Fans defend slam dancing, 'stage diving'

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Philip O'Donnell, an avid rock fan, is what might be called an active listener.

"I busted my head open jumping off the balcony to Nine Inch Nails," Mr. O'Donnell, a doorman at Washington's 9:30 Club, is saying in the music hall's smoky vestibule. "The balcony was 20 feet above the stage. I hit something, I don't know what. I got 10 stitches."


Some may have regarded that experience, which occurred three years ago in Tijuana, as a lesson to be learned. After his head healed, though, Mr. O'Donnell simply looked for the next concert. When the music moves him, he still hurtles around with the best of them.

"Yup," he says, sounding like a seen-it-all war veteran. "I've jumped off many a stage."


Mr. O'Donnell is 22, tall and muscular with a baseball cap perched backward on his head. The cap says, "No Fear."

But fear is exactly what fans such as Mr. O'Donnell instill in those involved in the concert business. Fear of injury, or, more precisely, fear of ever-increasing liability claims.

In today's music scene, concert organizers are confronted with a challenge they hate to face: catering to the desires of their youthful, hyperactive audiences while providing an environment safe enough to satisfy any insurer.

It is a challenge with a curious twist. "I grew up in the Woodstock generation and I consider myself pretty open-minded," said R. Craig Clark Jr., a plaintiff attorney in San Diego and an advocate for strict safety standards at concerts. "I remember when we were told everything we did was wrong, and I don't want to do that now with these kids.

"But in my generation, everything was based on peace and love. This behavior is just the opposite. It is violent behavior for the sake of violence."

Practitioners say they are simply enjoying the music in their own way. They call it "moshing" -- an array of frenetic activities usually associated with punk, alternative and heavy metal music. The word itself apparently is a mutation from "mash."

Moshing refers to slam dancing -- fans packed together and throwing themselves at each other in the "mosh pit," the area directly in front of the stage. It also encompasses "floating," "swimming" or "crowd surfing" -- passing people over the heads of the crowd -- and "stage diving" -- jumping onto the stage and then diving back into the crowd with the expectation of being caught.

But sometimes, as in Mr. O'Donnell's Tijuana escapade, stage divers are not caught. Sometimes they are dropped, and floaters are bobbled, and slam dancers are roughed up. Often there are bruises and split lips and broken bones. And sometimes, there are demands for compensation because of those injuries.


"Do we like it?" said Marianne Smith, head of the music unit for Aon Entertainment Limited, which provides insurance for concerts. "No. Would we like to get rid of it? Yes. Can we? I don't know how."

Last month, Brian Cross, 23, of Essex was paralyzed during a concert of Pantera, Biohazard and Sepultura at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Howard County police say Mr. Cross told them he had been floating in the mosh pit and may have hit his head. He now has a attorney who says that security guards injured Mr. Cross.

At the 9:30 Club in Washington, Mr. O'Donnell excuses himself as the first act, Guttermouth, begins its set. The music is loud and aggressive, with lead singer Mark Adkins leaning into the squirming figures pressing against the stage.

The moshing is in full swing. The crowd looks like a single writhing organism. People push and shove into each other, some of them after running starts. Suddenly, a body shoots above their heads like lava erupting from a volcano. The body rides along the top of the crowd and then abruptly sinks from view. Occasionally, someone leaps onto the stage and scampers among the unconcerned guitarists before hurtling back into the crowd. When a person falls, the dancers magically part in an instant, all are restored to their feet, and the moshing resumes.

Norm Veenstra, the 9:30 Club's manager, says he doesn't remember anyone filing a claim against the club because of moshing. That doesn't mean there are no minor injuries, though. Liana Huth, the club's publicist and bartender, says she hands ++ over ice for split lips nearly as often as she does for drinks.

During a break, Andrew Fry, a 25-year-old medical clerk from Silver Spring, describes the pleasure of moshing. "It's my way of taking out aggression with other people without fighting," he says. "I feel wonderful for months afterward."


Curiously, moshers describe it as being simultaneously violent and gentle. "It's like giving up your trust," said Jack MacInnis, a 26-year-old doorman at the club. "You trust that other people will take care of you, and they do."

After his set, Mr. Adkins, slick with sweat and nursing a beer, sings the virtues of slamming. "I thrive on it," he says, a mild contrast now to his snarling, profane stage persona. "It's what makes us tick."

Even those favorably disposed toward moshing are noticing some troubling changes. Although slam dancing has been around since punk music's beginnings in the '70s, many complain that music videos are bringing more fans to the phenomenon, fans who are not familiar with its etiquette. "There's a lot of inexperienced people and a lot less mutual respect," Mr. O'Donnell says. "A lot more people are getting injured."

Even some pro-moshing bands see the difference. "I think there's a sadistic element sneaking in where people are trying to hurt others," said Jeff Walker, a vocalist and bass guitarist with Carcass.

Many groups are strongly opposed to efforts to discourage moshing. "I remember when I was doing it how great I felt," said Max Cavalera, lead singer for the Brazilian band Sepultura, which was playing Merriweather the night of Mr. Cross' injury. "For our band, it gives us a whole touch of magic."

Promoters and concert halls claim that it is the performers' insistence on moshing that prevents them from stamping it out. "Welcome to the entertainment business," Jean Parker, manager Merriweather Post said dryly.


In many cases, band members have scolded security personnel for interfering with moshing. Some performers won't play venues that prohibit or restrict moshing. Last fall, Pearl Jam refused to play a third scheduled performance at the University of Colorado when university officials tried to rein in moshing after injuries during the first two concerts.

Now, the university plays host only to bands not associated with moshing, which means missing some of the season's most popular touring bands.

"In the spring of '94, we probably did fewer concerts than any semester in the last five years," said Jim Schafer, university adviser to the student union. "No question we don't make as much money as we used to."

On the other hand, those sticking with mosh-related bands are seeing rapid rises in some of their overhead. Ms. Smith said that insurance premiums to cover concerts have doubled over the past year. Those who book bands associated with moshers are facing the steepest increases.

"We would view a promoter who promotes Joan Baez every day a lot more favorably than we would someone who promoted Suicidal Tendencies," said Kevin Topper of Reliance International, which also insures concerts.

The difference is sizable, Mr. Topper said. "If one promoter is charged 10 cents per spectator for insurance, another might be charged $1 per spectator. If that promoter plays to a million fans over the course of a season, that's a huge difference."


Such figures should grab attention in a field notoriously known for small profit margins. Ms. Smith laments, "Promoters aren't reacting. So far, they aren't paying any attention."

Her company is reacting by refusing to insure promoters heavily invested in moshing bands. Some insurance companies have gotten out of concerts altogether.

Ben Liss, executive director of the North American Concert Promoters Association, says Ms. Smith's view is a little harsh. Promoters and concert venues have taken steps toward safety by limiting open seating to prevent large numbers of fans from reaching the stage, he said. Mr. Liss said more and more venues, including Baltimore's Hammerjacks, are also videotaping mosh pits to guard against false injury claims.

Paul Wertheimer, a Chicago crowd-control consultant and a vociferous opponent of moshing, derides the efforts of the vast majority of promoters and venues. Mr. Wertheimer has spent more than 30 hours in mosh pits and witnessed all kinds of mayhem, from people being knocked out to breaking their bones. "I always come home with blood on my shirt, and it's not mine," he said.

"The problem is nobody is looking out for the fans," said Mr. Wertheimer. He says promoters and concert halls have a responsibility to warn all potential moshers of the dangers they face, to reduce density in mosh pits and to do a far better job of controlling the pits. Rather than leave such steps to concert organizers, he believes public officials must act, a view shared by the National PTA and the National Fire Protection Association.

At least one municipality, Hallandale, Fla., has gone further, issuing an outright ban on moshing activities after paramedics were called to the mosh pit at a local nightclub. The law has been derided and ignored by many of the city's rock fans.


Mr. Liss insists that the true responsibility lies with those who do the moshing. "People are there by their own choosing," he said. "They assume certain risks."

In the face of such sentiments in the industry, mosh critics warn that change will come only as it has in the past -- in the wake of catastrophe. It was only after 11 people were crushed to death at a Who concert in 1979 and three more at an AC/DC concert in 1991, that concert halls took safety measures to control large crowds. Some fear moshing will not be seriously addressed until there is a similar tragedy.

"It's going to take some kid [getting] killed or brain-damaged before there's any change," said Mr. Clark, who represented the family of a 15-year-old boy killed at the AC/DC concert. "When that happens, I or someone like me is coming after them, and it's going to cost them millions because they knew the dangers."