A ban on apple pie couldn't have brought a stronger reaction than Interior Secretary James Watt's decision, revealed yesterday, to ban "rock bands" like the Beach Boys and the Grass Roots from this year's Fourth of July celebration on the Mall.
The Beach Boys issued a statement. The vice president of the United States issued a statement, and the president's deputy chief of staff felt compelled to comment. The pro-marijuana lobby threatened to sue. A radio announcer called Watt a "nerd." A Watt spokesman hastened to call the Beach Boys "solid, middle-class family people." The ACLU came out on Watt's side, at least for now.
The Beach Boys held Fourth of July concerts on the Mall attended by hundreds of thousands in 1980 and 1981, and the Grass Roots did the same in 1982.
Watt had said in an interview he made the decision in order to keep what he called "the wrong element"--drinking, drug-taking youths--from attending the celebration. Instead, he arranged for "patriotic, family-based entertainment" to be provided by the U.S. Army Blues Band and Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton.
Watt, as Interior secretary, controls the National Park Service, which runs the celebrations on the Mall.
Vice President George Bush said yesterday of the Beach Boys: "They're my friends and I like their music." The Beach Boys held a fund-raising concert for Bush when he ran for president, and then played for the Reagan-Bush administration's youth inaugural ball in January 1981.
Watt spokesman Doug Baldwin said yesterday Watt has nothing against the Beach Boys and did not realize he was taking them on directly when, in an interview with The Washington Post, he criticized "rock bands attracting the wrong element . . . in the last two years" on the Mall during the Fourth of July celebrations.
"The Beach Boys are kind of an all-purpose musical group. We're not taking umbrage at them at all," said Baldwin yesterday. He described their type of music as "rock melody of the 1950s and 1960s." Watt, in the Post interview, had characterized the music during the Mall concerts of the past two years as "hard rock," though he did not directly name the groups.
A White House spokesman said that many calls had come in about Watt's action, but had no further comment. However, deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver said in a television interview, "It's an unfortunate action, since my wife and kids and the entire neighborhood went to see them . . . and had a wonderful time. I think for a lot of people the Beach Boys are an American institution. Anyone who thinks they are hard rock would think Mantovani plays jazz."
Depending on age and general outlook, area residents were either outraged or pleased by Watt's action.
"I haven't seen the phones ring over here as steadily or heard more strong comments since the Iranian hostage takeover," said WMAL-AM morning talk show host Tom Gauger, who bestowed the "nerd" title on Watt. "Our audience regards the Beach Boys as much a part of Americana as Wayne Newton."
The Beach Boys, on tour in Canada, issued a statement yesterday through their New York publicity firm, finding it "unbelievable that James Watt feels that the Beach Boys attract 'the wrong element' to their concerts. Over their 20-year career, the group has participated in many events geared specifically to the very families Watt claims they turn away."
Bob Grill, lead singer of the Grass Roots, said he was "highly insulted" by Watt's remarks, which he called "nothing but un-American."
At radio station Q107, which had sponsored the last three Fourth of July pop concerts, listener reaction was immediate. "We have 10 telephone lines in the studio and another 10 at the switchboard," said Q107 program director Alan Burns. "And they've been lit since 6 o'clock this morning."
Reaction on the street was equally strong. Diners at the Roy Rogers restaurant in Georgetown greeted the news of Newton's concert with incredulity. Katherine Vogle, a 16-year-old student at Immaculate Conception, thought it was a late April Fool's joke. "Wayne Newton, can you believe it? I laughed. I thought it was a joke, 'cause the people on the radio are crazy half the time."
Tom Dexter, a 28-year-old waiter, seemed familiar with Newton's Las Vegas reputation but added, "I don't see how Watt's going to fill the Mall without putting out thousands of tables, napkins and nuts." Steve Hunt, a Georgetown University student, called Newton's proposed concert "an unconscionable infringement upon our esthetic tastes."
But another youth, who asked not to be identified, agreed with Watt. "I love the Grass Roots, but the crowd was the biggest group of undesirables I'd ever seen," she said. "It was really gross. There were people beating each other up. There was broken glass all over."
"What this guy is doing is banning a particular type of music on our national property," said Bruce Anderson of Citizens Against Marijuana Laws, which has held marijuana "smoke-ins" across from the White House on past Fourths of July. "This is not Mr. Watt's private bailiwick . . . He can issue the order. It remains to be seen in the courts as to whether he can enforce it." He said the group will file a lawsuit to overturn Watt's action.
Elizabeth Symonds, staff attorney with the Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "Right now we feel it is within Watt's discretion to have who they want musically . . . It is a discretionary cultural decision. This does not involve political speechmaking."
However, Symonds said, "If a group wanting to hear rock 'n' roll asked for a permit to have the Beach Boys play . . . if we hear of a permit denial for another musical group on an unfair basis," the ACLU might consider action against Watt and the Park Service.
In their statement, the Beach Boys listed concerts they have given in conjunction with four major league baseball teams that "not only helped increase attendance at these games but projected the all-American and family-oriented aspect of baseball." The group is scheduled to perform for Washington's new professional soccer franchise Team America at RFK Stadium June 12. Last month, they played at the opening game of the United States Football League for the Arizona Wranglers. They pointed out they have long been one of the top five state fair acts in the country and added, "The Soviet Union had enough confidence in the Beach Boys to invite them to perform in Leningrad . . . July 4, 1978. Obviously the Soviet Union, a much more controlled society than our own, did not feel the group attracted the wrong element."
It was the Beach Boys who originated the Fourth of July pop concerts on the Mall in 1980. According to Q107's Burns, "They wanted to know if we could help them, not only financially but also in terms of producing the thing--getting the proper permits and staging the concerts."
The radio station picked up the annual expense, estimated at slightly more than $100,000. The Park Service was responsible for cleaning up afterwards, "but they would have had to clean up after the fireworks anyway," Burns said.
Burns added that Q107 applied for a 1983 permit four days after last year's concert. Representatives of the station met with Park Service officials in September, "and they said we might want something more 'family-oriented'.
There was never at any point any assurance from the Park Service that we had the date or that we could bring in who we wanted."
The station is now considering an alternative concert (one possible site: RFK Stadium).
"We're not seeking retribution of any sort," said Burns, "that's not the spirit of the Fourth of July. We are working on an alternative concert, on the Fourth or that weekend, to give people the kind of music they've discovered they like to celebrate the Fourth of July with.
And we'd like to keep it free."ntributed to this report.