Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ra Ra Riot

No, sorry, this isn’t some tribute to the group sharing the name of the title.

This is actually about a riot. Rob’s post about Green Day’s new release and his impending trip to their upcoming concert opened a flood of memories from one infamous night that not only cemented my relationship to wifey, but validated my belief Green Day was a band to be reckoned with. Even if that meant in a legal way.

Allow me to set the stage (pun intended).

Green Day had just released ‘Dookie’ and was beginning to gather a following. A fresh infusion of punk mixed with melodic pop written by kids (not even sure they were of drinking age) who were depressed and hated life. Needless to say I loved it and latched onto them. That ‘Dookie’ is still one of the best debuts I can remember certainly helped their cause.

Over that summer they played the new Woodstock concert and managed to put themselves on the map by instigating a mud fight among the concert goers there. The weekend was marred by torrential down pours that created a mud bath in the field where the concerts were being played.

It was supposed to be harmless fun that escalated a bit. One of the band members lost three teeth when security mistook him for a stage rushing member of the audience and tackled him. This made me like Green Day more, mainly because this Woodstock was supposed to be encouraging peace and love (although it was really about the almighty dollar as anyone who attended and wanted to buy bottled water could tell you). And what better way to encourage peace and love than by provoking a fight among several hundred thousand people?

The Woodstock happened late summer. I think August but it may have been late July.

In September came word that Green Day would not only be playing in Boston, but they would be part of our local alternative radio station’s Free Concerts on the Hatch Shell. WFNX had already sponsored Cake’s concert (which I also went to) and a few other lesser known bands throughout the summer.

Green Day was going to the final free show of the year and FNX’s crowning achievement.

Oh, and I would most certainly be there. It’s one thing to listen to a band on a slickly produced CD, but hearing them in concert would verify whether these guys were for real.

Wait! Before I continue…for those unfamiliar with Boston: The Hatch Shell (which is often pronounced ‘HatShell’ ‘round these parts) is a stage set down by the Charles River that is most widely known as the place where the Boston Pops play their Fourth of July concert. Then fireworks go off over the river after the Pops are done playing. The Shell itself is right next to Storrow Drive and neighbors the Beacon Hill area. There are walkways over Storrow Drive that will get you to the river and concert areas without having to cross the heavily travelled highway.

I managed to talk wifey (who was not yet wifey), my buddy G, and my youngest brother to join me for the festivities. We trained it in, got to the field area just in time to realize ‘Holy shit, there are a LOT of people here’.

So many, in fact, that state police quickly estimated they were hopelessly outnumbered if things turned ugly. Considering the Woodstock incident and the popularity of moshing at shows of this kind, the odds of ugly occurring were far above average. More on the police later. I’ll focus on my own experience for now.

The crowd in front of the stage was so densely packed 30 minutes before the show was going to start, we decided to stay back by the street. I just wanted to listen, anyway, and had no desire to get pushed and shoved by a bunch of punks out to cause trouble. We hung out, soaked up the carnival atmosphere and slowly worked our way into the less populated section of the field.

FNX was being broadcast over the speakers and a few songs would come on that would get the crowd bouncing and jumping.

Then one of the DJs came on and introduced Green Day. My brother says to me ‘I’m going to see if I can get a better view’ and heads off into the throng of people. The three of us stay put and enjoy a couple of songs from Dookie. I must admit, even now, I can remember how good they sounded. Loud, ferocious and energetic. They had me jumping up and down and singing along.

Before the third song even starts up, Rob (?) (Green Day’s bassist) says into his mike ‘Hey, can everyone take one step back? Just one step back’. It wasn’t a panicked request, just a simple and calm statement.

Song three starts up and during a break in the lyrics Rob again tells everyone to take a step back. Green Day kept playing, but it was an odd moment. Halfway through the song, Rob drops any pretense of things being ok. He stops playing and yells into his mike ‘Everyone needs to take a step back. Just take one step back’. For the first time everyone realizes there is something seriously wrong. You could hear it in his voice.

I glance to the left of the stage and notice one of the light poles swaying back and forth; like the mast on a ship. To the right, people were trying to jump onstage only to be tackled by very large security guys (more on them in a bit). When I look back to the center of the crowd, it is moving like a single creature. I never understood the term ‘ocean of people’ before this moment. Crowds this densely packed move like tides; flowing and swaying and swirling. What’s frightening is how you have no control over any of it. Once you’re caught up in something this powerful, it’s either sink or swim. We found that out quickly enough.

Someone bumps into by buddy, G, who in turn pushes into me. One second later I’m hit from another side, only it doesn’t feel like one person but a force of nature. G is again hit so hard he almost goes down. I turn to wifey, who was on my opposite side and tell her to just move. I notice a semi clear pathway that will take us away from the crowd and towards the street and point her in that direction. ‘Just go and don’t fall down’.

We manage about 5 steps before the crowd surges again and hits us from behind. Wifey almost goes down, but I grab her under the shoulders and keep her moving. Up ahead the crowd is closing in on and blocking the path. People are swarming in from all angles. Some running, some still jumping around despite no music, others trying to join in what they thought was going to be the biggest mosh pit of all time.

At this point I knew it was critical we get out of the crush of people. I start pushing and shoving, just trying to keep everyone moving towards the opening. I still remember one poor teenager I pinned against a tree in order to get through. I nailed him in the chest with my forearm and told him ‘Stay there’ before pushing past. He looked absolutely terrified.

We finally manage to separate from the worst of the crowd and turn back to the stage. The lights are still swaying with people now hanging from them in order to either survive the onslaught or bring them down. The stage is over flowing with people who are jumping into the crowd or kicking down anything they can find. That would include the drum set, the mike stands and any lighting they could reach. Green Day is long gone.

With the three of us out of harm’s way, I now need to find my brother who has waded into the worst of it. Keep in mind this was before everyone had cell phones, so there was no simple way to text or call him and see if he was ok. Taking one look at the crowd I know there is no way in hell I’m going to be able to find him. I climb a small tree and try to scan the crowd, but there are just too many people.

Besides, from the looks of things, the worst is over as the crowd has knocked down the barriers and is now running around behind the stage as well. We start slowly walking back towards the train station hoping my brother will catch up to us. We hear sirens coming (which is never a good thing) and now both sides of Storrow Drive are shut down to traffic. We stop for a while to see if he’s coming to meet us before moving on.

As we are walking (now right down the middle of the closed highway) we approach a staggering kid. We all assume he’s drunk and start cracking jokes at his expense. I yell to him ‘Dude, you have anything for us?’ and he turns to face us. Blood is pouring down his face; over his mouth and down his neck. His nose is pushed all the way to the right of his face and he laughs and says ‘I took a shot, man. Does it look bad?’

All three of us keep walking past and I tell him ‘Nah, man, you’ll be fine. Just check in with one of the ambulances at the end of the line’. Wifey has turned white.

Our initial plan was to use the walkways to get back to the train station, but approaching we could see them swaying with weight of all the people on them and decide that might not be the safest route.

NOTE: Boston Police later admitted that the amount of people using the walkways far exceeded the limits they were built for. Only they never said anything to the people because they didn’t want to stoke the riot to even more intense levels. Thanks, guys. One of them could have collapsed and killed hundreds of people, but let’s not rock the boat.

The trains, as expected were a disaster with everyone trying to get the hell out of the city, so we decided to hit one of the local bars and let things thin out. What surprised me about the entire incident is how pumped I was. My blood was roiling and I wanted to fucking fight someone. One college aged goon bumped into wifey without paying attention and I shoved him so hard he nearly toppled over. He looked at me, quickly apologized and went on his way. Wifey told me to calm down, but that was difficult. I was amped to level 10 from being in the wild.

A few beers helped, but not before watching more police cars rushing to the concert (including what I thought was a SWAT van) and more bloodied people walking from it. Chaos doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Onto the official reports.

Turns out the State and City Police were woefully unprepared for the amount of people that showed up. Originally promoters estimated 5 – 10 thousand people would show, so police prepared for that number. They also brought in 15 prisoners from the neighboring jail to assist in security. Yup. Prisoners. Those were the dudes tackling and throwing people off the stage when things started going south. I’m sure they helped out a lot in this entire scenario. According to Tre (the drummer) many of them hung out and asked for autographs. ‘The thing is", noted Tre, ‘not one of them fucked off, they all went back to jail the next day!’

It certainly didn’t help that the 10 thousand expected turned out to be 100 thousand. Fuck, yeah. You can see how that would be a problem. Police were so overwhelmed that many were beaten up and trampled by the crowd. They did make 60 arrests, but most of those were after the main event was over.

What I didn’t know at the time was the rioting was spilling into other parts of the city as people from the concert decided to take their blood lust into other areas. I also learned that police had to use tear gas at some point, although whether that was at the concert site or somewhere else was never clear. I certainly don’t remember any.

As for brother. I called him the following morning and gave me this account:

‘I was up front but on the opposite side from where you guys were. When everyone started crushing against the security barricades is when the bassist started telling everyone to move back, but there was no way anyone was listening. People were just throwing themselves against anyone in their area. Fist fights were happening right in the middle of this crush of people and I saw one girl get punched right in the face by accident. It was ugly.’

When I asked how he got out:

‘I was right by a light pole and climbed to get out of the worst of it (he was one of the people clinging to that light pole). Then things moved away I jumped down and went behind the stage to get away from everyone. I wound up hanging out with the band backstage!’

Wait! What?

‘Yeah, everyone was just standing around in confusion trying to figure out what to do. I was standing right next to Billie Joe. All three of them were laughing that this was going on at one of their shows.

I think they were high.’

Today’s distraction: Find your own musical festival. Maybe you’ll experience something similar to Green Day’s Boston visit.


Clayton Bigsby said...

The only time I had tickets to Green Day they canceled because Tre broke his foot. I was 15, we ended up stealing some Gin from my buddy's dad and that was the 3rd time I ever got drunk. I've never had an experience like that at a concert, unless you count Everclear sucking so hard I wanted to punch someone in the face.

Rob said...

Great story, Beach. I was hoping when you left the comment on my blog that your Green Day experience was this riot. It had always been a stuff of legends, but reading your first hand account really brings it home.

Are you going to try to get tickets to their 7/20 show at the Garden? The American Idiot tour was the best concert experience of my life. The mosh pits were raging, but I had a seat just above the floor, so was able to gawk at the craziness, but stay away from the fists and elbows. Oh, and the band simply CRUSHED my already high expectations.

Unlike some bands I've seen, they did not dial in one moment of the show. 100% present, 100% committed, and 100% energized.