It was July 21, 1978, and my friends and I arrived at the Tucson Community Center Arena around 9 a.m. It was a sunny day (imagine that) and shaping up to be another hot one (ditto). In addition to some monsoonal humidity and the buzzing of amorous cicadas, there was also some excitement in the air. We were all in high spirits; talking, laughing and joking and speculating on what it would be like to be among the first in line for the biggest concert to hit Tucson…well, ever. As we rounded the corner of the Arena towards its entrance, we were struck by the absurdity of it all: there were hundreds of people already there, apparently oblivious to the ungodliness of the hour (hey, we were seventeen; 9 a.m. was ungodly). We got in line and began discussing a collective strategy to reestablish our rightful place ahead of all the overly – obsessive freaks once the doors opened.
The Rolling Stones were in town, one of the final stops on their Some Girls tour. Back in the 1970’s, Tucson was somehow able to attract some of the biggest groups of the day; no one was bigger than the ‘Stones (we still attract some of the biggest groups of those days, the bandmembers now in their late sixties and still trying to suck the teat of fame, usually by playing in the smaller casino venues). Ticket day should have clued us in on what was to come: they sold out very quickly, and it took some very creative action and downright rudeness on my part to ensure we were even able to get to the ticket windows in time (sorry, dude, but you were fat, old and slow, and I was in the prime of life; you foolishly chose civility and reason while I was still within reach, and your screams of shock and profanity as the window shut in front of you and I ran, tickets in hand, only enhanced my notoriety amongst my peers).
Disappointment over not being first in line notwithstanding, the day’s wait began nicely enough (the doors wouldn’t be opened until 7 p.m.). People sat around playing cards, smoking and furtively sucking beer or whiskey and just generally getting along. These were the days before regard for personal safety, bottled water and plain common sense, however, and by noon it had gotten very warm. The beer was now hot, the whiskey just plain nasty, the people becoming equally so, and water was what we all needed and wanted. By 2 p.m., the crowd numbered in the thousands and everyone stood to better hold their place in line. There was no shade to be found anywhere, no relief in sight; we were in it for the long haul.
By 4 p.m. the line had become a pulsating, massive mob of sweat-soaked humanity. The people in the back, apparently horrified by so many people having arrived before them by the ungodly hour of 5 p.m., began to push forward. Those of us near the front, unwilling to lose our hard-earned positions, began to push back. The result became these massive waves of people, pushed forward by sheer inertia, then repulsed backward after crashing into an unyielding sea wall of mankind. For a few minutes, it seemed kind of fun, but even at the tender age of seventeen, I was keenly aware of my own mortality. My feet would leave the ground for seconds at a time as I was swept in one direction, then again as the wave sucked back the other way. I felt like a Geisha girl in a tight kimono, managing only micro-steps or tippy-toes at a time when only a giant step for balance would do. I knew that if someone were to fall, they would likely be trampled to death, as no one near them would be able to create enough space for them to stand up. I found very quickly that by keeping my arms above my head at all times, I was able to push-off the faces, shoulders and breasts of others to control my balance.
By 6 p.m., the crisis had reached a very dangerous level. It was unbelievably hot, there was no respite in the form of a breeze and my nostrils were choked with the stench of pubescent sweat and bad perfume. I had long since lost my friends, who had been alternately sucked into the ebb and flow of the pushing mob. A very petite young girl, about my age, sobbed and screamed in panic as our bodies pressed tightly together (I have seen this same reaction several times since, though strangely, crowds were not an issue); she disappeared with the next crowd thrust. An ugly, angry-looking guy, exhibiting all the brilliance of a night-light, yelled something in my face.
“What?” I yelled back in spontaneously clever reply.
“Quit feeling up my girlfriend, you (unsavory fellow, you)!”
I first looked up at my arms (still extended above my head for balance), then back at him, then down at what was either a partially shaved, soaking wet, marginally clothed Orangutan or his girlfriend (or both). I then managed my second consecutive brilliant comeback in a row:
“Go (occupy) yourself.” He seemed to want a piece of me, for whatever reason, but I was by this time in no mood to be trifled with and also noticed that his arms were pinned to his sides. I took a swing at him and very likely punched his simian girlfriend on the side of the head (as Orangutans are freakishly strong, she clearly posed the greater threat). Before I could cheap shot him (her) again, they were off with the next wave. The rest of the time in “line” was spent this way: like in a Fellini film(I was likely suffering from heat stroke and delirious), new actors would pop into the scene for a few seconds, play their seemingly random roles with emotive frenzy, then shoot off in an explosion of humanity.
Hope was renewed with the opening of the doors, but only for that brief moment, as eight thousand people pushed with renewed fervor to get through eight three-foot openings. I could have cared less about the Rolling Stones at that point; in fact, had Mick Jagger himself been within striking distance, I would have pummeled those lips until they covered his entire ugly face (I’d likely have had to hit him only two or three times). After what seemed an eternity, I shot through the doors like a popped zit. My underwear and pants were on backwards, my shoes on the wrong feet, my nipples strangely pierced. I was twenty pounds lighter, bruised, battered, yet marvelously alive and all the more grateful for it.
I never found my friends again that night until we met back at the car after the show. Each of us had similar horror stories to tell; a couple of them even claimed to have made it to the front of the stage (liars). No matter; I had seen enough of crowds that night, felt as though I’d burned a Koran in an Afghani market square at high noon, and had lost interest in the whole experience. I watched listlessly from the upper deck.
In December of 1979 eleven people were killed at a Who concert in Cincinnati; they had a similar festival seating plan (first come, first served), and the victims were trampled or died of asphyxiation in the frenzy to get the best seats. It wasn’t hard to see how it could happen; I was surprised, frankly, that no one died in Tucson the day the Rolling Stones came to town. It would be unbelievable to imagine that Orangutan Girl might have been hurt the worst (I did hit her pretty good).
You may be wondering how the concert was. I thought it sucked.
Thank you, sir.
Ahhhhhh…..those were the days 😉
They were the days. I miss the days of carefree stupidity. There’s still the stupidity today, but the carefreeness is gone…
This is high on my list of the worst possible, most hellish situtation I could ever experience, I avoid crowds like the plague, particularly huge crowds of drunk and otherwise compromised people. This was funny (as usual) but also kind of awful…
It was awful; I actually feared for my life. Sometimes you worry for a flash second about dying, but this went on for over an hour. If it wasn’t death by trampling, it could be death from heatstroke. Rough day.
Your writing is really good. Paragraph 4 had me right there in the crowd being lifted off my feet. I wonder how many other people that day realised how hectic the situation was / could have been?!
I think many of them were under the influence of something (mine had worn off by the time the mob mentality took over). The screaming, sobbing girl certainly had some inkling!
What we do for fun!
Yeah. Doesn’t sound that fun anymore, though. Festival seating was really a dumb idea.
This really brings back memories (flashbacks?). My high school days occurred in a parallel universe here in Seattle back when the idea “festival seating” hadn’t yet killed people. During the 70’s my friends and I gathered at the Seattle Coliseum (built for the ’62 World’s Fair) to see the Stones, Eric Clapton, Santana, ELP…it was pretty much what we lived for. It was at the Led Zeppelin show where we experienced the scene you so profoundly describe. After a long day of waiting the unruly crowd began throwing empty bottles as far as possible up the gradually inclining wide concrete buttresses raining broken shards on the crowds below. When the mounted police arrived the target shifted. Soon after, the surging began and just before the doors were to be opened the “lucky” fans in the front were literally pushed through the plate glass. Thankfully nobody died. It was ridiculous and scary-the mob mentality.
You are a great writer, loved this post! Love your reference to the “bandmembers still trying to suck the teat of fame”, ha! Hey, that reminds me, Paul Anka is coming to town…
Thanks for sharing!
Wow. The bottle throwers…that’s just downright criminal. Thank God the mounties showed up to redirect the targets. Seattle must have been a great place to grow up if you liked to rock. I never got to see Zepellin! Oy! Paul Anka singing “Puppy Love” in his what, seventies? That must be a sight.
I agree with misslisted. This sounds like my definition of hell on earth, but you still made it funny and even a little nostalgic. Outstanding.
Thank you! Yes, time adds fondness to bad memories, but that one never lost its edge; fear of dying tends to do that. Awesome Gravatar, btw!
Oooooh….brings back memories of a hot August day in ’77. Spent 14 hours in UA football stadium cheering on several bands culminating with Fleetwood Mac (Rumors Tour). Shorts, tank top, cold eegees spiked with Bacardi and the sweet scent of…well, you get the picture. Don’t tell my kids, they think I only went to Amy Grant concerts.
I was there! Arizona, Loggins and Messina, Marshall Tucker and Fleetwood Mac! With a girlfriend I wanted to dump. Sorry about the sweet scent; it made the date bearable. I see your kids on Thursday nights(bball with my son). I’m gonna tell them…
Holy cow. What an experience, but, as usual, you tell a good story! I love the description of you as you shot through the doors like a popped zit. Funny shtuff!
Uh-oh, you’ve been in Germany too long; your English is getting compromised(shtuff). That’s how my Austrian mother talks! Thanks for reading and your comments. I really appreciate it!
Trust me, I know my English is slipping, more quickly every day. Darn thing is that my German isn’t catching up as quickly. This leads to lots of uncomfortable silences in the middle of my sentences… duh 🙂
I once asked a guy in the train station, in my perfect German, if we were both waiting for the train to Mainz. He answered in almost perfect English “Yes, this is the correct train to Mainz.” I was crushed.
Germans, Austrians (maybe all Europeans?) love any excuse to speak English – don’t take it personally 🙂
Yeah. I was just bummed he could tell I was American. Maybe it was the U of A hat…