Essay | Smash Yourself Clean

I looked up and saw a guy dive into me as if I was a swimming pool. I caught the full of his back with my head and forearm, as did the people around me. We crouched under the weight, trying to push him back up, both with enthusiasm and utter hatred for the guy. But any emotion is quick and fleeting. You get over offenses quickly, because you know it's not personal, because this is a concert and you came here to get hurt. It hurts good.

The Pit at a concert, at least an upbeat, wild one that is heavy on the rock-out, is a fascinating place. It is the section directly in front of the stage for those who are not afraid to get an elbow in the rib or a knee in the head. Concert goers ascend the stage, despite the best attempts by security, and fly for half a second into the maelstrom of bodies. Sometimes they will be caught. Other times people will run out of the way and let them fall. This is The Pit. If you want the privilege of being so close to the stage, there is a price to pay, and that is your physical well being.

I wasn't always so enthusiastic at the thought of being physically hurt to live music. It used to be this strange, intimidating obstacle when you just want to fold your arms and stare at the bassist for an hour. I remember a Manu Chao concert and the disappointment my friend expressed that I had not gone in to get tackled by strangers in a concentric circle. I had not even hopped in place like a bunny. I had spent (wasted) that concert simply listening to the music. It made sense to me. What was live music for if not for listening intently and respectfully?

It occurred to me over time, especially with the age of 21 and claiming my birthright of buying drinks at the bar, that a concert is exponentially better when one experiences it rather than listens to it. Yes, listening is part of the experience. But so is getting kneed in the side and almost losing your shoe.

October 26, 2006 - Cursive at The Glass House. During the opening band, Eastern Youth, a big Asian guy tries to start a pit by shoving everyone and starts doing his hardcore dancing thing. Instantly, a big circle opens up around him as the frail and weak of us are afraid. A girl enters the circle and starts skanking. A guy enters and flails around. It doesn't last and the pit dies - until Cursive comes out.

Then the concept of personal space goes out the window, and in an effort to get closer to our musical heroes, we stampede to the front of the stage like a Wal-Mart on black friday. All of a sudden we are smashed together, chest to back, constantly moving and swaying to the currents of everybody pushing. After a couple of songs, a concerned Tim Kasher reminds us to give each other space to breathe. But we are all smiling and singing and not following any instructions tonight.

August 27, 2009 - Matt & Kim at the El Rey. Sometimes crowds wait until the last song to get crazy. Sometimes the crowd is full of Matt & Kim fans and they don't give a fuck. Matt & Kim set up their equipment at the very edge of the stage, as if to be as close to us as legally possible, and the fans return the favor. From the first bash of the bass drum it is an insane, sweaty ruckus. There is no individuality anymore, no one is an I, just we, the crowd. We jump up, down, and into others, because dancing is physically impossible when you're this smashed together. We celebrate in any direction we can.

We're not all scholars, though. There are guys who like to stage dive - over and over. Eventually, those of us in the "landing pad" that aren't keen on the pain start to run away. In this case, it's a group of unaware young girls, and now whenever they see a big, hulking, long-haired drunkard climb on stage, they run. It doesn't stop the guy. He jumps over, the girls run, and I feel like Wile E. Coyote as the looming shadow of a boulder gets bigger as it gets closer. I pull out a sign that reads, "Help!" He keeps doing this for the rest of the night, trying to stage dive on the same group of girls, never realizing that he keeps eating floor because a group of small girls is not going to support his weight.

A couple of songs later, a girl and her friends decide they want to get in on this crowd surfing goodness. A risky proposition, but their right, by all means. Two girls lift their friend up over their heads as best they can, and like tipping a basketball into the hoop, launch her forward onto the unsuspecting me. A leg falls over my shoulder and all of a sudden I am Atlas. She is not a big girl by any means, but I am not a big guy. There is no one near enough to continue to pass the crowd surfer. I do my best to hold her up, but failing that, I try to crouch down very slowly to let her onto the floor without any incident.

"Sorry!" says her friend through the blaring music.

"It's okay!" I say back, because this is a concert and we are all friends here.

Later on in the night, I would accidentally whip my head back and headbutt her. We have the same exchange, roles reversed.

April 27, 2009 - Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Crystal Castles, a thousand people, and intense apocalyptic beats. I lose all sense of control over my body and surrender the river of the crowd, floating and hurting and drenched in sweat. There is nothing else like it, and the angry electro music sounds like angels.

It's hard to really articulate what is so magic about the pain of the pit. At base level, it's fun to get hurt, in the way a fight club makes meandering, nihilistic, middle-aged men feel alive outside of their cubicle. Which, I know, sounds crazy. But it's got to be bigger than that, because I don't intend on moshing to Sufjan Stevens or dancing to Bon Iver.

Those are soft, emotion-based music that you go to have your heart exploded. Barring that, or maybe in addition to that, more upbeat, kick-drum heavy bands get you that same euphoric sensation, but with a physical sting instead of an emotional one. The end result is the same; one is just much more community and participation based, to the end that some may even start to despise the non-participatory.

Moshing, dancing, krumping, all those weird somewhat embarrassing mindless movements you make to music are all extensions of the same thing. There is a mundane, sedentary quality to life without music. These physical expressions are all just ways of shaking that off. Because you don't care. You cast off all the chains of social normality, of what is considered cool, or physically attractive, or nice to others, or even sane. You are connected to life, the world, reality, and most of all, loud music. Sometimes it hurts, but that just means you're waking up.