Working the stage (with a crowd surfing primer)

Sometimes being a bouncer isn’t always about checking IDs and kicking drunk people out. In the bigger music venues you can split the duties between the various people on shift. So sometimes you get to work the stage. It is substantially different from working the door as a bouncer. As a musician and concert-goer since 1986, I am a person who truly enjoys working at the stage. Being that close to the performers during their set, and feeding off the energy and joy of the crowd is one of the more fun shifts for me. I’ve met some amazing international touring bands working stage. And they put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us do.

I’m sure you’ve been at a concert where there were crowd surfers. But for the uninitiated, that’s when you climb up on somebody’s shoulders and lay across the crowd that holds you up and passes you around the audience. You usually end up being delivered to the front area between the barricades and the front of the stage. There are always staff there to help catch you so you don’t injure yourself or fall on concrete. That’s me when I’m working stage. Catching adult human beings so they don’t break their bones. Always keeping people safe, even from their own recklessness.

Other things we’re watching for would be fights, people smoking pot (because indoor venue), any sexual harassment, tiny concert-goers getting crushed into the front barricades, and medical issues. Many people don’t want to lose their spot at the front of the barricade, so they don’t leave to drink water. People faint or pass out and we have to haul them up over the barricade and then get them medical attention if needed. People take too many drugs and can overdose there in the heat of the crushing horde. Some people just don’t know how to take care of themselves at concerts and don’t bring money for food or drink. I’ll give out waters to people as long as I can, but I only have so much there with me. Some people have heart attacks or strokes and we need to call the ambulance. There’s a lot that can happen at the stage. So when you see a bunch of security people at the front of the stage looking out at the crowd and not at the show, it’s us. We’re scanning for all of these things while you are watching the concert and hopefully not getting hurt or dying out there in the ocean of sweaty bipeds.

Depending on the type of music and the crowd, there may not be any moshing or crowd surfing at all. On nights like that working stage I get to enjoy the performance and just keep my eye on the people in the crowd that might need help. We can often predict the drinking patterns of a concert based on the genre of music, and whether or not the crowd is going to give us problems all night or just stand there and soak in the music. And just to dispel your possible assumptions, it is often NOT the metal or rap crowds that give us the most challenges. Usually those crowds are some of the best, sharing  more of a spirit of brotherhood and helping each other out. I feel better about the people at a metal show taking care of each other and helping each other out than I do at most other types of shows. Just for reference, it’s been the alt country shows and stoner rock shows that surprised me with their violence and asinine behaviors. Testosterone, machismo, aggression, and whisky, my brother. Keep them all separate.

The time before the show starts is a great time for me to build social capital with the people who arrived early to occupy the front of the barricades. I smile a lot and ask them about which band on the bill is their favorite. I sneak in reminders about the photo policy, and tell them to wave me over if they have any problems throughout the night. I keep telling people to drink lots of water and show them where the water station is located. I answer questions about potential meet and greets, autograph signings, set list acquisition, bathroom locations, and all of the other questions people ask. I’ll also be a photographer for people who want shots of them and all their friends in the front row. All of these short little interactions build a good little temporary relationship that will last throughout the show. And if and when any problems occur, things will go easier. Actually I get sometimes get them to do my job for me. I’ve seen people remind others to not use their flash, and to stop taking video after I announced that to them. I love listening to people tell me stories of seeing this band last night in Seattle or another city. I appreciate fans that follow their favorite band on tour for more than one night.

I also love seeing parents there with their kids for a concert. They’ll often tell me that it’s the child’s first concert ever. I vividly remember my first concert experiences. So I always try to be super friendly to the kids and offer them water and look out for them to step in if somebody is getting to rowdy around them. Just asking a kid what album is their favorite one from the touring act goes a long way. I love glancing over and seeing the kid wide-eyed and in a state of reverie seeing their favorite band onstage for the first time. Or singing along with the lyrics just like they lived those words. If a stage hand offers me a set list after the final encore, I’ll try to hand it to the kid. Parents have come to shake my hand and thank me after the show for helping provide them with such a fun first concert for their child. Live music is life.

Ten minutes before the opening band started, I was called over by some teenagers in the front row. Their friend had just dropped to the ground at the front of the barricade and was laying on the venue floor. I immediately called for a medical situation over the radio and climbed up over the barricade and into the crowd. I asked them if he fainted and his friend said, “Well he did take a lot of hallucinogens tonight.” I knelt down by the young man and put my fingers on his neck to check for a pulse. As I started tapping him he woke up and stood up with me. I told him who I was and where he was and asked him what happened. He said he had a ‘crowd induced anxiety situation’ and that he ‘took a bunch of mushrooms’. I offered him some bottled water and he drank it down. I asked if he wanted to walk out to an area where there were fewer people, but he said he was ok. He said he didn’t pass out or faint but he just needed to lay down and gather himself for a minute. At this point there were 5 security people and 3 managers on the other side of the barricade looking over at me speaking with this young man. I gave them all the thumbs up gesture and walked out through the crowd back around to the pit area between the stage and the barricade. I told the kid and his friends that I’d be there all night and would keep an eye on him and check in. Managers agreed to let him stay with my offer to babysit him. So for the remainder of the show I kept watching him to make sure he didn’t drop again. I gave him a bunch of water and would frequently give him the thumbs up gesture, which he would return with a big smile. I was tempted to say things like, “Handle your high, dude.” Or these lyrics from the band SLACK, “You took too much, your brain is toast. BRAIN TOAST.”  But you know what, I was 19 once and I did some stupid shit too. He and his friends ended up having a fantastic time. I’m glad we let him stay. Maybe next time he won’t take as many drugs as he did tonight. I hope he remembers the concert.

At another concert the crowd surfers were out in full force. Depending on the rider agreement with the touring act, we can either allow this or not allow it. This band wanted us to let the crowd surfers do their thing and not have us kick them out. For a while I counted each crowd surfer that I helped get down safely from the front of the audience. Then I honestly lost track once it got over 20 people. I don’t think I got to turn around and peek at the show at all for this one. People were coming over like salmon jumping out of the water trying to get upstream to spawn. Except that it’s all sweaty shirtless male salmon. Seriously, why it is always the big dudes that have been sweating from the minute they entered the venue that come across the crowd and fling themselves onto us? Can’t we get some tiny person who actually showered and used deodorant that day? The body odor is truly offensive.

You watch the crowd a different way when it’s a crowd surfing kind of show. Because if you miss one and they come flying over the barrier onto you, somebody’s getting hurt. The adrenaline is going, and your peripheral vision awareness is being put to the test. We all point towards the closest crowd surfer we can see so that the other guys on the line will see it coming and not be ambushed. I keep thinking about how I’m a musician and really can’t afford to get a finger jammed or broken by some drunk dipshit who is going to fall on me. If all goes well 2-3 staff will be there to grab you and lower you down to the floor without injury.

Here’s how it usually goes. There is indeed an unspoken protocol. As you get handed towards the stage, you should look at the security guys and let them grab you to stabilize your landing. Don’t flail or fight, we’re trying to help you out. We’ve been doing this for hours, so let us grab you and deliver you as gently as we can. Grab us around our shoulders if you can and let us lower you down while we hold you. Almost like when a husband carries his new bride into their new house. It’s called “Catch and Release” since we catch you, stabilize you, and then return you to the audience to either enjoy the rest of the show, or crowd surf again. Sometimes if we see the same person over and over again we will give them the message that you only have 3 times that you can do this. But don’t try to become part of the performance by getting on the stage or trying to stay in the pit area and head bang. We are going to walk you out. Either gently as an escort to get you to the alley where you can get back into the crowd, or holding your arms you against your will to make sure you get out of the area if you are not following our instructions. Don’t make this interaction a bad one. It should take about 10 seconds and then you’ll be on your way. Usually the people thank us and even clap us on our back for our assistance.

Sometimes the person falls onto you and wraps all four limbs around you. Face to face, groin to groin. It’s an awkward and intimate position for both of us. This is a common position for people having sex, and only when they are having sex. A standing missionary position crowd surfer landing. Since the person is completely wrapped round you, we just call it the Koala bear. I can’t really complain, as this is probably the safest and most gentle way to come out of the crowd. But it’s an odd moment for sure.

Having sweaty 200 pound human beings that aren’t wearing a shirt flying at you from head-level is an unusual occupational hazard indeed. I can’t think of any other job where that might be listed in the job description. Without a shirt on we can’t grab you as well. And skin on skin is slippery. Especially when you are sweating bullets and processing large amounts of shitty frat boy beer. There are also two kinds of crowd surfers. The conscientious ones who do it right, and the assholes. If I see you continuously crowd surfing and thrashing around while you’re up there, accidentally or intentionally kicking people in the head as you go, I’m going to kick you out. I hate those guys that are crowd surfing and then sort of launch themselves over onto another group of unsuspecting people just trying to enjoy the show. You’re landing with your entire body weight on people’s heads. The neck injuries are probably in the dozens. I’ve been in the crowd where the same jerks keep violently crowd surfing and injuring people’s necks and heads. It sucks. If this happens try to communicate with the security people there so they can grab them and not let them back in. That’s what we’re there for.

At a stoner rock show we had dozens and dozens of crowd surfers coming over the crowd into the pit area. We got in a rhythm and just teamed up on each one to help them get down safely. But this one particular dude won the award for assholery. He was crowd surfing and was being handed towards the security staff in the pit. We climbed up on the steps on the barricades to help him get down safely. But once his feet touched the floor he tried to break away from us and climb onto the stage. Myself and two other guys grabbed him and prevented him from climbing up. Then he turned on us and started trying to thrash around aggressively to evade us. I was right there with my hands already on him so I just wrapped him up and pushed into him like a linebacker. More security were coming over once they saw that this guy hadn’t just touched down and walked out with us. I was pushing him towards my coworker who was moving in towards us from the opposite side. But somehow this dude tripped and fell, and since we both had our arms wrapped around each other he took me down with him. With my forward momentum I essentially just fell on him. I hope it didn’t look like I intentionally did a takedown on him like in a wrestling match. I’m pretty sure it did, though. As we fell he was facing me so I was in danger of him kicking or punching me as I got up again. Amazingly, he didn’t.

Aggro dude still kept wanting to get away from us and do something, so the coworker who I was pushing him into grabbed him with me and we dragged him out to the corridor where he can enter the crowd again. We each had him by his arm and shoulder as we brought him out to the release area and let him go. Thankfully he did not turn around and come at us again, but he yelled and made a commotion like we were the bad guys. I walked back to my place in the pit and both coworkers and audience members gave me high fives and smiles for dealing with that. Turns out the band saw this fracas happening right in front of them and actually stopped playing their song. With all the adrenaline and intensity happening I didn’t even notice the absence of any music. The actions of that one crowd surfer interrupted the concert. The singer looked down at me and asked over the mic, “Did that guy do something wrong or something?” I nodded at him and said, “Yeah” and got back in position for the next crowd surfer. They started playing again.

Later in the same show, an audience member gestured to us that he needed out. Understandable with all the heat, sweat, over stimulation, and crushing force happening.  He was a white guy in his 20’s with only camo shorts on. I came over to assist with pulling the guy up over the barricade while the people around him moved back to make room. Got him over the steel barricade and when we put his feet on the ground he just collapsed like his legs didn’t work. I couldn’t tell if he passed out or had an injury or what. I started talking to him encouraging him to walk out with me. He would walk with us for a few steps, then go limp again. Was this guy pranking us? Was he losing consciousness? Was he having a medical incident? The security manager who hired me happened to be floating and came over to assist. We each had one arm and walked/dragged him out of the pit area into the corridor that leads back out into the middle of the audience.

The guy wouldn’t answer us but started making really odd moaning sounds. We had his arms securely and he wasn’t struggling, so we dragged him a short distance and stopped. It looks really bad to have to bouncers dragging a person’s limp body in front of everybody. Might make people think he died and we were dragging out his corpse. We kept trying to talk to him to get him to walk with us. He kind of started half walking with us, so we continued carrying him all the way through the entire venue floor towards the elevator. Then he started doing odd things with his legs. I wasnt sure if he was trying to kick out our feet, or trying to dance. At one point he lifted up his legs and pedaled them in the air like he was riding a bicycle. We had his arms, so why not?  He started shuffling along and moaning again, so I honestly considered the outcome that he was turning into a zombie. We got him in to the elevator but still kept a firm grip on his arms. A few months before I was hired there was a huge fight that moved into this elevator. Apparently numerous staff were punched and hurt in the melee. I couldn’t help but have the ghost of that story bouncing around my head while we held this guy in the elevator. It’s only two stories down to the entrance, but when you’re holding a non-communicative man who is either on drugs or turning into a zombie….that’s a long elevator ride.

We walked him out the front door and gently set him down outside on the sidewalk leaning against the wall. Everybody breathed a sign of relief that he didn’t lose his mind and start attacking us. I stood back and let the security manager lead this. He offered the guy water and asked his name and if we could help him and what happened to him. He was able to mumble something about breathing heavy, which we interpreted as having difficulty breathing. That combined with his nonsensical babbling and yelling lead us to call an ambulance to assess him. Some random person walked by and asked him if he took some bad meth. All of the sudden the guy got a panicked look in his eyes and started screaming and stood up. He was extremely agitated and charged at us so we tackled him to the ground. I got his legs securely and my manager had his torso. This dude started screaming at the top of his lungs and struggled like we were trying to murder him. The staff person on the phone quickly changed the nature of their call from medical to police. While being held on the ground this guy screamed things like, “THEY ARE RAPING ME! THEY ARE RAPING ME!” He howled like a banshee and tried to get up with two 220 pound men laying on him. I thought of those stories of people with extraordinary strength that don’t feel pain when on some drugs. Or mothers able to lift cars off of their child in an emergency. This dude was maybe 150 pounds but he seemed to have the strength of a horse. We all have walkie-talkie on our belts and he would look at each of them and scream, “THAT’S A GUN! THAT’S A GUN!!” Then he would switch between screaming and sobbing. He would get very quiet and say, “I hate myself so much.”

Remember this guy was only wearing some camouflage shorts. So his bare back, arms, and legs are scraping and grinding on the concrete as he struggles to get away from us. He’s got almost 450 pounds of bouncers on top of him and he’s squirming around and jerking and kicking. His exposed skin had to be bloodied and raw. Hamburger. I just kept thinking, “Stop struggling. Stop struggling. Stop struggling.” His entire body is going to feel like he was in a motorcycle crash when he returns to the real world tomorrow. And this is the violent idiocy of recreational drug use. Dangerous and surreal.

Waiting for the police to arrive while you are holding an out of control person on the ground that doesn’t want you to also feels like an exceptionally long time. He stopped struggling and muttered nonsense to himself. A friend of his from the concert came out and smiled nervously when he saw his friend being held on the concrete by two bouncers. He came over and tried to calm the guy down by touching his chest and telling him it’s ok. The police and ambulance arrived and assisted us in releasing him to them without him ramping up again and charging anybody. They handcuffed him immediately and put him on a stretcher to go in the ambulance. He’s going to get assessed and likely detoxed from whatever he was on. He will either spend the night in Hooper Detox, or stay a night in the hospital on a psych hold depending.

Meth/cocaine/balt salts/rage virus….I guess I’ll never know what that guy was on.

My boss and I went back inside and thoroughly washed our hands and forearms. Apparently as the guy was being put in the ambulance he said, “This was the best concert of my life!”

I took a moment to gather myself and then returned to my place on the barricade. There were more crowd surfers that night, but nothing like those last two.

I remember thinking “Well, this is my Monday night. How crazy will Saturday be?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One comment on “Working the stage (with a crowd surfing primer)

  1. Margaret Linder says:

    Keep writing!! This would make a good chapter
    In a handbook for bouncers! You really have a way with words!! Very descriptive!! I felt like I was at the venue.

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