Tuesday, July 14, 2009
The Greatest Game That Never Was
In June of 1979, I graduated high school. Toward the end of high school, I had, true to form, become friends with two completely different groups of people. One group was a group of guys and women who "partied," though I didn't. The other was a more serious group-- all college-bound, who shared my love of music.
Toward the end of the school year, someone in that second group had gotten ahold of the summer schedule for Ravinia, a beautiful pavillion theater in Chicago's north shore. Not only were there a bunch of great shows that summer, but we could get lawn seats for only 4 bucks. We picked out three shows to go to over the summer: Steve Goodman and Bonnie Koloc, David Bromberg and McGuinn, Clark and Hillman (basically the Byrds, missing David Crosby) and Pete Seeger with Arlo Guthrie.
It seemed particularly important to see the Seeger/Guthrie show. Pete Seeger was getting up in the years-- he was 60 years old in 1979-- and Guthrie was waiting to discover if he had Huntington's Chorea, the genetic disease that had taken his father Woody Guthrie's life.
In July, we heard of one other great event: Disco Demolition. For you youngsters, let me put the times in context. In the mid seventies, it was easy to hear great rock music on the radio, both AM and FM. Then suddenly, after the popularity of "Saturday Night Fever," radio programmers suddenly started switching to all-disco formats. When one rock station, WDAI became "Disco 'DAI," one of the disc jockeys, Steve Dahl, who was not happy about the format change, started openly disparaging the records he was forced to play. He was fired, and quickly hired by WLUP, "The Loop," which had continued a rock format.
From his bully pulpit, Dahl ranted against disco. He would "blow up" disco records on the air-- symbolically, of course, with an "explosion" soundtrack in the background.
Dahl announced that he was going to have a promotion with the Chicago White Sox. On May 2, a game with the Detroit Tigers was rained out. League rules required that this game be made up through a double-header on the next meeting the teams had. This was July 12, 1979. Dahl invited fans to bring a disco record to the game, where he was going to literally blow up the records.
My friends and I were excited about this game. My friend Jim got ahold of some disco 45's and we began planning for the game, just a few days away. Then it hit me-- that date sounded familiar. Sure enough, I checked our Ravinia tickets, and realized that was the night of the Seeger/Guthrie show. So many social engagements, so little time. Since we'd already bought the tickets, we decided to go to the concert.
The summer of '79, I ran into my high school friend Art Rus twice on commuter trains going from Chicago to the western suburbs. One of those times was the night of July 12, 1979. That night, as my friends and I returned from the concert, Art, nearly hyperventilating, told us a tale that was barely believeable. Indeed, we thought he certainly had to be exaggerating. Steve Dahl and company had gathered the disco records-- well, most of them. Hundreds of them had been whipping over and through the crowd like lethal frisbees. As Dahl blew up the bin full of records, Art told us, the crowd went crazy, spilling over the fences. In the meantime, the "Andy Frain" security people were dispatched to the perimeter of Comiskey Field in a vain attempt to stop the thousands of non-ticket holders who were climbing the walls getting into the stadium. With nobody to stop them, tens of thousands poured onto the field, stealing everything they could, even tearing out patches of the field. With Harry Carey, then the announcer for the White Sox, vainly beseeching the stoned masses to go back to their seats, the Detroit manager pointed out that since they couldn't get the crowd under control and the field was now unplayable, the White Sox would have to forfeit the game. The umpires agreed.
The crowd finally dispersed when dozens of baton-swinging Chicago cops arrived.
I had a feeling that I may have missed something historic.
A lot of people have pointed to that event as the death knell of disco. Over the years, my own hatred of disco has mellowed; I find it to have a kitschy humor, like platform shoes and white suits with wide lapels. But over the years, I've considered my decision to see Seeger and Guthrie that night.
In 1998, I saw Seeger perform once again, at an event in New York City. He just turned 90 in May, and is still performing. Arlo Guthrie, who had turned 32 a couple of nights before I saw him perform, did not, happily, have Huntington's Disease. He is now 62, older than Seeger was that night, and continues to perform. Maybe I'll go see him again the next time he's playing in town.