above, they won’t be back. The wheels are coming off the Lollapalooza bus.
The first thing we notice on arrival at the hotel the following year is “where did all these kids come from”? Everywhere we looked, there are13,14,15 year olds, many of them there with their parents. So right away the mood is off even before the show starts. It all just seems “off” somehow. And that mood persists when we wake to grey clouds and dark skies. The previous three Lollapalooza days have been bright, sunny and warm. It isn’t raining yet, but everyone fears it will, and the day will be a washout.
We walk to the venue as before, only this time no friendly concertgoers stop to give us a lift with them. Then, as we wait for the first band to take the stage, the clouds roll in thick and it start to rain. It all poins to the fact that by 1994 Alternative Nation is in serious trouble, wounded by the death of Kurt Cobain. Nirvana was supposed to headline that year’s show, and a cloud has settled over the scene, and over that year’s Lollapalooza tour both figuratively and literally. For the first sets – L7, Nick Cave, The Breeders, even George Clinton – try and fail to get the crowd moving. It’s 1991 all over again and there’s no Ice-T or Cody Count to give everyone shit for being literal wet blankets. People are miserable; they’re leaving the show even though there’s no re-entry. George Clinton and his P-Funk All Stars deliver a rousing set that almost, almost brings the mood up …
And as the stage is set for the next act, the PA starts to play “All Apologies” by Nirvana. It starts slow and low but soon it seems the entire crowd is singing along to it. Then the rain stops, and then as the song ends a shaft of light punches through the cloud cover and the sun hits everyone in full force. This mighty roar ripples through the crowd and seems to push the clouds away. They move off and the sun shines warm and bright.
And then the Beastie Boys took the stage.
And the whole place goes mental.
They’re the shot in the arm a sodden and soggy crowd needs, and of everyone, the Beasties look like they’re having more fun than anyone else. The sun is out for the rest of the day, and by the time Smashing Pumpkins take to the main stage between a clear, cloudless night sky blanketed with stars, it is almost magical. The walk back to the hotel is less of a trudge then the walk to the venue. It ends up being the best Lollapalooza I’ve experienced to this point.
It’s also the last time I attended Lollapalooza.
I missed 1995 (work) and 1996 (looking for work) and 1997 (not even living in Toronto)as life stuff took precedent over an all day music festival. But by then Alternative Nation had peaked. Attendance dropped, shows were cancelled, and 1997 was the last year of Lollapalooza in that incarnation. Now Lollapalooza is confined to three days in Chicago every summer. You can watch a live stream from the comfort of your laptop or tablet. You don’t have to get dirty, or be overcharged for water. Now experiencing things en mass depends on how many are tweeting the experience and uploading grainy photos and shaky video from the staid mosh pit.
Exhibition Stadium is gone now. Last two shows I saw there were U2 and Pink Floyd. It was demolished in 1999, and spend the next 7 years as a parking lot, before a new stadium replaced it (because if there’s anything we’ve become good at, it’s demolishing stadiums and then building them again).
Molson Park too is a memory, closed down in 2005, and currently undergoing redevelopment as it’s swallowed by the urban sprawl that was non-existent in the early 1990s. The Holiday Inn is still there, only now it’s a Comfort Inn. I don’t know if Pearl jam or Soundgarden stay there anymore.
I don’t get up to Toronto that much, but when I do, I’ll occasionally drive by both venues and, for a moment, remember when it teemed with kids for a day each summer. Those kids are in their 30s and 40s now. They’ve moved on, and so has music. But for a generation of us who came of age in the early 1990s, Lollapalooza represented a changing of the guard. It was our moment in the sun, and while that moment (like all such ones) was all too brief it’s a time in our lives none of us will ever forget. And on rare occasions if you’re passing where Molson Park or Exhibition Stadium once stood, and if you listen real hard, you can still hear the music echoing through the past to the present.
[This post has a soundtrack too, which you can listen to on Spotify]
[Don’t have Spotify? Then I can’t help you, sorry]