When I was in college, a few friends and I attended Lollapalooza 96 at the Rockingham Dragway in North Carolina. Little did I know that this particular show would turn out to be one of the scariest experiences of my life.
First, a little backstory. I was a concert fiend growing up. I adored live music and cannot even begin to quantify the shows I have attended. I have seen everything from Pink Floyd to nameless dive-bar bands. Somewhere in my house is an old shoe box filled with ticket stubs. I fell in love with the whole experience, from the musky smell of sweaty fans to the rickety booths of overpriced t-shirts. I got good at it too. I knew all the traffic shortcuts, the best parking options, best after-show diners, the whole shtick for a hundred venues across several states. I was proud of that persona and often took stock of a closet full of “I was there” apparel.
The most exciting shows for me were hard rock performances. I started diving into mosh pits and before long, I could stomp and punch with the best of them. I held my own at Godsmack shows and ended up with a bloodied face at a White Zombie concert. The outings were cathartic, a great release of pent-up energy.
Then came Lollapalooza 96.
The line-up was a magical mix of rock legends that included heavy-hitters like Metallica, Soundgarden, The Ramones, and Rancid. At the Rockingham show, there was also the announcement of a mystery act sandwiched between Soundgarden and Metallica. With that kind of billing, the band had to be big. My mission for the day became clear: push my way to the front. I needed to get as close to the stage as possible for the mystery act, then finish it all off with a furious Metallica pit.
A quick note on mosh pits. I like to use the tornado scale when measuring their inherent danger (F1-F5). Mosh pits can get pretty violent depending on the show. Your typical rock-pop concert can spawn a few F1 and F2 pits where people are just bouncing around in circles. Think acts like Green Day and Pearl Jam. The harder the rock, the harder the pit. You’ll start to see kicks and punches in F3 pits. Some notable examples from my portfolio include Tool and Filter. I’ve seen a handful of F4 pits, which are usually marked by blood. That White Zombie show was a solid F4. I have only seen one F5 pit in my entire life … at Lollapalooza 96. And ironically, Metallica had nothing to do with it.
For hours, I pushed my way through a sea of churning people. The Shaolin Monks and Screaming Trees were easy going, just weaved my way through the peripheral gaps. During Rancid and The Ramones, I was able to slip through several F2 pits for a better position. I did the same thing when Soundgarden hit the stage, but several fans had the same idea, so the final push was decent at best. But, I had accomplished my mission. I was in prime pit territory for the mystery act, about 20 people back from the monstrous stage.
I should also mention that I was in a band at that time. I had just started what would become Sydewynder and tried to emulate a few guitarists that I adored. One of the reasons I liked being so close to the stage was so I could study the different guitar rigs. As the stage crew set up, I watched the guitar tech roll out the primary amp, a well-loved Marshall stack. After doing so, he picked up an Ibanez-looking guitar with the words “Arm the Homeless” painted on the face. My eyes widened. My jaw dropped. That particular ax belonged to my musical idol, my guitar hero, a rock god by the name of Tom Morello. At that most sublime of moments, I had the following inner monologue.
“Holy shit! I’m about to see Tom Morello! The man, the myth, the legend! My hero! The guitarist for … (gulp) … Rage Against the Machine … (sudden influx of terror) … Holy shit! I’m gonna die!”
Let me repeat that. I was in prime pit position … for Rage Against the Machine. For anyone needing an explanation, let’s just put it like this. Say you’re a casual boxer, just doing it for exercise and a bit of fun. You may get knocked around from time to time, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. Then, one day, you’re getting ready for a sparing match … and Mike Tyson steps into the ring. That, is a Rage pit. I had never experienced one, and I had no intention of doing so.
However, I was locked into position like a can of sardines. Naturally, I began to panic. I tried to work a way out, but the nearest waterfall (crowd-surfing exit) was 20 people away. I was trapped. The guy pinned next to me saw my mounting anxiety and realized what was going on. At that moment, we had the following conversation.
“You know who it is, don’t you?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh! Tell me! You gotta tell me!”
“C’mon man, tell me. What could it hurt?”
(sigh) “… it’s Rage Against the Machine.”
(gasps with glee, looks around, then melts with fear) “Holy shit! We’re gonna die!”
The guy went through the entire emotional spectrum I was dealing with in less than three seconds. To this day, I have never seen that hard of a swing from elation to horror. Of course, the band took the stage a few moments later and the madness began. An F5 pit of epic proportions erupted, flinging bodies like rag dolls and spilling blood into the dirt. To say that I got my ass kicked would be a gross understatement. By the time I escaped the pit, I looked like a mugging victim. I was battered, bruised, barely able to stand. I even heard the screams of terrified fans being trampled by the frenzied mob. It was chaos on a scale that I had never seen before. A small fleet of ambulances carried away the injured. The fact that they were even there should have given me a clue.
But, I survived. And I have the shirt to prove it.
After all was said and done, I felt the worst for Metallica. When you survive a Rage pit, there is nowhere to go from there. I have seen Metallica a half-dozen times and they generate some serious pits, but their Lollapalooza 96 crowd may as well have been watching Bob Ross paint some happy trees.