The Who’s Pete Townshend Talks First Cincinnati Gig Since 1979 Tragedy – Billboard


As far as Pete Townshend is concerned, The Who should never have left Cincinnati after that awful night in December 1979 when 11 fans died after concertgoers rushed the doors of Riverfront Coliseum.

Like singer Roger Daltrey, the guitarist has never been able to shake the awful feeling of finding out about the tragedy that unfolded outside the venue — now named Heritage Bank Arena — on that freezing Dec. 3 night. And though it’s taken more than four decades, he is looking forward to enveloping the Queen City in a big, emotional hug when the band take the stage at Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium on Sunday night (May 15) for the rock icons’ first show in town in the city in over 40 years as part of their “Who Hits Back!” tour.

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“I think it’s going to be great. I think there’s been such and difficulty with dealing with our feelings about it… I think it’s gonna be really good,” Townshend told Billboard last month during a chat about his new Audible Original Words + Music, Somebody Saved Me.

At the time of the tragedy, the Who were on their first tour following the 1978 death of legendary drummer Keith Moon and the sold-out, general admission Cincinnati show was the third stop on the outing.

A crowd had been slowly gathering all day outside the venue in frigid weather and when they heard the band’s music playing inside two hours before showtime, a sudden rush occurred near the only two doors that were open at the time; the sound the crowd heard, according to the band’s manager, Bill Curbishley, was a quick test of a trailer for The Who’s Quadrophenia film, not, as erroneously reported, a late sound check.

At the time, local officials asked Curbishley to cancel the show after the dire situation outside came into view. But fearing an even worse outcome, he implored them to let the concert go on as scheduled, with the band not notified about the horrific scene outside until after the gig.

The dark cloud hung over the band for the rest of that tour according to a heart-wrenching 2019 documentary, The Who: The Night That Changed Rock, in which they lamented the show going on, and their decision to leave town shortly after it finished, rather than staying around to grieve with their fans..

The special made by local channel WCPO senior news anchor Tanya O’Rourke — who, like this reporter, recalls watching the news of the tragedy unfold on local TV as a child — holds many levels of importance for her. She tells Billboard that her older brother was supposed to be there that night if their parents had not grounded him. “Watching that news coverage, I realized what I wanted to do for a living,” she remembers. Decades later, that revelation she had as a 10-year-old would result in her getting the first on-the-record interviews from Daltrey and Townshend about that night.

She felt “incredible pressure” to get it right to honor the dead and wounded, but also to give both men the chance to share their feelings for the first time. “Roger was genuine about the fact that this stayed with them… they were very honest about it,” she says of the raw emotion on display. “Pete sat down and sliced his insides open for me to see.” The 43-minute film includes a number of interviews with survivors among the 18,348 at the show that night, who describe being swept off their feet and having the air squeezed from their lungs by the crowd of thousands pushing through just a few doors to get in, and sweating profusely from the crush despite the single-digit weather.

The pall from the scene that brought every available EMS and police first responder in town to the plaza — including the horrifying images of piles of clothes and shoes abandoned or lost outside the arena in the frenzy — hung over the city for decades, leading to the local outlawing of first-come festival-style seating for 25 years.

Cincinnatian Fred Wittenbaum is one of the forces behind the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund, founded in Aug. 2010 to memorialize the three seniors from the city’s Finneytown High School –Stephan Preston, Jackie Eckerle and Karen Morrison — who were killed at the show. The scholarship is for Finneytown H.S. seniors pursuing degrees in the arts or music, and Wittenbaum tells Billboard that the team behind the effort could never have imagined how the band has embraced their cause.

“Our main goal was to remember our three friends and pay their memories forward with three scholarships,” says the Finneytown Class of 1983 grad who was too young to attend the band’s show that night, but who had many friends who were there. In 2013, he says the band got wind of their efforts, and loved that the scholarships were arts-related, which launched an effort to bring The Who “back home” to play a show in Cincinnati.

“Roger Daltrey came here in July 2018 and I picked him up at a private airport and drove him to Finneytown,” he says, noting that the visit led to the band talking about the tragedy in depth in fellow Finneytown H.S. alum O’Rourke’s doc. That connection led to The Who announcing their first area show since 1979, which was originally scheduled to take place across the river at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena in April 2020; that stop was subsequently canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while securing that first date felt like “ascending Mt. Everest,” according to Wittenbaum, the pandemic pulled the rug out from under the initial euphoria. The re-booking feels even sweeter, though, since it will be the first concert at the city’s year-old MLS soccer stadium, which sits just a few miles from the old coliseum; it will take place on the Who-appropriate date of 5-15, also the name of a Quadrophenia song.

“We’re beyond excited that they’re coming back, and we will be sitting on top of Mt. Everest and planting that flag and having a huge party,” Wittenbaum says.

The spirit of those lost friends will be a part of the show, which will be opened by local band Safe Passage — featuring two 1979 Finneytown H.S. alum — with one of the P.E.M. scholarship awardees sitting in with the band’s orchestra. The live orchestra will also feature 3 current student musicians and seven choir members from the school joining the band for a song, with Wittenbaum adding that a current junior at the school who is interested in film and video editing will get a front-row seat observing the band’s video and lighting team do their thing.

“They’re really gone out of their way to include the Finneytown community,” Wittenbaum says, noting that members of 9 of the 11 families impacted by the tragedy will be on hand and meet for the first time. Also killed that night were: Walter Adams, Jr., Peter Bowes, Connie Sue Burns, David Heck, Teva Rae Ladd, Philip Snyder, Bryan Wagner, and James Warmoth.

The band will also have a visual cue in the audience, as 600 brightly colored concert shirts the P.E.M. team printed up for the scotched earlier show will be worn by concertgoers.

The city’s Mayor, Aftab Pureval — who, unfortunately, will not be able to attend because he is on paternity leave after the birth of his second child — was confident that it will be a “great concert and a phenomenal time for all.” Pureval tells Billboard that the efforts by the band to give back to the Finneytown community through the P.E.M. memorial is a generous way “to honor the lives lost” in 1979. “My heart is with all the families who lost loved ones,” he says.

O’Rourke will be reporting live from the sound board at the show and she can’t wait to “drink in the spirit of this concert and look around at the people and see their emotions, whether it’s happy or sad… it will be special and beautiful and, hopefully, a healing experience for everyone.”

Townshend also had high hopes, predicting that the concert will “bring us all together.” He said that remembering the 11 “does remind us ultimately that accidents happen and when you have a bunch of people caught up in an accident” it is tempting to get caught up in the wave of headlines and examination that often drown out the details of the actual loss. “It becomes more about issues, about politics, about policing, about truth-telling and analysis,” he said. “And then you lose the individual stories.”

For one long-awaited night, however, the guitarist — who has necessarily mellowed from his arm-swinging, guitar-bashing, substance-fueled anarchy of the past as he approaches his 76th birthday next week — says it will definitely be a welcomed homecoming.

“For us to come back to Cincinnati after such a long time… we should never have left,” he said. “It gives us a chance to get back there and reconnect, which is very, very important for us.”

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