Remembering the tragic Who concert of 1979

Jeff Miller of Springfield poses in the basement of his home which is decorated with record albums. Miller recalls the events of Dec. 3, 1979, when eleven people were trampled to death at a The Who concert in Cincinnati, a concert which he attended.
Caption
Jeff Miller of Springfield poses in the basement of his home which is decorated with record albums. Miller recalls the events of Dec. 3, 1979, when eleven people were trampled to death at a The Who concert in Cincinnati, a concert which he attended.

Credit: Barbara J. Perenic

Credit: Barbara J. Perenic

Springfielder Jeff Miller attended the infamous Cincinnati concert 40 years ago

The passage of time has only allowed cynicism to creep in — why in their right minds would 6,000 people trample each other like bulls in Pamplona to see The Who without Keith Moon?

But in all seriousness, unless the Hell’s Angels are working security, does anybody expect to die at a rock concert?

In the United States of America?

The fact that not one or two, not five or six, but 11 did, is no less unbelievable today than it was 40 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1979, when a human tsunami crashed against Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, a desperate surge to get in and as close to The Who and their new drummer, Kenney Jones, as possible.

MORE: The Who plans 1st Cincinnati area concert since ’79 tragedy

Three decades later, it remains a well-known chapter in rock history — a tragedy in this part of Ohio, a gruesome piece of trivia everywhere else.

“Someone said, ‘Man, I think I saw someone dead out there,’ ” recalled Jeff Miller, a longtime Springfield resident who was attending his first of 10 Who concerts that cold Monday night as a high school senior from Piqua. “I said, ‘Must’ve been bad drugs.’ That’s what I was thinking. It never occurred to me that something like that could even happen.”

When the tide receded, most of the 6,000 people vying for general admission seats had been swept safely inside and were being treated to, at least for Miller, the best show they’d ever seen, before or since.

Jeff Miller of Springfield poses in the basement of his home which is decorated with record albums. Miller recalls the events of Dec. 3, 1979, when eleven people were trampled to death at a The Who concert in Cincinnati, a concert which he attended.
Caption
Jeff Miller of Springfield poses in the basement of his home which is decorated with record albums. Miller recalls the events of Dec. 3, 1979, when eleven people were trampled to death at a The Who concert in Cincinnati, a concert which he attended.

Credit: Barbara J. Perenic

Credit: Barbara J. Perenic

“The show was outstanding,” he said. “Entwistle was magnificent. Roger was in his prime. Microphone was really whipping. It was action packed. Pure, simple rock ’n’ roll. No warm-up band. No intermission.”

But unbeknownst to most, 11 people never got to see The Who that night.

Seven men, four women.

The oldest was 24. The youngest, 15.

They died before they got old.

MORE: Who’s Pete Townshend regrets not staying to mourn after deadly 1979 stampede

It was the night that, if you can forgive another song reference, Riverfront Coliseum became a teenage wasteland, the place from which the words “festival seating” echoed across the country for years as a synonym for evil, a parental nightmare for a generation to come.

If the drugs and the backward messages didn’t get your sons and daughters, the crowd will.

“One of the news reports said, ‘Inside they’re singing ‘The Kids Are Alright,’ but outside, the kids are not all right,” Miller said. “That just sticks in my head.”

The AP story that cried out from Page 1 of the Springfield Daily News on Dec. 4, 1979, was quick to note that, “Many had been drinking and smoking marijuana.”

At age 46, Miller was privileged to have kids of his own and see them off to college.

“It’s just fate,” he said.

The operations director of the Second Harvest Foodbank was allowed to go bald.

And, 40 years after the fact, he was given the right to look back on this historic tragedy and remain dumbfounded.

“I never fully understood how,” he explained. “I would think that, if I fell, I would get back up. No way did I think you couldn’t.”

A year after losing the seemingly irreplaceable Moon to an overdose, The Who in 1979 was as big as it’d ever been — the concert film “The Kids Are Alright,” released in June of that year, only cemented the band’s reputation as the greatest live act to ever roam the Earth.

On Dec. 3, 1979, more than 18,000 people were on hand to welcome version 2.0 of The Who to Cincinnati, with about 6,000 seats set aside as general admission.

In other words, first in gets the best spot to stand.

Miller and a buddy, affectionately nicknamed Fart, had told their school they were going to spend the day seeing where they could further their education, UC or Miami.

“But really,” Miller said, “we weren’t going to either one. We were going to the concert.”

They arrived at 3:30 in the afternoon for the 8 p.m. show.

“We were there to beat the crowd,” he said.

They soon were engulfed by people.

“As it got dark, it was getting colder,” Miller remembered. “I had a hooded sweatshirt, but it was so hot, I was just dripping with sweat.”

The Who's Roger Daltrey (left) and Pete Townshend circa 1979.
Caption
The Who's Roger Daltrey (left) and Pete Townshend circa 1979.

The crowd would shift. They’d shift with it.

“There wasn’t any stopping it,” Miller said. “It was going.”

Within an hour of arriving, the friends were separated and wouldn’t see each other until after the show.

“You couldn’t look down,” Miller said. “You couldn’t see what was below you.”

A few years earlier, in December 1975, South Vienna resident Charlie Miller (no relation) had seen The Who at Riverfront on the “Who By Numbers” tour. It, too, was a general admission show and he can vouch for the raw power of a crowd.

He also arrived early to that show to get as close to the stage as possible.

“I’m 6-foot-2 and about 190,” he recalled, “and the pressure of the crowd was so strong, so forceful, I lifted my feet off the ground and did not slip one bit. An amazing feeling.”

Charlie Miller still isn’t sure how people in 1979 fell.

“You were absolutely shoulder-to-shoulder, stomach-to-stomach,” he said.

But fall they did.

“I was excited. I was pumped,” Jeff Miller said. “When the doors opened, there was a huge surge. That’s when people fell.”

The dead, according to the initial AP story, all had “footprint-like injuries.”

“I just kept seeing shoes on the ground,” Jeff Miller said. “And there were all kinds of shoes.”

Fearing a bigger mess if the concert was canceled, the band wasn’t told about the carnage outside until after the show.

When he finally learned the ugly truth himself, Jeff Miller swore he’d never return to Riverfront Coliseum, which today is known as U.S. Bank Arena.

“I wasn’t afraid,” he said. “I was resentful. If they had opened doors, people would’ve been able to go in. Right there, that’s what caused it.”

Citing a lack of personnel, only two of 50 doors had been opened for the crowd of thousands.

“Someone,” he said, “was saving money.”

Jeff Miller would see The Who plenty of times again — most recently in 2006, when his ticket cost $97.

But in his collection of tickets, the $10 one from Dec. 3, 1979, remains the only one that’s still perfectly intact.

It was never torn.

“I was pushed through the turnstile,” he said. “I had one leg on each side. They couldn’t even take my ticket.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0352 or amcginn@coxohio.com.

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