Mosh Madness : Pushing, shoving and thrashing to the wail of screaming guitars. Flailing in the pit. Moshing is anarchy. And, occasionally, moshing is death.

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The drumstick scarcely strikes the snare and the weight of 300 bodies, still clammy from the last frenzy, thrusts tiny Sacha Diaz sideways and forward.

She is caught up in a swirling mass of bleached heads, some saturated in green or purple, that bob to what is now a blitzkrieg of music coming from the stage.

A lone skate sneaker flies through the air. A Wonderbra-like satin number sails overhead. A body is tossed up and passed around on dozens of upstretched hands. When Sacha's pal Jennifer Tuccinardi trips, a couple of guys whirling by scoop her back into the body-banging madness.

The shoving and pushing, the constant risk of falling under a stampede of stomping feet, the pandemonium all add up to a sort of simulated anarchy.

"The point is to go crazy and have fun," says Sacha, a 15-year-old from Torrance who was having the time of her life at a recent eight-band benefit at Cal State Long Beach.

It is the dance, to use the term loosely, of a generation. The Swing Era had its Lindy Hop. The early '60s had the Twist, and the '70s, the Hustle. In the '90s, if our idea of modern music is not Whitney Houston but rather Hole, we mosh.

But while these other pop dances have been attached to a particular musical genre, moshing has gone beyond its signature punk and alternative soundtracks. It has taken on a life of its own, with mosh pits springing up wherever there's a beat. As a result, an increasing number of injuries, and even several deaths, have been tied to the phenomenon.

Even participants debate whether moshing is dancing. But like dance, it is certainly a form of expression inspired by music. It requires skill and loads of stamina, especially for those who want to walk away with only a few bruises.

No one's quite sure where the term moshing came from, but it originated with pogo dancing to such British bands as the Sex Pistols, then head-butted into slamming, which makes moshing look like a waltz. As punk rock became a mall commodity in the early '90s, an etiquette emerged. Unlike slam dancers, this new breed of moshers would help those who fell and watch out for the weaklings.

That was then. In 1995, so-called alternative culture is mainstream, and mosh pits containing anywhere from five to 500 fans have sprung up at rockabilly and Grateful Dead shows. At Lollapalooza, the alternative music and arts festival that opens a two-day stint at Irvine Meadows today, the pit rages on--whether to punk or to chanting by Tibetan monks.

Jeremy Cooper, 16, of Covina is among a new wave of enthusiasts who attend live shows not out of devotion to a particular act but just to mosh. "I love the rush," he says. "It's addicting."

Some argue that this hard-core contingent has made moshing rougher. It has gotten out of control at some concerts. Three deaths and more than 1,800 mosh-related injuries were reported in 1994, according to the Rock Concert Safety Survey. The mud people of Woodstock '94, who got that way mostly from moshing, account for 1,000 of those injuries.

The prime cause of major injuries and the deaths apparently was stage diving and crowd surfing, also known as floating, where a fan is passed over the crowd's heads.

Paul Wertheimer, whose Chicago-based Crowd Management Strategies prepares the annual safety survey, considers the first recorded death, at a 1993 Motorhead concert in London, the point of no return.

"It used to be people weren't trying to hurt each other," says Wertheimer, 46, who moshes regularly to better understand what's going on in the pit. "It was a sort of chaos with etiquette." Now it's taken a turn, he says, allowed by bands that encourage stage diving and moshing and by a security staff that lets it get out of control.

Security and promoters denied the problem until this year, he says, when lawsuits prompted by serious injuries--including two cases of quadriplegia--caught up with them.

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Promoters, not the venues or the bands, are liable for concert injuries. Some have responded by videotaping mosh pits. No one, after all, forces a fan to enter the pit or dive off a stage. As it is, promoters' insurance carriers are instituting or considering "moshing exclusions" and raising their premiums.

"Insurance companies are going to dictate the demise of moshing with prohibitive costs," says Dean Grose, medical coordinator for Event Medical Services in Los Alamitos. With branches in San Diego and San Francisco, EMS has been providing first aid at concerts since slamming hit in 1979. A team will be on hand at Lollapalooza.

Grose says he has never seen a "debilitating injury" result from moshing. "The potential for injury is there, but not so much from moshing. If anything needs to be controlled or banned, it's crowd surfing and stage diving."

Cory Meredith, owner of Staff Pro in Los Alamitos, the largest provider of event security in the state with 7,000 part-timers, agrees.

His take on moshing? "There's something evil about it that goes along with tattoos and body piercing. These bands and promoters are letting these kids get away with things that are a little bizarre. But that's rock 'n' roll."

Despite efforts by his staff to promote safety, Meredith blames performers and managers for allowing the activity. "There's no way to stop it. I don't control the crowds. The guy on the microphone does."

Some bands, such as Midnight Oil, discourage moshing, even threatening to stop performing. But others incite audiences to rebel against security and escalate the violence in the pit, says Shawn Nichols, 23, a pit expert of the Staff Pro staff. "We get kicked a lot in the head by flying feet. We get tremendous verbal abuse. We get flipped off."

Even so, Staff Pro's policy is peer protection, working with the audience, warning them of oncoming floaters and catching them when possible. "Moshing has become harder," Nichols says. There are always the bad boys, he adds, who pop unsuspecting passersby with a fist.

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Jeremy got bopped under his left eye at CSULB's Pyramid concert. The gash required two stitches. "My mom was pretty mad," he says. "She doesn't like me going to concerts as it is."

His co-workers tell him he's crazy, and Jeremy understands why.

"But once the music starts going the adrenaline starts rushing. I can't just stand and watch," he says. "When you mosh you get all your frustrations out."

Besides a physical release, there's the delicious taste of fear. Others point to the communal aspect of moshing.

"It's a big togetherness," says a beaming 17-year-old Mike Douglas of Redondo Beach. His sweat-drenched T-shirt was ripped in the pit at the Pyramid show, a badge of a successful night.

Jennifer, 15, describes the rush from moshing as a natural high. "Everyone is in it together. They help you get up if you fall. If you get hurt, they say, 'Sorry.' "

Still, some use it as a "free for all" to grope women. Jennifer and Sacha have zero tolerance and let "jerks" know it with a shot to the ribs.

The Beastie Boys published a list of mosh pit do's and don'ts in the Lollapalooza newsletter last year warning against sexual harassment, as well as any other potentially dangerous behavior. Wertheimer went a step further with safety guidelines that include isolating the pit, limiting crowd capacity, banning stage diving and crowd surfing, and asking performers to assist in managing or preventing moshing.

But for many moshers, the hazards are integral to the live music experience.

"If insurance companies pull the plug on moshing and crowd surfing," Jeremy says, "I'll stop going to shows."

No matter. The pit may have already peaked. Media attention of any youth culture activity is reason enough for change, and the spotlight on moshing has never been brighter.

Another dance fad may be just around the bend.

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