Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A time capsule of protest

Joni Mitchell played guitar, piano and dulcimer at the concert that launched Greenpeace at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on Oct. 16, 1970. Photo by Alan Katowitz.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 25, 2009


It was a day one teenager, now grown, will never forget.

Joni Mitchell and James Taylor made out in the backseat of the family car.

Phil Ochs, the leather-jacketed protest singer, dined on vegetarian lasagna in her kitchen.

Even the cute boy in arts class, who had never before paid much attention, talked to Barbara Stowe about the evening’s big concert at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver.

For the 14-year-old Grade 10 student, the clocks at Kitsilano High never moved as slowly as they did on Friday, Oct. 16, 1970.

Outside the Coliseum, the air was filled with the scent of patchouli, sandalwood and marijuana.

By 8 p.m., she was sitting in a folding chair in the front row on the floor of the hockey arena.

Before the musicians came out, her father, a lawyer who had put aside his practice to become a fulltime environmental activist, stepped onto the stage.

He wore an expensive Brooks Brothers shirt, the white of the cotton tie-dyed with streaks of blue by his teenaged daughter. She remembers thinking he looked like he was wearing the sky.

Greenpeace is beautiful,” Irving Stowe told the crowd, “and you are beautiful because you are here tonight.”

His Rhode Island roots were evident when he spoke, as are became ahr and for became fohwa.

“You came here because you are not on a death trip. You believe in life, you believe in peace and you want them now!

“By coming here tonight you are making possible a trip for life and for peace. You are supporting the first Greenpeace project, sending a trip to Amchitka to try to step the testing of hydrogen bombs there — or anywhere.”

Before there was ever Live Aid or Band Aid or Farm Aid, even before George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, there was the concert that launched Greenpeace.

A group of activists, originally called the Don’t Make A Wave Committee, had been selling 25-cent buttons and $3 T-shirts on street corners, but needed much more if they were to interrupt the underground nuclear tests scheduled for Alaska’s Aleutian islands.

One day, while making coffee in the kitchen of their West Point Grey home, the father told his daughter his latest brainstorm.

“I know how we’ll raise the money, Peachy,” he said, using a pet name. “We’ll have a rock concert.”

For someone whose tastes ran to jazz and classical, and who had only recently been introduced to rock, the idea seemed absurd.

He wrote letters to musicians. Joan Baez turned him down because of a previous commitment, but sent a cheque for $1,000.

The local band Chilliwack signed on, as did Mr. Ochs. Then, Joni Mitchell signed on, the performers agreeing to forego their usual fees to support a good cause. Ms. Mitchell had a request. She wanted to bring with her James Taylor, who had released his second album earlier in the year. Mr. Stowe had never heard of him, but agreed.

Tickets cost $3. They quickly sold out. Concertgoers were encouraged to hang on to the stub, as a draw was to be made for a door prize.

The radio on the morning of the concert brought the shocking news of the overnight declaration of the War Measures Act in response to two political kidnappings in Quebec. Martial law had been imposed. It was uncertain whether authorities would allow so many young people to gather in one place for a concert with political overtones.

As it turned out, the show was a success. Chilliwack rocked the house, Mr. Ochs performed a blistering set, Mr. Taylor provided a mellow vibe with such numbers as “Fire and Rain” and “Sweet Baby James.” A playful and relaxed Joni Mitchell played guitar, piano and dulcimer as she performed her hits and previewed some songs from her upcoming album, “Blue.”

The show raised $18,000 and, in time, the activists would sail to Alaskan waters to challenge nuclear testing.

In what at first appeared to be little more than a footnote to the day’s exciting events, the sound engineer captured almost the entire show on a high-quality Revox tape recorder. Mr. Stowe insisted the musicians be told. With their permission, he asked for a copy for personal use.

Mr. Stowe died of cancer in 1974, aged 59. Every once in a while, his surviving family — wife Dorothy, son Robert, daughter Barbara — listened to the old reels, which the son eventually transferred to cassette tape and, later still, to compact disk.

Over the years, many friends and acquaintances asked for a copy. The family refused with regret, remembering their father’s promise to the artists.

A few years ago, the brother showed Greenpeace his homemade CD, complete with cover art and background notes.

Earlier this month, after getting permissions, the organization released a double CD with a 40-page booklet and a you-are-there memoir by Ms. Stowe, as well as several stunning photographs.

The Amchitka concert CDs are an aural time capsule. To listen in is to eavesdrop on a special moment 39 years in the past when Phil and James and Joni were impassioned by a cause (and, in the latter pair’s case, by love). On headphones, it sounds as if you’re sitting just offstage. You can even hear audience cries for favourite songs.

Tune in, turn on, and drop what you’re doing. You’ve got to hear this.

Mr. Ochs is forthright and angry in reacting to the imposition of martial law.

“Thank you very much,” he says after one number. “It’s not everyday you get to play in a police state.”

In contrast, Mr. Taylor is utterly cool. After the audience cheers the opening notes to one familiar number, he offers a quick acknowledgment in a near-whisper. “Thank you, folks.”

Joni Mitchell opens with “Big Yellow Taxi,” segueing into the unlikely “Bony Moronie,” offering a explanation midway through — “One of my favourite songs from those YMCA dances I used to go to back in Saskatoon,” she says.

Her performance of “Woodstock” gets a tremendous ovation.

It was after midnight by the time she invited her lover to join her in a duet on Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

“What’s the next verse, James? You want to come sing it.” The crowd applauds encouragement. “Give him a microphone over here.”

The concert ended with “The Circle Game,” the musicians joined by their managers and Mr. Stowe, as Ms. Mitchell urges the audience to “Sing out real loud.”

The door prize turned out to be a guaranteed spot aboard a rickety boat about to sail into rough waters at a nuclear-bomb testing site. The lucky winner demurred.

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