at Guinness Fleadh, Arlington International Racecourse, June 20

By J.R. Jones

The VH-1 Stage didn’t look inviting. A square, open tent about a hundred feet on each side, it was divided in half by a chain-link fence; behind the fence stood the stage, flanked by wide banks of speakers that cut off one’s view of the performers. A sound board opposite the stage was backed by a 20-foot length of canvas, blocking the view from outside the tent. Twenty feet away, the sound was muffled and bass heavy; 40 feet out, it was indecipherable. Yet this was the facility the organizers of the Guinness Fleadh music festival had chosen for a series of sets by Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, Squeeze, John Lee Hooker, X, and Shane MacGowan. The tent, I was told, would accommodate 1,800 people, but because of the speakers no more than 1,000 would actually be able to see and hear the performances. The Fleadh had sold 33,400 tickets.

I was there to see the legendary LA punk band X. Lately I’ve come to accept the fact that my teenage heroes are turning into rock ‘n’ roll geezers: the Buzzcocks are getting long in the tooth, the Sex Pistols tour was a cruel joke, and here was X scheduled for the VH-1 Stage. The band has already done a few weary reunion projects, but this year it’s restored the original lineup by luring guitarist Billy Zoom out of retirement. Ads for the festival had listed X midway down the bill, but it would be the penultimate act on this second of four different music stages. I began to worry when I reached the tent at three in the afternoon. Inside about 300 people had spread out blankets and were sitting down, staking out their territory; there appeared to be no press area, and certainly by nine, when X was scheduled to hit the stage, the place would be impenetrable.

This was the Fleadh’s Chicago debut, and it had looked great on paper. Ostensibly a celebration of Irish music and culture, the festival included Jeb Loy Nichols, Hayden, Wilco, Los Lobos, the Chieftains, the Drovers, Tracy Chapman, and Sinead O’Connor. Better yet, it offered an opportunity to hear all these artists in the sun and fresh air, instead of being crushed by a sweaty crowd wreathed in cigarette smoke. When I picked up my press pass at a mobile home in front of the racetrack, it came with a schedule of the four stages and a glowing New York Times review by Ann Powers about the previous week’s Fleadh on Randalls Island in New York. But inside the festival grounds there were no schedules posted: instead, patrons who had paid $45 a ticket–$48 at the gate–had to shell out another $10 for a souvenir booklet and a set of laminated neck tags listing the performers’ show times and locations. The Tribune and Sun-Times had both received schedules the day before but were warned not to publish them.

I was curious to see how the organizers had configured the festival at Arlington. No one seems to know what to do with the racetrack now that the ponies are gone. I’d heard that there would be seating for the main stage, but the huge grandstand north of the track stood vacant. The festival area was located inside the track itself, with large spaces at the west and east ends and a corridor connecting them just south of the central pond. Three of the four stages were located in the west end: the Irish Village Stage, which featured traditional Irish folk; the Naya Stage, another open tent with smaller acts like Nichols, Hayden, Black 47, and the Drovers; and the VH-1 Stage. The connecting corridor was lined by food and drink stands to the north and merchants selling Irish crafts to the south. The east end, the largest of the three spaces, housed the huge main stage at its southern border and rows of portable toilets to the north, with the area between taken over by festivalgoers sitting on picnic blankets.

Picking one’s way across the grounds was a tricky business: no paths had been marked, and the connecting corridor was blocked by long lines of frustrated people waiting for food. The campers in the main stage area gradually crept back to the corridor, and when I made the mistake of traveling too far south I found myself playing hopscotch across a patchwork of blankets. I asked press contact John Reilly why the organizers had opted for a relatively constricted space instead of using the grandstand as seating for the main stage. He told me that the pond in the center of the track had made such a scheme impossible, so instead they fenced in the interior and left the track as a thoroughfare for vehicles servicing the four stages.

Fleadh organizers had scheduled a press conference for four o’clock. I waited in the tiny press tent with a couple other reporters until a trio of men arrived. Joe Killian, the head honcho, was chewing on a cigar–probably not the best prop for the occasion. Why were festivalgoers paying what amounted to a $10 surcharge to find out when and where the acts were performing? Melvin Benn, Killian’s associate, replied that schedules had been posted at a small visitors’ center near the entrance, though he admitted these hadn’t gone up until about 1:20, more than two hours after the gates opened. Why weren’t the dailies allowed to publish the schedule they’d been given, which was nearly identical to the final version? To prevent confusion over last-minute changes, he claimed–the final schedule hadn’t been approved until that morning. Yet the several thousand laminated neck tags couldn’t possibly have been printed that morning. “We’re offering a souvenir program and public information,” Benn declared. “It is freely available.”

Benn and Killian were equally unfazed by the disparity between the number of tickets being sold and the number of people who could actually see the acts on the second stage. Logistics and zoning restrictions, they explained, had prevented them from erecting a large open stage for the second tier of talent. Despite the hundreds camping in front of the VH-1 Stage, there would be traffic in and out of the tent, they insisted. “You have people there now who will not be there for Shane and X,” said Benn. “They’ll be catching their favorite act on the main stage.” The performers booked for the second stage weren’t expected to draw more than 2,000 people, and most of them supposedly preferred to play in a packed tent. “X, Shane MacGowan, they want a club environment,” Benn said. “That was more of an issue to them. I’d like to have put up a larger tent, but a lot of artists don’t feel comfortable on a large main stage.” Killian seconded Benn’s remarks. “Anyone who wants to get in there will get to see it,” he promised. “Besides, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll, you want to be jammed together like that.”

The press session broke up, and I made my way back to the VH-1 Stage. By now people had started to surround the tent; blankets reached back about 60 feet, stopping at a gully that snaked across the grounds. I clambered over people, excusing myself and collecting dirty looks, until I reached the periphery of the tent. People were standing inside; the place was packed and steaming. Richard Thompson appeared onstage, and I listened to him for about a half hour before turning around and tiptoeing back through the maze of campers. After about 50 feet I asked one fellow if he could hear the music. “Well, sort of,” he replied. Did he know who’d played the set before this one? “Richard Thompson.” No, I told him, that was Thompson playing now. “Oh,” he said, “is that him?”

X had scheduled interviews at six, but no one from the band had arrived when I got back to the press tent, so I sat down and waited. I was hoping for John Doe, the band’s proletarian bassist, singer, and songwriter, but was glad when Exene Cervenkova arrived. The singer-lyricist wore a black dress, a black jacket covered with patches and medallions, and wraparound shades beneath her purple mane; it seemed strange to see her tromping around in the sunshine. She gave me a clammy hand to shake and flopped down in a chair, staring off into the distance.

I described the scene outside the tent and asked if she thought the setup would accommodate the fans who’d turned out to see Zoom complete the original band. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know how big the stage is or what percentage are here to see us.” She said they’d played a similar setup on Randalls Island the previous weekend with no apparent problems. I read her a quote from Benn and asked if the band had in fact requested a “club environment” as opposed to the main stage. “You think we’re playing in too small a space,” she observed. “But I don’t think people know if we’re popular or not. Every show we’ve done with Billy has been sold out. But no one really knows how popular we are….I thought we were playing the main stage, actually.”

By the time we finished talking it was nearly seven, and Reilly gave me directions to the area behind the VH-1 Stage. I crossed through the security gate near the main stage and walked along the track south of the chain-link fence. The Chieftains were playing, and as I traveled west toward the other end of the grounds I could see that the campers in front of the main stage seemed to be having a good time; the festival had drawn a miraculously good-natured crowd. Though I hadn’t stopped at the Naya Stage, it appeared to be a success as well: the platform had been erected under a big top about the same size as the VH-1 tent, but the modest lineup was drawing fewer people, and everyone inside seemed relatively comfortable.

When I reached the VH-1 Stage I found myself on the opposite side of the chain-link fence. A few people were sitting in an open, grassy area to the left of the stage, which was five or six feet off the ground. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze stood at the bottom of the steps waiting to go on; they hadn’t changed a hair since I saw them at the Aragon in 1982. The crowd roared as they took the stage, and I craned my neck to get a good view of the band as it launched into its first number. After a few songs I realized this wasn’t going to cut it. The drummer was obscured by sound equipment, and I could only see the rest of the band from the shoulders up. If I wanted to get a good vantage point for the X show I’d have to quit being a rock critic and do it the old-fashioned way. I crossed through the security entrance into the audience and waded into the densely packed crowd.

The sun was going down, but the temperature had been in the 80s all day. Before long I was drenched in sweat. A day’s worth of plastic beer cups crackled underfoot, and abandoned blankets lay trampled and twisted beneath them. After Squeeze finished its set, the crowd thinned out. I decided to move toward the middle rather than the front, where I’d inevitably find myself in a mosh pit. John Lee Hooker’s set was awful, marred by sound problems and the clumsy jamming of his backup band, but he collected a tumultuous ovation anyway. By the end of his set darkness had fallen, and even more people left. I managed to work my way to the dead center of the crowd without jostling or stepping on anyone. The air was thick and humid, and everyone around me seemed to be smoking. A few feet in front a skinhead turned around and shoved someone, who reciprocated; the bouncers demanded to know who was at fault. “Him! Him!” A half dozen hands rose above the crowd, and the bouncers hauled the skinhead over the fence. A few minutes later he was back, shoving his way to the front.

All this began to wear on me, but I took heart when Billy Zoom ambled onstage to check out his equipment. A cheer went up; he nodded and flashed a million-dollar smile. I’d always loved him: not only was he a hot guitarist, but onstage he always seemed to occupy his own mental space, blissfully unaware of John and Exene as they raged against LA, the Reagan era, and each other. Billy would stand stage left in his spangled jacket, his legs spread wide, peeling rubbery rockabilly licks from his Les Paul as he gazed dreamily into the audience. He provided a critical counterweight to John and Exene who’d decided they were the next Steinbeck. The farther they pushed their salt-of-the-earth routine, the brighter Billy seemed to shine as he stood there a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’, savoring every minute of his stardom.

The band opened with the ominous “Johny Hit and Run Paulene” from its 1980 debut, Los Angeles, and for the rest of the high-powered set dipped liberally into its first four albums. Zoom hadn’t changed much, except his face wore a decade’s worth of lines. He was still thin as a rail, and he sailed through his highly polished solos on “True Love,” “In This House That I Call Home,” and the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Breathless.” John and Exene’s edgy, discordant harmonies shone on “We’re Desperate,” “The Hungry Wolf,” and “Your Phone’s off the Hook, but You’re Not.” Only drummer D.J. Bonebrake, a fluid and driving presence in the old days, seemed disconnected. It was a good, solid show, but hardly the transcendant experience Powers had described in the Times.

A mosh pit opened up ten feet ahead of me, kids shoving and slamming into each other despite the cramped quarters. To the right, a beefy guy turned around to threaten the kid behind him: “Get your forearm out of my back, man!” What was he talking about? the kid demanded. “Just get your forearm out of my back–I mean it.” The beefy guy turned his attention back to the stage, but soon the pair were locked onto each other, whirling around, opening a space in the crowd. I was being pushed back. Somehow a small cardboard box full of garbage had slid behind my ankles. I began to lose my balance. Fearful, I grabbed the arm of someone on my left, and luckily the two combatants spun off in another direction. I edged away from the box and hoped no one would trip over it.

“The world’s a mess, it’s in my kiss,” John and Exene sang over and over, drawing out the chorus of their final number. The band brought the song to a close, and long after the other three had disappeared Zoom prowled the edge of the stage with a pocket camera, smiling to himself and snapping photos of the crowd.

After he strolled off, I managed to escape the tent. I wasn’t interested in seeing Shane MacGowan, and I had to meet my ride near the front gate. Sinead O’Connor had already finished her set on the main stage, and people were streaming toward the parking lot. Inside the tent I’d been unable to gauge the size of the audience, but later I learned that many people had deserted the VH-1 Stage after John Lee Hooker’s set. Killian had been right after all: apparently everyone who wanted to see X had seen them. What neither of us could calculate, though, was the number of people who’d given up in disgust and either moved to another stage or simply gone home. Yet I could walk away proud that I’d been jammed into a tent for three hours because, goddamn it, I wanted to rock ‘n’ roll.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dan Silverman.