School of rock: Tripping down UVA's memory lane

When the Rolling Stones turn up their amps in Scott Stadium, their loud, live sounds will mark a significant change in tune for the University of Virginia. As any nearby resident can attest, idle chatter at an iTunes-generated beat is the usual din emanating from Rugby Road– nothing like the sonic volcano that's sure to erupt when Keith Richards strums the first chord of Thursday's show.

It's the kind of joyful noise not heard since Dave Matthews Band's homecoming show on Scott's stage in 2001, and for many in Charlottesville, memories of power chords and "one, two, three, four" don't go back any farther than that. But for those who lived in and around the hallowed Grounds in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, such a ruckus wasn't always so strange. In fact, throughout that period, some of the biggest names in music– both present and future– came to such venues as University Hall and Memorial Gym and, each time, turned Mr. Jefferson's university into the School of Rock.


Glimpses into the Future

 For decades, the college circuit was a road familiar to almost any touring rock band. And for the vast majority of those acts, the road dead-ended in anonymity. But for a select few, it was a launching pad to fame and fortune. For a lucky group of UVA students, that meant the chance to bear witness to greatness in the making.

Such was the case when a scrappy 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen rolled into Charlottesville on November 17, 1974, and the man later known as the Boss played with his E Street Band to a packed Mem Gym. Bruce had already won a respectable cult following with his first two albums and a reputation for turning concerts into near-religious experiences, so expectations among the 1,500 or so in the audience were high.

By all accounts, New Jersey's future favorite son did not disappoint. The audience reportedly was whipped into such a frenzy that it almost seemed as if, as the Cavalier Daily put it, Springsteen "performed with" the audience more than performing to them.

That led reviewer Jimmy Fama to conclude, "Sunday's concert marked another small step in a steadily climbing musical career." Fama was only half right. Nine months later, Springsteen blasted into superstardom with the release of the LP Born to Run, then landed weeks later on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously– not exactly a "steady" rise.

In addition to rising musical stars, UVA students also saw and heard well-established performers hone their craft. On October 26, 1973, Paul Simon played University Hall and was so pleased with the audience response that he used portions of the set on his live album In Concert: Live Rhymin'.

Almost a decade later, on October 12, 1983, Talking Heads put on their unusual traveling show that eventually became the landmark concert film, Stop Making Sense.

Even one future member of the Rolling Stones spent a night cutting his teeth in Charlottesville– guitarist Ron Wood rocked U-Hall on December 15, 1971 as a member of the Faces, fronted by a youthful Rod Stewart.


The End of the Line

 Just as some bands have used Charlottesville as a stepping-stone to the big time, others have come to a grinding halt after shows at UVA. Such was the case on the night of April 19, 1974 when a man who played Woodstock came to an untimely end in Charlottesville.

After twisting the night away in University Hall, Sha Na Na lead guitarist Vinny Taylor checked into his room at the Holiday Inn and allegedly shot up a large dose of heroin. He was discovered unconscious at 11:30, a mere hour after the show ended, and was pronounced dead at 12:55 on the morning of April 20.

A fourth-year at the time, University professor and political pundit Larry Sabato recalls the incident as a sobering reminder of the dangers associated with drug use. "It was a tragic lesson, but a good lesson," Sabato says. "Hard drug use was widespread at that time, a lot of people could identify."

Despite Taylor's death, Sha Na Na continued its never-ending sock-hop. However, the folk-rock super-group Manassas, led by Stephen Stills and former member of the Byrds Chris Hillman, did not survive Charlottesville. Fractured over personnel changes, band members were also steamed at having to play second fiddle to Stills' other and better-known band, Crosby, Stills and Nash. April 14, 1973 at University Hall was the final stop on an arduous tour. The Cavalier Daily derided Stills for his "sloppy guitar playing" and noted that Hillman was "carrying Stills." Apparently the observation was correct, because it was the last show Manassas ever played.

Relations between band members were considerably better when the Allman Brothers Band scheduled a date at U-Hall in 1971. At the last minute, the Georgia rockers had to cancel what was to have been a historic show September 25 with blues legend B.B. King due to a change in their court date stemming from a May heroin bust. The group rescheduled the show for December 11. But fate once again intervened– guitarist Duane Allman suffered his fatal motorcycle accident on October 29. Happily, the group finally made it to Charlottesville just one week ago, a September 29 performance at the Pavilion.

History appeared to be repeating itself in 1984 after Elvis Costello announced he'd be kicking off his world tour at University Hall. Or at least a history-making hoax.

On February 24, Dale Kutnya, a disc jockey at the University station WTJU, decided to indulge in a prank. "It's true, folks," he intoned. "Elvis Costello has died." He then proceeded to play a 90-minute marathon of Elvis Costello music.

Inquiring minds in the news department at AM news station WINA called Costello's representative, who couldn't account for his exact whereabouts. Soon, rumors of the bespectacled rock star's death swept rock circles– eventually reaching the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

WTJU general manager Chuck Taylor wasn't amused. "It wasn't that it wasn't a good prank," he says. "It was." He noted the worldwide reaction.

The hoax was revealed the next day. Soon, the only thing that students had to mourn was the basketball team's loss in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. But soon students were cheering again when Costello took the stage at U-Hall on April 10, playing a solo acoustic and piano set and salving those March Madness wounds.


Student Relations

 Just as reviews of the acts playing UVA have varied over the years, the feelings of the performers have ranged from the loving ("We'll come back here anytime you want us to," said Jimmy Buffet in 1980) to the caustic ("That was the worst crowd in a long while," Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie told the Cavalier Daily in a 1975 post-concert interview).

If band members usually kept their opinions within the confines of the tour bus, on rare occasions, the comments made their way into the show– and made for some memorable moments.

If there's one thing concerts at University Hall have proven, it's that rock stars like their personal space and don't like random students jumping on stage. The Cavalier Daily found that out when the normally easygoing Janis Joplin expressed her annoyance with some stage crashers at her December 6, 1969 U-Hall set. "That tonight wasn't natural," said Joplin.

While Joplin saved her displeasure for a backstage interview, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck had no problem making his opinion known to a sold out U-Hall when a fan bounded onto the stage at the start of the ballad "Seven Chinese Brothers."

While the rest of R.E.M. simply stopped playing on October 11, 1986 and waited for security to take care of the problem, Buck took matters into his own hands by chasing the man back into the audience. To further make his point, Buck not only punched him but also attempted to strangle him, and– go figure– pulled the man's shoes off, according to Buck's own account in the Cavalier Daily. Once Buck felt he'd gotten his shots in, he joined his band mates back onstage and continued the show as if nothing had happened.

Asked about the altercation after the concert, Buck told an interviewer, "It was great!" (In an unrelated story, Buck was not nearly as enthused when he went on trial for attacking two flight attendants on a British Airways flight in 2002.)

Historically, the rockers who liked Charlottesville didn't require the thrill of a fistfight to have a good time. In fact, no less than B.B. King had so much fun playing at UVA that he decided to stick around the Grounds following his show at Lambeth Field on April 12, 1986. He gladly hung out with students in the Colonnades, regaling them with stories from his decades on the road.

According to reports at the time, the highlight was a tale he told about a Greenwich Village jam session in the '60s with Eric Clapton and the late Jimi Hendrix. Said King to the Cavalier Daily, "If I ever see Jimi again, I'm going to ask him for a copy of that tape."

Sometimes, performers did the unthinkable and actually invited locals onstage when playing UVA. One such rare occasion happened when rock pioneer Chuck Berry played University Hall on December 8, 1972. It has long been Berry's custom not to tour with a band of his own but to hire a local band to play with him for the show. So when the guitar legend came to Charlottesville, he enlisted help from a group of Charlottesville garage rockers. Their name: Possum Delight.

In an evening of old school rock 'n' roll sprinkled with the occasional ribald remark, Berry whipped the audience into a frenzy. It's a night Larry Sabato still recalls fondly.

"It was hot as hell in there, but it was a lot of fun," says Sabato. "Berry jumped all over the place– his energy level was really high. I can remember people screaming for him, and he kept coming out and was happy to comply."


Full House, Empty Pockets

 In the days before the University Programs Council, it fell to a small group of students known as PK German to bring the big name rock acts to town. Considering the group's limited budget, the poor acoustics of U-Hall and Mem Gym, and concert-friendly William & Mary Hall not far away and near Tidewater population centers, Charlottesville could be a tough sell, even for plucky young promoters. And even when PK German succeeded in luring major talent to play UVA, according to press reports of the time, profits were unusual.

Rock bottom came when the band America rode their horse with no name into town and left PK German a bank account with no money. Due to thin attendance numbers, the desert folk act's October 18, 1979 U-Hall concert racked up a loss of $14,000.

But even when droves turned out for big name acts, the high cost of booking the band and putting on the show often offset the ticket revenue. That's what happened with the Grateful Dead's much-hyped September 14, 1982 concert. While University Hall sold out two weeks in advance, PK German still lost money.

Eventually, the financial woes became too much for the student organization, and by the early 1990s, it merged with the University Union.


Rock and Roll All Night

 Even if the numbers didn't always add up, these marquee concerts were the heart of the University's social calendar and almost always succeeded in providing a fun evening for students.

According to Sabato, the concert was only part of what a big weekend at UVA meant. "It was the obligatory preface to a long night of partying," he says. "It was just a mass of humanity, and you went so you could say you went, and you wanted to please your date and so on, and then you got down to business."

Of course, "business" usually included the consumption of large quantities of alcohol. While that remains true today, odds are a UVA concert today could never match the debauchery of concerts when the legal drinking age in Virginia was 18.

In those days, there was almost never a crackdown on the drinking scene, and Sabato recalls it was even welcomed by school officials who seemed unfazed by a dozen tapped kegs in Mad Bowl.

"The University was more than happy to have alcohol on Grounds," says Sabato, "because they thought that meant you weren't smoking dope."

Leafy party aids or no, music was still only part of the fun at concerts thanks not only to the free-flowing booze but also to the notoriously muddy sound quality of UVA's two biggest venues at the time ("They could have been up there singing the alphabet song for all we knew," says Sabato.)

Now as the UVA rock concert makes its return at the less acoustically challenged Scott Stadium, expectations are that it will be an unparalleled experience, besting any musical event Charlottesville has ever seen. But in spite of all the poor sound quality, the occasionally surly performer, and even the rare death hoax, most recall the U-Hall and Mem Gym shows of old as "a good time had by all" in Sabato's words. Even for the World's Greatest Band, that's a hard act to follow.


Janis Joplin, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, REM, and Elvis Costello are just a few of the big-name acts that have played University Hall.


The reports of Elvis Costello's death were greatly exaggerated before his April 10, 1984 performance at UHall.


Professor of Rock: WTJU general manager Chuck Taylor has seen it all– from the Elvis Costello death hoax to Dylan and (now) the Stones.


Did you know? On November 17, 1974, months before he became a mega-star with the release of
Born to Run,  Bruce Springsteen whipped 1500 fans at Memorial Gym into a frenzy.


Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat played in 1975


Kind Sunny Ade on September 9, 1983


Richard Butler of the Psychadelic Furs on November 4, 1984

Read more on: Bruce Springsteen