The first words I exchanged with a stranger inside Lollapalooza, a refugee camp for free-spending music fans that now convenes each summer in Chicago’s downtown Grant Park, were with a shirtless buffoon who stepped out of a portable john diagonally. He crashed onto the pavement as toilet paper fluttered behind him, but stood up smiling. I pointed out that fresh claret was running down the underside of his forearm. “Be careful not to bleed on yourself,” I told him, and a tone for the weekend was set.
Every day was hot. The park, though quite large, offered precisely enough space for 75,000 ticketholders to uncomfortably jostle without anyone getting trampled to death. Headliners Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails and hometown heroes Wilco and Kanye West ensured a healthy mix of apathetic Anglophiles, guys who shaved their abdomens, Goths well past their sell-by dates and gangly teens captivated by the nonsensical rumor that Barack Obama would appear Sunday to introduce Kanye “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” West.
To attend was to pay $190 to volunteer as an extra in a disaster movie set in a Hieronymus Bosch painting infested with Vice magazine DON’Ts.
And of the music? Radiohead was pristine, if not stunning. Bloc Party, bless ’em, are such fans of their own albums that they recreated them perfectly onstage. The National was offensively loud even by the high precedent set by their peers. The John Butler Trio, Spank Rock, the Raconteurs, DeVotchKa and Flogging Molly reputedly all offered solid sets; I can vouch only that the Brazilian Girls, Battles, Gnarls Barkley, Jamie Lidell and the nouveau bluesman Eli Reed all earned their paychecks. And the next time Gogol Bordello plays a show within 200 miles of you, dear reader, you owe it to yourself to attend, even if you don’t yet fancy yourself a fan of frenetic gypsy punk rock.
The festival in the end belonged to the reincarnated Rage. The band played Saturday night before the most affected 30,000 or 40,000 people you’d care to see in one space. With a buddy I plowed my way to within 10 yards of the stage through successive layers of rampaging bodies. “Forget Armageddon: This is hell,” read one man’s shirt, which I managed to point out to my friend before we burrowed further in. My shoe came off; my feet got stomped; I found my shoe. My glasses fogged over. Breathing was luxury. Everyone was smeared with everyone else’s sweat. When we all tipped, which was often, the ground was hard to find underfoot. This continued through “Testify,” “Bulls on Parade,” “People of the Sun” — but around “Bullet in the Head” I decided to get some air. My friend and I reconvened later on top of a large generator on a hill, where we watched the throng slosh to “Killing in the Name.” I thought I was still short of breath until I realized I was standing over the exhaust pipe, inadvertently huffing carbon monoxide. Still, I figured, I was safer than I had been a half-hour earlier.