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18 June 1971

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A not-so pleasant evening with Jethro Tull

Red Rocks Park outside of Denver, Colorado, is a natural rock amphitheater which has been converted into a permanent facility seating 9,500 people. It used to be a beautiful place to have a rock concert.

After what came down on Thursday, June 10, there will never be another rock concert at Red Rocks Park. What came down last Thursday were rocks, bottles, curses, human beings and several varieties of tear gas. "Riot" is a very ugly word, yet there is no other term which adequately describes what went on before and during the concert

The concert was scheduled to begin at 8:00 p.m., and according to Denver police Lieutenant Jerry Kennedy the trouble started shortly before 7:00. An estimated one- to four-thousand people had situated themselves on the surrounding rocks and hills during the afternoon. The concert had been sold out for two weeks, but many who had not been able to get tickets had come to take advantage of the natural location and see and hear what they could.

Problems started when a large number of the "hill people" started to climb over the back of the amphitheater in an attempt to get closer to the show. The police, feeling that it would be impossible to maintain security in any other way due to the rough terrain, began dropping tear gas out of helicopters which were flying a dangerously low watch over the crowds.

Rather than acting as a deterrent, the tear gas seemed to spur the now-rioters on to further acts of violence As more tear gas began to fill the amphitheater at an alarming rate, the gate-crashers and audience alike began to pick up bottles and rocks to use as ammunition against the police. One car was overturned and burned, and many people suffered injuries ranging from broken bones to gas inhalation. There was one officially denied report of a death due to a person getting hit with a tear gas canister and falling off a cliff.

While most of the turmoil was limited to the areas surrounding the amphitheater, the bleachers and stage were by no means free of problems. Due to the natural canyon-like shape of the amphitheater, the tear gas was continually flowing down over the audience and collecting on the stage — a situation which forced Livingston Taylor, the opening act, to make a hasty exit before he had finished his set. In addition to the tear gas, people on the surrounding rocks and hillsides began to throw in empty bottles and canisters of a very powerful type of tear gas known as Paralyzer Gas.

While the police handled the injuries on the outside, the medical people attached to the theater had more problems than they could handle. Two doctors who had gone out into the audience to treat the more severe injuries had their medical bags stolen and were rendered virtually helpless, while inside the First Aid Station a small staff was doing an admirable job of splinting broken bones, bandaging cracked skulls and reviving many persons who had been overcome by the varieties of tear gas.

* * *

As we arrived at the entrance to the park, which turned out to be the first of several police roadblocks, we were three cars strong — the group in the first car; Terry Ellis, Jethro's manager and mentor, two PR people and myself in the second; and four people from a Denver radio station in the third. "The concert's over; turn around and get out" was the first thing we were told.

At this point and in spite of the unusually heavy concentration of police, we still didn't realize anything serious was wrong. Terry jumped out of the car and managed to convince The Man that our three cars were indeed Jethro Tull and we had to get in there. He was even convincing enough to gain a police escort — but only as far as the second roadblock.

By the time we drove the half-mile to the road leading to the backstage area, we knew there was something wrong. We were stopped by a patrol car and informed, "They're dropping gas in there. You've got to turn around." A brief argument earned the response, "Look, if you want trouble, we can give it to you."

So we made the pretense of turning the cars around; but instead of leaving we parked by the side of the road while Terry took off on foot to find out what was going on backstage. As we stood outside the cars and waited for word from Terry, we could see the clouds of tear gas floating in over the amphitheater. As we watched, the helicopters went in for another dangerously low pass, and the crowd began to scramble from the exits.

After about five minutes, the people began to return to their seats. It looked as if things might be quieting down. As we were watching this distant, unreal drama being played out about a half-mile from where we stood, the same cop who had offered us trouble a few minutes earlier returned and told us to follow him to the backstage area.

We drove the last half-mile slowly, not really having the slightest idea what we were getting into. In all, it took us nearly an hour to drive the one-mile road into the park.

The small parking lot which constituted the backstage area was a sea of broken glass, and the acrid fumes of the tear gas were everywhere. It wasn’t until we started to walk through the tunnels leading to the dressing rooms that we got the full impact of the situation. There were people passing out even as we walked by them. People with opened skulls and blood dripping down their faces and clothes. And mothers with small infants rushing to the First Aid Station for oxygen for their babies. All of this for an evening of music under the stars.

I have witnessed several demonstrations - some of which have even been considered riots - but until I walked through that mountain tunnel last Thursday, I had never realized what war could be like. This is a civilized country - or so they tell me - and all anybody was fighting for was a desire to listen to some good music.

We finally got to the dressing rooms; and while lan and the rest of the group started dressing for the show, I found the promoter, Barry Fey, and asked him what was the situation.

"Well, I guess, what happened here," he said, trying to get his breath and make a coherent statement, "I don't know how many gate crashers — six hundred to a thousand is what they estimate — were over the top there. And I guess it got out of hand: I guess they took a couple of police away to the hospital. And someone threw tear gas, and it drifted over. And of course the innocent people get hurt It seems to be settled down now, but it's hard to control up here. There's no communications, you can see it's so vast that you don't really know what's going on."

Fey went on to explain that they had fought for two years to get the park opened to rock concerts. This concert was the first one to happen. But Fey knew, even at that early point, that it would be the last.

"Well, if people have to get hurt it's not worth it," he concluded. "That's not what music is all about."

Even as Fey spoke, the sound of exploding canisters of tear gas filled the air; and within seconds, the gas itself began to filter down to the stage.

As I walked out on stage to take a look around, an empty wine bottle crashed at my feet; and the man whose head it had bounced off of was being taken from his front-row seat with blood flowing freely from his opened head. The nightmare was suddenly very real; the tinge of immunity I had felt earlier was suddenly gone.

The general consensus was that we should "drop the show" and get the hell out of there. But Terry was determined that the group would go on; and the group was probably more relaxed than anybody, because they knew they had a show to do.

And then Ian went out on stage with his guitar. There was a huge cheer, because somehow the people knew that everything was going to be all right. The people inside the amphitheater settled down, and lan began to play. I still don't know what the opening song was, but I do know it had a very calming effect on the audience. And backstage people were smiling through their gas-induced tears for the first time that evening. As Ian finished the first song, his opening remark was:

"Welcome to World War Three."

It worked, and the audience laughed and cheered.

While the problems inside the theater were virtually eliminated, there was apparently quite a bit of uneasiness outside. Several times during the show, there were explosions of tear gas which would soon flow down over the audience and settle on the stage. But the group kept playing. Through everything the group kept playing. During the heaviest attack, John Evans on piano and Ian were exchanging solos while people around the stage were passing out from the fumes. John was choking and blinded from the tears, but he refused to stop playing; and Ian just kept going like there was nothing wrong. If there were any real heroes that evening, they were a rock and roll band called Jethro Tull.

During the encore, Barry Fey came over to me and said:

"God bless those guys. They're the most professional group I've ever worked with. I don't know anybody else that would have stayed on through all that."

Even on the following morning the police had nothing but praise for the way the group had conducted themselves. Even the police, who sometimes seem incapable of practicing it, knew professionalism when they saw it.

When it comes to placing blame for the events of last Thursday evening, it must rest with the kids who tried to crash the gate. But the rest of the chemistry is an all-too-familiar formula. The police reacted with fear and stupidity. While Red Rocks Park is admittedly an impossible security maintenance area, the repeated dropping of tear gas did nothing but aggravate hostility and panic. While there was probably no other action the police could take, no action would have been preferable. There was never any threat of damage, and certainly the rocks would not have collapsed under the added weight of another thousand people.

But it's over, and rock and roll has suffered another death-blow in Denver. They say no one can take away our music; but if we allow ourselves to destroy it, we will lose the right to have it. The police and other officials are afraid of us, and we must first instill in them a sense of trust before they can provide the security for which we are asking. And certainly gate crashing and the throwing of Paralyzer Gas do not lend any credibility to our desire for peace and music.

While the police were certainly guilty of gross misconduct and overreaction, we are ultimately to blame — at least in this particular case. There are those that would blame the group and characterize them as "a group that starts riots." Nothing could be further from the truth. There would have been a riot that evening no matter who had played. It happened to be Jethro Tull. And it happened to be Jethro Tull who got the audience calmed down. And it happened to be Jethro Tull who played through the tear gas and earned the respect of audience and police alike.

I spoke with Ian Anderson about two hours after the concert. His views on the incident follow.

I want to start by talking about what happened tonight. How do you react to a situation like that? First of all, how did you keep singing and playing through all the tear gas?

"Well, the embarrassment of stopping is far worse than the mild pain of having a bit of tear gas down your lungs. That's just uncomfortable for a few minutes. If you suddenly stopped or something, that would be something you'd have to live with for weeks afterwards — the embarrassment of it. So it's a very simple answer."

Was it embarrassment, or did you feel a responsibility to keep playing and maintain what control you could?

"Well, not really. Responsibility's a funny word; I don't think it applies in a situation like this. Basically it is embarrassment. In any circumstance where you're on stage in front of people and something goes wrong, it has to be absolutely disastrous before you'd ever turn around and walk off stage or stop in the middle of a song. It would have to be total power failure or something; and even in the event of total power failure, we wouldn't go off stage. We'd stay on, and I'd sort of scream insanities at the audience, or do a tap dance or something like that. It's a bit like show biz. The show must go on; it's that kind of a feeling.

"But it isn't a question of responsibilities or application of some kind of pop music ethics. It's really just a question of ... you feel such a twit if you can't handle a situation, so you struggle on. I mean, that stuff's really nasty; it's still very painful. I sucked it right down to the bottom breathing very deeply. It's even painful now; it's like having bad indigestion."

Is that the worst situation you've ever been faced with?

"Well, not really, because it wasn't affecting me personally — apart from the tear gas thing. It was a situation in which the sooner we got on stage the better as far as everyone was concerned.

"My views as far as the way the situation was handled — Although I have always had a certain understanding for the job of the average cop, I still feel that from the top it was handled badly. I'm not talking about the average guy in blue. But from the top, they don't know what they're doing. They're not sufficiently intelligent enough to be sheriffs or police chiefs or whatever. I mean they're really thick idiots; they don't understand the job. They do have a responsibility. To be a chief of police you really have to be responsible for lives — human lives, and I really don't believe those people are. I don't think they've really come to grips with their position in terms of power.

"I mean, I have a certain power when I'm standing on a stage —"

More than they did, obviously.

"Well, it's arguable. Perhaps under certain circumstances. But I would never use power if it was at all avoidable — certainly if there was any risk to people's well-being — but it's really dangerous. I would far rather play the game of being the clown or something and just try to make people forget what was going on. And just try to let it blow over — literally — and hope that by the time it got to the end people would leave quietly having thought, "Well, we got gassed tonight, but it's all over now," rather than try to make sort of inflammatory speeches and discuss the moral standpoint of the kid versus the cops."

NEXT WEEK: The rest, and more pleasant parts of my lengthy interview with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson.