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Historic Music Venues: The Boston Garden

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Racial tensions in the United States were certainly high in the mid 1960s, and the pot nearly bubbled over with the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968.

While that tragedy was historic and changed the direction of an entire nation, the following night’s show at the Boston Garden will also forever go down in history.

The country was reeling after King’s senseless killing, with riots springing up in many cities.  On April 5, the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, was slated to play the Garden in front of a sold-out crowd of 14,000.

At this point, Detroit was literally burning, as was Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and  Boston might not have been too far behind.  Beantown city leaders were worried that the James Brown concert would stoke the flames of violence in the heart of the city.  As such, Mayor Kevin White considered cancelling the show.

In a VH1 rock doc, White said, “His concert – we thought it could bring as many as 20,000 black people, young people, into the city.  It just had too much emotion in it. That would be a problem.”

Faced with a tough decision, White’s advisors convinced him to let the show go on.  White then convinced Brown to allow a PBS station, WGBH, to broadcast the event to the Boston area.  White took the stage that night and pleaded with the crowd to honor King’s memory, and then Brown ripped through his hits with all the emotion of the moment.

With the masses watching him live – whether at the Garden or in their living rooms – Boston remained peaceful as so many other cities rioted.

Brown’s performance, which is available as a live concert DVD, is just one of many landmark shows at the Boston Garden.

Originally opening in 1928 as Boston Madison Square Garden (an iteration of entrepreneur and boxing promoter Tex Rickard’s Madison Square Garden empire in New York), its first event was on Nov. 17, a boxing match between Dick Finnegan and Andre Routis.  The first team sporting event was an ice hockey game between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens three days later.

Over the years, its rafters would come to host numerous Boston Celtics championship banners, but it was always more than a sporting venue.  It also played host to several political rallies, equestrian shows and the circus.

Then, there was the music.

GardenInWhen talking about concerts at the Garden, Brown’s appearance is at the top of the list.  But so many other notable bands have also graced the parquet floor.  The Beatles stopped by the Garden during their first U.S. tour in 1964; Elvis Presley was in the building during his jumpsuit comeback in 1971; The Who played an epic show in support of Quadrophenia in 1973.

Another infamous story concerns the Rolling Stones and a 1972 show that was just barely pulled off.

In the midst of their Exile on Main Street tour (and at the heights of debauchery), the Stones got into a fight with a photographer during a gig in Rhode Island.  When the cops bagged and tagged guitarist Keith Richards and frontman Mick Jagger, their subsequent Boston stop was imperiled – not good for the morale of a sold-out crowd at the Garden.

In stepped Mayor White, who pleaded with the Rhode Island authorities to let the duo peform, and thus quell any potential violence at the result of a no-show.  Amazingly, the Rhode Island representatives relented, and the show went off without a hitch.  When asked about his favorite local concerts, native Bostonian and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry Boston’s The Phoenix that the Stones at the Garden took the cake.

“Without question it was the Stones in ’72 at the Garden,” said Perry. “It was as amazing as you can imagine. And it was a combination of events that you just can’t orchestrate. It was the kind of thing that made the Stones what they are. I mean, the biggest rock-and-roll outlaws in the world get arrested and then make a mad dash to Boston with a police escort! And, I remember Mayor White throwing a football out into the crowd to keep everyone occupied. And, then, finally, they arrived: the street-fighting men with all the rock-and-roll lifestyle they had. And they kicked ass.”

The Garden was torn down in 1998, coinciding with the erection of the Fleet Center (now TD Garden), but the musical memories abound.

Bob Seger recorded the majority of his 1981 live album Nine Tonight there, as did the J. Geils Band for their 1976 live offering, Blow Your Face Out.  And it’s impossible to overlook Pearl Jam’s emotional two-night run at the Garden on April 10-11, 1994, mere days after singer Eddie Vedder’s friend and peer Kurt Cobain committed suicide.

Considering the many instances where the original Boston Garden has contributed to musical lore, its spirit will definitely live on.

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