The Casualities of MOSHING Nights of Nine Inch Nails and Broken Bones

By RONI RABIN for Newsday on January 1, 1995

THE NASSAU COLISEUM was still convulsing with the music of Nine Inch Nails and the time was well before midnight, but fans already were stumbling out of the auditorium. It wasn't that they weren't enjoying the band. They were enjoying it so much that it hurt. In the lobby, which had begun to resemble a hospital emergency room, the rock and roll refugees triaged themselves: A girl with a sprained finger set off in search of an ice pack, a secretary from Bethpage limped to the ladies room to massage a banged knee and huddle with a friend who had been punched in the jaw. Dehydrated youngsters headed for Snapple and PowerAde, passing a guy who had broken his foot and was parked in a wheelchair by the refreshment stand. Clumps of teenage boys lifted their shirts to show off cuts on their smooth, hairless bellies. A youngster of 16 or 17 sauntered out, his T-shirt bright red with blood. But he shrugged, pointing to his bleeding nose and a gash by his eye: "It looks worse than it is." "Someone bit me and hit me with a chain," said another, James Green, 18, of Lake Ronkonkoma. "People get mad at you, and punch you and stuff. "You only live once," he said. "You gotta enjoy it. You don't feel it till tomorrow morning." "It's very emotional," said Montana Low, a 24-year-old stockbroker from Bay Shore. "It's very exciting. It's a release. It's the whole point of going to the show." Jimi Hendrix may have set his guitar on fire and Ozzy Osbourne is rumored to have bitten the head off a bat, but the epicenter of the action at the Nassau Coliseum Jan. 6 was in the audience. It's called moshing, a brutal, body-banging activity very remotely resembling dancing, and crowd-surfing, where guys and girls climb on top of the crowd and are passed, hand to hand, over people's heads. In smaller clubs, the surfers may jump up on the stage, turn around and dive back into the crowd. (The Coliseum - like all large venues - doesn't allow fans to reach the stage.) Moshing isn't new - it originated in the slam-dancing of the punk-rock '70s - but in recent years it has become a staple of rock concerts, spreading its appeal from hard-core and industrial rock to alternative, ska and pop rock as well. It's fun, it draws a crowd, it's a great release for the pent-up anxiety and angst of adolescence - and it's dangerous. Hundreds of fans sprained their knees and ankles moshing in the mud at Woodstock last August, but the risk isn't just of a bloody nose or a broken collarbone: In two reported episodes in the past seven months - one in Brooklyn, one abroad - two young men died when they dove off the stage, hitting their heads and suffering major brain injuries. Two other young men broke their necks and were paralyzed from the shoulders down when they were dropped by the crowd. In the mosh pit on the floor of the Coliseum, 2,000 fans holding general admission tickets - which means no seats at all - played human bumper cars. From the upper mezzanine the fans looked like a roiling, rumbling sea, or a giant, porous trampoline for the surfers, who rolled and lolled along a rippling surface, limp as rag dolls, flipped and flopped by hundreds of hands. A pair of legs would kick up and disappear into the surging mob. A head would emerge, then dunk. Where'd he go? Oh, there he is, up for air again, inching forward, passing over the metal barricades that hold the crowd back from the stage - oops! - and into the arms of linebacker Coliseum security guards. "It's the best experience," said Jen Haar, 16, of Bayville, a lithe girl wearing black clothes, black lipstick and black fingernail polish. "It's like you're on top of the world. In a second everyone picks you up and carries you. . . It's a rush." "It's a big-time rush," said Jason Rice, a 16-year-old from Coram who was stage-diving at the Roxy Club in Huntington at a Type O Negative concert in December. "It's fear, too. When you jump off you see the floor everywhere. You just gotta ignore the pain." BUT LET there be no mistake: This is dangerous. Sure, it's an adrenaline rush, a wild sense of abandon, a oneness with the music and the crowd and the beat. Yeah, the kids say, you feel like you're flying, and you trust the crowd and it's a high, better than drugs, without drugs, a giddy top-of-the-world hang-gliding bungee-jumping, roller-coasting kind of feeling. But everyone has mosh war stories. Low, the stockbroker, was kicked in the head when he was surfing at a Public Image Ltd. concert in Manhattan; he blacked out and the next thing he knew he was walking down Broadway. Dave Cohen, a 21-year-old from Massapequa, was wearing a sports brace on his leg at the Coliseum to protect ligaments he ripped at the last concert. His friend, Vincent Bianco, 23, of Massapequa, wore thick rubber garden gloves so he could scoop people up from the floor, which, by the end of the show, is smeared with shmutz - blood, sweat and smuggled-in beer. "It's like paying thirty dollars to get your - - - kicked," said Pam Torro, 16, of Freehold, N.J. The first death directly attributed to stage-diving in the United States occurred at a Life of Agony concert Dec. 17, at the L'Amour Club in Brooklyn, which has since closed. Christopher Mitchell, an 18-year-old high school senior from Rockland County who was an only child, fell off the stage and landed on his head. He died the next day. Police are still investigating the death. Mitchell's was not the first reported death, according to Crowd Management Strategies, a consulting company specializing in crowd safety that tracks rock concert injuries. On June 21 in London, a 21-year-old Englishman, Lee O'Connor, was killed stage-diving at a Motorhead concert. At least two other young people in this country have become quadriplegics as a result of crowd-surfing: Brian Cross, a 23-year-old auto-parts worker from Essex, Md., broke his neck June 29 at a heavy-metal Sepultura, Biohazard and Pantera concert at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. He claims security guards dropped him. And Jeremy Libby, a 15-year-old from Pittsfield, Maine, was paralyzed at a Lollapalooza concert in Rhode Island Aug. 3 when he landed in a gap in the crowd. "They threw me over a space in the crowd and I fell on my head," Libby said in an interview with The Boston Globe. "It could have happened to anybody there. It's nobody's fault, really." (He has since stopped speaking to the press because of pending litigation.) But a growing number of critics, from physicians to insurance executives, are denouncing rock groups and promoters for putting profits ahead of safety. Even if the injuries don't force bands and stadiums to stop accommodating crowd-surfing as a kids-will-be-kids phenomenon, these critics say, spiraling insurance rates and a rash of civil lawsuits will eventually do the trick. Although the official tally of injuries from the Nine Inch Nails concert would indicate only four fans registered as injured at the nurse's office, medics who were treating patrons were barred from speaking with a reporter. And when Newsday photographer John Keating took a picture of a girl in a neck brace being carried out of the auditorium on a stretcher, security guards for the Nassau Coliseum surrounded him, and a guard for the band grabbed the camera that was hanging around his neck, yanked it and ripped out his film. (The girl was treated at Nassau County Medical Center and released, a Coliseum spokeswoman said. She said the Coliseum is private property and Keating did not have permission to photograph anything but the band.) Just last month, an Orange County, Calif., jury ordered Irvine Meadows Amphitheater to pay an injured fan almost half-a-million dollars because of a knee injury from a 1991 Iron Maiden concert. The case is being appealed. Rock concert liability premiums have skyrocketed since 1980, increasing more than tenfold, from 2.5 cents to 30 cents per head for million-dollar coverage, according to Walter Howell, owner of Entertainment Insurance Agency in Naples, Fla. Howell predicted stage-diving will go the way of the mechanical bulls of the 1970s - into extinction. "There's going to be a massive insurance problem coming pretty soon, and that'll stop it," Howell said. "The potential is humongous for quadriplegia. These kids don't realize it.
It's waiting to happen." Christopher Mitchell's parents want stage-diving and crowd-surfing banned in New York State and plan to wage a public campaign to that end, according to their attorneys, Alvin Spitzer and Allen Kozupsky. Both the National PTA and the National Fire Protection Association support actions to ban or restrict general admission seating, which was blamed for the 1979 stampede that left 11 fans dead and dozens injured at a concert by The Who in Cincinnati. "The rock industry would never get away with this if they weren't dealing mostly with people who are under age," said Paul Wertheimer, whose Crowd Management Strategies company compiles a list of the "worst rock concerts" of the year. "Most fans don't understand their rights," he said. "They're under the misconception that if they get hurt in the mosh pit, they're one hundred percent liable. The club owner knows that what he or she is doing is against the law and that they're liable. But they brainwash and bully and intimidate the fans to say they're responsible." Wertheimer has ventured into the mosh pit himself to experience the activity first-hand (he doesn't surf or dive, he explained, he's 45 - so much older than the other moshers that a youngster wrote an ode to him, to "the old man in the pit.") "Many times I've come back with blood on my shirt, which brings up the whole issue of blood-borne disease," he said. "I've cracked a tooth. I've lost two watches and broken a pair of glasses. I had so many tops pulled off my gym shoes, that now I have steel reinforced boots, so people can step on my feet. "You have to stand in a fighting position, with your arms up. By the end, you're dehydrated; not only is your T-shirt soaked, but so are your jeans." But by far, the biggest risk is head injuries from surfing and diving. Even though moshers say etiquette means never dropping a surfer, it happens. Apparently quite a bit. It happened to 20-year-old John Fanelli Jr. of Massapequa Park just a few weeks ago, at a performance of Gwar at Limelight in Manhattan. At about 2 a.m., Fanelli's parents got a call from John Jr.'s friends telling them that their son had dived off a stage and hit his head. . Fanelli's parents had no idea that he had been stage-diving - they thought he was at a performance listening to music. "I guess he had done a few jumps already, but then he jumped and apparently - he is tall, and I guess they didn't realize - they got his arms but his head slammed into the ground," Marjorie Fanelli said in a telephone interview. When Fanelli's friends noticed he hadn't gotten up from the floor, they ran into the crowd and pulled him out. He was unconscious for about 10 minutes, and when he came to, he couldn't remember his Zip code or who he worked for. Over the phone, his parents insisted he be taken to a city hospital immediately. But Fanelli refused to go. His friends phoned his family from Penn Station, but the phones at the terminal - programed to disconnect to keep them free for commuters - kept disconnecting. The parents tried to return the call by dialing star 69, but the call wouldn't go through. So the friends took him home on the Long Island Rail Road, and his parents took him to the Massapequa General Hospital. Doctors said he was lucky - he had a concussion and had to stay overnight for observation, but he hadn't injured the artery to the brain. If he had, doctors said, he could have bled to death. " `Very lucky' is an understatement," said Dr. Marc Levitt, John's physician, adding, "All the lawyers who have nothing to do all day but sue doctors ought to sue these clubs." That's not the way Limelight sees it. "These people want to do these things, and then they turn around and sue the people who didn't stop them from doing these things," said Susan Wagner, a spokeswoman for the club. Club managers say they can't stop a ritual that has the aura and inevitability of a tribal rite of passage. But critics such as Wertheimer and Howell say they can at least make it safer by padding barriers and dividing a crowd to create aisles for emergency workers. In the age of AIDS, when sex can be deadly, some suggest it may be futile to expend energy on the risks of moshing. As Timmy Williams, a mosher from Merrick, says, "It's like HIV. People just think, it won't be me." But Thomas Lazarou of Centereach, who was watching the scene in the lobby at the Nassau Coliseum, said his mind was made up. "I'm not letting my kids come to this kind of concert," he said. Of course, he's 18, a kid himself. It's A BUSINESS POSTED ON THE rear wall of the box office at the Roxy Music Hall in Huntington, a sign the size of a sheet of typing paper declares, in faint black letters: STAGE DIVING PROHIBITED. But if anyone noticed the sign on the Tuesday night between Christmas and New Year's, they sure didn't show it. Hundreds of youngsters were crammed into the club to see the junk metal band Type O Negative. Girls and boys dived off the stage in a steady stream for hours - it looked like a college diving team was warming up for a meet. Club owner Frank Cariola said in an interview that he has taken steps - such as posting the sign - in an attempt to stop the diving, but, "It's impossible to stop it one hundred percent." Clubs don't have the space and the manpower to create a no-man's-land between the crowd and the stage. That's what Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum do, when hard-core and alternative bands perform - and demand, as they often do, that the arena create a mosh pit so fans can "dance" and crowd-surf. The large auditoriums limit the number of fans allowed in the pit and take other precautions as well: The Garden doubled the security staff to 110 when Nine Inch Nails performed and the Coliseum security frisked youngsters, barred alcohol and padded the floor between the pit and the stage with wrestling mats. Limelight in Manhattan has a policy of ejecting patrons if they continue diving after a reprimand, said spokesman Neville Wells, but he admitted they are fighting a losing battle. "You would need a security guard for every person who comes in," he said. "I'm not Superman." Few venues even try to stop body surfing. "The practical reality is that body surfing is going to happen," said Wayne Sharp, vice president for music and variety at the Garden. He cited a Dec. 2 Nine Inch Nails concert in Boston where fans ripped out the chairs and created their own mosh pit after lead singer Trent Reznor taunted them for remaining in their seats. "Would we rather book concerts where we don't have to do this?" said Sharp. "Sure. But it's not practical in 1995 to have Billy Joel thirty nights out of the year. You have to do the concerts that'll do the business."

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

View the NIN Hotline article index