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Perry Farrell Eats Cake

Last weekend, the Jane's Addiction frontman celebrated Lollapalooza's 20th birthday

Jane said goodbye 20 years ago. It was September 1991, and Perry Farrell, a skinny Jew from Long Island turned unlikely, heroin-chic icon, stood on a steamy stage at the Aloha Tower in Honolulu. At age 32, Farrell had already put his hands all over a host of hits, helped dismantle hair metal to pave the way for the grunge revolution only a breath away, and had just finished the first run of an unbelievably successful touring festival named Lollapalooza. And as Jane’s Addiction performed their final American show from a stage along the shores of the Pacific, Farrell belted his way through “Mountain Song” one last time.

Perry Farrell and Peter DiStefano
Cage the Elephant

Completely, stupid naked.

Whether it was the Hawaii heat or the drugs, or an unprecedented mixture thereof, Farrell managed to go out on top. Following a demise accentuated by narcotic dependency and internal strife, Jane’s Addiction said goodbye to a legion of fans with that first slew of Lollapalooza gigs. A carnival barker and showman at heart, Farrell assembled an eccentric cast of characters to help offer a sendoff to their fans by way of a traveling circus of musical oddities and Generation X eclectics and antiheros. With the aid of Ice T, Rollins Band, Nine Inch Nails, Butthole Surfers, and more, Jane’s Addiction went coast to coast with Lollapalooza as a way of saying goodbye before finishing up with that last, naked hurrah at the Aloha.

It’s 20 years later and Farrell is standing backstage in Chicago’s Grant Park on Friday morning. He’s not so decrepit and seemingly strung-out this time around; there are no songs to be sung about whores and heroin. He’s even wearing clothes. Farrell is 52 years old now and has since revisited Jane’s Addiction a handful of times in various incarnations. He looks clean and sober. It’s 10am. He’s eating cake in an impeccably ironed button-down and starts handing out glasses of champagne as a late-morning breeze blows off of Lake Michigan and onto the park’s freshly mowed grass. A handful of journalists stand before a small stage and aim digital cameras and iPads at Farrell as he gets ready to kick off the 20th anniversary of what was meant to be a final farewell.

By the time it toured coast-to-coast for the last time in 1997, that one-off, cross-country fest could boast that it had survived more of the 1990s than Jane’s Addiction. What began as a goodbye tour full of freaks and friends grew into an American institution. From town to town, Lollapalooza showed attendees in amphitheaters and open fields that the alternative didn’t have to be just that. After an eight-year break, Farrell decided to revamp the fest and bring it to Chicago for a stationary showcase of alternative acts in 2005. Remembering the potential for exploring and exploiting a niche for the avant and unusual, Farrell’s festival has now lasted as a one-weekend event in the Windy City just as long as it did as the premiere touring fest of the 1990s. For six years now, Farrell has run Lollapalooza as a stand-alone event in Grant Park. The acid isn’t as available, Farrell is sporting far more gray hairs, and Fishbone might not have as much of a draw as they did in 1991, but something must be right: After all, 90,000 concertgoers are logging online for $200 tickets.

“Did I ever expect that 20 years later we’d be standing here on these grounds in this location?” asks Farrell, pre-cake, bright and early backstage. “No one is really prepared for a show or an event of this importance or this magnitude.”

Farrell, father of two, husband, DJ, and once again singer of Jane’s Addiction, didn’t think this would happen. Most people didn’t either. “Back then, 20 years ago, I expected to see maybe 10,000 to 20,000 weirdos showing up from town to town,” says Farrell. “And now I’m proud to say we have 90,000 weirdos showing up today.”

Farrell himself might not be as weird as he once was. He’s settled, relatively. There was no performance of “Whores” or “Been Caught Stealing” this weekend, but instead the Porno for Pyros ballad “Kimberley Austin” and a Jimi Hendrix cover. Farrell performed in the shade on a stage constructed solely for child-friendly music, adjacent to face-painting, adolescent beat-box lessons, and complimentary yogurt. That part of the fest is called Kidzapalooza. A day earlier, he and his wife performed a dance set in a massive rave tent, the largest of its kind on the festival circuit, revisiting one more 1990s heirloom that, along with Farrell himself, is a relic of an era becoming more and more distant.

Dave Grohl / Foo Fighters

Farrell himself has long demonstrated a knack for taking the fringe of mainstream rock and making it marketable. He out-Gaga’d Lady Gaga, outfit-wise, before Y2K, paved the way for Warped Tour and OzzFest, and managed to make steel drums and dog barking samples fit for rock radio. His cohorts from the first Lollapalooza enjoy similar standing. Trent Reznor went from turning “I want to fuck you like an animal” into the chorus of the year to a husband and Oscar Award winner. Ice T doesn’t sing “Cop Killer” anymore—you really can’t when you play a policeman on television.

Since reviving Lollapalooza in 2005, the Pixies, Primus, Depeche Mode, Jane’s Addiction, and Rage Against the Machine have all played the mainstage after waning relevance and the deceleration of alternative caused them to take a back seat to an MTV that no longer offered 120 Minutes of the edgy each Sunday night. This year, an aged Ric Ocasek led the Cars through a reunion gig on Saturday’s main stage. Elsewhere, however, those finding new ways to offer what might still be considered alternative are garnering crowds equal intensity to the nostalgic hordes eager to hear “Just What I Needed.” Arctic Monkeys performed half an hour behind schedule after a monsoon blew into Chicago and rendered most of Grant Park a mud pit. Hundreds straddled the stageside barricade, perched there since gates opened at 11am Friday, marking their territory for a first-row glimpse of Muse’s headlining slot following the Monkeys. American gigs for both British acts are a rare event, and diehards braved bouts of harsh, sideways-striking rain to see the show through to the end.

A mile away—the layout of Lollapalooza requires endurance training—Cage the Elephant are channeling punk and metal just like Jane’s did; under the shadow of the Hancock Building teenagers take to the air to revive the lost art of crowd-surfing and embrace of the long-forgotten tradition of the mosh pit. Like Arctic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner, Cage’s Matthew Schultz couldn’t lace his own sneaks (let alone his Doc Martens) when the first Lollapalooza crossed the States. Yet Schultz pulls from Perry, Iggy, and other iconic frontmen to rile the crowd, taunting them to come closer as he dives head-first into a pool of young, music-maddened fanatics.

On the last night, Dave Grohl stood center-stage on the southern end of Grant Park. Before wrapping up a two-hour set in front of thousands of mud-drenched Foo Fighters fans, he thanked Farrell for putting together the festival 20 years earlier. In 1991, says Grohl, he and Kurt Cobain attended the first Lollapalooza. In 1994 Nirvana was scheduled to perform, but that didn’t work out, to say the least.

“I don’t know this one. Must be an old one.”

I look to my left and a girl clearly younger than I looks confused as the Foos launch into “Monkey Wrench,” a 1997 hit from the band’s second album. “Yeah,” her date replies. “This one is, like, old.”

“It’s good, though. I like it.”

It’s been 14 years since Grohl offered up his departure from Nirvana and just as long since Lollapalooza hung up its hat for the first time. Fourteen years might seem “like, old,” but Farrell’s flair for capturing the energy of angst-riddled youth and transforming it into a cacophonous yet consumable concert festival has proved to be a timeless as a tune by the Cars, Ween’s Saturday-night cover of Bowie’s “Last Dance,” or the twinkle in Farrell’s eye as he gets a glimpse backstage of the massive cake celebrating the birthday of the unlikely offspring he spawned 20 years earlier in an attempt to say goodbye.

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