The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Kent State massacre helped give birth to punk rock

HANDOUT PHOTO: DEVO on the streets of Akron amidst construction on Cascade Plaza 1978. (Janet Macoska)

Musical trends, even the great ones that scar cultures and define eras, have many parents. Consider the folk and protest boom of the 1960s, whose songs were shaped by shifting attitudes about race, organized labor, urbanization and America’s involvement in foreign wars. Later in the decade, the louche, flower-waving hippie and acid rock scenes of Haight-Ashbury, the East Village, Austin and Los Angeles blossomed out of evolving perspectives on drug use and sexuality, the workplace and the family. And a cascade of factors led to the sonic revolt and frenetic style of Britain’s punk bands: national strikes, spiraling unemployment, growing cynicism about the monarchy and even the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

It is far rarer for a single event to trigger an artistically significant and influential music scene. Yet this is exactly what happened in Akron, Ohio, in the early and mid-1970s, as young artists and musicians grappled with the legacy of the Kent State massacre. The independent alt-rock movements that started later in New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington and Athens, Ga., may be more famous. They weren’t defined by a specific sound so much as a shared commitment to producing, releasing and promoting their music themselves.

But the first real and recognizable burblings of the do-it-yourself spirit in alternative American rock emerged in the wake of the tragedy 48 years ago Friday. Feeling rejected by the dominant culture, these artists rejected it right back, seeking to create something more fully their own in its place.

That environment produced at least one globally popular band, Devo, and one of the decade’s most important voices, Chrissie Hynde. It also gave birth to a handful of other important acts, among them the Waitresses, Tin Huey, the Rubber City Rebels and the Bizarros. Defined by its resistance to prevailing trends, the Akron scene borrowed from jazz, garage rock, performance art, Dada and the avant-garde to create a novel and influential musical cocktail. And we probably wouldn’t have heard that music had it not been for the calamity at Kent State.

On May 4, 1970, at Kent State University, just 15 miles from Akron, members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed demonstrators protesting the illegal bombing of Cambodia. Sixty-seven rounds were fired in 13 seconds, killing four students and seriously wounding nine. The incident had a profound effect on the national psyche: Within a week, millions of college and high school students went on strike, and more than 100,000 young people marched on the Capitol, permanently reshaping the national dialogue on Vietnam.

At a more local level, the shooting prompted some witnesses to alter the course of their lives. Soon, several of them would begin work on a powerful and lasting creative response to the tragedy. “I don’t think I would have started Devo had that not happened,” says Gerald Casale, who formed the band in the early 1970s with Bob Lewis, another Kent State student, survivor and witness. “It’s that simple.”

For Casale, the day’s events seemed to temporarily halt time. He recalls seeing the soldiers lining up and aiming their weapons at the assembled students. In the moment, he thought it was just an intimidation tactic. Instead, and without warning, they opened fire. “I remember hearing somebody screaming ‘Allison!,’ and I turned around and it was Allison Krause, she’s laying there,” Casale says, referring to one of the four students killed in the shooting. “I see the effects of a f---ing M1 rifle, the reality of what a bullet does. And I felt like I was going to barf, like I was going to pass out.”

Another friend was on the ground, too — Casale recognized him by his outfit — his blood already trickling down the sidewalk. It was Jeffrey Miller, a student whose death would be famously memorialized in the pages of Life magazine. All around, armbanded faculty members who’d been monitoring the protest were shouting at the students, trying to keep them still and safe.

Chris Butler, who would go on to form the bands Tin Huey and the Waitresses, says that his presence on the scene that day kick-started his creative future. He’d borne witness to a culture — he calls it “the uber-culture” — that had tried to kill him. He realized, he says, that he had “to create a clean space” for himself. Much as it did for other survivors, music provided him with that outlet.

Lewis, who left Devo in 1977, shortly before the band attained national prominence, echoes this sentiment: “We were pissed off, and we wanted to take the energy that comes from that anger and channel it, and it happened to be into the concept of Devo.”

That concept involved not just the songs that would make the band famous, but also visual arts and film, and the killings at Kent State helped provide the organizing ethos for those projects. Having grown up on myths of linear progress, band members found themselves in a world where armed troops shot at students on their own soil. “I saw for the first time clearly, and horrifically, how everything really works, and how the truth doesn’t matter, and how things are rotten to the core,” Casale says. That sudden understanding inspired a fascination with “devolution” — evident in projects like the group’s early short film “In the Beginning Was the End,” as well as songs such as “Mongoloid” — that would define the collective.

A cynical current also runs through much of the music that emerged from the era. Devo’s lyrics, in particular, reflect a feeling of alienation engendered by the shooting, especially in the band’s early songs, which are often sung from the perspective of people cast aside by society. In an early effort titled “Ono ,” for example, the band sneers: “The moral is don’t start / Even if you’re smart / You don’t have a chance / It’s all the same.”

Perhaps more important, though, the scene that Butler, Lewis, Casale and others shaped would serve as the prototype for DIY, mainstream-rejecting rock movements all over the United States. The Akron bands dismissed the sounds and formulas on commercial radio, eschewing more melodic structures and sing-song lyrics in favor of atonal compositions and chanted choruses. They recorded their tracks in self-built studios and created a system to release and promote their work. In the mid-’70s, that just wasn’t done, especially not with the kind of collective drive that emerged in Akron.

Much of that was a matter of necessity in the resource-poor city. Wanting a recording studio, Butler says, area musicians built one. Lacking a newspaper that would cover them, they published their own fanzines. “If you wanted to do something, Akron is all about doing it the hard way, because you have to,” Butler says. “Nothing will get done unless you do it yourself.”

That independence provided a blueprint for alternative artists who would go on to far greater success, some of them defining entire eras. From R.E.M. to Metallica, from Nine Inch Nails to Nirvana, legendary American bands began their climb to fame by putting out records outside the corporate system and creating a unique local promotional apparatus. Although this eventually became a common route to success, it was articulated for more or less the first time in the bands that emerged in Akron.

By the late ’70s, the strange and fierce spirit of Akron, an attitude born of tragedy and fueled by necessity, had begun to spread through the world: Devo became one of the archetypal bands of the new wave — a label the band accepted with a shrug, seeing it as a media invention rather than an apt description of its work. Butler wrote and recorded a number of massively popular songs with the Waitresses, including “I Know What Boys Like .”

Meanwhile, Chrissie Hynde was inspired by the Kent State events to drop out of school . In her autobiography, “Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” she recalls the day: “The grassy, rolling common was teeming with students,” she writes. “I’d never seen it so packed. . . . Then I heard the tatatatatatatatatat sound. I thought it was fireworks. An eerie silence fell over the common. Then a young man’s voice: ‘They f---ing killed somebody.’ ” Later, Hynde moved to Britain, where she became one of the most respected performers of her generation.

And although much of the music that arose from Akron’s quirky, DIY music scene of the early and mid-’70s might not be identified as punk, Casale is adamant that the bands, especially Devo, both anticipated and supported punk’s social and political ideals. “We were punk in the true sense of the word ‘punk,’ ” says Casale. “We challenged illegitimate authority and challenged politically correct thought, but from a base of knowing things and reading and looking at things and having new ideas. Our whole response was a response to the state of American culture.”

In the end, music was the catharsis that so many of these artists needed. “It was a government-sponsored school shooting, and I didn’t get any grief therapy afterwards, let’s put it that way,” notes Lewis. “May 4th derailed a lot of people from the track they were on, so they were looking around for alternative ways, and creativity is one of the ways you can keep your sanity.”

Twitter: @timmysommer

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