WRECKTHEPLACEFANTASTIC: A Metaphysics of the Mosh Pit

Gosh, I hate to say it, but we indie rockers really need to get back in touch with our bodies. Damn near every gig I attend these days features an audience of stationary immobile hipsters who seem to register their enthusiasm for the music with microdilations of their myopic pupils. They keep cigarettes cocked in their hand, a beer dangling limply from the other, and refuse to get their bodies moving even though the music is obviously intended to let your backbone slip. It’s a sad disjunction between audience and artist, hopefully only temporary, but strange nonetheless. The last thing music needs today is dowdy Puritanism.

This leads me directly into the age-old debate: to mosh, or not to mosh? When a mosh pit is right-on, you experience one of the most energetic, crazed, communal forms of dancing ever invented. Yes, dancing. I know the purists will scorn the term. But when phenomenal music and an enthusiastic audience bring themselves to a mutual boil, the resulting sweaty, wild-eyed, righteous chaos can be a wonder to behold. (Not that I’ve “beheld” many mosh pits � I’m usually right in the middle of ’em.)

A few months ago I attended a gig at the Turf Club — the Selby Tigers with Sweet JAP, which caused me to theorize about mosh pits more than I usually do. This is because the memorable mosh pit � only ten or twelve people laughing and pogoing nonstop � succeeded in pissing off my local hipster record store clerk. He had decided to stand in the front of the crowd, and when the inevitable moshing began, he stood there glowering, arms crossed across his chest, violently shoving away anyone who jostled him. Since I knew him, I tried to avoid bumping into him. I noticed his glare and attitude. At one point, when the Tigers launched into their anthem “Droid”, the accelerated Brownian motion of the mosh pit forced me to jostle him, I clapped him on the shoulder with friendly reassurance (“didn’t mean it, hope you’re having fun”), and he angrily jerked his shoulder and pushed me away.

Needless to say, his increasingly earnest attempts to shove people away from him just kept the mosh pit in motion. Even still, this was one of the most innocuous pits I’ve ever experienced. Compared to past gigs, in this pit we were the Nutcracker Suite of slam-dancing. When the set ended, I approached our stationary curmudgeon to ask how he liked the gig. He dissed me unequivocally by saying “Fuck you asshole” repeatedly, and barked abstractly about “invading someone’s personal space”.

Invading someone’s personal space. In 1987, I was lucky enough to get front-row tickets to Def Leppard at the Hartford Civic Center. When the band launched into “Rock of Ages”, most people abandoned their seats and crowded toward the stage. I was crushed in with them. There was lots of jumping and fist pumping and sweat. It was no mosh pit, but it was my first experience of the intensely physical communal vigor that is an essential part of any good gig. Since then I’ve seen lots of different variations of “mosh pit ethics”.

Fugazi has an essentially puritanical attitude: they want some safe’n’sane fun, and they often lecture the audience if things get out of hand. On the other hand, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore would stroll to the right edge of the stage, and say “those of you who want to stage dive and mosh, come over to this side, there’s no bouncers over here”. But always, when the band hits the audience just right, it’s impossible to just stand still. What I’m trying to say is that if you’re going to attend a punk-rock or hardcore or ska or nü-metal show, your personal space will be invaded. (Indeed, you know you’ve been to a lame gig when your personal space isn’t invaded, when you walk out the door with your t-shirt intact and hardly a drop of sweat on your forehead.) If you don’t want to be part of the pit, then you back out of the way. That’s just the way it goes.

An audience is a collective. And the closer you get to the stage, the fewer individual “rights” you retain. My record-store curmudgeon friend was basically being a blockhead. In fact, his behavior was just another variation of the odious every-man-for-himself version of competitive moshing. He wanted to own the dance floor and plant himself static upon it.

Still, it seems there is a growing consensus that mosh pits are uncool � a teenage affectation. Pomo indifference is the hot new demeanor for hipster gigs. But think of it this way: from a band’s perspective, there is no greater compliment than an energetic mosh pit, and no greater insult than stationary nonchalance. The key is to allow your body to do what the band tells it to do. So, yeah, you’re not gonna get up and dance at a Low or Dirty Three gig, but you’re not going to remain motionless at a Dillinger Four or Dropkick Murphys gig, either. But when it comes to, say, the Donnas or the Hives or the Selby Tigers or Sleater-Kinney or, hell, even oldies acts like Sonic Youth, the unmistakable urge to mosh is often outweighed by a new, aggressively passive and immobile crowd of hipsters.

Well, I’m going to do my bit by actively promoting the idea of mosh pits as an essential element in live performance. To say they’re “uncool” is just the same as calling hackey-sack uncool: you may be right, but who cares? Fun is fun, and anyway our bodies aren’t built for standing still, are they?

Mosh pits are as different as the bands and audiences that create them, and you should always know what sort of pit your in as a guide to your form of dancing. Here’s a brief typology.

  • Cesspool of Manly Idiots: This is when a mosh pit becomes a Battle Royale, wherein one of the participants thinks it’s “every man for himself” and proceeds to inflict violence and revenge on all the moshers surrounding him. (I’m using gender-specific pronouns for obvious reasons, here.) This triggers similar reactions throughout the pit, and eventually it’s just a tedious, painful, anarchic rugby game for fools. Many of the nineties hardcore and ska gigs I attended were of this type: lots of people wearing Dock Martens to inflict pain, jabbing with their elbows, physically hunkering down into battle positions. Everyone wants to own the dance floor. This is the uncool version of moshing. It pisses everyone off, and people concentrate less on the music than on the little war games surrounding them. It ruins the gig.

  • Pit of One: Mosh pits have a wide range of sizes and energy levels, but always they’re consensual. Still, there are the occasional mosh pits that consist entirely of one person going berserk and annoying everyone else in the vicinity. I must confess I’ve been guilty of this on occasion. I tried to start a mosh pit at last year’s Bratmobile gig, but failed miserably. I pogoed and jostled and smiled, until a woman pinched my elbow hard, smiled, and shook her head “no”. Then I backed off, and she danced with me for the rest of the show. I had a blast, and I respected the wishes of the crowd. And y’know, that’s all you really have to do to enjoy yourself. The Pit of One should last for only one song. If others want to mosh, they’ll gravitate toward you, and the fun will begin. If not, then you have to stand down.

  • Skank Pit: Skanking is a subtle art, quite different from slamdancing or generic mosh-pit body-moving. It involves lots of (relatively) virtuoso dance steps that are reminiscent of nothing less than Roaring Twenties flappers doing the jitterbug at double speed. It’s best not to enter the skank pit unless you know the moves � you’ll be ejected fast (and your shins will be bruised for weeks) if you think you can just hop in and jump around.

  • Pogo Pit: Don’t see this sort of thing very often � too Old Skool. But sometimes when a crowd is an even mix of seasoned moshers and dewy-eyed newbies, you get a pogo pit: respectful old punks jumping up and down, maybe even trying a gob for old times sake. The only time I’ve ever actually witnessed a pogo pit was at a Soft Boys reunion gig, of all places. But sources have spotted them at recent Buzzcocks and Damned gigs, too.

  • Closer than Brothers (and Sisters): This is the sort of mosh pit that should be the subject of postmodern poetry, if nothing else. Usually, if the band and the audience are a small, tight-knit community, the resulting pit is a friendly and energetic mass of skank and mosh and pogo, with everyone huddling together rubbing each other’s shaved heads, stage-diving and singing along into the mike. The line between band and audience is often blurry here, and the sense of communion and sanctifying noise can be breathtaking.

  • The Brownian Sublime:When a pit is enormous � hundreds of moshers � and everyone is equal, and there are no fights, and the music sends the crowd around into an electrical fury of stage-diving, body-passing, and sweaty solidarity, the Brownian motion carries you around the crowd and never sets you down until the gig is over and you stumble out the door with marshmallow ears and a torn shirt. You feel yourself borne up in the safety and joy and righteousness of an exalted crowd of drunks, workers, hipsters, punks, poseurs, criminals, flirts, and poets. Hell, I’ll be telling my grandkids what it was like to be turned practically upside-down inside the immense mosh pit that formed when the Dropkick Murphys launched into their cover of “Which Side Are You On?”.

I’m no Judith Martin, but having covered the typology of mosh pits, I suppose it’s my duty to lay down a Mosh Pit Etiquette. Yes, that’s right, you have to use your manners in a mosh pit. I think most slamdance veterans know how easy it is to ruin a gig through uncouth behavior and coarse inconsiderate selfishness. Here are some basic rules.

  • When in doubt, keep it vertical. If the music is moving you, and you see the possibility of a mosh pit on the horizon, then get yourself pogoing. By jumping up and down as acrobatically as possible, you can get your energy out without annoying the folks around you. If fellow fans are in a similar frame of mind, they’ll gravitate toward you, and next thing you know a pit will form. But don’t create a potentially hostile situation by jostling everyone around you before you know a pit’s in the offing.

  • If you see a fight, break it up. Sometimes a mosh pit can create some nasty situations, but most fights are just stupid. And anyway, they just draw the attention of the bouncers, who will promptly ruin the whole show by trying to prevent a mosh pit altogether. When you see a battle beginning, just break it up, so everyone can keep having fun. One way to do this is to grab one of the fighters in a big bear hug (preferably from behind) and carry them far away from their opponent. (However, depending on how big you are, this might just draw you into the fight.) Otherwise, you can just get between them and keep them away from each other. Usually the hostility will die down pretty quickly after an intervention, and then the communal fun of the mosh pit will resume. And you’ve kept the bouncers at bay.

  • Use your hands to communicate. Even in the midst of deafening chaotic noise and sweaty acrobatics, it’s possible to communicate some pretty basic sentiments to your compatriots using your hands. Clap your fellow fans on the shoulder if you’ve unwittingly jostled them or hit them the wrong way. Squeeze them firmly a couple times on the elbow if you think they’re going too crazy. You’ll be amazed at how much such simple non-verbal forms of reassurance and camaraderie will make the mosh pit more fun and congenial.

  • Do not claim territory. It’s fun to hug your own little piece of the stage, seeing the band close-up and shouting out requests. But let the people behind you have a turn. If someone tries to squeeze in next to you, let ’em in and give ’em a friendly clap on the shoulder. Chances are pretty good they’ll return the favor.

  • Respect the wishes of the crowd. If nobody wants to mosh, then stand down, or pogo in the back. Conversely, if everybody wants to mosh but you don’t, then move out of the way.

  • If you’re carrying a drink, stay in back. Mosh pits can be notoriously spontaneous eruptions, and I’ve seen too many ill-planned attempts to hold a pint while standing the front of the crowd, only to have it knocked in the air, splashing everyone in the vicinity. Finish your drink and put down your glass before heading to the front. A similar rule applies to cigarettes (I’ve nearly had my cornea stubbed out by a lit Camel).

  • Respect the band. Stagediving and bodypassing are a lot of fun, but sometimes the band just doesn’t like to have fans constantly hopping up on stage and screwing up their gig. Use your judgment before you decide to hoist yourself on stage for the fifth time in order to dance and dive.

  • Remember: everyone is equal. Women should always be an integral part of mosh pits, as should long-haired hippies, dudes wearing penny loafers, some asshole you know from school, and your ex-boyfriend. Treat everyone with respect, and have fun. If you see someone being stupid � for example trying to grope the women in the pit � then intervene. If you see some manly Bluto type trying to dominate the pit, then grab them firmly by the elbow and let them know they should tone it down. If someone is too drunk and keeps going down in the pit, help them up and maybe even help them out of the pit. Hell, you should even take the time to introduce yourself to the people around you during the silence between songs. It’s all about mutual respect, solidarity, and digging the underdog. Mosh pits should never be cliquish Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest contests.

And there you have it. Now get down to your local club and start jumping!