Idols Melting in the Summer Sun

Pale and hungover and hiding behind enormous black sunglasses, they looked small in the full light of day. Indeed, stranded in the wilds of New Jersey, they were looking around themselves as if they had never before seen the full light of day.

The few mentions their Lollapalooza sets received in the music press that year would inevitably make some reference to “vampires caught out after dawn.” But the truth was, they didn’t look like anything so glamorous. They looked lost and forlorn.

The Reid brothers had always snubbed the conventions of rock star bombast. Early Jesus and Mary Chain shows in 1985 and 1986 had lasted twenty minutes or less, the Reids playing the entire time with their backs to the audience. Their first singles had been delayed by the Reids’ insistence that they be pressed with a ramshackle “Jesus Fuck” tune on their B-sides. Their drummer’s kit for those early shows consisted of two tiny snares, the bass player’s instrument had only two strings. Their music had been approvingly described as the sound of someone in another apartment down the hall, playing the Velvet’s “Sister Ray” at maximum volume while also shearing sheets of aluminum with a table saw. And the people—which in the Chain’s case meant the London music press, then the London club scene, then Anglophile college-radio geeks in America—ate it up.

But this wasn’t 1986 anymore. It was 1992, midday in the mosquito-infested woods of northwest New Jersey. And this crowd wasn’t eating it up. They were snickering and wandering away. William and Jim Reid, flummoxed, watched them go.

I was no rock star, fallen or otherwise, that summer, but I knew how the Reids felt. I had just turned thirty a month before, and I can distinctly remember walking the grounds of Waterloo Village in Stanhope, thinking, My god, they’re making kids younger and younger every year. I had grown up in this area, a few miles away in Hopatcong, but I’d left within two months of turning eighteen, almost half a lifetime before, and I’d rarely returned.

I lived in Jersey City in 1992, and haunted the rock clubs of Manhattan. The Ritz, Mercury Lounge, Roseland Ballroom, CBGBs, Maxwells in Hoboken. You didn’t see kids in those places. Not this young, and not in such numbers. Now I was back, along with an old friend of mine who still lived in the area, watching hordes of high school kids dismiss a rock act I’d fanatically followed for years. My friend and I had come to see JAMC and a few of the bands on the side stage. We’d missed the first Lollapalooza, the year before, through sheer inattentiveness, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. But these kids? Who were they here to see? Well, that was the root of the Reids’ problem.

The Reids weren’t in any position to win this crowd over. Under the unforgiving sun in a wide featureless field of dust and weeds, their songs sounded like what they were—Beach Boys pop sped up, knob-twiddled into the red, and shrouded in distortion. In a tiny, narrow club, their songs took on a forbidding menace and allure; outside they just drifted away on the dry breeze, tinny and obscure. Neither of the Reids was a Johnny Lydon, someone who could get by on sheer sneering bravado. The Reids had never condescended to speak to their fans in the past, much less argue with them. Unfortunately, just walking away wasn’t an option either. Storming off the stage would bring them face-to-face with Perry Farrell, the strict taskmaster and bullying accountant behind Lollapalooza.

So instead, the Reids set the bit in their mouths and shivered in their harness and hauled the little cart of their songs forward into the indifference of the crowd. The Reids were clearly drunk, hungover, or both. They famously hated each other and they hated the crowd. Why they’d even made this bid for the approval of mainstream America was a mystery. They clearly regretted it. For me, watching them, it was as if King Kong had been captured on Skull Island and dragged back to civilization, not to be exhibited in chains on a Broadway stage, but to provide rides for children at an Iowa fair.

In a better world, JAMC could have skulked out onto the stage in the second slot after cheery Britpoppers Lush, played a desultory set to a crowd just beginning to slip through the numerous pat-down checkpoints at the entrance, and slipped away, their dignity somewhat intact. But the Chain’s luck—like its cultural relevance—had suddenly expired.

When Perry Farrell announced the lineup for Lollapalooza ’92 in March of that year, Pearl Jam was an up-and-coming grunge act riding the wave of Nirvana’s success. An ideal support act. In May of ’92, however, Pearl Jam released its breakthrough album Ten. By August, “Alive” and “Even Flow” were ubiquitous on MTV, Ten stood at #2 on the Billboard charts, and Pearl Jam was arguably the biggest band in America. They could have easily headlined Lollapalooza. But Pearl Jam, humorless literalist blowhards that they already were, refused to surrender their originally assigned slot in the lineup, the #2 afternoon slot between Lush and the Jesus and Mary Chain.

Pearl Jam and its audience were everything the Reid brothers abhorred. Sweaty and earnest, hamhandedly obvious and eager to please, Eddie Vedder and band were born to exhort a crowd in an outdoor venue. And the crowd loved it. The crowd, far larger than it ever should have been at that ungodly afternoon hour, couldn’t get enough of it. Pearl Jam crammed 80 minutes of arena-rock histrionics into their 40-minute set and then raced off the stage. The crowd begged for more.

And they got two melancholy, nauseated goths from Glasgow. The band scheduled after JAMC? Soundgarden, another massive grunge act flying the trendy flag of flannel. The kids, those that hadn’t wandered off to the tattoo booths and beer tents, couldn’t hoot the Reids off the stage fast enough.

Already drunk by then, I set my cup of beer down in the dust as each Chain song stumbled and faltered to a close, and applauded loudly, earning dirty looks from those around me. I was your typical long-haired old guy, pugnaciously cheering on some dated, irrelevant garbage. Toward the end of the set, Jim Reid was singing inaudibly from a spot behind the drum kit and William Reid was only playing guitar on the middle parts of each song. The drummer and bassplayer, anonymous session players drafted for this tour, plinked and plonked grimly on, counting off their 45 minutes in purgatory.

“We had to play something like 40 dates over two months or something,” William Reid would later tell the British rock mag Melody Maker. “By the second gig, we realized we’d made a mistake, and we had another thirty-something gigs to play to thousands of Beavises and Buttheads. We got fucking drunk out of our heads every day, just trying to forget it. But you can’t. We just shouldn’t have been there.”

The Jesus and Mary Chain, the losers of the Battle of Waterloo Village, never enjoyed another moment of cultural relevance on either shore of the Atlantic. They released two more albums, both of which tanked, and they were cut by their label, Warner. They broke up, disappeared for ten years, came back with no new material, and still no one cared. As of today, they may or may not have broken up again. It’s hard to tell.

After that Lollapalooza show in 1992, my friend and I drove back to the Holiday Inn we were staying at and tried to pick up girls at the bar. I bought drinks for girls who had to show their dicey-looking IDs to the barmaid to be served. At about 11pm or so, three huge tour busses pulled up in front of the hotel. It was Ice Cube and his entourage. Ice Cube had gone on stage after Soundgarden and delighted the crowd, leading them in a venue-wide rap-along to Fuck Tha Police, an NWA song that had assumed widespread new popularity in the wake of the Los Angeles riots earlier that year. Every girl in the bar (and most of the guys too) got up en masse to meet Ice Cube and his posse in their suite of rooms. Even my friend left. The next morning, he would report that Ice Cube seemed like an easygoing, decent guy.

I wouldn’t know. I stayed at the bar, virtually alone, drinking mug after mug of beer, and lamented my vanquished idols, the Jesus and Mary Chain.

Editor’s Note: This story contains no live links because I couldn’t, for some reason, get basic HTML to function properly in WordPress today. So I’m putting the links here at the bottom, Roger Ebert style.

For a sense of JAMC at work, go here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2bzrCCKDwc

Who is John Lydon? Go here:

http://www.johnlydon.com/jlhome.html

Pearl Jam? Well, you know who they are:

Fuck Tha Police? Right here:

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