How the Kent State shooting changed music history
Seeing the devastating pictures in Life magazine in May 1970, Neil Young — from 2,500 miles away — wrote the definitive song about the massacre at Kent State.
“Ohio,” recorded with Crosby, Stills & Nash three weeks after the May 4 shootings and released as a single that month, shocked the airwaves with its refrain of “Four dead in O-hi-o” and became a generation’s rallying cry for resistance to the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War.
One of the people dead on the ground, captured so strikingly in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, was Jeffrey Miller, a 20-year-old who had just transferred there from Michigan State University.
“I knew Jeff had been a fan of [Neil Young],” Chrissie Hynde writes in her memoir “Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” “so I was happy that Young had become our spokesman, our voice. It was a big element in easing us out of shock.”
Hynde, now a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was among the Kent State students at the rally that day, and she had company — an assortment of bright young musicians who would become future icons and headliners.
Not mentioned in his classic song “Life’s Been Good” is that Joe Walsh, later of the James Gang and The Eagles, was witness to the events.
Chris Butler, who would go on to form The Waitresses and write the hit “I Know What Boys Like,” was with Miller, who was a close friend.
Gerald Casale, who stared down the National Guard, went on to form one of the most influential art-punk bands of the ’70s. “Devo wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Kent State,” Casale said in a recent phone interview. “That’s the long and short of it.”
Despite being nestled in a conservative Midwest town, Kent State was a hub of artistic creativity in 1970 and the artists/musicians formed a tight community. Butler, Walsh, future Devo members Casale and Bob Lewis, and Terry Hynde, Chrissie’s brother, all lived a few doors from each other at an apartment building at 405 Longmere Drive.
That creative and intellectual energy also made the campus a hub of protest that heated up on Friday, May 1, the day after President Richard Nixon announced the bombing of Cambodia.
A sign popped up on the campus asking, “Why is the ROTC building still standing?” Beer bottles were thrown at store windows and police. The following night, on May 2, as the National Guard approached the campus, that Reserve Officer Training Corps building was torched by flares, thrown by individuals not believed to be students.
That Sunday night, Ohio Gov. James Rhodes held a press conference at Kent State calling protesters “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”
By Monday, campus officials, looking to de-escalate, announced the cancellation of the noon rally. It didn’t stop a crowd of 2,000 from assembling.
“It was the first warm day of spring,” Casale recalls. “There were a few buds on the trees, the sky was blue. The protest started and within moments the National Guard came over the hill like some cheesy Hollywood war movie.”
When protesters ignored the call to disperse, guardsmen armed with M1 rifles and bayonets threw tear gas, sending the students scattering over a hillside toward a parking lot, where a second confrontation ensued.
“That’s when they all stopped and formed a phalanx, like in the Civil War,” Casale says. “Everything freezes, like goes into slo-mo. They’re looking at us, we’re looking at them. A lot of us have handkerchiefs over our noses because the air is thick with this horrible tear gas.”
Butler says when guardsmen got in a kneeling position, pointing their rifles, “Everybody laughed, because, c’mon, you’re not going to shoot us.”
In the slo-mo phase, he left his group, which included Miller, and ran toward a dorm building, where there was a spigot to water the bandana covering his eyes. Stones and tear gas canisters were hurled at the National Guard.
Casale heard the commander shout and thought, “OK, they’re going to march now. They’re going to charge us and push out of the parking lot. Instead of marching, they just shot and it’s just incomprehensible. Your mind can’t process what’s going on, and you’re not sure what just happened, and in an instant the slo-mo snaps back to real time and you’re hearing screaming and chaos and students running.”
Thirteen seconds, 67 rounds. Casale turned and saw Miller lying in a pool of blood. More than a football field away, Allison Krause, from Churchill, a student he had mentored, lay dead.
“I think there was something in them,” Casale says, “where they felt a little horrible or chicken s–t about just coldly murdering students point-blank that they could see right in front of them, so they shot a little further. Two students who were killed and most that were wounded were not really primary protesters. They weren’t even in on it.”
In the chaotic days after, when half the town blamed the students, the Kent State campus was shut down along with hundreds of campuses across the country, fearing a repeat of May 4.
Kent State students were left to deal with the trauma on their own, without counseling or assemblies.
“It was a fork in the road,” Casale says, “and it changed me and it sent something through my body that was like battery acid.”
Butler took off for Europe for two months. Hynde went hitchhiking around Canada. Walsh moved to Cleveland to focus on The James Gang.
“Being at the shootings really affected me profoundly,” Walsh told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2012. “I decided that maybe I don’t need a degree that bad.”
Indeed, that summer The James Gang toured with The Who and hit the charts with “Funk #49.”
For the others, after a summer of just coping, the fall brought new urgency to figure out a life.
“There were plenty of quote-unquote ‘normal’ people who came out of it and got their jobs and their degrees and their careers,” Butler says. “But in my circle, everyone felt that ‘I have to invent a life that was unique and uncompromising and creative, and had as little to do with the uber-culture as possible.’ ”
“You had two choices,” Casale says. “Either you have a creative response in one way or another, or you give in and become one of the pod people and just shut up and go to work and toe the line.”
Option No. 2 it was.
Casale went the most extreme route, complete with hazmat suits and flower pots, aka “energy domes.” His politicization was sealed, he says, by his experience at Kent State grad school that fall under professors introducing him to Noam Chomsky, libertarianism, the real history of the CIA and other counterculture ideas.
He and Lewis began to form a universe around the concept of “de-evolution”: the human race going backward.
“It was like, OK, there isn’t progress,” Casale says. “Things aren’t getting better, things are getting worse, people are getting dumber, and they’re repeating all these horrible soundbites and all this propaganda that they read and see. And, you know, we were kind of smart ass and kind of Dada-esque and there was a certain kind of satirical humor but also anger mixed with it.
“And I decided to make art, you know, de-evolution art, and we contracted the word down to Devo, so it was Art Devo.”
That’s around when the brilliant Mark Mothersbaugh showed up on campus to take some art classes, and thoughts turned toward making “Devo music” with the rule that “we would only pursue something if it didn’t sound like anything else.”
What came out was stripped down, minimalistic, “brutalistic” even.
“When people heard it, they hated us,” Casale says. “They either felt sorry for us like, ‘These guys are crazy and they’re fools’ or they hated us like, ‘You guys are destroying rock ’n’ roll!’ That’s what galvanized us and made us feel even more like we were doing the right thing, because when we looked at the people who hated us … we hated them!”
Which brings the story back to the more conventional-though-jagged folk-rock of Neil Young, who was there to voice the rage of his generation with “Ohio” and also play an unlikely role in the history of Devo.
Casale swears that even now, in the digital era, it would be a challenge to write, record, mix and master a single and get it on iTunes within a few weeks.
The fact that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young managed to do it in the vinyl era was a small miracle, starting with Young and David Crosby seeing the issue of Life magazine, Young writing the song and the new supergroup booking an LA studio to record it.
The other three had all written protest songs. This was Young’s first and it was a stark contrast to the hopeful “Teach Your Children,” the song CSNY had on the charts.
Casale wouldn’t know the full story of “Ohio” until seven years later when Devo met Young, which begs the question: How on earth did that happen?
It began with Devo leaving Ohio for Los Angeles in 1977 to play a showcase for A&M Records, whose rep watched two songs and bolted.
Thanks to a rave in a punk tabloid, Devo got a second night at the club, witnessed by Toni Basil, Iggy Pop and actor Dean Stockwell, who left with a copy of the Devo single “Mongoloid”/“Jocko Homo,” which he shared with his famous friend. Young instantly loved the group and wanted them in his film “Human Highway.”
When they visited his Northern California ranch, Casale was surprised by the man behind “Ohio.”
Well, we want on 'Saturday Night Live.' ...He goes ‘done!'
“I had this idea of Neil Young that was totally wrong. I mean, I kind of liked his early stuff and I certainly had laid on the floor in my apartment after the Kent State shooting listening to ‘After the Gold Rush’ — ‘I was lying in a burned-out basement’ — and, you know, it would tear me up, but in general, I thought, ‘OK, here’s this kind of like hippie guy, part of this other aesthetic that we’re not into, and we’re totally different.’ So, I thought he was going to be this kind of, almost maybe even a mild Republican, like The Eagles or something.
“And I was totally wrong. He was funny, intellectual, excited, almost libertarian to the point of anarchistic. And we got along really well. On one level, he was like a big child.”
Young connected them with his manager, Elliot Roberts. Roberts asked Devo what their goal was. “Well, we want on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Casale told him. “He goes ‘done!’ Four months later, we were on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”
It was the beginning of a weird and beautiful relationship with the post-punk community.
Meeting on the charts
“Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” (1978) and the debut album by The Pretenders (1980) became essential albums of the New Wave era, and 40 years later, both bands are still functioning.
Walsh, who would become one of the music community’s wackiest rock stars, wrote the 1972 song “Turn to Stone” about the Kent State experience and, in typical tongue-in-cheek style fashion, ran for president in 1980 to try to spark young people’s interest in voting.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, he’d be on the road right now and would have played the 50th anniversary of Kent State show with his longtime drummer, Joe Vitale. Vitale was in Kent, too, at home, just a few miles away from the protest, seeing the smoke and learning the details on TV.
Years later, he would find himself on stage playing “Ohio” — behind Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
“I said, ‘Man that was really strange for me,’” he says. “They go, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because I lived in Kent and I was there.’ They were stunned, like deer-in-the-headlights stunned.”
Like the Pretenders, The Waitresses hit the college airwaves in 1980 with their signature hit “I Know What Boys Like,” and their 1981 song “Christmas Wrapping,” a holiday classic.
“There’s a perception of The Waitresses being a quirky pop band,” Butler says, “but the very existence of it, if you look at these songs, the character I wrote for, that Patty [Donahue] acted, was a kind of modern woman facing changes in the women’s movement and feminism.”
Asked if he ever wrote any songs about Kent State, Butler laughs and says, “All of them!”
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org.