I don't have the statistics in front me (I left them in my other pair of pants), but I'm pretty sure no one's ever died in a mosh pit. Plus, I know a lot of cool gentlemen who spent the good part of their formative years in pits and who turned out fine. My friend Andrew is one of them. He's an EMT in New York City now, and he recently saved a baby's life by giving it CPR. See? Andrew taught me that mosh pits are far less chaotic than they appear. For example, did you know that there are moshing dance moves? I forget their names, but I've seen Andrew do most of them. And there are rules to moshing, too; for example, you always pick someone up if he falls down, and you have to beat up anyone who gropes the rare but totally awesome female who ventures in. To me, though, the best thing about mosh pits is that they are unique, living things. They are born and die in one night, during one band's set, and their lives tell the story of that set. This is what I realized last week at the System of a Down show at the Fillmore.
Some of you may have cringed when you read that last sentence, because System of a Down is a mainstream metal band that ascended more or less in sync with the explosion of Ozzfest (which the band has played twice now, in 1998 as an unknown supporting act and in 2002 as a headliner), so it's easy to confuse it with many of its lame peers, like Drowning Pool and Mudvayne and Korn. But friends, please, please reconsider. I mean, let's just take SOAD's newly ubiquitous single, "B.Y.O.B.," off the upcoming Mezmerize (which comes out this Tuesday). The song's title stands for "bring your own bombs," which epitomizes why this band is good: It appeals mainly to frat dudes, but is secretly trying to blow their minds. This goes for the music, too. "B.Y.O.B." contains a chorus that's as sickeningly catchy and overproduced as anything No Doubt's ever written, as well as the lyrics "Everybody's going to the party/ Have a real good time" -- which are followed by "Dancing in the desert/ Blowing up the sunshine." Ha! Mind-blowing. Plus, that cheeky hook is sandwiched between thrashing, jagged verses that feel as if someone were skateboarding over my face. "Why do they always send the poor/ Why don't presidents fight the war?" shrieks the always surprisingly understandable Serj Tankian. Now that is what I want our troops listening to as they drive their tanks over children. Who knows; it may give them second thoughts.
Anyway, I was really looking forward to the SOAD show, because for most of the band's career I, like many of you, had dismissed it and so had never seen it play live. The dang thing was being held at the Fillmore, too, part of SOAD's "guerrilla" effort, for which it plays small (relative to how big the band is) venues and tickets go on sale at the last minute and only at the box office, so only the real die-hards show up. The group opened the show with "B.Y.O.B.," an indicator that it was going to dispense with the new stuff quickly and stick mainly to older material, which is a pretty ace thing to do (no one likes going to see Rod Stewart if dude's not gonna play the hits). The crowd was the expected mix of old-school heavy metal perps in black Iron Maiden T-shirts and meatheads from Fremont who like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park. The guy-to-girl ratio was about 3-to-1, and there was enough secondhand pot smoke to bake Free Willy.
The pit was up and running right from the start, swirling like a whirlpool, counterclockwise (pits swirl the opposite direction in Australia). Throughout the night, you could tell how hard the band was rocking based on the size of the maw: monster truck tire, sumo wrestling ring, backyard swimming pool, Il Duomo. I have a theory that, like yours truly, the members of System of a Down (in addition to Tankian there are guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, and drummer John Dolmayan; they're all Armenian, in case you're wondering about the names) must have grown up doing musical theater, because there was something wonderfully operatic about their performance. Tankian growled as well as he crooned as well as he screamed, and during songs like "Chop Suey" -- as Malakian (backed by a battery of Marshall half-stacks) beat his guitar as if he'd caught it stealing his wallet, and Dolmayan (shirtless, ripped like an American Gladiator) drove the beastly noise like a herd of Clydesdales trying to outrun a tornado -- the singer flew around the stage and inspired audience members to throw their hands dramatically up in the air like Willem Dafoe in Platoon; this strange gesture was made throughout the night, and it seemed to express both utter stupefaction and a religious awakening.
For the most part, the band played songs from 1998's System of a Down and 2001's Toxicity, delivering 24 tunes in just under two hours with no encore. The audience knew every single word, even to older songs like "Sugar," the mammoth track with the strange detour into jazz that closed out the set. Two songs earlier, SOAD played its megahit "Toxicity," the first foreboding guitar notes of which had the effect of water sweeping out into the ocean in anticipation of a tsunami. When the distorted wave broke over the Fillmore, the invisible membrane that surrounds a pit became porous, and moshers bled out into the crowd like those ravenous zombies from 28 Days Later, effectively turning everyone they came in contact with into one of them until the entire floor was thundering. Pockets of fury melted into and out of one another like storm clouds -- you could feel the floor shaking from the balcony. I've never seen anything like it.
That is the beautiful, natural thing about a mosh pit: You have dozens and sometimes hundreds of individual rockers, each responding to the music with his own intensity, expressing themselves through bumping into, pushing, and sometimes even hitting one another, though all in the spirit of good fun (my favorite name ever for a hardcore band belonged to one I saw with Andrew in the basement of a library in D.C., Good Clean Fun). When you combine all that energy, it creates an entirely new organism, a creature with a life of its own. That's how I know that System of a Down rocks really damn hard. That night at the Fillmore the band had created a monster.