THERE'S NO contest: This summer's biggest tour is the aptly titled Lollapalooza, a mobile rock festival featuring a bill of premier alternative bands -- Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Colour, Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T, B---hole Surfers and the Henry Rollins Band -- headlined by the critically acclaimed Jane's Addiction.
The tour is currently crisscrossing North America, doing 26 shows in 21 cities, including one from noon to 9 p.m. Friday at Lake Fairfax Park in Virginia. (There are about 2,000 tickets remaining for Friday's show. To purchase tickets, call (800) 448-9009). There may be other, bigger-grossing tours, but for fans disaffected with routine concerts, nothing can rival the sense of expectation and event that Lollapalooza has aroused.
The tour was the brainchild of Jane's Addiction's lead singer, Perry Farrell, its drummer, Stephen Perkins, and Marc Geiger and Don Muller from Triad Artists, the group's booking agency. The idea was conceived after Jane's Addiction attended Britain's Reading Festival last year. The band was booked to play at the festival, an annual three-day event featuring top alternative bands, but pulled out because of illness.
Instead, band members attended as spectators and, impressed by the atmosphere, soon began to wonder why there was nothing similar in the United States. Geiger and Muller, who had previously organized alternative rock tours of the United States, decided that a mobile festival was feasible, if logistically daunting.
From the start, Farrell wanted Lollapalooza to be not just TC musical event but a cultural smorgasbord, with a diverse array of tents, booths and displays exploring a number of political, environmental, human rights and cultural issues.
The idea, says Muller, is to bombard festival-goers with stimuli and data and "raise as much public awareness in a single day as possible." At each show, there is an "art tent," displaying work by local artists personally selected by Farrell.
In this respect, Lollapalooza seems to be a conscious attempt to reinvoke the '60s sense of rock as counterculture, in defiance of today's perception of rock as a leisure industry.
"It's throwing a lot of issues into the public consciousness," Farrell says. "I want there to be a sense of confrontation. But I'm not declaring myself left wing or right wing, I'm actually bringing both sides into it."
While planning the festival, he toyed with having National Rifle Association and armed forces stalls next to representatives from Greenpeace or animal rights organizations, to stimulate debate.
"It would be way too easy for me to take everything that's obviously politically correct and have this hip, left-wing event. But I don't want to make out I have the answers, all I want to do is pose the questions."
The NRA and the armed forces recruiters, however, proved to be gun-shy about the event; participants instead range from the League of Women Voters to Handgun Control Inc. to Body Manipulations, which will display body piercing.
The lineup of bands for Lollapalooza is just as varied. Each band represents a different faction of alternative rock: Siouxsie and the Banshees (goth, a mystical, morbid descendant of punk, whose fans look like Morticia from "The Addams Family"), Living Colour (black rock), Nine Inch Nails (electro-industrial), Ice-T (gangster rap), the Surfers (acid rock) and the Rollins Band (hard-core punk).
Jane's Addiction's music is itself a product of the fragmentation and cultural overload that Farrell wants Lollapalooza to mirror. Like Faith No More and Fishbone, Jane's Addiction belongs to the new hybrid genre that has been dubbed "funk-and-roll," but the group takes musical miscegenation further than any of its peers.
Jane's Addiction emerged from the same late '80s Los Angeles metal scene that spawned Guns 'N Roses. But by its second and third albums, "Nothing's Shocking" and "Ritual de lo Habitual" (Warner Brothers), it became clear that "metal" was an inadequate tag for Jane's Addiction's exhilarating fusion of heavy rock, funk, reggae, ethnic influences, tribal rhythms and art rock.
"Three Days," an epic, 10-minute track off "Ritual," covers the distance between the astral metal of Led Zeppelin and the ethereal, ambient drift of the Cocteau Twins. Some regard Jane's Addiction's departure from the straight and narrow of populist rock as self-indulgent, others as heroically pretentious. But for all its art-rock complexity, the band seldom sacrifices the raw attack of pure rock 'n' roll.
At live shows, Jane's Addiction unites disparate subcultures as successfully as it melds musical influences. Its audience is a bizarre coalition of metal fans, punks, college-radio hipsters, goths, nouveau hippies and the unaligned and curious.
What attracts such a motley array of fans is that the band has managed to bring back a sense of rock 'n' roll as an underground. There's a strong element of ritual and ceremony to Jane's Addiction performances, heightened by the group's stage backdrops: for the Lollapalooza tour, a shrine-like construction is covered with icons, candles and sculptures.
Lollapalooza is a boon for the twentysomething generation, a happening that may instill pride in teen-agers who have grown up under the shadow of rock's mythical past.
As "Classic Girl," the last track on "Ritual de lo Habitual," puts it: "They may say, 'Those were the days . . .' but in a way, you know for us these are the days. . . . Yeah, for us these are the days."