I Went to Ozzfest So You Don't Have To

2004 marks the third consecutive year I have covered Ozzfest, Ozzy Osbourne's venerable heavy metal fest, for the Hartford Courant. I'm no metalhead, but the $75 bucks I make for my trouble is worth the sunburn. The Courant gives me only 400-450 words to sum up Ozzfest's 13-hour day (10 a.m.-11 p.m.), so most of my notes go for naught. But not this year. Below are collected musings on the sights and sounds of Ozzfest 2004.

The Fourth Estate

The media pass for Ozzfest features a devil wearing glasses. Funny, to be sure, but it's the only hint of subtlety to be found on the Ozzfest grounds (the Meadows Music Centre in Hartford, Conn.). Despite two-plus years of concert reviewing, this is the first media pass I have been granted. I am unsure as to what access it grants me, and I'm too chicken to barge backstage. "Act As If" – that ain't me. Ozzfest is divided into two stages – the main stage (5 p.m.-11 p.m.) with the big-time acts, and the second stage (10 a.m.-5 p.m.) showcasing up-and-comers. I manage to gain access to the second stage's backstage are by accident: I wandered into the area and when a security guard asked for a pass, I flashed my bespectacled devil badge. Voila!

I am in a roped-off area where the second stage acts' gear is sorted by band, immediately to the right of the stage. A roadie carries an impaled severed-pig's head off the stage; it was part of Otep's set. Every pre-conceived notion you've ever had about Ozzfest is true: Skulls, black leather, tattoos, they're all both backstage and in the crowd. I can't exactly see any of the band's perform from my vantage point, but I don't care because A) Word-limit constraints keep me from writing about any of the second stage acts for the Courant; and B) It's much safer where I'm standing. The sweaty, filthy crowd is pressed cheek-to-jowl from the front of the stage to the sound tent, about 50 yards back. Sundazed/drunk/stoned souls try to shimmy over the fence to where I'm standing in an effort to reclaim some personal space, but are quickly returned to the throng by beefy security guards. I laugh to myself and swing my arms, just because I can.

Health and Wellbeing

One way to get backstage, sans credentials, is to pass out. Here's a tip: Don't pass out, but if you must, be sure not to do it in the middle of the Ozzfest crowd. A pocket of kids are flailing their arms ... just like everyone else rocking out to Hatebreed, who is commanding the stage right now. But they're not moshing, they're trying to attract the attention of security or EMTs to aid a friend of theirs who has passed out. They likely would have been waving in vain forever had a cameraman on a raised platform next to me not seen them and flagged down a guard. It takes nearly two minutes for a phalanx of burly security guards to muscle their way to the frantic fans and get the young man backstage and under a tent, in the shade. He is out cold, and as pink as a newborn. A concerned buddy of his boasts a small swastika tattoo on his shoulder. The stricken fan lies on his back, arms splayed. The EMTs revive him and he sits up blinking, stunned. He'll be okay, but he has a look on his face that suggests he had no idea that a combination of overexposure to the sun, a steady diet of $7 beers and dehydration could lead to health problems.

It's a drama that's replayed many times throughout the afternoon. I'm trying to watch Slipknot's set from the fringe of the second stage crowd when a young girl – late teens, curly brown hair – passes out in front of me. She doesn't collapse "straight-down," as it were, like a house of cards; rather she falls backwards, a trust exercise gone awry. Her friends help her to her feet and water bottles are offered. A few woozy seconds later, she fall face first into the dust. If this lot was concrete instead of dust, she'd have a mouthful of bloody chiclets. There isn't anyone – guard or EMT – in sight or shouting distance. I suggest to the group of girls that their take their friend, who's once again on her unsteady feet, to the nearly shady area – the Jagermeister tent 100 yards away. They wobble out of sight.

Water is Ozzfest's most precious commodity (just barely edging out pot), especially on an 85-degrees-and-sunny day like today. So why the hell are people flinging full water bottles at the acts onstage? The musicians have access to all the water they want backstage. If you don't like an act, give 'em the finger (hell, at Ozzfest, if you like a band, give them the finger too); just hold onto the water. Between sets, security guards hose down the crowd in front of the stage with a garden hose that's only strong enough to spray 10 people deep. And most of that water is sprayed onto the chests of girls who are sitting on their boyfriend's shoulders, flashing the crowd. Standing next to one of these couples is one of the only ways to get water at Ozzfest. (Aquafina bottles are $4 at the concession stand. The lines for the two pathetic trickles of water that pass for fountains in the concourse are rarely fewer than 20 fans deep.) Concert organizes have decreed that fans may bring one factory-sealed water bottle into the venue; a few gallon jugs pepper the crowd, but the folks who are smart enough to bring water are among the least likely to mosh themselves into a state of exhaustion and truly, medically NEED the water. To these eyes, keeping concertgoers properly hydrated is Ozzfest's biggest logistical nightmare.

The Skin

So yes, once again meeting Ozzfest expectations: There's a lot of breast flashing at the concert. In addition to the water-hose-hogging girls by the second stage, there are numerous topless girls, their chests airbrushed with leopard spots, and in one instance, a Spider Man motif. Year in and year out, a tent is set up in the concourse where girls can have this done while a semi-circle of horny, lonely guys mushrooms around the entrance, hoping for a glimpse of tit. Photos of previous air-brushings hang proudly on one outside wall of the tent; needless to say, the women (playmates? A sign boasts of an affiliation with Playboy TV) in the photos put the dumpy, slack-titted (sorry, ladies) women of Ozzfest to shame. I get the feeling that these painted ladies are more interested in public bra-lessness and sending an "F-you" to The Man than they are in achieving some level of eroticism. Sometimes, Less is More, but Ozzfest's ethos is More is More, so when in Rome ...

There are plenty of shirtless guys at Ozzfest, too, but they tend to be tattooed and not airbrushed. Most appear to have not started the day shirtless, as the hot pink of a fresh sunburn scoops the outline of a wifebeater around their neck and shoulders. Where those shirts are now is anyone's guess. This is just one man's conservative estimate, but I'll be damned if around 60 percent of the concert attendees don't have at least one tattoo. Girls in low-cut jeans sport a ubiquitous small-of-the-back tatt or shoulder tatt; the guys have ink all over: shoulder, bicep, neck, calf. One guy is covered from waist up and down both arms with ink; a pair of eyes stares back from just north of his bulging gut. At the risk of sounding snarky, where else can this guy go but to Ozzfest to show off his investment? And for all of Ozzfest's "Fuck the World" attitude (again, exactly what you'd expect), the concertgoers are here to see and be seen; they're a remarkably vain bunch: the shirtless, musclebound jocks, the topless or otherwise near-naked girls, the foot-high green mohawks on the heads of both genders, the leather and studs – Ozzfest is these people's highlight of the summer and if it wasn't a big deal, they'd probably all be dressed like indie-rock slackers in ironic T-shirts.

Making a Statement

Oh, wait, many of them are dressed in ironic, or at least, vulgar, T-shirts. Here's a sample:

  • "As Seen In Porn"

  • "Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck" (I saw four of these, plus a hat)

  • "I Have Issues"

  • "CIA: Cannabis Inhalers' Association"

  • "I'm With Asshole [arrow pointing down]" (on back of shirt)

  • "Wash Your Snatch" (homemade with magic marker)

  • "333: Half-Evil"

  • "Snitches Get Stitches"

  • "Snitches Are a Dying Breed"

  • "Your Daddy Should Have Pulled Out Early"

Just to stand out, I wore my No Depression t-shirt, a shirt I consider to be my "conversation shirt" (typical conversation: "What the heck is 'No Depression'?" "It's this alt-country magazine I read," I respond. This exchange is usually followed by the sounds of crickets chirping and a tumbleweed blowing by); see and be seen indeed.

Mob Rule

Rumor has it that Slipknot, who has a fanbase large enough to merit a main stage slot, begged off and lobbied for the second stage headliner position – the second stage area being more open and conducive to moshing. The band got their wish, and from my vantage point at the mosh-free edge of the crowd, I can barely make out the costumed forms of the band; the crowd has kicked up a massive cloud of dust. Mix in the dust with sweat, beer and garden hosings, and those nearest the front of the second stage have morphed into a population of gray, grimy heavy metal fans.

Slipknot is not the first band of the day to call for serious moshing. Hatebreed lead singer Jamey Jasta demands three simultaneous pits, and the fans oblige. The Call to Violence Award of the Day, however, goes to Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe, who organizes the Wall of Death. For the uninitiated – and this included me, as well, but online research reveals it has existed for a few years – the Wall of Death calls for fans to clear out a 5-10 yard stripe, bisecting the crowd. Then, on Blythe's command, the two sides charge at each other, Braveheart-style. Even from a safe distance, it looks painful.

Sideshow, Part I

So maybe getting trampled isn't your cup of tea. There's still plenty of other things to do at Ozzfest. In addition to the aforementioned airbrushing and Jagermeister tents (no shots, but plenty of keychains and other gewgaws), there is: a tent giving away samples of YJ Stinger Energy Drink ("The Official Energy Drink of Ozzfest 2004!!"), a too-sweet, syrupy concoction – it calls to mind Nyquil with a spoonful of sugar – that inspires only greater thirst; a Marine recruitment tent, where a scrawny fan attempts reps on a pull-up bar (finally, a constructive way to work out heavy metal aggression); a Ford Expedition display where someone has taken the time to write "My balls, your chin" on the SUV's dusty windshield; a tent hawking tie-dye Jim Morrison banners by way of a sign that snarls "Buy a fucking tapestry!" (Vulgarity and an anti-sales pitch are the keys to unlocking Ozzfest wallets); and a tent passing out free Trojan condoms. It's here where I see two youngish parents (late 20s, early 30s?) urge their 10-year-old son and what I gather to be his buddy to score some condoms as a goof. Not content to waste (hopefully) condoms on a 10-year-old boy, the father deigns to waste the time of the bored-looking young woman manning the booth, asking her to pose with his son while he holds the condom up to dad's camera. The kid and condom booth girl are both troopers, subjecting themselves to dad's machinations.

Sideshow, Part II

All that noted, I was sad to see several kiosks missing that had been around in previous years. Ozzfest '03 had a tent where fans could get their picture taken astride a motorcycle and next to a pretty, but disinterested, girl in a bikini who had a pooched-out gut; a guy who would let you kick a soccer ball at him for $2 (he made pretty good bank from what I recall, and let's face it, most Ozzfesters ain't exactly Pele ... though I read on the Ozzfest '04 online message boards that Soccer Ball Guy was in fact in attendance, and I missed him. Dammit!); and a tent that offered light S&M, whippings, etc. ("Do not take any pictures or your camera will be confiscated and broken" a sign there warned, but only because the tent's organizers were selling Polaroids of the encounters for $20). The S&M recipients were as raw and pink as the moshers, further shining a light on moshing's aggro-erotic subtext.

Apparently, There Was Music, Too

This piece isn't a concert review, but here's some short takes on the main stage acts:
  • Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society: Wylde is one of the greatest heavy metal guitarists ever, and he could probably shotgun a six-pack of PBR then kick your ass for doubting he could do it. He dedicated "The Berserkers" to American armed forces overseas.

  • Superjoint Ritual: Heavy heavy heavy. Frontman Phil Anselmo is an Ozzfest vet (he's been here in years past with Pantera and Down) and he knows what the crowd wants: vulgarity. He dedicated "The Alcoholic" to "everyone in this cocksucking, motherfucking place." His between-song banter was basically variations on the theme "fuck."

  • Dimmu Borgir: Norwegian death metal practitioners, Dimmu Borgir dress in pancake make-up and studded shinguards. They sounded all right, but wandered off the stage after their set, without so much as a "Thank you, Hartford!" More than a few people shouted, "You suck!," but the fan response on the Ozzfest message board was much kinder. Hmmm.

  • Slayer: A lean, mean, unpretentious sonic assault. If I liked heavy metal, Slayer would be my favorite band.

  • Judas Priest: Rob Halford may change outfits more often than Britney Spears does between songs, and somewhere a museum is missing their chain mail armor display, but the Priest can still bring the goods. Judas Priest wrote the book on heavy metal. End of discussion.

  • Black Sabbath: Give it up, Ozzy. Seriously.

Homeward Bound

I run to the parking lot to beat the inevitable traffic snarl. There's a shirtless guy standing at the entrance to one of the lots, announcing to no one in particular, "Anyone goin' to a party? I'll pay for gas." After 13 hours of sun, suds and heavy metal, there are no takers.

Additional Reading: This guy dispenses some sound advice that you wouldn't think of ("Don't put any moose/gel/hair spray in your hair before the show ... your head just becomes a sticky mess") and some that is less-than-essential ("If you're a straight up pothead and you've only got one joint left ... it would be wise to get away from everyone ... cause trust me, when you fire one up, EVERYONE WANTS A HIT."). Thorough, and passionate.

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