When Pete Townshend heard the tragic news of the nine fans dying at Pearl Jam’s performance last Friday at the Roskilde festival in Denmark, the numbing sense of déjà vu must have been inescapable. The stunned members of Pearl Jam described the incident as a “horrible nightmare” — a nightmare Townshend and the rest of the Who have known all too well themselves.
For the Who, the horror came on the night of Dec. 3, 1979. Before the band even took the stage of Cincinnati, Ohio’s Riverfront Coliseum, eleven people had been trampled or suffocated to death when fans surged through the doors of the arena in a mad rush for general admission spots in front of the stage. For Pearl Jam, it came during their performance, right in front of their eyes, as the outdoor festival crowd of 50,000 pressed across a muddy field to get closer to the stage. Eight people died the night of the concert; a ninth passed away from injuries sustained in the incident Wednesday.
The Who incident in Cincinnati has long been considered one of rock’s most infamous moments, having recently been recapped in a “Concerts Gone Bad” episode of the VH1 series Rockstory and continuously cited whenever a crowd-related tragedy of any magnitude rears its ugly head at a concert. But given Pearl Jam’s — and particularly Eddie Vedder’s — well-known influence by the Who (expressed throughout the years in interviews, covers songs and most recently via Vedder’s performances with Townshend last year), the link between the Roskilde and Cincinnati tragedies seemed particularly eerie. Townshend wasted little time in reaching out to Pearl Jam to offer his support.
“I spoke yesterday to Eddie Vedder,” the guitarist writes in a journal entry on his Web site, www.PeteTownshend.com. “I don’t want to say any more than that. I passed on what I knew the Who had done wrong after the Cincinnati disaster — in a nutshell, I think we left too soon, and I spoke too angrily to the press and without proper consideration of the fact that the people who deserved respect were the dead and their families.
“Luckily Pearl Jam and their management have stayed in Denmark, and cancelled subsequent shows,” Townshend continued. “Other bands also marked some respect by refusing to play. If you have a faith, please pray for the victims and their families, and for everyone who was involved. It was a horrific experience for them.”