Mark J. Price

Originally published Aug. 19, 2002

San Francisco was so far from Akron that it might as well have been on another planet.

Five years after the Summer of Love, the pretty flowers had wilted and the psychedelic colors had muted. Peace, love and harmony were falling prey to war, hate and discord.

But Jefferson Airplane was still flying high.

The San Francisco rock band had witnessed the triumph of Woodstock and the heartbreak of Altamont. Its Akron concert experience on Aug. 21, 1972, would surely have to rank between those extremes.

Before the smoke cleared at the Rubber Bowl, 25 fans were arrested, nine policemen were injured, 12 cruisers were damaged and Jefferson Airplane lead singer Grace Slick and guitarist Paul Kantner were charged with assaulting an officer.

The concert seemed jinxed from the start. The University of Akron had reseeded the football field that day and fans were instructed to stay in the stands.

Of course, no one listened.

Opening act Commander Cody encouraged the audience to rush the field and dance in front of the stage. It was the evening’s first act of disobedience.

A crowd of under 20,000 was inside the bowl, but hundreds of fans dodged the $6 ticket fee by listening to the show from a hill overlooking the stadium.

And that’s where the real trouble began.

About 80 Akron police officers were providing security in the stadium. As darkness fell, a few hooligans from the hill began to throw rocks at police.

It soon escalated.

“There’s not many lights up there,” said retired Police Capt. John Cunningham, 71, who was a lieutenant in 1972. “We were getting pummeled with rocks and bottles and stones and whatever else they could throw.”

At least 20 officers were hit. They reciprocated by firing tear gas and rushing their attackers.

“In some cases, we darn near fought all night long,” Cunningham said. “It was like a war.”

Thomas Derrig, 44, of Akron was a witness to the chaos outside the stadium. He was on his way into the show when things began to spin out of control.

“Before you know it, just all hell broke out,” Derrig said. “It was a small war zone, let me tell you. There was cops and teen-agers just going at it everywhere. Fistfighting, throwing rocks, anything that people could get their hands on to throw.”

Meanwhile, Jefferson Airplane began to perform. Volatile singer Grace Slick, 32, who was as charismatic as she was caustic, cheered on the battle as she belted out songs like White Rabbit and Somebody to Love.

“I can remember hearing her screaming something about ‘getting the pigs’ and ‘getting the establishment,’ “ Derrig said.

Slick recalled the Akron concert in her 1998 autobiography Somebody to Love? “They knew we remembered Kent State and they didn’t trust us,” she wrote. “All along the front of the stage stood a row of 25 officers, arms linked in riot style, creating a barrier.”

Eugene Bonos, 50, of Manassas, Va., was a UA student doing volunteer work at the 1972 show.

“I had been on stage all night, working behind the scenes,” he said. “I remember Grace Slick during a long instrumental solo coming back and asking if anybody had any drugs.”

Despite the ongoing ruckus, Bonos remembers the show as “an excellent concert.”

“The concert itself had an aura of ’67 psychedelica,” Bonos said. “They had an overhead projector with the water and oil in it, making the weird wave designs on the projection screen behind the group.”

At 11:30 p.m., a bomb threat was phoned in to the Rubber Bowl office. Police halted the show and cleared the field.

No bomb was found.

The concert disintegrated.

The band’s equipment manager Charles “Chick” Casady, 32, brother of bassist Jack Casady, tried to intervene when he saw police struggling with a fan. Words were exchanged and Casady joined the scuffle, suffering a smashed nose. He was charged with assaulting an officer.

In a tunnel beneath the stadium, an angry Slick confronted officers about Casady’s arrest. She, too, joined an altercation.

Slick later said she merely lost her balance and tried to steady herself on an officer. Patrolman Robert E. Gott didn’t see it that way. In his arrest report, he said Slick “grabbed his whistle chain and deliberately ripped it from his uniform.” He said she scratched his arm while swinging wildly to claw his face.

Slick’s boyfriend Paul Kantner, 31, tried to intervene and got maced. The two were charged with assaulting an officer.

UA student Bonos was one of the few civilians in the tunnel.

And he had a camera.

“There was this crowd of police officers in the hallway,” Bonos said. “One of them grabbed her and told her to calm down. He grabbed her by the wrists and she fell forward. At that time, he used his other hand to grab her by the hair.”

Bonos said he was 4 feet away and had a nice vantage point, so he took a picture.

“Immediately after my flash went off, they descended upon me,” he said. “They ripped the camera off my neck, and knocked my glasses off and dragged me outside.”

He waited until an officer brought his glasses and camera.

“Of course, the film was gone,” he said. “I was contacted by Time and Newsweek (to see) if I had any photographs.”

No, he said. Not anymore.

Cunningham, the retired police captain, wasn’t in the tunnel during Slick’s arrest, but said he heard about her antics later.

“Gracie Slick was being Gracie Slick, and Gracie Slick at that time was a very difficult person to deal with,” he said.

Slick, Kantner and Casady pleaded innocent to charges and were released at 1 a.m. after posting bond. They were treated for minor injuries at Akron City Hospital and were whisked to Detroit for their next concert.

“The members of Airplane went to jail, and relatively often, but never for long,” Slick wrote. “The lawyers would converge, the bail would be paid, and we would walk — usually within 24 hours. Sometimes we were at fault, sometimes not.”

In October, the three pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of obstructing an officer. They paid $50 fines and received 30-day suspended sentences under the condition that they stay out of trouble in Akron for three years.

No problem, your honor.

In 1974, Jefferson Airplane changed its name to Jefferson Starship and rocked well into the 1980s. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

The Rubber Bowl incident is a tiny slice of rock history that its witnesses won’t ever forget.

“What started out to be a pretty good time in a matter of minutes turned into a little war zone,” Derrig said.

“Nobody got seriously hurt,” Cunningham said. “Nobody got killed. My people acted with amazing restraint.”

“I still have memories,” Bonos said. “I just wish I had the photographs I took.”