From the side of the stage, about 30 rows up an aisle, you can’t see the band – only the chaos, a modern-day “Lord of the Flies” frenzy that covers a quarter of Dane County Coliseum’s floor.
At various times, there’s pushing, slam dancing, heads bobbing spastically and lots of body passing. In a nutshell, that’s the mosh pit.
Headliner Nine Inch Nails plays a thundering, relentless beat, fueling this activity throughout a 90-minute show. When stage light exposes the area, the mosh pit resembles a swarm of bees and, at its worst, rugby in an elevator.
During the four-song encore, dozens of concertgoers – male and female, pre-teen to young adult – are lofted overhead. One after another after another are passed into the arms of security guards, standing between the four-foot-high barricade and the stage. (Fans then are let go, and most return to the mosh pit.)
Near the concert’s end, two ushers, white haired and wearing bright red sweaters, survey the mayhem from my vantage point.
Afterwards, I ask if they’ve ever seen anything like the crowd’s response. They both laugh and shake their heads no.
“And, hopefully, never again,” one says. “It’s crazy.”
Of course, it would be easy to dismiss the usher’s comment as something predictable from a person who is a generation or two removed from current pop culture, but consider:
Are mosh pits out of control? And why, in recent years, locally and nationally, is the area in front of the stage at rock concerts resembling a bloody
battleground? Band management, promoters, club owners and – most importantly – concertgoers acknowledge it’s part of the show.
“It’s never a large percentage of the audience, it seems,” says Gary Taylor, co-owner of the Paramount Music Hall and a veteran manager of hard rock bands. “But it’s like a big whirlpool in the middle of a lake.”
Just as Madison’s clubs and small theaters anticipate mosh pits, the Coliseum was braced for it at Nine Inch Nails last week.
A barricade prevented stage diving, which is a staple at other shows. Ample security personnel eyed the crowd. A first-aid area off the main floor handled a steady stream of dazed or bruised concertgoers. (Two girls, including one who injured her knee in the mosh pit, would be taken by ambulance to a
hospital.) After the show’s first 15 minutes, the lobby filled with sweat-soaked fans, who departed the mosh pit’s bedlam. Many had T-shirts ripped; others hunched over catching their breath; three cried. The line for water extended 20 feet.
Al Ksionek, 23, is panting when he recalls what happened in his section of the mosh pit.
“I fell, then three others fell on me. It was pretty scary,” he says. “But it was cool.”
Ask others – one with a welt below his eye, another who had been kicked, several with scratches – and most ended their mosh pit stories by saying it was fun. A few returned to the mosh pit.
The next day, Fred Frank of Frank Productions, which co-promoted the show with Milwaukee-based Cellar Door, called the Nine Inch Nails concert “just another rock ‘n’ roll show.”
Frank described the crowd as “very well behaved.”
The most publicized mosh pit incident in Madison occurred at the Hole concert in the Paramount Music Hall last month.
Lead singer Courtney Love, after explaining in explicit detail why it’s too dangerous for her to jump into a mosh pit, jumped in – only to have her slip torn off and emerge on stage topless and furious.
Long before Hole appeared here, however, mosh pits had been commonplace at everything from Barrymore Theatre shows by punk newcomers Green Day and Offspring to appearances by local bands at the all-ages New Loft.
What has changed this year is moshing’s widening appeal.
The moshing at Counting Crows and the Samples seemed absurd, considering both bands are a marked contrast to more raucous rockers.
“It used to be a punk phenomenon,” says Tag Evers of Tag Team Productions. “Now punk has become mainstream through `alternative’ music, so aspects of the punk culture have come through, too.”
Nine Inch Nails, in particular, is one beneficiary of broader music tastes among young people. The band’s menacing sound is miles from the mainstream – yet, they sold more than 6,000 tickets in Madison.
Corinne Alicia, associate manager of Borman Entertainment which handles the Violent Femmes, says it’s extremely rare if a mosh pit doesn’t form at a Femmes show.
In fact, at the group’s sold-out appearance in the Barrymore last month, concertgoers leapt off the stage into the mosh pit during the entire show.
Do the Femmes mind?
“Absolutely not,” Alicia says. “I would tend to think the Barbra Streisands of the world,” she laughs, “would probably like it if people sat and paid attention. But most of the people I’ve worked with much prefer the audience participation.”
A few days later, Alicia calls back to retract her statement. She had spoken with the Femmes about it and they stunned her with their answer: They strongly oppose moshing.
“They feel it’s too dangerous,” she says.
The bands, however, may be the only ones who can stop mosh pits.
At a five-band ska show he promoted at the Barrymore, Evers says, an opening act called the Toasters eagerly fired up the crowd to mosh. But when headlining act Special Beat appeared, they refused to play if moshing continued. Rock band Concrete Blonde also made the same threat to a Barrymore audience – and the mosh pit ended.
“The artist has the power to stop it,” Taylor says. “But it’s almost like the mosh pit has become as much of a show as the show. I find that stupid.” The manager of another Madison music venue recently refused to let a news photographer shoot moshers in action, because of concerns that the documentation would prompt city inspectors to cut concert capacity or restrict movement. Liability concerns also were expressed.
Aside from insurance, promoters have tried videotaping to prevent lawsuits from mosh pit injuries. At punk band L7’s show at the University of Wisconsin Stock Pavilion Oct. 1, a video camera taped the mosh pit action.
“You can document the mosh pit for what it is – a rather turbulent scene,” Evers says. “There’s almost a `buyer beware’ sort of mentality. Anyone who gets caught up in a mosh pit isn’t there ignorantly. It’s a pretty commonly known risk.”
He adds, “Almost every show you see, somebody gets kicked in the head.”
In a light rain more than three hours before showtime, about 50 Nine Inch Nails fans wait for the Coliseum doors to open.
It’s a general-admission show, so many of these concertgoers plan to be in the mosh pit on the main floor, which will be cleared of any chairs.
The group includes freshmen from Madison Memorial High School; three 14-year-olds from Appleton; UW students; and some adults who are out of school. One of the Appleton girls says she likes “the adrenalin rush” of mosh pits – although her friends recall attending the Offspring show at the Barrymore, where “some people were there to be mean.”
Another concertgoer laughs at a reporter trying to understand the meaning of the physical, basically mindless mosh pit.
“It’s an art form,” the teenager says with sarcastic contemplation, “you have to think about that when you’re getting your face kicked in.”
Nearby, Steve Rubin, 20, of Madison offers his appraisal of mosh pits.
“There’s an excitement about it, thrashing all over the place. But if you’re not watching what you’re doing, you’re going to get hurt because everyone’s going crazy.”