Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Friday, September 4, 2009

When the Springfield Civic Center Rocked, Part 1

Just what exactly killed arena rock in Springfield? LocalBuzz.com recently gave a pretty thorough review of the region's concert promotion business and why the Springfield Civic Center (now the MassMutual Center) got left in the dust after its rock heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s. There were a number of factors, but they all boiled down to the same reason that the Civic Center, ironically, was such a great place to see our favorite bands: the building is so damn small.

Regardless of the venue’s size, back then it seemed as if there was a good show every month at the Civic Center, when downtown Springfield turned into a teenage wasteland on concert nights, keeping the police busy and the older citizens outraged. “You should have these people when I was driving home,” said my father when he came home from his law office on Main Street. “Bunch of drugged out and drunk kids.”

Oh yes, Dad, I know. Drugged out and drunk. And in a couple of years I’ll be joining ’em.

Actually, he had just cause for concern about my safety, because at the time his firm represented the insurance company of promoter Cross Country Concerts, which had settled a couple of lawsuits filed by concertgoers. These plaintiffs consisted of unfortunate fellows were determined to get into the concert free and got beaten to a pulp by security goons (actually bike gang members hired by bands) at Ted Nugent and Johnny Winter shows in 1978. My father had taken their depositions and read the medical reports of their injuries and they were horrific. One guy hadn’t even tried to force his way into the place. He knew one of the Civic Center’s ushers, and his employee friend let him in, but the bikers spotted him and stomped him.

But Dad eventually acquiesced and let me go to concerts. “Just don’t try to sneak into the show,” he warned. “These security guards wear T-shirts that say, ‘We Show No Mercy,’ and they don’t.”

Sure, those nights in Springfield were fraught with drug use, drunkenness, donnybrooks, and debauchery, but it was all part of growing up wasn’t it? The concerts also put Springfield on the rock map for a while. Think about it: when was the last time a big-name act has come to the MassMutual Center? Just take a look below all those ticket stubs from shows I went to in just two short years! Hell, I probably even lost a couple of stubs during that period—victims of the washing machine. And look at those prices! (Click on the stubs to enlarge.) Incredibly, the prices stayed at $9.50 through 1981, going up just a dollar during that period.

And what freedom fans had at the Civic Center, never getting patted down at the door (unlike at the Hartford Civic Center). Thanks to a lawsuit against the city by two concertgoers who claimed they were illegally searched in 1978, we were able to sneak in whatever beverage we wanted in just about any quantity. In fact, I was able to sneak a six of Bud 16-ounce cans and some hard stuff in various pockets of a winter coat once. In 1980, however, security did begin confiscating Frisbees at the door, denying us the colorful sight of several dozen discs flying throughout the arena before the lights dimmed. The no-Frisbee rule took effect after a fan plummeted to his death after lunging for a catch at a Foreigner show two years before, but concerts were still basically an unsupervised free-for-all in the building, a situation that which had its ups and downs.

The up-side was the fact that you could weasel your way through the crowd all the way up to the front row. They had to pack as many people as they could into the little arena, so many shows had a “general admission” policy with no floor seats. The downside was that this arrangement led to some king-hell brawls down there, like the one that broke out at a ZZ Top show in 1981.

That ZZ Top show was a kick-ass concert, in more ways than one. There we were, yours truly and three other guys from Maebeth Street in Sixteen Acres, including my brother, having words with a bunch of hicks who cut in front of a bunch of people in line, including our group. One of us (all right, it was me) said, “Excuse you, asshole,” and these fuckers started talking trash. “Oh, are you from Stinkfield?” one of the six morons said. “We don’t like people from Stinkfield.”

There was talk back and forth about getting together for a fight outside after the show, but then things calmed down. After all, none of us wanted to pay $9.50 for a ticket just to get thrown out before we entered the building!

Who were these fucking country bumpkins that were always the next day’s arrest log in the newspaper after every concert? They came from towns like Warren, Ware, Russell, Athol, Brookfield, and God knows where else. What kind of moonshine were they drinking that led them to get busted after spending all that money for the show? For Christ’s sake, they might as well have gotten rowdy at a square dance or a hootenanny or something in their own towns instead of coming all the way to Stinkfield. (Yes, the Bondi’s Island sewage treatment plant was rather odoriferous. Memo to hillbillies: if you don’t like the smell downtown, stay home!)

We had missed the opening act while waiting in line, so during intermission we were making our way to the front of the stage, when who do you think we see to our left in the crowd? The pig-fuckers from Podunk, of course. And they started staring us. There was bound to be trouble, and there were six of them and only four of us Maebeth Womblies (Yes, that’s what we called ourselves. Don’t ask me why.)

But then we saw another bunch of guys we “kind of” knew from the neighborhood on our right. There were seven of them—they all went to Cathedral High School. I use the term “kind of” because we knew many of the crew they hung around, but the ones we were more familiar with weren’t there. Still, some of them recognized us, and gave us a friendly nod, which was a good thing, because this group from Cathedral was fucking insane. They made up the rougher portion of the “heads” at my high school—they guys who smoked dope heavily, but unlike the more mellow ones of their crowd (the heads that we really knew), these hooligans never left a party without causing complete mayhem. They even struck fear into the hearts of the jocks at Cathedral, targeting the “cliquers” at nearly every graduation party the previous May.

We were fortunate, and it’s not because the Cathedral heads would have helped us out much in a fight with the hillbillies. They might have been inclined to—just to get a few kicks in for fun. But the real reason I knew we were off the hook was because as the heads were gradually advancing to the stage, they were also unintentionally moving closer the hicks to our left, who were getting even more rambunctious, jostling with each other and annoying people. So we kind of backed off and let the two groups converge, like two systems clashing in a perfect storm. Oh my God, I thought, none of these hillbillies know what they’re in for: an ass-beating.

Unfortunately, we ended up right behind the heads, and the packed crowd behind us began to push forward, as concert patrons always do in front of the stage. The heads began to notice he hicks' antics, looking at them with disdain, but the certifiably insane Cathedral head Ron Donnelly started getting mad at us, instead of the hillbillies, because we were getting shoved right into him—repeatedly.

The throng of fans on the floor surged forward again, and Donnelly turned around, frowning. He was a big dude, and he was plainly sick of the Maebeth Womblies invading his space. It was obvious, except to Donnelly, that it wasn’t our fault—we were being pushed into him. But he was clearly fed up with us, and when the wave of humanity propelled us into the Cathedral heads again, he started losing it.

“You motherfuckers quit your fucking pushing,” Donnelly said to me. He was holding a wrinkled rolling paper in one hand and a small bag of pot in the other.

“It ain’t us!” I replied. “We’re getting pushed from behind!”

“Well, you tell those motherfuckers behind you cut the shit,” he said as he lowered his face close to mine, nose-to-nose. I knew he had some scars on his face, but at this vantage point I could see deep divots and long canals that I hadn't noticed before. “I'm trying to roll a joint, and I’m dropping my weed. If you push into me again I’m gonna kick your fucking ass!”

Shit, I thought, I’ve got to get some space between Donnelly and me. For Christ’s sake, this is a guy who rammed some poor slob’s head through a car window at a party a few months ago. I tried to back up, but I couldn’t get much leverage because we were packed in like sardines. So I pushed backward with all my might, and I was momentarily successful, gaining a few feet of room. But, as veteran concertgoers know, however, such an action is always met with an equal and opposite reaction—and then some. When the retaliatory domino effect rippled through the crowed and reached me, I was launched right into Donnelly’s sweat-soaked back.

The freak spun around, grimaced, put the rolling paper and baggie in his pocket, assumed a fighting stance, and bellowed, “That’s it!! That’s it!! You’re fucking dead!!”

Great. There I was thinking one minute earlier that I was going to have to fight some hillbillies, and then I managed to piss off a guy who I knew for a fact got in a fight every weekend. Donnelly did nothing but eat, sleep, smoke weed, drink, and fight. I had seen him whale on a few guys at parties, and now I was target of his rage. Moreover, there was no way to exit this scene. Beam me up, Scotty!

Will I have to face the wrath of Donnelly and his friends? Stay tuned for Part 2!