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COMMENTARY

40 years ago, The Who show went on in Buffalo after Cincinnati tragedy. Pete Townshend still regrets it.

Sean Kirst

I'd just like to say that you all know what happened yesterday.

There's nothing we can do.

We feel totally shattered.

But life goes on.

We all lost a lot of family yesterday.

And this show's for them.

– Singer Roger Daltrey, beginning of The Who's Buffalo show, Memorial Auditorium, Dec. 4, 1979

Rick Adamczak was conscious of the anniversary long before it arrived. Forty years ago this week, frontman Roger Daltrey led The Who to the stage of the old arena in Buffalo we all knew as "The Aud." He briefly addressed a crowd of more than 17,000 Western New Yorkers whose roaring welcome was a contrary mesh of grief and wonder.

It was an event not quite like any other in the city's musical history. The Who, at the time, was one of the most prominent and influential rock bands in the world. Adamczak, who revered the band, was a 17-year-old senior at Dunkirk High School.

He remembers a moment earlier in the day as clearly as he remembers seeing Daltrey take the stage: Adamczak's mother was driving him to school that morning when they learned from the radio that 11 young people had died the night before at The Who concert in Cincinnati. A first-come, first-serve situation known as "festival seating" triggered a nightmare crush near the doors of the then-Riverfront Coliseum.

Thousands of spectators, waiting in the cold, pushed toward the locked doors. The sound of music from inside the hall – in a recent interview with Cincinnati television station WCPO, Who manager Bill Curbishley speculated it was from a test screening of an excerpt from their film, "Quadrophenia" – caused the crowd to jam forward with such force against the doors that a survivor recalls being pushed through the thick glass.

Of those who died, six were teens. In the car the next morning, listening to all this, Jean Adamczak turned to her son. "Isn't that the band you're seeing tonight?" she asked.

He said it was, bracing for his mother to say he was not going.

She said nothing else. Adamczak and a buddy, Steve Tyszko, drove that night to the Aud, drawn toward downtown Buffalo in the same way as more than 17,000 of us packed into that now-razed hall.

In 2019, in the era of the internet and spontaneous global conversation, Adamczak said the idea might seem impossible: Less than 24 hours after 11 people died in horrific fashion, members of The Who were asked to again take the stage in Buffalo for a concert whose essence of raucous celebration was turned inside-out.

Four decades later, Pete Townshend – The Who's legendary guitarist and songwriter – remains haunted by that decision.

In interviews with both the Associated Press and Tanya O’Rourke of WCPO, which did a powerful documentary on the tragedy, Townshend said the band members did not find out about the deaths until after they were done with their set list in Cincinnati.

"The main thing, as I said earlier, is I don't think we should have left," Townshend told WCPO. "You know, we could have postponed Buffalo. We should have stayed in the city at least for three days, we should have just stayed there for a while, you know, made it clear that we were there and we were mourning and we were part of the process of trying to work out what had happened."

He paused to contemplate those choices. "Ran away is what we did," he said. "I'm sorry, but that's what happened. We ran away."

The Who on stage in Buffalo, Dec.4, 1979. (Ronald Colleran/News file photo)

In an AP interview that focused on the choice of going to Buffalo, Townshend said the band members – on their way out of the arena in Cincinnati – saw the dead and injured covered by blankets, and that he initially felt a wave of rage toward their manager, Curbishley, for not telling them of the disaster until after their performance.

That fury diminished when Curbishley explained his reasoning, even if Townshend said he still did not agree.

"I'm not forgiving us," he said to the AP. "We should have stayed."

Curbishley told WCPO that he did not learn of what happened until after the show began, and that he feared stopping the performance might cause more injuries – especially with medical crews desperately attempting to treat the injured. Of the decision to so quickly continue with the tour, Curbishley said he made the call out of a sense that the band was traumatized and needed some kind of normalcy.

"I really felt that if they didn't play another concert," he said, "they may never play again."

Daltrey, in the WCPO interview, said the tragedy occurred while the band was already burdened with the grief of losing drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978 from an overdose of pills. The Who, staggered again by catastrophe outside Riverfront Coliseum, did the rest of the tour without really confronting their sorrow, Daltrey said, instead "losing ourselves in our music."

Barely a week after the concert, he told the AP he hoped The Who could return to Cincinnati as a gesture of solidarity with the city's grief. While the band continued to tour, including several visits to Buffalo, that Cincinnati visit did not happen.

Last year, Daltrey quietly traveled to the city to meet with organizers of the PEM Memorial Scholarship Fund, dedicated to the memory of Stephan Preston, Jackie Eckerle, and Karen Morrison – teenage students at Finneytown High School who died at the concert.

For a long time, he told WCPO, it just didn't feel there was "any way to make it right."

In Buffalo, newspaper accounts from 1979 describe how worried public safety officials escalated security levels outside the Aud before The Who performed. While city police increased their presence beyond the arena doors, there also were changes in typical protocol inside the hall, including a doubling of security guards.

Ed Tice, who helped promote the show, said the doors to the Aud opened much earlier than usual, making any crush at the gates impossible. As for The Who, he recalls how the band dressed in what had been a locker room for the Buffalo Braves of the National Basketball Association, a team that left town earlier that year.

A ticket stub from the Dec. 4, 1970 concert by The Who in Buffalo. The promoter was Harvey & Corky, whose co-founder, Harvey Weinstein, now faces rape and predatory sex assault charges in New York City. (Image courtesy Darrell Kaminski)

Workers draped cloth over the lockers to create a warmer atmosphere, Tice said, then filled one room with pinball games as both a gesture of welcome and a tribute to The Who's famous anthem, "Pinball Wizard."

No one had any interest in pinball. Tice said all four members of The Who, still grieving over events of the night before, were solemn and kept to themselves before the show.

Once they went on stage, they played with fury.

In his review of the concert, Buffalo News music critic Dale Anderson noted how Daltrey told a reporter on the plane to Buffalo that if the singer had his way, he would not have disembarked at all. At the Aud, wearing a black T-shirt, Daltrey began with his dedication to those lost at Cincinnati. It led into the song "Substitute" and a concert in which The Who performed 23 songs with such raw energy that it stays with Adamczak, even after 40 years.

"Oh my God," he said. "I remember exactly."

Townshend, now 74, said in those recent interviews that he never found his way to consolation. “It isn’t all about rock ’n’ roll," he told the AP. "This is about kids from Cincinnati who died – kids from Cincinnati whose parents went through trauma; kids from Cincinnati who were disabled or hurt or damaged by what happened there.”

 

Adamczak, a journalist who is now managing editor of The Daily Reporter in Columbus, Ohio, can still tell you how Anderson, in his review, wrote that The Who "honored the fallen by putting on one of the best rock shows this town has ever seen."

In the WCPO documentary, several relatives of the victims speak of admiring The Who, and wish out loud that the band might come back for its first show since 1979 in Cincinnati. Curbishley's only concern was that the show would not be in the same building.

This week, The Who vowed to make good on those requests, announcing it will play in April at the nearby BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University.

The choice goes full circle from Daltrey's first words on that stage in Buffalo. Forty years after describing his helplessness about a loss as close as family, his band will return to Cincinnati, seeking peace.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

Below is the Dale Anderson review from 1979:

Tense Audience Hears The Who Play Its Best

Wednesday, Dec. 5, 1979

By Dale Anderson, News Critic

"We're totally shattered," singer Roger Daltrey said before the music began in Memorial Auditorium Tuesday night. "But life goes on. We lost a lot of family yesterday. This show's for them."

On the flight up here from Cincinnati, where 11 fans were trampled to death trying to get into a Who concert Monday, the distressed Daltrey had told a reporter he would rather not even get off the plane.

But instead, Daltrey and the band followed up a disaster in Cincinnati with a triumph in Buffalo. They honored the fallen by putting on one of the best rock shows this town has ever seen.

Local authorities were determined to avoid repeating the Cincinnati catastrophe. Never have there been so many police officers surrounding a show at the Aud.

"Have your tickets out and your jackets open before approaching the front gate, please," a man with a bullhorn advised incoming crowds on Main Street.

The start of the sold-out show had been moved back to 9:30 p.m. Young fans began streaming in three hours earlier and the doors opened shortly thereafter. The Who went without their customary sound check.

Nevertheless, there was tension in the air as the crowd, estimated at 17,400, shuffled to its reserved seats. Stragglers shoved and bunched in the aisles when the lights went out several minutes before 9:30 for a showing of a preview of The Who's new film, "Quadrophenia."

The preview showed mostly crowds of rampaging youths running and fighting with police in the streets. It was hardly reassuring.

But the band put the anxieties to rest. Beginning with "Substitute," they loudly celebrated the raging, outcast side of rock 'n' roll for nearly 2½ hours. There were no ballads on their song list.

The hyperactive Daltrey, his curly blond hair shorn short, quickly reestablished his reputation as one of the foremost primal screamers and microphone twirlers. With a black T-shirt over his muscle beach physique, he seemed ageless.

Playing counterpoint to Daltrey was skinny, bearded Pete Townshend, looking for all the world like a divinity student. Townshend's guitar-smashing antics first brought the band notoriety in the '60s.

What was overlooked back then was his pioneering exploration of the power chord, of which he still is a master. His windmill strumming was sufficient to spur the crowd to its feet again and again. He closed the three-song encore with an orgy of splits and jumps.

John Entwhistle was the very model of a solid anchorman on bass, taking the spotlight only to sing his "Boris the Spider" and to solo in "My Generation." Kenny Jones, formerly of The Faces, proved to be a sober and marvelously precise driving force in Keith Moon's old seat behind the drums.

The new additions to the basic quartet remained on the sidelines. John (Rabbit) Bundrick was hidden among his keyboards. The three horn players, who first showed up in "Music Must Change," were barely visible behind Entwhistle's amp. Barely audible, too.

The peak moments of the show began in "Sister Disco," as the circular lighting grid lowered above drummer Jones. Spirits were further fired with a high-powered "5:15." Then a medley from the rock opera "Tommy" brought a full-house standing ovation.

After Daltrey's opening remarks, there was no further mention of Cincinnati, just as there was no mention of Keith Moon. For this night, at least, the kids were all right. And so were The Who.

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