Rush promotional photo via Mercury Records
Photo: Rush publicity photo / Mercury Records

Tear Gas and “Tom Sawyer”: An ’80s Riot Survivor Becomes a Rush Fan for Life

A 14-year-old at his first rock concert stares down a stampede of 15,000 drug-addled maniacs fleeing clouds of choking tear gas in an effort to see Rush play.

Moving Pictures
Anthem Records
21 February 1981

Just about every child of the 1970s has at least one near-death experience to his credit. Fireworks mishaps; car accidents barely avoided; a close call in a rough ocean; acute hypothermia on a tall mountain ridge, miles from anywhere? Your humble journalist has withstood each of these and more.

All pale before a breezy Saturday night in November 1981, when a sub-five-foot kid at his first rock concert stared down a stampede of 15,000 panicked, drug-addled maniacs fleeing clouds of choking tear-gas – all courtesy of the esteemed Sheriff’s Office of Broward County, Florida.

But whatever you do, don’t tell my mom. She’ll never let me see another show again.

* * *

For readers below a certain age, let’s state up front that the pre-1985 concert experience was a tad different from what you may be used to. Start with an ancient pre-internet ritual known as “sleeping out for tickets”, which involved physically getting in line before sunrise to purchase them at your local record store. Our local Variety Records was a red-carpeted pigsty marooned in a toxic dump known as the OMNI Mall. For years the store displayed a life-size Bee Gees cutout up front, in all their white-suited glory. For all we know, the Gibbs may still be standing there.

Fourteen years old. First rock concert. Why Rush? Well, it’s difficult to overstate the impact 1981’s Moving Pictures had on boys our age, way back when. In gimlet hindsight, the record is half-filler, and the famed Canadian trio recorded several that were superior as a whole. But the four classics on Moving Pictures – “Tom Sawyer”, “Limelight”, “Camera Eye”, and especially the time-warping “Red Barchetta” – took our ninth-grade class by storm, forcing even the Journey, Van Halen, and Bruce Springsteen cliques to sit up and take notice. Quickly we memorized the rest of Rush’s catalogue, primed for their upcoming November show at the Hollywood Sportatorium.

Or rather, “Snortatorium”. Barely qualifying as a concert venue, the ‘Snort’ was an abandoned airplane hangar bordering the Everglades, way out west. (Today, a supermarket occupies the site; all are strongly advised not to drink the water.) Terrible acoustics, a potholed one-lane road, basically a nightmare to get to. But the ‘Snort’ did have one insurmountable advantage – apart from the Orange Bowl, it was the lone arena south of Lake Okeechobee that could seat 15,000 people. So every major rock act of the era was therefore obligated to stop by.

But man, what a drug-soaked hellhole. Millennials accustomed to a vodka shot or half a pot-gummy before seeing the Weeknd in Vegas would be scandalized by the active crime scene known as a late ’70s rock concert. Start with the unpaved dirt parking lot – a Camaro-infested wasteland of young hoodlums openly ingesting every hallucinogenic substance known to man, from Quaaludes to PCP-laced joints to LSD, and then lustily vomiting them all back up. (Cocaine was like oxygen in South Florida back then, but chock it up anyhow.) Does Taylor Swift even tolerate tobacco at her concerts these days? Just asking.

Then there was the arena (sic) itself. Each row at a late ’70s rock concert constituted its own standalone pharmacy. This tender and innocent 14-year-old merely passed the poison down the row, so some items resist identification at this late date. But rainbow-colored pills, Cheech & Chong-sized mega-doobies, and at least one massive sheet studded with LSD were definitely in the mix.

So. Back to the puking, er, parking lot, where 15000 uber-medicated young people waited for the gates to open. Some time passed. Then more time passed. We couldn’t have known in those pre-cellphone days that drummer Neil Peart would be quite late. The actual reason is disputed to this day; either his plane was delayed from a sailing vacation, or he decided to finish a baseball game on TV before bothering to show up. Regardless, an already whacked-out crowd became puzzled, restless, and very angry. Every mob includes a few bad apples, which is all it takes.

Standing dead-center amid this agitated horde, we couldn’t see everything taking place up front. Contemporary police reports indicate that fans began throwing rocks and bottles at officers. Dozens of bottles were indeed flying overhead; where they landed, nobody knows. (Though one of them apparently brained a classmate of ours named David, who wound up in the ER and missed the show.) Then, when the gates finally opened, crashers scaled the walls and bum-rushed the arena doors. Fences were torn down, and at least one police car was overturned. If not yet a full-fledged riot, it was certainly the genesis of one.

Suddenly there were two green Broward Sheriff’s Office helicopters circling high above. Spotlights raked the crowd and several large smoky POPS! burst somewhere up front. Nobody knew what was happening, but the mob kept its cool. For the moment.

Then we smelled baby powder.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of being tear-gassed, here’s a quick primer. American law enforcement generally employs the weakest of five grades, designed to irritate and disperse crowds without serious incapacitation. All decent and civil-like, until your eyes start watering, your throat closes up, and you can’t breathe. The only thing that helps, barring a good gas mask? Hocking, spitting, and evacuating the affected area at top speed.

Four-and-a-half feet tall. Seven thousand intoxicated lunatics in front of us, 7,000 behind. Throw in some tear gas, and stir vigorously. When the forward 7,000 abruptly turned and stampeded directly toward your gentle scribe, he had but one conscious thought: “I’m dead.”

Choking, sputtering chaos! Doubled over in agony, all whilst fleeing for our lives beside 15,000 of our closest friends. After my two companions got separated, one of them collapsed and was pulled to safety by a total stranger. (Belated thanks, wherever you are.) At some point, the running eased up, and the wheezing soon afterward. Our little group reunited, still alive but somewhat worse for wear. It’s hard to fathom in today’s safety-conscious era, but eventually, the crowd was allowed back inside the gates to the arena itself.

The fun wasn’t over, however.

Looming atop the Sportatorium roof – this ghastly, repulsive, vomit-colored monument to rock and roll folly – were several shirtless, corduroy-clad longhairs playing ‘King of the Hill’ with 2×4 wooden boards. Their feral, coked-out faces are seared into my memory. So shocking, so indelible was this scene, that the three of us could probably pick them out of a police lineup even four decades later. Despite its 200-year-old Eastern pedigree, the word ‘thug’ has stirred offensive disrepute in some quarters; sorry, but no other linguistic expression will do. As to who eventually ‘won’ this medieval joust, we didn’t stick around to find out.

Finally, into the arena. Tear gas clung to the rafters, especially inside the bathrooms, stinging our eyes like pollen. The opening act – kid you not – was a metal band named Riot. They went on late, but they did go on. As all shows must.

At last, Rush took the stage. Music video was in its infancy, but the glorious “Red Barchetta” featured the same animated screen montage shown during Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. (Way-cool beans back then.) “Camera Eye” was another standout, replicating the band’s complex studio interplay perfectly. Then “Limelight” kicked off, the crowd roared… and we looked up.

The Snort’s interior ceiling was a leaky mishmash of ridges and metal slabs, honeycombed with railed catwalks for lighting and other effects. Suspended from one of these catwalks was a man literally struggling for his life. Hanging by his fingers at least 100 feet up, this was no exaggeration – losing his grip meant he would plunge to certain death below, probably taking some fans with him. This horror occurred toward the rear of the floor section, so most of the audience never knew it happened. Given how our species treat each other, Homo sapiens probably deserve most of the slings and arrows Mother Nature sends our way. But watching another human being die is still a vile, stomach-churning experience. Our crew stared fixated, nauseous at the thought of watching this poor man fall. Repeatedly he pulled himself halfway up, then sagged back down. It seemed hopeless.

Then fortune intervened, thank Heaven – yet another miracle, on a night filled with them. Like an angel, a second man crawled out on the catwalk and hauled him back up, saving his life. Belated gratitude to Anonymous Stranger Number Two. Who were these two mystery saviors, and where are they now? Lord only knows.

What a night. Like Dante’s Hell or the Panama Canal of riots, each successive challenge was surmounted only to face the next obstacle. But somehow, we made it through. Final butcher’s bill, according to Wikipedia: 22 people injured, including 11 police officers, with at least two fans arrested. To this day, survivors greet each other like ex-Marines, swapping war stories until the break of dawn. If Eugene Sledge could wait 35 years to publish his classic memoir With the Old Breed, about his experiences on Okinawa, then indeed 40 years for a tear-gas riot doesn’t seem so long after all. Now it belongs to the ages.

That Sunday morning, Mom asked about a news report concerning ‘some sort of trouble’ at the Rush concert.

Nope. Sorry, Mom. Never saw a thing.