New perils in the pit; Moshing may have begun as a way to release teen angst, but lately, good-natured fun is giving way to violence and sexual aggression; POP CULTURE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Concerts get such a bad name, because of the mosh pit and everything like that," said Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland, as he sat in a quiet cafe in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.

It was in late May, and Limp Bizkit was still weeks away from releasing its second album, "Significant Other." But even as fans were anxiously awaiting the disc, many of their parents were harboring anxieties of a different sort.

Borland understood. "I think a lot of parents really freak out and get afraid of it," he said, referring to the surging sea of teen aggression on the concert floor that constitutes a mosh pit.

A fixture at concerts by aggressive, hard-hitting bands, the mosh pit has become a subject of concern to many parents, as kids return from the pits battered and bruised.

Sprains and broken bones resulting from moshing (a violent form of dance in which the participants careen off one another like kernels in a popcorn popper) and crowd surfing (a practice in which fans are passed overhead by members of the crowd) have been a fact of life for years at concerts featuring the thrash-oriented heavy metal of Metallica, or the latter-day punk of Green Day, or the rock-rap fusion of Limp Bizkit (who will headline Saturday's HFStival at RFK Stadium in Washington).

Lately, though, a more disturbing trend has developed in the pit. Young women have reported being groped or stripped while crowd surfing, and there have even been a few reports of sexual assaults having taken place in mosh pits.

Parents think it's anarchy. "But as far as I can tell," says Borland, "it's really safe [at concerts]. I mean, there's alcohol there, but there's alcohol a lot of places. I would rather send my kids to a concert, and have them there, because there's so much security. ... Concerts are a place to have fun, not a place to go and start riots."

That, however, was before Woodstock '99. Fans did, in fact, riot on Sunday, July 25, the final night of that festival. They trashed vehicles, looted vendor tents, and set fires until finally being driven from the concert grounds by helmeted riot police. By the time the smoke had cleared, New York State police had made 40 arrests, and were investigating 90 other reported crimes, including eight sex offenses, one of which was an alleged mosh pit rape during Limp Bizkit's Saturday night set.

There was much hand-wringing in the festival's aftermath, as baby boomer commentators wondered how the "peace and love" heritage of the original Woodstock could have turned into something so dark and destructive. Many -- including some of the musicians who played Woodstock '99 -- blamed the music, singling out aggressive, in-your-face bands like Limp Bizkit, Korn and Metallica. The mosh pit violence at Woodstock, fumed the pundits, was just one more example of how degraded popular culture has become.

"The thing that I felt was unfair, in the follow-up in the press, was the demonization of a generation," said guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, the band that followed Limp Bizkit at Woodstock '99. "There was just this vilification of a whole generation and the bands that they like, based on this concert. I think it's ridiculous."

However, Morello added, "The one thing that is absolutely unforgivable or unpardonable are the reported sexual assaults."

Morello agreed that sometimes the action in the pit can get out of control. But, he argued, that sort of excess is easily enough stopped.

"If we see anything like that from the stage, Zack [De La Rocha, Rage's singer] always stops the show," said Morello. "Because we have a great deal of respect for our audience, and we demand that they respect one another. The Rage pit is a place that should be safe for anyone of any age or gender to have a great time."

Trouble is, the amount of respect in the average mosh pit has been in decline in recent years -- so much so that even the artists are beginning to complain. Rapper Kid Rock believes that the ugliness in the pit reflects a growing lack of civility among concertgoers.

He cites the practice of women pulling up their shirts to flash their breasts as an example. "When they first started doing that, years ago, it was great," said Rock. "A girl would pull her shirt off, everyone would look and cheer. 'Wow, it's wild rock and roll.'

"Now guys are grabbing the chicks. I say, 'You can't do that. ...' I gotta tell these guys, 'Look, if a girl pulls her shirt up, don't be grabbing at her.' Like, how stupid is that?"

Rock refers to the mosh pit in his hit, "Bawitdaba," when he enjoins his fans to "Get in the pit and try to love someone." Originally, however, the song had him shouting, "Get in the pit and try to kill someone" -- a lyric he's now glad he changed. The 180-degree spin on the original line "... was great, because that's technically how the pit started out," he said. "It was like, you fall down, someone helps you up. It's showing some love."

"A lot of these young kids nowadays don't understand that," he added. "They're out there literally trying to beat each other up. Which is stupid."

Shared alienation

The character of the mosh pit has changed drastically since its beginnings in the punk rock clubs of Southern California. What we know now as moshing began as "slam dancing," a good-natured but intensely physical reaction to the music that first cropped up among Los Angeles punk rockers in 1978.

Slam wasn't the first punk dance; that was "pogoing," a semi-spastic, up-and-down dance credited to punk icon Sid Vicious. According to legend, Vicious was at the back of a club and couldn't see the band, so he started jumping up and down. By the evening's end, every kid in the club had begun to imitate him. After the English group the Damned introduced punk rock to Los Angeles in 1977, L.A. proto-punks picked up the practice, and eventually added a wrinkle of their own.

"There used to be up-and-down slamming. Pogoing," said Mike Watt, a member of the seminal punk act the Minutemen, and a veteran of the California punk scene. "Then it turned left-and-right. ... Then, you see, you start violating [personal] space, and in order to have that, you do have to have to have trust. You have to have brotherhood and sisterhood."

What encouraged that trust was a shared sense of alienation among the '70s punk rockers. "Like, the rest of the world hates us, so we gotta stick together," Watt said.

Slam dancing was a visceral and immediate reaction to the anger and energy of the music. At the same time, it contributed to the sense of group identity, demonstrating to each person in the pit that he or she was really with the music and the scene.

But as the music and the dancing became more charged-up, the "hard-core" fans tried to distance themselves from insincere suburban poseurs. Huntington Beach in Orange County became one of the first beachheads for this new, take-no-prisoners attitude. As the punk critic Shreader wrote in the book "Hardcore California," the dancing in this scene "was not the paltry arm-waving, sneer-on-the-face 'slam' practiced by kids these days, introduced to the scene through television. The violent dancing at [the punk club] Fleetwood was the kind where midway through a ... set, 12 ambulances with 24 stretchers would pull up outside."

Later, hardcore begat thrash, a harder, faster sound that boasted both punk rock and heavy metal variants, and fans began to shift to a dance called the Huntington Beach Shuffle, a variation of slam dancing that took place in a large circle within the crowd. Over time, as the practice spread among metal fans, the shuffle began to be referred to as "moshing," a term most likely derived from the ska expression "mash it up now." (In Jamaican patois, the word "mash" sounds like "mosh.")

By the mid-'80s, mosh pits were a standard feature at shows by bands like Anthrax and Metallica. But as the metal scene grew and moshing became more widely known, the physical release of banging into other people began to take precedence over brotherhood or music.

Brazilian guitarist Max Cavalera, of the metal bands Sepultura and Soul Fly, remarked on the change as early as 1994. Certain fans, he noted, don't really care what a band is saying, preferring to focus on the energy it generates.

"There are shows where it doesn't matter who's playing, doesn't matter what's playing," he said. "A band doesn't even need to be onstage. It could just be music from the P.A., and they go for it.

"But you know, I understand them, too," he added. "I went through that stage [where] I didn't care much about what bands were playing. I was going there to go crazy."

Understanding why young fans turn the mosh pit into a problem area is only half the battle, though. The musicians themselves need to act responsibly as well, not only stopping shows when things get too rough, as Rage Against the Machine does, but educating the fans as to proper behavior.

"The artists are big-time in charge," said Watt. "The kids aren't sure. A lot of them don't know. ... But when the guys come together and get a brotherhood thing, I think that's key."

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