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STICK A FORK IN IT

David Yow tried everything. The lead singer for the Jesus Lizard, second on the lineup at the Lollapalooza Festival (which stopped at Fiddler's Green on July 8), jumped into the crowd and berated several people in his path from a distance of approximately two millimeters. He kneeled at the edge of the stage and groped a beefy security guard who was profoundly, comically discomfited by the advance. And, most important, he exuded enough energy to power a small country--in spite of a poor sound mix, the unrelenting sun, the near-triple-digit temperature and an early-afternoon time slot that was more conducive to a volleyball match than to a punk-rock show.

But Yow's efforts weren't enough, at least for this audience. More than 5,000 bodies witnessed his exertions, but a mere handful seemed to be paying more than a cursory amount of attention. Those in the seated sections remained seated, smearing themselves with suntan lotion or reading from programs provided rather than giving in to the urge to move. And the mosh pit looked like an oil painting. Those admitted to the space reacted when Yow got in their faces, and they stopped as soon as he left them alone.

Finally, Yow snapped. Prior to the Lizards' last song, he sneeringly congratulated the throng on "giving the illusion of getting down" to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, whose Sha Na Na-of-ska routine had begun the event on a dull-witted, derivative note. Then, after he'd roared through another sonic blast that was met with almost total disinterest, Yow called the attendees "sacks of shit," angrily rifled his microphone to the floor and stormed into the wings. In response, a few of those gathered applauded politely before returning to their magazines.

So it went at the fifth annual Lollapalooza carnival, a strained and tired spectacle that looks to be slowly collapsing under its own weight. A few good groups played at this year's edition, and some decent music could be heard on occasion, but overall, the festival proved far less than worthy of the hype that has accompanied it since the dawn of this decade. Once a cultural harbinger, a merging of the underground and the overground that produced bracing musical surprises, clumsy excesses and ambitious failures, it has become just another tour with an awfully familiar goal--to separate the suckers from their wallets.

It wasn't always so. When Perry Farrell, once of Jane's Addiction, birthed the notion of Lollapalooza, the concept was a fresh and vibrant one. The boom in what became known as alternative music was about to break through to the mainstream; Nevermind, the Nirvana platter that started the next wave in earnest, reached record stores during the summer of 1991, as the inaugural Lollapalooza was making its way around the country. In essence, then, Farrell's brainchild anticipated the belated commercial acceptance of sounds that previously had been enjoyed by a relatively insignificant portion of the music-buying public. In addition, the involvement of Farrell and other artists in the planning of the bash inoculated participants against accusations of selling out--and Lollapalooza's out-of-the-box popularity sent a powerful message to the industry at large. The lunatics, the high-rollers realized, were fully capable of taking over the asylum. Moreover, the political subtext of the celebration--booths manned by supporters of reproductive rights, AIDS education and other causes--suggested that the musicians might be able to make an impact beyond padding their CD sales.

As one Lollapalooza blurred into another, however, it became clear that the festival was not going to shake the system. Concertgoers were grateful for the free condoms that were handed out by many operators, but they cared more about buying post-Deadhead fare that they hoped would stand as a token of their dubious hipness. Perhaps recognizing that they would not be igniting any revolutions, organizers subsequently added other extra-musical elements to the production. One year, a torture circus overseen by happy-go-lucky sadomasochist Jim Rose distracted the masses; in others, various trendy cyber-sideshows were installed, to no one's excitement. At Lollapalooza '95, the displays were at their dullest. The only people who ventured into the much-ballyhooed cinema tent, for example, were those about to die from heat prostration. In fact, the one place that was regularly crowded consisted of nothing more than a slew of Sega video-arcade games.

The Lab, a third stage allegedly devoted to spoken-word performances and local music, was even more annoying, largely because the bands and poets were given short shrift by two emcees (a cowboy-hat-clad lecher and a cheerful transvestite) who apparently felt that Western civilization's high point was MTV's Singled Out. Bystanders were prodded to stand before their peers and tell off-color jokes, make provocative gestures with their tongues and otherwise prove that they would do anything to be noticed. That they succeeded was a sad commentary on the event as a whole.

Because of the tepid nature of the secondary exhibits, the music was left to stand on its own. As has been true for the past several Lollapaloozas, the acts on the second stage, which occupied an open plot north of the majority of vendors, were more consistently interesting than those booked into the amphitheater. Better yet, all of them acquitted themselves well. Doo-Rag, from Arizona, is a marvel, a bizarre performance-art troupe whose members use megaphones, cardboard boxes, dancers dressed as milkmen and plenty of other tools in a manner that's frequently astounding. Of course, they were booked so early that late arrivers missed them entirely. Possum Dixon followed with a busy, serviceable set that was matched by its immediate successor, the Poster Children, and surpassed by Yo La Tengo, whose guitarist and leader, Ira Kaplan, transformed his group's artsy drone rock into something unexpectedly vigorous. Coolio was also entertaining, if not terribly original: Apparently, I wasn't paying attention the day a law was passed requiring rappers to shout "Put your hands in the air/And wave them like you just don't care" at least once per show. Still, the 3,000 or so who abandoned their seats to see him constituted what yours truly feels was the largest single mob to see a second-stage artist at a Denver Lollapalooza.

The main stagers were considerably less intriguing. Beck is already a trivia question, and he hastened his journey to obscurity with a stunningly somnambulant revue. Clearly, he should not have been here, period. Also incongruous was the presence of the now-hairy Sinead O'Connor, whose great pipes cannot compensate for a failure of imagination and a wellspring of self-pity that she spewed at ticketbuyers for nearly an hour. Cypress Hill was peppier, but the group's constant barrage of lowest-common-denominator dope references (exemplified by a giant bong that rapper B-Real brought onto the stage) was about as cutting-edge as Cheech & Chong. In the final analysis, only Pavement, which is going to lose its reputation as a hit-and-miss live act if it keeps giving shows like this one, and the dependable foursome in Sonic Youth impressed.

Still, it was Hole that symbolized the sorry state of this year's Lollapalooza. Courtney Love, wearing her usual baby-doll dress and (surprise) underwear that she flashed whenever possible, staggered through the most predictable song list imaginable, in between rants at the audience about Amendment 2 (now there's a fresh topic), her past as a stripper, her reputation as an easy lay and anything else that popped into her drug-addled noggin. (She announced on three separate occasions that she would kick someone's ass if provoked, but she wouldn't have succeeded unless she'd found a target in worse shape than her. Like, say, Mickey Mantle right before his liver transplant.) As everyone should realize by now, Love is extraordinarily overrated: Live Through This, released last year, has its moments, but it never would have been named the best album of 1994 by the critics at Rolling Stone and the Village Voice had not her husband, Kurt Cobain, eaten a lead sandwich as his last supper. Nevertheless, it came as a shock how pathetic she has become. She's an overdose waiting to happen, and the Lollapaloozers who watched her couldn't have cared less. But at least they'll be able to tell their children that they saw her before she died.

It's too soon to tell if Lollapalooza itself will die as well. Farrell and company were turned down by their first three choices to headline the fest (Neil Young, Snoop Doggy Dogg and a reunited Clash), and surely they must realize that modern rockers increasingly see their lumbering creation as thoroughly uncool. Moreover, the attendance has been down nationwide (severely so in Denver) because of poisonous word of mouth. But once an institution like this gets rolling, it's hard to stop. So there may be a Lollapalooza next year--and if there is, you can bet that the money men will trumpet it as a return to form. Perhaps some forward-looking bands may even step aboard, but it will be too little too late. Because as a must-see indicator of a time and a place in American popular culture, Lollapalooza is over.