Sunday, July 12, 2009

Disco Demolition Night - My Story

I was seven years old, and I was there.
It was a rare moment when rock met sports, and ultimately, rock history met sports history. The result was an explosion, in every way. It was Disco Demolition Night, a notorious event that took place on July 12, 1979.

Growing up on the far northwest side of the Chicago, my dad groomed me to be a follower of the Cubs. During baseball season, it was as if no other team existed. One innocent day I noticed my brother watching a baseball game on local channel 44, WSNS, with a notoriously boisterous drinker named Harry Caray spitting occasionally accurate commentary while hideously attired players struggled through yet another defeat. It was 1977, and as a curious five year-old, I had to ask about this mysterious team.

"There's another Chicago baseball team?" I asked innocently.
My brother muttered without averting his eyes, "Yes, you moron, the Sox. They suck. Dad doesn't watch them. I just watch the games because they're funny."

Gradually, I began watching more White Sox games with my brother, as the games broadcast from this mysterious Comiskey Park were full of low budget hi jinks and boisterous atmosphere. The fans were silly and rowdy, the broadcaster seemed drunk, and the occasional promotions to draw fans to the half-empty park were often hilarious. This baseball circus was more fascinating than the team itself, and I fervently desired to make the pilgrimage to this distant venue. It took me until the spring of 1979 to charge up the courage to ask my dad if we could attend a White Sox game. His defense was immediate.

"Why don't we just go to a Cubs game? We'll go there, and have a good time."

I was not a spoiled brat, though this time, I could not relent.

"But, but, but, I just want to see what it's like to see the White Sox. We've already been to Cubs games..."

I was rather mature for a seven year-old, and my dad, protesting mildly, agreed to find a game on the dreaded White Sox schedule that might coincide with a patch of vacation time, and we would go. He studied the schedule, searching for a date that would offer the least amount of aggravation, in terms of attendance and traffic. He eyed an innocuous game in July, falling on a Thursday night, hosting the Detroit Tigers. Nobody would be there! The Tigers would likely destroy the White Sox, and it wasn't as if the Sox were contenders to begin with. By late April of 1979, the tickets were ordered - three tickets - one for me, one for my dad, and one for my 19 year-old brother, who had a passing interest in attending the game as well. They were for a newly planned twi-night double header, one of which was to be rescheduled from a May 2nd game that had been rained out. We were eventually told that our seats would be honored for both games, and for the price, we figured luck was on our side; an uneventful Thursday game had now become a double header. Better yet, they were great seats, only a few rows behind home plate, along the third base line, somewhat aligned with the on-deck circle. I was already feeling guilty about the effort it would require for my dad to drive us all the way down to the south side from our remote, northwest side residence. The upcoming game, posted quietly on our kitchen calendar, was to be nothing more than a voyage to an empty, disinterested ball park. So it was thought.

By the second week of July, the date was only a couple days away, and being a sheltered child, I was unaware that anything was happening in Chicago radio that was to become the Disco Demolition Night promotion. Clearly, my dad was blissfully ignorant of the promotional momentum forming on the Loop, WLUP - FM 98. Steve Dahl announced that anyone entering the park with a disco record could attend for the meager price of 98 cents. Suspiciously, my brother suddenly had other plans, and I unknowingly thought little of it. He knew what was brewing, and I didn't have any idea that the promotion was to coincide with our supposedly routine trip to Comiskey for a supposedly uneventful pair of games. My dad found a friend and co-worker, Al, to use the ticket vacated by my brother, and all the tickets were used - the game was on! Al would meet us near the park, and we were ready to hit the expressway around 5pm, planning to show up during the early innings of the first game.

My dad and I hit the Kennedy expressway in his new 1979 Plymouth Horizon at around 5 o'clock, meeting a stagnant melee of automotive revelry. With many miles yet to travel, we abruptly tuned to an A.M. radio station and heard the dreaded news - traffic was mired, and everyone - everyone - was headed toward Comiskey Park. It was a paved party of teenagers, with long hair and black shirts, all sitting in their antiquated, oversized cars, stuffed to the edges with humanity itself, while Led Zeppelin songs burst forth from their car stereos. I never smelled marijuana before, and the pungent smell struck me profoundly as we edged slowly down the overcrowded road. Everyone had their car windows rolled down, and records were propped along the rubber edges that lined the tops of the car doors. With the smell of weed emanating from each neighboring car, boisterous drivers pulled aside of us, acknowledging my presence, yelling "Hey! Little rocker dude! Disco sucks!" EVERYONE in this motionless ribbon of vehicular bedlam was headed toward the Mecca that would be Comiskey Park, and I became a noticeable novelty, being a little kid amongst the young adults in adjacent, smokey vehicles.

"Hey kid! You heading there? You rock!" one driver said, noticing my increasingly sheepish demeanor. Conversations occurred repeatedly amongst the cars in this hazy traffic jam, and the party had already started, regardless of the destination. My dad, God bless him, realized the dreadful predicament by now. Instead of turning back and heading home, he stared dutifully forward, edging the car along its troubled path. He, being from the early 1950s generation, could not relate to the youngsters and the reasons for the celebratory nature that now surrounded him, his son, and his vehicle. He was not familiar with modern rock and its culture, let alone the disco rebellion it was inciting. It was like seeing Abraham Lincoln at Woodstock - a mixture of anachronistic ideals. Now apprised that he was heading to a celebration, rather than a game, my dad had to ask.

"Now who the hell is this disco person? What are they blowing up?"

I proffered a quick briefing, as eloquently as a seven year-old could.

"It's this dance thing. With stupid music and dance stuff. They look stupid when they dance that way. I think they want to blow up records."

Fair enough. Even dad, grappling with his growling car in a continuous game of stop and go stress, decided that the explanation would suffice. After a laborious two hours of edging along the Kennedy Expressway, we found our way to a neighborhood, albeit depressed, to consider finding parking for the car. In these days, parking was not as cut and dried as they are with current, modern stadiums, and often, bargaining with a neighborhood local for a parking place along a residential street was necessary. My dad recalls:

"We found a spot that was near an alley, but it wasn't totally a legal spot. Some guy came out who either worked or lived there, and he offered to put a cone behind the car for a few bucks."

Our spot was near 35th street and Ashland, and we walked dutifully east for the ten block hike along 35th. I remember crossing Iron Street, in a scary, industrial area, long forgotten due to present days of economic regress. I wondered if we'd ever get to the park, as the walk was tiring me out, though we were still a mile from our destination. Vagrants and other disturbing individuals eyed us nefariously, while my dad walked ardently ahead of me, ready to protect me from anyone of ill intent. After an agonizing walk along ancient, broken pavement, the lights, sounds, and humanity of Comiskey came into our perception. Much of 35th street was now blocked by police presence, and by this time, the first game was still in progress, but nearly over. We hustled past all of the ticketless fans, presumably locked out of the newly sold out event. Cops loomed about the entrance at 35th street, and repeatedly we had to produce our tickets to prove that we were legitimate attendees, trying to simply watch some baseball. Little did we know that countless hordes of gate crashers were rushing the entrances, physically bursting past weak and elderly ushers, gaining unauthorized access to the park that had been sold out for hours. Too many people had showed up for the promotion, and despite their 98 cents and disco records, they were denied entrance. We, on the other hand, had our reserved box seats, and appeared to be an anomaly to the dismissive, defensive cops and stadium officials, bitterly expecting more latent pilgrims.

Finally, into the crumbling, rumbling stadium we went. Its very structure vibrated with stomping, cheering, and chanting. We coursed along its promenade, and amongst the stoned, meandering fans, we finally emerged into the seating area. Noticing the score board, we noticed how late we really were. It was the bottom of the 8th inning, and the White Sox were losing another lifeless game by the score of 4-1. While attempting to find our seats, my dad's friend noticed us and waved us over. Both 45 and 33 rpm records were being hurled above our heads, as we found the seats, thanks to Al's signal. Records continued to float, like Frisbees, over our heads, ultimately hitting the protective net that backed the home plate area. We were at a very choice location, near the field, but the sonic insanity resonated from all areas above, behind, and beyond us. Chants of "Disco Sucks!" obliterated the attention toward the obviously nugatory efforts of the White Sox on the field. My dad's friend Al slid over to allow us to sit, if only for a moment. Al's seat was now directly behind a vertical support beam, affording him little view of the game. I did my best to pay attention to the game on the field, as the top of the ninth approached, and Sox pitcher Ed Farmer took the mound. The 9th inning moved along with haste, while the entire crowd seemed anxious to see the game end. The "Disco Sucks" chant continued, and records continued to fly, in Frisbee style, above my head, with intentions of them being included in the upcoming demolition. My dad's attention was constantly turned away from the field, his eyes scanning the seats beyond, with the intention of shielding me from incoming flying discs. His concerns for my safety were paramount, and as such, he never did see a single pitch on the field during the inning and a half of baseball for which we were actually present. He knew his friend Al, a tough guy in every way, could handle himself, but I was his seven year-old son, in a riotous atmosphere, and he ensured my safety at every moment. The records continued to be flung, the chants continued to be chanted. An impossibly loud, constant ocean of cheering flooded the stadium at ridiculous volume. One out. The crowd grew louder. Two outs. I covered my ears to protect myself from the high decibel hysteria. Anybody walking into this scene would have confused the environment for the final game of an imminent World Series win. Quickly, almost mercifully, the White Sox grounded themselves out of any type of comeback in the bottom of the ninth, and the first game of this dubious double-header was over. Nobody minded that the White Sox lost, and everyone around me was rabid for the disco record explosions to come.

The field was cleared, and the deafening roar grew in intensity. Steadily, Steve Dahl and members of his crew drove onto the field in golf carts, waving his arms in acknowledgement of the maniacal masses. Attendants set up a large wooden crate just beyond second base. Dahl screamed into a hastily connected microphone, bringing more fervor to the already tenuous situation. Soon, Bill Veeck himself joined in with the "Disco Sucks!" chant, leading the masses to a frenzy. As the chant continued, after several nervous moments, it happened. The invocation for 1979 anarchy was on, like a starter's pistol signalling the beginning of a race.


The crate exploded with a sound and insanity unexpected by all in attendance. While the public address system was hardly loud enough to be heard over the din, the thunderous explosion was felt throughout our area, and I shuddered from the shock to my already damaged ears. Dahl began a hasty retreat while the chant grew, and after the massive explosion in the middle of the field, the crazed throng began to leak onto the field. Fireworks, presumably from the hands of fans, were heard blasting off in the upper deck areas. More drunk teenagers stumbled over the walls, and like water over a dam, the leak became a flood. Soon, with the chant still echoing throughout the packed stadium, everyone began dancing around on the field. Some revellers picked up fragments of the newly destroyed records and flung them with wanton disregard. After only a couple minutes, it seemed like everyone was walking on the playing field, and with several thousand people out there, most were free to do what they pleased. Some grabbed infield dirt, a couple other picked up the bases. I saw a father and pigtailed daughter simply walking along the infield, as if it were a leisurely tour, sponsored by the team itself. Mock fights broke out, then real fights broke out. After a few confusing moments, the crowd unified in booing as cops took on the masses, complete with riot gear, reminiscent of the 1968 Democratic Convention.

My dad vehemently "recommended" that we leave immediately and give up on seeing the second game of the double-header, which was still planned to take place once the revelry cleared. The sight of police, a fire in the right field stands, and alcoholic peril convinced me, and we were soon sprinting down the aisle toward the stadium's exit. Al, despite a pronounced limp, hobbled along with us, having given up on the future of the evening. He also was hoping for a ride home. Al was born with one leg shorter than the other, and grew up in a nearby tough area of the south side. To accommodate his short leg, he developed his upper body, and was a very strong fighter, one who you'd want on your side in any moments of danger. That said, my dad was more than happy for him to escort us for the never-ending walk back to the car, with the promise that he would give Al a ride home. Sorting through the chaos, I realized how dangerous the environment was becoming. I happily ensconced myself between my dad, a former M.P., and Al, a man that could fight off a nuclear missile with his fists. Any cops that hadn't already been assigned to riot control were lingering nervously along 35th street, ready to beat the heads of anyone who chose to defy orders. Seeing myself, a little boy, and my rugged protectors, they let us pass, and we set out for the distant car, parked a mile away, hopefully safe, with a single orange cone designating its legality.

After countless inquiries from the desperate homeless, we eventually found our way to the car. The cone was still there, and so was the vehicle, so with rugged determination, we stuffed ourselves into the little hatchback and evacuated from the war zone. Our early departure, long before the second game was declared cancelled, afforded us the opportunity to drive away from the chaos of the area, and avoid the hideous traffic which greeted us only hours before. It couldn't have even been 10pm by the time we dropped off our limpy friend and found ourselves on a mercifully clear expressway toward home.

Once safely home, the local channels were already broadcasting the breaking news of the riot at Comiskey. We walked into the family room, with news coverage already blaring, and my mother's arms were crossed with silent disgruntlement. With head shaking, she gestured her thoughts and reminded me that I needed to go to bed, since I had summer day camp early the next morning. She barely spoke to my dad, and to this day, I'm not sure how long it took before her anger wore off. It was a family outing gone horribly wrong, and it was an innocent kid being pulled into a world of 1979 rock and roll insanity. In retrospect, I am glad I was there, as it was a moment forever preserved in baseball and music history. Rarely, if ever, have those two legions crossed paths, and I was a first hand witness to its notorious effects. I had always thought I was born too late, wanting to have gone to Woodstock in 1969 and to have seen a Led Zeppelin concert during the 1970s. This was as close as I ever got to being a part of 1970s rock history, something which I admire and study adamantly. Most of the most interesting stories about Woodstock attendees involve how they got there, and with my experiences, that holds true. It was the journey, not the destination. Though I didn't realize the era and its importance in our musical and cultural history at the time, I was "there" for something that forever lingered in my mind and perhaps, just perhaps, formed my ideologies for the future.


BubblePopper said...

Hilarious Mike. I ended up at that game too. Our baseball coach mentioned he was going, me(12) and my 10 year old brother tagged along. First smell of marijuana for me too. My mom being an uptight and protective mother must not have had the news on that day because she still let us go on little outings with the coach after that fateful night.

Jack White said...

Did the stoners in the cars turn you on to Zep?

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Anonymous said...

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