Moby was playing and I was onstage, meters away from him. I was standing in relative darkness, looking through a gaze cloth nicknamed the “seventy-five percenter” at the vast crowd below. That is when I noticed something peculiar.
Sound travels at 300-something meters per second. This means that at a festival site of 600 meters and 80,000 people, the dancing individuals in the back are just under 2 seconds behind on the music. Technicians have to take this into account when hanging speakers halfway, which is where “delay towers” got their name.
So when everyone is jumping, in the back they are jumping 2 seconds later. This is a gradual delay from the stage to the other side of the festival, with means that people jumping to the music don’t jump simultaneously, but in a wave starting at the stage speaker array. From there, every beat sends a wave through the audience as they go up and down, a sinusoid traveling through hearts and bodies at the speed of sound, all the way to the back.
It looks like a pulse emanating from the stage, a wave of energy blasting through countless dancing bodies.
My sister had called me, crying, telling me that the boy she had a crush on, was dead. He had the same name as me and choosing her words badly, she stammered, “Maarten is dead.”
I continued working in a daze. I did what I was told and spoke, but none of it registered, and I have no memory of it. I just remember the bitter, forlorn sensation, like watching my own funeral.
Some idiot had left a large pile of ratchet straps on a floor board, on the other side of the site. A colleague, also an idiot, and myself were asked to fetch it.
I never knew how heavy a pile of ratchet straps really was until we arrived at the stage, my arms feeling like they were going to pop out. “Where do we drop this?” I asked my colleague. He said, “Here” and let go, the plate sending a shock through my body that pulled every muscle inside, before jerking out of my hands and raking down my legs.
I howled, from the top of my lungs, and kicked him with everything I had. Exhaustion, pain and grief then pulled me to the ground, and on hands and knees in the grass, I bawled openly like a child.
Delay towers, because of their halfway position, are also perfect to install follow spots in. This means that, in order to operate them, you must make your way through the partying crowd in full safety equipment, feeling somewhat like an alien unnoticed on another planet.
And then you ascend, and everything begins to change gradually. While at first you only hear the voices of the people around you, the acoustics change as you climb and soon, you can hear thousands of voices simultaneously, singing in unison or screaming for more. In darkness, you labor to scale those 20 meters, along banners and cables, until you haul yourself up on a platform and suddenly, you are looking down at an ocean of dancing people all around you.
There are no words to describe it. I get goose bumps when I hear them sing, smile when a oneling notices me and waves. And I too, when permitted, dance like no one is watching.
Madonna’s stage collapsed in Marseille, on 16th of July, 2009. The result was two dead, a staging company bankrupt, and Madonna in need of a brand new stage for her new MDNA tour. The show must go on.
StageCo, after buying Edwin Shirley Staging Company responsible for the accident, provided that stage. They recycled it later and still use it at Rock Werchter, the cradle that allowed StageCo to grow.
The old RW roof was pointy, this new stage has a flat roof. To avoid water pooling in the skins up top, they designed them double-layered and inflate them, essentially making a 30m high bouncing castle. Except, by comparison, bouncing castles are tiny, and tightly inflated. What I experienced this year when asked to prepare the rooftop for descent, was closer to a stroll on the moon.
With a 360° view of the Flemish fields, I bounced, at a lethal distance from the ground. I could leap like a monkey, all the way to the other side of the roof, where my colleague didn’t need my help at all but I insisted on going to, either way. It was terrifying, liberating, humbling and enlightening at the same time.
On my back were the “hooks”, the safety lines that once belonged to Charles Prow, a 32-year old man from Leeds, who died on 16th of July, 2009, in Marseille. He had given them to my crew chief because “He never used them anyway”.
No show in the world is more intense than the job of constructing them. No experience can top the things I’ve seen, the experiences that I shared with others. No one in the world loves his job more than I do.
And after this summer, I am going to quit that job.
Next February, I will be working as a stagehand for 10 years. That is an insanely long time to be working as a stagehand for, and a much longer time to survive without permanent injury. I got lucky. During those 10 years, I saw things you can’t imagine. I did things I didn’t know where possible. They were 10 years of extreme impressions. I laughed until my sides hurt, I cried shamelessly, I fought, I fucked, I feared for my life more often than I can remember.
I just don’t know how I will cope with quitting. Once again, perhaps for the last time, I am terrified.
“The job is like a drug. You know it’s shit, but you’re addicted anyway,” a co-worker once told me, and I agreed. And like drugs, this isn’t just something you do- it’s a lifestyle. The hours, the uncertain future… I would recommend it to anyone but I know, very few of us can live that way. The problem is, once you get used to the freedom the comes with it, it is extremely difficult to let it go. Right now, I don’t know what I will do without.
So why let it go, then?
I’ll be 30 next year and responsibilities are piling up (more on that, later). It’s a fun job but it’s a dumb job: Pick up what you’re told to, put it where you’re told. No decision making, and at the sign of any trouble, step aside and let the professionals deal with it.
It’s work where you put your own body on the line, every single day. Many individuals that I worked with got into accidents; a few are dead, others I know I will never see again for other reasons.
I feel like I owe it to myself to move on and grow elsewhere, start taking responsibility, begin to take care of myself and those around me, a little better.
Most of all, I would like to find a part-time job and pursue smaller things in the time I have left, as a freelance technician. We’ll see how that works out, but my guess is I will have it very difficult adapting to a regular schedule, returning to the same place over and over. But difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
If I do manage to quit, I know one thing for sure: I am going to miss it for the rest of my life. I will miss the shittiest part of it, hell I’ll even miss my colleagues. It will be hard not to go back, but this is the kind of company where you can literally spit in a client’s food and come back the next day, so I don’t think I have it in me to get fired. The only thing keeping me from relapse, will be my own will. Luckily I have plenty of that, let’s see if it can pull me through.