More than seven years ago, three teenagers ended their lives unwillingly in Salt Lake City under a mass of people at a heavy metal concert. They came as young people wanting to be part of a curious phenomenon that seems to define youthful pleasure in this age, and they were stomped to death in a mindless frenzy.
Now, all these years later, has everyone forgotten? Did the lessons learned on that hot, dark, smothering and confusing Salt Palace floor die with the wrecking ball that destroyed it a few years later? Judging by how some concerts are conducted along the Wasatch Front these days, the answer is yes.Not long after the tragedy at the AC/DC concert, officials began to blame the deaths on a type of seating arrangement known as festival seating. Under this popular plan, people with general admission tickets are allowed to roam freely on the arena floor. Often they form what is known as a mosh pit, where concert-goers dive into the crowd or are passed overhead from one end of the floor to the other.
Large crowds, particularly those that are under the influence of loud music and alcohol or other drugs, can take on a life of their own. Thousands can meld into one, surging forward toward the stage. That is what happened on that night, Jan. 18, 1991. The three victims were caught under the surge with no chance to breathe or escape.
A curious thing happened after that. The Salt Lake City Council, reacting to the horror of an entire metro area, wanted to outlaw festival seating. It was then they discovered they already had - nine years earlier. In 1982, 11 people were trampled outside a Who concert in Cincinnati. Salt Lake City reacted to that tragedy by passing an ordinance they hoped would keep a similar thing from happening here. But then everyone forgot.
Now, a similar type of amnesia seems to have set in.
The E Center in West Valley City, not subject to Salt Lake City ordinances, allows festival seating for some heavy metal concerts. According to Deseret News concert reviewer Scott Iwasaki, the arrangement was used at two recent concerts by the bands Beastie Boys and Tool. Also, Saltair uses festival seating, although its crowds are much smaller than those at the E Center, which is comparable in size to the old Salt Palace arena.
This isn't meant as a blanket chastisement of West Valley City officials who own the E Center, nor of Centennial Management, which runs the place. To be fair, they are faced with an impossible situation. Ensuring safety at a heavy metal concert is like trying to ensure the safety of people who insist on lying on the beach when a tidal wave approaches. It is like trying to keep the electricity on in a house full of people with a propensity for sticking their fingers in sockets.
The opposite of festival seating is assigned seating, with temporary seats installed on the arena floor. Arena managers learned long ago that this often leads to patrons turning fold-up chairs into flying objects, so they know to bolt several seats together in a row.
But consider what happened last November at a Motley Crue concert at the E Center. The band's drummer urged everyone to forget about the seats and come down to the floor. The mob ended up lifting entire rows of bolted seats and tossing them aside.
In many ways, there is no way to win with this type of entertainment, which embodies the logical extension of a philosophy that eliminates rules and strictures. Self-indulgence, taken to its extreme, surrenders its freedom to the will of the mob. Shock-rock performers, like addicts, are constantly trying to lead their followers to a new and more satisfying fix.
In that same Motley Crue performance, the band accompanied a song with video on a 60-foot screen of people suffering very real and very gruesome deaths. The climax was footage from the press conference of a scandal-ridden politician who waited until cameras were rolling before he stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
In this litigious age, the wonder is that such concerts haven't crumbled under their own weight. If seating arrangements can't be made safe, how can any government or management company assume the liability? If performers can't be kept from showing graphic videos to a crowd that includes minors, how can any government allow it?
The answer is that a loud and raucous counterculture demands these things, and there is too much money to be made. Officials tell me they have turned crowd control into a science and that plenty of precautions are on hand to keep things from getting out of control. It sounds much like what the folks in charge seven years ago were saying. The fact remains there is no guarantee another tragedy like that one won't occur, and that ought to alarm every parent.