By Matt Kessler
Kick-ass concerts didn’t come to Mobile, Alabama, in the 1990s. We had one venue, the Mobile Civic Center, and second-string hair metal bands like Cinderella might play once a year if we were lucky. Everything I knew about cool music I learned from cable television. In 1995, I was 14, and my summer days were occupied by Hacky Sack, cigarettes, MTV, and calling friends on my parents’ cordless phone. My nights: cruising around Mobile with friends who were old enough to drive, listening to Whale’s “Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe” at window-rattling volume, and hanging out in Taco Bell parking lots. I was so desperately bored out of my 14-year-old mind that I turned to our family’s new Gateway computer for entertainment. The big addition arrived in the mail on a free floppy disk — America Online. The internet had arrived.
I created the screen name ScrewSam69 (the Sam being Uncle Sam, burgeoning 9th-grade anarchist I was). I spent countless hours in chatrooms with names like “Alternative Music 7” discussing which new bands were cool, what MTV VJs sucked, and having ridiculous arguments about Live’s Throwing Copper.
“O.K. This will be the first installment of several for the goddamned Spin Online Crap.”
And then, on July 1, 1995, AOL added a new feature: Spin’s Lollapalooza Tour Diaries. Despite being obsessed with music, I had never even been to a concert that I had truly enjoyed. Sure, I’d seen Aerosmith on the Eat the Rich tour (and waved a barbecue lighter during the encore) and Better Than Ezra at a street festival (with my mom). But what I wanted more than anything was to join the alt-rock revolution, to go where 120 Minutes and Kennedy went — to Lollapalooza, the coolest concert of all time.
Lollapalooza, still then a national tour and not a stand-alone festival, was founded as a showcase of the fringe, and the 1995 lineup offered a cross section of alt: Hole, Sonic Youth, Moby, Beck, Cypress Hill, The Jesus Lizard, Elastica, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Sinéad O’Connor. The lineup was decidedly less macho; it felt like a new dawn. Grunge was a dying, corporate, wallet-chained dinosaur. Alternative Nation was taking over. I desperately wanted to go, but the closest date would be in Atlanta, over 300 miles away. I was too young to drive and my older friends thought the lineup was “pussy,” so I had no say in the matter.
Those friends liked Korn and college football and fishing; I wanted to overthrow the government and write poetry. Our interests felt irreconcilable. Soon, I stopped spending my evenings loitering in various Taco Bell parking lots around Mobile and started to chat, in earnest, with friends I’d made online with screen names like EvanDandoBoi73.
That summer, I rechecked AOL obsessively to keep up on the Lollapalooza bands’ online tour journals for Spin. For a 14-year-old boy stuck in the West Mobile suburbs, those tour diaries were a lifeline, a connection, a way out of Alabama. I became, for the first time, glued to the computer.
“All the rob’t hillburn Hollywood celebrity journalists focused their attentions solely upon Courtney and it reinforced to the rest of us that rock stardom is puerile, tacky and very outdated.”
The best coverage of Lollapalooza that summer wasn’t by the media, but the musicians themselves via AOL. The bands narrated the event and created, throughout the course of the summer, a story with a beginning (The Gorge, July 4), a middle (NYC, July 28) and an end (San Francisco, August 18). Beck, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, and The Jesus Lizard’s caustic frontman David Yow wrote most frequently and became, for legions of AOL alterna-nerds like myself, the main characters of the summerlong tour.
The tour began with a moment of pure drama that has since become legend: During Sonic Youth’s tour-opening set, Courtney Love flicked a cigarette at Kathleen Hanna and then punched her. That night, Thurston immediately posted a lengthy journal entry lambasting “the singer from Hole,” shading Courtney by refusing to refer to her by name. He concluded his post by writing that “everyone is disgusted and grossed out. Perry [Ferrell, Lollapalooza figurehead] is bummed. Everyone’s bummed.” Gossip and name-calling of this magnitude shocked me. I’d imagined that all cool bands were the very best of friends, fantasized that the Lollapalooza backstage area was a chill hangout heaven of the post-punk gods. Bands rarely aired their grievances on TV or in magazines. Yet Thurston and Lee Ranaldo posted intimate, detailed accounts of their dislike for Courtney Love. I was riveted. My best friend Nolan and I discussed the entries line-by-line and debated if we could still be Hole fans.
In lengthy chats over the next days, we agreed that the Kathleen Hanna incident was part of a much larger battle: Sonic Youth and Hole’s fight for Lollapalooza supremacy. The stakes were high. Lollapalooza was the marquee summer event and Kurt Cobain’s absence had left a still-unclaimed opening for the world’s next reigning rock star. Sonic Youth was fighting to make space, an enlightened anti-star that abstained from the corrupt trappings of corporate arena rock and didn’t demand green M&M’s and strippers backstage. Courtney seemed closer to tradition — glamour, limos, hard drugs, and controversy. She was closer to the Axl model. They both, in their way, represented conflicting sides of Kurt’s personality and artistic legacy. Lollapalooza, onstage and online, was the backdrop for their struggle.
Yow and Beck hung on the sidelines, content to let Thurston and Courtney battle it out. Rather than moan about backstage politics, the two posted humorous, digressive entries that read like postcards from a stoned friend. Yow’s vibe was wasted party guy and he mostly typed in all caps. Two of his early entries simply read: “DriveDriveDriveDriveDriveDriveDriveDriveDriveDriveDrive.” Beck tended to wax poetic, in all lowercase, and concentrate on absurdist pop imagery. He described the first day at The Gorge as “a gradual frothing, monitored by securities and MTVs.” Beck had just cropped up from the underground with “Loser,” which seemed at the time a modest fluke of a hit, and I’d never heard of The Jesus Lizard, but I developed an attachment to both because I liked their posts. I began checking the “B” and “J” sections of the used CD racks every time I went to Satori Sound, Mobile’s independent record store.
Thurston continued to rant about Courtney. In Vancouver, he reported that she “yell[ed] at the audience something about how she’s wearing a cast on her arm cuz she ‘punched some bitch in the face.’” Kathleen Hanna, he let us know, had filed criminal charges and “there’s so much more I can spiel about this but this is not a private forum and I must keep certain pathetic information under wraps.” Then, four days later on July 8, Thurston had a change of heart. Courtney read his AOL posts and “was sad and wanted to communicate.” They were friends again, he wrote, “but you never know, etc.” Nolan and I were stunned. Not that they’d made up, but that Courtney was reading the AOL posts like any other fan. It was as if we’d found out that she’d been shopping at the local grocery store. AOL was nerdy, and yet Courtney Love was a member, just like us. Any random person we chatted with online could, in fact, be an artist we idolized. The distance between “them” and “us” was collapsing in new and unpredictable ways.
For the next half-week, all was calm. And then, Courtney posted her first and only entry (entitled “Fix my spelling / title / Grumpy, sexless, boring, YAWN!”), an epic, disjointed tirade against Kathleen Hanna, whom she dubbed “Ratface.” The length of this post equaled the cumulative length of Thurston’s previous posts. It probably took me an hour to read, which I did three times in a row. It was my own personal Da Vinci Code, and with the help of online friends, I deciphered some of Courtney’s cryptic accusations against Bikini Kill and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, whom she suggested courted the backstage altercation by parading around “Ratface like a pig on a tray.”
It didn’t matter if any of it was true. The Lollapalooza AOL forum wasn’t journalism — it was a journal. The stars could write whatever they wanted. Posted a week after the “Ratface incident,” Courtney’s self-defense was too little, too late. The burgeoning online community had already accepted Thurston’s account. The music media picked up the story and reported it from Thurston’s perspective. He posted most and thus controlled the conversation.
Then Thurston went silent from July 12 to 22. No communication, no posts, nothing. I’d grown accustomed to reading his posts each night and this absence felt meaningful and insulting. Did he not care about us fans anymore? By the time he resumed posting, he’d lost momentum. I, personally, now cared more about Beck.
Beck’s online journal entries were so funny, and so well-written, that they forced me to reconsider his music. “Day off in suburban Denver mallworld,” he wrote on July 7. “Broiling hot. Hiked around steakhouse. K-mart supercenter. 40 min cab ride to anywhere.” Beck’s entries never broke character, never strayed from his droll stage voice to complain about, say, Courtney Love’s special parking permissions. His posts were an extension of his music and they presented the same tacky and haunting images of mainstream America as his videos. Of all the musicians authoring Lolla diaries, Beck seemingly realized that they were not a moment to communicate his inner feelings, but to propagate his image, just as he would in a music video. I, for one, loved it.
Thurston returned with a vengeance on July 22 and, for the next week, posted entries that were, well, Courtney Love–ian in both their length and drama. He responded to Courtney’s post and gossiped about her ad nauseam, making fun of her for spending “an inordinate amount of time on-line,” and for “div[ing] into the audience and return[ing] to the stage topless.” He alluded to why Sinéad O’Connor quit the tour (she and Courtney had become friends and “were touching on some heavy emotional, at times shared trauma. I’d be more explicit but again this is not the place”). Without permission, he reposted a Steve Albini commentary that criticized Sonic Youth’s involvement with Lollapalooza. The two then became entangled in an online spat and, the next day, Thurston also went after rock critic Jim Derogatis for writing a bad review of Sonic Youth’s Chicago performance. By this point, Thurston lost me. He no longer seemed cool and fun like Beck and David Yow, but petty and insecure. I didn’t care if fans left after Hole, or if audience members didn’t recognize him when he walked to the second stage, or if Sonic Youth received insufficient FM radio play. Thurston treated the posts carelessly and failed to consider how significantly his online presence could affect how fans felt, or impact Sonic Youth’s image.
Thurston posted from Pittsburgh on August 2 and this would be his final post until the end of the tour. He wrote that, “Courtney rules the general print media — as far as Lollapalooza goes it’s basically 99 percent of what the dailies will feature.” Divergent images of the two stars crystallized: Courtney was inaccessible, featured on traditional media but derided online; Thurston was a nontraditional rock star, one of “us,” but his attempt to use online platforms to lobby for rock star status discredited him in an essential way.
After Thurston’s Pittsburgh entry, the 1995 tour stumbled to a quiet and uneventful conclusion. Like the alternative scene itself, the tour started optimistically in the Northwest, trotted a twisting and dispiriting lap across the heartland, and ended in California with major record label executives milling about backstage. The coda to the journals was the appearance of Mike Watt, the former bassist of punk legends Minutemen, who joined for the second half of the tour with his new band, The Crew of the Flying Saucer. Watt, an elder statesman who influenced the festival’s headliners, played on the second stage and drove a run-down Econoline van from city to city, often for as long as 10 hours a night. He never complained if the headliners flew, or begrudged any of their backstage perks. Rather, he sat in the crowd and watched the show with the fans. Separated from the stage by an orchestra of empty reserved seats, he wrote, “the band was one-inch tall and the sound was totally tiny … I wonder if the kids way out with me realize that some punk rockers really wanted to change things, make music much more personal.”
But just as Watt looked on at Lollapalooza with the distant perspective of a different generation, so did I. If the festival organizers, with all of their competing corporate and entrepreneurial motives, had distanced the fans from the music, the internet held the power to bring us closer to it and the artists that made it. A dial tone and blocks of text on a computer screen allowed me to transcend Mobile, the town that felt so wrong, so oppressive. My connection to Beck and David Yow did feel personal, but I felt this without hearing the music or seeing their faces — making the connection perhaps more deceptive and illusory.
“Summers seem like they should last forever until they suddenly quit on you.”
What was to soon become apparent was that the online diaries were the end of a golden era. Whatever strange magic that had allowed great bands to take over MTV was both at its zenith and its end in the summer of 1995. By 1996, the movement was inert. The Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, and Hole turned into isolated rock stars who produced unimaginative music that had little to do with any vibrant scene. Perry Ferrell quit Lollapalooza and the next tour showcased established mainstream acts like Metallica and Soundgarden. The exciting underground music released by Drag City, Dischord, and Kill Rock Stars remained decidedly subterranean. The landscape was shifting and the demands of stardom were steeper, the illusion harder to maintain.
The internet, in those early text-heavy days, forced rock stars to communicate rather than just pose and look cool. The Lolla diaries provided a type of defrocking, a new medium with which artists could wrangle and craft their image; they were a harbinger of changes to come, of the future media in which artists’ online presence became more important than the music they made. The Spin diaries put distance between us and distance from the noise of Lolla, the singing along in the pit, the simple festivity, but its easy transmission of personality made the role of the rock star infinitely more complex.