A look at Lollapalooza '95 -- The concert tour returns to its risk-taking roots with acts like Jesus Lizard, Pavement, and Sonic Youth

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated July 21, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Seconds before the July 8 Lollapalooza show in Denver, a bare-chested fan spun around with a question. ”Can you tell me who’s playing today?” Oddly, such blissful ignorance is a testament to the success of Lollapalooza, the annual caravan of alternative rock that kicked off July 4 near Seattle and runs through Aug. 19. Five years after its maiden voyage, Lollapalooza has become a tradition for concertgoers, a trademark of the ’90s as established as Forrest Gump and Starbucks coffee. People go just to go, and music tends to take a backseat to the sheer spectacle of the gathering. (Evidence: The first show was sold out, and tickets have sold steadily for the other dates.)

”I don’t like most of the bands. I just came for the atmosphere,” explained Kristin Drake, 15. ”If you don’t like the bands, you can just hang out.”

In fact, Lollapalooza ’95 dishes out such a smorgasbord of options — from a movie tent to avant-garde art to the Lab, a spontaneous event emceed by a New York drag queen named Torment — that at any moment you’re apt to find the music amphitheater half empty. In Denver, the broiling Rocky Mountain sun turned the mosh pit into a barbecue pit, so those who opted to rock were often sluggish and dazed. ”I wish the audience would be more alive,” said spectator Nicole Lengerich, 20. ”But they can’t help it. The sun’s so hot.”

Or maybe the eight Main Stage acts are a little too cool. The ’95 lineup — organized by Perry Farrell, and topped by noise artistes Sonic Youth, in a trippy frame of mind — harks back to the raw, contrarian spirit of the original Lollapalooza in ’91, when acts like Nine Inch Nails and Henry Rollins were still locked in the underground. The current bill is full of music that rarely sinks its teeth into the Top 40, from the brawling piston-punk of the Jesus Lizard to the loopy, schleppy pop of Pavement. ”It’s more dangerous,” said fan Paul Wilson, 17. ”It’s a risk having a band like Sonic Youth as the headliner.” Or, as Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich put it, ”There aren’t that many hit songs being presented on that stage.”

While the Colorado audience greeted true originals like Beck and the Jesus Lizard with a detached curiosity, it was the familiar stuff that whipped up a real frenzy. Groovy and charismatic, Compton rapper Coolio commanded a wet, writhing, arm-waving throng at the Second Stage. On center stage, the horde roared for the hemp-hazy hip-hop of Cypress Hill and the gossamer lullabies of Sinead O’Connor. Even without a shaved head or Pope-hating shenanigans, O’Connor managed to hold the crowd in a rapt hush.

Hush, of course, is not the word for Courtney Love. Hours before her band, Hole, stormed the stage, it became clear a lot of fans were hankering for a glimpse of Kurt Cobain’s spitfire widow. ”I want to see Courtney get her clothes ripped off in the pit!” enthused 16-year-old Zach Delong.

He got his wish, even if Love did churn out the same show she’s been doing for months — an act that’s getting as glammy and predictable as Norma Desmond’s. On a stage atwinkle with disco balls and silver stars, Courtney took her trademark stance (one foot planted on a speaker), typically baited and badmouthed the audience (”If you throw one more drop of liquid on my body I’ll kick your f—in’ ass!”), and finally hurled herself to the fans, who tore her baby-doll dress and left her strolling off in pink bloomers.

Performing in Love’s wake, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon was just happy to see people sticking around. ”We figured after the big celebrity, they would leave,” Gordon deadpanned. ”I mean, we just go out there and play our music.”