I Hear The Drumming: Kent State And Pop Music, 50 Years Later

Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I Hear The Drumming: Kent State And Pop Music, 50 Years Later

Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The recognition and commemoration of the Kent State massacre, which happened 50 years ago today, has shifted so drastically that it’s weird to think it was initially considered the harbinger of a second Civil War. Between 1970 and now, the shooting’s role in American history has shifted from a defense of patriotic Silent Majority values to a living-memory revolutionary tragedy to the last stand of a failed counterculture — and then, eventually, to second-banana commemoration status behind the geek-triumph Star Wars Day, because it’s easier to celebrate a fiction where it’s obvious who the victorious forces of good are. But the shootings at Kent State left such an indelible impression upon America during the onset of the 1970s that the reactions in popular culture crossed the entire spectrum of popular music, from one of the most widely-regarded protest songs ever written to the genesis of one of the most transformative bands of the era.

Student protests against Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia had already been shaking college campuses from the first of May 1970, the day after the President’s announcement of the incursion. A tumultuous series of demonstrations were accompanied by rumors of armed student guerrillas, arson threats to local businesses, and plans to dose the local water supply with LSD. On Sunday, May 3, Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes — who made the decision to send state National Guard troops to campus the night before, shortly prior to the ROTC building being burned down — launched an invective-filled tirade declaring that these protesters were worse than Nazis, Communists, and the KKK, and that rather than “treating the symptoms,” the state would “eradicate the problem.”

The following Monday, troops from the Ohio State National Guard fired upon a group of those protesters, killing four and wounding nine. Two students killed — Allison Krause, 19, and Jeffrey Miller, 20 — were participating in the protests; the other two, William Knox Schroeder, 19, and Sandra Scheuer, 20, were walking from one class to the next. (In a particularly bleak irony, Schroeder was a member of the ROTC at the time.) One student eyewitness would recall decades later in her autobiography that after she fled the gunfire and finally got to a safe vantage point to see what was going on, “The Guardsmen themselves looked stunned… Why were they there? Were they ordered to fire loaded rifles into the crowd? That couldn’t be possible… We looked at them and they looked at us. They were just kids, nineteen years old, like us. But in uniform. Like our boys in Vietnam.”

That eyewitness, Chrissie Hynde, would eventually find a way to make her voice heard by the end of the decade as the frontwoman of The Pretenders. But in the immediate wake of Kent State, the loudest voices were often the furthest to the right. Townies picketed memorials and came up with the gruesomely triumphant slogan “The score is four / And next time more.” The nation followed suit; one Gallup poll’s results had nearly 60% of respondents put blame on the Kent State students for their own deaths, vastly outnumbering the 11% who blamed the National Guard. Left-leaning student activists have always gotten the shit end of the stick from the establishment, a trend which hasn’t slowed down anytime lately. But to be young and anti-war in America in 1970 was to be treated as valueless, expendable, marked for death — to the point that one of the few coping mechanisms left was to lean into a dark-humored usurpation of popular culture icons. One group at the University of New Mexico, inspired by a visiting Jane Fonda, named themselves after the then-recent Sydney Pollack film that had notched her an Oscar nomination. Swapping out the titular Horses, they dubbed their group They Shoot Students, Don’t They?

Between May 4 and May 21, the nation-rending tension that seemed to have already peaked with the DNC riots and George Wallace’s racist Dixiecrat populism of 1968 had turned into a terrifying conflagration. In the months preceding the dawn of the decade, anxiety had been stoked by the worst-case-scenario figureheads of Charles Manson for the hippies and My Lai massacre perpetrator Lt. William Calley for the Silent Majority. And Altamont, the Weathermen, and the police (and FBI) killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton fueled further fear and disillusionment among the activist youth culture. But the wake of Kent State saw things get even worse. On May 8, a New York student memorial march commemorating the massacre was met with a violent counter-protest by a group of construction workers, a “Hard Hat Riot” that stood as a symbol for how far a rift had been driven between the activist left and their traditional allies in an increasingly divided working class. (The workers’ counter-demonstration was egged on by Nixon supporter and NYC construction labor honcho Peter J. Brennan, who was later rewarded with a Secretary of Labor position during Nixon’s second term.)  And on the 14th, another student demonstration at the HBCU Jackson State University saw two black students killed (Phillip Gibbs, 21, and James Earl Green, 17) and an additional dozen wounded by members of the Jackson Police Department and Mississippi Highway Patrol, whose claims that they were responding to sniper fire were never corroborated.

It was on May 21 — the same day the Weathermen issued a “Declaration Of A State Of War” against the United States government — that the most memorable musical response to Kent State came to life. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had gone through a thoroughly miserable spring ready to come apart at the seams, the smash-hit success of their March-released Déjà Vu doing nothing to mitigate intra-band power-struggle tensions. That led to the firing of session and live-show bassist Greg Reeves (at Stephen Stills’ behest) and drummer Dallas Taylor (at Young’s, considered a retaliatory move against Stills), with the latter event following a May 12 tour opener in Denver that proved to be an unrehearsed, combative, crummy-sounding disaster of a show. As the next few dates were mysteriously postponed and Atlantic warned the band about the possibility of legal actions against them if they cancelled the tour, Young and Crosby took some time to regroup at their road manager’s house in the tiny California town of Pescadero. Someone went out for groceries and came back with the May 15 issue of Life, which featured Kent State as a cover story. Young knew about the event, but the magazine’s photo spread put everything in stark relief. A few hours later, Young was writing a song about it.

It would take an indelible cultural document to rival John Filo’s famous photo, the Pulitzer-winning shot of Mary Ann Vecchio’s anguished reaction beside the dead body of Jeffrey Miller. “Ohio” was as close as pop culture could get: no allusions, no euphemisms, just a defiantly bitter tone — angry, mocking, sorrowful, and horrified all at once. Young lifted the “tin soldiers” epithet as a retort to the Ohio Guard’s self-proclaimed theme song “Billy Buckeye” — its first line, “We aren’t no cheap tin soldiers,” getting its bullshit card pulled in Young’s opening salvo — and implicated the president within four words. The song was short — under three minutes — and on paper consisted of little more than one verse and one chorus, easily transcribed on the sleeve of the 7″ single. But the titular refrain of “Four dead in Ohio,” harmonized with Young’s piercing voice front and center (and a coda featuring haunting Crosby ad-libs of “why did they die” and “how many more”), was the hook that dominated the rock ‘n’ roll consciousness once the single was rush-released the following month. 

It was a drastic about-face for CSNY. Déjà Vu took an (apocryphal) 800 hours of negotiation, fine-tuning, and exhaustive efforts to combine the work of titular band members who often didn’t feel like sharing the same studio. Conversely, “Ohio” was cut in a handful of takes with everybody, including new bassist Calvin Samuels and drummer John Barbata, clicking after a day’s worth of rehearsal. (Bizarrely enough, this rehearsal, concurrent with their tuning up for the planned tour continuation, was on the Warner Brothers studio lot where They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was filmed; a sign from the set reading “HOW LONG WILL THEY LAST?” loomed overhead.) “Ohio” stood askance to their reputation as a lighthearted post-counterculture supergroup prepping a generation for a fatigued retreat back to a mellow ’70s domesticity; it hit the airwaves when previous single “Teach Your Children” was still on the charts and with “Our House” (“life used to be so hard“) in the pipeline. It was divisive, of course — banned from mainstream airplay in Ohio and controversial everywhere else, the song quickly caught on with progressive FM radio stations when the AM radio waves balked, furthering the freeform-vs-corporate battles between the nascent band and its establishment counterpart.

That didn’t stop the musical reactions to the Kent State massacre from coming for at least another couple years, however — even if the returns were diminishing. One young songwriter honed his chops on a reaction song called “Where Was Jesus In Ohio” that his band Steel Mill played exactly once, during a June 1970 gig. It wasn’t quite as vivid a picture of misspent youth and ambivalent existentialism that would make him a star a few years later, but for Bruce Springsteen, it was an early sign of his ability to step into the shoes (or under the helmets) of strangers he connected with vividly. 

The following month, the Steve Miller Band released their fifth studio album, shruggingly titled Number 5, that saw the previously lighthearted blues-rockers confronting politicians, the Silent Majority, and the Army with a run-on series of condemnations and calls to action that sounded like a panic attack. From the man who had a smash with the vaguely feel-concerned (albeit thoroughly amazing-sounding) “Fly Like an Eagle” six years later, its specificity sounds a bit jarring.

But it’s better — exponentially better — than the Beach Boys’ “Student Demonstration Time,” recorded in November 1970 and released the following August on their album Surf’s Up. In his infinite inability to read the room, Mike Love looked at everything going down and decided that what America really needed was a concern-troll rewrite of Leiber and Stoller’s “Riot In Cell Block Number 9″ that stopped a ball-hair short of just out-and-out saying “well what do you expect when you protest?” (“The violence spread down South to where Jackson State brothers / Learned not to say nasty things about Southern policemen’s mothers”? Yeah, I’m on team Schlarb/Parks/Crosby here.) 

Rock songs would continue to emerge that drew off Kent State for inspiration throughout 1970 and 1971 — some as straightforward condemnations, like Paul Kantner & Grace Slick’s Sunfighter interlude “Diana Part 2″ (“How do you feel as you cut / Down your children now / And leave them dying / On the grass in the sun”), others as thought exercises to examine the consequences of violent revolution, like Genesis’ “The Knife” (“Some of you are going to die / Martyrs of course to the freedom that I shall provide”). Still, popular music was commerce, and if commerce was your game, it wasn’t helpful to dwell on the recent past before it became a shared history — especially if that recent past was so horrifying and disillusioning.

What proved heartening, however, was how many performers from older generations found it in themselves to react with a similar level of shock and anger as the rock stars. Ruth Warrick, best known for playing Charles Foster Kane’s first wife in Citizen Kane and her role as Phoebe Tyler Wallingford on 1970-established soap All My Children, was in her mid-fifties when she cut “41,000 Plus 4 (The Ballad Of The Kent State Massacre),” a self-released 1970 single with a “RATED X” warning on the label. It wasn’t pornographic, unless you consider frustrated contempt towards the Nixon administration to be your kind of smut; it’s a folky sort of narrative recited with a dramatic, theatrical bombast that only makes the words sting more harshly (“What sound does a bullet make entering flesh? / A sound of a nation’s guilt and violence enmeshed”). 

Blunter still was “The Kent State Massacre,” recorded by folk/blues/jazz singer Barbara Dane, a roots-music revivalist whose unapologetic activism put her in a league with Pete Seeger politically, though sadly not as much in renown. As an adaptation of miner/folk singer Jim Garland’s 1932 union ballad “The Death of Harry Simms,” “The Kent State Massacre” followed folk traditions of writing easily understandable, emotionally direct stories meant to be told for generations, even if the song — written in 1970 — didn’t see release until 1973. 

Even jazz legend Dave Brubeck got into the act, writing an ambitious suite in 1971, Truth Is Fallen, that aimed to fuse jazz, contemporary classical, and rock (the latter via his son Chris’s band New Heavenly Blue) in an effort to create a sort of modern biblical reckoning with what America had become. The fact that you can still read its liner notes while most of the music itself is nearly impossible to find online should say volumes, though at least the whole project is fascinating in that it comes from that now-foreign postwar, pre-Moral Majority span that actually allowed some space for progressive religiosity.

Still, none of them had the direct, lasting impact of “Ohio,” at least as far as individual songs went. The second-best protest song against the events of Kent State after CSNY’s song was the Isley Brothers’ version of it, released in 1971 by the Cincinnati-native band as a medley with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” (therefore doubling as a tribute to the recently-deceased former Isleys collaborator and influence). If the original was the furious gut reaction, the Isleys approached the song with a lingering trauma and the deep focus of time, contemplation, and reconciliation with the long-simmering conflicts that arose from the shootings. Not just between left and right, but between white youth who saw Kent State as an unprecedented shock and their black counterpart who were all but shouting maybe now you’ll know. It was canny as crossover moves went, a future concert show-stopper and a sign of inspiration to come. “Ohio” / “Machine Gun” kicked off Givin’ It Back, an album of folk and rock covers that preceded a mid-decade enthusiasm for taking on jaw-dropping, reinventive soul renditions of everyone from Seals & Crofts to Todd Rundgren. And if the rock ‘n’ roll kids couldn’t get with it despite the searing tone and emotional virtuosity Ernie Isley and Chester Woodard could express with their guitars, well, that’s the rock kids’ loss.

Instead of the advance notice of a protest-song boom, “Ohio” was more a last chapter in a wave of rock protests before the dwindling hippie movement ceded its anger and agitation to other scenes. In 1966, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention cutting a song like the Watts-shellshocked “Trouble Every Day” was a countercultural outlier. A year later, blues legend John Lee Hooker recorded a reaction to Detroit’s long hot summer of ’67, “The Motor City Is Burning,” which bore helpless witness to a horror that the MC5 would soon recast as an exciting revolution. Two years and change before “Ohio,” Stephen Stills’ idea of a protest song was Buffalo Springfield’s heat-stricken, ambivalent “For What It’s Worth,” a message song where the message was “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong” — and, despite its post-facto status embedded in stock-footage flower-child and/or Vietnam montages, was actually inspired by the less ideological, bored-teenager anti-curfew Sunset Strip riots. Worrying about being shot by cops or the National Guard was practically an abstraction to mainstream white culture before Kent State, even throughout the chaos of the next couple years. Meanwhile, groups like Jefferson Airplane and Thunderclap Newman championed an idea of “revolution” in 1969 that, regardless of the Beatles’ chiding warnings, was hopelessly vague and woefully unprepared for the violence to come. And when the smoke cleared and Nixon won his second term in 1972, many in the fatigued, defeated youth movement turned to Jackson Browne and the Eagles, aching for an excuse to Take It Easy.

But the lingering effect of the Kent State massacre steered the future of rock music in one particularly distinct way. If “Ohio” was the immediate musical response to it, one group of students remained skeptical — who were the us in the line “soldiers are cutting us down”? One classmate of the fallen recalled arguments in a Students For A Democratic Society meeting as to whether or not Neil Young was actually fit to even comment, being one of those “rich hippies [who] were making money off something horrible and political that they didn’t get.” That’s the phrasing KSU art major Gerald Casale, a friend of Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, used in talking to James McDonough for McDonough’s 2002 Young bio Shakey. And if that seems like a harsh appraisal, it’s also an understandable one. For a bunch of art-prankster lefties and friends of Hynde’s, being young and progressive in the early ’70s meant being constantly aware of some sort of madness stirring in the national consciousness. The postwar consensus and unsustainable economic boom times were rapidly crumbling in a decade that coined the term “Rust Belt” to describe cities like Akron; to Casale and fellow Kent State alumni Bob Lewis and Mark Mothersbaugh, it all seemed to feel like evolution had taken a gruesome 180.

By 1973, their group Devo had transitioned from a bunch of conceptual artists to an actual pop-art band, and from there to a cult phenomenon. As a deliberately absurdist reaction to the era’s violence and division, Devo’s music was a link from the Yippie agitation of the pre-Kent State years to the punk deconstructions of the decade’s later reaches. And they found that their message resonated long after the tragedy that informed their early agitation. A screening of their 1976 film The Truth About De-Evolution won first prize at the 1977 Ann Arbor Film Festival, while their set at NYC club Max’s Kansas City that same year impressed David Bowie so much he offered to help bankroll the then-unsigned band’s debut album. Bowie contributed unused vocals to the Eno-produced Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, but that was far from the only encounter with a corner of rock stardom fascinated by their philosophy.

According to Shakey, a Devo demo tape passed from Blondie guitarist Chris Stein to Bowie, Iggy Pop, and dancer/singer Toni Basil of eventual “Mickey” fame. At the time, Basil was dating actor Dean Stockwell, a fan, friend, and sometime collaborator of Young’s. (Much of After The Gold Rush was inspired by an unfilmed screenplay of the same name that Stockwell wrote with Captain Beefheart writing partner Herb Bermann.) After they caught Devo at a show in West Hollywood’s Starwood club at Stockwell’s behest — a show that’s been preserved for bootleg posterity — Young and Stockwell invited Devo to participate in a movie they were planning titled Human Highway. The four-year project, which burned through $3 million of Young’s own money, would eventually mutate from a planned rock-doc road movie into a bizarre post-nuclear apocalypse farce with an abstracted, semi-political vibe somewhere between The Wizard Of Oz and a David Lynch movie. 

Human Highway’s protracted shooting schedule and doomed, critically derided super-limited release in 1983 obscured one of the most fascinating collaborations to emerge from the musical legacy of Kent State. Young was briefly considered a political firebrand thanks to “Ohio,” but his reputation for protest songs the rest of the decade was largely reduced in retrospect to more direct and strident George Wallace (and Lynyrd Skynyrd)-baiting cuts “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” Yet the sense of loss and wariness of an uncertain future — from looking at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s to the recognition of indigenous slaughter as North America’s original sin — drove him all throughout the decade and beyond. And in teaming up with Devo, cynical in their own way but more attuned to attacking the systems of consumerism, conformity, and convenience than the people caught up in them, they concocted, refined, and honed the song that would become a bridge to the next generation of avant-rockers. 

On May 27, 1978, Neil Young showed up on stage at a Devo show in San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens punk club, where the crowd regaled him with mocking chants of “Real Dung” and the encore included Mark Mothersbaugh’s infantilized manchild Booji Boy character falsetto-squawking a deranged “After The Gold Rush.” Young and Devo reconvened the following night in the Mission District music studio Different Fur to record and film a song Young had been working on. This initial jam session of “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” mainlined Mark Mothersbaugh’s influence — including his invocation of the old Rust-Oleum paint slogan “Rust Never Sleeps” — and mutated (or devolved) both Young’s song and Young himself into a reckoning with his own survival. Here, the energy of punk was a catalyst for self-reflection on personal obsolescence and whether rock still had anything to say in protest. Four students died 50 years ago, and the hope of a counterculture might have gone with it — but like some B-movie horror creature, rock ‘n’ roll could never die, and maybe its own threatened irrelevance was the only thing left to protest.

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