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Forty years later, Roger Daltrey finally came to grips with his emotions about that horrific night in Cincinnati.
He still carries the grief, regret and shock, but it was something else - the whispers in his head - that bothered one of rock’s biggest stars after 11 young people died outside Riverfront Coliseum before the band’s Dec. 3, 1979, concert.
Whispers that the band shared the blame.
But that stopped after he made a secret, private visit in July 2018 to the suburban Cincinnati high school where some caring grads created a memorial to three victims from that school.
Daltrey said meeting the victims’ relatives was “incredibly rewarding” and touring the memorial “lifted a load.”
“I went to Finneytown last year and I’m glad I did,” Daltrey told WCPO Anchor Tanya O’Rourke in an exclusive, face-to-face interview. “I saw the wonderful work they’ve done with the scholarships for the people they lost at that school. And, you know, you have to go forward, and it released a lot for me.
“And I know it did for our manager, Bill Curbishley. I know it did because I did have the chance to thank him in front of the people who lost, and so that helped a lot for us.
“But the scars are still there. The scars will never go away. They never do with that kind of grief. I think it’s like the scars of someone coming home from a war zone. They just sit with you.”
In October, O’Rourke flew to Seattle, where the band was wrapping up its U.S. tour, to get the first sit-down TV interviews about the Cincinnati tragedy with Daltrey, songwriter/guitarist Pete Townshend and Curbishley.
The Who trio share their remembrances in a one-hour WCPO documentary, "The Who: The Night That Changed Rock,” airing at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WCPO Channel 9 and streamed on WCPO.com. A companion podcast will be available Dec. 4, as well as an expanded documentary on the WCPO app on streaming devices.
READ about O’Rourke’s interviews with Townshend and Curbishley on WCPO.com.
The P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund honors Stephan Preston, a 19-year-old who graduated in 1979, and two 15-year-old sophomores, Jackie Eckerle and Karen Morrison. The PEM name comes from the first letter of each of the three victims' last name. It awards three scholarships each year to Finneytown seniors who demonstrate the same passion for music and art that Preston, Eckerle and Morrison shared.
When the organizers reached out to The Who for support, Daltrey, Townshend and Curbishley gave them an enthusiastic yes. First, Curbishley arranged for Daltrey and Townshend to create a video for the group to show at its annual fundraiser.
“They’ve talked to us before through video that they sent some years ago and told us what they felt about what we were doing,” Mike Simkin, one of the organizers, told WCPO. Simkin, a 1979 Finneytown grad, had gone to the concert with Preston and three other friends.
Townshend explained to O’Rourke why it was natural for Daltrey, whom he characterized as the heart of the band, to visit Finneytown. Townshend pointed out that both stars actively support cancer research groups.
“I found it very, very difficult to meet (cancer) patients who are like kids,” Townshend said. “I tried and I couldn’t get through it. I was happy to meet survivors, but I wasn’t that crazy about going into a ward where they’re fighting for life. But Roger, he’s very brave and he goes in and talks to people. He’s met families. He’s met brothers, sisters, and patients, so he’s very, very geared into that.”
On his visit to the P.E.M. Memorial last year, Daltrey greeted the organizers and the Finneytown victims’ families and friends. He posed for photos with them and signed autographs to be auctioned for fundraising. He inspected a glass case containing photos and cherished belongings of the three victims.
“They're all so young,” Daltrey gasped as he leaned over and looked into the case.
The Who, through Curbishley, had donated the cost of the case. Curbishley also helped arrange Daltrey's visit. It was Curbishley who insisted the concert go on, out of fear that canceling it would cause greater panic and more deaths and injuries. That's why Daltrey wanted to thank him in front of the two dozen people who met him at the memorial that day.
Spying a crooked frame on the wall, Daltrey reached up with two hands and straightened it, as if he wanted everything to be perfect in honor of their loved ones.
Daltrey’s visit made a big impression on everyone, they said. And Daltrey might have gone home more grateful than all of them.
Daltrey said he had always felt that the tragedy on the coliseum plaza was not The Who’s fault. But he didn't feel healed until he heard it from Finneytown.
“'I want you to know that we never blamed the band.' I got a chance to tell him that,” Simkin told WCPO. “And it affected him. I could tell he was struck by it. He was very, very gracious and very humble. … He’s a good-hearted guy.”
Ecklerle’s three sisters - Annie Hagerman, Susie Eckerle and Karen Eckerle - agreed.
“I thought it was just so important that Roger even came, spent the time to come to Cincinnati to visit the families. It was just so amazingly kind of him,” Annie Hagerman said.
When someone mentioned it would have been Jackie Eckerle’s 54th birthday, Daltrey made a suggestion and led them in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
“He said hello to everybody. He shook hands with everybody,” said Anne Votaw, Preston’s mother. “I did overhear Mike say to him, ‘You’re not responsible. Nobody holds the band responsible for what happened.’ And I think Daltrey was appreciative about that. He had to be.”
Morrison’s cousin, Scott Kirby, said he brought her brother and three other relatives to meet Daltrey.
“We all went. I think it was just the opportunity for us to see the sorrow on his face and share that with him. And yet, at the same time, see the joy that he had, which I think all of us have or most of us have in what’s happening at Finneytown High School.” Kirby said.
“When he walked through the door, he was greeted with admiration for being there. It meant a lot to everyone for him to recognize his presence in meeting us. But at the same time it was very evident to us that it was a very cathartic process for him. He lived with this for 40 years as well.”
Sitting with O’Rourke and recalling that night, the 75-year-old Daltrey said it’s been like a horrible dream for all these years. He was just 35 when it happened.
“Our shows were long in those days. They were two hours, sometimes two and a half. So you kind of get, it becomes like a whirlwind. You’re kind of half in your body. It becomes a weird space,” Daltrey said.
“And then, of course, you push back into it the following day, and the following day, and the following day and the following day, so it becomes like a dream zone in a way. But that dreadful night of the third of December became one of the worst dreams that I ever had in my life.
“Since last year, since going there, I feel better about it.”
By the time the band came to Cincinnati, The Who had become arguably the most popular rock band in the world. But the band members' own success, mixed with death and drugs, had turned their world into chaos.
“In 1979, it was such a whirlwind period. We were kind of making it up as we went along, pushed and pulled in every direction by everybody,” Daltrey said.
“It was a very strange period. And of course, it was just after we lost (drummer) Keith Moon” to an accidental overdose of medication for alcoholism, Daltrey said. “And we went back on the road possibly too quickly. We filled the space with a new drummer. Tried to reform what we had. Made a record. It was good record. Then we went on the road. We were a wounded animal. I have to say that. Pete was having all kinds of problems with substances. And I think it was all down to the grief of losing Keith.
“So it was a very traumatic time for us anyway as a band. And then that dreadful night, December the third in Cincinnati, was like .. ugh! I can’t tell you.
“We come off stage and we had done a wonderful show. It was a great show - one of the best we played on the tour. The crowd were incredible, and then we were told what had happened before the show started. And that was like being whacked with a baseball bat around the head. It was … shock.”
An estimated 12,000 fans waiting for the doors to open heard music coming from inside and thought the concert had started. Curbishley told WCPO it wasn’t the band but a movie trailer for the film version of their rock opera, “Quadrophenia.”
The tickets were sold as festival seating, which just raised fan anxiety to get in and get close to the stage. Many pressed toward the locked doors, and the 11 were suffocated.
“I think we did the rest of the tour without talking to hardly anybody … in total silence. Hell, we hardly talked to each other," Daltrey said. "We didn’t talk on stage. We just played our music. We just lost ourselves in our music.
“It was kind of weird. And it didn’t feel like there was any way of making it right.”
Townshend told O’Rourke that The Who missed just such an opportunity by not staying in Cincinnati for a few days, speaking in public about their feelings, supporting the families and mourning with the community. Instead, the band flew right to the next tour stop, Buffalo, and played there the next night.
Daltrey said he disagreed with Townshend then and still does.
“I don’t think we could have done anything different in the end,” he told O’Rourke. “I don’t think it would have helped if we had stayed. What could we have done? We couldn’t bring them back to life.”
The Who finished the tour three weeks later. Daltrey called it “the longest three weeks of my life.”
“And then I went home to England – it’s Christmas – and everything is normal. It was a double whammy,” he said.
There was no escaping it, Daltrey said, especially when he and Townshend were summoned to Cincinnati to give depositions.
“Then it went on to the blame game. Once the lawyers got involved, it was ‘Who’s to blame?’” Daltrey said. “There always has to be someone to blame. And people started to point the finger at us, which was very painful, because we didn’t know what had happened until after the show.
“Was it our fault? I don’t know. I don’t think it was,” Daltrey said.
“Pete made the statement that we must accept some responsibility. But I must admit in my head, I never ever felt any … We just happened to be the band that was playing that night and this happened on the way into a show.
“Why it happened, who knows. Only the people in the doors know that, and I don’t know who they are,” Daltrey said.
The police lieutenant in charge of the 25-member security detail at the concert blamed “festival seating, the size of the crowd that was there early, and not enough doors opening” for creating a crush at the doors.
Dale Menkhaus, who retired as an assistant chief, estimated 12,000 ticketgoers were crowding the plaza when the doors were supposed to open at 6:30 p.m. for the 8 o’clock show. But doors stayed closed for another 40 minutes, Menkhaus told WCPO.
“When the doors didn’t open at 6:30, you could feel that very anxious, the whole crowd anticipation,” Menkhaus said.
When staff members opened the doors, they only opened three to four doors on each side, Menkhaus said.
Daltrey told WCPO it was the right decision to go on with the show. He said Curbishley might have saved a greater loss of life by insisting the concert go on when a fire marshal wanted to cancel it.
“Bill Curbishley was at the scene of the accident and was arguing, fighting with the police and fire marshals, because they wanted to stop the show, which would have been an absolute disaster,” Daltrey said. “Because you would have had the crowd that was already in the hall trying to get out over the rescue workers trying to save people on the ground. So he possibly averted an even more calamitous event.”
To this day, Daltrey said, he feels remorse but not guilt.
“You don’t feel guilty, but you think, ‘If I hadn’t been playing a show in Cincinnati that night, 11 people would still be alive,’ ” he said. “But again, life isn’t like that, is it? People die on the way to shows in freeway crashes. It happens all the time.”
Daltrey said the 11 victims “didn’t die in vain.”
“Safety was improved at venues,” he said, referring to bans on festival seating at venues around the world. Ironically, Cincinnati banned it, then reinstated it 25 years later after council members said some performers were skipping Cincinnati because they could not have general admission.
But some of Daltrey’s pain clearly remains.
Forty years later, Daltrey said he still cannot bring himself to watch news coverage of the event.
“I’ve never looked at the footage. Of any of it. The news stuff,” Daltrey said. “I’ve never been given the opportunity, and I don’t know whether I’d want to or not. I’d rather it just disappears in the folds of time in my memory.
“As long as you keep doing interviews about it and asking probing questions, it’s not going to and I can regurgitate it, but it doesn’t hurt me like it used to.”
COMING TUESDAY: Watch WCPO’s one-hour documentary, “The Who: The Night That Changed Rock,” at 8 p.m.