My first near death experience happened in a mosh pit, summer 1996. I had been bouncing around, a fourteen year old wearing DMs and an oversized band T-shirt, lost in the innocent, musical sweat of my youth. The band were britpop also-rans Northern Uproar whose star burnt out before they’d even released their debut album. But I wasn’t to know that at the time, since I was so deep in the joy of being a music fan that every new single heard on the radio felt like it could save your life.
As the boisterous crowd pushed at the opening riff of ‘Rollercoaster’, I fell to the ground, landing in the mud. My life flashed before my eyes. I couldn’t die yet. I hadn’t seen enough bands. As hundreds of DMs bounced around my head, I screamed for help. Moments later arms reached down from heaven and dragged me back up.
Without hesitation, I kept on moshing. My first life lesson from the pit: whatever happens, stay on your feet.
I recently began to wonder how on earth I ever chose to get in a crowd that could at any point squeeze the literal life out of you or suffocate you to death. I’ve been punched, elbowed, kicked in the head, had red wine thrown straight in my eyes, been soaked with beer or worse and yet I still went back for more.
It all started when I watched Blur’s ‘Showtime’ on TV in 1995. The band and the crowd were an anarchic, chaotic, joyous, alive throng of pure energy from start to finish. I didn’t know exactly what a moshpit would be like, all I knew is that I needed to be in one. That December we had our Blur tickets, me and my brother charged down the front and when the band came on our feet didn’t touch the ground again for ninety minutes. It was exhilarating, addictive. I’ve never sky dived or bungee jumped or driven a car at 100mph or any other extreme sport but I have jumped in unison with 20,000 people standing in a field and knew this was how life was supposed to feel.
Twenty years later, Blur played an epic set at the Barrowlands and even though we were all old now, somehow the life came rushing right back into our busted knees and hearts. At one point Damon, aged fifty, dived straight into the crowd with the energy of a teenager. We tried our best to match him note for note, bounce for bounce.
I watch festivals on TV now and I can tell the age of the crowd by how much they jump. I don’t go into the middle anymore, preferring to stand to the side or somewhere out of harms way. The last time I properly moshed at a rock gig some annoying idiot kept trying to push past me, constantly hitting me on the back like that was going to make me move.
Another life lesson I learned from my youth jumping around down the front was: elbows out, stand your ground. There will always be people who want to use their power to push past you. Be ready to fight back with everything it takes.
Now I also see the misogyny of the moshpit in a way I didn’t when I was young. Back then I thought the girls who complained or needed pulled out of the moshpit were weak, useless, an embarrassment to our sex. If you weren’t tough enough then don’t get in. Now moshpits seem much more sinister, more threatening, more potentially violent. I wonder why any woman would risk it.
And yet part of thinks I’d rather be in a bruising, ugly moshpit, than be sitting on a blanket eating a picnic, talking while a band plays in the distance. That really is death.
I witnessed this a few years back when I went to a terrible 80s pop festival with my friend. I agreed to attend out of pity since she had no one else to go with. Within moments of arriving my suspicions were proved correct: it was indeed where music went to die. What I couldn’t get over was not just how bad the music was but how many people had brought chairs with them. Chairs. And they didn’t even seem to recognise or enjoy any of the music played either. They all talked incessantly through every song and barely even swayed.
Music is about connection, about shared energy in one way or another – dancing, singing, moving, jumping, listening, clapping. Even when I went to my first acoustic, all seated show the audience listened to the artist, knew the songs, leaned in. That’s why talking at gigs kills my soul – if you aren’t listening to the music then why even bother attending? Why even bother breathing?
So the final lessons the mosh pit taught me feel really relevant for this year: stay connected, never stop caring. The push and pull of the crowd is, like life, a force beyond our individual control. Right now we are all stood waiting for the gates to open. All we can hope for is to be a part of that crowd again someday soon.