Throughout the weekend, Kent State University will commemorate the 45th anniversary of May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on “rioters” (as a front-page story on a May 5, 1970, newspaper hanging in the Beacon Journal’s lobby calls them), killing four students and wounding nine others.
Eleven days later at Jackson State in Mississippi, two young men were killed and 12 were injured by police during protests. Over the years, Kent State commemorators have been sure to include the often-overlooked event.
This year, one of the ways May 4 will be remembered is with a combination screening and concert at the Kent Stage on Friday night.
The film is the latest cut of former Kent State student Daniel Miller’s Fire in the Heartland: Kent State, May 4th, and Student Protest in America, a locally produced documentary about the days and events leading up to the May 4 shootings and the immediate aftermath as told by people who lived through that terrible time.
Half Cleveland — consisting of Chris Butler, Harvey Gold and Bob Ethington of Tin Huey along with “Friday Mike” Wilkinson and Taylor McIntosh — will open the show with a performance of Butler’s autobiographical concept album Easy Life. The album, released in 2014, is about Butler, who was a Kent State student in 1970 and witnessed friends being shot down. The film Fire in the Heartland will be shown after an intermission.
Known as the mastermind behind ’80s pop group the Waitresses, Butler compiled the album from songs he had recorded over the years and constructed a storyline with some narration to help set the scenes. For Friday’s show, Butler said he’ll flesh out the narration even more.
“I’ve expanded and hopefully clarified some of the narration to try and make it even more personal,” he said from a recent band rehearsal. “… I find the more confessional I get the more relatable [the story becomes], so I’m trying to rework the stuff to tell even more secrets and more skeletons in the closet and more foibles and failings because that was so much a part of being a college kid.”
The album begins with the title track, a breezy slice of power pop sung from the perspective of an idealistic college kid with his entire life in front of him and few real worries. That carefree attitude would not last for Butler.
“The shootings and all that exposed not just the innocence of youth but the vulnerability of youth, if that makes any sense,” Butler said. “Not that you’re innocent but that you’re cocky. But you don’t know how fragile you are as well.
“All it takes is one good trauma, man, and you’re a puddle of mush.”
Butler, who is back living in Northeast Ohio after years of living in New York, had returned to Kent and the area over the years to participate in May 4 commemorative activities. He, like many boomers who were or still are activists, is often a bit disappointed by millennials and other young folks.
“[During] the Kent State era, we were bitching about global issues but we were able to kind of get by with an old Volkswagen and 29.9 cent-a-gallon gasoline. If you had Red Barn hamburgers and brown rice ... you could do OK,” he said.
But Butler isn’t simply waving his old-fogey cane at the kids gathering on his lawn. He says his disappointment stems from the empathy he has toward the tough spot many folks find themselves in after following the established “rules,” of getting into and matriculating through to start that career that will sustain you and your future family. Unfortunately, those “rules” simply no longer apply to most people.
“Globally, I can’t believe they’re so quiescent. I can’t believe they’re taking it all on the chin,” Butler continued. “I can’t believe they’re coming out of a four-year trade school, basically with tens of thousands of dollars worth of student loan debt into a job market that is iffy at best and where any kind of creative endeavour — whether it’s journalism or architecture or the arts — [has] pretty much crashed and burned,” he said.
I say it can be difficult to look outward to help others when you’re eking by in survival mode.
“… And a byproduct of that is quiescence,” he responds. “I don’t have time to open my mouth or organize a protest, I’m too busy scuffling.
“I spent some time with these students and the May 4th Task Force people and they are passionate. But everybody seems overwhelmed and overworked. That seems to be the current state of America.”
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml and/or follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.