I’ve been going to concerts since I was 12. My mama took me to my first concert, The Cars. Being a New Wave band, they were very low-key, almost boring, live. By the time I was 14, I was going without “adult supervision” to concerts. We girls were driven to concerts and then we were dropped off for the day. Looking back, that was a risky thing to do, but at the time it seemed exciting and adventurous–a teenage thing to do.
My favorite concerts were the all-day festivals. In Texas, they were called Texas Jams. I saw diverse, eclectic styles of musicians all in one show—from Stevie Ray Vaughan to the Ohio Players, Ziggy Marley to Guns-n-Roses, Ministry to Pearl Jam.
These shows were general admission, so we lined up early in the morning outside of Houston’s Astrodome to get close to the stage. Good idea in theory, bad idea in practice. I was a short teenage girl being constantly shoved about and sometimes crushed up against the barrier by the surging crowd. Not only that, there were invisible hands groping me from every direction. I couldn’t see where any of the hands were coming from, but there they were—on my breasts and on my ass, squeezing. Hey, it’s rock-n-roll, baby doll–right? There were a lot of guys who were high and drunk and sweaty and the crowd surged and I would get shoved this way and that. There were a lot of young girls who were at these concerts dressed to get attention—short skirts or bikini tops. They would be fucked up on some substance and some of their clothing would be pushed aside to expose the flesh. They would be pulled onto the shoulders of a man, high above the crowd. I would see the hands on them, fondling their breasts, the hands I couldn’t see on me. I wasn’t dressed for attention—just a concert tee, jeans and sneakers, but the drunken attention still came to me. I was appealing, appetizing “jail bait.”
The crowd surged again and I was pushed all the way to the front, crushed hard against the barrier. All I could see in front of me was a tall wooden wall, taller than me. I couldn’t move or turn around. Hot, sweaty bodies bigger than mine continued to push me into the wood. The last thing I breathed in was their horrendous, mildewy body odors emanating from their pits, crotches and feet. Then I couldn’t breathe anymore and I thought I would faint. The Astrodome started to spin around me, sickeningly. The euphoria of the music was lost to me; all I could hear was my gasping breath and pounding heartbeat, frantic like a rabbit’s near death. My breath was literally being strangled out of me by the surging crowd.
I frantically put up both of my hands to the security guards standing above the barrier, signaling them to pull me over. I was plucked easily from the crowd by a huge gorilla-like security guard. He carried me to the first aid station behind the concert stage. Over my shoulder, I heard my companion, Lindsay, yell, “I’m with her! I need to go with her!” So she was also plucked from the crowd by another monster-sized guard. I was carried to a cot and let down gently. The first aid station nurse asked me what drugs I had taken that day. I told her I got up early that morning, didn’t have breakfast and I was thirsty. She gave me a cookie with Gatorade. I sat up on the cot and had my snack. Lindsay was whining that we were missing Triumph. So I reluctantly got off the cot to head back into the crowd on the floor of the Astrodome, but told her I wanted to hang back around the edges. I couldn’t go into that gnashing mouth of the crowd to get chewed up and nearly swallowed again. Soon afterwards, Mama was called to pick me up early that day.
The music changed. From hair bands, glam rock and new wave, music got harder but somehow simpler and stripped down. Layers were peeled back, makeup and sequins removed. Grunge emerged. Lollapalooza was a defining concert of the era. I just moved to Dallas after college and had joined a pro-choice organization, TARAL. I was the youngest member of the group by a generation. I was asked at a meeting if I wanted to host a table at a music festival called Lollapalooza that wanted to promote progressive political ideology. Perry Farrell, leader of the L.A. band Jane’s Addiction, came up with a cool idea to blend great, modern music with politics in a year when Generation X was coming of age, ready to vote and get involved in our collective future. Since the table was being set up inside the venue, that meant a free concert. I was psyched and so was every friend I had—they all pleaded with me to pick them, pick them. They all wanted to go to the first Lollapalooza festival, only one of three in the entire country that year.
Inside the gates at Fair Park Amphitheater, there was a large courtyard surrounded by grassy knolls. On the grassy areas, there were booths for food and concert swag and smaller stages for lesser artists to perform. We set up our TARAL table in the courtyard, next to the Rock the Vote table. I watched their volunteers sign up young first-time voters to vote in the upcoming presidential election. A young, charismatic man from neighboring Arkansas named Bill Clinton was running. Many of us Gen-Xers were galvanized by the first cool guy running for office in our lifetimes. We thought Bill and Hillary Clinton got us. We so desperately wanted to move on from the Reagan-Bush era that made sex scary, love sinful and protection necessary.
My companions for festival day were Suzy and Ana, friends from college. I was representing TARAL and wanted to be serious and adult about informing fellow concert goers of their choices. We could have fun after the main stage show started because the table could be packed up and we could join the crowds of fans inside the amphitheater. But soon after I turned to the girls to discuss what was expected of them, I saw them pop paper tabs of LSD into their mouths. I was pissed. I always stay sober at rock shows because they can get crazy and I want to keep my wits about me. I knew at any moment they would become useless to me and even incapacitated.
That happened soon after and I never got to enjoy the free show. Living Color played in the background of my sudden babysitting job of LSD’s children. Ana was doing cartwheels like she was having flashbacks to her cheerleader days in high school. Suzy’s eyes rolled back in her head and foam came out of her mouth. I panicked and called a security guard over. He half-walked her, half-dragged her to the first aid station. As we entered the first aid station, I had a lucid flashback to my time when I was 14 at the Astrodome’s Texas Jam. The nurse asked a very stoned Suzy what drugs she had taken that day. Suzy’s response was very different from my own. Her head lolled up from her chest to face the nurse. She said, “Fuuuuck………yooooooou.”
Everyone snickered under their breath and tried not to burst out laughing at this serious scene. The nurse wasn’t amused and threatened to call the police to take Suzy away. The security guards looked like they were ready to crack our heads too. I put on my sweet-girl face and took control of the situation by offering to call Suzy’s boyfriend, Joe, to handle her instead. He showed up and gave me a look like he wanted to punch me. Suzy wouldn’t talk to me for days after that. I didn’t know what she was so mad at—I was scared, I thought she was going to die and I didn’t know what else to do. Ana, my other messed-up friend, spent a sleepless night in my apartment after the festival, retching into a bucket by my bed. I listened to her all night, also sleepless, from my couch. I promised myself I wouldn’t be put through this bullshit again. It was no fun.
At the following year’s Lollapalooza, we were back at Fair Park Amphitheater hosting a table again for TARAL. I was determined to have serious fellow volunteers with me that I wouldn’t have to babysit. So, I chose another college friend, Tyler, and a guy I was casually dating, Nick. Both of them had gone to rock shows with me before and I trusted them. Nick had a taste for LSD, but I said he couldn’t come with me if he even thought about dropping acid at this festival. I would not go through what I went through the previous year. Nick abstained for the promise of a free show and a little visit between my legs afterwards.
The lineup was a Who’s Who of the latest music from Seattle, L.A. and Chicago. Some of the bands playing were just breaking out of the obscurity of the Pacific Northwest and going international. I already knew and loved the music of Ministry, Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails–bands that had begun to change music in the 80s, turn it into alternative/industrial, rejecting the established arena rock sound. But Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soundgarden were new to many concert goers that year and they took music to another level—a new heavy, grinding sound that hearkened back to punk and metal, incorporating rap, but was called garage rock or grunge.
Beyond the entrance courtyard where we set up the TARAL table were more booths for food and smaller stages for secondary acts. There was a sideshow act of men who hung concrete blocks from body piercings and twisted their penises around random objects. It was too stomach-turning for my taste, but titillating enough to attract a large crowd before the main concert. After we packed up the TARAL table and entered the venue, we headed into the center of the amphitheater. I didn’t want to enter the mosh pit near the front of the stage. I had enough bad memories of near-crushing to keep my distance. The mosh pit had gotten even more aggressive and dangerous over the years. Guys in the pit would literally beat the living shit out of each other. And they would stage dive and crowd surf. When they dove off the stage, they were lucky if the crowd caught their rag doll bodies being flung about, but sometimes they were unlucky. Blood would pour from their faces that would get smashed on the concrete in front of the stage or by the fist or boot of another slam dancer. The smiles on their bloody faces was proof that they loved it.
The main concert amphitheater stage was surrounded by a concrete floor. The seats were taken out in front of the stage for general admission. Beyond the stage and the area in front of it, the grassy hill rose up on three sides to a chain link fence. We settled on a place on the grass, a safe distance from the stage—or so we thought. The crowd was so riled up that they were throwing trash at each other—and us. We were dodging plastic cups and bottles coming from every direction. A cup was lobbed at Nick and hit him hard in the side of his head. The sticky liquid that came out of the cup went all over us. I could see Nick’s face become red and enraged. I shouted over the din, “Nick, don’t kill him!” I had seen Nick’s temper often let loose on others. I even saw it directed at me—it could be terrifying, the look of murder in his eyes when he was angry. He looked around and spotted the kid who lobbed the cup at his head. He charged the smaller boy like a bull, his fists clenched. When he reached the kid, he chest-butted him, his clenched fists growing white with strain. The kid looked scared to death and he pleaded with Nick not to hurt him. I could tell he was also profusely apologizing, his mouth forming the words. Nick put his pointed finger in the kid’s forehead and pushed against it, shouting in his face. It looked like a scene out of Full Metal Jacket. Finally, he was satisfied that the kid had probably wet his pants and he walked back over to Tyler and me. I gave him a look of disapproval and then turned my attention back to the show on stage in front of the fracas.
There was a guy with black curly hair hanging in his face at the center of the stage, swaying to the music as if in a trance. He was shirtless, several necklaces bouncing off his bare chest above black, tattered cargo pants and combat boots. “Oh please, not another Hair God…” I thought, “…seen this a thousand times…NEXT!” But in the next moment, my breath was caught short by the music that was dark, brooding and somehow melodic. The crowd around us moved with the pounding percussion. I felt myself, Nick and Tyler join them. Then the Hair God opened his mouth. He sang in a deep baritone growl that elevated through the octaves into the clearest tenor and falsetto wail I’ve ever heard. His voice rose out of his body, through the amphitheater in waves and into the clouds like it had wings. The lyrics he sang were full of pain, loss and a brooding anger. He was singing to us and he was singing for us–our generation, the generation of latch-key kids, divorce and broken families of alcoholics. Joining his bandmates, he then strapped on a guitar and played it confidently with a strong hand wrapped in a leather bracelet and silver rings. Whoa—this guy had talent! Then he flipped all that nonsense hair out of his face and I saw how beautiful he was. Pale skin, piercing aqua eyes, sculpted bones framed by black curls like a lion’s mane. But the voice was everything—I could hear his soul and it stirred something in me. I’ve been singing myself since I could speak, dancing since I could crawl. I’ve studied music and played it as a DJ—Tyler and Nick first met me at our college radio station. We were serious music lovers and critics. At that moment, we were so taken by this music—who was this guy and this band? So began a decades-long appreciation of Soundgarden and Chris Cornell.
Jane’s Addiction then came on the stage and I was grooving to them when I was suddenly shoved hard from behind. I was shoved so hard that I rolled down the grassy hill in somersaults. When I righted myself, I was enveloped in a cloud of acrid, black smoke. I choked and coughed; my eyes watered. When the smoke dissipated, I saw a burning trash can that had rolled to the bottom of the hill before me. It had rolled right down the path of where I was standing, towards the concrete main stage floor. Nick had shoved me out of the way and he and Tyler dove the other way of the oncoming fireball. We had nearly been run over by a trash can set on fire! I looked up the hill to the back of the amphitheater by the chain link fence. There were men and boys dancing around another trash can set on fire like a scene out of Lord of the Flies. This was insanity—shit was getting real. I did not come to a concert to die. We had stayed away from the mosh pit in front of the stage for this reason—we didn’t want our asses kicked. But we were dodging a rain of trash and a rolling fireball in our perceived safe space.
Desperately needing a break, I told the boys I was going to the bathroom to rinse off. There was a girl in there from the northeast. She was dunking her head under the sink faucet. She looked up at me and asked, “Are you from here? Is it always this hot?” It was October and I smiled ruefully at her. “Yes,” I answered. I splashed water on my face and my neck, letting it run down between my breasts and shoulder blades, temporarily cooling me. Then I went back outside to the mayhem.
Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction had stopped the show to scold the crowd that had started throwing cups and bottles at him. “I grew up in garbage in L.A. I didn’t come this far to have garbage thrown at me. If you don’t fucking knock it off NOW, I’m stopping the show! I’ll walk off the stage and not come back!” I had rejoined Nick and Tyler and we cheered at his threat. The trash storm had stopped for the rest of the night.
In the growing dark, we walked up to the back of the amphitheater to the top of the grassy hill. We put the chain link fence at our backs so we could relax, enjoy the show and not worry about further onslaughts. I could still see frenzied dancers around trash can fires near us. I wondered, Why wasn’t security doing something about that? Exhausted, I sat down. Nick put his head on my lap. Tyler rested his head on my shoulder. We closed our eyes as the music of Pearl Jam swelled over us.
After that chaotic night, Nick and I went to another concert at another amphitheater in another city. It was a much more laid-back show with The Steve Miller Band as the headliner. It was a grown-up moment for us. I was pleasantly surprised at how well-behaved the audience was. They were our age–older and younger too. Some of them may have groped young girls at rock shows back in the day. Some of them may have dove off stages, kicked ass in a mosh pit, even danced around trash cans on fire. But the more this crowd drank alcohol and listened to the music, the more mellow they got. The most entertaining moment of the night was a drunk guy in flip flops. He stood in an attempt to walk, to either buy more alcohol or relieve himself (hopefully in a real toilet.) He lost one flip flop. As he tried to get it back on his foot, the other flip flop fell off. Then he worked on that one, the first one fell off again. This silly drunk dance went on for about 15 minutes. That was the biggest “commotion” at that concert.
I will never stop going to concerts. Now, I stay away from the front of the stage and I wear ear plugs. I watch others let loose from a safe distance. I still dress comfortably, sometimes a little sexy. But I don’t get groped anymore unless I want someone to grope me.
Bowie sang, “Fame–what you get is no tomorrow.” Prince sang, “Dr. Everything’ll-Be-Alright make everything go wrong.” And Chris sang, “Heaven send Hell away–no one sings like you anymore.” It all hurts because it all came true. We have lost many great artists in the past three years, but Chris’ death hurt like no other. He had the heart of a lion and a beautiful soul that he shared with the world through his lyrical poetry. He fought the darkness for a long time, much harder and much longer than his compatriots. Now he has joined the greatest Seattle jam band: Jimi, Andy, Mia, Kurt, Layne and many others gone too soon. Rest in peace, Chris Cornell.