Crush Stories

On December 3, 1979, Paul Wertheimer had just been promoted to public affairs officer for the city of Cincinnati. Sick, he had taken the day off and was lying in bed watching television when news bulletins began reporting an unfolding disaster at a local Who concert. As the enormity of the tragedy became clear–11 kids killed and more injured trying to get into an 18,000-plus-capacity venue with only a few reserved seats–Wertheimer began thinking like the PR man he was. “I told the mayor that I wasn’t sure what had to be done, but I thought that we might be able to turn the situation around.” When the mayor decided on a committee to analyze the disaster, Wertheimer volunteered to direct it.

Wertheimer, then 29, wasn’t a big concertgoer (though he’d once been in a bad situation at a–get this–Joni Mitchell concert). But the report he wrote over the next seven months–“Crowd Management: Report of the Task Force on Crowd Control and Safety”–became a watershed exhibit in the evolving awareness of the unsafe conditions at many rock concerts. The report pointed a finger at the rock ‘n’ roll tradition of “festival seating,” which is a nice way of describing a method of crowd handling that creates waves of young and undisciplined kids all straining for the show’s best vantage points, generally right in front of the stage. The report led to changes in the laws governing concerts in Cincinnati and has influenced lawmakers across the country.

Wertheimer is still a publicist, now located in Lincoln Park and working mostly on corporate accounts–accounting firms and the like. But his Cincinnati report has, as he puts it, followed him ever since. He consulted to Wisconsin’s Walworth County as it tried to impose control on the chaotic conditions at Alpine Valley. (The county bounced the venue’s capacity down to 35,000 from a rude and unmanageable 40,000; Wertheimer had advocated 28,000.) He also worked with the 6.8-million-member PTA to develop its resolution against festival seating, and is occasionally an expert witness at trials. In the meantime he goes to lots of concerts around Chicago, chronicling crowd behavior and potentially hazardous conditions.

Wertheimer’s position is simple: concert facilities are responsible for maintaining a safe environment for concertgoers, even if it means prohibiting de rigueur activities like stage diving, crowd swimming, and rushing the stage. He’d like trained crowd-management people (as opposed to “security”) overseeing events, earplugs distributed at loud shows, and an end to the anything-goes attitudes that killed 11 in Cincinnati and that regularly endanger thousands of fans.

Marveling at the crushes I’ve seen at so many concerts, I ask Wertheimer why more kids aren’t killed: the question strikes a nerve. “It’s not a question of ‘Why not more?’ It’s any at all,” he says sharply. He points to 1991’s AC/DC concert in Salt Lake City, where three fans were asphyxiated and several more injured in the throng at the front of the stage. He pulls out color xeroxes of the bodies laid out behind guardrails, with a new crush of awestruck kids looking on. One of the victims, he says, was a 13-year-old at his first concert. Salt Lake City had a law on the books banning festival seating, but it was no longer being enforced. “The city said they’d forgotten about it,” Wertheimer says.

Next week: What’s wrong with Chicago shows.

Asylums, Dept. of Inmates Running

What a difference a label can make is illustrated by the attention now greeting Minneapolis’s Soul Asylum. After two albums on A & M with unnotable sales the acclaimed bashy foursome moved to Columbia and released their new record, Grave Dancers Union. This release isn’t necessarily any better than the two A & M efforts, Hang Time and Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode In On, but what is clear is that Columbia’s hype machine is working in overdrive on behalf of this one. Fueled by two talking points–that the band is the true precursor to the array of grunge bands now ruling the land, and that the new album is better produced than their two previous–the label’s publicity department landed the group an extremely favorable minifeature in Rolling Stone. Over at Billboard, the news that the group hit the top of the newspaper’s “Heatseekers” chart was given a front-page plug. (The Heatseekers lineup merely tracks the progress of bands that have never charted before; the band was only at 133 on the top-200-albums chart last I looked.) Then this manufactured coup was memorialized, on another page, with a picture of the band getting souvenir Heatseekers T-shirts. Finally, singer Dave Pirner and bassist Karl Mueller guest-hosted MTV’s 120 Minutes last Sunday. That’s no big deal–except that the group had been special guests on the program just a few weeks before. Behind-the-scenes manipulation like this is nothing new–look at the inexplicable nomination of Helmet for a Grammy. It just seems a little weird when it’s done on behalf of a scruffy, lovable old band like Soul Asylum.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.