The first ever staging of the Roskilde Festival near Copenhagen, on the island of Zealand, Demark, was in 1971. It had progressively grown from humble beginnings to be one of Northern Europe’s biggest musical festivals. Annually, tens of thousands of music fans visit Roskilde at the end of June. Some of the worlds biggest acts have played there, including Status Quo, U2, Lou Reed, Eric Clayton, Metallica and Leonard Cohen to name a few. On 30th June 2000, Pearl Jam was playing as a headline act at Roskilde. Unfortunately, for fans, event organisers and Pearl Jam, the 2000 event will only be remembered for its tragedy.
Pearl Jam had belted out eleven of their songs to an audience of approximately 50,000 strong before they broke into one of their more melancholy songs called Daughter. It was at this point that they realized something was wrong in the audience. Responding to a frantic request to stop playing, Eddie Vedder receives a message from event security that audience members were being crushed. He pleads with the audience for calm and to stop pushing towards the stage. He asked people to take “three steps back.” But it was too late.
The unimaginable had happened on that wet and moody night: nine concertgoers were tragically killed and another thirty injured. The tragedy shook the festival to its core including the band. Vedder is seen visibly shaken after his address to concertgoers, as bodies of the dead and injured are carried out of the arena. At the time, PJ was unaware of the deaths of nine concertgoers. It wasn’t until after their set had finished that the badly shaken members of PJ were informed of the tragic deaths. Absolutely devastated the band issued a statement and amongst other things said, “…Our lives will never be the same, but we know that is nothing compared to the grief of the families and friends of those involved. It is so tragic…there are no words.”
Many years later as part of PJ’s twenty year anniversary together, Vedder would look back, “I just wanted to get out of there. I just didn’t want it to be true. It was happening right in front of us, but I just didn’t want it to be true.”
Pearl Jam almost contemplated breaking up after the incident in 2000. Their very existence was in doubt in the days and weeks that followed. PJ would cancel the rest of their European tour. Late on the day after the tragedy, legendary guitarist Pete Townshend would offer his deepest sympathies in a statement (and personally to Vedder.) A similar tragedy struck in Cincinnati in 1970’s when 11 people died at one of The Who’s concerts. Unlike The Who, who were hostile to the media in the aftermath, PJ did everything humanly possible to cooperate.
The police concluded that the deaths were accidental and no criminal charges were laid against the festival organisers nor Pearl Jam. However, there were always going to be some elements out there, including a Danish deputy chief, who would lay blame at Pear Jam’s feet, assigning them with ‘moral responsibility’ for the tragedy. The inference seemed to suggest that PJ seeks out trouble or incites violence at their concerts by encouraging people to push, scream and fight to get as close as possible to the stage or band. As a PJ fan and concertgoer myself, I have never been witness to such antics and find the contemptuous suggestion absurd.
At the commencement of the 2001 Roskilde Festival, an official memorial was opened in memory of the nine lives lost the previous year, with 9 birch trees placed in a circle around a huge stone with the inscription “…how fragile we are.” Important safety procedures were also overhauled, in order to avoid the same thing happening again. This took place not only at Roskilde, but also at other music festivals in Europe.
The Roskilde tragedy was also a turning point how the band dealt with concertgoers in the future. It also profoundly changed every member in the band from their outlook to life, their relationships with each other and their music. PJ had also made efforts to reconcile with many of the families of the deceased. Eddie Vedder, in particular, shares a close bond with the family of Australian victim Anthony Hurley.
To this day PJ continues to mourn those that lost their life on the 30th June 2000. Back in 2002, when they released their album Riot Act, Eddie Vedder made a beautiful reference to the people who lost their lives at Roskilde in the song Love Boat Captain with the line:
“Lost 9 friends we’ll never know…2 years ago today.”
Movingly, Vedder changes the lyrics to reflect the passage of time since the tragedy every time they perform Love Boat Captain in concert.