It was 102 degrees the day the air conditioning crapped out on our tour bus. Mid August, somewhere between West Virginia and North Carolina.
20 writers trapped on a scorching hot bus. We drank to block out the oppressive heat. We were off the next day, so we showed no restraint. Not that we ever showed the slenderest thread of restraint.
It was the 90’s. We were in our 20’s. Do the math.
In the mid-90’s, spoken word poetry was HOT. The in-your-face nature of it, attacking gender, racial and economic social inequity, was perfect for that time. Which is why Perry Farrell decided to add a Third Stage to Lollapalooza for spoken word.
Slam Poetry is spoken word on steroids. A brutal poetry competition where judges quantify your talent with numbers on cardboard signs.
The New York City slam venue was a ruthless arena. You were heckled mercilessly the minute you stepped on stage, and if you wanted to stay on, you’d better be good.
Skinny little girl with a big fat mouth. I was featured in a documentary about the NYC slam scene and won a highly coveted spot on that ‘94 tour.
Lolla’s 1994 lineup was stellar. Nirvana. Green Day. Beastie Boys. George Clinton & the P-Funk All Stars. Cypress Hill. A Tribe Called Quest.
In April, Kurt Cobain put a shotgun to his head, and Nirvana was replaced by The Smashing Pumpkins.
A massive let down.
Tequila at Twelve
We opened the Third Stage at noon, blasting War’s “Low Rider.” I got things going, dancing onstage in my Lolla uniform, daisy dukes and combat boots. By 12:30, I was pouring bottom shelf tequila into the mouths of teenage babes from the jug I kept behind the sound booth.
We performed several sets of poetry a day. Our teen audience, enraptured by the spoken word scene, stalked us between sets, asking for autographs. It was heady stuff.
The downside was, the Third Stage was sponsored by MTV. We were expected to run moronic crowd participation skits, like “The Dating Game” and “Oprahpalooza.” As our youthful rebellious response to the commercialism of MTV we decided to jack up the skits.
I ran the Dating Game.
I’d pick an extremely hot, intoxicated Lolita to be the “Bachelorette” on stage, along with three guys. Right before she chose one, I’d yell, “Forget these losers! Pick ME!”
Then I’d start making out with her. I had a built-in radar that always found a girl who dug it. We’d end up rolling around on the stage, grinding and groping each other while the audience went completely bat shit crazy.
Word got around that there was live girl-on-girl porn on the Third Stage at 4:00. By mid-summer, it was one of the hottest tickets on the tour.
Thank God there were no responsible adults around.
Rock Stars and Poets and Bears, Oh My
The cool thing about Lollapalooza is that everyone, musicians, roadies and poets, milled about backstage together, ate together, partied together. Gradually, most of the musicans came to the Third Stage to check us out. As the tour wore on, some of us collaborated. A horn player from Parliament Funkadelic dug me and my poetry. He would come to the Third Stage to accompany my performances.
The dark, rich sounds of his trumpet wove around my words, letting the audience feel both the story in my poetry, and the story of how he and I felt about each other. Those seductive, late afternoon renditions of my spoken word were the pinnacle of my performing career.
For many, for most, it was the summer of love.
Okay. It was a total fuck fest.
On tour, everyone’s single. You never knew which musician would wake up on our bus, crawling out of the coffin-like sleep bunks. I won’t name names. I’m a star-fucker, not a name-dropper.
Some of my favorite tour moments took place after we closed the third stage at 6:00.
Every evening, I raced across the venue to Main stage to catch Parliment Funkadelic and worship at the altar of George Clinton. Clinton was an icon who dominated my R&B project girl childhood. I don’t get stupid about musicians, but I’d watch the P. Funk All Stars from backstage and fangirl the fuck out.
After, we’d, head to the Beastie Boys’ trailer where they set up a basketball court outside and played as their pre-show warm up. My horn player played against them every night. The Beastie’s were dope white boys from Queens, and I was fond of them, but I took perverse pleasure in watching my horn player stomp their asses across the court.
We drove through the night to the next city. No showers, no sleep, no exercise, no healthy food. Touring was grueling, so we bolstered ourselves with alcohol and drugs. We only checked into a hotel if we played the same city for more than a day. Then we had the luxury of a shower, but still, no one slept. With all of us set loose at a hotel for the night, neither did any of the other guests.
I chronicled the tour by talking into a hand-held tape recorder which I carried with me everywhere. I have the entire experience on tape. I recently moved, and unearthed the whole collection of cassettes.
I can’t bear to listen to them.
I came back to New York victorious.
Clips from interviews and performances had been splattered across MTV. We had crossed over, melded performance poetry with rock and roll.
One MTV news clip was 10 seconds of me, my flaming red, 90’s hair bigger than my body, standing on the Beastie’s basketball court. All full of myself, and lots of tequila, I proclaimed “Spoken word is ROCK AND ROLL POETRY!” At the moment, my horn player stole the ball from Ad-Roc and made a running layup, and I screamed, “That’s what I’m TALKING about!”
It was played repeatedly.
I had offers to do articles. Books. I had performances scheduled. My phone rang incessantly. Managers wanted me. Agents wanted me.
I had acquired a bad habit. Without the tour, without the whole carnival of lights, sound and music…
My 10 seconds of fame so overwhelming, I could not handle it…
Or knew I couldn’t sustain it?
I lost myself.
I missed deadlines. Blew off performances, or showed up so high on smack, I’d stumble through a shit show and think I was spectacular.
I pulled the phone out of the wall, for days at a time. Heroin makes you antisocial.
A popular female journalist (I’m not going to say her name; she’s still around) interviewed me for a downtown New York City weekly newspaper (yes, that one). I showed up high, junkie girlfriend in tow. To the bemusement of the journalist, we spent the interview nodding off, waking up to bicker about my writing, the meaning of art, and who used up the last of our drugs.
The photographer snapped a picture of me asleep at the café table, coffee cup raised to my lips. Instead of writing about the spoken word movement, the journalist focused on downtown druggie nihilism masquerading as art. She made me the poster child for 1990’s drug-addled self-sabotage in a hatchet piece called “How to Destroy Your Writing Career.”
They never ran that story. I faded, mercifully, into obscurity.
Most of the poets I knew from that tour are successful writers.
I never discuss it. People who know me today don’t even know it ever happened.
Maybe it didn’t.
When I first wrote this story in 2013, I ended it with an homage to the genius of Kurt Cobain. I quoted “All Apologies” and loftily asserted that I needed to forgive myself for squandering my opportunity.
Five years later, I see the truth. The story that journalist wrote IS my story. I am a master of self sabotage. I fear success more than failure.
There is nothing else in the world that I want to do more than write, yet it brings up every fear I have about not being good enough.
I wrote an essay about mental illness, and when I was honored for that essay at a writing conference, I was ironically so anxiety-ridden I never left my hotel room.
Paradoxically, I see myself as both magnificent and inadequate. If I achieve any level of success as a writer, it creates such cognitive dissonance that I need to massage my psyche back into alignment with drugs, with sex, with bad decisions.
I am the Queen of Bad Decisions – I may go down, but it will be in beautiful fiery flames of my own making. I get to control my own failure, rather than let it blindside me.
The book that lives inside me goes unwritten. Surely I would be exposed to the writing community as a fake. The belief that I am a fraud is called Imposter Syndrome. It (along with massive Daddy Issues) has bought my therapist her beach house, but I’m certain it will be rooted in me until the day I die.
Here I feel safe. Here, I have a small, fiercely devoted group of followers, and your love for me and my words does not scare me. It’s a sweet miracle that every time I hit “Publish,” there you are.
Talk to me.
All this self-awareness has given me a giant migraine, but I’m listening.