There’s a lot of romance surrounding festival rock concerts, never mind rock & roll itself.
Let the Woodstock generation have its “We are stardust/We are golden/And we’ve got to get ourselves back the garden.” All I know is this: On July 7, 1994, in the parking lot of Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium during an afternoon so hot it left you weeping for shade, I found freedom. Memories be damned, what happened there has since been a permanent part of my day-to-day being.
What prompted me and my friends to call in sick, pack a cooler and hightail it to Sin City was so simple it needs no explanation. For that strange species of individual we call the music freak, all it takes are good bands and a nearby venue. Someway, somehow, you find yourself there. If it’s a matter of life or death, we can rest assured that music is more important than mortal considerations at either end of the pole. Lollapalooza called, and in 1994, you’d have been a fool to say no.
Note the year once more: 1994. Jerry Garcia still walked the earth. So did Kurt Cobain during the early part of the year. The fact that everyone talked about his suicide, as opposed to his music, was comforting if only because it reminded you that self-inflicted death by shotgun will always induce more public shock than some outrageous pop song.
Too bad the ’60s ethos was still hanging around like a stoned albatross. Utah being Utah, Birkenstocked youth—who still wore tie-dye, for cryin’ out loud—couldn’t stay put. They were loading up the bong and “touring” with the Grateful Dead or baking brownies (you know the kind) and driving to Telluride for the bluegrass festival. Some of the most respected people in Salt Lake City’s music scene went back even further—to the ’50s. Rockabilly and country roots were all the rage.
If you followed the British music press or talked about the newest Stereolab LP, people glared at you with all the enthusiasm of a marshmallow with low blood pressure. Music of the here-and-now—as in hear this now—was dead property, mostly.
Lollapalooza wasn’t always cool, but it threw so many ingredients into the stew almost everyone found something to like. That is its simple, special genius. Until this year, the first and only time this festival swooped into Salt Lake City was June 1993. Still, there was no way in hell I was getting anywhere near it. The cartoonish miasma of blips, blurts and farts from Primus’ Les Claypool was too much to risk for the isolated chance of hearing the ultra-cool Mercury Rev. As low as my self-esteem sometimes dropped during the ’90s, I still cared about myself.
The following year, 1994, was going to be different. The Breeders and Nick Cave would be on the main stage. The Flaming Lips, The Verve, The Boo Radleys and Guided by Voices would flank the so-called “Sidestage.” Although scheduled, this all-star line-up got nowhere near Salt Lake City. Ticket sales were a virtual no-show. Too many people were slurping up Grateful Dead knock-offs and foraging for hippie-style jam bands to even notice. To scratch this itch, you beat the nearest path to Las Vegas.
There’s no need to bore anyone with all sorts of hyperbole about the “vibe” or the “scene.” I’ll spare you any mention of how the atmosphere at Sam Boyd Stadium “encapsulated an era” or, even worse, “defined a generation.” Leave that to the ego-bloated legions who brag about protesting ’Nam and dropping acid in San Francisco, while failing to mention that they also divorced their wives and left their children for some sexy young thing, only to come full circle when they started their own businesses and joined the Republican Party. Back to the garden, indeed.
Never mind the fact that Clinton was still in office, or that our nation straddled the now lost sweet spot between the Cold War and Sept. 11-era international terrorism. There was plenty to care about, like the injustice of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and the scourge of AIDS. The stadium was full of activist booths, bless their hearts. But when you’ve got thousands of people in one spot to see the same bands, what is there to disagree about? It’s the same with any music festival. Lollapalooza just had much better bands.
From first song to last, Nick Cave went down a treat, even if seeing him perform in broad daylight made about as much sense as an Easter service held at dusk. Listening to his voice rise over “Mercy Seat” you got the sense that this was how Moses felt when confronted with the Burning Bush. (True story! There goes my promise against hyperbole.) The Breeders were more at home in the sun’s glare, radiating domesticated normalcy after the funeral mass of Cave’s set. None of this prepared you for the undulating psychedelic juggernaut of The Verve. A full three years before they broke the charts with “Bittersweet Symphony,” the band was already in its prime, turning out songs with such equal proportions of force and delicacy that all you could do was drop your jaw in surrender. The Flaming Lips then proceeded to blow the hair off every scalp, but nothing on stage the rest of the day even compared to The Verve.
Music concerts occupy a chosen moment in time—nothing more, nothing less. The portion of time it occupies is irrelevant. That’s what makes Beethoven as universal as the Beatles as universal as, oh, Radiohead. Notice how I’ve contradicted my own argument, especially after giving Deadheads a drubbing for their ’60s necrophilia. Fair enough, but they made the mistake of missing out on Lollapalooza ’94, not me. The maddening element behind so much rock music is that we take it so seriously despite its limitations. Most rock music doesn’t date well at all, and a good deal of it is just plain embarrassing in retrospect. That’s what makes a film like Spinal Tap so damned hilarious. But for one day in July 1994 the hear and now was at my doorstep. In almost 10 years of retrospect, there’s still nothing to be embarrassed about.