The Night The Who Rocked Georgetown

By Tim Gay (C’76)

The first riff from Pete Townshend’s guitar nearly melted the eardrums of Ed Towle (C’70). With the possible exception of Civil War-era cannon fire, Townshend’s lick was the loudest roar that ever reverberated across the venerable Georgetown University campus.

Towle was crouched in front of a bank of amplifiers on McDonough Gymnasium’s stage, watching a crowd of 6,000 rush toward him. It was about 10 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 2, 1969. Towle, chair of the student entertainment committee, had just introduced The Who, the hottest—and noisiest—rock group extant. The Who had dazzled at Woodstock three months earlier and had released their breakthrough rock opera Tommy in the spring.

Waiting for The Who to take the stage that night was excruciating for the crowd packed into McDonough. The unfortunate opening act was Love, Cry, Want—a jazz trio that drew lusty boos. Hoyas and townies alike were pounding their hands and feet, pleading for the headliners. Things only got worse when the opening act departed; house lights glared for what seemed an eternity as roadies lugged out The Who’s equipment.  

During the delay, Towle twice took the microphone to issue scripted “be-on-your-best-behavior” warnings. Each time he was jeered. 

At long last, McDonough went dark. As Towle reappeared on stage, hordes of fans rushed forward, sending students and chairs careening. Towle’s buddies John Zambetti (C’70) and Walt Egan (C’70) still remember the whoosh racing past them. Security that night, Zambetti quips, “was like ‘Mayberry RFD.’”

'Heaven and Hell'

Ed Towle has spent the last four-and-a-half decades kicking himself for not coming up with a more memorable introduction.

“Instead,” he recalls, “I just yelled something blasé like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen:  Georgetown welcomes The Who!’”

Promotional poster

Promotional poster. Gift of its creator, Lou Stovall, Booth Family Center, Special Collections, Georgetown University Library.

Seconds later Towle’s ears went numb as guitarist Townshend, singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon tore into their opening number.

It was “Heaven and Hell,” a heavy-metal opus featuring a theme that Georgetown theology professor William McFadden, S.J.—who was at that precise moment surveying the mayhem from McDonough’s foyer—would have relished debating, if only he’d been able to divine the lyrics through the din.

“Why can’t we have eternal life and never die?” the song jabbed.

“Wouldn’t that be sweet?” McFadden ruefully observes today. “Skip the cross and go right to the Resurrection!”

Shadowed by his pal and concert co-conspirator, student government president Jim Clark (C’70), Towle staggered off the stage. Temporary deafness didn’t deter the pair from carrying out their other duty: wielding blankets in case someone threw a smoke bomb.

In 1968, everything got turned on its head. Everything.

Rumors had been rampant that Lefties would exact revenge on Townshend for booting their hero, radical agitator Abbie Hoffman, off Woodstock’s stage in mid-rant.

Exactly how the Towle-Clark posse thought they could wade into such chaos and smother the effects of a smoke grenade is unclear.  

“In retrospect,” Towle now concedes, “it was insane.”

Nevertheless, Towle, Clark and other blanket-wielding recruits—the Blanket Patrol, as they dubbed themselves—gamely roamed the floor, bedspreads at the ready.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Just how in heaven – or hell – did the most influential band of that era come to play at Georgetown’s tiny gym? It’s a coming-of-age tale of intrigue and youthful naiveté. And it could only have happened in the apocalyptic world of 1969.

'Everything Got Turned on its Head'

Welcome to the camp,
I guess you all know why we’re here.
My name is Tommy
And I became aware this year. . .

In 1969, most Georgetown undergraduates were Catholic, and, as photographs show, mostly Caucasian and male—only the nursing school accepted females on the undergraduate level. Attendance at Mass was mandatory. So was wearing skinny ties and beat-up blazers that hung awkwardly from their shoulders.

The Who

The Who played Georgetown less than three months after appearing at Woodstock. From left, lead guitarist Pete Townshend, drummer Keith Moon, singer Roger Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle.

But in 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and amid escalating protests against the war in Vietnam, their world disintegrated.

“Everything got turned on its head,” Towle remembers. “Everything.”

By the fall of 1969, the nation’s capital was under siege. National Guardsmen and tear gas-wielding riot police shared the streets with tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators. The Georgetown campus soon became ground zero for protestors and cops alike. During that fall’s massive war moratoriums—the first of which took place two weeks before The Who show—McDonough was used to house demonstrators, a decision that infuriated basketball coach Jack McGee.

“Unlike Columbia or Berkeley, Georgetown was in a bubble until about 1969, insulated from a lot of what was gnawing at college students,” Towle recalls. “Then, almost overnight, the bubble burst. Guys grew long hair and beards; girls went from cashmere and pearls to hot pants. The draft lottery put people in the line of fire. And the war made everyone angry. Just like that, our world was different.”

When they “became aware,” Towle, Clark, Zambetti and their brethren marched in candlelight vigils down Pennsylvania Avenue, their hair now scandalously dangling below their collars. And they no longer wore blazers and ties.  

Booking Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Bad Boys

We’re not gonna take it,
Never did and never will.
We’re not gonna take it,
Gonna break it,
gonna shake it,
Let’s forget it better still. . .

More than four decades later, what Towle remembers most about the plan to book The Who were the cats that scurried around concert promoter and producer Mike Schreibman’s basement crash pad a block or two off campus. Strays and tabbies wormed through their legs as Schreibman and Towle met in the spring and summer of 1969 to review concert options for the coming school year. Schreibman, pushing 27, seemed ancient to the 21-year-old Towle.

Despite his beatnik mien, Schreibman was a hustler, the sort of promoter one contemporary recalled “who would give P.T. Barnum pause.” He wowed Towle and others with his ties to big-time booking agents in New York.

Schreibman gave Towle a list of affordable acts. Towle was mildly surprised that folk rockers Poco and Arlo Guthrie, of Alice’s Restaurant fame, were get-able.  But he was stunned to see The Who on Schreibman’s list.

Towle and his buddies, Zambetti and Egan, agreed that nabbing the Brits would be a terrific coup. Zambetti and Egan knew their rock ‘n’ roll. Bandmates since their high school days, they had formed a group eventually christened Sageworth and Drums, which played gigs on campus and at Georgetown saloons.

Towle booked The Who for a bargain-basement fee of $7,500. He fashioned a crude “contract” that would never have withstood a legal challenge. The Who’s reputation as rock’s bad boys led Towle to half expect university leaders to quash the deal, but the agreement was signed, with no questions asked.

Even at a pricey $5, the 4,200 legit tickets sold out almost immediately.

Packing the House

Ever since I was a young boy
I’ve played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must’ve played them all…

Towle knew that the show was going to be a hit when students returned from summer break and “Pinball Wizard” from The Who’s rock opera Tommy was blaring from stereos all over campus.

Now that their property was suddenly hot, The Who’s agency wanted to wangle more money. But Schreibman, to his credit, wouldn’t budge.

Even at a pricey five dollars a pop, the 4,200 legit concert tickets sold out almost immediately—but that somehow didn’t preclude Schreibman from running ads in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Meanwhile, without bothering to notify Georgetown officials, Towle determined that McDonough’s cramped second floor could handle 1,000 or so extra fans.    Schreibman asked a gifted local artist named Lou Stovall to design—gratis, of course—a concert poster. Moved by Tommy’s spirituality and aware of the Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit heritage, Stovall chose a Sistine Chapel motif.

So a rendering of Michelangelo’s ethereal depiction of the Book of Genesis was used to flack a rock band that once snuck an explosive device onto the set of the Smothers Brothers television show. After Keith Moon detonated his little bomb, cymbal shrapnel went flying, wounding Townshend and causing songstress Kate Smith to faint backstage. Stovall’s homage was plastered all over town—a curious ploy for a sold-out show. The gratuitous ads and posters caused Towle to lose sleep. So was the rumor that area rednecks, outraged over The Who’s anti-social behavior—intended to show up to teach the Brits a lesson. Towle couldn’t win for losing:  left-wingers were threatening to throw smoke bombs and now right-wingers were threatening to throw roundhouse rights.

'It’s Me and Me Mates'

See me.
Feel me.
Touch me.
Heal me. . .

November 2 dawned unseasonably warm. Towle knew that by show time McDonough would be a cauldron.  But when he and his lieutenants arrived at McDonough early in the evening for setup, everything seemed in order. The small crowd gathered outside was orderly; nobody was trying to sneak in.

A half hour or so later Clark and Towle heard a thump-thump at a side door. They shoved it open and found themselves staring at the bulbous nose of famed guitarist Pete Townshend. Surrounded by hangers-on, Townsend was hauling two guitar cases.

“It’s me and me mates,” Townshend breezily announced.  “Where do we go?”
Their mouths agape, all Towle and Clark could manage were gestures toward backstage.

Towle ducked outside to find that the once-docile crowd had lost its patience. Soon folks began banging for entry on doors and windows. Towle huddled with security officers to figure out what—if any—crowd control could be done.

Towle and his minions scoured McDonough’s corridors, praying that the place wouldn't get overrun. For safety reasons they finally decided to keep all exits open throughout the show, which meant that anyone who could contort himself through a window could get in for free.

The band members could not have been better guys, remembers Clark, who was in the holding room while The Who waited out the long delay. When Clark shared with lead singer Daltrey the rumor that local toughs had vowed to beat them up, Daltrey—never one to back down from a brawl—howled, “You mean those yokels are planning to attack us?!”

Who lead guitarist Pete Townshend on stage at McDonough Gym, Nov. 2, 1969.

In a corner backstage, The Who’s agent wasn’t throwing punches at Schreibman—but he was tossing out everything else, including a threat to walk if more money wasn’t handed over. Eventually, the agent gave up, the lights were dimmed, and Towle was given the high sign to go out and introduce the band.

'The Most Electrifying Rock Performance I Have Ever Seen'

Listening to you,
I get the music.
Gazing at you,
I get the heat.
Following you,
I’d climb the mountains.
I get excitement at your feet. . .

The Who busted McDonough wide open. Washington Post critic William C. Woods called it “the most electrifying rock performance I have ever seen.” The band’s first set included a wild rendition of “I Can See for Miles” with Daltrey egging the crowd to belt out the chorus, plus a profane screed from Townshend, who urged everyone “to end the f***ing war by taking to the streets”—at which point the band ripped into their defiant anthem, “My Generation.”

The second set consisted of Tommy, performed virtually in its entirety—and playfully dedicated by Townshend to the concert’s gatecrashers. Even Georgetown Jesuit theologian William McFadden enjoyed the show, although he complained for days afterward that his ears “hurt from the inside.”

Campus Heroes

Right behind you,
I see the millions.
On you, I see the glory.
From you, I get opinions.
From you, I get the story. . .

The Blanket Patrol’s prayers had been answered. Nobody got hurt and McDonough Arena escaped serious damage. At least for a while, Towle and company were campus heroes—although they did end up taking heat from Georgetown President Robert J. Henle, S.J., who was furious that the rules governing campus concerts had been flouted, and Coach McGee, who was livid that his arena had been overrun.  It was worth it.   

They had brought to campus “an unforgettable night of rock in the bleeding raw,” as the Post’s Woods put it. And they’d done better than break even financially. Schreibman estimates the show, despite the chaos, cleared $4,000.

Where Are They Now?

Come on an amazing journey
And learn all you need to know…

All those Georgetown rockers are north of 65 now.

Organizers Ed Towle and Jim Clark have spent their careers practicing law in Los Angeles.

One of the founders of Georgetown’s own Sageworth and Drums, John Zambetti, turned to medicine, becoming a pioneering emergency room physician in Southern California, but Walt Egan stuck with music. He recorded albums and became a coveted songwriter and session guitarist. Eight years after graduation, his perseverance paid off when his song, “Magnet and Steel” became a Top Ten hit. (Warning: If you start humming its “ooooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh” it’ll get stuck in your brainwaves for days). Zambetti and Egan still jam out on the coast and at alumni reunions.

Lou Stovall is an award-winning designer who loves Tommy as much today as he did in 1969.

Mike Schreibman went on to promote a ton of other rock shows. He’s still in the business, heading the Washington Area Music Association. And he still owns cats.

William McFadden, S.J., now faculty emeritus, remains the éminence grise of Georgetown’s theology department. He never again abused his ears at a rock concert but for more than 40 years has lent his soothing baritone to Hoya basketball games as the program’s public address announcer.

As for the two infidels who “skipped the cross and went right to the Resurrection,” as McFadden observed, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey returned to Washington in 2008 to accept the Kennedy Center Honors. This time, nobody threatened to beat them up or throw a smoke bomb.

While being fêted at the Kennedy Center, Pete ‘n Rog were just downriver from the place where, 39 years earlier, it took only $5—or, if one were enterprising enough, nothing—to see them blow away a crowd. It was a time when a rock poster could evoke Michelangelo and a single guitar riff in a packed gym with the doors flung open could echo for miles. . . and miles. . . and miles. . . and miles. . . and miles. . .

Oh, yeah.

Tim Gay author image

Guest author Tim Gay (C’76) has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Read more about Tim.