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Amchitka, the 1970 Concert   Print


NBT Music
December 1, 2009



'The two-disc CD takes you back to October 16th 1970, when 10,000 people gathered in the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver to hear Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs and support the very first Greenpeace action ever taken - the legendary voyage to Amchitka to protest nuclear bomb testing.'



The Protest was unsuccessful and the testing went ahead, But the War was far from lost and Greenpeace went on to become an extremely powerful Voice for those who cared about the Earth and Environment and against those politicians and business men who through action and inaction threatened the delicate balance of true nature.



NBT is proud to have been given a chance to interview Barbara Stowe, daughter of Irving Stowe, one of the founders of Greenpeace. She is author of the insightful and touching liner notes for the 'Amchitka 1970' CD.



NBT: Why the release NOW, why wasn't this put out in the weeks, months, years after the actual concert, did it have to do with technical problems or getting the release of the Artist's music from their record companies and so on?



In the beginning, Greenpeace was a local organization consisting of at most a couple of dozen volunteers, and the time and energy needed to see such a project through would have been overwhelming. We were too busy trying to stop nuclear testing worldwide! My father would have been the logical person to consider such a thing, given his passion for music, chutzpah and his legal background. But he got cancer and died in 1974.



My family has always hoped that Greenpeace would be able to get permissions and release this music, but just to get the ear of busy artists like Joni and James was a daunting prospect. In 2003 my brother got the ball rolling by transferring the music to CD, and he presented my mother and myself with a CD each as Christmas presents. He is a meticulous person and he'd timed each song and crafted a few paragraphs about the concert and the technical recording details. He even used photos of the artists taken at the concert for the covers. He realized he'd created something Greenpeace could use as a prototype to seek permissions, so he proposed the project to Greenpeace. When they sent John Timmins out to Vancouver, I knew they'd found exactly the right person. John is a founding member of the Cowboy Junkies - a renowned Canadian band - and also a Foundations Officer for Greenpeace, and given his passion for the project, his background as a professional musician, and his experience in activism, he was perfect, and we were very excited. That was two and a half years ago.



NBT: Have you ever visited Amchitka?



Yes. I was part of the "Bering Witness" campaign in the summer of 2007, when the Greenpeace ship Esperanza sailed to Amchitka. The whole trip totally blew my mind.



NBT: World Powers are always wanting to re-activate Nuclear Testing, in your opinion is there a solution to this problem, or will Greenpeace and others still be fighting the 'good fight' 20 years from now?



The solution is clear. Nuclear weapons threaten us all, and should be eradicated from the face of the earth. But I'm not naïve. I suspect Greenpeace may still be fighting to end nuclear testing in 20 years time. Nonetheless I refuse to relinquish hope, and I'm glad that leaders like President Obama and Russian President Medvedev are talking about denuclearization. Greenpeace can help hold their feet to the fire and push them to make good on their promises.



NBT: The 3 artists perform and create in ways that are very different to one another, how did this change in styles go down with the audience of the time?



There was tension because everyone wanted to hear their favorite artists, and this electricity was intensified by the fact that it was one of the most politically charged days in Canadian history. Martial law had been declared at 4 o'clock that morning, in an attempt to quell terrorism in Quebec. So when Phil Ochs, who is a fervent activist, got onstage and started to play, the mood was heightened. Someone put up a banner about the War Measures Act (martial law) and someone else tore it down. And you can hear Phil on the CD, saying "I never played in a police state before".



But people were ultimately respectful, and in this sense, the whole concert became a kind of visceral metaphor for peace. Because there could have been real trouble, but there wasn't. I mean, there was zero security! All the ushers that night were volunteers who had no experience, and everyone just sat wherever they liked...you can see in the photo, look at the floor, there are no aisles, the whole floor is covered with people sitting on every inch of it!



Part of the reason there was no trouble was respect for the cause, and part of it is down to Chilliwack, who played this brilliant set that got us on our feet dancing for joy. I'd never heard Chilliwack live and it was a revelation. Recently I asked Bill Henderson, the lead singer, how they did it, because one song seemed to segue magically into another, I can't even remember any separation. He said that the way they were playing then was to start with quiet sounds that served to ground both themselves and the audience, and then gradually develop those sounds into melodies and rhythms, and eventually find a way into one of their songs, and then into another, and so on. It takes a lot of trust and vulnerability to do that and I think the audience really responded in kind, so that a special bond developped between performer and audience. And then, James further chilled out the crowd, I'm still amazed at how he did that, it felt like we were almost hypnotized with bliss. He was singing us lullabies, you know, "Sweet Baby James"..."won't you let me go down in your dreams...and rockabye sweet baby James". And Joni, she just let her lyrics speak: "bombers turning into butterflies above our nation". It was really beautiful. I sound like I'm back in the Seventies now, don't I?



NBT: Did you get to meet the singers? Offstage what were they like?



Phil Ochs came to our house for dinner before the concert. He was outraged that we were under marital law. Canada was considered such a benign country, a peaceable kingdom. But Phil kept his fury in check when it came to personal relations. He gave my brother a cigar from Cuba, which Bobby treasured for years.



When Phil came back to our house several years later on another tour I had the impression of a gentle and deeply tormented man. He was so depressed that when I later heard of his suicide I was very much saddened but not really surprised.



I didn't get to meet Joni, but my brother did. He went to the airport with my father to pick them up. He told me there was only room for one other person in the car besides my father, and that was him, and I had to go to school! And I did! I'm still kicking myself. But people at school were psyched about the concert, so that was pretty cool. My brother saw Joni and James kissing in the back seat of the limo, they were in love.



I met James backstage on a later tour. He invited us into his dressing room and he had that Southern charm. He was extremely cool and good looking and I'm sure I blushed to the roots of my hair!



NBT: You mentioned your Dad's love of all forms of music, in 1970 what were the Teenagers such as yourself listening to?



Some of the favorites for my crowd were Joni Mitchell; The Beatles; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Leonard Cohen; Laura Nyro; Jefferson Airplane and Simon & Garfunkel. We also loved Chilliwack and Small Faces, and until the concert, I hadn't heard James Taylor, but after I heard him I became a big fan.



NBT: Why is Chilliwack not on the CD?



What happened was, during the concert, my father saw a tape recorder under the stage, and he went to the sound engineer and said, "Dave, I see you're taping this." Dave said yes, I always tape my concerts for technical reasons, and Dad said, I want a copy. Then he went to the artists' managers and asked for permission to keep the tape for personal use. All the managers agreed, except Chilliwack's. So the copy that my family had all these years never had Chilliwack on it. During the past year, Bill Henderson launched a valiant search to find the master tape which might have still had Chilliwack's portion on it, but he couldn't find it.



NBT: The proceeds of this release, what will Greenpeace use the money for?



To support Greenpeace campaigns: climate change, forests, oceans toxics, sustainable agriculture, disarmament and peace.



NBT: In your opinion: Were the 70s more optimistic/hopeful than this day and age, could this concert have happened in 2009? This release must bring many bitter sweet memories to you; tell us how you see the Political world, the music world. Are there still free world activists willing to risk life and limb to change the status quo?



Oh, why not ask me some hard questions, Martin? Ha ha ha ha! Actually I love questions like this that make me think. To answer your first question: Was the 70's a more optimistic and hopeful time? It was in some ways. Many people believed that existing power structures and institutions had to be smashed and a new way of living had to be created. In this sense the '70's was more optimistic because people really believed that a more utopian, peaceful existence was possible. And the social revolutions of the Sixties and '70's, the Civil Rights, Women's Rights and Gay Rights movements did so much to further change. But these movements were driven by historic tragedy as well as hope, they were driven by anger, and by a willingness to die for a cause. So while there was optimism, there was also this dark underside of rage and the struggle for freedom was fierce and painful. Then there was the Vietnam War which literally tore American families apart. And the music of the day, which can't be separated from the times, was driven by this darkness and a soul-searching at the deepest level, as well as a corresponding and opposite belief in love and hope, peace and change. You can hear the music reflect all this, whether it's Phil Ochs raging "I'm Not Marching Anymore" or Joni's bombers turning into butterflies, in "Woodstock".



Your second question, could this concert have happened in 2009? I don't know. I think great musicians like Joni, James, Phil and Chilliwack, who have so much heart and soul, will always respond to an appeal as urgent as the one to stop nuclear testing on Amchitka. U2 is a modern example of artists responding to urgent need, on both anti-poverty campaigns and environmental campaigns. Which, incidentally, thankfully, no longer have to be considered separate campaigns, now that anti-poverty activist Kumi Naidoo has been appointed head of Greenpeace International. But I digress. To get back to the point: I believe great artists will always commit for a worthy cause, but as for the nature of the thing, that is a concert with no backup musicians, no visuals, no big screens, just one musician and a guitar commanding a huge arena? I don't know.



Also there is something magical in the spontaneity of these performances, perhaps because the artists didn't know they were being recorded, which is ironic given that we're so glad now that it was recorded. The instant musicians step onstage nowadays a million iphones capture their every breath. There's something sad about that, because when you're recording, you're not present. It breaks the intimate connection between performer and audience, and that changes the performance.



As for the third question, how do I see the music world and the political world? Well in terms of music I'm overwhelmed by the wealth of music now available to us! It's wonderful, but also I think today it's more difficult for artists because the bigger the talent pool, the more they have to fight for attention, and art and public relations don't go together. I'd like to see artists more nurtured and respected and the almighty buck take a back seat. When commerce takes precedence it weakens us culturally and lessens our humanity. Phil Ochs says it pretty clearly in "Chords of Fame".



As for politics...it's easy to live in fear and anger - the Bush Administration was driven by it - but I think the brave thing to do is to try to live in hope, no matter how difficult things become, and we couldn't be facing greater challenges than we are in this millennium.



And as for whether there are still free world activists willing to risk life and limb to change the status quo? Absolutely! I saw them on the Esperanza. Greenpeace is full of activists who are utterly committed to peaceful non-violent action. It inspires me and gives me hope.

 

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