The mantra for the ad blitz that preceded the Molson Ice Beach Party--a corporate-sponsored rock festival held in the tiny Eskimo village of Tuktoyuktuk--was "Get Up There."
Easier said than done.
Tucked away on the coast of the Arctic Ocean in Canada's Northwest Territories, Tuktoyuktuk is quite literally at the end of the Earth. The Inupiat Eskimos who live there kill whales for food.
There were four ways to attend the September 3 concert, which featured Hole, Metallica, and Veruca Salt: You could live in Tuktoyuktuk; you could be a Molson Ice Beach Party contest winner (the Canadian beer company flew in several dozen lucky U.S. contestants); you could be a Molson beer executive; or, finally, you could "get up there" by any means necessary.
I took the latter approach. My girlfriend Rachel and I drove more than 1,000 miles from our hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, to Inuvik, a community of 2,000 deep in the Canadian Arctic that has small-plane service to Tuktoyuktuk.
Most of the 25-hour drive was on unpaved, single-lane roads. There are three major river crossings on the "highway" from Anchorage to Inuvik, and none of them has a bridge. Our Ford Ranger pickup had to be ferried across.
But, in the end, we made it. We crashed the party, and it was fantastic--if more than a little surreal. Picture Courtney Love hanging out with Eskimo elders.
Molson executives in Tuktoyuktuk seemed edgy, even terrified. With good reason. No one--not the villagers, not the musicians, not the contest winners and certainly not the uninvited guests--knew what to expect.
Maybe Hole's volatile lead singer would show up for her meet-and-greet with the elders in an ugly mood and commit some horrible breach of etiquette. Maybe one of the contest winners would get lost in a whiteout and freeze to death. Maybe one of the locals would discharge a harpoon into a stack of Marshall amps. There was no way to be sure, and the potential for a public relations disaster loomed over the party like a polar bear waiting hungrily at a seal's breathing hole.
The company men played it safe--no beer at this Molson function. The winners could guzzle Molson Ice until they peed golden rivers in Inuvik, a Cessna-hop away from the concert site, but there was nary a drop of free brew to be had in "Tuk."
Unlike many native villages in Alaska and Canada that have "gone dry" to combat rampant alcoholism among Eskimos and Indians, Tuktoyuktuk is a "damp" town--there are no liquor stores, but it's legal to possess and consume alcohol. Clearly, the Molson suits were leery of providing the lubricant for an already slippery situation.
Once we caught a plane to Tuk, we scouted out a campsite. We settled on a strip of beach near the village's old schoolhouse, abandoned because of erosion from the encroaching Arctic Ocean waves. On the back side of the building, village kids had spray-painted homages to the heavy-metal band AC/DC. One fresh addition read, "Metallica is coming to Tuk!"
We met several other beach campers who intended to crash the gates at the concert the next night. They included two obnoxious women from Delaware, a young Australian couple traveling the world on a shoestring budget, a tan, bone-chilled man from Yuma, and two dudes from Salzburg, Austria.
Both the Austrians and the Australians said they originally arrived in Tuk with no clue about the impending rock show. "Ah, Metallica, they are quite popular in Austria," Kristian said in a thick Schwarzenegger accent. "We will rock 'n' roll, yes."
On the eve of the concert, ten more Alaskans who had braved the road trip joined our enclave.
The contest winners arrived in Inuvik two days before the show. They wore laminated "VIP Winner" badges around their necks. Some of the winners looked thrilled, others just bored. "There isn't a TV or a phone in my room," one of them whined. "If I had known it would be like this, I wouldn't have come."
Susan Goldberg from Staten Island, New York, said she "expected something much more picturesque, like fjords or something, but I never expected the people to be so nice. They aren't like the people where I'm from." Susan had never been to a rock concert before. "I'm excited."
Inside a fried chicken joint in Inuvik, I overheard a Canadian reporter interviewing a village elder. "Don't you think it sends a bad signal to kids having this concert here? I mean, won't they associate Metallica and partying with beer?"
"I don't think so," said the elder.
The reporter wasn't satisfied--he'd found his angle and was sticking to it. "I mean, doesn't this community have an alcohol problem and isn't an event like this just going to make the problem bigger?"
The elder thought for a moment. "No."
Leading questions, it seems, will get you only so far above the Arctic Circle.
Polar Party contest winners scored their E tickets to the Arctic by either entering a drawing via Internet or regular mail, or finding a "You Win" sticker in a special 12-pack of Molson Ice. Molson only put out ten of the magic 12-packs--one of which was discovered by a flight attendant on Hole's plane from Seattle to Anchorage.
All of the winners and most of the press stayed in Inuvik for two days, flew to Tuk three hours before the concert and left immediately after the show. I felt sorry for them. Sure, they were warm, well-fed and soused on complimentary beer, but they missed out on the sight of rock stars roaming the short streets of an Eskimo hamlet. Most of the musicians stayed in town.
The day before the show, I ran across Courtney Love and asked her about her days as a stripper in Anchorage during the late Eighties. "Well, I worked at a place called PJs (a biker bar) and another called the Crazy Horse. I was bored shitless, but it was good for me. I hung out at the skate shop and there was a really great Value Village [a thrift store]."
Ursula, a member of the Portland band Candy 500, started to tease Love about being a stripper. "You bitch," Hole's singer shot back, "can't you leave that alone for ten hours?" Love turned back to me. "'Pour Some Sugar on Me' was my biggest moneymaker," she said, then sang a few bars of Def Leppard's cheese-metal sex anthem. Love posed for a photo with Rachel and signed an autograph "Courtney Love Cobain."
Later, I struck up a conversation with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and asked him for his take on Tuk. "You know, I really didn't come up here with any expectations," he said. "The people seem really excited. We've definitely played in places that were less excited, so this is really all right."
Ulrich laughed about playing under a Molson banner in a town where it's legal to drink but not to buy or sell the company's product. "That's the paradox," he said. "At the end of the day, I don't think it matters to the kids who the sponsor is. It could have been Exxon or some insurance company and these kids wouldn't give a shit. I'm glad they're having fun."
The word on the streets of Tuk was that Ulrich and Courtney Love suffered from a personality clash that had erupted in several verbal firefights in the halls of Tuktoyutuk Inn. Asked about his hotel mate, Ulrich replied, "Most conceited person in the world."
I told him about the graffiti on the old school and he seemed impressed. "We're really popular up north."
Prior to the contest drawing, hundreds of Alaskans called Molson corporate headquarters to inquire about access to the show. The response was always the same: "Stay away." The company line was that no one but Tuk natives and contest winners would be admitted to the event--no matter how far you drove to get there.
Most would-be beach partyers evidently took Molson at its word. Shortly before the concert was scheduled to begin, however, those of us who had decided to call the beer company's bluff gathered outside the makeshift venue: a custom-built, clover-shaped tent. Heated, of course.
It didn't look good. Burly security guards from Edmonton, Alberta, barred our entry. Dejected, we stood shuffling our feet in the cold as the concert began. It started to snow.
Local dancers and drummers opened the show, followed by the Canadian power pop band Moist.
The sound of live rock coming from the tent spurred my fellow gatecrashers to action, and they used markers and scrap wood to hastily construct pickets that read, "Let Us In," "We 'Got Up Here'," and "Molson Sucks."
A Canadian camera crew came over and started to set up for interviews. Within seconds, we were all ushered in to the show.
Inside the white tent, multicolored lights flashed, and the Molson Ice Beach Party logo revolved on the ceiling. After Moist's set, Molson's vice president of marketing presented the village's mayor with a check for $35,000 Canadian. The mayor said the money was earmarked for a new youth center.
Veruca Salt front women Nena Gordon and Louise Post came onstage in matching aqua suede jackets with enormous fake-fur collars and sleeves.
"This song is for the girls of Tuktoyuktuk," Post announced as the band kicked into its hit, "Seether." The girls of Tuktoyuktuk screamed.
I moved to the front of the crowd for Hole. A local guy who had given me a ride across town in the back of his brand-new pickup handed me a dented Coke can and motioned for me to drink. The concoction was 90 percent vodka. Perfect.
The crowd chanted, "Courtney, Courtney" and lurched forward when the grunge diva stepped into the spotlight. Love wore a black negligee, black stockings and knee-high black boots--the same outfit she had on for her band's MTV Unplugged performance.
At one point, Love stopped the music to show a ring to the audience and sarcastically announce that Lars Ulrich had proposed to her. "My name will be Courtney Love Cobain Ulrich," she said, holding up the ring. "Sixty-five thousand dollars, fucking Cartier." After the set, I talked to several Canadian reporters who had believed her.
Hole played all its hits and still wouldn't leave the stage. The band did three songs that weren't on the set list and Love dove into the crowd. She seemed miffed at the audience response. "You won't mosh for us but you'll mosh for Metallica, right?"
Right. Tuk kids, as a rule, are metal heads.
Of course, Metallica rocked. The kids lapped up the volume as their elders moved to special bleachers in the back of the tent. By now, many parents were outside. I joined them for some air and interaction.
I saw David Knight from the Marine Conservation Center. Molson had kicked his group some bucks as well, and, earlier in the evening, Knight had made an obligatory "Save the Seas" speech. I asked him if he'd taken a dip in the Arctic Ocean. "Yep," he said, "it's cold and clean."
Metallica played an hour past the concert's scheduled end, and by the time the concert let out, it was dark and the wind was blowing snow at a 45-degree angle. Rachel and I made our way back to camp, where we met a young Tuktoyuktukian who was elated over the music.
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Her name was Chauna Gruben. She was 19, and invited us to her apartment in the village. We hung out, listened to some Nirvana, and before long she started to chuckle.
"I just remembered the funniest thing I saw this week," she said. "A couple of tourists were swimming in the lagoon where we butcher whales for muktuk. It's like a garbage dump, and these guys were splashing around. I just couldn't tell them."
I thought back to Knight's "cold and clean" comment and laughed to myself.
Chauna also told me she had partied the previous night with Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson. "He was funny, and cute, too," she said. "I went back over [to the party pad, her cousin's place] this morning, and he was still passed out on the couch." Chauna showed me a shirt Erlandson had signed for her. It read, "Suck My Cock. Eric Erlandson, Hole."
Chauna and I went for a walk and ran into her uncle, who looked at least 50 years old. "The concert was great," he said. "I loved Metallica."
I asked Chauna if the Beach Party was all she'd hoped for. "Yep," she said happily, then leaned close. "Now I just need to see