I've spent a lot of time photographing and talking about fans who sleep on streets. Their devotion is amazing. Now, though, I want to pay some attention to a kind of fan who’s rarely acknowledged, yet equally devoted. They are the disabled fans who know they're unwelcome in the pit, even at shows altogether – but they're still there, singing every word.
This is my mum, Joy. She’s 60 and has rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. They're generally invisible illnesses, so she may not 'look' disabled, but there are times she simply can't walk or even hold anything. Sometimes I wake up to her screaming. Her medication causes sickness and exhaustion. Travelling can be almost impossible because the cramped spaces leave her in agony. Arthritis is unpredictable, too. Some days are good. Some are awful.
But disability isn't a misery sentence. As she always has, my mum loves music. In particular, she loves Green Day. You’ll see her, splints on, dancing in the pit. It's not without challenges, though. So let’s have a look at the unique hurdles a disabled fan has to overcome – and the devotion behind overcoming them.
The physical challenges
To be front row for bigger bands, it’s often necessary to line up for 12+ hours in extreme cold or heat. Without steroids, someone like my mum can’t sit on the floor. If there's nowhere to sit at the venue or we can’t take our own camping chair, we try to find a supermarket or outdoors store where we can buy one. Sometimes others are kind enough let her use theirs. Other times we can’t get one, so her only option is to stand all day or take breaks, which upsets other fans. By the time she gets inside, she can’t bend her fingers or knees.
Anyone with arthritis is, of course, supposed to rest up after overdoing it (which gigs, as my mum's nurses have advised her, definitely are). But when following a tour, resting is pretty impossible, especially when money's tight and trips can't be spaced out. Some fans – even me – can camp out to avoid paying for accommodation, or at least stay in hostels; but a proper bed and room is essential for many disabled fans. Though there have certainly been times Joy went without!
Food and drink can be hard to find when lining up, too. So many venues are in the middle of nowhere, or security barricade fans in from early morning. They’ll usually be let out if they can climb over, but Joy can’t. Then there's the possibility of upsetting others, since it takes my mum twice as long as anyone else to leave the line for refreshments. Repeatedly going without makes her condition worse both in the short and long-term.
Since arthritis is caused by the immune system attacking the joints, it’s treated with immunosuppressants. They’re not on the same level as chemotherapy, but often the same medications at a lower dose. When lining up in winter, colds and flu are everywhere. If my mum catches a 2-3 day cold, at best it leads to a chest infection she’ll have for 3-6 months. At worst, she’ll get pneumonia and be hospitalised. Is she silly for lining up regardless? Nah, she’s a rock star.
When doors open, everyone runs. My mum can’t. Unless I save a spot, she could be first in line but 200th to the barrier. Others see a vulnerable older lady and push and punch. In Oslo, she was flung through the air after being pushed down a step. In Paris, she was forced halfway to the floor by a camembert-eating man yelling ‘please!’ I can think of just once another fan showed her kindness at doors – in Turin, when an Italian fan named Gianluca told his friends to run while he turned back to help her down the steps.
My mum doesn’t expect help, of course. She isn’t complaining. She knows that as the nurses say, gigs are dangerous. It's a choice to put herself in these situations. But these are hurdles abled fans don’t have to overcome.
But what about between fans? The sad truth is that even at Green Day shows – where fans wearing ‘no racism, no sexism, no homophobia’ shirts will scream those words back at Billie Joe – most simply think a disabled person doesn't belong there. They can't really like the band. What are they doing in the pit? They should buy a seat. The pit is for young, able-bodied people!
These aren't exaggerations. Joy and others we know who are able to choose the pit – even those in seats – have experienced this rhetoric, sometimes those exact words, first-hand. I don’t think we’ve ever been to a show where my mum hasn’t been asked ‘what, you’re going in?’ I get that the majority of people lining up aren't disabled or over 40, so seeing someone else is a surprise. It’s not inherently mean or ableist. But it does show that people automatically assume a disabled, older lady can’t possibly want to attend a gig.
That same assumption, that a disabled person can't possibly enjoy a night out, is why venues don't accomodate them – or are outright ableist. At The Longshot in Vancouver, a man repeatedly thrust his elbow into my mum's neck in an attempt to move her. A security guard, seeing her get annoyed, sneered 'I know you're only here to stare at Billie Joe!' After lecturing her about how crowds work, he showered concern on another older, but able-bodied fan who was just struggling. It was blatant. If the man had attacked the able-bodied fan, he would've cared or at least left them alone. Because Joy was disabled, he mocked her instead.
There are, of course, many fans and even venue staff who think people like Joy are awesome. Some just see another fan. But when she says that yes, she's going in too, many still smirk and whisper. Some jeer at the sight of her. Others, like the security guard, talk down to her about how to survive the pit, or even threaten to target her (ironically, they tend to want out in the first few songs). She's also been mocked and belittled in lines for wearing Green Day shirts and singing along, which outside of the 'don't wear a band's shirt to their own show' debate, aren't things anyone would say to a typical fan. That's once again tied to the assumption that disabled people don't belong.
In another line, my mum didn't follow someone back. Assuming she wouldn't understand, they complained ‘she must be jealous of my youth’ in French. As an isolated incident, it's not a big deal. It's not intentional ableism, either. But it is subconscious ableism that assumes disabled people feel inferior and wish they didn't. When repeated, that contributes to a bigger picture of what they face in all aspects of life – but especially where the abled have an advantage, like the pit at a gig.
It doesn't stop at words, either. When fans see an older, disabled person on the front row, they see an open spot. Sometimes my mum is deliberately kicked, elbowed and hit with bags for the duration of the show. She’s been strangled and punched in the head before the band even started. People have even admitted to being impressed that she didn't move despite them slamming her legs. They mean it as a compliment and sure, it's some determination, but that respect is only earned when she hasn't been hindered by disability.
The inevitable responses to targeted violence are ‘you went to a punk show’ or ‘well, get out of the pit then.’ That's not the point. This isn’t about moshing, pushing, crowdsurfing or accidental violence. It’s about how this could happen at a Beethoven show, because it’s specifically targeting the least able people; partially because they’re assumed to be less interested and therefore unimportant.
This is a controversial subject, so I'll explain it from another angle. I'm part Arab. If I was a target of gig violence for that reason alone, no one in their right mind would say it was 'just punk.' I wouldn't be told 'well, Arabs don't belong in the pit.' Racists might applaud it, but they wouldn't come up with that. Yet when disability comes into the equation, the responsibility of another's prejudice is shifted onto the disabled person.
There were many times my mum didn’t want to return to Green Day. So, whilst ableism wouldn’t exist in an ideal world, I don’t see recognising it as negative. The world is starting to talk about ableism in venue accessibility. We're even applauding wheelchair crowdsurfers – but we're failing to see beyond that to address discrimination, against the wider spectrum of disability, in the pit. We need to. Plus, knowing of the added challenges makes the victories more incredible!
My mum would say that making it to the show at all, when she’s in so much pain by the time doors open, is a victory. She’d also say she’s lucky, because being able to stand means a bad view isn’t her only choice. She doesn’t think she’s especially devoted. But if young, able-bodied fans struggle to line up in sub-zero temperatures, what does it take for anyone – not just my mum – without those advantages, who in addition face discrimination? I won’t pretend to understand, because I don’t. It must be quite something, though and there are a couple of stories I hope sum it up.
We struggled to fund our last trip of the Revolution Radio Tour. I got a £43 flight to Providence, but we needed to get to Austin. So I booked a 72 hour journey. A bus to London, flight to Belfast, that flight to Providence and train to Boston; then sleeping in Boston Airport before a flight to Dallas and Megabus to Austin. Three days before we left, our GP called an ambulance. My mum had a potentially life-threatening embolism. Nurses urged her not to go, let alone take my ridiculous route. Besides, she was on a stretcher. She couldn’t walk. After blood thinners, a steroid injection could cause a hematoma, so our GP prescribed oral prednisone. Three hours before leaving, she still couldn’t walk. She knew that even if she could, she was more likely to die than not.
She went. The journey was hard, but the show we arrived to in Austin was incredible. The steroids had kicked in. We sang so loud and danced so hard that before we left, a security guard called after me, offering a setlist. He was moved. He'd never seen anything like it. But most importantly, to quote Joy in my book of fan stories – ‘It's no joke that I thought I might die on the plane, or trying to sleep in Boston Airport. So when I was finally standing at the Austin360 Amphitheatre, watching Still Breathing... it was the first time I ever cried at a Green Day show.’
Another story I'm still impressed by was after The Longshot in DC. During the stage invasion, my mum was used as a ladder. The volume of people kicking, punching, strangling and trampling her eventually knocked her out. I thought she wouldn’t be alright. She just chilled off on the train to Baltimore and sat on the street from 4am. She was the only fan to get no sleep. She still smiled all day and danced all night. Tell me again how disabled people don't belong in the pit (though they should never be unwelcome, regardless of whether or not they impress us).
Finally, it warms my heart when I see that despite the challenges, Joy still embodies the inclusive spirit she hopes to see in others. It's more than I can say! She's always smiling and offering up her camping chair and food. Because of her age and disability, she's understandably uncomfortable sharing hotel rooms. Regardless, she let strangers in throughout the RevRad Tour. But the best example of this and perhaps my favourite story is from Turin.
With under an hour to doors, the box office wasn't open. Someone who'd camped for 30+ hours had no ticket. My mum gave them her own and left her place in line to get theirs. She knew she might not get in at all since she wasn't the 21 year-old on the passport, or at least that even if she did, hours of lining up in -5°C would be wasted. She did get back in time and, since she couldn't climb over the barriers herself, was lifted over by other fans. There was a huge cheer – she was quite the celebrity!
I know that my mum, like many others like her, doesn't feel sorry for herself. That's not what this is about. It's a celebration of devotion, because until ableism leaves the pit, fans have to be pretty bloody devoted to keep dancing on.