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.
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.