ZZ Top-Aerosmith concert at Three Rivers Stadium was one crazy day
ZZ Top in the pre-MTV era: From left, Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill.
Fans wait to get into the calamitous ZZ Top/Aerosmith concert at Three Rivers Stadium on June 12, 1976.
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By Scott Mervis
Maybe it was the giant stage in the shape of Texas, or the herd of cattle walking across it. Maybe it was the hombres in the cowboy hats confronting the pretty-boy rockers. Or maybe it was all those '70s-era drugs and alcohol in the burning sun.
Whatever the case, Three Rivers Stadium was like a Wild West showdown on June 12, 1976.
"You only had to say the date," says former concert promoter Rich Engler. "I knew exactly what you were talking about."
It was the day that ZZ Top and Aerosmith, who play together at the Post-Gazette Pavilion Wednesday, pulled into town with the World Wide Texas Tour -- hands-down winner for the city's craziest show ever.
"It was the craziest mix ever, that's for sure," Engler says. "It was ZZ Top, Aerosmith. They had cattle, they had rattlesnakes on stage. I liked the package but it was weird because it was the roughneck-beer-drinkers-hell-raisers, and this American hair-type band that was a different form of rock 'n' roll. It kind of collided with the chemistry, not only of the music but the crowd. There were a lot of calamities."
When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $29-$189. 1-877-598-8703.
The calamities were Texas-sized. The front page headline the next day in The Pittsburgh Press was "250 Fans Injured at Rock Concert," many of them cut by broken glass "when bottle-throwing erupted." The medic on the scene treated people for eye lacerations, drug overdoses, a broken nose and a broken pelvis. A pregnant woman suffered severe burns on her leg when a cherry bomb landed on her lap. At one point, fans rushed a dugout to get on the field, hitting one security guard with a bottle and trampling the other.
"[It] was the most horrible thing I have ever seen since World War II," Dr. Joseph Finegold, the Pittsburgh Pirates physician, told the paper.
Outside, an angry mob of 200 fans pelted two county police officers with beer cans following the arrest of a man on drug charges, prompting city cops to rush to the scene. Fifteen cars were towed on the Fort Duquesne Bridge and just as many on the Parkway West. North Side residents complained of people parking on the sidewalks in front of their homes.
Two days later came a more ominous front-page headline: "Two Dead in Concert Aftermath." Hundreds of people had been swimming in the rivers before and after the concert, and the morning after, the body of a nude woman, an unemployed school teacher, was found in the Ohio River near Clemente Park. The other death was far from the scene, a woman with a ticket stub in her pocket struck by a hit-and-run driver in Hazelwood.
The paid attendance was in the area of 54,000, but police contended that 70,000 showed up for the party and "milled around." This was, after all, just a few years after Woodstock and eons past the peace and love.
Raymond C. Alsing Jr. of Castle Shannon was new to concerts at the time and got a full education for his $8.75 ticket.
"By the time I got there after swimming from Point State Park to the stadium," Alsing says, "it looked like the concert was over judging by the trash all over the place, and that was before the first band started. I was in ninth grade at the time and would never had been allowed to go if my parents had any idea what it was going to be like, and I heard about it the next day from them."
Drugs, alcohol, nudity and gate-crashing were all part of the pre-concert festivities.
"Vandalism and destruction at the concert reached levels never before seen in Pittsburgh," says Alsing, who now works as a field engineer for a computer company, "and there has never been anything like it since. Drug sales were rampant through the turnstiles entering the stadium along with anything else that wanted to come in. People were carrying kegs of beer in on their shoulders. Bathrooms were unisex, even though nothing like that existed then."
A parking lot attendant told the PG at the time that the lot became a garbage dump and outhouse. "They were all hopped up on dope and booze and running around exposing themselves. When they had to relieve themselves, they just did it in the lot. They didn't care who was watching."
A few days later, a stadium official insisted that some of the news reports were exaggerated, that the number of injuries was too high. He counted 98, but conceded to 17 hospitalizations. He also noted that the security force for the concert was 160 strong, compared to 36 for a Steelers game.
One flashpoint that day was the opening of the gates. The Press reported that stadium management wanted to generate excitement by starting the music, with opening act Point Blank, while the fans were still outside, creating the energy of them rushing in (the deadly Who stampede in Cincinnati would be three years later).
In reality it was more like an hour between the gates and the first band. Engler also dismisses Alsing's recollection that drunken fans were riding the farm animals (a funny image, nonetheless).
Still, Engler, who joined Pat DiCesare three years earlier to create the prestigious DiCesare-Engler Productions, certainly had his hands full.
Though neither paper had a reviewer on hand to report on the music, there was at least one critic in the crowd.
"In the middle of Aerosmith's set," Engler says, "one of the ZZ Top fans risked his life to go over the high-tension, do-not-enter, high-voltage, danger, will-kill-you area, crawled in there, drunk as a skunk, and pulled the power level on Aerosmith -- and the whole stage went completely silent. The only thing you could hear was rat-tat-tat -- the drummer without any amplification. Everyone was stunned. The ZZ Top crowd was cheering and the Aerosmith crowd was booing."
Nowadays the bands coexist nicely under the banner of classic rock. Not the case in 1976. ZZ Top would become bearded caricatures on MTV in the '80s, but by '76 the trio hadn't turned that corner. The little ol' band from Texas pumped its crowds on outlaw blues boogie like "Tush" (the only charting hit to that point), "La Grange" and, a tailgating staple, "Arrested for Driving While Blind."
Aerosmith, while sharing some of that John Lee Hooker love, was more prone to wearing eyeliner. The Bad Boys from Boston were perceived as a glammy, androgynous Stones knockoff. By June 12, Aerosmith had released four albums, including the new "Rocks," and had scored two hits: the thunderous "Sweet Emotion" in 1975 and then in early '76 an oddly timed re-release of the 1973 power ballad "Dream On."
In any case, Aerosmith had swagger to spare and were already upset that the band name was too small in the poster, so they came off the stage less than happy by perceived slight of the power outage, even if it hadn't lasted long. Per the band's rider request, DiCesare-Engler had rented Winnebagos for each member of the band because ZZ Top was using all the dressing rooms.
Between bands, Engler says, "My people came running to me like the devil was chasing them. 'Rich, you gotta come and see this.' I go, 'No, I'm busy, man.' 'You gotta see it, you gotta see it.' They had wrecked the Winnebagos. They threw mustard and ketchup bottles through the windows and it was an absolute nightmare."
Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry didn't remember much about June 12 in particular, but said, "We had a number of those types of gigs. It was wild and woolly back then. Not like it is today, where it's standard operating procedure -- bands play the sheds. People were trying to copy festivals and think of new ways to put shows on, so you ended up with these big cluster[expletive], and it made for more excitement."
Steven Hansen, a popular DJ then at WDVE, enjoyed first-class treatment at the event in an elaborate covered walkway constructed to allow VIPs to wander between the backstage and seating areas. But it didn't last long.
"The VIP area," he says, "also was directly in the site line of people on the floor of the stadium. This fact, directly coupled with the liberal availability of beer, produced a steady stream of comments directed from the crowd to the VIPs. I remember people nervously leaving the seating area as the day got hotter and the comments got louder.
"I wasn't there when it happened, but eventually at least one projectile -- a beer bottle as I remember -- was chucked into the VIP area. It struck a girl who I think won her prized seat on 'DVE. It cut her pretty good and she was taken to the hospital. I don't recall too many people being in the VIP area by the time ZZ Top came on -- by that time it was safer to take your chances with the rattlesnakes back stage."
The concert began around 4:30 p.m. and ran well past midnight. Alsing had to call his dad for a ride because the buses had stopped running. The city got $45,000 in amusement tax, 10 percent of the gross, for its trouble. Still, five days later, Mayor Pete Flaherty laid down the law. If there were going to be any more rock concerts at the stadium, he said, they had to be seven hours max, the gates had to open earlier, there had to be more portable toilets, and drunks and druggies weren't getting in.
"I hope it will not become necessary to eliminate future concerts," he said.
The band-aid on this whole mess was the next concert, on July 24. It was a more tranquil affair with The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, and the Press reported that the "Eagles' popular music had a sobering effect."
At one point, a "handful of youths" began to toss things, prompting The Eagles to stop the music and say, "You had one bad concert here this summer and let's not have another one."
Scott Mervis can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2576.
First Published June 21, 2009 12:00 am