In 1965, Joe Walsh was enrolled at Kent State University, living in Manchester Hall and playing gigs with his band the Measles at off-campus bar Fifth Quarter. One night, a dark-haired teenager named Chrissie Hynde made it past a doorman, claiming she was Walsh’s cousin.
Another Walsh-fronted Kent bar band, the James Gang, hit the national charts. The town’s musical DNA can be found in Hynde’s Pretenders, Devo (founded by two Kent State students) and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, who played their first gigs there.
Kent’s dynamic music scene belied the image of a sleepy rural town in Portage County as it embraced acts ranging from Duke Ellington to Pink Floyd to the homegrown Numbers Band.
“We’re our own little musical oasis here,” says Kent native Jason Prufer. His book Small Town, Big Music: The Outsized Influence of Kent, Ohio, on the History of Rock and Roll, which debuts Jan. 29, documents the town’s storied musical history through concert reviews and oral histories. Prufer, a senior library associate at Kent State, talks with us about Walsh, concerts at the Kent gym and the night a future icon showed up at a campus party.
Cleveland Magazine: You met Joe Walsh two years ago as he was researching a May 4 documentary at the Kent State library. How did he react to your manuscript?
Jason Prufer: He was really sort of smitten with this book. Every photo he looked at triggered stories from him. And these were stories he hadn’t told anybody for 50 years. I’m just a librarian, and he’s an Eagle, but he would call me to talk about music. Joe ended up writing the foreword to the book.
Why did so many name acts come to perform in Kent over the years?
No. 1, college kids always know what’s cool. Another reason is, until the [Richfield] Coliseum was built, the Kent State gym was the biggest room in Northeast Ohio, so it was the best place to get booked. And the university had a specific budget for entertainment. They brought in Elton John, Pink Floyd and James Taylor. It was the perfect storm.
In 1975, Devo was the opening act for the John Waters film Pink Flamingos at Kent State’s University Auditorium with an admission of $1. What did people think of them?
Nobody knew who they were or what they were doing. This was before they had any hit records. Joe Walsh, who loves Devo, remembers thinking Mark Mothersbaugh was crazy after seeing him standing on a downtown corner wearing a mask.
How was Kent State able to book Bruce Springsteen for a 1974 concert performance?
The rest of the country didn’t know about Springsteen, but college kids did. He got $750 as the opening act for Black Oak Arkansas for a show at the student center ballroom. After the concert, he went to a party just like he was any other young guy on campus.