The Who’s Cincinnati Concert Tragedy: Band Returns After 43 Years

On the day Lisa Grippa turned 16, The Who came to town. When she headed to Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum on Dec. 3, 1979, with her ticket in hand — a birthday gift from a friend — she had no idea 11 of her fellow concertgoers, some as young as 15, were about to die. And she obviously had no way of knowing, either, that Gerry Craven, a young roofer and part-time rugby player from Reading, Ohio, would save her life that night — all before the Who played a single note.

This is a story that Gerry — known to all of us in the sprawling Queen City extended family I married into simply as “Uncle Gerry” — has told many times over the decades. It’s a story that Lisa has told, and retold, ever since that infamous night. And as if to pile on the layers of Cincinnati family lore — that my wife, Elizabeth, has heard “a bunch of times” over the years — my then-future father-in-law, Keith Brown, was also at the show. Indeed, the experience and the aftermath of the evening almost entirely turned him off the very notion of attending large, stadium-style rock concerts again.

It would take nearly 43 years for Keith to attend another show of that size — Sunday, May 15, 2022, the day the Who finally came back to town to pay tribute to the dead and celebrate the survivors. “You don’t expect to fight for your life at a Who concert,” Uncle Gerry tells Rolling Stone over a couple of beers on a quiet afternoon early this month. “It was kind of like hell. … There was nothing we could do to get out of it.”

The hell-on-earth at the Coliseum has been meticulously documented in books, documentaries, and magazines, including in the pages of the one you’re reading right now. Not nearly enough venue doors were open, and attendees mistakenly believed the band was starting early when, according to the Who’s manager, the arena speakers blasted the film trailer for Quadrophenia, leading to a brutal onrush of fans. Nearly a dozen people lost their lives in the stampede and frenzy to get inside the venue, and dozens more were injured. In an era long predating social media and cellphones, the Who soon hit the stage without knowing what had happened. Many of the attendees — my wife’s two family members included — didn’t find out until they arrived home from the concert, greeted by a loved one who was relieved to see that they weren’t one of the casualties described on the TV news. 

“When I heard they were coming to town [in 1979], I said, ‘I’m gonna be first in line!’” Gerry says, recalling how thrilled he was that one of his favorite rock bands was swinging through Cincinnati. “We went there at two o’clock in the afternoon. We were ready to go!”

But in just a few short hours, Gerry found himself packed elbow to elbow with throngs of other attendees, standing outside in the cold “about 25 feet from the front door” of the Coliseum. This is when Gerry and his friends noticed something was starting to go “haywire.”

“All of a sudden, 10 or 15 of us fell to the ground, and people were falling on top of us. It was just ridiculous,” Uncle Gerry recounts. “Everyone was trying to force the crowd back, and help everybody up. … Ten minutes later, it happened again. They hadn’t opened the doors yet, and we kept getting compressed; it wasn’t even dark yet. … But soon, there wasn’t any room to fall.” 

At this point, Gerry and his pals were “still having a good time” because nobody there could see the horrifying enormity of what was transpiring. Soon enough, Gerry noticed Lisa — the petite, 16-year-old sister of one of his good friends — standing nearby. 

“Stay with me,” Gerry repeated to her.

As the havoc ebbed and flowed around them and the sun set on Cincinnati, Gerry spent what he believed to be the next hour and a half protecting his friend’s little sister. He started off by looping his arms around Lisa, holding strangers back, just so that she could breathe. Still, the two of them continued getting knocked to the ground together, and as much as he tried to keep the crowd at literal arm’s length, Lisa kept desperately telling Gerry, “I can’t breathe.”

At that moment, Gerry did the only thing he could do. He raised Lisa above the crush, and rested her on his shoulders, until she would say, “I’m OK, I can breathe.”

“We were just counting the minutes, waiting for that door to open up,” Gerry adds.

FILE - A security guard and an unidentified man look at an area with shows and clothes strewn around where several people were killed and others injured, as they were caught in a surging crowd entering Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum for a Who concert on Dec. 3, 1979. The crowd deaths at a Houston music festival on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, have added to the long list of people who have been crushed at a major event. Such tragedies have been occurring around the world for a long time at concerts, sports events and religious gatherings. (AP Photo/Brian Horton, File)

The aftermath of the tragedy on Dec. 3, 1979

Brian Horton/AP

In recent years, I had heard this story from Gerry and Keith several times. It was a dramatic piece of my wife’s family history, and not the kind of thing I’d normally have any reason to independently fact-check. But the week before the 2022 concert, I contacted Lisa Grippa, nowadays Lisa Rigney, who specializes in special education at Kings Junior High School.

“I’ll never forget that birthday,” she tells me over the phone. “He saved my life — without a doubt. I tell people all the time, ‘He saved my life. I’m only four feet nine!’ I would have been trampled. I would have died, I think. I can’t even stand in crowds now like that.”

The moment is still fresh in her mind after all of these years. “Back then, [Gerry] was growing a beard, and we were so close it was scratching my face,” she says. “The whole thing was just so intense. As we were getting pushed, we were stepping on beer cans, coolers, people’s blankets, and then at one point … one of our friends, he fell. And he was a big guy. We had to lock arms to get him up. He would have died if we hadn’t helped him up. And then soon after that, I lost them, and it was just me and Gerry.”

It wasn’t too long until a small huddle of strangers saw what Gerry — sweating profusely, his arms shaking from exhaustion — was doing, and helped push the crowd back for a brief moment, so Gerry could rest. “Then she said she couldn’t breathe again,” Uncle Gerry says. “And back up she went.”

Eventually, Gerry, Lisa, and the rest managed to push into the concert venue, stepping over debris and abandoned belongings. “I saw a young man on a stretcher getting pushed across that entrance way. He was blue in the face. … But it never crossed my mind at that time that so many people could have died that night. … We didn’t know that anything had happened until we got in our car on the way home and heard something on the radio.”

But as the concert neared its conclusion, Gerry recalls, something else unusual occurred. When the Who came out for an encore, the band played only two songs. When they left the stage, Gerry was sure they’d come back, only to realize that the house lights were on and it was time to leave. “I thought, ‘Man, what a rip-off!’” he says.

The reason the Who performed an abridged encore was because Bill Curbishley, their longtime manager, told them backstage they had a “big problem,” and that they should only run back out there to perform “two quick numbers” for the mostly oblivious audience. “For me, going back [to Cincinnati this week] is a healing process,” Curbishley tells Rolling Stone

After the 1979 show finally got underway, Curbishley recalls, he caught a glimpse of the night’s carnage. “The band didn’t see it. I saw it when I went up on the plaza level, with the medics, so I saw just how catastrophic it was,” Curbishley says. “There were so many people there unconscious, and on the floor, and injured. I knew straight away that there’d be people dead. It was almost like a bomb had exploded.”

Curbishley had never seen destruction at that scale. “I was 37 at the time,” he says. “First thing I saw was this medic pumping this young girl, trying to get her back to consciousness, and I thought, ‘Fuck, what has happened here?’ … To see these young people and the desperation that was running through the whole place, it was a bad sight. It’s a thing that will always be with me.”

For Keith, an electrician who runs Haskamp Electric, the 1979 tragedy changed his life as well, even though his experience of the night was “100 percent different.” Like so many others at that show, he didn’t know anything had happened until he got home, where his wife, Diane, was up late waiting. She had already heard the news and was worried sick, and so grateful he made it back. The two had barely been married three months at the time. Keith knew a guy working security at the arena, so he was able to duck into the Coliseum on the other end of the venue via a “basement entrance.” To this day, he doesn’t actually know if the ticket he got for the show was, shall we say, “legitimate.”  (“Probably not,” he says.)

“I didn’t even hear anything [while at the show],” Keith recalls. “Gerry fought the crowd. I didn’t do any of that.” Still, what happened in Cincinnati on Dec. 3, 1979, deeply affected Keith. “I don’t know if I’ve been to an all-out huge concert since then,” he says, in the weeks ahead of this past Sunday’s concert. “It turned me off going to anything like that.” But on a more profound level, Keith says, the night made him reconsider his own life and behavior.

Keith adds, “When I thought about it the next day … and when the news really came out and it was on every station … my biggest thought was that if I had gone through the front door I could have trampled somebody. I was inebriated. I could have easily walked on somebody accidentally … I’m 68, and I was 25 then, and that’s the last time I smoked pot. I swore it off then, because I didn’t have a clue what was going on during the concert because I was in that state … The next day, the concert made me rethink things about myself, and — this kinda sounds stupid but — made me appreciate being alive and not take things for granted.”

As the years passed, each of the three Ohioans remained close, at least geographically. In the early 1980s, Keith and Gerry became brothers-in-law. Gerry has seen Lisa in social settings, “maybe less than a dozen times,” since that night, he estimates.

In the decades since the Who’s disaster show, there have been other high-profile deadly concerts, including last year’s Astroworld Festival, where 10 people were killed. (Lisa tells Rolling Stone that she had even once been interviewed by local news to comment on the Astroworld tragedy, given her perspective as a concert survivor.) “You think to yourself, ‘What was really learned from it?’ — and it appears very little,” Curbishley says, reflecting on how fatal events such as the Who’s or Astroworld keep happening. “It makes me question how easily we accept things today if we’re distanced from it. What I mean by that is, you look at what’s happening in Ukraine today; women and children being torn apart by bombs and it’s absolutely fucking horrific. But since we have distance from it … we don’t really realize the enormity of it.” (During Sunday’s concert, a photo of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was displayed on the large screens as the group performed its 1972 single “Join Together.”)

And for nearly 43 years, the Who didn’t return to Cincinnati to play a full, live show. “We never really discussed going back [until recent years],” says Curbishley. “I think we all accepted in the back of our minds that this was something we couldn’t do.” But that all changed on Sunday, when the band finally returned to the city, this time performing at TQL Stadium. And after all those decades — with the feelings of terror of the night still singed into their memories — Lisa, Keith, and Gerry all maintained their Who fandom. All three of them attended the show on Sunday, eager to write a final, more hopeful chapter of a story that began so horrifically more than 40 years ago.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was traumatized by the whole event,” Uncle Gerry says early this month. “I didn’t enjoy the [1979] show. The show was not paramount to what had just happened. But I’m really looking forward to this [year’s] show — in the same way I was looking forward to that show in the Seventies.”

the who cincinatti asawin suebsaeng

Keith Brown (left) and Gerry Craven before Cincinnati’s first Who concert in 43 years

Asawin Suebsaeng

On Sunday, I went with Keith and Gerry to go check out the show. (As a massive Who fan, ever since I was a kid, the first time I’d ever read or heard about the 1979 concert was while flipping through the then-newly released Guinness World Recordsmillennium edition.”) We didn’t get to see Lisa that evening, but she texted us that she was indeed there and that she “loved it.” It was, she added, “such an emotional show but am so glad I went. The tribute to the people who lost their lives was beautiful. That could have been me or any of us that were there.”

The concert, a uniquely personal stop for the legendary band, on its ​​the Who Hits Back! Tour, was full of tributes to the young lives lost: Karen Morrison, Jackie Eckerle, Walter Adams Jr., Stephan Preston, David Heck, James Warmoth, Connie Sue Burns, Teva Rae Ladd, Bryan Wagner, Peter Bowes, and Philip Snyder, whose names and photos were frequently displayed on big screens throughout the venue. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey repeatedly brought on local orchestral musicians and a youth choir to perform alongside them, and promoted the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund, which was created to fund scholarships in honor of several of the 1979 concert’s victims. (It was previously announced that proceeds from the 2022 gig would go toward 11 college scholarships, each one as a tribute to those lost.)

“You know, I’ve been trying to think of what to say, what would be cool to say, what would be uncool to say,” Townshend told the crowd, “and really there’s no words that we can say that can mean the fact that you guys have come out tonight and supported this event. Thank you so much.” After rapturous applause, he joked: “You probably know that we’re not being paid for this, so — I’m not gonna work very hard.”

For the two-hour-plus set, Keith and Gerry had a carefree blast, throwing back drinks, singing along to classics, cracking jokes, and bumping into old friends at the stadium. For them, and I’m sure numerous other locals in attendance, it was a fitting and compassionate bookend to a dreadful episode in music history of which they were intimately, sadly, familiar. “I really did enjoy it tonight. I was stunned that night. And tonight it was just fun,” Uncle Gerry says. He has one criticism of Sunday’s set list, however: “There was no encore,” he says with a smirk.

Keith has two minor critiques of Sunday’s show, which he otherwise dubs “great.” He wishes they had played some classic hits that they didn’t, though we both acknowledge that it was a good idea to leave off “My Generation” (“I hope I die before I get old.”). He also says, as we walk out onto the streets and sidewalks bordering the stadium, that “they should’ve come back sooner — but I’m glad they did now.”

In fact, the idea that the Who should not have waited almost half a century to play Cincinnati again is an idea, and a regret, that has been shared by Townshend on multiple occasions. The Who were supposed to make their triumphant return to the Queen City a bit earlier — for a stop previously scheduled for April 2020, and one that was obviously shelved due to the then-new coronavirus pandemic that was throttling the world’s populations and economies.

“In a strange way, I suppose it parallels, doesn’t it? That the pandemic is not selective in the way it indiscriminately kills people,” Curbishley says. “It’s a parallel of sorts, in that when you go to a joyful concentration of young people, you’re never, ever expecting you’re not going to make it home. That’s what I meant by us, in a sense, being immune to it, and that’s what’s happening in society as we move on.”

And that is why, the Who’s manager tells Rolling Stone just days before the Sunday event, “coming back now is a very important thing for us and the families. … It’s going to be a joyous celebration. … It’s a returning to, I guess, a second family that we’ve become part of. … It’s our memorial service to those that passed. And on that night, we will all be one. And hopefully after that, we’d have signed and sealed it, and the whole thing will be in its proper place. It’s in the palms of the audience and the band. And then, we’d have laid it to rest.”

What Curbishley and the band were clearly seeking this week in Ohio was a collective form of closure — or some semblance of it — after so many years, and so many headlines and remembrances. It appears they got their wish, at least from a number of the families and survivors in attendance this time around.

After the three of us arrive back at Keith and Diane’s home, a roughly 20-minute drive from TQL Stadium, I ask my father-in-law if he has any final thoughts, about our evening or about that infamous day in hometown history. It is after midnight, and we’ve had maybe one or two too many beers for a Sunday night. Still, his closing musings are largely appreciative, noting that “tonight was a complete 180” for him, as compared with 1979. Instead of arriving home to a wife who is up late and “worried for his life,” Diane is sound asleep in their bedroom. But most of all, Keith is just quietly joyful and relieved for the Cincinnati community he’s known and loved all his life.

“I hate it when people talk about ‘closure,’” Keith says. “But it really did feel like it tonight.”

“Hopefully,” he adds, the shared trauma of it all “can now fade away.”

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