The Gentleman of Leisure Reviews
Hoping to capitalize on the pleasant weather and drawn by a desire to attend yet another out-of-doors music concert after the enchanting performances I had witnessed during the classical music festivals at Tanglewood and Caramoor, I recently ventured to the pasture-lands of rural New Jersey for the much-publicized and somewhat ambiguously named "Ozzfest '98."
As I soon discovered, this "Ozzfest" had nothing to do with the intoxicating lyricism and inspired melodies of the "Yip" Harburg and Harold Arlen songs composed for the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz. Instead, the festival takes its title from the nickname of festival founder and organizer, 1970s era British "heavy metal" performer, Mr. John "Ozzy" Osbourne. Besides the misleading appellation, little else proved to be as my companions and I had anticipated.
When we entered the grounds of what is known as the PNC Bank Arts Center (the site Ozzfest '98 was to take place), we could tell right away that something was amiss. Apparently, this out-of-the-way venue was built on land appropriated for the purposes of hosting ethnic-heritage festivals. Evidently, the definition of "heritage" has changed drastically in the state of New Jersey, for as we neared the hillside entryway to the park, all we could hear were the repetitious, distorted wailings of an individual amplified from the hilltop. As we drew near, the discordant sound of what could best be described as a truly agonized primal scream echoed through the parking area.
When our party arrived at the gate, we were rudely frisked by a gruff fellow intent on discovering firearms. Our picnic baskets, chardonnay, backgammon set, and blanket were all confiscated. Once inside the gate, we encountered hordes of people who jostled each other for position as they made their way up a rather steep gradient to the performance area. Most appeared to be so carelessly and haphazardly dressed that one was tempted to suspect that there had been a motorcycle gang convention held in the vicinity that had offered free tickets to this event. Tight spandex outfits and black T-shirts proclaiming various band allegiances could be seen in abundance. The favorite was the T-shirt, worn by all women and most men in attendance, if they had not already opted to go shirtless in the grueling hot sun. At this point, I was advised by a fellow concertgoer to simplify my costume or face potentially dire consequences. Needless to say, I complied.
Thankfully, there were many different garments for sale in a bazaar-like marketplace adjacent to the performing areas to help me better conform to the audience's dress code. However, most of the clothes available seemed more reminiscent of a 1960s-era Haight-Asbury aesthetic, than the Hell's Angels style black leather and T-shirt ensembles worn by the audience members who strolled the grounds. After choosing suitable attire for the event, we proceeded to follow the sound of the monotonous throbbing beat to the main stage area at the top of the hill.
The focal point for the event was an enormous amphitheater, where a carnival atmosphere predominated. The stage area itself was covered by a severe concrete circle propped up on great pillars situated at the bottom of a denuded crater-like slope. It seemed evocative of one of the flying saucers featured in the 1950s science fiction thriller The Day the Earth Stood Still. Amplifiers at the top of this oppressive theatre-in-the-round emanated the continuous screeches of the performers obscured by the shadowy recesses of the stage. The ongoing performances on the main stage, coupled with those offered from a smaller side stage, created a cacophony of discordant sounds and voices.
Among those bands who performed through the afternoon were: Coal Chamber, a group with a menacing, hateful drive which lacked appeal; Sevendust, who mixed large doses of profanity with a self-righteous angry rant; and the beguilingly-named Snot, who explored the familiar territory of suitably outraged "thrash" metal through ballads of misogynistic excess and brutal honesty. Needless to say, all performances were amplified to an unnecessarily high level.
The relentless heat and lack of any shade surrounding the amphitheater contributed to the general discomfort of our party. Our attempts to assuage the situation through a visit to the event caterer's concession stand early in the evening proved fruitless. After waiting in seemingly endless lines, we discovered that all there was to be had were partially frozen chicken pieces and soggy pomme frites. There were no picnic baskets available.
As evening drew near, large expectant crowds gathered around us on the hillside above the amphitheater. While the group named Tool received a relatively warm welcome from those in attendance with a show featuring psychedelic instrumentation, Timothy Leary voice-overs, light-show dramatics, and disturbing footage of eye operations, the audience was clearly waiting for Mr. Osbourne.
Once Tool concluded their awkward attempt to claim the 1960s counterculture for heavy metal music, the restless crowd milling about in wait for Mr. Osbourne's arrival were treated to a tawdry montage of popular films, videos, and cartoons into which the vulgarian persona of Mr. Osbourne had been digitally inserted. After this shameless self-promotional video had concluded, the large screen monitors hanging from the exterior rim of the amphitheater went dark as rabid fans surged forward from the field, presumably in hopes of being the first to catch a glimpse of Mr. Osbourne. When he finally did emerge moments later, he was accompanied by a full range of light show pyrotechnics. As he ascended the stage, television screens began showing live images of Mr. Osbourne waving and making faces at the crowd.
Despite the visually arresting backdrops and continuous broadcasts of Mr. Osbourne's antics, which included spewing repetitious abusive phrases at the audience, firing on-stage water cannons, and aimlessly hopping around, his performance seemed strangely lifeless. Although Mr. Osbourne shrieked through what a fellow audience member assured me was his usual repertoire of songs, including the faintly Satanic "Mr. Crowley," the disingenuous "Mama, I'm Coming Home," and the tiresome "Suicide Solution," he often appeared vacant and distracted. Several songs were so well known by those in attendance that Mr. Osbourne simply gave up his attempt at singing and began mindlessly running back and forth across the stage. After his repeated and somewhat vicious chastisement of his audience failed to generate any real sense of excitement, Mr. Osbourne's performance slowly began deflating, like a punctured automobile tire. Even a previously arranged encore performance by Mr. Osbourne fell flat.
With Ozzfest, Mr. Osbourne has found the perfect vehicle for a genre of music whose songs and adherents seem terribly out-of-fashion. Deena Weinstein, in her book entitled Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, quotes Ward, Stokes, and Tucker as stating: "Heavy Metal, with its deafening volume and proud hostility to cultural and aesthetic niceties, is the primary music of teenage rebellion and, almost by definition, something a listener outgrows" (110). If only the same could be said for those like Mr. Osbourne, who continue to perform music for which they no longer have the stamina to make convincing.
In MGM's The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy peeks behind the curtains and discovers a feeble old man working feverishly to create explosions and other intimidating special effects for his audience. "Just ignore the man behind the curtain," he implores Dorothy in a heavily amplified voice. In the case of Ozzfest maybe it would be best if we heeded his advice.
Visit the official Ozzfest site, for tour dates, if you must.
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