Stories Told

Into the mosh pit

The mosh pit formed around me. Suddenly I was being shoved about like a rag doll.

Scott Ian and Joey Belladonna of Anthrax

I am both amused and thrilled that at age 50 I can still go watch many of the heavy-metal bands of my youth perform live. When I was 20 I never imagined that this music genre was in it for the long haul, that it would keep finding new audiences well into the new millennium. Yet it is, and it has, and there I was in a crowd that skewed at least 20 years younger than me.

Looking about, I noticed a handful of men near my age. We were easy to spot for our ear plugs, blue, orange, and green.

The audience was easily 80 percent men, and while it’s hard to tell by looks alone I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them worked blue-collar or service-industry jobs. Metal is an aggressive form of music that appeals to men with few sanctioned outlets for their anger. I get it: even at my age, a good headbang is excellent release.

These photographs are of the headliner, thrash-metal pioneer Anthrax. I’d seen them twice before — in 1988 and 1989! I’d not heard of the two opening bands, Havok and Killswitch Engage. But it turns out they’re established and well known, having been founded in 2004 and 1999, years I was consumed with raising my young children.

I would not have been there at all were it not for our youngest son, aged 17. He loves music from many genres and has lately added metal to his repertoire. He’s not just got an ear for the stuff, but he plays several instruments himself and has studied, all on his own, music theory and composition. When I share with him some of the metal of my younger days, he usually tells me things about the songs’ structure that I never knew, and describes the classical elements after which some of the riffs are modeled.

At any rate, he came to me not long ago and said, “Anthrax is coming to town. Would you like to go?” Hell yes.

Belladonna wailing and Ian shredding

But about that mosh pit: It’s tradition at thrash-metal shows that, near the stage, the audience forms a circle and men run about in it, smashing into and shoving each other. I have never understood the appeal. I remember the first mosh pit I saw, at that 1989 Anthrax show. Looked like chaos; looked like needless pain. I was glad the pit was way across the room from me so I could steer clear.

No luck this time, though. The pit formed around me, and I was furious. I didn’t ask for this! And I’ve been undergoing extensive chiropractic treatment. This had better not undo all that good work!

Oh, those thoughts were so not metal.

I fought my way to the edge of the pit. I tried to push in deeper, but the thick crowd resisted me. So along the edge I stood, a skinny geek among burly men. Quickly I learned that we had a job: to push moshers back in before they broke into the crowd.

That’s where I saw the etiquette in the melee. It began with us men around the edge, protecting the crowd behind us. But even among the moshers there were surprising unspoken rules. Within the pit, nobody’s hands were raised higher than chest level. Hands remained open and were used only to push others. Feet remained on the floor. And, astonishingly, when a man fell the men around him immediately stopped, pushed other moshers away, and picked him up.

At one point a man in a wheelchair joined the moshers. He was able to get in some good pushes, and the jolts he took were not any kinder just because he was chairbound. The fellow was also good and drunk, though. When other moshers saw that he wasn’t sober enough to be there, a couple men wheeled him back out. I didn’t see them come back; maybe they bought the man another beer.

There were rules of engagement here. And on this night, everyone I saw played by them.

Later, a gap formed behind me in the crowd. I was happy to fall back into it and just listen to the band and let others do mosher-goalie duty.

The next morning I was unbruised. But I was quite sore, and stayed that way for a week. Moshing is not for the middle aged.

It’s not enough to deter me from more metal shows, though. We are going to see another thrash-metal pioneer, Slayer, on their farewell tour in May.