The Politics of Trust

The debate over crowd safety is by necessity a little skewed. Critics like Hitsville bleat about the dangers of moshing. Promoters have to be careful about what they say: they’ve got legal issues and the demands of the bands they book to contend with. The moshers themselves tend to be inarticulate. No one has stood up to defend the practice on its own terms–until now. Eddie Vedder, refreshed after a couple of weeks of recording in Chicago after the close of Pearl Jam’s 1995 tour from hell, isn’t afraid to stand up for the practice. During a lengthy recent telephone conversation, Vedder did an unusual thing: he asked, in this justifiably cynical age, for us to trust him.

Vedder speaks almost mystically about two things: the primacy of the music and the connection between performer and audience, a relationship he takes seriously indeed. The chat was prompted by a recent Hitsville column about a crowd-safety watchdog, Paul Wertheimer, who was pulled from the crowd and later arrested at Pearl Jam’s Soldier Field show last month. Vedder says he has no reason to doubt the version of events given to him by his security people on the scene, who said that Wertheimer was causing trouble in the pit. (Hitsville doubted this scenario.)

To Vedder, no one cares more about the crowd than he does. “Anyone who gets up in front of that many people [knows] it takes a lot to be there [in the pit],” he said earnestly. “Any performer has to respect that. I was there myself for a long time. I’m very conscious that that takes a lot of work.” Forced to play nontraditional venues for its aborted tour, the band went to great lengths to establish safe and secure venues. “We built our own barriers; they cost a lot of money to build and to carry around, and a lot more to repair the pads that are ripped each night,” Vedder said. “We want all kinds of protection, as much as we can. We don’t need people like that guy to go around behind our backs, and in front of us, creating paranoia. It makes it very difficult for us.”

The argument against moshing is simple: it’s a dangerous activity engaged in by kids who don’t know enough not to do it. Vedder’s answer is equally reductive. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked with some exasperation. “It turns me into Perry Como. I mean, god forbid that any tiny little thing happens at a rock concert. I do feel responsible. But what’s going to happen? Will it be illegal to dance at a concert if you’re not wearing a helmet? It’s part of the element of rock. At some point you have to take responsibility for your own actions. I just feel like things are being taken away from rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not like Disneyland: ‘Watch your belongings and enjoy the ride.'”

From Vedder’s point of view the bands–and by extension rock ‘n’ roll–are under attack. He tells a story he heard from members of Bad Religion. On one tour the drummer threw a drumstick into the crowd. It cut open a kid’s forehead, requiring a couple of stitches. The band invited the fan backstage and took pictures with him. Everything was fine.

Of course when the kid got home his parents sued. “We’re standing up there with targets on our chests,” maintained Vedder.

Hitsville pointed out that that was a sunny way to look at the story–what if the drumstick had hit the kid’s eye? And where’s the line between a drumstick and, say, a 20-pound microphone stand, like the one Courtney Love irrationally tossed into the crowd at her Chicago Lollapalooza appearance?

“That’s an easy way to be reckless,” Vedder conceded. “But it still comes down to her and her choice. I don’t think it should be a law to prohibit any contact between performer and audience.

“Look,” he said, “I guess I’m just asking people to have some faith in the bands–in the bands and the people who come to see them. I think we have an intelligent crowd. They all have enough wits about them to get together, come through the gates, and see the show. And look what happened: it was a beautiful night.”

Next week: Vedder on the fight against Ticketmaster and the cancellation of the tour.


Number One Cup will play at Lounge Ax Friday to mark the release of its first album, Possum Trot Plan. Twenty agreeable local bands–including Red Red Meat, Flavor Channel, the Handsome Family, and Tart–will perform the entire album, one track per outfit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bobby Talamine-RSP.