Four decades after The Who tragedy, a little bit of peace

The evening felt like redemption.

The weight of one of Cincinnati’s great millstones got a little lighter. For 42 years, The Who avoided Cincinnati while they toured the rest of the world. Maybe it was best, they might have felt, not to confront the pain and the memory of 11 young people who died just trying to get in the door to see the band on Dec. 3, 1979. What do you even say?

But they came back Sunday night, four decades later, and it felt good, like getting back with an old friend after a falling out.

Not that The Who was at fault. I was at that 1979 concert. Purely by luck, my friends and I avoided the crush.

We had decided to walk to the show from the Mount Adams apartment where we had gathered. When we arrived at the Coliseum (now Heritage Bank Center) plaza, we stopped at the first doors we came to, on the north side of the arena. There were maybe a couple hundred people there waiting to get in, not a big crowd. The massive crowd of thousands was about 75 yards away, around the corner at the main, west entrance.

When our doors opened, it was a minute or two of jostling to get in, but no big deal. After we got through, we all, by this time veterans of the festival-seating scene, remarked how easy it was. I’ve often wondered since then why the crowd at the main entrance wasn’t simply redirected to the entrance on the north side, which was open and relatively hassle-free.

We had no idea what was happening on the other side of the plaza. Neither did the band, as its members have said in many interviews since. The show went on. No cell phones to record the havoc outside. No text messages to check on friends. No social media to spread the word.

Inside, the band and 18,000 fans carried on, unaware.

After the show, we walked back up the hill, still clueless, clicked on the TV, and discovered what the rest of the world already know. I called my parents, knowing they would be watching the news and would be worried.     

The Who sang “The Kids are Alright,” but the kids weren’t alright. Eleven succumbed to the suffocating crush, two of them just 15 years old, the rest ranging in age from 17 to 27.

David's ticket stub from The Who 1979 concert in Cincinnati. Rock ‘n’ roll fans were treated like livestock in those days. Buy your general admission ticket, and if you want to get close, you camp out for hours, and compete with everyone else when the doors open. It could have happened anywhere and anytime.

And certainly, it almost did at a Led Zeppelin concert at the Coliseum more than two years earlier, on April 20, 1977. My college roommate and I drove down for that show, got to the plaza early to snag a good spot. When the doors opened, the crush began. For minutes, we had no control over our bodies. Packed together with a few thousand other Led Zep fans, we could only move as the great mass did, this way, then that way. My feet left the ground; I struggled to stay upright. It became hard to breathe. It was frightening.

I don’t remember the concert, but I remember the fear.

Rock ‘n’ roll and its fans have changed since then. Sunday night was one of those moments to see and feel how much happens in 40 years. The Who’s Roger Daltrey, the golden-haired, cocky strutter who sang “I hope I die before I get old,” is now 78. Pete Townshend, the rage-ridden Londoner who wrote those words, turns 77 this month.

A ticket to the 1979 show was $10. Floor seats for Sunday at TQL Stadium were more than $200, even before all the fees. Parking in the stadium garage was $40. Rock concerts now come with VIP seating, even “VIP experiences.”

After 1979, festival seating was banned in Cincinnati and fell out of favor in most places. But it’s back now, by the demand of the artists, who like the energy that a standing, dancing crowd generates.

But everyone had a seat at Sunday’s show, including me and my date, my 30-year-old daughter. There were nice touches to honor the occasion. As the band launched into one of its most powerful numbers, “Who Are You,” the names of the 11 were streamed across the digital banners on both sides of the stadium and continued streaming throughout the show.

Students from Finneytown High School’s music program sang and played with the band for the encore. In a moving tribute, the black-and-white, yearbook style photos of the 11 were displayed one by one on the video boards on either side of the stage, accompanied only by solo piano. Heartbreaking to see those faces, with their ‘70s hair styles and the wide ties and frills, stopped in time.

The only surviving, original members of The Who, Townshend and Daltrey, both acknowledged the tragedy. The proceeds from the show will go, not to the band, but to P.E.M. Memorial, an organization started by Finneytown High School alumni to honor three of the victims who attended Finneytown High School by awarding scholarships fund to Finneytown seniors pursuing higher education in the arts.

“There’s no words that we can say that mean as much as the fact that you guys have come out tonight and supported this event,” Townshend said. “Thank you so much.”

With that, the burden lightened a little. And the show went on.    

In remembrance: Walter Adams Jr., 22, of Trotwood, Ohio; Peter Bowes, 18, of Wyoming, Ohio; Connie Sue Burns, 21, of Miamisburg; Jacqueline Eckerle, 15, of Finneytown; David Heck, 19, of Highland Heights; Teva Rae Ladd, 27, of Newtown; Karen Morrison, 15, of Finneytown; Stephan Preston, 19, of Finneytown; Philip Snyder, 20, of Franklin, Ohio; Bryan Wagner, 17, of Fort Thomas; James Warmoth, 21, of Franklin.
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David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.