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Pit of Despair

Skinheads in a mosh pit are like barracudas in a swimming pool--they ruin all the fun, and if you see them coming, the wise move is to hop your ass out of there pronto.

I knew better than to stick around when I saw a pack of skins pop from the crowd around one loop of the figure-eight mosh pit at the Ministry concert back in May at Mesa Amphitheatre. I knew better, but I got stupid. Al Jourgensen, et al., had just kick-started "Just One Fix" and I was in the mood to keep mixing it up. So I moved to the perimeter and watched for a while as the skins set about slaking their bloodthirst. They had their technique down--four or five of them ran in furious circles, throwing wanton elbows and stiff arms as they orbited the alpha male of their pack, a titanic baldie who planted himself at the very center of the pit and sent moshers sprawling with subtle flicks of his huge, flabby arms. He looked about six feet four, 280. I mentally dubbed him "The UberOaf."

The flow of bodies between the two halves of the figure eight was quickly stanched, and the moshing split into two separate circles--the one I was on the edge of, which was still crowded, and the one the skinheads had taken over, which was not. There, the smaller skins would just sort of bounce off one another until some poor, unaware fool stumbled or blindly charged into their pit, at which point they would viciously gang-slam him for a few seconds and then serve him to the big guy, who would grab and effortlessly launch the intruder, often screaming in pain and anger, over the first row of onlookers. It was high entertainment, but I was jonesing for another aggression rush. It seemed like the skins weren't even looking over at my side of the former eight, so I made a split decision and rejoined the swarm.

Dumb move.
By the time "J.O.F." ground to a halt, I was out of breath and moved once more to the outer edge of the action. Except this time, instead of keeping the pit between me and the skinheads, I sidled into the no man's land between the two former halves of the dual pit.

Dumber move.
I turned to face the stage, wiping the sweat off my face and listening intently to try to pick out how much of Ministry's show was taped (a lot). Then I caught a quick movement in the peripheral vision of my right eye. On instinct I turned my head to look. Oh, shit. It was the UberOaf. He was charging me, already too close to sidestep, his forearms swinging up and out like an offensive lineman's. He was giggling.

The blow hit me square in the pecs and knocked me airborne back into the pit I'd just left. I was still upright, but flying backward a few inches off the ground. I touched down with one foot, tried to regain balance as I skittered a few steps in reverse, failed, and fell down. Which, in a mosh pit, is about the last thing you want to do. I was lucky--someone immediately grabbed my proffered arm and yanked me upright. UberOaf was already back at his post, manically oscillating his thick head to the music and gritting his teeth in an eerie, open-lipped grin. Great, I thought. The only thing worse than a massive skinhead in a mosh pit is a massive skinhead on crank.

That was the end of moshing for me that night, and, to be honest, I haven't felt the desire to slam-dance since. Once I got my breath back, I was more or less okay, but the experience painfully reinforced what I already knew but tried not to care about--like so many fun, adrenalized activities, moshing can be dangerous, even deadly.

That lesson was driven home to the world a week after the Ministry show, when a 17-year-old girl was stomped to death in a mosh pit at a Smashing Pumpkins concert in Dublin, Ireland. So far there has been only one moshing-related fatality in the U.S.--an 18-year-old named Christopher Mitchell died of a brain hemorrhage in December 1994 after he dove from the stage of a Brooklyn rock club and fractured his skull. But according to interviews with concert safety consultants and emergency medical technicians in the current issue of Rolling Stone, there are hundreds of serious moshing injuries a year, including several that result in paralysis (the most infamous such case was a 15-year-old boy who broke his neck crowd surfing at a Rhode Island date on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour).

No one jumps into a mosh pit expecting to die, or even really get hurt. Moshing is play-fighting, like wrestling around with your siblings as a kid. The violence is supposed to be controlled. That's the call of the pit--a designated place to engage in cathartic, ritualistic, controlled violence. Of course, there's always a good chance someone's going to get an arm tweaked or take a wayward forearm to the head. But crushed organs, shattered skulls and other severe injuries (not to mention insults) are eminently avoidable if people just adhere to a vital set of ethics, customs and simple rules of common sense.

Call it the Ten Commandments of the Mosh Pit:
Thou shalt double-check thy landing before stage diving. If you don't have a clear scope on at least six pairs of ready, upraised arms, you're a candidate for the empty-swimming-pool syndrome.

Thou shalt not smoke in the pit. Hey, you're gonna put somebody's eye out with that thing.

Thou shalt rescue thy fellow mosher. The greatest danger in a mosh pit is getting kicked and stomped by a crowd that doesn't even know you're there. If you see someone go down, you have to make sure he gets back up. Get ahold of him by his forearm or, better yet, an armpit and yank him to his feet. This is exactly what didn't happen in Dublin, with tragic results. If you go down, cover your head with one arm and extend the other toward salvation.

Thou shalt not take bottles into the pit. Duh.
Thou shalt not wear steel-toed boots while crowd surfing. When you crowd surf, you're relinquishing control of your body to the chaos of crowd movement. Your feet, along with the rest of you, will spin and drop at random. Catch somebody in the temple, nose or jaw with a steel-toed work boot and you can mess him up good. Lots of blood, lots of pain, lots of buzzkill.

Thou shalt double-knot thy laces. The key to not getting fucked up in a mosh pit is to keep moving. Stop to tie your laces and you're a sitting duck waiting to get blasted. Not to mention the fun you'll have when someone pins your loose lace to the ground right before someone else lays a hit on you, and your foot pops out of your shoe. There's nothing like barefoot moshing to sober you up in a hurry.

Thou shalt not sexually harass thy fellow mosher. Women who crowd surf are not de facto offering themselves up for a group grope. Why do so many guys have to be idiots about this?

Thou shalt not wear hoop earrings big enough to fit a finger through. One word: riiiip.

Thou shalt look out above. The second-biggest danger in a mosh pit is having a crowd surfer scrunch your head. "I never saw 'im coming." That's what you'll say. But moshing is like crossing the street--stay alert, and look both ways. Do it every few seconds. That way you won't get scrunched, and the surfers won't "wipe out" when a hole of oblivious moshers opens up beneath them.

Finally, thou shalt watch for skins. Skinheads of the racist, red-suspendered, asshole variety are not out for "cathartic, ritualistic, controlled violence." They're out for blood. So unless you're huge or a total badass (or better yet, both), get far away from any mosh pit they enter. And remember--beware the UberOaf.

--David Holthouse

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse