I’ve been to over two hundred concerts since the early seventies, but nothing can compare before or since to the Led Zeppelin concert at Tampa Stadium on the night of June 3rd 1977. I’d bought my ticket in advance and arrived about 1/2 an hour before show-time. As I made my way towards the field, the sight that greeted me was astounding. At every entry portal throughout the stands, two cops dresses in full riot gear stood silent century. Clear shields, clubs, leggings, helmets… the works. I’d seen the Tampa police present in large numbers before, but never anything like this. As the entire stadium became visible, I realized as I peered across the vast expanse between me and the other side, that even the walkway rows in the stands were completely full of people! I’d been to many concerts at the Stadium, but I’d never see a crowd this size before. I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but there was a certain strange ‘electricity’ in the air. Very weird. Much like the feeling one gets when one is about to be struck by lightening. Something almost seen, but just out of the range of one’s vision. I can remember thinking at the time that it felt like something very big was about to happen. It was. And it was to be much bigger than anyone could have anticipated.
I made my way down onto the field, just to the right of center near the 20 yard line, where some friends were already waiting for me. There on stage were Bonzo’s drums and all their gear. It was a towering sight, and seethed of the power that was sure to come. I had never seen Zeppelin before, but I knew that I was in the right place.Just before dark they came on. They kicked right into it, no holds barred, and the massive crowd responded in riotous cheers. I looked back into the sea of countless faces behind me… then back again to the power and the glory that was on that stage…. Plant standing toe-to-toe with Page, and him with that big ax… And the thunder on those drums that was Bonham .. At that range, it was like being strapped to the front of a runaway freight train. Total chaos but under total control! It was easy to think that we were all in for one hell of a night. But it was simply not to be….
I can still hear them wailing out strains of ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ as the first grape-sized rain drops began to fall. Just as the song neared it’s end, the rain got so bad that the band was forced to leave the stage, saying that they would be back when the shower was over. The crowd, already pumped up by this fine taste of jam, waited patiently.It rained for at least 1/2 an hour; maybe 45 minutes. And then, just as suddenly… it was over. We were all beginning to get up and shake off the rain, when a voice came over the PA system and said simply that everyone had to leave the stadium… that the show had been cancelled. They issued this command at least three times, with no other explanation. No mention of rescheduling. No mention of whether we’d be getting our money back. Nothing. My ticket stub said “rain or shine”. I suspected everyone else’s did too because it wasn’t 30 seconds before bottles began pelting that stage. I stood there in utter amazement, watching a steady stream of objects raining down on their gear. The voice came through the PA again, but this time in a harsher tone. The hail-storm of bottles got even worse. That’s when I knew for sure that there was going to be trouble.
This went on for at least three or four minutes before I noticed the long line of black helmets filing in on the other side of the crowd barricade. They weren’t fifty feet away from my vantage point, trotting single file, left to right. Then, with no further warning, over the barricade they came. An immediate stampede followed. Everyone in front of me just turned and ran as fast as they could. I soon discovered the source of their motivation….
Before I could get a grip on what I was seeing, I was stepped on, knocked to the ground and run over. By the time the crowd cleared, there they were… The meanest bunch of cops you’d ever want to see. They were two-abreast and busting the crap out of anybody that was in their way. ‘In their way’ at this point, were the dozens of other poor souls who, like me, were just trying to get to their feet. The two cops who were moving towards me chose to bash the people to my left, which gave me a chance to gather myself up. I got to my feet and surveyed the bedlam going down all around me. What especially caught my eye was the mayhem at the far end of the field…. where everyone had been flushed by the cops. Everywhere it was insanity in motion. I don’t even know how to describe it. Missiles were flying. Thousands of people were running in every direction. Screaming. Trying to get away. Angry police and confused fans could be standing right next to each other at any given time, but would not even be aware of the another’s proximity. Too much to take in. Too much all at once at any given moment to process in the short distance of that moment. A friend who was knocked down with me urged me to come with him and get the hell out of there. But me, being 19 and very pissed off at what I’d just seen, decided to head for the other end of the stadium where my brothers and sisters needed me more.
The fuzz had forced what the papers said were “between 3,000 & 5,000 rioters” into one of the four huge stadium exit portals on the field. I darted across that battle-line and into the biggest mass of pissed-off, snarling, steaming, oath-spewing, bottle-hurling rock people I’d ever seen. It took a lot of blood and quite a few busted fingers, but we somehow managed to closed the huge gates on them, so they couldn’t try to force us any further out. Every time a cop would lay his hands on those gates he’d get his hands smashed with something. Did I mention the missiles? It was unbelievable. The air was loaded with flying things throughout this whole affair. After a while we ran out of things to throw. They said later that stadium clean up found 3,000 pairs of shoes… Like I said, nothing left to throw.
The whole melee was eventually forced out of the stadium and into the west parking lot. Tampa police and the Sheriff Auxiliaries busting heads everywhere. Thousands of people running in all directions. The only way that I’ve been able to describe the deal in the parking lot is to say that it must have been a lot like Pickett’s charge at the battle of Gettysburg. At one point, I was knocked to the ground by some kind of blow to the back of my head. As my vision stabilized and I lay there looking up, I was astounded at what I saw: Nothing but flying object filling the air, in all directions. It was like looking at a pile of jackstraws, except they were moving.
I got to my feet and spied two Sheriff deputies about thirty feet away, standing there amidst the pandemonium, talking to each other just as calmly as you please. They were talking face-to-face. Looking to the ground, I saw a beer bottle lying about five feet away. I could not resist! I grabbed that sucker by the neck, and in one movement, hurled it end over end, right at those two helmet-headed cops. But my aim was too true. The bottle passed right between their faces. I mean, there couldn’t have been four inches on either side! They had helmets on, but their faces were not protected (I thank God now for the fact that I missed. It would have followed me around for the rest of my life If I would have connected. I was pretty disappointed then, though). But there was hardly time for thought. A second after I let fly, I was slammed to the ground from behind and cuffed by two county Sheriff deputies. They drug me away to a small secure room on-site and threw me in with a few others. A little while later, I even got to ride in the paddy wagon!
First, they took us to the city stockade and put us in a holding cell with about twenty other dudes. I swear to God, they couldn’t fit another person in there. Standing room only. All concert-goers. Many bleeding. Many shouting for help. All ignored by a fat cop working at his desk not ten feet away. I spent the rest of the night in county lockup, and was arraigned the next morning on a very serious charge…. “Hurling a deadly missile at a police officer in the line of duty”, I think it was (the two cops who took me down saw the whole thing). There were 150 other arrests that night, but only three felonies. Me being one.
My hotshot lawyer later got the charge reduced because I had no adult record, and the cops weren’t hurt. Not only that, but by the time any of us made it to court, the whole Led Zeppelin affair had become a bad taste in the city’s mouth and everybody just wanted to wash their hands of it. It was an experience Tampa (and the rock and roll community here) would live with for a long time. It was quite a while before they’d allow another concert there again (I think it was the Eagles in 1980).
The next day, the newspaper ran a great picture (big) on the front page showing these two riot-clad cops dragging this totally bewildered looking fan away. The disturbing thing to me was the sneer of hate on this one cops face. A very clear message, and not surprising to anyone who was there. They were ready for trouble.
We later learned that Led Zeppelin had been chauffeured away before the rain had even stopped. The Tribune ran a picture of their limo streaking away. You could see Plant through the window looking very distraught. When all the dust settled, it came out that the city had cancelled the show after the rain due to some kinda curfew at the stadium or something.
It was a real bust but at least I did get to see them, and they were really cooking! They never came back to Tampa again. The Tampa police were eventually saddled with the blame, by and large. Coming from one who actually saw it, I think I can say that they were at least 75 per cent at fault. You just don’t go and rush a pumped-up crowd of over 70,000 LZ fans and get away with it. It was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen.
Then-Zeppelin spokeswoman Janine Safer said in Rolling Stone #243, that… “The entire situation from top to bottom was handled as miserably as anything could conceivably be handled” (there’s a couple of photos in this issue, including the one of the evil hateful cop dragging the poor bewildered freak away). The papers said the next day that there were 27 car crashes around the area of the stadium that night. Fans caught up in the mass exodus who just wanted to get the hell away from a really bad experience.
Not long after this, the stampede incident at the Who show in Cincinnati happened, and the days of festival seating were almost over. Tell me.. When’s the last time you went to a concert and saw a human-pyramid or a blanket-toss on the field, or hundreds of Frisbees flying through the air all at once? Now you have little old ladies with flashlights who show you to your seat. I can see my friends over there but I can’t get to them. So much of the communal spirit has been quashed with the taming of the rock arena…. Rock will never be the same again. It was the end of an era that was old as rock itself.