I named the piece "Battle of the Sweaty Tenth Graders" after a flier that Chris Spohn made in high school for the Battle of the Bands at Orange Park High. It just seemed so fitting, and like a title that should live on beyond the walls of Orange Park High in 1992. Now that the Warped Tour is back (and this year it's in Clay County) I thought it would be a good time to remind everyone what the festival is really like. Enjoy!
Battle of the Sweaty Tenth Graders
Van’s Warped Tour, Metropolitan Park, Jacksonville, Florida
“Italy’s team represents everything that’s wrong with Europe,” my friend Juan is really into the World Cup. He has teams he likes, and a couple he doesn’t, but he watches them all because he just likes the game. The Van’s Warped Tour represents everything that is wrong with the underground rock scene in this country. The only time I ever even wanted to go to this annual festival was when the Cadets played many moons ago. They wore their astronaut jumpsuits in that blazing heat and the drummer almost passed out from heat exhaustion.
After enduring the sweaty, brazen, and unforgiving social climate this year, I would pay for a video of that Cadets performance. I bet it was heartbreaking.
Punks’ not dead, it’s just a little embarrassed. Like the selection of sunglasses and fashion accessories at the various vendors around Met Park, everything at Warped Tour was pretty much the same. For an event that simmered out of a hardcore, skater punk ethic, it has become a grotesquely bloated marketing tool thinly veiled as activism.
Who the hell are all these kids that come out of the woodwork for Senses Fail but never darken the door of an underground music club in this town? Out of about 20 stages and hundreds of bands, everything sounded exactly the same. There was no punk (except the Buzzcocks), no noise rock, not even any real hardcore. Just a thousand versions of Further Seems Forever. The only thing that changed band-to-band was which instrument the fat kid was playing. In some bands the fat kid was the bassist, in some the guitarist. In a few rare occasions the fat kid was the singer. They’ll never get on the MTV with a fat kid singer.
Wanna feel like you are there? Imagine it’s a thousand degrees where you are standing and you’re surrounded by 15 year-olds that are either jumping or trying to masturbate against your arm. The band on stage is thugging away at muted power chords in 3-chord syncopation and then the song either goes double-time for a screaming chorus, or half-time for a screaming chorus. There is no variation from this format and there wasn’t a single good drummer in the lot.
That isn’t fair, I obviously couldn’t see every band, but since there was no printed schedule, it was hard to intentionally coordinate your listening experience. So there you are, trying to learn this new Emo-Core’s philosophy, and all that you can decipher from the lyrics is that someone’s gone and maybe they’re sad. Probably because their drummer is so bad.
Speaking of bad drummers: Helmet. Helmet was once revered as one of the Indie rock greats, when they were among the first indie bands to get a big-money contract. But when it came to their actual music the shining star was always the drummer. John Stanier, who currently plays with Battles and Tomahawk, is a machine, and he always managed to make Helmet’s stop-start half-metal sound edgy. Unfortunately he is no longer with Helmet and it shows. Their new drummer isn’t bad, he just doesn’t have that hammer that Helmet needs. They played mostly songs off of Meantime, their last big record in the 90s, and then a few even more torturous songs from their latest release. They sounded tired, off-balance, and stale. But who wouldn’t in that heat. I think a node from the singer’s vocal chord hit me in the face during their screaming chorus.
When I managed to find some shade next to a tent to stand in while I urgently poured gallons of $4 bottled waters down my throat, some security lady (off-duty moms I suspect) would come and instruct me to get out of it. I even offered to pay once, but apparently their only hope of getting all those sweaty teenagers out of there was in ambulances and so we were all required to stay in the sun.
I would have retreated to a covered picnic area next to the SmartPunk tent or the Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands tent, but if I could just wait out Helmet’s eternal medley finale and a set by some schlock band (whose name I never caught, but I know they have a fucking album coming out next fucking month and they worked really fucking hard on it) then the Buzzcocks would come onto the stage and the skin would fall from all of their eyes and they would see what rock is supposed to make you feel like. The Buzzcocks will lead the way for these lost souls.
Walking through the crowd, it is difficult to tell what lineage of rock brought them to this place in their lives. I’ve never seen anyone dress quite like the kids at Warped Tour. I’m not sure who their leader is. I’ve never seen anyone on the MTV (or even Fuse) that dresses like these kids. All eyeliner and black pants that look like dresses. They started the day off all dolled up, but as the sun burned brighter their eyeliner melted down into to their faces and the necks of their shirts. That was the Alice Cooper phase, between one and two. After that they all just looked wet. The fashion tastes were interesting in that a musician could be easily distinguished from the fans.
The musicians were really into ironic clothing. Dudes wearing tight, Sergio Valente designer jeans rolled up to the knee and a mullet. Or they wore daisy dukes, when they had really skinny, hairy legs. Aviator sunglasses were on all of the musicians, but not on sale anywhere in the park. Fans, on the other hand, were into low-rise jeans that accentuate prominent love handles. Even girls that are far too big to pull it off, wear Quicksilver…I mean Roxy half-shirts and jeans that show off their coin slot and their thong. Fishnet clothing was also popular with the fans.
There are times when I assume that a middle-of-the-day concert will mean lots of sexy punk rock girls in their late teens and early twenties running around spraying each other’s Sonic Youth and Against Me! shirts with Super-Soakers. Don’t ever think that of the Warped Tour. The Warped Tour is dangerous. If you accidentally look around, you’ll see the thirteen year-old girls whose dads told them there was no way they could go to a concert in their bikini tops, so they just ran around in their training bras, riding on the shoulders of their boyfriends.
Somewhere in the history of youth culture and rock and roll, the line got blurred between the tattooed junk rockers, who Korn brought into the fold after they awoke and found Dokken had split up, and the dorky new-rockers with their ironic haircuts and wallet-chains.
The schlock band on stage was taking their time, but the throngs of kids seemed to keep encouraging them, so I decided to get out of the sun for the rest of their set. I was thirsty as hell but had already spent all of my money on water, so I went to look for a water fountain. There was some sort of inflatable slip and slide I could run through, but I didn’t think being hot, wet, and thirsty was any better than just hot and thirsty. What I did find was free energy drinks. This is a terrible trick to play on people. When you are thirsty and sweating and not allowed in the shade, an ice cold 16-ounce energy drink sounds so delicious, but the truth that you don’t realize until 8 ounces into it is that it tastes like battery acid and leaves you twice as thirsty.
After two cans of battery acid, I headed back to the mainstage to see the Buzzcocks. As I passed the Cingular tent, where Helmet was signing autographs, I noticed that all of the sweaty teenagers were evacuating the mainstage area. I wondered if I had missed some terrific tragedy. Maybe terrorists had rigged the stage lights to kill the schlock band and that is why all the teenagers were flocking desperately away to hide their grief and reapply mascara. But, in fact, they were running away from the Buzzcocks.
The Buzzcocks are old, sure, probably in their mid-forties, but they are punk rock legends and they had all of the pizazz and shtick that they ever possessed. They were fun to watch, which should have been lesson number one for all of the other bands, and they looked like they were having fun playing for us. Both of us. Okay, there were more than two people watching, but the field seemed empty in comparison to the prior acts.
In the end I found that it is easier and cheaper to just catch the Buzzcocks, or even schlock bands, at a little club that is moderately air-conditioned and has $1.50 PBRs. The fashion show isn’t as entertaining, but it still has its moments. And I thought there was supposed to be extreme sports? Does a single half-pipe with eight skaters count?