Nine Dead At Pearl Jam Concert

Page 3 of 4

The Orange Stage field is also dotted with metal barriers – long, upside-down-U-shaped poles – to prevent huge surges in the audience. The barriers were once a staple at British soccer stadiums but were banned in the late 1980s after it was found that they were responsible for rib injuries and caused people to fall if the metal became greasy with condensation. Paul Wertheimer, the head of Chicago-based Crowd Management Strategies, a leading concert-safety consulting firm, says the Roskilde barrier might have worked effectively with a smaller audience. But he adds that during the Pearl Jam catastrophe, "they certainly weren't helpful. They probably complicated matters when the chain reaction went into play."

Until the mosh-pit deaths of June 30th, Roskilde had a reputation as one of the best, and safest, rock & roll events on the European summer-festival calendar. Founded in 1971 as Sound Festival, an imitation Woodstock with one stage, twenty bands and a modest 20,000 people over two days, Roskilde – as it came to be formally named, after its host town – began as a haphazardly managed showcase for Scandinavian progressive-rock acts like Gasolin and Burton' Red Ivanhoe, with the bills including top English attractions such as the Kinks and Procol Harum.

But along with Britain's Reading and Glastonbury festivals and Holland's Pinkpop, Roskilde evolved in the Eighties and Nineties into one of Europe's premier rock & roll weekends, bulging with world-class headliners. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, R.E.M. and David Bowie have all played at Roskilde in recent years. One-third of Roskilde's total budget for 2000 – $7.5 million – was spent on booking 175 acts for the four-day festival.

"In the Seventies, [outdoor] festivals died out in the United States because they were horrendously run," says Wertheimer. "We still have that legacy, through Woodstock '99. In Europe, they were never perfect but always managed better. It is a different kind of society and culture. There is a different properness."

All profits from the Roskilde Festival are distributed by the Roskilde Charity Society (the actual Danish name is Foreningen Roskildefonden) to organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as several Danish charities. The Scandinavian penchant for civic order is also reflected in the wide-open character of the festival's perimeter: There are no barbed-wire fences to foil gate-crashers, only trees.

Readers' Poll: The Best Grunge Albums of All Time

"That's part of our security – it keeps people positive and controlled," says Leif Skov, 53. He was not one of the festival's original founders but has co-managed the event for many of its twenty-nine years with Henrik Rasmussen and Henrik Nielsen. "We don't carry weapons," Skov continues during a lengthy interview on the Roskilde grounds a week after the fatal crush. "We carry a smile."

Aside from twelve full-time employees, Roskilde's staff consists of unpaid local volunteers like Per Johansen, who runs an auto-repair business outside of Copenhagen. This year, 17,000 volunteers worked at the festival. When asked if his volunteers were ill-equipped to cope with the Pearl Jam crisis as it unfolded, Skov responds, "What proper education is there for security? In Denmark, there isn't any. Their 'education' is experience. And preparation."

Indeed, when Wob Roberts, who has been to Roskilde with various touring bands for more than ten years, arrived at the Orange Stage on that Friday morning to load equipment, he surveyed the grounds with admiration. "My initial thought," he says, "was 'Fuck me, these people have really thought about this. This site looks great."

Roskilde has no reported history of security-related fatalities, but it has not been trouble-free. Ironically, Eddie Vedder was at the center of a fracas when Pearl Jam played at the festival in 1992. When he saw a stage diver getting roughed up by security in the pit, Vedder jumped down and got into a violent scuffle with members of the pit crew, who reportedly did not recognize the singer and actually punched him.

"It was very crowded," Skov says of the Orange Stage audience for Pearl Jam's June 30th show. "But it has been crowded for years." Skov says he reduced the number of weekend tickets that he put on sale this year, from 90,000 two years ago to 70,000. (The tickets sold out a week in advance.) Skov also estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people were at the Orange Stage to see Pearl Jam – almost three-quarters of all the ticket holders for the entire festival. In other words, nearly everyone at Roskilde that night squeezed into that field to see Pearl Jam.

"The common problem," Wertheimer says of tragedies like Roskilde, "is crowds too large to be managed." Wertheimer, a former public-information officer in Cincinnati who headed the local task force that investigated the 1979 Who disaster, adds that one reason he believes the Roskilde audience was too big is "because nobody can tell you exactly how many people were there. How can you have the right staff, how can you communicate properly, how can emergency people respond properly when they don't know who's there?"

Thomas Borberg, a twenty-nine-year-old photographer for Politiken, was in the security pit that night when Pearl Jam began to play. He distinctly remembers the mood of the audience. "I'm not a Pearl Jam fan," he says, "but I saw no laughing in that crowd. There was no joy on their faces. You could see people were not happy."

Borberg left the show before the deadly crush but returned when he heard what happened. "I saw a police officer," he says, "shouting to people –so small and alone. He was trying to get people to move back. Shouting at a huge crowd. It illustrates how hopeless it all was. There was nothing anybody could do."

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

More Song Stories entries »