Today is a sad anniversary—it was thirty years ago tonight that the Cincinnati Who concert tragedy happened. Apart from the 2003 Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island involving the band Great White in which 100 people perished, it was probably the darkest day in Rock music history. For you younger folks who might not remember, 11 concert-goers were trampled to death and hundreds of others were injured during an unfortunate (and totally inexcusable) stampede outside Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum arena. This was a “festival seating” event—i.e., sit wherever you want—and an estimated 8,000 fans had queued up in the plaza area outside the venue in this photo late in the afternoon waiting for the doors to open, and there were only about 25 policemen on hand to keep order. Around 6:30, when people heard loud music coming from inside—presumably the sound check—they incorrectly thought the show had already begun and they started to push forward. Building officials only opened two (or perhaps four) of the sixteen entry doors to the arena, and in the enormous crush of fans trying to get in, many people simply couldn’t breathe. In the ensuing melee, many fans wound up trampling others who’d fallen and were unable to regain their footing. To make matters worse, inside the building, the turnstile Gestapo insisted on seeing everyone’s ticket first before allowing entry, which only exacerbated the bottleneck outside.
Per my usual, I was tuned into “Monday Night Football” that night, as the Raiders and Saints battled in the Superdome when Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell first broke the news of the nightmare to the nation during the second half. Eerily enough, a year and five nights later, ol’ Howie would again inform America of yet another Rock ’N’ Roll tragedy on December 8, 1980. My first reaction to the Who tragedy was “Why on earth did they even go on with the concert?”, but I later learned that the band themselves weren't informed of what took place until after they came off-stage from their encore. Shutting down the show actually was contemplated, but Who manager Bill Curbishley wisely cautioned the fire marshals if they pulled the plug, they would chance a riot and further chaos inside the arena, plus the show itself bought them some time to clear the outer plaza of the victims and debris left behind, so they carried on with the concert. Once the band was notified, they were obviously devastated. Roger Daltrey was beside himself and talked of ending the tour right then and there, but the tour did resume the next night at The Aud in Buffalo under very heavy security. From the stage, Roger spoke to the crowd: “You all heard what happened yesterday…there’s nothing we can do…we feel totally shattered…but life goes on. We all lost a lot of family yesterday. This show’s for them.”
In the aftermath, there was a lot of predictable over-reaction by city officials in other municipalities in the form of over-zealous security at arenas and outright bans on Rock concerts in some places. Here in K.C., we were subjected to the endless “Could it happen here?” queries by our illustrious local TV news hacks. In Cincinnati itself, festival seating was banned in the wake of the Who tragedy, and it would be several months before Riverfront Coliseum hosted another Rock concert—Z.Z. Top in the spring of ‘80, with all reserved seating—and ALL the doors to the place were open that night. But interestingly enough, when one Bruce Springsteen played the same venue 23 years later in 2002, The Boss was granted an exemption from the festival seating ban. Fortunately, that show came off without a hitch. Curiously, U2 was denied a similar request the year before. Also in the aftermath, TV’s “WKRP In Cincinnati” built an episode around the Who concert that was alternately funny and poignant. Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap were giving tickets away on the air to the concert, and later found themselves doing some soul-searching about having possibly sent some of their own listeners to their demise. As with the aforementioned city officials, the station itself over-reacted by threatening to dump Rock 'N' Roll and switch back to elevator music. Weird Al Yankovic also rather tastelessly threw in the line "I haven't been in a crowd like this since I went to see The Who" in his 1980 parody, "Another One Rides The Bus". I'm loathe to admit that I found it wickedly and perversely funny at the time. Now, not so much.
Cincinnati also had a profound effect on The Who's guilt-ridden Pete Townshend, who descended into drug and alcohol abuse even further than what he was already into before the tragedy, and nearly OD'd not quite a year later on heroin and who knows what else. Thankfully, Pete didn't join Keith Moon at that Great Who Gig in the sky and got his life back together a couple years later. Even though they were advised not to, Daltrey, Townshend and the late John Entwistle later wrote letters to the bereaved expressing their sorrow over what had happened, even though they weren’t directly at fault (I blame the boobs who ran the arena for it). And though I’m sure they’d have been welcomed back anytime, The Who haven’t set foot in Cincinnati since that terrible night—the closest they’ve ventured to the Queen City for a concert appearance since then was nearby Dayton in 1996.
I've attended 107 concerts in the last 30 years (with #108, Kiss, coming up this week), and I've never witnessed anything even remotely close to what happened at Riverfront Coliseum in terms of mass confusion, chaos or violence. I do remember an Ozzy Osbourne show in '84 at Municipal Auditorium where we were crammed into the foyer area waiting for the main arena doors to open with people chanting "1-2-3-4, open up the fucking door!" until someone else shouted out "Remember The Who!" and everyone kinda chilled out after that. Ironically, the next concert I attended after the Cincinnati debacle was (who else?) The Who, at Kemper Arena in April, 1980. Cincinnati was still in the back of everyone's minds that night, but it was a great show that came off without incident, and any time I find myself amidst a large gathering of people, I'm still reminded of Cincinnati. When I attended a Reds game at adjacent Great American Ballpark in 2005, Alice Cooper and Cheap Trick were playing at the Coliseum (now U.S. Bank Arena, or whatever it's called this week), and I made it a point to walk past those arena doors they didn't open on December 3, 1979 and think of those 11 people. Just a sad, sad night for Rock 'N' Roll. Even sadder, there's no memorial marker anywhere on the site in remembrance of those who died that night.
ADDENDUM: The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a feature on the tragedy this week and a candlelight vigil was also held tonight on the concourse by the arena to mark the anniversary.