Winnebago County Fairgrounds,

June 30

By Cara Jepsen

A friend of mine likes to tell the story of the time he went to see Black Sabbath at the Winnebago County Fairgrounds in Pecatonica, a town just west of Rockford. It rained, and the concert was moved indoors. No one in his party cared, because they were all tripping on acid. After the show, though, buzz-kill: Their cars were stuck in the muddy lot, and each one had to be towed. The process took a miserably long time, and locals with four-wheel drives and tow trucks made a killing that night. “They had such huge rolls of money, bigger than any I had ever seen in my life,” my friend recalled. “They took whatever you had to get out of there.”

That was the early 1970s, but not much has changed out in Pecatonica, where this year’s Lollapalooza landed. The festival’s organizers chose to route the tour through the nation’s fairgrounds, racetracks, and cow pastures in hopes of creating “a more harmonious environment.” What this meant, at least in Pecatonica, was that Lollapalooza took on the worst aspects of a county fair, Taste of Chicago, a Dead show, and a white-trash party in the hinterlands.

These complaints echo those made about the lineup at Lollapalooza this year: how headliners Metallica are a mainstream metal band; how there are no black or female acts on the main stage lineup (except for a few “guest” spots in other cities); how Lollapalooza has sold out this year (all 35,000 seats in Pecatonica were indeed sold). Even cofounder Perry Farrell has distanced himself from the event (though according to a recent issue of Rolling Stone he has not yet divested himself of the moneymaker), and plans to launch an alternative tour, called ENIT, in the fall.

Yes, this was the year that Lollapalooza finally slid back into the primordial ooze. Instead of the slightly ironic Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, there was an actual sideshow: For a small fee, you could view a woman without a head, a giant rat roasting in the sun, or a big, depressed snake. There were no performance poets this year, and the virtual rides were replaced by traditional carnival rides such as the Zipper and the Ferris wheel. And the gangly kids in Q101 T-shirts were joined by their redder, fatter, older Harley-straddling counterparts. The two things they seemed to have in common were that they were from the suburbs and that they had tattoos.

The main stage was set up on the infield of the track, the site of past demolition derbies and tractor pulls. Unlike in past years at the New World Music Theatre, seating was general admission, meaning that people were able to push their way to the front and stand in four inches of mud (as the day grew hotter, bouncers doused the people in front with hoses, which mixed with the infield dirt), mere feet from their favorite bands.

The other redeeming factor was the venue’s impressive battalion of portable johns, which meant that, possibly for the first time in concert history, there were no lines for the bathroom. Of course that also meant there were no mirrors or readily available drinking water.

I missed the first band, Psychotica, on purpose, but in the time it took to get from highway 20 to the parking lot, I also missed sets by Screaming Trees, the Shaolin Monks, and Rancid. I did arrive in time to see the Ramones pump out the usual 15 three-chord songs–perhaps for the last time if they retire at the end of the tour as they’ve promised. It was disconcerting to see the pale, leather-jacketed New Yorkers playing in daylight.

As the afternoon wore on, the sun beat down and the temperature rose. There was little shelter for concert-goers; the only shady area was the grandstand, which was reserved for the press and people with VIP passes. No beer was sold, which was probably wise. Unfortunately, you practically needed a divining rod to find water. A lone hose near the grandstands provided a free dose; otherwise people had to pay $3 for a bottle of the stuff, if they could stand the lines, which were up to an hour long. As the day wore on, most resigned themselves to shelling out $18 for a six-pack.

A stream of ambulances flowed in and out of the fairgrounds, increasing in number as the day wore on. One girl fainted in front of me in the food line after a vendor refused to pass back a bottle of water to help revive her. “Let’s boycott this place,” said one kid; no one moved. When her boyfriend asked people to move back and give her air, they did so reluctantly, not wanting to lose their places in line.

Some relief could be found in an air-conditioned Brain Trough tent, which was full of flyers about East Timor and games educating concertgoers about safe sex, civil rights, and volunteering. Most visitors made no pretense of interest, though, and parked themselves on a set of couches in front of a rack of TVs. Others milled about aimlessly, listening to ambient music pumping from giant speakers.

Back on the main stage in midafternoon, special guests Cheap Trick (other cities were treated to Waylon Jennings, the Cocteau Twins, or Steve Earle, among others) pulled out their usual mix of decades-old material. Joey Ramone, looking ill at ease, stumbled onto the stage to join the band for a fast version of “Surrender” but seemed to know only part of the chorus; after standing awkwardly through a few verses, he walked back off the stage.

I also missed most of the second-stage acts, including Cornershop, Ben Folds Five, Girls Against Boys, You Am I, and Ruby, but somehow managed to catch the worst of the batch, the Beth Hart Band. Hart emoted her updated Pat Benatar tunes with just enough Alanis to make me leave. I passed by the third stage several times, but not once did I see a band on it.

By the time Soundgarden hit the main stage, the venue was at capacity. Their serviceable set included a Zeppelin-esque rendition of the Doors’ “Waiting for the Sun.” Near the end of the set, Chris Cornell warbled a mostly a cappella version of “Black Hole Sun.”

Next I waited some more in the food lines. This year, ethnic and vegetarian food were dumped in favor of more traditional fair fare–burgers, pizza, and gyros–and the vendors had more in common with the toothless ride operators of my youth than the pierced young hipsters who doled out curry in past years. Twenty minutes in the corn line produced an appropriate mini-meal, considering that we were surrounded by cornfields. It would have taken less time if they didn’t have five designer versions of it, ranging from garlic to Cajun to Mexican. (Like a Starbucks barista, the expediter kept correcting the cashier: “South of the Border!” he’d interject whenever she called it Mexican). The bargain of the day was $1 espresso, but it wasn’t selling.

The crowd was impatient for Metallica to begin, throwing Frisbees and crushed water bottles into the air and creating a giant garbage storm. Metallica finally launched into its set, and everyone raised their hands in the sign of the devil. From my vantage point, all you could hear was bass and drums. James Hetfield’s usually annoying vocals sounded like they were coming through a wind tunnel; the guitar solos were almost entirely lost. The band ran around the stage, working the audience and shaking their heads in what looked like self-parody, considering their recent haircuts.

They plowed through a monster set, playing only three songs from their latest album, Load, a chunky, nearly solo-free attempt to cross over to the alternative market. Instead they concentrated on older, better material. Lighters were raised during the ballads, which, thankfully, were few and far between, and the crowd went crazy with air guitar and headbanging during ass-kickers like “Enter Sandman” and “Wherever I May Roam.” The audience was also treated to a pyrotechnic interlude, complete with onstage explosions, fireworks, and fire. At the end of the set, Hetfield came back out and told the crowd to “get the fuck out”–but not before reminding us of Metallica’s upcoming tour.

On the way out of the debris-strewn fairgrounds, the moon was full, nobody was shooting off bottle rockets like they did at one pre-Fourth Rush concert in 1980, and it was relatively easy to get out of the parking lot. As I made my exit, I couldn’t help thinking that this year’s Lollapalooza resembled nothing so much as a Monsters of Rock tour: that Metallica is the 90s equivalent of Deep Purple (only better), Soundgarden is Led Zeppelin (only not as good), Cheap Trick is Cheap Trick, and the Ramones–well, the Ramones, like me, are just too damn old for this.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Lollapalooza attendees by Andrew Gregg.