“I’m often asked, did I think it was going to be what it became?,” Perry Farrell says before adding with a laugh, “I mean, that’s ridiculous. Of course not! How could I, you know?”
The Jane’s Addiction cofounder is of course speaking about his other main creative offspring, the granddaddy of all U.S. summer music festivals, Lollapalooza, which, after a virtual 2020, is gearing up for a four-day stand beginning today (July 29) at the spot it has called home since 2005, Chicago’s Grant Park. The 62-year-old singer completes his thought: “I was just in it for kicks, period.”
Back in 1991, Farrell, along with a brain trust that included then-Jane’s Addiction manager Ted Gardner and veteran booking agents Marc Geiger and Don Muller, conceived the idea of a music extravaganza in the vein of England’s long-running Reading Festival — albeit with an alternative-heavy lineup and a logistically daunting itinerary including two-dozen or so stops in various U.S. cities. Needless to say, it wasn’t viewed from the outside as a surefire recipe for success.
However, Lollapalooza did finish its inaugural run in the black and launched a franchise that skyrocketed with the Nirvana-powered rise of alt-rock over the next few years. But the festival’s most significant achievement was far from financial: If Lollapalooza didn’t singlehandedly launch what came to be known as “alternative nation,” it went a long way toward codifying its ideals for a generation of teens and twentysomethings via a mix of boundary-pushing musical acts, outsider fashion and art, progressive politics and activism and straight-up performative weirdness (see: the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, one of the star attractions of the 1992 fest). In the process, Lollapalooza set the template for the modern American music festival and paved the way, directly or otherwise, for Warped and Ozzfest and, later, Bonnaroo, Coachella and scores of other contemporary fests.
“The music was the root of it, but you’re making culture as well as making music,” Farrell says of his original intention. “And who knows? It could be shitty culture — you could be into something dumb and then it’ll kind of go away after a little while, or … you can shoot for eternity.”
The first Lollapalooza, which launched 30 years ago this July at Compton Terrace in Chandler, Arizona, was hardly intended as a moonshot. Rather, it was envisaged as a finale: a massive sendoff for Farrell’s band, Jane’s Addiction, which, even while riding high on the breakout success of its 1990 third album, “Ritual de lo Habitual,” was imploding via personality conflicts and substance abuse issues. The group disbanded — for the first time — immediately following the tour (Farrell and Jane’s guitarist Dave Navarro actually came to blows mid-set that first night in Arizona — “a stupid thing to do,” the singer says now). But Farrell’s desire to throw a colossal and euphoric bon voyage party, one that transcended mere music, was foundational to what Lollapalooza would become.
“Young people like to have their minds blown,” he says. “They’re so bored. I’m so bored, you know? So I figured, unless we could blow their minds, we weren’t really doing our job.”
Farrell did his job, and he did it with a lineup that in 1991, and even now, is impressive in its embrace of musical extremes: The tour, which effectively launched the career of low-on-the-bill Nine Inch Nails, also included Henry Rollins leading an early version of his post-Black Flag aggro-fusion-punk act Rollins Band, a shotgun-wielding Gibby Haynes fronting Texas weirdos the Butthole Surfers, and hardcore rapper Ice-T, dedicating half his set time to premiering his then-new metal project, Body Count. After Nine Inch Nails came New York rockers Living Colour, British goth icons Siouxsie and the Banshees, and, finally, a combustible-even-by-their-standards Jane’s Addiction.
“By the time Jane’s came on every night, the crowd was at full fucking power,” recalls Ice-T, who took to joining the band onstage for what quickly became the most provocative recurring moment of the festival: a duet with Farrell on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Don’t Call Me N—–, Whitey.” The performances would commence with the two vocalists squaring off and sneering the titular epithets at one another, before ultimately embracing and dancing arm-in-arm across the stage.
“That’s a serious song,” Ice-T acknowledges. “But Perry’s edgy, you know? He knows how to push buttons. So I trusted him and followed his lead because he’s anti-racism, he’s anti all that stuff. He’s all about positive shit. He’s one of those few special people in rock ‘n’ roll that’s a visionary. And with Lollapalooza he had the vision.”
For his part, Farrell replies, “The first time I ran into Ice backstage on that tour he said to me, ‘Perry, you a playa!’ I took that as a great compliment.”
Three decades later, Farrell’s vision for 2021, as in past years, is “to have a great celebration.” But he’s also aware that times have changed. In accordance with City of Chicago ordinances, Lollapalooza is requiring full Covid-19 vaccination or proof of a negative Covid-19 test obtained within 72 hours of first admittance for all attendees this year. “I’m enjoying working with Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot on this, and we’re going to take precautions and be safe,” Farrell says. “We’re concerned for our patrons, and we love and care for them. And I’m going to be so glad to see everyone get together again to listen to music.”
Regarding that music, Lollapalooza 2021 packs in more than 150 acts over four days, with headliners Miley Cyrus, Post Malone, Tyler, the Creator and the Foo Fighters. The top line wildcard? Eighties AOR heroes Journey, sandwiched between Megan Thee Stallion and Malone on day three. “I’m looking for ripe musicians, but I’m also looking for legacies,” Farrell says.
In fact, keeping the lineup unpredictable — especially in the face of so many competing festivals — is key to the continual magic trick of pulling off Lollapalooza, both during its initial 1991-’97 run as a touring festival and its current iteration as a destination event. “God makes these great musicians that are ripe,” Farrell explains, “and the art is to pluck them at the right time so that you know that their energy will be ferocious, and their hearts will be just glowing with electricity and water and love. That’s how you start.”
From there, he continues, “you look to see what else is around — what’s going on socially, what’s going on culturally. You find good things and you swirl it all in with the music. And that’s how you do it.”
Which is not to say that, 30 years on from the festival’s launch, Farrell has it all figured out. “My ultimate dream for Lollapalooza is not there yet,” he admits. “I have more dreams that I’m chasing — actively chasing. I cannot tell you what they are, but I promise you that. So just wait. Next year…”