Hauling Ass to Harlem |
We are nearly an hour and a half late for the Vans
Warped Tour by the time we haul ass up to Harlem. The trip to
Island already feels like the Bataan
Death March--walk to the train, transfer to another train, then
transfer to some mysterious shuttle bus. The intersection of 125th
and Lenox is crawling with white kids in sneakers who don’t know
where they’re going. You don’t even have to ask for directions--just
look bewildered and someone will tell you the bus across the street
goes to the concert.
No Boards, No Blades, No Bikes
We disembark in an empty parking lot beneath a tangle of overpasses.
The ticket booth--really just a double-wide trailer with windows
cut out--is mayhem. Each window has two different signs; each sign
gives different directions. About 200 people shuffle between lines,
looking like they’ve misplaced something. No one is allowed to bring
in boards, blades, or bikes. A Metropolitan Ambulance pulls through
the chain-link fence, hauling away the first casualty of the day.
Checkpoint & Entry
We march down a vast grassy knoll, through more chainlink and two
security checkpoints. At the first, they take our bottle of Evian,
which really did only have water in it. Further up, two red-shirted
security guards keep watch over a box of confiscated spiked belts,
bracelets, and dog collars. "I hope those kids can remember
what’s theirs," says one. "A lot of this sh*t is the same."
Finally we come out into an enormous field, acres of dirt bound
by miles of chain-link. There are kids everywhere. I still get carded
in liquor stores and here I feel like someone’s old auntie. Everyone
is between the ages of 15-19 with short hair, wearing baggy jeans
and T-shirts. The only difference between genders is that the girls’
T-shirts are a little smaller and their sideburns are a little shorter.
A racing rockabilly
guitar wafts through the air and I take off running for the second
stage--just in time to see the Amazing
Royal Crowns finish their set. Literally, 30 seconds of thumping
and jumping and they’re off. The kids go wild. I can’t believe I
missed them. I celebrate my arrival in teenland by throwing a tantrum.
Psychobilly Freakout & The Looney Bin
Reverend Horton Heat is flailing it out on the main stage. The
Rev. is wearing a nifty powder blue and brown suit and Jimbo’s hopping
around on top of his bass, but I’ve seen them play better. Then
again, you can’t have a fresh light show outdoors in daytime and
twang needs walls to reverberate off of. The only acoustic bounce
on Randall’s Island comes from the vast, enigmatic stone façade
of the Ward’s Island Mental Hospital looming above us. I wonder
how all the psychos and schizos are handling eight hours of death
guitars and mediocre horn sections resonating through their rooms.
Maybe it’s better that The Reverend didn’t close with “Psychobilly
Freakout," after all.
The Only Girl
Save Ferris is on, a bunch of clean-cut kids playing happy ska
songs. Or one happy ska song eight different ways. Monique, the
lead singer, is the only female we’ve seen on stage thus far. Thirty-five
bands and this was the best they could do? Sure, as the lady herself
says, "this isn't fu$%ing Lilith Fair," but c'mon. Anyway, Miss
Monique gets extra points for shouldering the responsibility of
representing womanhood and knowing that her position requires wearing
wedgies and taping her tits. And she does have a better voice than
No Doubt nasal queen Gwen
Cops, Journalists, & Small Purebred Dogs
We shove past a few affable security guards and into the backstage
area, which is about as big as the sandbox all the kids are frolicking
in, but with trees and grass and water. There are about 20 tour
buses ringed like covered wagons, about 20 semis for added security
and storage, and one limo. And cops everywhere. Hundreds of them.
Cops by the dozen, sunglasses on, nightsticks swinging. It’s not
like any of these kids are going to do anything--if anything, they’re
too well behaved, tending to sit quietly in the dirt. They don’t
need so much security--then again, the ranks are artificially swelled
by the band in cop uniforms, which makes matters somewhat confusing
over by the interview tent. Because, along with the army of security,
is the media feeding frenzy--herds of grownups with tape recorders
and microphones and cameras skittering about like little
purebred dogs, cornering passing band members and yammering
away. There must be 200 musicians here, not that you can tell which
band any of them are in. They seem to be having a better time than
the young’uns they’re playing for--loitering about, looking for
beer, ducking into each other’s buses, hitching rides on golf carts,
sitting by the East River smoking butts and listening to NOFX
reverberate off the walls of the psycho ward.
Cigarettes & Hair Goo
We have finally made it to the beer truck, a lengthy process of
the security corridor and ID desk--given the demographic in attendance,
the Yoo-Hoo truck draws more patrons. The
Aquabats are on the second stage, a perky, punky ska combo that
set themselves apart by wearing vaguely amphibious superhero-alien-boxer
shorts costumes, accessorized with blue Adidas.
One of them even does battle with an evil clown, drunken-dork kung-fu
style. But, shtick aside, they’re your standard ska band. There
are too many damn ska bands here. And absolutely no hip
hop. This is supposed to be a celebration of skate culture without
hip hop? They could get 20 ska
bands and 10 passing-to-lousy punk
bands, but not one friggin’ minor rap crew? This thought will gnaw
at me for the rest of the day. We go around the back of the "black
bus stage," where we run across two Swedish guys, who are in
some outfit called Wade
which, they assure us, is “not a punk band.” They don’t know why
there’s no hip hop, but agree that it is wrong. The bassist for
the Amazing Royal Crowns spends a long time adjusting his pompadour
in the reflection of the door of their van; the dashboard is covered
with tins of hair goo and packs of cigarettes.
Anyone Can Do It
Now it’s punk rock karaoke. Any grubby 18-year-old can be a punk
rock frontman, though most of the vocalists seem to be older
and wear backstage passes. We also see the second and last female
of the day onstage.
But You, You May Not Skate!
The half-pipe is enormous--plenty of room for mountain bikes or
anything you may want to jump off of it. Only professionals are
allowed on the ramp, and it’s kind of sad to see all these little
skaters with their noses
pressed against the chain-link, gazing at that big, beautiful, smooth
ramp, wishing they could get on it. It is on one of these forlorn
creatures that I see the first and last Spice Girls T-shirt of the
Rancid are running rampant on the main stage, to much yelping and
body surfing, though the people standing in the wings are more excited
than the audience is. I’ve avoided Rancid
for a long time--something about those “I’m gonna be a punk rocker
for Halloween” costumes puts me off. And they’re good, they do a
impression, they’ve got catchy hooks and big pink guitars, they
rock out nicely but, on the whole, I’m not believing the hype. I
keep thinking of a story a friend told me, about one of them being
half-retarded because he once refused to leave his apartment when
it was being fumigated for roaches and the chemicals rotted his
brain. The whole time they’re on, I'm trying to figure out which
one’s the 'tard.
No More Budweiser
They turn off the beer and begin breaking apart the half-pipe. The
sun’s at a 60-degree angle in the sky and they’re already shutting
the party down.
occupy the main stage, which is engulfed in a cloud of dirt. They
are reminiscent of the Bad
Brains, not only in the wailing vocal style frequently employed
by Chino Moreno, but in their sheer solidity. It’s got the same
tight, heavy bass-and-drums combo, no shrill speed guitar, a lot
of textures battering into one another--it's a little like old Soundgarden
The security guys are wearing wet rags around their mouths and noses
against the flying dirt as filthy screaming kid after filthy screaming
kid tumbles over the barricade and into their arms. It’s mayhem.
“Give me the camera and hold my backpack--I'm going in." And out
into the mob of deranged grimy children I go--I'm not sure why I
continue diving into the
pit at my advanced age. There is the joy of clobbering some
obnoxious kid--"Step aside, junior! I was kicking Nazi skinhead
ass when you were in preschool!" And there is something gratifying
about the complete physical awareness: just holding your ground
demands that you keep moving and remain alert. Stand still and space
out and you’ll be on the ground and in trouble before you know what
The Deftones continue their cathartic roar, sounding like distilled
hate and, hence, perfect right now. The pit is a nightmare. Everyone
is coal-miner filthy, black teeth and soaked in sweat, coated in
self-generated mud, screaming, smacking the hell out of each other.
The haze of dirt is so thick you can’t see more than twenty feet
and breathing is difficult. I swear a fleet of helicopters is landing
and about to spray us with bullets--the music is howling, the dirt
is flying, the wind is blowing, and it’s ninetysomething degrees.
Watch the guy on your left who’s about to stomp your feet, the one
on your right trying to push you to the ground, the two guys behind
who keep kicking you, and the guy in front who’s flying through
the air and either you catch him or he snaps your friggin’ neck.
It feels like war and I wonder if this is what Andy, the guitarist
from the Crypt, meant when he said doing the Warped Tour was
"like Vietnam. I'm still having flashbacks," and began ranting about
half-pipes. I’m starting to feel like Dennis Hopper amongst the
savages myself. I will sneeze dirt for the next 24 hours.
“Beat His Ass to the Ground!”
On the second stage, the lead singer of Hatebreed
is doing a particularly dreadful Glen
Danzig impersonation. He shouts, “I want everybody to look at
the guy next to you. Now beat his fu*%ing ass to the ground!”
Yet another ska band, Hepcat,
is shaking it up on the main stage. Hepcat, however, rule. They
play real deal, old-school Jamaican ska with two fabulous lead singers.
One does the classic Horace
Andy style--a lot of sweet falsetto croon. The other has a goatee
and a deep, gutbucket Big Joe Turner growl. The call-and-response
is fabulous, as are their stylish dance moves--ska is soul music,
after all. Their horns have more of a fat, low-brass burble than
the usual snappy, shiny ska-band variety and the rhythm section
hits the groove right in the pocket. How good are they? So good
that they get most of the clumsy, somewhat uptight crowd skanking
in time to the music. Sure, there’s still a few kids trying to put
a few too many beats in there per minute, but most of them are swinging
right with it. The dirt cloud subsides slightly.
The last band flogs out the last punk riff on the second stage--roadies
begin tearing it down immediately. Bad
Religion are beating a dead horse on the main stage.
The last act of the evening: the legendary Specials.
Yes, I know: no Jerry, no Terry, it’s not 1984 anymore, nyah nyah,
but the Specials whup hell out of every other ska band on the bill
(except Hepcat). They’re professionals, the songs are still brilliant
and the band is still sharp as a straight razor. They sarcastically
dedicate “Rudy (A Message to You)” to our own Il
Duce, which provokes much cheering and passing out of “Giuliani
Sucks” stickers in the audience. And the new songs--especially the
rockabilly-ska “I Shot JR”--are good, too. There’s still a bit of
a pit, but mostly everyone is merrily bopping and skanking. For
their encore--the Specials are the only band who gets an encore--they
gratify all those screeched requests for “Nightclub” and pull about
15 thrilled kids on stage to dance, though most of them just look
kinda embarrassed and shake their shoulders slightly.
Goodnight, Mr. Softee
And that’s it. The park is already half-cleared of booths and tents
by the time they kick on the emergency lights and begin hollering
at us to go home. Beyond the last ring of chainlink, beneath a sole
streetlight sits the Mr. Softee truck, churning out the ice
cream theme, swamped by grubby kids who are digging deep in
their oversized pockets for enough change to get extra sprinkles.