While we enjoy our Star Wars references today (yes, May the Fourth Be With You, and all that…) I am reminded of another galvanizing cultural event of May the 4th, one that changed a generation. In this case, most of America saw the violence on the small screen. And in this case, the violence was real. But included in the aftermath is a generation of art. Musical expression filtered through our anger and shame, that lifted a magnifying glass to our society. Introspection and commentary is one of the many things the arts can do besides entertain.
May 4, 1970: the U.S. National Guard opened fire and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio, wounding nine others. While a tragedy, this would also be a pivotal moment for the antiwar effort, bringing a new discernment to the arguments and actions on both sides of the issue. It also would be memorialized in song, Neil Young’s Ohio, which also personalized the event by asking:
“What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?”
Naturally, the event would be a life-changing event for anyone at the protest or even on the campus (two of the dead were not even protesters). And for music, the campus event and Neil Young’s song Ohio would be galvanizing for future musical giants as well. This included three who were students at Kent State at the time. One Kent State student, Chrissie Hynde, would later form the rock group, The Pretenders. Two other Kent State students, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, would later become the founders of the punk/new wave/alternative band, Devo.
Devo’s Jerry Casale said the following about the Kent State Massacre:
“I was a student, I was a member of SDS – an antiwar group called Students for a Democratic Society, trying to restore Democracy at a time when LBJ and Nixon were running roughshod over it. There were several antiwar groups. That protest that day where everybody got shot was a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. It was a secret expansion, Nixon had done it the night before and we found out about it the next day – the whole nation did. They did it without an act of congress, without passing any new law or having any meetings. It was completely unconstitutional, so we’re out there at noon, about 3,500 students at Kent State were out there. The governor, who certainly was a pro-war kind of guy, Governor Rhodes, he had placed the National Guard inside the heating plant of the school the night before anticipating what would happen when the students found out about Cambodia. Not only did he do that, but he waited until about 9 am on May 4th to declare Martial Law, which suspends all first amendment rights of The Constitution, meaning that any assembly is automatically illegal, you’re automatically committing a crime. These National Guardsmen poured out of the heating plant, surrounded the protesters, and with a bullhorn announced that Martial Law had been declared and that we were all going to jail. Everybody starts chanting and screaming and they start shooting tear gas and some of the more ballsy protesters, while they’re coughing and choking and puking are trying to throw it back, but most of the kids were anywhere from 50 to 100 yards away from these lines of National Guardsmen with guns. Nobody believed that the guns were actually loaded with live ammo. They just suddenly formed a row. The first one knelt and the second one stood, and they just shot right into the crowd, shot at all of us, down the hill at all of us. The worst thing about it is that 2 of the 4 students killed weren’t part of the demonstration, weren’t part of an antiwar group. They’d just come out of class from the journalism building at that time and come out on their way to their next class and were looking at the protest, just seeing what the hell’s going on, and they got killed. The bullets just went everywhere, it was like a scatter-gun approach, like shooting geese. A lot of the bullets went over the heads of the protesters and kept going straight down the hill. One of the kids that’s paralyzed for life was getting into his car to leave campus after his class, and they shot him in the back. He was at least 200 yards away and wanted nothing to do with what was going on. It was shocking. It pretty much knocked any hippie that I had left in me right out of me that day.
I had been a member of the honors college and the only way I went to school was with a scholarship. My family was poor and I got a scholarship to go to school. What I had to do every year to earn my scholarship was work 3 months in the summer for the university admitting new students to the honors college, the incoming freshman, and helping them arrange their curriculum, taking them through the registration process. The summer before May 4th, I had befriended Jeffery Miller and Allison Krause, 2 honor students, and they turn out to be 2 of the 4 killed on May 4th. So I’d known both of them 9 months before this happened, and so when I realized that this girl on her stomach with a huge exit wound in her back with blood running down the sidewalk was Allison, I nearly passed out. I sat down on the grass and kind of swooned around and lied down. I was in shock, I couldn’t move.
The government and the press tried to lie about what happened as well as they could. The fact that anybody knows what happened is amazing because they did such a good job of muddying it up and lying, it was amazing. The final chapter there was that the parents of the students who were shot and killed banded together and went on a class action suit against Governor Rhodes and the state of Ohio and the National Guard, and summarily lost across the board. These kids that were shot were 18 and 19 years old. 2 of them were 18 and 2 of them were 19. They lost because by law, no one was allowed to be having a protest once Martial Law was declared, and they threw it out of the court system. I don’t think anyone wants to know the truth. It ruins the myth of freedom in America to find out how easily it can be gone.”
(Complete Devo Interview here on Song Facts blog: http://www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/devo/)
It is little wonder these incidents influenced a fledgling band to choose the name Devo, originally from a cartoon representing the De-evolution of society. It probably also explains, to some extent, the biting satire apparent in many of their songs. Additionally, it may have been a factor in developing the tough image of Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders.
But one thing is for certain, these events have regularly galvanized and changed artists into new creative energies. Indeed, as Leonard Bernstein famously said:
“This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more devotedly than ever before.”
May the Memory of the Fourth Be With Us Always.
Cross-posted on Weird Music History blog.