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 into 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 begin to quantify the shows that I have attended. I have seen everything from Pink Floyd to dive-bar nobodies. Somewhere in my house is an old shoe box filled with ticket stubs. I fell in love with the whole experience, from the sweaty crowds to the overpriced shirts. I got good at it too. I knew all the traffic shortcuts, the ideal parking lots, the best after-show diners, the whole shtick for a hundred venues across multiple states. I was proud of that persona and often flaunted my “I was there” apparel.
The most exciting shows for me were the hard rock concerts. I dove into mosh pits and could kick and punch with the best of them. I held my own at Godsmack shows and bloodied my face at a White Zombie concert. The outings were cathartic, a fantastic release of pent-up energy.
Then came Lollapalooza 96.
The line-up was a magical mix of rock legends that included 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 huge. My mission for the day became clear. I would push my way to the front and get as close to the stage as possible for the mystery act. I would 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). Pits can get pretty violent depending on the performance. Your typical rock-pop concert can spawn F1 and F2 pits where people are just galloping 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.
Over the course of several hours, I pushed my way through a vast sea of churning fans. The Shaolin Monks and Screaming Trees were easy going, I just weaved through the peripheral gaps. During Rancid and The Ramones, I was able to slip through several F2 pits for a better position. I tried again when Soundgarden took the stage, but several fans harbored 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 Sydewynder, a hard rock act that echoed the guitarists I adored. I liked being close to stages because it allowed me to study the different rigs. As the crew set up, I watched the guitar tech roll out the primary amp, a well-loved Marshall stack. He then tuned a sky-blue guitar with the words “Arm the Homeless” painted on the face. My jaw dropped. That particular ax belonged to my musical idol, my guitar hero, a rock god by the name of Tom Morello.
Photo by DDP USA/REX/Shutterstock (5810143c)
At that most magical of moments, I had the following inner monologue: “Holy shit! I’m about to see Tom Morello! The man, the myth, the legend! The guitarist for … (gulp) … Rage Against the Machine … (sudden rush 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 the 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 casual spar, 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.
But alas, the crowd around me was packed tighter than a can of sardines. Naturally, I began to panic. I tried to work my way free, 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.
Him: “You know who it is, don’t you.”
Him: “Oh! Tell me! You gotta tell me!”
Him: “C’mon man, tell me. What could it hurt?”
Me: (sigh) “… it’s Rage Against the Machine.”
Him: (gleeful gasp, looks around, sudden terror) “Holy shit! We’re gonna die!”
That poor 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. The band took the stage shortly after and the madness began. An F5 pit of epic proportions burst into existence. Bodies flung like rag dolls and blood spilled 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 can still hear the screams of terrified fans being trampled by the frenzy. It was chaos on a scale that I had never witnessed 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 several times and they generate some serious pits, but their Lollapalooza 96 crowd may as well have been watching Bob Ross paint some happy trees.