Pop Goes Cincinnati

Forty years ago Cincinnati became part of Rock & Roll lore

Forty years ago this Sunday, Iggy Pop — 23-year-old front man of The Stooges, a defiantly loud and grungy Detroit band — created Rock & Roll mythology at the Cincinnati Summer Pop Festival.

Bare-chested, singing “T.V. Eye,” he scrambled from the outdoor stage at the home of the Cincinnati Reds, Crosley Field, and went into the crowd, climbing atop the shoulders of frenzied fans to stand above them, like Jesus on water, held up by their sea of hands as he pointed outward. The image, captured on video and still photography (above), has become iconic.

One fan gave the lean, wiry Iggy a jar of peanut butter, which he smeared on his chest, proving that he’d do anything and use anything when in the throes of the frenzied, post-Garage, pre-Punk Rock & Roll squall that his bandmates played. That, in a (pea)nutshell, has become his legend. And he stayed so active and primal a music figure since then — despite his share of substance-abuse problems — that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

His set was captured on film — videotape, actually — as part of a locally-produced (by WLWT) 90-minute syndicated television special called Midsummer Rock, which aired months later. In most cities broadcasting it, including Cincinnati, the audio was simulcast in stereo by FM Rock stations.

Besides The Stooges, the TV show features a bizarre performance-art set by a pre-stardom Alice Cooper in which he tries to hypnotize the audience during “Black Juju” but gets a piece of cake thrown in his face. There’s also more straightforward Rock & Roll from Grand Funk Railroad, Mountain and the festival’s melodic headliner, Traffic featuring Stevie Winwood.

Not on the TV show were sets by such other acts on the marathon bill as Bob Seger, Mott the Hoople, Ten Years After, Zephyr, Savage Grace and more. (There was a heavy Michigan presence on the bill, as the festival’s promoters — Russ Gibb and Michael Quatro — were from there.)

That broadcast has acquired its own mythology, especially since clips have come to be posted on YouTube. One source of the fascination is its host in the ballfield’s broadcast booth: a straight-laced, coat-and-tie wearing former Today Show announcer named Jack Lescoulie, hired for the occasion. (Then 58, he’s now deceased.) Well-meaning but way out of his element, he comes off a bit like Fred Willard’s announcer character in Best in Show.

“That’s peanut butter,” Lescoulie exclaims when Iggy smears the suspect substance upon himself. Another time, the host complains that the bands “do not go about this in a showbiz way” because they spend too much time tuning up. “And kids don’t seem to mind this at all.”

The TV broadcast is getting a rare public screening Sunday at downtown’s Main Public Library. It will be followed by a panel discussion with several people involved in the event: local promoter/manager/musician Stan Hertzman, WLWT executive producer Bill Spiegel and Tom Weschler, Seger’s road manager and author of Travelin’ Man: On the Road and Behind the Scenes With Bob Seger.

The library event was organized by employee Brian Powers, who previously put together King Records-related programs. He’d never heard of the Cincinnati Summer Pop Festival until finding a bootleg copy of the broadcast in 2001.

“I first found out about it in Portland (Ore.), when I went into a video store and they had a VHS copy that said, ‘Cincinnati Pop Festival,’ ” Powers recalls.

[Get more details about what happened at the music festival in Powers' article "A Summer to Remember."]

Sunday’s discussion probably will place the event in the context of the local music scene at the time. It might also touch on the various roadblocks the conservative Cincinnati Reds organization put up to using the ballpark as well as the reports of rough treatment of fans by police and the political opposition promoters received from “underground” newspaper Independent Eye.

Not scheduled to be there, alas, is the TV show’s director Bob Heath, who worked on WLW’s Midwestern Hayride and 50-50 Club and was brought into the Pop Fest project by Spiegel. Long active in Hollywood (after leaving WLW), Heath is busy producing a new sitcom for TVLand called Hot in Cleveland, which co-stars one of the biggest acts in showbiz, Betty White.

“Timing is everything,” he says during a telephone interview, explaining that White signed on just weeks before her famous Super Bowl commercial.

Heath explains that Avco Embassy — WLW/Channel 5’s corporate owner at the time, which also had other media properties — wanted to tap into the counterculture after 1969’s Woodstock showed how big it was. So when a mystery man out of New York named Michael Goldstein pitched a broadcast of the Cincinnati Pop Festival, Avco told WLW to do it. Spiegel and Heath were willing, but the rest of station management was reluctant.

“Spiegel was great, but the people above him said, ‘We’ve got to protect ourselves,’ ” Heath recalls. “So they brought in Jack Lescoulie and said, ‘This will sanitize it for sponsors and the audience in Cincinnati.’ Lescoulie was a very nice man, but (he) didn’t belong at a Rock concert.”

(A younger WLW employee, Bob Waller, provides color commentary and interviews fans during the broadcast.)

Since Heath’s crew — with three cameras at their disposal — taped everything, it had to select just five acts for the 90-minute broadcast. Grand Funk and Traffic were picked because they opened and closed the event, and Mountain was chosen because the Cream-influenced group was a favorite of producer Goldstein’s. Heath can’t remember why Alice Cooper — whose music was unmelodic and semi-experimental — was chosen, although the cake incident might have played a role.

But of Iggy’s Stooges — a Detroit cult favorite at the time whose style of Rock was regarded as amateurishly primitive by most FM stations and many Rock fans — there was never any doubt. The crew knew immediately when a great moment in Rock had occurred.

“We chose Iggy because of the visuals of him with the peanut butter and standing in the crowd,” Heath says. “All the other groups were Rock & Rollers who performed in a ‘glass wall’ way: ‘I’m on stage, you’re in the audience.’

“(Iggy) made it theater — pure entertainment as opposed to just being music-based. Now look at all the groups that do that.”

THE CINCINNATI SUMMER POP FESTIVAL video is screened at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at downtown’s Main Public Library, followed by a panel discussion. Check out Brian Powers’ in-depth feature story on the event, "A Summer to Remember," for more details about Sunday's event.

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