Music

Fifteen Years Later, How The Roskilde Tragedy Changed Pearl Jam Forever

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Lost nine friends we’ll never know…
— Pearl Jam, “Love Boat Captain”

It had been raining. The festival grounds of the Roskilde Festival in the sleepy farm town of Roskilde, Denmark were soaked. At 10:30 p.m. on June 30, 2000, Pearl Jam took the stage, looking out at 50,000 cold and damp fans. Their set would at end a mere 45 minutes later, upon the completion of “Daughter.” In that time, eight people in the crowd had died. A ninth would die five days later.

At the start of the band’s set, a stampede had broken out, crushing people, leaving them trampled on and left to die. Seemingly everyone involved had fingers pointed at them in the days that followed, whether it was the band for inciting the crowd, festival security for failing to control the scene, or even the speaker towers, which people claimed were malfunctioning, causing people to get closer to the stage to be able to hear. But nine people had died; that fact was indisputable. The effects of that night would stay with Pearl Jam for quite a while.

The Roskilde Festival, which had been around since 1971 when it was originally known as the Sound Festival, had long had a reputation as one of Europe’s safest and best music festivals. The festival scene was significantly more European-centric in 2000 than it is today, when U.S. festivals such as Bonnaroo, Governor’s Ball and Coachella (which had just emerged in 1999 as a festival of respectability) dominate the summer concert season. The stink of Woodstock ’99 still hung over the States, and Europe seemed to have things figured out. Roskilde was a beacon of how things should be done. In the years leading up to 2000, it had grown exponentially to the point that organizers had to reduce attendance from 90,000 in 1998 to 70,000 in 2000.

Pearl Jam hit Roskilde in the midst of the European leg of a tour supporting their sixth album, Binaural. They were the last of the big-time Seattle grunge acts standing in 2000. Nirvana was gone. Soundgarden was gone. Alice in Chains was dealing with lead singer Layne Staley’s drug addiction. Closing in on a decade together, Pearl Jam was lucky to still be standing. Their future, however, would forever be altered by the events of June 30, 2000.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the band cancelled their next two shows and ended up spending the month of July in seclusion before returning to the road in August. The band would only break their silence to refute the Danish police’s initial report on the Roskilde deaths, in which the bulk of the blame was placed on Pearl Jam. The police believed that the band encouraged the unruly behavior and ensuing frenzy that led to the stampede, and did so in a way that neither festival organizers nor security could have prepared for. Kelly Curtis, the band’s manager, responded to the report in a statement: “Pearl Jam [is] well known for their exciting live shows, but they have never, in their 10 year history of performing, ‘appealed to violent behavior.'” Pearl Jam called for the investigation to be re-opened, and, as a result, the blame was shifted from the band to festival security, malfunctioning speakers, inclement weather, alcohol, and a lack of seating. No charges were filed against the band, festival security or festival organizers.

After Roskilde, the band took a more proactive stance when playing festivals. Upon playing at Leeds and Reading festivals in 2006, Pearl Jam brought stipulations with them that they required be met. The band would evaluate “all operational and security policies in advance, such as design and configuration of barriers and security response procedures in relation to ensuring… safety.”

This evaluation would include checking out the festival security’s command center, location and effectiveness of said locations of EMTs, barricade types, placement and configuration, how alcohol would be sold, the venue’s capacity and “entry and transition procedures.” Most importantly, the band would be fully aware of a festival’s policy on stopping the show — something that the band felt contributed greatly to the deaths at the Roskilde show. No one from festival security or the organizational side could seem to agree on how long it took to communicate the situation in the mosh pit to the stage, and why it took as long as it did. Pearl Jam maintains that if they had just been made aware of what was happening sooner, lives could have been saved.

But nine lives weren’t saved, and it continued to haunt the band in the years that followed. Vedder admitted to disappearing for a year, although he later struck up correspondence with the families of the victims. Guitarist Stone Gossard felt compelled to return to Denmark in 2003, where he visited with the families of five of the six Scandinavian victims, including Ebbe and Birgitta Gustafsson, whose son Carl-Johan was lost. Gossard has since grown close with the Gustafssons, introducing them to other members of the band, keeping up with them via Skype and inviting them to shows when Pearl Jam is in the area. Never fans of the band themselves, the Gustafssons now have favorite Pearl Jam songs and enjoy attending the concerts.

Pearl Jam’s next album, 2003’s Riot Act, featured two songs about Roskilde, “I Am Mine,” and “Love Boat Captain.”

The band was unsure how to proceed following the tragedy. If it weren’t for The Who, Pearl Jam might have called it quits. In 2002, The Who had recently lost founding member John Entwistle, and had struggled with deciding whether or not to go on. They faced a similar situation when drummer Keith Moon died in 1978, as well as following their own concert tragedy, in which 11 people died in a stampede during a 1979 show in Cincinnati.

“They kept going,” Vedder said at the time. “Instead of going home, they played on, which enabled them to process it as a group, a family of people, which they are, including the crew. It was healthy for them to process it that way, rather than sit in a corner of a room that doesn’t feel like it’s got a floor to it. I understand the people who criticize them for going on. But, ultimately, it’s their choice, and the fact that they went out and used the music to process it with the fans, I thought it was a courageous option.”

“When we were trying to figure out what to do, the thought was not to react, but to respond. How to make the best of a really screwed-up situation.”

And Pearl Jam made the best of the situation by continuing on. Their 2006 self-titled album saw the band experience a career resurgence that has carried on through today. They haven’t played “Love Boat Captain” in years, but whenever they did, Vedder changed the lyrics to reflect the passage of time. On the 10th anniversary of the Roskilde tragedy, the band faced the haunting memory of June 30 head on while performing in Berlin, roughly 250 miles south of the festival grounds.

“(Roskilde) continues to be the hardest day of our lives,” Vedder said from the stage. “It’s not like we’re thinking about it anymore today because it’s really something we think about every day. We’re extremely grateful for the families we’ve gotten to know through this experience, and somehow gotten through this together.”

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