The Canadian concert that kicked off Greenpeace
On Oct. 16, 1970, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor played a benefit in Vancouver — and helped make history
September 15, 2021, marked the 50th anniversary of Greenpeace. Or, more precisely, it marked the first major radical action by the Don't Make a Wave Committee, a Vancouver-based grassroots activist group that hoped to stop a planned nuclear test off the coast of Alaska — the result of which could have been environmental devastation and catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis.
The Committee's plan was bold but simple, and followed a Quaker philosophy: bear witness to wrongdoing. On Sept. 15, 1971, 12 activists set out on a fishing trawler they nicknamed the Greenpeace, departing from Vancouver for Amchitka Island, which had been the site of increasingly significant nuclear weapons tests by the United States since 1965. The activists didn't actually make it to Amchitka — contributing factors included inclement weather, in-fighting, a month-long delay to the test, and a run-in with the U.S. Navy — and the nuclear test went ahead on Nov. 6, 1971. It was the "largest underground explosion in U.S. history" and according to Nuclear Princeton, "250 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima."
It was the last blast at Amchitka. Media attention garnered by the protesters' voyage contributed to the mounting public outcry against nuclear weapons. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission cancelled the remaining nuclear tests and Greenpeace was recognized as a galvanizing, grassroots force for change.
But the story of Greenpeace doesn't really begin in 1971. It actually goes back about a year earlier, and it starts where so many great stories start: with a musical cue.
A green dream
In 1970, Don't Make a Wave's goal to try to stop the nuclear testing at Amchitka was more of a wild dream than a concrete plan. According to Barbara Stowe, the daughter of two of DMAW's co-founders, Irving and Dorothy Stowe, the committee had no money and no boat. They needed at least $18,000. Finally, Irving Stowe had his eureka moment: a rock concert.
It's Joni. She wants to know if it's okay to bring James Taylor.- Barbara Stowe
"Dad started writing to musicians," Barbara wrote. "One afternoon in late spring, I came home from school and he tossed me an envelope. 'Joan Baez!' My fingers were the ones trembling now. 'You got an answer from Joan Baez?' 'She can't come,' he replied calmly. 'She has a previous commitment. But she sent this.' He handed me a cheque for a thousand dollars."
Baez also passed along the phone number of her friend Joni Mitchell, who agreed to waive her fee and play the show. Local rock band Chilliwack signed on, as did folk singer-songwriter Phil Ochs. The show was booked for Oct. 16, 1970, at the Pacific Coliseum. According to Barbara, it was early October when the phone rang at the Stowe home. "My mother, brother and I looked up expectantly from our veggie burgers as Dad put his hand over the mouthpiece. 'It's Joni. She wants to know if it's okay to bring James Taylor.' Taylor's album Sweet Baby James was shooting up the charts and would reach platinum on Oct. 16. The concert sold out."
Taylor was such a last-minute addition that neither the poster nor the Vancouver Sun ad for the show mentioned his name.
Playing in a 'police state'
On the morning of the sold-out show, the country woke up to sobering news: Canada was under martial law. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had invoked the War Measures Act in response to escalating acts of terrorism by the separatist group Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). "Tanks rolled through the streets of Montreal, civil liberties were curtailed nationwide and all day long we feared the authorities would try to cancel the concert," Barbara wrote.
But the show went on, and according to the Tyee, "in the hours before the concert, the musicians enjoyed the hospitality of the Stowe family. Ochs dined on Barbara's vegetarian lasagna" and "Joni and James made out in the backseat of the family car on the way to the show."
I was totally overtaken emotionally by the music.- John Timmins
Ten thousand people crowded into the Coliseum that night. Ochs, the most overtly political and socially conscious of the artists on the bill, opened the show and repeatedly referenced the situation unfolding across Canada. "Not everyday you get to play in a police state," Barbara recalled him saying before playing "Rhythms of Revolution."
'The counterculture event of the year'
Ochs received a standing ovation and played an encore before local rock band Chilliwack, fresh off the recent release of its self-titled debut, took the room in a wildly different direction.
"Bill Henderson and his band worked their magic with electric guitar, flute, sax, violin, keyboard, drums, bass and vocals, and by the time they ended with a transcendent, extended version of 'Rain-O,' the floor was alive with blissed-out dancing hippie chicks," Barbara wrote. "I was one of them, and as Bill sang: 'If there's no audience, there just ain't no show,' I turned around to see the whole Coliseum singing and swaying in unison."
By all accounts, Taylor was relaxed and a little gruff. When the applause got too much, he instructed the crowd to "shut up" but in a way that only seemed to endear him to the room even more. Mitchell "seemed nervous" or "was a relaxed figure… having fun among friends" or "bored," depending on the writer's interpretation, but Barbara's account is the most specific thanks, in part, to her unique vantage point: she was 14 years old and literally had a front-row seat not only to the show itself but everything that led to this moment.
The hour was close to midnight when Joni walked on with her long blonde hair cascading over her guitar, and as she soared into "Chelsea Morning,'" the whole stadium seemed to rise several inches off the ground. Equally at home on guitar, piano and dulcimer, she selected a range of songs from older albums as well as a few from the as-yet-unreleased Blue. Near the end of her set she called James back to sing a duet of "Mr. Tambourine Man," and then both artists called their managers (Elliot Roberts and Peter Asher) and Terry David and my father onstage to join them in "Circle Game."
It was, as Rex Weyler wrote in his 2004 book Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World, "the biggest counterculture event of the year."
The concert raised a little over $17,000 and not only helped fund that initial Amchitka protest, but it also had a surprise second life almost 40 years later.
John Timmins (Cowboy Junkies) was working for Greenpeace in fundraising when he found out that a recording of the 1970 benefit concert existed and that the tapes belonged to the Stowe family but had never been made public.
"We would haul them out and play them for friends from time to time," Barbara told the Wall Street Journal. Timmins traveled to Vancouver to hear the tapes and found himself "totally overtaken emotionally by the music."
Timmins worked for two years to secure permissions from Mitchell and Taylor, as well as Ochs's estate, and the various record labels and rights holders. In 2009, Greenpeace released Amchitka: the 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace, produced by Timmins and with liner notes by Barbara.
The live double album, which does not feature Chilliwack's set due to a lost recording, is a rare treat of archival audio that serves many purposes. It's an incredible night of great music. The crowd was 10,000 people strong, but the performances have an intimacy and electricity that bolts across the decades. There's the thrill of hearing two people right on the verge of rock stardom as Mitchell and Taylor were both months away from significant artistic breakthroughs (1971 saw the release of Mitchell's definitive album, Blue, while Taylor was named the new face of rock on the cover of Time) and life-changing fame.
Just as the DMAW Committee hoped to do in Amchitka in 1971, Amchitka the album is its own act of bearing witness. It captures an important event that few could have foretold: the launch of one of the most influential environmental organizations in the world. But the record also preserves a pivotal cultural moment: the literal sound of the '60s giving way to the '70s and a new iteration in the evolution of protest music. Amchitka's accidental three-part structure — Ochs, Taylor, Mitchell — reflects the changing shape of what it meant to be a singer-songwriter and the questions they were wrestling with on the cusp of the new decade: what is yours to carry and what is yours to leave behind?