Who's Afraid of Paul Werheimer? | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Who's Afraid of Paul Werheimer? 

Most Wanted Moshers/These photos were posted at Soldier Field.

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When it comes to the well-being of kids at rock concerts, you'd think that reasonable people would work together to ensure the safest possible conditions. But Jam Productions and its security force, Star Security, don't have many nice things to say about concert-safety watchdog Paul Wertheimer. That's their right--but it's possible that Jam and Star stepped over the line last Tuesday at the Pearl Jam show at Soldier Field.

Wertheimer says he was plucked out of the mosh pit for no reason and later arrested on a trumped-up battery charge. Instead of monitoring crowd conditions at the rock 'n' roll show of the year, he spent six hours in the pokey.

Wertheimer started working in crowd safety as a city staffer in Cincinnati in 1980: it fell to him to write the report analyzing the conditions that led to the deaths of 11 kids at a Who concert. Since then he has moved to Chicago and, under the corporate moniker Crowd Management Strategies, collected information and campaigned for safer shows.

Wertheimer's version of last Tuesday's events is that he was in the pit surveying conditions when guards accused him of pushing. He was taken out and surrounded by security people at the side of the field. Wertheimer says he was then startled by a newcomer brandishing a camera: "I turned away and moved my left arm up over my eyes. My arm touched his camera. I didn't hit the camera, didn't knock it to the ground. All of a sudden he's saying, 'Oh, my eye, my eye.' That was it." The photographer pressed charges, and Wertheimer was bundled off to police.

Jam's version of events, vociferously articulated by owners Arny Granat and Jerry Mickelson, is rather different: they insist that Wertheimer, whom they despise as a self-promoting irritant, was just another fan taken out of the crowd for hostile behavior. They claim he was seen pushing one person "so hard his head snapped back." They say the guards didn't know who Wertheimer was, but that he was "abusive and aggressive" to their personnel. Photographing troublemakers, Granat says, is standard operating procedure; he also says he has four witnesses who saw Wertheimer push the camera into the photographer's face, bruising his eye.

There's certainly more to the story than Jam admits. The company was on the lookout for Wertheimer that day: posters of his photo dotted the stadium's security areas. Jam's beef was that he had once helped Fox News reporter Larry Yellen get some clandestine moshing footage; and that week, he'd generated some publicity by raising safety questions about the show's partial general-admission policy. In other words, if the security people who grabbed Wertheimer didn't recognize him, they weren't doing their jobs.

Was Wertheimer causing trouble in the pit? Jam's theory is that Wertheimer was trying to start trouble, either to create an unsafe condition--and prove his own theories--or to get publicity. But Wertheimer, whom I've talked to off and on for five or six years, looks and acts like the mild-mannered fortysomething Lincoln Park denizen that he is. It's hard to imagine him being so violent or cynical, or risking his credibility in such a clumsy way.

Finally there's the little matter of the photographer Wertheimer allegedly injured. It turns out he is Pearl Jam's tour manager, Eric Johnson. What was the tour manager of the biggest rock band in the world doing on the field 20 minutes before show time photographing an anonymous fan accused of a venial crime? The answer may be the key to the story. The Pearl Jam organization, which didn't return a call for comment, has Wertheimer trouble too: he'd talked to the San Diego sheriff's office about safety concerns over proposed Pearl Jam shows on a county fairground. (The band eventually dropped the dates.) Indeed, members of the band's private security force confronted Wertheimer initially. Hitsville's theory is that they called Johnson, Jam got into the act, and the event escalated from there.

I should note that in seven years I don't think I've seen seriously inappropriate behavior by security people at Jam concerts. But Jam and Star have put themselves in a bad spot by demonizing Wertheimer, who's done a good job alerting people to the dangers facing kids at rock shows, which can involve lots of unrestrained slamming and pushing, six- or seven-foot drops to a hard floor, and flailing elbows and boots at eye level. (There's also the increasing problem of the groping and undressing of women who bodysurf.) While it's true that mosh pit attendance is voluntary, it's also true that kids voluntarily do a lot of stupid things; the people who make money off them are responsible for their safety.

Wertheimer, ironically enough, says the Pearl Jam show was relatively safe. He noted padded barricades and cooling water sprinkled on dehydrated fans. But he also saw a hard plastic cover over the turf. "It's great to protect the grass," he says. "But there was nothing for the falling bodysurfers. Why wasn't that padded?"

He insists that he has to be in the pit to see what's going on and will continue to be there in the future. "In Cincinnati," he says, "it was all in the midst of the crowd. No one could see what was happening. Nobody knew they were dying."

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