Pete Townshend seems to play the fool sometimes with his outspokenness, but not when he’s talking about The Who concert in Cincinnati 40 years ago.
The brutally frank rock star said he will take the memory of Dec. 3, 1979, and his sorrow for the victims and compassion for their families to his grave.
“This is something I will surely remember on my death bed,” Townshend said in an exclusive, face-to-face interview with WCPO Anchor Tanya O’Rourke. “At 74, people are starting to die faster in my life now … I’ve only maybe got 20, 30, 40 people that I remember who’ve passed in my life I really care about, but you know, the 11 of Cincinnati are part of that number.”
The legendary songwriter, guitarist, singer and leader of The Who shared many deep feelings and revelations publicly for the first time with O’Rourke about the tragedy outside the Cincinnati concert – even casually mentioning that he and lead singer Roger Daltrey had never sat down and talked about it.
Townshend, Daltrey and the band’s manager, Bill Curbishley, 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 an expanded documentary on the WCPO app on streaming devices.
Forty years later, Townshend said he still carries deep regrets. Among his revelations to O’Rourke:
- At 34, he was too drunk most of the time to quickly come to grips with what happened.
- Townshend said he believes The Who should not have gone on with the Cincinnati show after the 11 young people died in a crush of fans waiting outside on the plaza, even though the band didn’t know about it until the concert was over and they came off stage.
- And he feels even more strongly that The Who made a mistake by leaving town the next day and immediately continuing their tour.
“We ran away is what we did,” Townshend said. “I’m sorry, but that’s what happened. We ran away.”
Townshend said his and Daltrey’s separate, face-to-face interviews with O’Rourke were their first public conversations about the 1979 Cincinnati concert and the scars it left with them.
Townshend couldn’t seem to believe that himself as he sat across from O’Rourke for 47 minutes in the media room at the Seattle Mariners’ T-Mobile Park, an hour before a concert in October.
Townshend: “One of the reasons this scar has been tricky is because – WOW - this is the first conversation that we’ve had about this ever! So maybe now the scar will heal a bit …”
O’Rourke: “Are you saying to me, this is the first in-depth conversation you’ve ever had about this?”
Townshend: “Yeah. Yeah. The first dedicated conversation about the accident.”
Not staying in Cincinnati is his major regret to this day, he told O’Rourke, even though Daltrey and Curbishley disagreed with him then and now.
“We handled it really badly. What we did is we left the city and we shouldn’t have … We had a show the next day in Buffalo. So, we spent the night (in Cincinnati). We couldn’t sleep. We got drunk. We sobered up. We got drunk again,” Townshend said.
“We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have anyone come and talk to us. We really didn’t know what to say or think or feel. We should have done the dutiful follow-up of being present and available to speak and support the families."
Instead, the band went straight to Buffalo and played there almost as if nothing had happened.
“We could have postponed Buffalo. We should have stayed (in Cincinnati) for at least three days,” Townshend said. “We should have stayed for a while and made it clear we were there and we were mourning and we were part of the process of trying to work out what had happened. And that we were able to have this conversation then.”
Speaking of his own demons, Townshend admitted his heavy drinking left him in no condition to help the band immediately decide how to respond properly.
“I think one of the things we were concerned about is it probably would have taken me two days to sober up, you know, because I was drinking flat out all the time,” Townshend said. “I really wanted to be on the ball, and I don’t think I was capable.”
In another revelation to O'Rourke, Townshend said the Cincinnati tragedy led in part to his decision to leave the band.
“I think it manifested through me and, really quite quickly, despairing of The Who and eventually leaving them in 1981,” he said. “It was a couple of years after the accident. Just feeling … I was better off as a solo artist or writer. I went to work for eight years for a book-publishing company. I just left the business.”
After breaking up in 1983, The Who occasionally came back together for tours and live appearances starting in 1989 and resumed regular touring in 1999.
During his interview with O’Rourke, Townshend called the Riverfront Coliseum a “crime scene” and said it “should have been investigated as such.”
Townshend blamed festival seating for creating anxiety among the ticketholders waiting to rush in to get close to the stage, and he also blamed the arena operators for keeping the doors locked until nearly concert time, then trying to funnel thousands of people though a handful of doors.
Townshend said he was shocked that lawyers and others tried to blame the band for the deaths.
Townshend admitted he was in a bad place when the band came to Cincinnati in 1979. Besides his heavy drinking, his marriage “was not in great shape.” And the death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978 had taken a toll on him and the band, Townshend said.
But unless you were on the inside, you wouldn’t have known it from The Who’s incredible success. In fact, The Who’s manager told O’Rourke they were “at their peak.”
“I think I’m safe in saying they were probably the biggest rock and roll band in the world at that time,” Curbishley said.
And Townshend was one of the world’s biggest rock stars, having already written 14 Top-40 hits, including “l Can See for Miles,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Who Are You,” plus two rock operas, “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia.” The former contained three Top-40 singles, “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me."
Townshend’s commanding, guitar-smashing stage presence and his legendary hotel-room destruction helped him build a fan following worldwide, and his musical accomplishments would lead him and the band to induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Townshend’s use of the synthesizer was groundbreaking, as were his development of the rock opera and his feedback and power chord guitar technique. But it was Townshend’s songwriting that had a special connection with young people, his Tri-State fans said.
“Pete Townshend and the genius of The Who was to directly shed light upon a lot of things that we were going through as kids, a lot of things that the human condition are all about,” said Mike Simkin, an 18-year-old Finneytown High School student at the time who rode to the Cincinnati concert with four schoolmates.
One, Stephan Preston, 19, was killed in the crush. Two other 15-year-old Finneytown students, Jackie Eckerle and Karen Morrison, also died on the plaza.
Townshend said The Who had a special interest in putting on a good show in Cincinnati that night.
“Cincinnati wasn’t a regular pit stop for the band, so it was great to be there,” he said. “It was a show we were really anxious to do and do well.”
When the show was over, they believed they had. But their satisfaction quickly turned to shock when they got the news.
“I remember feeling good about the show. And (we) came off stage and Bill Curbishley came in and said, ‘I’ve got some really bad news to tell you,’ and started to explain it to us,” Townshend said. “And I went through two phases. One was, of course, tremendous upset and concern. But the other was incredible anger that we had been performing while this was going on.”
Curbishley had gone out on the plaza and seen the death and destruction for himself – bodies of teens covered by blankets, others weeping and searching for friends, torn-off clothes and shoes gathered in piles.
Fire officials wanted to cancel the show, but Curbishley convinced them that would risk more loss of life and injuries.
“Bill decided we should continue to perform because he was concerned people would leave the building in a panic if we didn’t perform,” Townshend said. “So we performed without knowing what was going on outside. So it was very strange to have done that performance, which was very joyful and uplifting, not knowing what was going on outside. And then, subsequently, in a sense, to be castigated for doing so. But it wasn’t our choice.”
Later, Townshend forced himself to look at photos of the carnage on the plaza.
“I couldn’t really castigate our manager for allowing the concert to go on if I hadn’t seen them, because his argument was that, ‘Pete, you didn’t see what I saw,’ “ Townshend said. “He went out there and he saw it. And I had to see it myself to build up an argument to say, ‘OK, now I understand your decision.’
“I still don’t agree with it. I don’t think we should have performed until it had been sorted out. But the main thing, as I said earlier, is, I don’t think we should have left.”
Townshend recalled the awkwardness he felt when the band went on stage in Buffalo the next night.
“We had an excuse because we had another gig, but I remember when Roger said, ‘This is for the kids of Cincinnati!’ and I just thought, ‘We’re in the wrong city. We’re in Buffalo,’” Townshend said.
“I know what he meant, but I just thought it was dumb. We shouldn’t have been performing at all. Not his fault, you know what I mean? I love Roger. That was his response. Mine was probably just to drink another bottle of brandy, so I’m not much better,” Townshend said.
“We should have stayed. We should have stayed.”
The Who’s decision to “run away” from Cincinnati the next day haunted Townshend so much that when a similar deadly incident happened 10 years later at a Pearl Jam concert, Townshend said he immediately called Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead vocalist, to warn him not to make the same mistake.
“When the same thing happened to Pearl Jam in Denmark – a number of people (nine) were crushed in front of their stage – I got Eddie on the phone and I just said, ‘Stay there! Whatever is happening next, cancel it! Just stay there!’” Townshend said. “Not to leave. Just to stay, because then they could get the sense of what was right to do next.
“And they did. And I think it meant a lot,” Townshend said.
“It’s interesting that through that, other musicians, other bands have learned what to do.”
Townshend said he still wasn’t sober when he and Daltrey were summoned to Cincinnati to testify in hearings over lawsuits filed by the victims’ families.
“When we did the depositions … the night before I had to go to court to do them, I got completely smashed,” Townshend said. “I was so nervous, you know. In fact, the first question … the attorney said to me, ‘I hear you sat in the bar last night, Mr. Townshend, and got completely smashed.’
“And I said, ‘Yeah. I was terrified that you were going to accuse me of something I didn’t do.’ And I was in that chair for four hours!”
But Townshend said he wasn’t going to take the blame for what happened.
“When we did our depositions, the lawyers of the insurance companies, they were brutal,” Townshend said. “They pulled things out of my actions and the band’s actions – televisions out of hotel windows, the fact that we incited riots by breaking guitars, and I would kind of go, ‘It was art. It was art.’ And my lawyer would kick me under the table (and say), ‘Shut up. Don’t say anything.’”
As much as the deaths disturbed him, Townshend said it was wrong for anyone to blame the band.
“For years and years I didn’t know what to say… I just wanted to shout out, ‘It’s not my fault!’” he said. “And I felt also, if I said ‘sorry’ or apologized, that would be misinterpreted – that I didn’t feel responsible. I don’t feel responsible. But of course, I’m terribly, terribly sorry for the families.”
Townshend mostly avoided the blame game during his interview with O’Rourke, but he did say this:
“There’s one thing that could have happened that could have prevented that incident is that the building had been properly run,” Townshend said. “On the other hand, I don’t want the person that ran the building to be made entirely responsible for this.”
He also criticized the use of festival seating, which was common at the time.
“That’s how we were performing at time, and we stopped doing that straight away,” he said.
But that was only temporary.
Cincinnati City Council outlawed festival seating but reversed itself 25 years later for a 2009 Bruce Springsteen concert. Why? Promoters said many big acts preferred it and wouldn’t play Cincinnati if they didn’t.
The Pearl Jam tragedy happened in a mosh pit in front of the outdoor stage, and with big stadiums hosting many concerts these days, Townshend said he wishes more were done to ensure fan safety.
“Safety standards are still not quite right in my view,” he said.
Townshend said he hadn’t been dodging questions about the Cincinnati concert all these years.
“I haven’t been asked,” he said.
He said he willingly talked to O’Rourke at the request of the organizers of the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund at Finneytown High School. That group reached out to the band to help them honor the three Finneytown students who died outside the concert.
“I’m certainly not afraid to talk about it. In fact, I think this conversation only came about through the establishment of the foundation,” Townshend said. “It’s interesting, from something bad, something good happens, and then you can actually look at it again.”
“Did it change you?” O’Rourke asked Townshend.
“Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah,” he said. “And I’d like to say it changed me for the better, but I don’t think necessarily that it did.
“I’m still very traumatized by it. It’s a weird thing to have in your life. It’s a weird thing to have in your autobiography that, you know, 11 kids died at one of your concerts.
“It’s a strange, disturbing, heavy load to carry.”