Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Afternoon of the Roar

book cover

Living entities grow in power or they die. So no matter how revolutionary or new age or full of shit the "alternative" premise of Perry Farrell's culturally and commercially seminal Lollapalooza festival may have been, its metamorphosis into an institution was inevitable. Lollapalooza is now a recognized music-biz fixture. With a goodly push from a band called Nirvana, the long-shot aesthetic that catapulted such unlikely properties as Nine Inch Nails and Primus to platinum now powers an industry within an industry. Anyone who claims to find this disillusioning is a liar or a fool.

So accept the fact that Lollapalooza is no longer cool. Be glad there are scoffers out there, even if they're pumping ritual scarification or Dean Martin records--negations fertilize innovations, and if one should take root and flower, we get to put it in the salad. Meanwhile, we also get Lollapalooza. Give up on it changing your life and take it for what it is--one live music option among many, with the built-in drawbacks of any festival. Even under the worst circumstances--as I can testify as a survivor of Lollapalooza '94's notorious Quonset State Airport stop in Rhode Island, where L7 was bumped by a traffic jam and an arrogantly awful Billy Corgan mocked the yahoos who'd fought through to cheer him--you get a hell of a big bang for your entertainment buck. The '95 bill was criticized for its college-radio predictability, cinched when Courtney Love vetoed Snoop Doggy Dogg on grounds of "sexist/racist lyrical content." But having attended many such gatherings, both Woodstocks included, I swear the last time I saw so much exciting music in one place was at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, before all but a smattering of my fellow celebrants at the Meadows in Hartford were born.

I like the sound of surprise as much as the next living entity. But predictability has its uses. Hole made 1994's album of the year, Sonic Youth has amassed the deepest catalogue in Alternia, Pavement may catch up, Cypress Hill's brawny sonics and instantly recognizable hits could knock out any Beastie Boys stoner, Beck's best-selling 1994 debut was a hoot, and Elastica's best-selling 1995 debut is sassier than anything by Sinead O'Connor, whom the English girls replaced after O'Connor sanely decided that pregnancy and heat waves don't mix. On the main stage, only aggro-metal indie tokens Jesus Lizard and ska-boy frat tokens the Mighty Mighty Bosstones were questionable. And at the show I attended, the second-stage lineup was first-rate. Having sampled about half of every act except Laika (whose raving keyboard climax left me regretting what I'd missed), I'd rank them Moby, Superchunk, Dambuilders, Pharcyde, Geraldine Fibbers, with only the last-named worth fleeing. And hey, Moby and Courtney both praised the Fibbers from their respective stages, so maybe I was wrong.

I mean, the free play of taste is what smorgasbords like Lollapalooza are for. Sure the show could and should have been more electic--I would have loved to see Naughty by Nature, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tuvan throat singing, or, hell, Mary J. Blige. But I was impressed by how much variation the apparently narrow musical compass of this bill made room for. Not counting the Bosstones and the hip-hoppers, every artist was an exponent of what I call The Roar--the loud, rhythmic, bone-drenching electric-guitar drone that is grunge's gift to our brains, our earholes, and our bodies themselves. Even techno shaman Moby, a hardcore veteran who integrates guitar into his keybs, adapted his rave version of this concept to the setting--he interpreted "Sweet Child o' Mine" as a techno song, covered "Sweet Home Alabama," and climaxed with "Purple Haze." In a sense the show was as undifferentiated as pretentious know-nothings always say rock and roll is. Yet in a blindfold test, the most casual fan would have had no appreciable trouble telling these acts' instrumental sounds apart.

Evolving folkie Beck fronted a piano-augmented punk band whose healthy willingness to fool around didn't prevent it from making the appropriate noises at the appropriate times. Superchunk also seemed relatively generic, but where Beck's best moments too often involved barely audible words, the Chapel Hill standard bearers regularly transcended themselves in rushing hyperdrive raveups. Both the straight-ahead Dambuilders and the expressionist Fibbers augmented their guitar onslaught with violin. And if Elastica's retro punk-pop Roared mostly by association--this was the only band propelled by its drummer, who banged with irrepressible precision--Hole's pomo grunge-pop epitomized the sonic idea: at once inescapably, singalongably catchy and gloriously, unkemptly clamorous, a sound bath that heightened the consciousness as it enveloped the spirit. Courtney also blathered some, natch; eventually, the vigilant Lollapalooza timekeepers pulled her plug and she was carried off by security. But don't let anyone tell you she's not a musician first. None of this melodrama--which seemed somehow expected, almost normal--was as memorable or as meaningful as the focus she applied to the songs of her life.

Hole also covered Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea" and the Replacements' "Unsatisfied," perfectly, and played two new songs that traded catchiness for an implosive force that recalled In Utero without living up to it. Lollapalooza's unchallenged masters of internal-tension Roar remained Pavement and Sonic Youth. Steering away from the theoretical teen anthems no one now doubts they can write, the godparents topped the show with its most avant-garde set, a clanging two-guitar barrage (three-guitar on the new songs where Kim Gordon put down her bass and strapped on a man's instrument) that evoked their symphonic mentor Glenn Branca more than anything they've sold in years. Which was gutsy, but in the wake of Pavement, also artsy.

Pavement played the epochal set that elevated the rest of the day's excellent music into what felt like a utopian fantasy, a double-barreled cornucopia always ready with a new treat on the next stage. Finally in control of their superiority complex, these arch wise guys projected. Steve Malkmus sang at the top of his lungs without moving his lips, and the licks he laid on Scott Kannberg's leads combined Sonic Youth's upsetting dissonances with Elastica's sure-shot hooks. Like their records, sure, only shocking in its increased intensity--the next level an ordinary Pavement show doesn't approach.

One of alternative's coziest myths is that it's club music, naturally appreciated in close quarters by a few hundred kindred spirits. Yet except for Jesus Lizard, who I'd never seen before and will never see again, all five of Lollapalooza's main-stage Roar acts showed strengths to a crowd of 12,000 that were disappointingly absent in the smaller venues where I'd caught them. This is partly because the Roar translates to giant sound systems that muck up more detailed styles (the Bosstones might have been as much fun as their dancer if we could have heard the arrangements). But I also credit the Lollapalooza concept itself, which compels overprotected cult heroes to reach out to curiosity seekers who don't know them from Abba.

Scoffers note scornfully how indifferently many Lolla acts are received--like Pavement, who got a good hand and deserved a standing O. But that's the way it is in the world of live music options--you pay to hear a few faves and check out the rest, as casually or ecstatically as the synergy between the band and your sensorium permits. At Lolla '95, the star attractions were Hole and--surprisingly until you thought about it with your body hair bristled by their stupendous basslines--Cypress Hill, putting out for strangely normal kids who dug their Buddha/buddah shtick. But most of the curiosity seekers were psyched for one or two other bands as well. And taken collectively this mass of consumers provided the economic base for the best nine hours of music anyone's likely to hear in America this year. Not bad for a bunch of alienated kids who don't know any better.

In several respects, we at Hartford had it lucky. The smallish crowd at the spanking new Meadows shed-and-lawn assured efficient movement, manageable lines for toilets and concessions and cooling if uncool sideshow tents, and a clublike intimacy near the second stage. And the seats proved an option whose time has come at a festival that's now more about listening to music than participating in culture, because they preclude a mosh pit, which by its nature eats up all surrounding turf and the weaklings who occupy it. Bullshit "the kids" need to mosh. Those "kids" are a pushy minority of male muscleheads and a few female pioneers, and judging from the scant play-fight action on the second-stage asphalt, their craving is far from irrepressible. At Quonset last year, the prototypical fan was a betesticled lug who endangered anyone within shoving distance. At the Meadows, the prototypical fan was a not yet glamorous girl who knew the words to every Hole song. Neither is especially, you know, alternative. But the girl is more progressive. And she's also smarter, nicer, and, yes, deeper into the music that Lollapalooza the institution served so well in 1995.

Spin, 1995