Joe Walsh was a student at Kent State 50 years ago when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a student protest, killing four.
The experience traumatized him, leading him to quit school and abandon his English degree in pursuit of making music with his first group, the James Gang. He went on to solo success and joined the Eagles, but in a statement commemorating the massacre, he says that day still haunts him.
“Today is May 4th and it marks 50 years since the shooting at Kent State University,” he wrote, recalling the day when students voiced outrage that President Nixon wanted to invade Cambodia as an extension of the Vietnam War. “Those of us who were there remember that day graphically, when our classmates, our friends, got shot down. We were naïve young people who had left our parents’ nest and were just starting our lives by going to college and furthering our education. And we were peacefully demonstrating but because of a total dysfunctional authority trying to handle a situation they didn’t understand, it mutated into elevated emotions and anger, chaos and fear escalated into violence.
“It was a long time ago but the reason it is so important and should be remembered is because history repeats itself — and we are as divided as a country now as we were then — and people demonstrating have no chance against people with guns,” Walsh continued. “The solution then, as it is now, is to be able to peacefully assemble and understand each other and accept our differences, without fear, without hatred, without violence.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down large gatherings of people, Walsh had intended to perform at a benefit concert that would provide scholarships for four students majoring in the school’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. The event, which would have also featured David Crosby, was canceled in late March.
Walsh wrote the 1972 song “Turn to Stone” about his feelings about the Nixon administration’s handling of the Vietnam War. “It’s a song about frustration,” he told Rolling Stone. “Also, I attended Kent State. I was at the shootings. That fueled it, too. In those days it felt like the government’s priority was not the population. They had an agenda that was about something other than doing what was necessarily good for the country.”
Devo’s Jerry Casale was also present at the Kent State shooting and recently provided an especially vivid account of what went down that day for Rolling Stone. In it, he said that, like Walsh, the event pushed him to make music. “I’ve said it often and I mean it, but I don’t think there would have been a Devo if not for Kent State,” he said. “Without that trauma and the red-pill changeover, I would have gone down this other path in life.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young also released the Young-penned song “Ohio” in 1970 in reaction to the shooting. Rolling Stone’s David Browne wrote about the genesis of the song in his book Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost History of 1970 and published an excerpt about the song this past weekend.