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A 25 year quest to see Pearl Jam.

The Orange Stage at Roskilde Festival.

It’s always exciting when one of your favourite bands announces a tour. But when they’re a stadium rock goliath and you share them with several million other fans, the excitement is quickly followed by FoMO. We can’t all fit into a venue and no one is ever polite enough to wait until I’ve got my ticket before buying their own, so we’re all forced to join the dreaded Ticketmaster dance.

It’s ironic then that the band in question this time is Pearl Jam. Who can forget their gallant attempt to take on Ticketmaster at a point in their career when they could genuinely claim to be the planet’s biggest live act, making good on their threat to cancel an entire world tour and the subsequent mess they got themselves into before giving up. And that was before Ticketmaster merged with Live Nation to create the monolithic nightmare live music fans have to wrestle with today.

However, fair market forces or not, I’m an expert at getting hold of tickets. Rumours on forums, cryptic posts on X, fansite subscriptions, mailing lists, presale codes… I’m always ready for the dance off.

I bagged a ticket for Bono’s ultra-exclusive book tour thirty seconds after they became available. A minute later they were gone. That is they weren’t on Ticketmaster anymore, they were now on Seatwave, the secondary sales site offering the same tickets at 20 times the price they were five minutes earlier. A site that’s dubiously affiliated with Live Nation. It’s incredible they get away with this.

But that’s the Ticketmaster dance. If you want to see a band you have to jitterbug when they say jitterbug or bodypop when they say bodypop. There’s no other choice. If Pearl Jam couldn’t do anything about it in the nineties and Taylor Swift couldn’t do anything about it thirty years later, it’s not going to change any time soon, although I believe it will eventually. Live Nation will one day get too greedy and blow themselves up.

For now, just as the best pole dancers get the most tips, the best Ticketmaster dancers get the most tickets and I have one for Pearl Jam’s next show in Berlin. The question now is, will I actually see them this time? Two previous attempts haven’t worked out. Will it be third time lucky or will the jinx continue?

The first time I thought I’d see Pearl Jam was at Roskilde in 2000, the second was at Lollapalooza Stockholm in 2020 but, for tragic reasons, neither show took place. It’s not easy to write about but let’s look back at Roskilde Festival.

The summer of 1996 was approaching and my internship at DTU was coming to an end. After an unforgettable year living, partying (and of course working) in Copenhagen, a city far more fascinating and absorbing than I’d ever expected, I wasn’t particularly relishing a return to the UK to finish my degree.

But there was time for one more party and the best was saved until last. Several people had begun to ask me the same question: are you going to Roskilde? At first I didn’t know what that meant. It speaks to my shameful naivety that I’d previously considered Glastonbury and Reading to be the only music festivals worthy of the name. Roskilde, I was soon to discover, was the king of the European festival circuit.

Pretty much everyone was going. Camping with friends, beers & tequilas, live music, a good stretch of summer weather… I sure as hell was going too. It was only when I checked the lineup that I realised it wasn’t the backwater event I’d assumed would be held in a small, historic town, 30 odd kilometres from Copenhagen.

On the bill that year: David Bowie, Neil Young, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine, Pulp, Massive Attack, Bjork, Alanis Morissette, Patti Smith… The Sex Pistols for God’s sake.

Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan of all of these artists at the time and I certainly didn’t see them all. But looking back now, that lineup was outrageous.

Even before the four days of my Roskilde initiation were over, I knew I’d be back. Over the next 14 years I missed it only once. By 2009 our initial group of 20+ revellers had dwindled to just two. My remaining festival buddy and I skipped that year because of the birth of his twins but returned in 2010 for our swansong. During an almost unbroken run, I witnessed the pinnacle of rock royalty playing live on the iconic Orange Stage.

Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Pixies, Radiohead, Garbage, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Blondie, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, The Who, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica, The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys… we don’t have all day so I won’t move on to the other stages.

One band missing from the list is Pearl Jam. They were a headliner in 2000 and I did see them but only for a few songs before tragedy stopped their set.

People close to the front were being crushed. I had an idea of what this was like. The previous year, I found myself, unintentionally, right at the front of an R.E.M. concert. I’d started further back, away from what I thought would be the worst of mosh pit anarchy but, after losing my friends, I let the crowd’s momentum carry me forward. Squashed against the barrier, I had a perfect view of the band but it wasn’t much fun.

The crush from behind was ferocious and relentless. People all around me were being pulled out and it wasn’t long before I couldn’t take it anymore either. A security guy already had his eye on me. He pointed upwards and I nodded confirmation for him to yank me out. I watched the rest of the show from the other end of a 50,000 sized mass of people, pretty shaken up by the experience. But I hadn’t thought my life was in danger. I wonder now how close a call that was.

One year later, in practically the same spot, nine people who, just like me, didn't think life got much better than camping with their friends and watching some live music, died of asphyxiation after falling in a severe crowd crush.

Pearl Jam were top of my must see list that year. Had I not had that frightening experience at R.E.M., I may well have tried to get close to the front. Instead I was much further back, in the area where people prefer to watch a concert in relatively calmer surroundings. But we knew something serious was going on when the band stopped playing and asked people to move back, before eventually leaving the stage. My friend and I decided to go see someone else. We figured it would take a while to get the situation sorted so we’d still be able to catch most of Pearl Jam’s set.

But when we returned, we realised the gravity of what had happened. Leif Skov, founder of Roskilde Festival, was on stage, telling everyone to leave the area. Pearl Jam would not be coming back. There had been serious injuries in the audience. He then told us that some people had died.

The shock didn’t immediately hit me. I gradually absorbed it over the next few days. But first things first, we had to make sure our friends were all ok. There was at least one who I knew would’ve been somewhere in there, close to the front.

We found him back at our campsite and he looked pretty beaten up. He had been in the crush but managed to fight his way out and, deciding enough was enough, headed straight back to his tent. He was surprised how relieved we were to see him until we told him what had happened. The news was only just starting to filter through the festival site.

Most of the bands due to play on the Orange Stage over the rest of the weekend cancelled but the festival continued. The organisers decided it would be safer than an unplanned early exodus but many people left anyway. We stayed but the remaining two days petered out in an atmosphere of disbelief. It was impossible to go see a band and have fun.

I remember seeing signs everywhere, urging us to call our families but this was easier said than done. No one I knew owned a mobile phone at that time and there were 90,000 other people who wanted to use only a handful of pay phones. I wasn’t entirely sure if my parents were aware I was there or if the news had even reached them so I didn’t get in touch until a few days later when I was back at a friend’s place in Copenhagen.

My mum had heard of course but she’d been smart. Realising the issue I would have finding a phone, she’d contacted the Danish embassy. The names of the people who’d died weren’t publicly known but their nationalities were. She learnt that none were British, enough information to pass on to other family members who’d been calling her while I remained ignorant of their worry.

As always after arriving home from Planet Roskilde, I had an extra day off work to recover. I remember walking past a cafe and noticing someone inside waving to me. It was one of my colleagues but not someone I knew very well, so I just waved back. Next day, when I opened my inbox, I saw a message titled ‘News of John’. My colleague had sent a company-wide email informing everyone she’d seen me and I was fine. I think that was when I finally understood the full repercussions of the accident.

Major changes were made at Roskilde Festival. The area around the two biggest stages was completely redesigned. Enclosed zones were installed to control the number of people near the front, with additional corridors enabling safety personnel to move easily within the crowd and monitor anything that might turn nasty. If you weren’t in one of these zones it was pointless pushing forward - you could never get to the front.

For the first couple of years, the new zones were comparatively empty. I could watch a band up close without being shoved around. Sometimes, no one was behind me for several metres. Understandably, it took a while for trust in the system to build.

Pearl Jam are quite a prolific band and are often out on tour. I’m not sure why it was another 20 years before I had the next opportunity to see them. A combination of not being in the right place at the right time with enough money I suppose. A trip to Stockholm, where they were headlining Lollapalooza, was enticing enough even to persuade my wife to join me. But it didn’t happen. Covid.

And now, for the third time, I have in my possession a ticket to see Pearl Jam. While waiting for the presale before the second presale before the main presale before the general sale to start, I considered my preferences. I didn’t want to stand but otherwise, I wanted to be as close to the front as possible. At Waldbühne concentric rings of seats rise steeply as they get further from the stage. I’ve been there a few times before and the nosebleed seats are not good.

My choice would depend on the prices but, as part of the Ticketmaster dance, they’re not revealed until the sale begins. Hoping that Pearl Jam would at least loosely stick to their fan-friendly reputation, I picked out the blocks I would target as soon as the little blue dots appeared on the seating plan at 09:30:00 CET precisely.

But this rendition of the Ticketmaster dance did not allow me to choose my dot. When the doorman let me into the hallowed VIP area where a purchase begins to look possible, I was simply allocated a ticket based on whatever ramshackle algorithm the choreographer had cooked up and given no indication where it was. Did I want this unknown seat, yes or no?

On a hunch I went through the checkout process. Ah, as I thought; on the last page, along with the holy grail of a gleaming ‘Buy now’ button, was a summary of my order, including the seat reference. It was in the block I wanted! I silently toasted whoever had written such a beautiful selection algorithm. But hang on a second…

A small detail prompted a moment's pause but, deciding it was nothing to worry about, I grabbed the ticket before my time on the dancefloor ran out.

Generally speaking I’m not a superstitious person. I don’t seriously believe that some jinx will prevent me from seeing Pearl Jam for the third time. But I do wish my ticket wasn’t in row 13, seat 13.

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