The Five-Dollar Fistfight

Boy dancing with broomstick, Valentine's Dance— Bluebird Blvd.

As a teenager in the early 1990s, I didn’t go to a lot of shows or concerts.

There are any number of reasons why I missed out on hearing live popular music, but I think the one reason that will cover all the bases here is that every time I came home from a show my mother would notice one or more of the following disturbing changes to my person:  a black eye, ripped tights, a missing shoe, temporary tinnitus, and/or the caffeine shakes.

Because I was more clueless than the average teenager, I didn’t always understand why she was reluctant to part with the five-dollar cover charge to allow me to go someplace where I was obviously going to eventually get myself killed.

To her credit, she still did, on occasion, give me the money to go to these deafness-inducing techno and p-funk shows, and showed remarkable restraint when I would come home looking like I’d walked through an automatic car wash set to “extra wax.”

Here’s the successful recipe of any 200 capacity-or-fewer show I went to in my teens and early twenties:

Add the following in a badly air-conditioned club or run-down theater—

  • A band that has been on drugs/on the road since 1985.  Extra points are awarded if they haven’t bathed from 1986-1993. (This band will have four people in it and more electronic equipment than the International Space Station.)


  •  Four hundred and fifty bored and angry teenagers/twenty-somethings who have been drinking watered-down coffee at Bob’s since three o’clock this afternoon.


  •  Twenty-five music fans over the age of 25 who are doing their best to ignore the 150 raucous teenagers waiting for the show to start.  These fanboys/girls had actually bought the albums, read the liner notes, and know why the last drummer OD’ed.  (They only talk to each other.)


  •  Twelve creepy guys over the age of 30 looking to pick up teenage girls.  (Teenage girls know you are creepy, and avoid you accordingly.)  (These creepy guys don’t talk to anyone.)


  •  Five bored roadies/bouncers whose job it is to keep the teenagers jumping up and off the damn stage.  After a one year of this job at a music venue, all five will re-register for college with the intention of becoming therapists, therapists who will teach teenagers impulse control so they will stop jumping up and off the damn stage.


  •  Two girls whose parents let them leave the house wearing, basically, lingerie.  (Those two girls know each other and won’t talk to anyone else but each other the whole night.  They are also carrying mace, so beware, creepers.)


  •  And one Heavy Metal Guy with a flippy-wing haircut he’s been sporting since 1978, a man of varying age, who has been in an angry drunken blackout since that same year he decided to do his hair like Farrah Fawcett-Major.  (Remember this guy— he will come up later.)


  • Fill club/theater to capacity.  Now, deliberately break the air conditioner thirty minutes before the opening band is supposed to go on stage.  When the opening band comes on four hours later in a room smoggy with cigarette smoke, sweat-stained synthetic black going-out clothes (this was the early ‘90s), and the anger fumes of 500 impatient music lovers (and one drunk Heavy Metal Guy).

    Finally, enjoy your moment.

    You have created perfect chaos.



But, when I was in my teens and early 20s, I thought this was the height of sophistication.

So, I didn’t mind when I got kicked in the back at a Gingabread Men show by blind-drunk Heavy Metal Guy, which propelled my body into the line of mike stands of the horn section, which then flung the microphones into the horns of three confused horn players, who then subsequently played these notes, as they got smacked by their own AV equipment:  BLEEP!, BLAT!, BLOOORP!

 I barely registered my own embarrassment when, on walking down the aisle of the W— Theater for a Thrill Kill Kult show, 16-year old me slipped on a sloped and freshly painted concrete floor (damp from the ubiquitous broken air conditioning), and flashed my underpants at 349 much-cooler-than-me teenagers down below, while trying with increasingly jerky kicks and wheeling of fishnet-covered arms to regain my balance.  (My four friends took two steps back the minute I started flailing because they didn’t want to be associated with me.  Hey you guys— I understand.)

I maintained my cluelessness at 17 when my friend J— had to pull me out of a mosh pit by the back of my pants on the night he took me to see L7, Beastie Boys, and House of Pain.  (In my defense, I had no idea I was standing in the very back of the room— a place not traditionally a mosh pit.  The whole place turned into a mosh pit the minute the Beastie Boys played their first chord.  And how did I get injured?  There was a Heavy Metal Guy in front of me and a Heavy Metal Guy behind me. You do the math.

I did notice something was not right the night when 19 year old me was standing in front of the stage of an empty club with a poet friend when smashed Heavy Metal Guy came out of nowhere, and— I’m not making this up— moshing to the music in his own head, bumped me so hard that I flew three feet and bounced like a superball off the nearest wall.  My poet friend only had time to blink as he watched my brain get scrambled.

After the night a drunk stranger said, “can you hold my soda?” right before climbing the stage and accidentally kicking me in my 20-year old face, I started to get the idea that live music venues, at least the ones I chose, were really, really hazardous to my health.  By then, I had been in college long enough to have paid for at least five semester credits worth of common sense.  In theory.

In spite of a bruised cheekbone, what it took for me to stop this self-abuse for awhile was a gift from my friend and coffeehouse manager R——, who bought me a ticket and arranged for a ride to see NIN/David Bowie in Austin for my 21st birthday— an amazing present.  (Thank you, R—!)

The NIN/David Bowie tour was not some small event.

It was my first big outdoor show, and only my second-ever Austin show.  Instead of alternative kids, this grassy area with a stage was made up of about two thousand drunken frat boys, their tiny wasted sorority girlfriends, and about fifteen random David Bowie fans dressed as the year 1976.

Now, I know and you know, what is about to happen to 21-year old me.  I’m gonna get injured.

What I’m sure you don’t understand, and I’m scratching my ponytail over this now, mind you— is, why didn’t I just avoid standing where the violence happens?

Or, better yet, why didn’t I stop going to places where my night would always end up with my mother, or some other person saying, “What happened?  Why are you bleeding out of the side of your face?”


“But, you got kicked.”


“Good lord, are you limping?”


“I can’t talk to you.”


St. Peters Service Club dance, Richmond Hotel

This show was different.

I was standing at the very back of the two thousand capacity crowd with my five friends, including R— who bought my ticket.

And then, what seems inevitable now, happened.  I caught a glimpse of a friend that I hadn’t seen in three years two rows ahead of me.  After politely nudging my way up through those two rows to say hello just before NIN came on stage, I hugged my long-lost friend and made two seconds worth of small talk.

Trent Reznor walked out.

The whole venue trembled with drunken frat/sorority anticipation.

Reznor was bathed in golden light, like some sort of techno god.

The opening bars of a famous song started.

That’s the last thing that’s going to make sense to either of us, you especially.  The rest, I am afraid, is a montage of stupidity perpetuated mostly by me.

Somehow, my friend and I got swept forward into the surging drunken crowd.

Somehow, we managed to stay together while getting pushed through row after row of people who were turning this huge concert venue into a giant, throbbing, shoving, kicking mosh pit.

Three songs into NIN’s set, I had lost a shoe and half the contents of my tiny backpack, and I started grabbing people by the shoulders as I searched for my footwear and makeup and car keys.  (I found the shoe and the car keys, not the makeup.)

After a lot more shoving and more weirdly— punching, by four teenency little girls (I’m a strapping 5”2 in shoes)—  whom I had to threaten with bodily harm to keep them from Swedish massaging my internal organs from behind, my friend and I found ourselves near the front of the stage, where, and I’m not exaggerating even a little, there was a walled off mosh pit where people were being thrown ten feet into the air.

As suddenly as it started, it stopped.

Why did it stop, you ask?  Because Trent Reznor had finished his duet with David Bowie and half the crowd immediately left.

My friend and I looked at each other.  My face was smudged with dirt and a little bit of my own blood.  Her long hair was now a nest of broken twigs wound around a crushed soda can.

A large man policing the wall looked at the two of us and asked whether we’d like to come over the barricade to the front of the stage.  I think I said, “Su—“ as gigantor stage dude picked me up like a load of wet laundry and handed me over to tall stage guyette, who gently set me down.  My friend was standing next to me, having experienced the same man-to-woman bodyguard hand-off.

We were now fifteen feet from David Bowie, who played for an hour to the 200 or so people who weren’t interested in punching each other to a ¾ beat.  (I’m a huge David Bowie fan, by the way, so R——, if you’re reading: BEST 21st BIRTHDAY PRESENT, EVER.)

Once Bowie finished singing his last song, I found my friends, who had spent the entire show watching from a great spot underneath a tree because they’re smart.  I looked as though I had been in a two-hour bar fight, and although I was as sober as a, well, me, I pretty much had been in a two-hour bar fight.

And that, my friends, was that.

I didn’t go to another show for a long, long time.  Not until I was at least 26, and I had finally learned a couple of things— like standing so far back from the stage you’re practically in the parking lot.  And wearing earplugs.

It was a sign of the changing era that most bands and all venues no longer tolerated mosh pit shenanigans.  It was too easy to get sued.   And by then, drunk Heavy Metal Guy was persona non grata, probably because he had gone off to sire Heavy Metal Children— and teaching someone that complicated flippy, greasy hair-origami takes decades.

Lee Celledoni dancing the jitterbug, 1947

DEAR LOVELY READERS:   This story was originally published on November 11, 2011— four days after Bluebird Blvd. went live on November 7th.  Did all of these things actually happen to me?  Oh my, yes.  And much worse.  I am amazed I have all of my original teeth, to tell you the truth.  Whew!  I am so glad I am not a teenager!  Aren’t you?

About Courtenay Bluebird

Courtenay Bluebird is the creator of Bluebird Blvd. and The Bluebird B-Side. She is a published writer, career journalist, and professional photographer who likes books and sweets. She laughs loudly and sincerely both in public and in private.
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  1. Ah, the wonder of 1990s rock shows. The wonder of how those Downward Spiral kids missed one of the greatest DB shows of all time. The wonder of how you didn’t ultimately get mashed into chunky salsa, doomed to be the quasi-hipster girl in the knee socks and metal leg braces, forever sipping that watered-down coffee in the Cafe of Broken Dreams.

    • No joke! Because of those shows, I didn’t own a single piece of going out clothes that didn’t have at least one rip, permanent bloodstain, or, in one instance, teeth marks. I still haven’t figured that last one out.

  2. Oh! I forgot! I really like the phrase “mashed into pulpy salsa.” That. Is. Awesome.

  3. “synthetic black going-out clothes.” I know EXACTLY what you mean. Also, you and I had similar NIN experiences. I saw the NIN/Bowie tour, too, but my bad NIN moshpit experience was in 1994 when Marilyn Manson & Jim Rose Circus opened and I was swept to the front of the pit by a wave of really large dudes and Heavy Metal Guys after about half the people in the seats rushed the floor the minute Trent Reznor came out. Couldn’t breathe, feet weren’t touching the ground, so I did something supremely stupid and crawled my way out of the pit and to the safety of the seats in the arena, where I watched the show and then spent an hour trying to find my ride after. Sheesh.

    • WOW. I can’t believe someone didn’t step on you! And I’m so glad no one did! I don’t think I ever thought of crawling through any of these places because of the kicking and the state of the floors. (However, given some of my stupid injuries, maybe I should have.)

      And what is it about those shows that caused everyone to wander around looking for their ride afterwards? I got lucky at NIN/Bowie because I came with responsible folk, but some of those other shows…. Man.

      Partially because of the deluge of “synthetic going -out clothes,” I now can’t wear anything that doesn’t breathe. Even my shoes. Seriously. So glad you posted this anecdote.

  4. Hillarious! I thought all those torn clothes were just your hipster style! LOL!
    Do you remember the girl that I pulled out of the pit that was dehydrated or dunk or tripping or a little of both. She was passing out in the middle of the pit about to get stomped. There was also a girl surfing on the crowd and I barely saw that they were losing control of her and luckily I dove and caught her head just before it hit the ground and help stand her up.
    LOL! I’m so glad that you enjoyed the show so much and it’s great to see your point of view of the event!

    I love you Court!


    • It’s true— my clothes were just a product of being a broke, little thrift store magpie!

      I don’t remember that girl you pulled out of the pit. I think we had been there for nearly ten minutes before I got sucked into the crowd and lost all of you!

      (Though I did have a similar experience at a Cocteau Twins show in Austin— I had to carry a girl out to the lobby on my own b/c no one would help me. Luckily, she was tinier than me. And I had big beefy arms from waiting tables!)

      You taking me to that show for my birthday was THE HIGHLIGHT of my early 20s! I love you so much, R.! And I’m so glad you finally got to read the thing I wrote about the present you gave me— which is a lifetime of memories!

  5. I was a teenager in the 60’s ( Don’t listen to ACFlory, it was the 1960’s) and things seemed so different then. Such tranquil nights out and I think I remember such well behaved though oddly distorted shows. We disdained the wearing of black though perhaps on occasion we disdained the wearing of anything. Sorry my memory seems a little hazy on this point. I’m sure these rose tinted sunglasses are affecting my memory.
    Please, for the sake of someone who is a tad older than you and just a shade less understanding than your mother about why you attended such accident inducing shows and a Brit to boot ( figuratively speaking, that’s not an invitation) explain to me what the heck a ‘Mosh Pit’ is, and maybe a ‘Heavy Metal Guy’?????
    xxx Hugs xxx

    • *Laughs* Lord David Prosser, the worst thing I ever did as a teenager was develop a terrible espresso addiction when there were only two places in the city to get super strong coffee. Oh, and we stayed up really late. Terrible, I know. Not that I didn’t know/meet/come across people who did really… hair-raising things, but the second half of Generation X was such a tiny group that often they were a bit protective of themselves and each other.

      This is a clip from the Nine Inch Nails/David Bowie “Outside” Tour. My friend R. bought me a ticket to celebrate my 21st birthday. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I could not find a clip from the Austin, Texas leg of the tour, but this should suffice to explain the oddity of a mosh pit.

      Mosh pits have been popular in hardcore music and industrial music since the early 1980s. Initially, people called this social gesture slam-dancing because they would be half-dancing, half-slamming into one another to loud, fast music. It was a voluntary activity created spontaneously by a small group of people, which would catch on with a larger and larger crowd. Theoretically.

      In brief, the mosh pits popular in the 1990s took places at a rock concert of industrial music (called a show in the 1990s). During a/the show, people would begin to feel agitated, and start stomping around in an aggressive circle. Very shortly after that, the same people would start shoving each other with their shoulders, and then, it would end in a free-for-all where everyone in the pit would shove and punch and kick one another like idiots.

      My initial problem was that I kept trying to stand close to the stage— automatically a mosh pit area during the late 1980s to mid-1990s. Around the mid-1990s when I grew a little bit of sense, I discovered that I was just a mosh-pit magnet. I could stand anywhere at a show and end up next to the hardest hardcore mosh pit going.

      When moshing was its most popular, people would try to mosh to all sorts of music that was too slow or too sweet and the effect was comical.

      Sometimes adjacent to, or because of, a mosh pit, people would start stage-diving. Stage-diving has been around since… hmmmm, the 1970s?— but reached its height of popularity in the 1990s. To stage dive, a person will climb up on the stage where the band is performing, where she, or he, will leap off into a crowd like one would jump into a pool of water. The people below should catch that person and pass them hand over hand through the crowd. This is called crowd surfing.

      However, that’s not always what happens.

      Around the early 1990s, as industrial music became increasingly aggressive, one of the most hilarious and terrible things I kept seeing at shows would be this moment where the lead singer or lead musician would attempt to stage dive into his own audience (always a “he” in this case), and the audience, instead of catching him, would take one step backward, allowing the performer to land on his head. Really not nice.

      Once, I watched a security guard on the stage pushing the audience members off of the lip of the stage, trying to keep them from stage diving. One of the people he prevented from climbing up on the stage grabbed the security guard’s arm as he fell back into the crowd, yanking the security guy into this roiling mosh pit. The security guard disappeared for a second into this crowd, and then he was burped back onto the stage, looking quite addled. It was funny, but really scary.

      Here’s the clip. STROBE WARNING. This show was in the dark, so what you will see are people moving. At first you will think they are dancing, but they aren’t dancing— that huge crowd is a mosh pit, which will get bigger and bigger while he sings. Trent Reznor uses the f-word everywhere after the first 15 seconds, so do feel free to not watch/cut off the sound/enjoy it/whathaveyou.

      Trent Reznor is a rather talented composer and musician. Although he’s got a rather large backing band here, he usually plays all of the instruments on his own albums. He pioneered some sound techniques that are used by everyone now. He’s gained a mainstream audience in the last five years because of his co-creation of the score for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (*rolls eyes up* the American remake.) with composer/cohort Atticus Ross.

      About this clip: This is the opening of NIN/Trent Reznor’s performance. At the Austin leg of this show, I would have been much farther back than the opening pan-shot that shows Trent Reznor singing his first song. But imagine what happened next— When he got to the chorus at the Austin show, I was sucked into a spontaneous mosh pit filled with hundreds upon hundreds of people. With each song, I kept getting shoved farther and farther up into the crowd. By the last two songs of Trent Reznor’s set I ended up nearly in the hardcore mosh pit at the front of the stage, where I saw three different people get thrown ten feet in the air.

      Trent Reznor and David Bowie sang a great duet, and then everyone left when David Bowie came on, more or less, which was weird. That’s when the bodyguards lifted me and my friend to allow us to go right up front to see Bowie perform.

      It was actually a really good show, except for the being bashed around part.

      In the latter part of the 1990s, moshing became unfashionable due to injuries and lawsuits. Mainstream and alternative performers got in the habit of stopping their shows, turning on the house lights, and having the offending parties thrown out. Industrial music and hardcore music still attracts mosh pits, but they have never garnered the same allure as their 1980s-90s counterparts.

      Okay, let me see if I can find a good heavy metal guy representation for you. Lord David Prosser, I am up so late that it’s actually early. This is fun! 😀

    • I’ve been to about 3 live concerts my entire life but… way back in 2001, NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine was my favourite album, so I relate. :)

    • Oooh. Good choice!

      I think you would have liked that show, despite the 2000 person mosh pit— Bowie sang a NIN Song, and NIN sang a Bowie song. They did a duet of NIN’s “Reptile” that was really fantastic!

    • -grin- I’m sure I would have, except for the mosh pit!

    • I can’t really find a good version of “heavy metal guy.” Every version is just a little too insulting or insular or just plain mean. These would have been the guys who were working class, who would have listened to Blue Oyster Cult, Iron Maiden, Dio, erm, who else…? Oh! Ozzy Osbourne, of course! Maybe a little bit of Rush and Alice Cooper.

      So, not really my thing in my youth. I found this clip of a move I loved from about six years ago, called Rock Star, which shows off the best of what would have been one of two major alternate music scenes at the time— So this would be the younger brother of original Heavy Metal Guy, the second wave — a little dressier, a little more lighthearted. It’s a great movie. This is an abbreviated version of the opening. Mark Wahlberg plays a fan of hard rock band Steel Dragon. He belongs to a tribute band that goes to see their heroes play an arena one night… and due to a break in the band, Wahlberg ends up auditioning and becoming the new lead singer. Really good survey of how metal deviates into grunge music in the early 1990s.

      It’s also a cloaked version of real events— the departure of the lead singer of Judas Priest, who was replaced by the lead singer of a Judas Priest tribute band. No kidding.

      Okay, the clip is a bit rude right at the very end, but it’s “cable television rude.” Sorry about that!

      Hugs back!

  6. I’ve experienced all of those disturbing changes….

Hey there, cupcake! How are ya?