The Who at Georgetown University, 1969

By Timothy M. Gay
October 2009

WAMA note: The following is an unabridged version of the condensed memoir appearing in the Oct. 7 issue of The Georgetowner. A link to that article is no longer available.

The first riff that came ripping out of Pete Townshend's guitar nearly melted Ed Towle's eardrums. With the lone exception of Civil War-era cannon fire, Townshend's lick was the loudest roar that ever reverberated across the hoary campus of Georgetown University.

Towle, whose name is often mispronounced `Tull,' as in `Jethro,' was standing in front of a huge bank of amplifiers inside Georgetown's McDonough Gymnasium, watching a sea of humanity writhe toward the stage. It was Sunday evening, November 2, 1969, a few minutes after ten o'clock — the final event in that weekend's homecoming festivities.

As chair of the student entertainment committee, Towle had just finished introducing The Who, the hottest (and noisiest) rock group extant. More than 6,000 rabid fans slithered into an arena that seated barely two-thirds that number. Ticket-less `townies' shimmied through McDonough's windows (inevitably breaking a couple), then skulked past overwhelmed guards. Hundreds of students from other colleges flashed bogus passes, groveling to get in. Many of them succeeded when Towle, fearing a crackdown from the fire department — not to mention rampant claustrophobia — ordered that exit doors be flung open. So many kids crashed the gate, in fact, that Townshend felt obliged to salute them from the stage.

Tickets or no, they were there to boogie to a British band that had not only dazzled the Woodstock festival two months before but had just released the breakthrough rock opera Tommy. Overnight, The Who had become an uber group.

The opening act was Love Cry Want, a jazz trio that, despite its billing, failed to stir affection, emotion, or desire. People were pounding their hands and feet, pleading for the headliners. Things got worse when the threesome departed; house lights glared for an eternity as roadies lugged out voluminous equipment. Ushers from the Collegiate Club, crew-cut types who took a dim view of the counter culture, screamed at spectators to stub out smokes. A senior from New England, Chris Muse, was smack in the middle of McDonough's bedlam. Apparently believing it made him look stylishly Brit, he was sporting a top hat — a remnant from a Halloween party two nights before.

During the excruciating delay Towle twice took the microphone to issue be-on-your-best-behavior warnings scripted by Georgetown's Jesuit priests. Each time he was jeered by agitated fans — many of whom had a cigarette in one hand and a doobie in the other. Unbeknownst to Towle, the band's agent was backstage badgering promoter Mike Schreibman to cough up more cash. The stalling dragged on so long that Schreibman asked his friend, a folk guitarist and fledgling rock critic named Richard Harrington, to play a couple of tunes. Alas, no one thought to flip on switches; sans both mic and spotlight, Harrington, too, got hissed.

At long last, the gym went dark. As Towle reappeared on stage, hordes of fans screeched forward, sending kids and chairs careening. Towle's buddies John Zambetti and Walt Egan were standing a few rows back and still remember the whoosh rushing past them. Security that night, Zambetti quips, `was like 'Mayberry RFD.''

Towle has spent four decades kicking himself for not coming up with a memorable intro. `Instead,' Ed recalls, `I just yelled something blasé like, 'Ladies and gentlemen: Georgetown welcomes The Who!'' Seconds later Ed's ears went numb.

Guitarist Townshend was decked out in a white jumpsuit that `resembled a member of Baron von Richthofen's pit crew,' cracked a student journalist named Charlie Impaglia. Singer Roger Daltrey had donned a fringed vest, the impish Impaglia wrote, `that gave him the look of an enraged fugitive from Olympus.' Bassist John Entwistle was draped in black, while the only visible parts of crazed percussionist Keith Moon were his flailing drumsticks.

Their opening number, appropriately enough, was Heaven and Hell, a heavy-metal opus whose theme Jesuit theologian William McFadden — who was, at that precise moment, surveying the mayhem from McDonough's foyer — would have relished debating, if only he'd been able to divine its lyrics through the din. `Why can't we have eternal life — and never die?' the song jabbed. `Wouldn't that be sweet?' Father McFadden ruefully observes today. `Skip the Cross and go right to the Resurrection!' As Heaven and Hell thundered on, hundreds of (artificially) resurrected fans were threatening to swamp the band.

Shadowed by his pal and concert co-collaborator, student government president Jim Clark, Towle staggered offstage. Temporary deafness didn't deter the pair from carrying out their other duty: wielding blankets in case a smoke bomb went off. Rumors had been going around the underground press that Lefties would exact revenge on Townshend for booting their hero, radical organizer Abbie Hoffman, off Woodstock's stage in the midst of a patented Hoffman rant. Exactly how the Towle-Clark posse thought they could wade into a heaving mosh pit and smother the effects of a smoke grenade is unclear. `In retrospect,' Towle concedes, `it was insane.' Nevertheless, Towle and Clark reconnoitered with basketball center and math whiz Charlie Adrion, class treasurer John Salmon, and a couple of other recruits. Although never forced to swing into action, the Blanket Patrol, as they dubbed themselves, roamed the floor, bedspreads gamely strung over their shoulders.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Just how in heaven — or hell — did a bunch of rock 'n' roll infidels ever come to play a tiny gym at a Jesuit institution that called itself the Catholic Harvard? It's a tale of intrigue and skullduggery, of youthful naiveté and coming-of-age. And it could only have happened in the apocalyptic world of 1969.

    Welcome to the Camp,
    I guess you all know why we're here.
    My name is Tommy
    And I became aware this year. . .

As freshmen, the Blanket Patrol and their brethren marched pretty much in lock step with a campus full of other earnest young Caucasian men, all sporting closely-cropped hair. Most were graduates of Catholic prep schools; for them, attendance at Sunday mass was mandatory. So was wearing ties that tended toward the skinny and striped and blazers that got stained and beat up and hung awkwardly from their shoulders. Except for its School of Nursing, the university was overwhelmingly male.

Among the few Protestants enrolled in that era was an Arkansan named William Jefferson Clinton. Bill Clinton was already a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford by the time The Who rocked the Hilltop. But as a senior in the spring of '68, he watched Georgetown's cloistered world disintegrate.

`Everything got turned on its head,' Ed Towle remembers. `Everything.'

As the Washington Post's David Maraniss relates in his Clinton biography, hundreds of National Guardsmen were housed at McDonough when the city smoldered following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two months later, McDonough's commencement week concert with rock 'n' roll icon Chuck Berry was cancelled after Bobby Kennedy was murdered. As protests against Vietnam escalated, the campus became a rallying point for the marchers who descended by the thousands on the nation's capital. During that fall's war moratoriums — the first of which took place two weeks before The Who show — McDonough was used to shelter demonstrators, a decision that rankled basketball coach Jack McGee.

Student leaders like Towle, Clark, and Zambetti kept a foot in each camp, respectful of Georgetown's Jesuit traditions but not afraid to confront authority. They marched in candlelight vigils down Pennsylvania Avenue. Their hair now scandalously dangled below their collars. And they no longer had to wear blazers and ties.

    We're not gonna take it.
    We're not gonna take it.
    We're not gonna take it.
    We're not gonna take it. . .

Four decades later, what Ed Towle remembers most are the cats that scurried around Mike Schreibman's basement crash pad a block or two off campus — `cats of the furry kind,' Ed chuckles today, `not the cool kind.' Strays and tabbies wormed through their legs as Schreibman and Towle met in the spring and summer of '69 to review concert options for the coming school year. Schreibman seemed ancient to the 21-year-old Towle; after all, Mike was pushing 27. Despite his beatnik mien (his place always reeked of incense) and a bushy moustache that put David Crosby's to shame, Mike was a hustler, the sort of promoter, one contemporary remembered, `who would give P.T. Barnum pause.' Schreibman not only had ties to big-time booking agents in New York but was, with Richard Harrington, a co-founder of Woodwind, a journal that covered D.C.'s surprisingly hip music scene.

Towle's budget was meager. For a total of $30,000, he was tasked with bringing in talent for multiple shows. Schreibman gave Towle a list of affordable acts. Ed was mildly surprised that folk rockers Poco and Arlo Guthrie, of Alice's Restaurant fame, were get-able. But Ed was stunned to see The Who on Schreibman's list. Towle shared the revelation with Clark, Zambetti, and Egan, all of whom agreed that nabbing the Brits would be a terrific coup. Zambetti and Egan knew their rock 'n' roll. Band mates since their prep school days at Loyola in New York, they had formed a group eventually called Sageworth and Drums. They played gigs on campus and at Georgetown saloons such as Apple Pie and the Silver Dollar. In those bohemian days, Wisconsin Avenue and M Street crackled with live music. Georgetown's Cellar Door nightclub, which lured big-name folk and rock artists, was in its prime.

At Clark's prodding, Towle sidestepped the usual committee process and aggressively moved to snare The Who for a bargain-basement fee of $7,500. Ed fashioned a crude `contract' that would never have withstood a legal challenge. The band had such a reputation as rock's bad boys — they liked to punctuate performances by trashing their instruments — that Ed and his cabal half expected the Jesuits to quash the idea. But the primitive agreement was signed, no questions asked. Clark surmises that the administration of new president Robert Henle, S.J., was so worried about the campus being overrun by protestors that a little thing like a rock show may have escaped their attention — at least at the outset.

Ed, Jim, and their entertainment cohorts had a low bar. Georgetown U. kids had been subjected to some dorky concerts. They hit rock bottom in Towle's junior year, when Gary (`Young Girl: Get out of My Mind!') Puckett and his Union Gap `starred' in a desultory show.

Georgetown Voice co-founder Larry Rohter served on the entertainment committee in '67-'68, his freshman year. When it came to picking a homecoming band, the panel deadlocked between two packages: the Beach Boys, coupled with their opening `act,' the sitar-accented ramblings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; and British guitar genius Eric Clapton's band Cream, plus the New Yardbirds, an outfit led by blues virtuoso Jimmy Page that soon morphed into Led Zeppelin. The two upperclassmen voted for the Beach Boys and the Maharishi; Rohter and his sophomore counterpart fought for Clapton and Page. As dictated by committee by-laws, the tie was broken by student government president Terry Modglin, a senior who will be forever known as the upstart who defeated Bill Clinton in student elections. Modglin, predictably, sided with the Beach Boys faction. Forty-two years later, Rohter laughs that he's still `bitter' about the committee's myopia. Would the future commander-in-chief have had the cojones to defy the upperclassmen and invite the guitar gods? It remains one of history's vexing `what-ifs.'

    We're not gonna take it,
    Never did and never will.
    We're not gonna take it,
    Gonna break it, gonna shake it,
    Let's forget it better still. . .

Towle knew that The Who show was going to be a big hit when kids returned from summer break in '69 and Tommy blared from stereos all over campus. `Everywhere you went, you'd hear Pinball Wizard,' confirms Jim Welch, a junior that fall who'd played The Who at a deafening pitch all summer just to annoy the middle-aged bosses at his part-time job.

To book The Who, Schreibman had worked with a familiar agency in New York. But now that their property was suddenly hot, they wanted more money. Schreibman, to his credit, wouldn't budge, claiming a deal was a deal, even one based on a flimsy scrap of paper. The two other Towle-Schreibman productions at McDonough that fall, Poco in September and Arlo Guthrie in October, went off without a hitch, although supposedly sloppy security at the Guthrie show caused the Collegiate Club to grouse.

Even at a pricey five dollars a pop, The Who show sold its allotment of 4,200 tickets almost instantly — but that didn't preclude Schreibman from continuing to run ads in the Post and elsewhere. Meanwhile, without bothering to notify school officials, Towle determined that McDonough's cramped second floor could handle a thousand or so extra fans. The second-floor ducats were snapped up; so, too, were ersatz `free tickets' that the music underground handed out like candy.

Schreibman asked a gifted African-American artist named Lou Stovall to design — gratis, of course — a concert poster. Moved by Tommy's spirituality and cognizant of Georgetown's roots, Stovall chose a Sistine Chapel motif. So a rendering of Michelangelo's ethereal depiction of the Book of Genesis was used to flack a rock band that once snuck an explosive device onto the set of the Smothers Brothers television show. After Keith Moon detonated his little bomb, cymbal shrapnel went flying, wounding Townshend and causing rotund songstress Kate Smith to faint backstage.

Stovall's poignant homage to the creation of Adam was plastered all over town — a curious ploy for a sold-out show. The gratuitous ads and posters and all the phony tickets were causing Ed Towle to lose sleep. So was innuendo that area rednecks, outraged over The Who's lewd behavior, intended to show up at McDonough to teach the Brits a lesson. Ed couldn't win for losing: left-wingers were threatening to throw smoke bombs and now right-wingers were threatening to throw haymakers.

As the fateful day approached, Schreibman began hearing his own rumors that Georgetown administrators, worried about damage to McDonough, wanted to scrub the show. In late October, one of Mike's minions inside the District Building reported that trouble was brewing: fire department officials, presumably at the bidding of school authorities, were maneuvering to force a cancellation.

With all the weird recrimination in the air, Schreibman did something he'd never done: he retained counsel. A lawyer who happened to be a rock aficionado trailed Schreibman the day of the concert, endeavoring to keep Mike out of legal jeopardy.

    See me.
    Feel me.
    Touch me.
    Heal me.
    See me.
    Feel me.
    Touch me.
    Heal me. . .

It didn't help the mojo that November 2nd dawned unseasonably warm. Towle and Schreibman knew that McDonough would turn into a cauldron. But when Ed and his lieutenants arrived early that evening to help with set-up, everything seemed to be in order. The small crowd gathered outside was orderly; nobody at that point was trying to sneak in.

As Towle organized his crew in one part of McDonough, Schreibman and his lawyer were getting an earful in another. A fire marshal informed them that the building was so far out of compliance that the department would have to call off the show. At that point, an acquaintance of Schreibman's, operating outside Mike's line of sight, rolled a fifty dollar bill inside a pack of matches and palmed it to the marshal. Matches may have been a clumsy way to bribe someone whose life was dedicated to fire prevention — but they worked. After a quick glimpse at the countenance of U.S. Grant, the marshall stopped all talk of shutdown.

Towle and Clark had no idea of what was going down with the fire department. But their adrenaline began surging when they heard thump-thump on a side door. They shoved it open and found themselves staring at the bulbous nose of Pete Townshend. Surrounded by hangers-on, Pete was already wearing his all-white get-up and hauling two guitar cases. `He looked like he was on his way to a 'Hootenanny' show,' says Jim Clark today, still incredulous all these years later. `It's me and me mates,' Townshend breezily announced. `Where do we go?' Their mouths agape, all Ed and Jim could manage were gestures toward backstage.

Ed ducked outside and suddenly realized that the docile crowd had been supplanted by a mob. He was amazed that Townshend managed to slip through all those people without getting pummeled. Soon enough, folks began bashing McDonough's doors, begging to get in. Towle huddled with security to figure out what — if anything — could be done to handle such a throng. As soon as the main entrance opened, Jim Welch and his buddies made a bee-line for their second floor seats. Once they got situated and peeked out an upstairs window, they were astonished at how many kids were still milling around.

Ed and his lieutenants spent Love Cry Want's performance frantically monitoring McDonough's corridors, praying that nobody would get hurt and the building wouldn't crumble. Finally, Towle ordered that exits stay open throughout the show. At least that way, Ed reckoned, people could get out if they needed to. It also meant that anyone willing to contort themselves could slip in for free.

Towle missed the machinations going on backstage. The band members themselves could not have been better guys, remember Jim Clark and Larry Rohter, both of whom spent time in the wood-paneled holding room while The Who waited out Love Cry Want and the long delay. When Clark shared with Roger Daltrey the rumor that local toughs had vowed to beat them up, the lead singer, never one to back down from a brawl, howled, `You mean those yokels are planning to attack us?!'

In another corner backstage, the group's agent wasn't throwing punches at Schreibman — but he was tossing out everything else, including a threat to walk if more money didn't get handed over. But Mike had been run through this gauntlet before. Eventually, the agent gave up, the lights were dimmed, and Towle was given the high sign to go out and introduce the band.

    Listening to you,
    I get the music.
    Gazing at you,
    I get the heat.
    Following you,
    I'd climb the mountains.
    I get excitement at your feet. . .

The Who busted McDonough wide open. William C. Woods in the Post called it `the most electrifying rock performance I have ever seen.' Their first set included a wild rendition of I Can See for Miles with Daltrey egging the crowd to belt out the chorus, plus a profane screed from Townshend. Amid a flurry of f-bombs, Pete scolded fans for confusing music and politics. Then in inimitable Townshend fashion, he urged everyone to take to the streets to end the bloody f***ing war — at which point the band launched into My Generation, their defiant anthem.

The second set consisted of Tommy, performed almost in its entirety — and playfully dedicated by Townshend to the gatecrashers. `The Who held the stage as though under siege — howling, screaming, dancing, breaking drumsticks, and tearing up tambourines in a wholly successful effort to make music and magic indistinguishable in a savage ritual of sound.' That's how Woods painted it in the Post, anyway. The Evening Star's reviewer, an opera buff named John Segraves, was somewhat less enthused. The Who performing an opera `is almost akin to having the Three Stooges play 'Macbeth,'' sniffed Segraves, who must have been the only person at McDonough not having a hell of a time. Even Father McFadden enjoyed the show, although he complained for days afterward that his ears `hurt from the inside.'

    Right behind you,
    I see the millions.
    On you,
    I see the glory.
    From you,
    I get opinions.
    From you,
    I get the story. . .

Miraculously, nobody got hurt and McDonough escaped serious damage. The Blanket Patrol's prayers had been answered. At least for a while around campus, they were heroes — although they did end up taking some heat from president Henle and basketball coach McGee. It was worth it. They had brought to McDonough `an unforgettable night of rock in the bleeding raw,' as Woods put it. And they'd done better than break even. Schreibman estimates the show, despite all the chaos, cleared four thousand bucks.

All those rockers are north of 60 now and looking forward to the prospect of grand-fatherhood. Ed Towle and Jim Clark practice law in Los Angeles. John Salmon is an attorney in Washington. Charlie Adrion made his mark in high tech. Another member of the Blanket Patrol sadly died young of complications from substance abuse — the same fate that befell Keith Moon and John Entwistle of The Who.

Larry Rohter, who did an edgy interview with Pete Townshend for the Courier student magazine, went on to a distinguished career at the Washington Post and the New York Times. Rock lost its primal intimacy and became too corporate and sterile in the '70s, Rohter now says. Jim Welch became a sportswriter and is now a deputy managing editor at USA Today. John Zambetti went to medical school and became a pioneering emergency room physician in southern California. His pal Walt Egan stuck with music, recording albums and becoming a coveted guitarist and songwriter. Eight years after graduation, Walt's perseverance paid off when his song, Magnet and Steel (warning: if you start humming its `ooooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh' it'll get stuck in your brainwaves for days), became a top ten hit. John and Walt still jam at alumni reunions.

The wannabe Anglophile with the silly hat is now the Honorable Christopher J. Muse, Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. A framed concert poster hangs in the bathroom of Judge Muse's cottage on Cape Cod. Guests emerge from the loo flabbergasted that he once saw The Who up close for five dollars.

Richard Harrington shook off the rejection he endured that night and became the Post's esteemed music critic, retiring two years ago. Lou Stovall is still an award-winning designer; he loves Tommy as much today as he did in '69. Mike Schreibman went on to promote a ton of other rock shows. He's still in the business, heading the Washington Area Music Association. And he still owns cats.

Charlie Impaglia, the preternaturally talented writer, became a prominent programmer in the early days of public radio. He contracted AIDS and died before reaching 40. An annual public radio award is named in his honor.

Father William McFadden remains the éminence grise of Georgetown's theology department. He never again abused his ears at a rock concert but has lent his soothing voice to Hoya basketball games as the program's long-time public address announcer.

As for the two infidels who skipped the Cross and went right to the Resurrection, Townshend and Daltrey were honored by the Kennedy Center in December 2008. Instead of a mangy jumpsuit and a fringed vest, the aging icons wore tuxedos for the occasion. This time, nobody threatened to beat them up or throw a smoke bomb.

While being féted at Foggy Bottom, Pete 'n Rog were just downriver from the place where, 39 years earlier, it took only five bucks (or no bucks, if one were enterprising enough) to see them blow away a crowd. It was a time when a rock poster could evoke Michelangelo and a single guitar riff in a packed gym with the doors flung open could echo for miles. . . and miles. . . and miles. . . and miles. . . and miles. . .

Oh, yeah.

Timothy M. Gay is a 1976 graduate of Georgetown. His next book, due out in early 2010 from Simon & Schuster, is on the interracial baseball barnstorming tours of Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.