Lineup: Primus, Alice in Chains, Dinosaur Jr., Fishbone, Arrested Development, Front 242, Tool, Rage Against the Machine
Back of ticket ad: …look, Fox Photo, it’s just not working
Seeing a quote that I will always associate with Buckaroo Banzai printed on this ticket bemuses me. Was it meant to be a reference to the film? Would they have done something from Repo Man instead of that? (Actually, it would be great if it had just said ‘Plate. Shrimp. No explanation.’) Was it something that some guy in Goldenvoice heard Perry Farrell saying and thought was appropriate? An eternal mystery.
But anyway, this show, which almost killed all of us. Sort of.
So by this time Lollapalooza was well past the ‘neat idea’ stage to an institution of sorts. A bit much to claim into only its third year, obviously, but compared to other ideas there seemed to be actual legs with this thing – that it all turned out differently in the end was well down the road but then again, now that it’s fulfilled its destiny as being a brand for a fixed-location summer festival, maybe it was just a matter of it coming full circle via Farrell’s inspiration at Reading 1990.
In any event – summer 1993, another Lollapalooza, announced well in advance, etc. By this point I’d also figured out what exactly the general lineup would be by the time they announced it – not specifically by any means but I had a few guesses at work and, pretty much, bullseye. I even wrote this fake article about it which thankfully never got published anywhere, but based on the previous years I’d figure there’d be an LA funk/metal band, an industrial act, a hip-hop performer or group and so forth. So when bands like Rage Against the Machine, Front 242 and Arrested Development were confirmed I was all ‘well, there you go.’
The big change was in location – Irvine Meadows would have done me just fine as before, especially given its nearby location to where I then lived, but whether it was because of some sort of glad-handing deal or an attempt to be different or who knows what, the location this time around was…Irwindale. Specifically their recreational park, associated with this Santa Fe Dam printed on the ticket. Now, Irwindale I had only ever heard of as a possible location for the Raiders when they weren’t sure if they were staying in LA or not, so hearing that they’d be at this spot was more than a slight surprise. Nobody I talked to remembered ever having been there or at this alleged recreation area so there was much scratching of heads and shrugging.
Still, it was Lollapalooza, so we dutifully went. And it did feel like a combination of excitement and duty at this point – while there were rumblings of other similar tours kicking in, they weren’t exactly exciting us. (To think there was a time when a major summertime festival tour could come into being thanks to frickin’ Blues Traveller…) Also, in classic ‘New! Improved!’ style we were hearing about a greatly expanded side stage setup, where the more ‘indie’ in the broad sense of the word acts were going to be playing, some of which I was all about (others not so much but hey).
The group of us that went consisted of fellow concertgoer Steve M. from UCLA days and a clutch of mutual friends – and one thing I remember either about this weekend or time was that had I timed it better I would have also been able to catch Adorable and Underground Lovers at a small show a day or two later or something similar. Still regret missing that one, especially not getting to see Underground Lovers touring off of the should-be-much-more-famous Leaves Me Blind but what can you do. In any event, I ended up in LA and our group set out to get over to Irwindale from the Santa Monica area – a bit of a trip in and of itself.
I remember I went with friend Randy B., a garrulous and friendly sort I’d always gotten along with during our UCLA days of radio station work and/or RPG gaming. He had recently heard about this group Moxy Fruvous so I remember listening to what I guess was their still-Canadian-only release and thinking “King of Spain” was kinda fun, and otherwise we talked and joked our way out to Irwindale, along with whatever directions we had scrounged up and/or used a Thomas Bros guide for. (Good lord, it all sounds so distant now. Mapquest, Google Maps, standard GPS guidance…none of it to hand.) So by whatever means we ended up driving the two way, single lane either way road up over an artificial wall or loop of white rocks and looked down into…
Well, if it was a recreation area, it was kinda depressing. I assume it was all totally artificial, I couldn’t imagine it being anything else. There was a ‘lake’ which I suspected wasn’t there to start with, plus a large enough green area with trees next to it where the stages and show would obviously be, plus a huge parking area that was essentially nothing but flat gravel plus some lightstands here and there (it might have been better than that but I can’t say for sure – it doesn’t feel like it from this distance). The San Gabriel Mountains in the background looking north made for a dramatic view, though the inevitable summer smog didn’t help it any. The whole thing felt a little weird, and it was already a pretty hot day by the time we got out there in the early afternoon.
Somehow all our group members got together and we ended up in the line to get in – and that’s when we should have known that this was not going to be the best of days. Again, summer, hot, not a formal arena as such in the slightest, so a lot of folks had brought water and/or food along. It was after all just a huge picnic area so who could blame people? So the fact that the ticket checkers and security people were confiscating ALL the food and water as we came in was not exactly cheering us up. Even less so when it was being consumed in front of us as they laughed. Thanks a lot. (The following year the PR announcements for the festival took great pains to underline that there would be free water, so you can imagine how many complaints were received.)
Once we got in, everything actually calmed down a bit – for all that we had to buy our overpriced and no doubt not very good amenities, the basic layout of the park was actually conducive to chilling. The stage was set at the opposite end of the park from the entrance at the edge of a huge flat grassy area; in between was, well, about what you would expect in such a park spot, with a lot of shade trees under which you could spread out towels or the like and relax. (The security folks did not confiscate the towels, at least.) Also, the second stage was nearby and far enough away from the main stage that they weren’t being drowned out.
The whole course of much of the afternoon into early evening consisted of a cycle of going back and forth from the main stage area to back under the trees where we’d staked out a small spot and where at least one of us held down the fort the whole time. (I forget the exact size of our group – five, six people? More?) And there was a lot of just relaxing in the shade out of the heat, which would have been a good idea on that day anyway but we normally wouldn’t have paid so much and driven so long in order to do only that. Couldn’t begin to tell you exact chronology here but I remember a few things:
Rage Against the Machine started the main stage performance so of course I ignored it. I’d had plenty enough of them in my life already and wasn’t about to waste any more of my time. So Tool was the first main stage group I remember seeing, though I didn’t actually see the whole set. Much as I already liked them and their Undertow album I really didn’t become a hyperfan for some years down the way, so my impressions are a bit dim – huge contorted balloon figures hanging above the main stage as seen from a distance, everyone wilting in the heat. That might actually be the closest experience I’ve had yet to what Coachella is probably all about.
Front 242 was next unless I miss my guess – and I was definitely front and center for that one. The great thing about this, my favorite main stage set of the day, was a simple one – the way the stage had been set up, with towering light rigs and shade and everything else, combined with where the sun was at that point in the afternoon, meant that the entire part of the ground area in front of the stage was comfortably in the shade. Further, since they weren’t anywhere as big a draw as some other bands on the bill, pretty much anyone who wanted to go up front could without getting squashed by big sweaty dudes being assholes. So all of a sudden the tribe of black-clad goth/rivethead types previously scattered throughout the crowd all coalesced in the same spot, without fear of sunburn. A fine thing.
It was the first time I’d seen 242 and they pretty much killed it from the opening beat. Their two albums that year remain favorites of mine, an adaptation of what they had been doing to the transformed ‘industrial’ world that was still very much them (“Religion” didn’t sound like any other band then trying desperately to sound like Mr. Reznor). I just remember a lot of Jean-Luc de Meyer leaping around on stage, sunglasses now making perfect sense, the whole group up front going nuts for “Headhunter” and “Welcome to Paradise,” about what you could all expect. Probably still my favorite set of the whole day.
The other time and place that the black clad types gathered that day was back on the second stage, where I ended up spending a good chunk of the later afternoon and early evening. This was due to Ethyl Meatplow, who I hadn’t seen in a year and a half since they’d opened for Nitzer Ebb. They were still at it in full industrial stomp and sleaze mode – they’d finally released their debut album Happy Days, Sweetheart, and while it wasn’t as great as the live shows it was still a treat – and Carla Bozulich was on fire throughout. As were the two female dancers in cowboy hats, piercings, leather chaps and not much else, who were going at it with each other as much as dancing per se. Nobody minded, as you might guess. (But there was a separate show of theirs later in the year that was even crazier…)
I don’t specifically recall who exactly was booked at the second stage; Ethyl M was the only band I saw a full set by but I ended up chilling with all our stuff under the trees, eyes half-closed and listening as much as anything else. I know there was a great Dos set, one of several I’ve seen Mike Watt and Kira do over the years – they have and will always have a wonderful dynamic on stage, it’s just a perfect treat and they get so easily lost in their music without losing focus. Sebadoh put on a show of some sort but I think I ignored that completely, while Thurston Moore did a solo set as well and he did a version of “Catholic Block” I rather enjoyed. Beyond that…just images of sunlight through leaves and trying to stay hydrated.
At some point I remember in the various trips back and forth between the shaded area and the main stage grounds I left Steve M’s backpack sitting somewhere – he was not pleased. Thank god I found it right where I had left it in the middle of everybody, though.
Arrested Development I half-heard from a distance, Fishbone were great but I have only slight memories of their set. For me it all got a bit more in focus when Dinosaur Jr. took the stage – it was starting to head towards dusk but wasn’t totally dark, and I ended up being somewhere next to the central sound/light desk setup in the middle of the field facing the stage. (Not a bad place to be in any event at these things; you only have to worry about random people flying in your direction from one side of you.) It had been just over a year since I saw them last opening for the Cure and they’d had their own breakthrough that year with the Where You Been album and singles like “Start Choppin’” so the crowd was more active by default than the Rose Bowl’s. Good enough set, easygoing, don’t remember much more than that and I haven’t seen them again since. Oh well.
I haven’t seen Alice in Chains again since that night either but c’mon, no Layne Staley? Again, a year had passed since the first time I’d seen them, headlining the Medicine Show acoustic benefit deal, so this time around it was rather nice to see and hear the full-on sludge version of them – the Dirt album ended up getting a hell of a lot of time on my stereo during the intervening months, much more so than their debut, and even the slightly capering activity of new bassist Mike Ynez wasn’t too distracting. I forget what they started out with but the crowd went berserk – well, Steve M. didn’t, he still hated ‘em – and it actually became a bit of a jam session for the rest of the bands on the bill. A couple of Fishbone dudes joined them for “Them Bones,” Maynard from Tool duetted with Layne on a hellishly creepy version of “Rooster” – the part of them that was always theatrical goth draped in Black Sabbath’s robes made perfect sense there.
Which left Primus. I always liked Primus, nerd rock of the most obvious kind, which was part of the appeal. You easily got a sense of how Les Claypool came to be – of course someone growing up in the East Bay and loving Metallica, Rush and the Minutemen would sound like that! Bring on the bass! Throw in the covers of songs by the Meters and the Residents and Peter Gabriel and XTC and well, there you go. Still love “John the Fisherman” from their first studio album above all else, it’s kinda exactly them at that time pureed, reassembled and summed up.
So Steve M. and I and others were all about their headlining set, which in retrospect seems kinda crazy – they were big but that big? But the place still remained pretty well packed and the Pork Soda album had a top ten debut not that long beforehand so hey. (I still remember the crowd chanting ‘Water! Water!’ at some point during the set – I told you that was an issue, after all – and Les going “Need some water? Well how about something else for ya.” Cue “Pork Soda” the song itself.) “Those Damn Blue Collar Tweakers” was my favorite song of the set that evening, it just felt good to stomp around and mosh a bit, really. Well, in my own polite way.
Now – if this had been the end of the evening, then, well, aside from the annoying foolishness when getting in it might not have been that bad. Still obnoxious around the corners and I couldn’t say in retrospect any one of the sets was some sort of see-the-light revelation, Front 242 coming close maybe, but in all, an enjoyable enough way to spend time with music and friends.
But then we tried to get out.
Finding the car might have been the first problem. I think getting out and away from the park area on foot was vaguely painless but then Randy and I had to search for the car a bit – first time in that parking lot, night, what are you going to do. But we did find it, got in…and then we realized what the real problem was.
As mentioned earlier, the way in to the Irwindale Recreation Area was a two lane road, one lane in, one lane out. During the day people kept arriving as they did so while I’m sure there were tie-ups it probably all evened out in the end. But after Primus it seemed like everyone had hung around and wanted to leave at once.
All at once.
We saw the crush from the distance and thought “Uh…let’s wait this out.” So we did. For about an hour or longer, it seemed. We weren’t the only ones by any means – tons of people were sitting in their cars thinking the same thing, and while the parking area had thinned out, it was still going to be a lot of people waiting for the even greater amount of people to make their way out. Exactly how much this was anticipated or planned for by the organizers is beyond me but there it is. Randy and I also had no idea where the rest of our group was – cell phones in 1993 weren’t quite yet widespread, shall we say.
So we waited and talked and waited…
After a while, either Randy or I noticed that in the opposite direction from the exit, across the parking lot area, a vaguely steady stream of cars seemed to be taking off beyond the lot…somewhere. There were enough of them that we decided that we had nothing to lose by following them, if only because we figured somebody had to have figured out something. Perhaps a foolish impulse but we were getting a bit stir-crazy. So Randy drove over – there wasn’t any formal lineup or anything, it was always a case of there being just enough space for any new car to arrive and head out.
So we essentially ended up in the demi-desert of Irwindale that surrounded the recreation area. To this day I would not be able to tell you exactly where we went for about the next half hour or so it seemed. There did appear to be a dirt track of some kind, so whoever got the bright idea either just knew the layout of the place or had been tipped off or something similar, but it wasn’t a finished road by any means, and where we were headed we had no idea. There was the car in front of us in our headlights, kicking up dust, and the car behind us following patiently, the scrub plants on either side and that was simply it.
The whole experience was surreal – this wasn’t true wilderness or high desert isolation, but it sure felt like it, and we clearly weren’t anywhere near a recognizable road. Essentially it was all down to frustration and trusting that somebody somewhere knew what they were doing. We hoped. The tape player and our vaguely tired mutterings to each other were the only soundtrack aside from the car noises.
Somehow, at some point, we got to the end, and it turned out we were lucky – it did indeed dump onto an actual road and after a little driving around to get our bearings we found ourselves heading for the highway back to LA. Randy shook my hand and said, “My friend, we have passed through the devil’s armpit.” He got that right.
Lollapalooza did not appear at Irwindale the following year. Wonder why.