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Live in the ’90s: Lollapalooza ’91

“Was this the beginning of the end of ‘alternative’ as an outside living?” asks Vernon Reid of Living Colour

Lollapalooza 1991, Butthole Surfers

Butthole Surfers Stage Diving Moshing Mosh pit at Lollapalooza, New York, August 11th, 1991.

Steve Eichner/Getty

Guitarist Vernon Reid has very fond, vivid memories of the inaugural Lollapalooza: the early-afternoon displays of raw hard-rock rage by the Rollins Band; the opening-day set in Phoenix by Reid’s own band, Living Colour; the daily readings of the soon-to-be-infamous “Cop Killer” by rapper Ice-T’s thrash-metal combo, Body Count; the way vocalist Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers greeted the audiences each day — dressed in a hausfrau smock and firing a twelve-gauge shotgun in the air. “One day I said, ‘Yo, man, are you shooting blanks?’ ” Reid recalls. “He had a twinkle in his eye.”

And, Reid says, the S&M scenes at the tour party in Dallas “will stand for all time. You’d never think such things went on in God’s country.” He laughs. “It’s very rare to have a tour party culminate in public floggings.”

Lollapalooza, in that first year, was a rare thing in nearly every respect, an all-day outdoor sucker celebrating the emerging motley strains of Nineties alt-rock culture with the inclusive vibe of Bill Graham’s old rock-blues-etc. bills at the Fillmore. “The inspiration for me was Graham and the [1982 and ’83] US Festivals — these massive gatherings with groups going all day and night,” says Jane’s Addiction singer and Lollapalooza co-founder Perry Farrell. “And [Jane’s] were doing shows out in the California desert in the Eighties, which was also part of my schooling.” Crucial to the whole Lollapalooza joy ride, Farrell insists, was that “we were moving. It was mobile.”

The festival was, in one sense, Farrell’s way of saying goodbye with style; the first Lollapalooza was basically a farewell tour by Jane’s Addiction, who were on the verge of splitting. But as devised by Farrell and a core planning group, including Jane’s drummer Stephen Perkins and the band’s manager, Ted Gardner, Lollapalooza became a spirited deconstruction of the tired old-school summer-tour aesthetic: headliner plus an opener or two in a no-frills venue. The seven acts on Lollapalooza’s main stage represented multiple sub-genres of rock, from the Buttholes’ lunatic punk and Jane’s’ Zeppelin-esque art metal to the British goth of Siouxsie and the Banshees and the black rock-rap juxtaposition of Living Colour and Ice-T’s L.A. posse.

“IF YOU PUT YOUR SOUL INTO IT ALL THE WAY, LIKE JAMES BROWN, PEOPLE WILL SEE AND FEEL IT. AND TODAY, I WAS ALL THE WAY THERE.” —HENRY ROLLINS

Traveling with the bands was a fairground spread of extreme arts and issues: a painting and sculpture exhibition; activist groups including the National Abortion Rights Action League and Handgun Control Inc.; and Body Manipulations, a colorful troupe whose demonstrations of “piercing, brandification and scarification” drew packed, gawking crowds. “I’d go into the art tent,” Farrell says, “and think, ‘Wow, kids are getting turned on to artists so radical that you don’t see them in the Guggenheim.’ One guy built these killer ‘spike’ chairs. I remember walking through and feeling the excitement of people who were seeing it for the first time, sitting on these chairs with spikes.”

“I really believe Lollapalooza was the beginning of extreme body art,” Reid contends. “Piercing started to go mainstream with that tour. Think about this: It starts with Lollapalooza and ends up with Scary Spice with a pierced tongue.”

Ironically, Jane’s Addiction were in deliberate retreat from the mainstream, playing their final shows (barring a brief 1997 reunion tour). A highlight of the tour’s second night, at Irvine Meadows near Los Angeles, was Farrell and Ice-T’s electrifying duet on Sly and the Family Stone’s race-baiting playlet, “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” At the bottom of the bill, ex-Black Flag road warrior Henry Rollins tore it up for anybody who happened to show up when the doors first opened. That same day at Irvine, for a handful of sunbaked punks, Rollins Band blitzed through a free-gravity jam, including brutalized snatches of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” and Suicide’s “Ghost Rider.”

“The way I relate to people and music now,” Rollins said after he got offstage, “is, ‘Let’s do it; let’s let it happen.’ If you put your soul into it all the way, like James Brown, people will see and feel it. And today, I was all the way there.” Lollapalooza ’91 was not without crisis or tension. Nine Inch Nails suffered a power outage in their first song at the first stop, in Phoenix. “We had no option,” NIN’s Trent Reznor said later, “but to destroy all of our equipment and walk offstage.” The tour’s finale, in Seattle, which included Fishbone and the Violent Femmes, was cursed with cold, rainy weather.

And despite the general spirit of camaraderie backstage, there was, Reid says, “a camp vibe” between Living Colour and Ice-T’s mob: “There was a vibe from them sometimes that we were soft or something.” In fact, Reid insists, “because we were in this weird middle area, between the mainstream and the alternative, we were outsiders. And Body Count, in their own way, were really outsiders.”

Also, Reid says, “there was an ongoing debate about what this tour meant for alternative music. Just like Woodstock signaled the end of the hippie era, was this the beginning of the end of ‘alternative’ as an outside thing?”

Lollapalooza ’91 — which drew almost half a million people in twenty-one cities — transformed the summer-concert business. In the next four years, Lollapalooza represented the leading wave of the Next Rock; headliners included Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and the Beastie Boys. But the jockeying for money and billing by managers and agents, and the explosion of demographic-driven clones like H.O.R.D.E. and Lilith Fair, ultimately squeezed the life out of Lollapalooza. Farrell and the remains of the original brain trust pulled the plug after the ’97 tour, which featured Prodigy and Tricky.

Farrell says that his dream was a victim of its own success: “There is a certain holiness that is taken away by competition. It takes away from the strength of the music, how it can transform us.” Nevertheless, he is working on a new festival concept, a worldwide “jubilee” (as he calls it) for 2000. “I really believe the world is going to get together,” he claims brightly, “and it’s going to be over music. It can’t be over anything else.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Lollapalooza

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