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Deep Green: The 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace

Background - 8 February, 2010
During the 1960s, art and politics merged into a full-spectrum cultural revolution - a liberation of music and poetry, political street theatre, socially-conscious films and novels. A fresh political awareness swept around the world; the women's movement, civil rights, indigenous stands against colonial domination and the dawning of modern ecology action.

"L'imagination au pouvoir." (Imagination is seizing power) - Written on the walls of the Sorbonne, Paris, May, 1968

The status quo may attempt to crush that spirit of social liberation, but social movements turn in cycles, and it feels as if the world is about to erupt again with citizen empowerment, driven by the collapse of both our ecological and economic systems.

In this spirit of revival, Greenpeace has released a two-disc CD, Amchitka: The 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace. Featuring Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs, the recording reflects a time when artists seized the power to merge imagination with politics and shift the social context.

Changing the course of history

"Find out just what people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong that will be imposed upon them." - Frederick Douglass

In 1969, a United States plan to conduct nuclear bomb tests on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian archipelago ignited the movement in Canada that would become Greenpeace.

Irving and Dorothy Stowe were American Quakers, who left the US in protest of its military policies, and arrived in Canada, in 1966, with their children Robert and Barbara. The Stowe home became a nexus of action to protest the US nuclear tests. Their Quaker friends Marie and Jim Bohlen first proposed the idea to sail a boat into the test zone. Canadian journalists Bob Hunter and Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe lent media experience, and the small group swelled with volunteers.

Hunter wrote a newspaper column about the danger of a tsunami from the bomb tests, which provided the group with its first name: The Don't Make a Wave Committee. Twenty-two year-old Bill Darnell, who organised an 'Ecology Caravan' in Canada, inspired the name that has endured for four decades. After a meeting, when Irving Stowe said "Peace," Darnell responded with "Make it a green peace," and the name stuck.

The group raised money with tin cans in corner grocery stores, and 25 cent 'Greenpeace' buttons, but had not raised nearly enough to charter a boat and sail 6,000 kilometres across the Gulf of Alaska. Irving Stowe, a lover of music, decided to stage a rock concert.

He wrote to activist musicians Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and others. Ochs and the popular Canadian band Chilliwack agreed to appear. Baez could not attend, but sent a $1000 check and connected Stowe with Joni Mitchell, who agreed to perform and brought her friend James Taylor. Stowe booked Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum for the event on16 October, 1970. Sound engineer Dave Zeffertt, recorded the concert on quarter-inch tape, and gave a copy to Stowe for his personal use only: it is a testament to Irving Stowe's integrity that this historic recording never leaked out as a bootleg.

Spirit of revival

Robert Stowe, son of Greenpeace co-founder Irving Stowe, preserved the tape and championed the idea to release it. At Greenpeace Canada, John Timmins and Rebecca Moershel produced and managed the CD project with a team of talented music industry professionals. Timmins - who provides guitar and vocals on recordings with his siblings, The Cowboy Junkies - worked with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and the Ochs family to secure the recording rights, and with music technicians, who restored, re-mastered, and edited the original quarter-inch audio tape.

The CD package includes photographs by Alan Katowitz, George Kropinski, and Robert Keziere, documenting the concert and the first Greenpeace campaign. The story of this concert, and the organisation that grew from it, is a celebration of the creative human spirit in the face of injustice.

The CD collection is also a tribute to the Stowe family, who hosted the early Greenpeace meetings and organised the event. Barbara Stowe, 14 at the time of the historic concert, has written a stirring first-hand memoir of the events for the CD liner notes. Her husband, Canadian artist Joseph Montague, provided art direction that brings this breathtaking event of 1970 back to life.

Art and politics

"I won't be laughing at the lies when I'm gone... So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here." - Phil Ochs

This recording is historic not only because of the magnificent music and launching of Greenpeace, but because it documents the zeitgeist of an era, the confluence of art and politics at the height of the peace movement and the dawn of the ecology movement.

Phil Ochs opened the show with his political and peace songs - Rhythms of Revolution and I Ain't Marching Anymore -  and his haunting classic Changes. Ochs represents both the power and tragedy of public protest during this era. Ochs wrote brilliant songs, played at the famous Newport Folk Festival, and became a mentor, friend and sometimes-rival of Bob Dylan. Joan Baez recorded a hit version of his song, There But for Fortune.

However, Ochs suffered from an inherited bipolar disorder. After the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and after police beat peace protesters in Chicago in 1968, he felt disillusioned. By the time Ochs arrived in Vancouver for the 1970 Greenpeace concert, he suffered from a manic depression cycle. Nevertheless, he rose to the occasion and delivered a stunning performance.

After leaving Vancouver, Ochs visited Chile, where reformist Salvador Allende had been elected president. There, he developed a close friendship with Chilean folksinger Víctor Jara, performed at political rallies, and was later arrested in Uruguay. In 1973, he was mugged and strangled in Tanzania, damaging his singing voice. He suspected that US agents were behind his arrests and attacks. Some people thought he was paranoid, but the FBI held a 500 page file on Ochs and considered him 'subversive'.

The 1973 CIA coup in Argentina, and brutal murders of Allende and Victor Jara, left Ochs ever more distressed. He organised a concert in New York to celebrate the lives of Allende and Jara, featuring artists Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan. In 1975, he staged a 'War Is Over' rally in New York's Central Park, to celebrate the end of the Vietnam War, attracting over 100,000 people to hear the music of Ochs, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

However, depression and political disappointment overcame Ochs. While undergoing psychiatric treatment in April 1976, he committed suicide. Ochs bore witness to some of the most shameful political outrages of his age. He wrote and sang about those injustices, and left a legacy of political art for all time. It was a great honour that Ochs open the event that launched Greenpeace.

Both Sides Now

"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." - Joni Mitchell

The songs did not have to be overtly political. In a society that promotes conformity, honest creativity itself is political. The stunning performance by Chilliwack does not appear on the Amchitka CD, since the band had not given permission to be recorded. As Barbara Stowe notes, they rocked the house.

James Taylor had just released his second album Sweet Baby James, including the popular hit Fire and Rain. The Amchitka CD includes this song and the brilliant Carolina in My Mind. Taylor's performance is both raw and sophisticated, a young artist, 22 years old, showcasing his natural powers. 

Joni Mitchell, 26 at the time, was at a musical crossroads. Other artists - Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Rush - had hits with her songs before she did, but by 1970, her Clouds album had earned a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi was a current hit and one of the first popular songs with an ecological theme.

Nevertheless, Joni Mitchell had stopped performing, feeling uncomfortable in the public glare. "At that period of my life," she later told Rolling Stone magazine, "I had no personal defences." She continued, however, to write music, moving into more complex jazz and fusion styles. The Greenpeace concert recording captures this new creative direction, featuring A Case of You and Carey, songs in progress that would appear on her 1971 Blue album, regarded as one of the seminal artistic recordings of the era. The song Hunter, also written and recorded at this time for the Blue album, was eventually dropped, and was not released until this Amchitka CD. It is a beautiful, haunting song about the internal conflict between the instinct to help and the fear of exposing oneself to danger; a great little gem of a song that will resonate with Greenpeace activists.

On the Amchitka CD, Carey, which Mitchell accompanies with dulcimer, morphs into Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, another creative high-water mark of the time. Halfway through this song, Mitchell invites James Taylor on stage to sing with her, and the duet provides a priceless climactic moment.

The concert raised the money needed to launch the first Greenpeace campaign. Greenpeace was born at a time when humanity dearly needed a shift in consciousness. War threatened society, and ecological destruction threatened the Earth.

In 2010 - 40 years later - we appear to once again need a transformation of human awareness.

- RexWeyler

Rex WeylerThe Amchitka CD is available through Greenpeace at amchitka-concert.com

You can respond to "Deep Green" columns at my Ecolog, where I post portions of this column and dialogue with readers.