The first week of September 1969 held a lot of “firsts” for me. I was 17 and it was my first week away at college, the first time I didn’t live in my Father’s house, my first live performance by Sly and the Family Stone and my first marijuana cigarette. Sly was playing in our fieldhouse that night and my dorm was awash in underage beer and pot. How great!...we were going to a show.
Problem was, our little predominantly white state college was nestled in a very black, very poor Pennsylvania city. The field house held only 1500 and the tickets sold out in minutes. Sly was a rising star in the fall of ‘69. No one on campus was going to miss him.
But understandably, the community was outraged. Here was one of their own coming to town and they couldn’t even get inside. They threatened to disrupt the show but Sly went on anyway, an hour late as always, but Sly and the Family played.
I was up in the mezzanine with a bunch of my new pals, entranced by the music and so surprised when the drummer pulled off his rubber gorilla mask revealing he was a white guy. Everything felt racially charged that night, but the show was just stupendous. And then disaster struck.
We didn’t know it up in that mezzanine but a large and violently angry crowd had gathered outside the fieldhouse doors, no doubt listening to the muffled music and seething deep inside. Suddenly the field house doors exploded inward and planks of wood went flying over the heads of the kids on the floor. An army of incensed fury piled in and metal folding chairs began to sail across the room.
There were actually dozens of undercover cops in plain clothes throughout the gym and more uniformed cops began to pour in. Batons started flailing. People were screaming and trying to get out while others were falling to the floor. I saw blood on our basketball court.
What did Sly and the Family do? They kept right on playing through the melee, “I wanna take you hiiiiigher, (uh bump-bump) baybeh baybeh baybeh light mah fiiiiiuh……”
That night was so horrible, one of the most surreal nights in my life, still, even to this day I can’t forget it. The cops restored order and the show finished up but we kids filed back to our dorms in a kind of freaked-out stupor.
I realized that night how unfair this world is to everyone, and how we all have our own set of facts.
And how privileged I was in my middle class skin to be safe in that mezz with a ticket-to-ride, watch oppression first hand through a maryjane haze, another of my firsts in the Fall of ’69.