How Rock Responded to the Kent State Tragedy

Students retreat from the Ohio National Guard at Kent State, 1970
Photo Credit
Steven Clevenger/Corbis via Getty Images

To many Americans, if particularly those who were alive and politically aware at the time, May 4, 1970 remains a day just as infamous as Dec. 7, 1941. Indeed, for some individuals, it’s arguably an even worse date: the attack on Pearl Harbor was done by enemy soldiers, whereas the deaths that took place at Kent State were at the hands of members of the Ohio National Guard.

The story has been told many times before, and it’s never any less excruciating to hear: for the first time in U.S. history, a student was killed at an anti-war gathering...except it wasn’t just one student. It was four students: Allison Beth Krause, 19; Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20; Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20; and William Knox Schroeder, 19.

Twenty-eight National Guard Soldiers fired approximately 67 rounds over an unbelievably long 13-second period, resulting not only in the aforementioned four deaths but also the wounding of nine other students.

All this during a peace rally. Go figure.

Among those who were in the thick of the peace rally: Gerald Casale, future member of Devo. In a lengthy piece for Rolling Stone, Casale reflected on the experience, and while we recommend that you read his piece in full, we wanted to offer up an excerpt from it, specifically the moments immediately after the shooting started:

For a moment, time stood still. It was like a Scorsese film, like Raging Bull, where suddenly Jake LaMotta is getting hit in the face and it goes into slow motion. And then it snaps back just like a Hollywood movie, and, bang! Back to real time. Here’s the blood, the screaming, the crying, the chaos …

I turn around and I see a guy on his belly on the road. People are starting to gather around, and there’s blood running out of his head and neck area. The blood is glistening in the noon sun. I realize it’s Jeff Miller. I get sick to my stomach and I feel like I’m going to pass out.

I sat down on the grass. About 30 seconds later, I realize there are people screaming, “Allison! Allison!” I can’t really see her, but I see all these people hovering around somebody laying on their back in the student/teacher parking lot, not moving. That turned out to be Allison Krause.

We don’t know what’s going to happen next and there’s screaming and crying and chaos. There were these student monitors out during the protest, sort of like the friendly cops. They were wearing arm bands and yelling out, “Don’t move! Don’t move! Just sit down! Don’t run!”

We didn’t know if they were going to keep shooting. We didn’t know what the fuck was going to happen. And you’re frozen in trauma and fear. You just about shit your pants. The students are 18, 19, maybe some were 20. I was 20. I wasn’t going to move anyway. I couldn’t move. I was shaking. I saw what real violence is and what happens when M1 rifles are fired with military shells and go through humans.

You gotta understand the people shooting are the same age as the people they just killed. They are all standing there freaked. They aren’t moving either. They realize what they’ve done.

It seemed like hours went by. I don’t think hours actually went by, but by the time the ambulances got there and navigated their way off-road, across the lawn and into the area, the students who were dead were dead.

The other two students [Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder], who I didn’t know at all, were even farther away. They were near the journalism building. They weren’t activists at all. One was just trying to leave to go her car, and the other one just came out to see what the hell was going on. Those two students were just collateral damage from this political horror show.

I didn’t get shot and nobody in my group got shot because they were firing over our heads. It’s just the luck of the draw. But that’s it. Nine wounded. One paralyzed for life. Four dead.

Also present: Chrissie Hynde, future frontwoman for The Pretenders. In her memoir, Reckless, she recalled the horrifying experience.

Then I heard the tatatatatatatatatat sound. I thought it was fireworks. An eerie sound fell over the common. The quiet felt like gravity pulling us to the ground. Then a young man's voice: "They fucking killed somebody!" Everything slowed down and the silence got heavier.

The ROTC building, now nothing more than a few inches of charcoal, was surrounded by National Guardsmen. They were all on one knee and pointing their rifles at ... us! Then they fired.

By the time I made my way to where I could see them it was still unclear what was going on. The guardsmen themselves looked stunned. We looked at them and they looked at us. They were just kids, 19 years old, like us. But in uniform. Like our boys in Vietnam.

When David Crosby saw the now-famous issue of LIFE that featured photos from the horrific incident, he gave it to Neil Young, which provided Young - who had heard the news reports about the tragedy - with the focus he needed to compose a song about what had happened on the college campus in only a few hours. Written on guitar, “Ohio” was recorded almost as quickly as it was written. According to Graham Nash in an interview with MusicRadar, “Crosby called me up and said he’d booked a studio: ‘Neil just wrote this song, it’s fucking fantastic. Get down here.’ Neil played me ‘Ohio,’ and it was, ‘Holy fuck - fantastic.’ We recorded it in an hour and a half.”

READ MORE: August 1974: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Release First Compilation Album 'So Far'

It took another 30 minutes to record “Find the Cost of Freedom,” a Stephen Stills composition, and after the two songs were mixed, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sent the two-track master to Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun and - according to Nash - said, “Ahmet, we want this out now.” 12 days later, the single was in stores, housed in a sleeve with a copy of the U.S. Constitution that had four bullet holes in it.

Subtle? Not exactly. Classic? Without question.

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