I walked into the main atrium of Best Buy Theater like Queen of the Dirtbags, a half-chewed slice of pizza in my waving hand and a vodka soda in my left, dangling down by my hip. Everything smelled like Clinique Happy perfume and ball sweat. For half a second, before crossing the threshold into the venue, I thought, Can I bring pizza in here?
"Hey, do you think they'll let me in here with this?" I asked my friend, waving the slice in his direction.
"Yeah, who cares?" he responded. I looked around and there wasn't anyone guarding anything, so I glided into the venue, gnawing on dry crust. No one even blinked.
I hadn't been to Best Buy Theater in Times Square for maybe five or six years when a friend's band opened for Placebo, but I remembered it very clearly: you had to go down into the bowels of the city in order to see the performance; the bar areas were carpeted like a movie theater; the bathrooms were big round rooms that rarely had lines. All surfaces were lit up underneath by neon green and blue lights, like you'd accidentally stumbled into a Jersey Shore club. It was the ideal location for Limp Bizkit, the night's headliner, and their white rapping opener, Machine Gun Kelly, to barrel through New York City.
I'd bought tickets to the show for my friend Joe, who had grown up listening to Limp Bizkit, and who sweetly told me a story about a time he'd seen the Jacksonville rap-rockers when he was a kid: He was too small to see the show, so other Bizkit fans around him had hoisted him onto their shoulders. I was no stranger to Limp Bizkit either—they were an inevitable counterpoint to boy band dominance in every shitty suburb in the late 90s.
When we had picked up our tickets at will call, a man in a Winnie the Pooh costume was in front of us. For every fifty or sixty men in the venue, there was roughly one woman, which seemed like a decent-enough ratio considering the circumstances. This night will be a fun flashback, I thought immediately after taking a shot of Jack Daniels. Everything old is new again. Let's party.
Joe tapped me and said, "As soon as this is over, we're going to try to get down there to get closer," motioning to the pit area near to the stage, "this" referring to Machine Gun Kelly, an adult male with suspenders tattooed onto his chest who was rapping on stage.
"I don't know about that," I responded. Though most people in the crowd appeared placid and sober during MGK's set, they were also placid and sober men who looked juiced. I am five-foot-three and enjoy yoga as a form of exercise. I knew whatever happened down in the pit would not be good.
"I'll protect you," he said. Another friend of ours, who had tagged along, nodded. MGK's set ended and I was shepherded down some steps against a sea of people looking for alcohol. Next to me, I began talking to a guy who had come in from Long Island. He was doofy and built like a brick shed.
"Did you come alone?" I asked.
"Nah, but my friends are pussies. I don't know where they went." He followed us to a dead-center spot in the crowd, about fifty feet back from the stage. It took me a little bit too long to recognize that he was thoroughly blackout drunk and through his slurred and often incomprehensible words (at one point he turned in my direction so we could take a selfie together), he believed that he'd been seducing me.
While we waited for Limp Bizkit to take the stage, a crowd of mostly white men whose mass would be the equivalent to a box of a thousand college textbooks began to chant. It started with "Yankees suck," then moved on to "Derek Jeter sucks," and within minutes, it elevated itself to "Derek Jeter takes it in the ass," to the tune of "Yankee Doodle." My new friend, The Drunkest Man Alive, did not like this.
At the origin of the chant, six or seven adult men (one whom was at least 6'9" and already shirtless), scuffled and yelled while I ducked behind Joe.
"We are not gonna fight over Derek Jeter, bro," one of them said. The Drunkest Man Alive insisted that they were.
"I don't give a fuck," he spit, pushing at the other dude's thick body. I flashed back to the pizza I'd had in my hand only a half hour ago, thinking of that absent security again. I stupidly began to pray that the show would begin, a welcome distraction from the potential violence about to go down right in front of us.
Next to me, a guy from New Jersey looked wary: "I'm almost always honest with females," he said, "and I have to tell you that you might be in a bad spot." Ten minutes later, The Drunkest Man Alive pulled aside the guy from New Jersey and demanded to know if he was hitting on me.
I had willingly come to the darkest place on earth and was suddenly an unwitting possession. I grabbed my friend's hand and the lights went dim.
Fred Durst, now 44, was in a white button-down t-shirt, a white L.A. Kings hat, and camouflage cargo pants, the working class white man's messiah. He is bearded now, a stylish advancement from his many years of sporting a soul patch or goatee, and though there is grey in his beard and his face sags slightly, he looks almost exactly the same as he did ten years ago. Wes Borland, Limp Bizkit's extraterrestrial guitar player who was recently reinstated after years of animosity between him and Durst, causing the band to nevermore make another hit record, was painted all black with a science-fiction mask. A video taken from a show in 1999, the height of Limp Bizkit, looks exactly the same. I watched it again this morning to make sure.
"This is who started all of this shit," Durst said. "This next part? This next part changed my life."
Limp Bizkit was paying tribute to Rage Against the Machine on Wednesday night in New York City and for a second, I thought I blacked out. In front of me, to the left of me, to the right of me, and behind me were 2,000 people—mostly white men—thoroughly covered in sweat, almost every single one of them with two middle fingers up, straight back at their god. Together, in a vile stink of sweat and grime, the crowd raged:
"Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me.
Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me.
Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me."
I grew up going to punk shows and was used to an unruly crowd, but I turned to Joe and whispered, "I am actually scared for my life right now." It was a swirl of escalating testosterone.
"Can you believe it's only been five years since Woodstock '99?" I yelled at Joe in between "Livin' It Up" and "My Way."
"What?!" he yelled back, the noise covering up my chatter.
"It's only been five years since Woodstock '99."
"You mean fifteen, right? It's 2014, not 2004."
Realizing my gaffe, I wondered how drunk I actually had to be to have convinced myself that shitty math were true.
Woodstock '99 was a big fuckup in American culture. During Limp Bizkit's set at the festival in Rome, New York, amid outrage at water shortages and the weekend's lack of organization, five women in the crowd were raped. Or rather, five women came forward to authorities, which means there could have been many more. Nearly 200,000 people watched Limp Bizkit's set that day, many of them surfing on pieces of wood and cardboard over people's heads, many others shaking fences and climbing them like children.
Witnesses say one woman, pulled down into the pit while crowdsurfing, was violently raped by several men. During a short interlude in Limp Bizkit's biggest song at that point in their career, the revenge shit-talk breakup song "Nookie," Durst says to the enormous field of festival attendees, "There are no motherfucking rules out there." The sun is beginning to set behind him, and as it does, what Durst suggests as a positive mantra for letting go of anxieties and feeling the music, instead sounds like a sinister go-ahead at a festival where security had already been in short supply. A crisis intervention worker who had attended the festival in 1999 said of the rapes, "From my vantage point, it looked like initially there was a struggle, and after that there were other people holding them down. It seemed like most of the crowd around was cheering them on."
Despite my initial error in calculation, fifteen years didn't seem that far in the past.
In an interview with Noisey earlier this year, Durst said, "I don't know the climate out there now. I really try to keep my mind away from it, because I'm a sensitive guy and I'm just trying to wake up in the morning and be grateful and stoked and ambitious."
There is no question that Durst is sensitive. All night at the theater, if there looked like trouble in the pit below him, or when a young woman was crowdsurfing dangerously, he called it out, trying to level the playing field. This is a difficult task for a band whose lyrics range from "Fucked up AIDS / From fucked up sex / Fake ass titties / On a fucked up chest" to "My suggestion is to keep your distance / because right now I'm dangerous." Limp Bizkit's best and most memorable songs are their most aggressive. Durst himself was angry when he wrote them, almost twenty years ago, and their power still resonates.
While the singer may have softened, his fans haven't. From on stage, hundreds of feet away, there was little Durst could do when over a thousand strong men were literally throwing their bodies at each other. To his fans, Durst is an outlet for feelings of anger, a way to express rage through him and his band, while doing so in a public context. He is a validating totem of Aggression Incarnate. When Limp Bizkit first got famous, their biggest enemies were boy bands, pop music, dominant 90s/00s culture—they served as an alternative for the white American male who felt enraged by soft shit.
Midway through the set, when the lights went completely black, Durst walked into the crowd. His DJ played 50 Cent and the frontman stood among his people and danced with them for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time. Joe, making eye contact with his childhood hero, was smitten.
"Look at this guy," he said. "He's a fucking legend."
"Hold on, Franco. I want some local shit," Durst yelled. 50 Cent cut out and Durst demanded, "I want DMX in this motherfucker." DMX and Fred Durst are old friends. It feels weird to type that sentence, but it's true. The DJ began to blast "Up In Here" and Durst's face lit up as he flirted with his audience.
The crowd was subdued and obviously exhausted from several songs of battering each other. While the rap music played, everyone looked like they were at the middle school dances of my white, suburban childhood: a bunch of nerds looking stupid on a dance floor, all trying to impress the same girl or boy. There was a poignant glow surrounding Durst's body and one had to wonder what it meant to him to be on a certain untouchable level of Bro God in this world.
Into his microphone, smiling beatifically, Durst announced: "It's not always this awesome."
Limp Bizkit closed with "Break Stuff." I run to that song occasionally, and have listened to it when I'm angry. As Durst says, "We've all felt like shit and been treated like shit." At Best Buy Theater in Times Square, thousands of people who agreed with that sentiment went wild to the point of pandemonium. There were two women in front of me who were jumping up and down, clutching each other's shoulders, and screaming as loud as they could. They didn't pause for the entire song, and when it was over, they embraced.
For a reason that's still unclear to me, Fred Durst ended the spectacle by shimmying around on stage to "Stayin' Alive" by The Bee Gees. I wonder now if that was Durst's way of congratulating us for fulfilling Barry Gibbs' 1977 command. He sashayed off after bleating out a dozen "thank yous" and "goodnights."
In the movie theater lighting at the venue's bar, I asked a few people if they'd had fun. "Time of my life," two dudes told me. "Fuckin' awesome," said a guy holding an unfinished plastic cup of beer. The shaky energy had been sapped from the building.
Walking toward the subway in the glimmer of Times Square, a guy at least a foot taller than me with a Celtic tattoo on his bicep was holding his shirt in his hands and looking for his friends.
"Did you have fun tonight?" I asked. He loomed over me.
"Squeeze this." He pushed his soaking wet t-shirt in my direction like some sort of biblical offering and I squeezed. Don't ask me why I did it, but I did. Cold sweat dripped out of the cotton onto 42nd Street and I got into a cab and went home.