Lollapalooza 1992: Case Study In Terror

by Bill Brenner on July 1, 2013

The other day I came across some YouTube videos of the Jim Rose Circus, a freak-show act popular among my crowd in the early 1990s. I first saw them live at Lollapalooza 1992, and watching the videos reminded me of what a terrified 20-something I was back then.

Mood music:

I was excited to go because the band line-up included the biggest rock acts of the day, including Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and an industrial metal band I was into at the time: Ministry.

I enjoyed the Jim Rose act and was chilled and relaxed through Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Then Ministry came on stage and flipped the switch on the intense anxiety and fear I struggled with back then. They launched into a cover of Black Sabbath‘s “Supernaut” and all hell broke loose behind me. The setting was an outdoor venue known back then as Great Woods, and behind the seating area was a grass-covered hill. The sun of the day started to dim and I thought a thunderstorm was afoot. Then I looked behind me and saw that the dimmed light was the sun being blocked by a cloud of dirt. The crowd in the back had begun tearing up large pieces of sod and tossing it in the air, creating a soil sunscreen.

At first I thought it was funny. It was all part of the metal spirit. Then the thick chunks of sod started making its way toward the seating area and stage. A piece slammed me in the side of the head and that’s when the terror switch in my soul turned on.

The crowd in the back didn’t stop with the sod. They started tearing the rear fence from the ground and piled the wood high, setting it aflame. I was convinced there would be a riot and stage rush that would crush us all. I fled to the men’s room and stayed there a long time. The group with me included Sean Marley, who was older than me and often played the role of big brother.

Sean was fearless, and though the depression that eventually ended him didn’t come on for another couple years, I’m pretty sure he already had something of a death wish at that point. He was a lot less patient with me. But he never gave up on me. He put up with my fear a lot and was always working to break me of the fear. It took many years after his death for the fear to be broken, but I’m always going to be grateful to him for trying.

We stayed long enough to see half of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s headlining performance, but left before it was over. My certainty that we were all going to get killed or arrested had gotten so bad that I was twitching by that point, and my friends saw the writing on the wall. No one ever complained, though. Not to my face, anyway.

Though I don’t carry the fear anymore and my anxiety is mostly under control, I really can’t say how I’d react if I were at that same show right now. Would I smile and drink in all the chaos and stay until the end? I’m not so sure. I would have scowled at the stupidity of some in the audience, and probably wouldn’t be afraid to say something aloud. I might even yell toward the back that people should stop being idiots.

Most likely is that I’d have left early anyway — not for fear of physical danger, but because I’m simply too old to put up with that kind of behavior.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy C July 2, 2013 at 4:22 pm

I remember that show. I was one of people up in the grass section. I remember most of the details the same way, but my experience was completely different.
I was jumpping in and out of mosh pits all day and I was still enjoying the rush I got from the chaotic but relatively safe “dancing” that I loved. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a small flame in the center of a pit where someone lit clothes or something on fire. Some daring types started jumping over and through the flames. Others began taking off their t-shirts and throwing them into the flames and building the fire. This seemed to set off some kind of tribal atmosphere. The crowd around the fire started to move in a rythmic circle around the fire jumppers… and it grew, and grew. Then the place erupted. A few small chunks of grass thrown into the air turned into an impromptu dirt fight… there was so much sod in the air it reminded me of the nighttime videos of the bombing of Bagdad.. but it was not a ‘fight’ really, but more like a neighborhood water fight… but with the only mostly-harmless element available. Until the fence started coming down. But still, after about a half-dozen bonfires started I never felt tense or anxious. I felt alive. I felt excited. I would later refer to the show as one of my all-time favorite concert experiences.

I guess it’s true… perception is reality.

Mike February 22, 2014 at 7:01 pm

I was also as this show and can’t stop laughing at the “OMG THE WORLD WAS ENDING” narrative. I was in the pit and thought it was incredibly tame for a Ministry show. I even felt bad for the band that the suburban crowd was barely amped at all. Compared to some alterna-rock-snore fest today, yeah, people got into it. But at the time, I was embarrassed at the lack of action. All of the other bands were lame, not the least of which was RHCP — five years removed from relevancy and already surging toward claiming their title of Soccer Mom Band.

Rob July 16, 2015 at 1:58 pm

I was at this show too, I was 14 and it was my first rock and roll concert. We sat in the seated section, my friend Ian and I (his first show too, same age). I remember looking back at the dirt and bonfires in the grass section and thinking that it was exactly what I had seen in the concert sequences of Oliver Stone’s Doors movie which I had just seen. Tribal dancing around a big fire at a rock and roll show. It was all I really had to go on at the time. I remember thinking “oh, cool, they got the fires up” like it happened at every show or something as the movie would have you think. There was no anxiety and no bad vibes for me there. Ministry was so loud I thought my ears were bleeding!

TC August 21, 2015 at 2:25 pm

Ha. I was at this concert. I remember trying to pound the booze we brought in the lot when we figured out Pearl Jam was going on second. Then later when we ran out of booze we smuggled in, we actually left the concert and grabbed a couple handles and simply ran up the back hill and climbed the fence and we were back in. it was still daylight and still no one stopped us. ( it would have been easier a hour later when the fence was ripped down.) Then there was the bonfires. Teh pagans would have been proud. It has to be the last concert in the US where multiple bonfires were set in the seating are and the show still went on…

Luke September 13, 2015 at 5:55 pm

This was my first show ever. I was 11 and was never scared. I begged my dad to let me go and join the chaos. You are the biggest wimp. Cool article about hiding in bathrooms you scaredey cat. Way to shovel shit onto one of my favorite memories. Stay home.

Bill Brenner September 16, 2015 at 4:18 pm

Clearly, you missed the whole point, which is how fear and anxiety ruins what would have been cool moments.

Ed November 27, 2015 at 12:09 am

At that time…it was the greatest day of my life so far

Khriss Bliss January 13, 2016 at 7:25 pm

I saw both shows. The first night I was up front & counted 2 bonfires. The second night, I went to the top of the lawn, and, yes it WAS apocalyptic. There were 7 bonfires surrounded by moshers, gueled ny wood from the fence (ending Lollapalooza in MA 4eva), then came the smoke from the burning cups, & finally chsirs were thrown onstage until Al halted the show.

El December 22, 2016 at 10:39 am

I was there, and still ranks as my top 2 or 3 shows ever, and Ministry stole it!! I felt no anxiety, only pure tribal energy…especially once “One Fix” kicked in…literally all hell broke loose, and I was grateful to be on the lawn. The chair audience were generally not so happy.
The anxiety part is interesting as I started having attacks when I was 17, several years before. I am Al’s age, so I was 34 then and already kicked all drugs, legal and illegal. Some of us have PTSD w/o knowing it, and my attacks came back a few years ago. I still go to shows, saw Ministry 6 or 7 times in 2015 alone. To me the music is a cathartic release. Finding a way to turn fear into a positive energy is the trick. Assholes will always be here, and they enjoy hurting others…just stand your ground and as Al says, “don’t take shit from anyone”!!

Cc January 26, 2017 at 11:24 am

On the concrete between lawn and seats, when Ministry started, a whole pack of punks tried to climb into the seats. As Ministry got more intense, one big dude got pushed off the rail by security. Everyone then went apeshit. Security disappeared as people threw sod, pizza supplies, seats, etc. Riot police marched in after it was shutdown. Oh, the good times…

MJ February 27, 2017 at 9:06 pm

Have to agree with Ed above. One of my best times ever….didn’t want anyone to get hurt by flying sod, but happy to see it chase Ministry from the stage….at the time, just thought it was hysterical. Great day. I thought Soundgarden stole the show….I hardly remember the rest. Was transfixed by them, they ripped it.

Susan O'Keefe May 23, 2017 at 5:26 pm

I’ll never forget that show as I was hit square in the mouth with a Chuck of that sod. I wanted to leave after that but, recovered quickly enough.

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