Not long ago, I got an e-mail from a guy who had found my posts on the Iola People’s Fair, the 1970 Wisconsin rock concert that turned into a Sunday morning riot involving bikers and the fans they had been abusing on Saturday. He’s spent some time researching the show himself, and he was kind enough to share some of what he had collected from obscure message boards and elsewhere.
Although a young motorcyclist was killed in a traffic accident on his way to the grounds, I was unable to confirm that there were other fatalities at Iola. I suppose it’s possible that someone who was injured in the riot might have died later on, or some attendee might have overdosed and died later on. But the historical record of the two days on the ground is fairly clear: according to news reports in local papers at the time, the traffic death was the only one at Iola.
This has not stopped rumors of other deaths from proliferating. In my correspondent’s notes, one concertgoer remembers that part of the rage the crowd felt for the bikers was due to an axe murder one of them had committed on the grounds; even more fancifully, another recalls that the angry crowd “executed” some of the bikers after the riot. But if either of those things had actually happened, papers across the country would have bannered them, and the Iola People’s Fair would not be as obscure as it is. The persistence of such rumors indicates that we are willing to believe the worst about rock ‘n’ roll, rock ‘n’ rollers, and rock ‘n’ roll crowds, and we’ve been willing to do so for a long time.
In my WNEW.com archives, there’s a plausibly related piece about the continuing allure of violent rumors involving rock ‘n’ rollers. It’s on the flip, slightly edited.
In January 1982, after Ozzy Osbourne mistakenly bit the head off of a live bat at a show in Des Moines, rumors began to circulate that at an upcoming show in Milwaukee, he would slaughter a goat onstage. He didn’t, but the story was another manifestation of a grand rock tradition: exaggerated tales about shock rockers and animal cruelty.
The rumor often takes the following form: so-and-so will kill an animal onstage, or toss an animal into the crowd and exhort fans to kill it. Osbourne was rumored to have thrown a puppy into the audience and told fans to break its legs; Alice Cooper was said to have done the same thing with a bag full of kittens. In the late 1990s, a widely disseminated e-mail claimed that Marilyn Manson tossed puppies from the stage and would not play until fans had killed them.
The most famous rumor of this sort involved Cooper yanking the head off a live chicken and drinking its blood during his shows. In 1991, he told an interviewer how the rumor started. At a 1969 show in Toronto, somebody threw a live chicken onstage, but he wanted nothing to do with it. “I figured, well, it’s got wings, it’s got feathers, it’ll fly. I’ll just throw it out there and it’ll fly away.” It didn’t, of course. “The audience tore it to pieces!” Cooper said. And shortly thereafter, media reports indicated that Cooper’s stage show included killing live chickens.
(How the hell do you get a live chicken into a concert, even in 1969?)
The rumors occasionally persist today, contrary to all common sense. In a world full of cell-phone cameras and militant animal rights activists, any such incident would make worldwide headlines within 12 hours. That they don’t indicates that such incidents aren’t happening. But that doesn’t stop people from believing that they are.