Crush Stories (Part 2)

As part of Paul Wertheimer’s work tracking dangerous conditions at rock concerts, he’s been compiling a list of incidents at shows. It’s now a dense ten pages. The Lincoln Park PR man–who authored a report on 11 deaths among fans pushing to get into a 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati and now has his own crowd-management consulting firm–cobbles the list together out of whatever information he can find (news reports and personal observance primarily)–and admits it’s incomplete. Still, it’s a bit sobering, ranging from the chaos at an Alan Freed show in 1952 through many years and many deaths (the 11 in Cincinnati, 3 more in Salt Lake City in 1991). The most recent entry is the 6 people injured after last month’s concert by Ice Cube in Seattle.

What concerns Wertheimer, essentially, is additions to the list; conditions at the Chicago shows he regularly monitors, he says, are ripe for such incidents. What he’d like is for things to change before that happens. “Deaths should not be the determining factor when it comes to the safety of young people at rock concerts,” he insists. “The attitude is that everything is OK short of someone actually getting killed. People are getting hurt all the time.”

Wertheimer says the dangers fall into two categories. The first is just the habitual behavior of kids at grunge or thrash concerts. At general admission (or “festival seating”) shows, which include most of the events at Metro, the Vic, or the Aragon, kids smash to the front of the stage, forming a dense pack. Then, at some concerts, is the really scary part: kids moshing or slamming into one another, some “swimming” on top of the crowd, arms and legs flailing, others clambering up on stage and throwing themselves onto the heads below.

The second is poor crowd management. This happens at large venues where thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of fans are forced to fight for entry through an inadequate number of doors: this is typical at Soldier Field shows. There and at sheds like Alpine Valley, Poplar Creek, and the World, capacity crowds can sometimes overwhelm security, and huge parts of the facility are ceded to pushing fans. I’ve seen this happen many times: at the Rolling Stones concert at Alpine in 1989, at Paul McCartney’s 1990 Soldier Field show, and at the second of the three-night Dead stand at the World in 1990. Wertheimer’s point, and I think it’s a sound one, is that such conditions–along with the usual fights and arrests that occur in many large gatherings of kids–are breeding grounds for a potential disaster.

It’s hard to point fingers because there are so many to blame: the kids, for being stupid, unruly, and worse (in 1986 an enraged fan ran down three Poplar Creek employees in a car); the facilities, for seeing unsafe conditions and merely keeping their fingers crossed; and even the performers: some insist that kids be allowed to stage dive, and in the past year I’ve seen Nirvana, Blind Melon, and even Morrissey’s backup band throw heavy pieces of stage equipment out into a defenseless crowd.

What would Wertheimer have promoters do? No more stage diving? No more moshing? “I’m not a proponent of festival seating, period,” he says firmly. “All this moshing stuff is just another word for it. The way it is now it’s dangerous, and people are getting hurt. If they want to continue to have these pits then I think they ought to allow personal-injury lawyers to stand on the outside of them, passing out business cards.”

Hitsville would like to hear from fans on this issue. For the story from the other side of the barricades, stay tuned: One of Chicago’s top security men has agreed to let me shadow him for an evening at an upcoming concert; I’ll report back in a few weeks.


Two notes on the Grammy nominations: while most of the categories are as useless as always, check out the contenders for rap performance by a duo or group: Public Enemy’s Greatest Misses, Kris Kross’s “Jump,” House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” Arrested Development’s “Tennessee,” and the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head. Quibble if you will, but it’s the most defensible group of nominees I’ve ever seen connected with the Grammys. Second: under best spoken-word album, there’s a nomination for This Is Orson Welles, recordings of interviews done by Peter Bogdanovich with the late director. The album is based on a book of the same name edited by Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who as producer for the album chose the material and wrote the narration. But Grammy rules dictate that the nomination–and the award, if it wins–goes to the “performers” on the record and not our Jonathan…. Another film-music note: in re the recent Hitsville on the reissue of the first album of Chicago’s Flock, Eric Levy passes along Emotion Pictures, a collection of Wim Wenders’s early writing on film and rock music, recently translated from the German. Wenders has always done interesting things with rock in his movies: he was an impressionistic writer on the music as well. Here’s his take on the Flock: “Music like a big highway junction in America, like the Golden Gate Bridge, like a fast journey in a hovercraft through a wonderful and familiar landscape: the music of the last ten years.” … Also, in a recent piece on Arrested Development and other rap I mentioned that I’d heard a mysterious earlier and cleaner version of N.W.A.’s nasty “Automobile.” Reader J. Dvorak writes that it’s “My Automobile,” from Parliament’s first album, Osmium.

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