The creepy old Butthole Surfers are now one of my 15-year-old son’s favorite bands. That, and the recent release of a surprisingly good live Nine Inch Nails CD, All That Could Have Been, reminds me of hairy experiences at the first Lollapalooza, way back in 1991. Ah, the musty air of nostalgia and vomit.
The Lollapalooza juggernaut rolled over Blossom Music Center (an outdoor venue located between Cleveland and Akron) for its only Ohio show August 5, my 33rd birthday.
I was still young enough to enjoy a birthday, but old enough to start calculating the percentage of my theoretical life span already squandered. Actuarial tables insisted that I had more ahead of me than behind, but I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Life is a gamble and offers no guarantees other than BP gasoline will not clog your intake valve.
My brother and I flew through Hudson, City of Lights, one light at a time and then made real time through the cool-guy backroads until we nearly rear-ended a station wagon of such width, breath, and stateliness of movement that aircraft could have landed upon it were it not for the moss and lichen that rested comfortably upon its top deck.
We dislodged ourselves from the dash and returned to our seats. My brother’s attempts at circumnavigation were repeatedly repelled by oncoming vehicles and sideward drift by the mothership.
We screamed into the side entrance of Blossom – the car wasn’t screaming, we were – at 2pm on the nose. (The development of the phrase “on the nose” to denote “exactly” is curious. The sense receptors of the body are concentrated within the face, of which the nose is the most prominent and central feature: rather prominent on me, really prominent upon my friend Bilbo, for whom the nose makes up a notable portion of his body weight. Unless a man is in a state of amorous agitation, when he walks into a wall his nose strikes first. He strikes the wall “on the nose.” This is all just etymological speculation, however.)
The line to enter the hallowed grounds snaked back youthfully to the bridge – the bridge that symbolically and literally linked the mundane real world with the encompassing otherness of the Lollapalooza: a “Festival of Arts and Music,” conceived, delivered and diapered by Perry Farrell, leader of Jane’s Addiction, and another fellow with a prominent proboscis. Is there a link?
The “art” that most of the people in line were preoccupied with, was the art of smuggling as much contraband through the gates as possible. Contraband in this case included bottles, cans, and fruit smelling of alcohol. Yuppies can wheel in portable bars past the smiling sentries for Cleveland Orchestra performances at Blossom, because yuppies rarely stage dive or slam dance in the pit. Those with the most freedom least know what to do with it. There are enough problems at a show like Lollapalooza without thousands of underage drunks whipping bottles at each other and at the performers.
We casually slipped into line next to a friend of my brother’s, cutting off 80% of the wait time. As we passed through the portals of pleasure, we realized that a band was already playing. My brother wandered off with his friends to establish a grassy beachhead, upon which they could replenish themselves against the sterility and elitism of our choice pavillion seats.
I followed my journalistic impulses to the source of it all: the stage. It wasn’t until I actually penetrated the pavillion proper that I realized what an unholy ruckus the Rollins Band was making. Henry Rollins, the South Bay Poet of Pain, whom I had met ten years before when he was a nobody just signed on to sing for Black Flag, was the first of the Lotza Palookas.
And frankly, a palooka Rollins is: covered head to toe with tattoos and belching metallic tales of power run amok and self-sufficiency. A worthy philosophy to be sure, but the old punk-Rollins is preferable to the newer metal-Rollins. At least if you didn’t like a Black Flag song, it was over in a minute of so. Now the songs are longer, the beat is more ponderous and the message largely humorless.
Rollins was altogether too everything at 2:30pm on a nice summer day. Hank and the band were barely audible on the grass as they pulverized the air into its component elements within the pavillion. The sound system was attempting to crank out enough sound to cover the entire lawn as well as inside the pavillion proper – an impossible task that left the pavillion denizens dazed with auditory overload and the lawn loungers wondering who was playing.
The lawn shouted “turn it up,” the pavillion shouted “turn it down,” the beer line shouted “tastes great,” the restrooms added “less filling.” There should have been speakers on the lawn.
I had an interview lined up with Rollins for after his performance through his record company, Imago. However, there was nary a pass, nor a message, nor acknowledgement of my existence by the backstage people. 0 for 1.
Next were the Butthole Surfers. The Surfers should never play in daylight: they can’t show their gross videos, nor their light show, and lead singer Gibby Haynes’ abundant embonpoint is all too clear.
I stood by an acquaintance at the stage exit because the acquaintance of mine was an acquaintance of the Surfers, and wily to their woolly ways. However, instead of spewing forth aphoristic answers to my insightful inquiries, one of the Surfers – I didn’t catch who – spewed forth something altogether more noxious and tangible. He just missed my shoes. 0 for 2.
Ice T rapped, then rocked with his metal band Body Count. While his rapping rocked harder than his rocking, both seemed fairly pointless in this context. In fact, both the Ice T performance and that of Living Colour seemed to be preemptive strikes against possible charges of racism rather than integral musical components of the show.
Nine Inch Nails played between Ice T and Living Colour and was clearly the highlight of the show. NIN filled in the industrial music slot in the show’s cafeteria format.
Industrial music was some white musician’s response to the angriest rap of Public Enemy, Ice T, and NWA in the mid-80s. Gangsta rap vividly chronicled the individual horrors of the streets while industrial portrayed the collective horrors made possible by technology and mass-movements. The cold center at the heart of most industrial is the desire to not only make music with machines, but to make music as BY machines. Nine Inch Nails had transcended the industrial category and become something else entirely, even then.
While the industrialists sought to escape their own organic natures through immersion in technology, Trent Reznor (singer, writer, multi-instrumentalist, producer of NIN) expressed his organic nature THROUGH technology. Reznor discussed this issue with the DJ in a spring, 1991 interview.
“I had tried to write songs on and off, but I never seemed to be able to get it together. It didn’t feel right. I had kept a journal of my most private and personal feelings, and I had no intention of ever showing it to anyone else, let alone publishing it.
“In a sickening flash one night, I realized that I had to write songs from my journal. This scared the hell out of me, but I knew it was real, and that is what my songs were missing: emotional reality. I felt naked and embarrassed, but when I felt like giving in, I thought about my favorite albums, and they were the ones that were the most emotionally revealing.”
Art is turning personal feelings into something tangible through the use of technique. Everyone has the feelings, many have the technique, but few have the courage and the will to turn the feelings into public commodities and the technique to pull it off. After playing in several local bands through the mid-80s, including Exotic Birds, Reznor went solo, naming his solo project Nine Inch Nails.
“Head Like a Hole” was Reznor’s first hit from NIN’s first album, Pretty Hate Machine (1989). It is still his most memorable song. “Head” opens with a pumping, haunted house keyboard bass line vaguely reminiscent of Ministry’s “Everyday (Is Like Halloween).”
Reznor’s vocals ease in, “God money I’ll do anything for you.” The voice seems to be struggling quietly for air. Menace is implied in the quiet as well as the funhouse bass line. The god Money is voracious, “God money don’t want everything, he wants it all.”
Reznor’s vocals build toward the chorus. As the chorus erupts, the vocals veer from breathless insinuation to full-blown distorted industrial terror: “Head like a hole, black as your soul, I’d rather die than give you control.”
Reznor rails against the void that we seek to fill with materialism and sex. This emptiness, this sense that life is entropic is what the other industrialists (Front 242, Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, etc.) feel as well, but these personal feelings are what the other’s avoid. This is Reznor’s own head that feels like a hole. This is not vague philosophizing; these are feelings wrenched from the soul. You can hear the flesh tear and dance to it as well.
Reznor is a charismatic performer and the band, especially guitarist Rich Patrick (now of Filter), rocked with real terror and authority. The crowd was energized to the point of panic and lemming-lunged toward the stage forcing bodies to squeeze where bodies shouldn’t, causing the already stressed security staff to transmogrify into Paranoids and Punishers.
Jane Scott, the Plain Dealer rock reporter and Godmother of rock and roll, had the right idea: pin your ticket stub prominently upon your person, because every time you sneezed you were going to be asked for it anyway. In fact, I was even asked for my ticket while in my seat:
“Just checking, buddy. You giving me a hard time? You wanna get thrown out? Huh?” Power corrupts, etc.
After NIN’s set, I finally got backstage to interview Living Colour after its set (yeah! to Gary the Sony guy). I was glad that Living Colour was included in the show after all, which proves that all politics is local and that a horse of a different color looks great after your ox has been gored a few times.
Living Colour ended the interview shutout for me, then my batting average soared as I ran into Trent Reznor in the large communal backstage cafeteria. Therein also roamed Ice T; Dave Navarro, the guitarist for Janes Addiction; various Surfers, and even Henry Rollins.
I had penetrated the inner sanctum, an act that I had been biologically programmed to perform. We men spend our entire lives trying to penetrate impenetrable inner sanctums – it’s in the jeans. At least that time I made it.