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Barbara Stowe on the concert that launched Greenpeace   Print

by John Mackie
Vancouver Sun
November 9, 2009

An interview with Barbara Stowe, the daughter of Irving and Dorothy Stowe.

Irving and Dorothy were key figures in the Don't Make a Wave group which founded Greenpeace in 1970. The money to send a protest ship to Amchitka Island was largely raised through a concert Irving Stowe arranged for Oct. 16, 1970 at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. A tape of the show has just been released by Greenpeace.

Sun: I understand your dad used to tape live shows in the early 60s in New York.

Barbara Stowe: He was from Rhode Island. He used to drive up to New York every weekend and go to jazz clubs and stuff. He had one of the first so-called portable tape recorders, that took two men to carry. He'd drag it into clubs and he would ask the performers if he could tape them for personal use. They trusted him and he did that. Louis Armstrong wanted to hear himself on that tape recorder, so dad went to Louis' hotel room the next morning. Louis came out in a robe drinking orange juice and they played the tape.

Sun: Someone told me that he taped Bob Dylan before he had a record deal.

Stowe: I wish. [It's] not true. He taped Art Tatum, Buddy Rich...Louis Armstrong singing with Diana Washington, I think.

Sun: So how did your dad tape the Greenpeace show?

Stowe: He didn't tape it. During the concert, he saw a tape recorder under the stage. He went to the sound engineer, Dave Zeffertt of Kelly-Deyong Sound, and said 'Dave are you taping this?' Dave said 'Yes, I tape all my concerts, so I can learn from them and improve my work.' And dad said 'We've got to tell the performers. But if they give you permission to keep that for personal use, I want a copy.'

They all gave permission, except for Chilliwack's manager. So we never had a portion of the tape that had Chilliwack on it, unfortunately. In the last year Bill Henderson searched valiantly for that portion of the tape, the master.

We played [the Greenpeace show] in our living room from time to time. It had been recorded on a Revox, these great big silver reels. My dad was a stereo fanatic, he had to have the best, which was good.

Anyway he transferred it at one point to cassette, or my brother [Robert] did. Over the years we'd play it occasionally for friends, or Greenpeace people who dropped by. Finally my brother transferred it to CD as a Christmas present for my mother and I, and gave us copies. He's very meticulous, he timed all the songs and everything.

He basically made a prototype, and went to Greenpeace and said 'You know, if you got permission, this is a prototype you could use.' So they did.

Sun: Is it the whole concert?

Stowe: It's been edited a bit, but it's most of the concert. Joni and James both had to listen to it and decide what they were comfortable with. [On] her first song Chelsea Morning she felt she was a bit nervous and she didn't want that on there. But the rest pretty much is there.

Sun: Except that it runs out halfway through Circle Game.

Stowe: Oh, the last song, Circle Game. The tape ran out!

Sun: Your mom and dad founded Greenpeace, right?

Stowe: Well I would say they were among the founders. I would say they were essential, because their house became the first Greenpeace office. And my dad was absolutely driven and was working full time at it. My mom supported the family at that point. Everyone else had day jobs, and my dad went at it full bore.

He was a lawyer. He drafted taxation law for the state of Rhode Island. He drafted the first human rights legislation in Rhode Island, I believe, the fair employment practices bill. He was a very strong activist. My mother said he drew the Rhode Island chapter's constitution for the NAACP. He had a private practice in Admiralty law where he enjoyed suing all the oil companies. [laughs]

Sun: How did you wind up in Vancouver?

Stowe: I always feel my parents were running from the bomb. It was the Cold War. Some Americans felt Australasia was going to be the last place radiation would drift to, if the Cold War exploded, so we went to New Zealand.

Then the French started nuclear tests in Polynesia, and New Zealand started sending troops to Vietnam, which my parents opposed. Also my father saw Vancouver on a trip. It was spring, and it was so beautiful, so here we were.

Sun: When did you arrive?

Stowe: 1966.

Sun: How long were you in New Zealand?

Stowe: We lived in New Zealand for five years.

Sun: What part of Rhode Island were you from?

Stowe: Providence.

Sun: So in 1966 you came here - I guess it was easier to immigrate than it is now. What did you mom do?

Stowe: My mom was a psychiatric social worker until she had to retire at 65.

Sun: You dad wasn't able to practice law?

Stowe: For five years in Canada he couldn't practice. So he had a private practice as an estate planner. He started writing an environmental column for the Georgia Straight, and basically living off the savings from his tax practice. My mother basically supported the family, as he got into activism full time.

Sun: What part of Vancouver did you live in?

Stowe: West Point Grey.

Sun: Back when people could afford houses there.

Stowe: Well it was a Vancouver Special, bought from a friend.

Sun: What was the name of his Georgia Straight column?

Stowe: It became Greenpeace is Beautiful. [laughs] I kid you not. Before that...I forget.

Sun: Was your dad a hippie?

Stowe: My parents were hippies sans drugs. My dad dropped his flannel suits and white Brooks Brothers shirts and donned jeans and had me tie-dye his shirts. Grew a beard and long hair. My mother eventually got into jeans too, although not all that far.

Sun: How did the idea of the benefit gig come about? They were in the Don't Make a Wave committee.

Stowe: Well you could say the Sun newspaper had something to do with it. The Sun printed that the Don't Make a Wave committee was going to send a boat to Amchitka, when in fact Jim Bohlen [another key early Greenpeace figure] had just been fantasizing about that. But he fantasized on the phone to a reporter about it.

So then we were on the hook to send that boat. And it cost a lot of money. We were selling Greenpeace buttons for 25 cents, and it wasn't raising a lot of money. Finally my dad said 'We'll have a rock concert.'

Everyone thought he was insane. He said 'Fine. I'll organize it myself.' Once Joni Mitchell signed on, we were all more willing to believe this could happen.

Sun: How did he get Joni Mitchell, did he just phone her up?

Stowe: He wrote to Joan Baez, but she couldn't come. But she sent a $1,000 donation, and gave him Joni's contact info. And she came on 100 percent.

Sun: Then you got Phil Ochs...

Stowe: And Chilliwack.

Sun: And James Taylor just showed up with Joni Mitchell.

Stowe: Yes. She called us up one night at dinner and dad put his hand over the mouthpiece and said 'It's Joni! She wants to know if she can bring James Taylor, is that okay?' '[laughs]

Sun: Did your dad know who any of these people were, as a jazz guy?

Stowe: Well he being a huge music fanatic, had made friends with Al Sorenson, who was the record reviewer at the Georgia Straight. So he very quickly got into rock and folk. But we didn't know who James Taylor was. I actually thought he was a black blues singer, I had him confused with James Brown. My family was so out to lunch.

"But my dad said to Joni 'Okay.' And then he hung up and said to us 'Don't tell anyone. We don't know who this James Taylor is. If he's no good, it could ruin the concert.' Then my brother said 'Hey let's go down to Rohan's and find out [who he is].' And there it was, [the album] Sweet Baby James [laughs], which was on its way to platinum.

Sun: Al Sorenson, you're talking about the Georgia Straight music editor who met Charles Manson?

Stowe: Oh, gosh, I hope not. The Al Sorenson who was the record reviewer?

Sun: Yes. [The legend is that Sorenson had an idea to recording happenings, and went to to Los Angeles to negotiate with A&M records. In L.A. he met Charles Manson, who was trying to get a record deal.] But we digress. What was it like, being 14 at the time?

Stowe: It was very exciting in our house. These guys - dad, Ben Metcalfe, Bob Hunter, Jim Bohlen - sitting around, the verbiage was incredible. You could feel something happening, there was a weight in the room during those meetings. I guess because of the weight of the cause itself, we really thought [the detonation of a hydrogen bomb on] Amchitka could set off the big one. But at the same time, it was exhausting, the phone was ringing all night and we were being driven downtown to sell Greenpeace buttons. I had conflicted feelings. I thought the cause was good, but I was an artist, I was a dancer. But overall it became very exciting and thrilling. And exhausting.

Sun: The gig itself, did they anticipate selling so many tickets?

Stowe: Once Joni Mitchell came on board, we hoped it would sell out. And with James, that put it over the top.

Sun: But he was never advertised.

Stowe: No, but word got around so fast.

Sun: What was the gig like?

For me it was very emotional, sitting there. I was aware I was watching the greatest moment of my father's life, and I was so proud of him. Especially because I had been such a naysayer at the beginning. Your dad says 'We're going to have a rock concert,' and you think 'Oh, Christ!' Nothing could be more embarrassing - it sounds completely insane.

It was anarchy. That was very interesting to me. Today you would have security guards who would make sure there are proper aisles and so on. We had to have volunteer ushers, the Don't Make a Wave committee had to supply its own ushers. So everyone sat anywhere. If you look at photos, you can see there's no aisles, the whole floor is covered with people sitting.

And because the War Measures Act had come down that morning, all day we were worried the concert would be cancelled. That added a real frisson to the atmosphere. It was quite electric. The radicals there were very, very emotional over that. Phil Ochs came to our house for dinner, and he was just outraged. He'd come up from the U.S. to peaceable Canada and here we were under martial law! [laughs]

It was very emotional, also to see these different parties. Some were there more for the music, some for the politics, but everyone was sitting there peaceably and really getting into it. Chilliwack played a stunning set, and Phil Ochs was so angry his whole set. It permeated that, his anger, and that gave it a certain electricity and power. Then when Chilliwack came on they had to sort of chill out the crowd, they were amazing. James Taylor chilled it out further, and then Joni came on and just let her lyrics speak: 'Bombs turning into butterflies,' you know?

Sun: She sounds amazing on the tape.

Stowe" The tape I think is more beautiful than the concert, because [it was] in that big echo-y concrete hall. Peter Moore did an amazing job with the remastering.

Sun: It really captures the 60s vibe, even though it was 1970. Your dad's introduction is quite hilarious.

Stowe: Oh I know. I have the same feelings now when I listen to him. I get embarrassed - 'Dad, don't say that!' But then it's 'Okay, that sounds good.' 'Greenpeace is beautiful...' ohhhhh. You know?

Sun: And you raised 20 grand and that basically did found Greenpeace.

Stowe: Yeah, basically.

Sun: Your dad was burned out by the whole [Amchitka] experience?

Stowe: Well he and Jim were pretty exhausted. But also...when the direction started going towards the sealing protest, my family had very conflicted feelings about the way that was being done. I think that was being driven by Paul Watson. He wasn't there right in the beginning, but he was by the time Greenpeace II came along.

Dad wanted to keep the thrust at nuclear testing. We supported Greenpeace, our house remained the office until 74, and we'd answer correspondence. We were involved in helping the voyages of David McTaggart [the longtime leader of Greenpeace]. I produced the first t-shirts with Leroy Jensen, that was the next fundraising venture. But dad's health was not good. He got cancer and died in 74.

Sun: I know Ben Metcalfe was pissed off at McTaggart when Greenpeace moved away to Amsterdam. How do you look at Greenpeace, as a member of the founding family or whatever?

Stowe: I'm really glad it exists. I really feel we need an eco-watchdog like Greenpeace. I had conflicted feelings - I saw my father get so exhausted, I saw that you can burn out. Activism is difficult - it's hard to draw the line and not give everything. I don't [always] agree with people who will take things in directions I don't agree with. But overall, I'm really glad it exists. And I have been moved in recent years by the passions and enthusiasms and intelligence I've seen in some of the young Greenpeacers.

Sun: Is the Greenpeace house still there?

Stowe: My mother still lives in it. It's a Vancouver Special.

Sun: Like a Vancouver Special Vancouver Special, one of those two-storey jobs?

Stowe: Yep.

Sun: How's your mom?

Stowe: She's amazing. Greenpeace had a little launch party the other night, and she got up and spoke. Her health on paper is really bad, but she carries on. She's amazing. She's 88.

 

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