by Foster Dickson
It was about the best eighteenth birthday present I could have hoped for: tickets to Lollapalooza in the summer of 1992. The two Atlanta shows were happening August 20 and September 1. The second date was a no-go, since college classes would have started by then, but the August show was possible. As a surprise, my high school girlfriend not only got us tickets, she also got us a ride and a place to stay in Atlanta. Everything was covered, I only needed a few bucks for incidentals— an optimal situation for a broke teenager with no car.
The Atlanta shows were about two-thirds of the way through the tour. We had seen an MTV News story about it, which had me stoked about the music and the midway, especially the Jim Rose Side Show. Of course, the line-up was solid: Lush, Pearl Jam, Ice Cube, Ministry, Soundgarden, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. The previous year’s line-up seemed better – Jane’s Addiction, Rollins Band, Butthole Surfers, Violent Femmes – but the one in ’92 was nothing to sneeze at. I was most excited about Pearl Jam.
I had (and still do have) a feeling that my birthday present made me an interloper on what was supposed to be a girls’ trip. The ride was with my girlfriend and her two best friends, and the place to stay with one of the friend’s mother. Two days before the show, we hopped into a Monte Carlo SS and left Montgomery for one of Atlanta’s multitudinous suburbs. I didn’t know these people we were staying with, but when we got there, the family had a full house. We would be sleeping in nooks and crannies, and as the boyfriend of one of the female guests, I was assured that any ideas I might have about romance on the sly would be noticed and thwarted.
If romance was on my mind earlier in the evening, it certainly wasn’t by the time I laid my head down. That night, getting ready for bed, was one of a few times as a teenager that I had a gun stuck in my face. The family only had one bathroom inside – for themselves, a couple of kids, and us – so I was told by the mom that I could go outside and down the back stairs to an empty basement apartment to brush my teeth, etc. However, she was unaware that Drunk Uncle, who was permitted to sleep off a bender down there, had come in the garden gate. He was in there when I started – completely innocently – trying to get the chain-locked door open. I became aware of his presence when the butt-end of a shotgun smashed my hand, followed by the business end coming out of the darkness toward my face. I stumbled backwards as fast as I could, hands raised in the air, and explained who I was and what I was doing. From the dim doorway, he growled, “Go piss in the yard,” then slammed the door. Thank God that drowsy drunk decided to ask questions first and shoot later. We both realized, I think, that he was a split-second away from killing me. Back in the house, they could tell something was wrong with me and wanted to know what happened. I told them, and our friend’s mother glared at her husband, who’d apparently not shared that his brother was staying the night, too.
With a day to spare before the concert, Little Five Points was on the agenda first. My inaugural visit to Criminal Records was mind-boggling. The place was new then, founded in 1991, and I’d only seen indie record stores like that in the movies. Music stacks upon music stacks. Posters on every wall. We had a small independent in Montgomery called Back Trax, but most of our record stores were corporate, located in malls or strip malls: Camelot and Turtle’s. To a music guy, Criminal Records was heaven. To a broke teenager, it was a look-but-don’t-touch experience. Soon, I was hauled away because the girls wanted to go look at clothes. (They actually had money to buy things.) I followed for a moment then excused myself to detour into a bookstore I saw.
It was a weekday, so it wasn’t abnormal for a bookstore to be empty, but this place felt immediately uncomfortable. The young woman behind the counter just eyeballed me when I said hi. That’s odd, I thought. (In the South, people greet each other, it’s what we do.) Then she watched me carefully as I ambled through the small, labeled sections: Afro-American, Women, Gay . . . In the era when political correctness was born, I quickly realized what was going on and knew I should leave, but not before making a wise crack about not being able to find the straight white male section. The grouch behind the counter didn’t appreciate my presence or my joke, but she did do me the courtesy of accepting them both silently. She seemed to take the same attitude about my unwelcome presence as the sleeping drunk the night before: this too shall pass. Thankfully, she wasn’t armed.
It was a good day, though, and it got better when we found out – Lord knows how – that Pearl Jam was playing Masquerade that night under the pseudonym Mookie Blaylock. Back then, Masquerade was the South’s Mecca for fans of what was becoming known as “alternative.” It was an ugly, flat-black beacon to underground music, a former mill that was turned into a concert venue in 1988. Fans of Atlanta Hawks basketball will know Blaylock as number ten . . . like Pearl Jam’s album title, Ten. Back at our friend’s mom’s house that afternoon, we called Masquerade to ask how to get tickets. You come down here at showtime, a male voice said. Eighteen to enter, twenty-one to drink. There was a problem. I wasn’t eighteen yet, and the three girls were. I asked for the phone and said sheepishly, “Hey man, I’m with my friends here, and we were thinking about coming down there, but I don’t turn eighteen for three days . . .” Then come to a show in three days. Click. He hung up. I know there was gnashing of teeth after that phone call, because my girlfriend’s friends wanted for the three of them to go to Masquerade and leave me at home. It would have sucked, but I’d like to think I’d have understood. Ultimately, my girlfriend prevailed by pleading that this was my birthday trip, and we all stayed home that night. It was a letdown, but after all, the main thing – Lollapalooza – was the next day. We needed our rest . . .
Most of Lakewood Amphitheater was a huge, tiered semi-circle of green grass, which meant general admission and sitting on the ground. The venue opened in 1989, so it was new, too. Concerts rarely came to Montgomery, Alabama, and even if they did, it would be one or two bands. Crowds of a couple-thousand tops. This was something else entirely. At home, we were among the weirdos, but here, we were country-come-to-town.
Walking into Lakewood that morning, we’d never seen so many freaky-looking people. Dyed hair, tattoos, and facial piercings are common in the 2020s, bu they weren’t in 1992. Only select groups had these things: punks, bikers, prison inmates, circus performers. We were none of those, just some slightly seedy drama-club kids from the capital city of the old Confederacy. I believed then, and still do today, that people choose to look like that so others will stare or gawk, so I’ve got no tolerance for the indignant “What’re you lookin’ at?” Be who you are – fine by me – but don’t expect to blend in. There was lots of that at Lollapalooza, where folks like us were commingling with folks that looked like they’d just left Burning Man. The true outsiders were the handful of preppies and frat boys, and it was pleasing in some way to see them unsure about being outnumbered by people they would normally exclude, ridicule, or abuse. We at least felt like we belonged there.
The day was bright and sunny and hot, and Lush kicked off the show. In the middle of the crowd, a swirling pit had already begun. It was the biggest one I’d ever seen, as someone accustomed to small shows with local bands and maybe a hundred people in the audience. No, this was a vortex of young humanity, all jumping around with elbows flying. In the days of blue jeans, boots, and no shirt, I asked my girlfriend if she would excuse me for a moment. I stripped my t-shirt and took off. It wasn’t hard to get in to that mass of thrashing bodies, but it was hard to get out, as faceless entities on the outskirts shoved me back in a couple of times. I returned winded and a little beat-up but smiling, catching my breath to go again.
That pit became part of the show during Pearl Jam’s set. As he was wont to do, Eddie Vedder came down off the stage during one of the songs, sprinted through the front-section seats, and flung himself into the pit. From where we were, we could see people trying to jam themselves in there with him. It looked like a punk-rock black hole that was expanding by sucking up what was around it. Then, suddenly he emerged and once again took off running, this time to the amphitheater’s back wall. With a little help, he climbed up there and got ready to dive. The crowd cheered! Some other poor sap got up there, too, and raised his arms triumphantly, unaware perhaps that no one was cheering for him. When Eddie Vedder jumped, a small group caught him, and he took off again, returning to the stage. When that nameless dude jumped next, no one caught him, and he hit the ground. I’d never before and have never since heard thousands of people gasp like that all at once. The band ended their set with “Baba O’Riley.” Good choice, gentlemen, very nice.
Throughout the rest of the day, we were up and down, sometimes sitting in the grass to listen to music, sometimes on the midway for food or fresh ideas. One of the vendors sold these vitamin drinks that looked and tasted like an Orange Julius, so we got one. The energy boost was stellar, especially in that August heat when having food sitting in your belly wasn’t a great idea. But the crash from that frothy drink was terrible. So strong that my girlfriend fell asleep during Ministry’s set! I don’t remember much about the afternoon bands, though I do recall Jesus and Mary Chain being dull. The main memory I have is of a small group of guys sitting in a circle near us who lit up a joint to pass it around. Being from the Bible Belt, I wasn’t accustomed to seeing people smoke pot out in the open like that, so I must’ve been staring. One guy caught me looking, then half-smiled and shrugged. His gesture said, Hey, we’re going to smoke this thing, and you might be a narc who just busted us, but I hope not, and even if you’re not a narc, I’m not going to share with you, so it is what it is.
I also remember being thankful when the sun went down. One thing about the grass at Lakewood, there’s no shade, and it was late August. The last act to go on was Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were supporting BloodSugarSexMagick at that time and were at their peak of fame. I wasn’t really a fan, but when their videos started to come on MTV, I thought, “It’s Razzle from Suburbia. Huh . . . he plays bass in a band.” They ended their set that night with hats that were on fire, but the guitarist’s went out. I felt bad for him, because I figured that was a big part of their planned theatrics.
Before going to Lollapalooza, the only other concert I’d ever been to was Cinderella and White Lion at our agricultural arena. It was pretty exciting when two hair-metal bands came to town in 1989, and that parking lot was full of shirtless dudes with mustaches and mullets and doo-rags. Lollapalooza in Atlanta was a whole different affair. I can’t estimate crowd sizes at all, but thousands were there that day. Every alternative personality type you can imagine: goth kids in all black, skaters in baggy pants and oversized t-shirts, white Rasta-wannabes with long dreads, punks in Docs and spikes, college hippies with hacky-sacks. And us.
That show was on a Thursday, we drove home on Friday, my eighteenth birthday was that weekend, and my first day of college classes came on Monday. Life changed then. High school was over, and so was everything that went with it. My relationship with my high school girlfriend didn’t last long into the fall, and my freshman year ended up being a disastrous series of bad decisions, knee-jerk reactions, half-understood situations, and ill-considered antics. I think sometimes that that year went so badly because, at Lollapalooza, I saw what I wanted the next phase of my life to be like, then it wasn’t like that at all. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama was a sore disappointment to a kid with higher expectations of culture than football, NASCAR, and Bassmasters. Lollapalooza, by contrast, was the dream. But the thing about dreams is: they are brief, then they end, and reality sets back in.