The Rolling Stones kicked off their Exile on Main Street tour at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on 3 June 1972, with Stevie Wonder opening. It was not the Stones’ best performance, but it was significant for other reasons. For one thing, it was the group’s first North American show since the infamous 1969 concert in Altamont, California where four people died, one of whom was killed by the Hell’s Angels who had been given beer to do security.
The police were not likely looking forward to the Rolling Stones playing Vancouver. The last time they played here was at the Forum in 1966. At that show, the band started 90 minutes late and the crowd was pretty wound up. In a misguided attempt to calm the fans, the cops pulled the plug five minutes into the show. Mick Jagger responded by pointing his finger and then thumbing his nose at police Inspector Bud Errington, to the delight of the crowd. The show eventually resumed, but only lasted half an hour.
Errington later said that “we are specifically concerned about this group reappearing in Vancouver due to their lack of cooperation.” Police ejected 36 people from that concert, fans attempted to crash through police lines, and an officer’s hat was stolen. At the first Stones show in Vancouver just seven months earlier, seven people were arrested for drunkenness and causing a disturbance.
The band wasn’t the problem in 1972. In some ways (but not others), Altamont sobered the Stones. The Sun emphasized how good natured Mick Jagger seemed during the Vancouver show. Keith Richards was reportedly packing a .38 revolver on the tour because of rumours of an assassination plot by the Hells Angels as revenge for the lack of support the Stones showed them in the aftermath of Altamont. Conspicuously absent from the set list was “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The first sign there might be trouble came more than a month before the show when $5000 worth of sound equipment was damaged at Empire Stadium by a youth gang on the morning tickets went on sale for the Rolling Stones. The show sold out, but on the night of the concert scalpers were outside selling real and fake tickets for between $6 (face value) and $20.
The mêlée started around 8:45 when people without tickets began pushing against the 100 or so police guarding the doors around the Coliseum. Someone set off firecrackers and the crowd began jeering the police. Then someone threw a bottle that broke the glass above one of the doors. About 200 people took off and ran around the building kicking the doors and shouting at police. When they finished circling the building, a line of about 30 police in riot gear were blocking the main entrance. Bottles began flying and police were smashing them with their riot sticks. Sergeant Stan Ziola was the first police casualty when a bottle broke his sternum.
Rioters lobbed projectiles, police charged, and the rioters retreated. This repeated for an hour and a half. There was very little hand-to-hand skirmishing between police and the 2500-strong crowd outside the Coliseum. Seven officers were on horseback, going from place to place as needed.
By 10:30 the riot was simmering. Around 11:00, a Molotov cocktail exploded at the rear of an RCMP cruiser that was driving past on Renfrew Street. It was followed by another Molotov, and the seven mounted police charged at the crowd, which dispersed between nearby houses.
By the time the 17,000 concert-goers streamed out of the Coliseum at 11:30, it was all over. In the final tally, 31 police were injured and of those thirteen required hospitalization. Thirteen people were arrested that night and another nine rioters were identified and arrested in the days that followed. Most of those charged were young men in their late teens or early twenties, including a 16 year-old boy who assaulted Sgt. Bernie “Whistling” Smith with a chain.
Superintendent Ted Oliver, commander of the 285 officers policing the riot, said “there is no way, ever, that I want to have to ask my men to go into a situation like that again.” He was “proud of every one of those bastards I had working for me. They were cool and they were very, very brave.”
Despite the injuries they sustained, the Vancouver police ultimately benefited from the affray. Their handling of the Rolling Stones Riot was praised in the media and was contrasted with their performance the previous year at the Gastown Riot, for which they were roundly criticized for brutality. The Stones Riot was thus an opportunity for the Vancouver Police Department to redeem itself, as well as to argue that it needed more riot gear.
Police suspected that the obviously premeditated riot was orchestrated by the Clark Park Gang. At the time, youth gangs based in city parks were a preoccupation of the city police. Using the alias Ken Bell, Constable Ken Doern had infiltrated the Clark Park Gang and warned his bosses three weeks before the Stones concert to expect trouble, including weapons.
While undercover, Doern was part of a contingent of parents and youth from the Clark Park area that brought grievances of police harassment and increased surveillance of youth to Alderman Harry Rankin. “Police may think they are trying to get at the hard core but have succeeded in antagonizing a great number of kids,” Rankin said. A police spokesman denied they were doing anything differently around Clark Park than anywhere else, but acknowledged that “the East End wants us out and the people in Dunbar want more of us.”
Some people suspected that off-duty police officers were moonlighting as vigilantes in order to retaliate for the Rolling Stones Riot. An activist group called the Volunteers was circulating a leaflet describing incidents of harassment and assaults around Clark Park that they claimed were probably committed by members of the police force.
Another target was a house at 1955 Templeton, the headquarters of a revolutionary Marxist group called the Youngbloods, who were suspected of being involved in orchestrating the Rolling Stones Riot. On numerous occasions rocks were thrown at the house. One of the Youngbloods’ slogans was “Today’s Pig is Tomorrow’s Bacon.”
A Province newspaper article entitled “Gangs, Glue, and Mao” includes excerpts from an article on the Youngbloods that appeared in the alternative newspaper The Grape in April. It describes a Joe Cocker concert at the Coliseum where the Youngbloods “were on hand to gauge the possibilities of gate-crashing” and to propagandize the crowd that was mulling about outside because they were unable to get tickets. To the Province writer, it sounded like the recipe that was used at the Stones concert.
They mingle with knots of people outside the red doors, showing them the paper, discussing specific articles, glancing behind doors to determine police strength. The Youngbloods have had some success at helping those without tickets to push their way through a weakly-guarded door, notably at the rock-and-roll revival last fall. It’s just the sort of lesson they wish to teach – that if enough people can pool aggressive energies, small victories can be won. But actions like these tread a fine line – balanced by PNE security on one-hand, mood of the people on the other.
According to the Province, activist groups like the Youngbloods were sometimes seen as radical social workers: “They have tried to switch the traditionally tough neighbourhood groups away from the mind-killing effects of glue-sniffing and have tried to lead youths out of the glue cycle with the more benign marijuana or a revolutionary tract.”
Glue-sniffing was thought to be helping fuel the juvenile delinquency problem in 1972. The Vancouver Health Department issued a report early in the year outlining the anti-social behaviour caused by sniffing glue, including property damage, theft, larceny, shoplifting, rape, homicide, erratic driving, and a “general dissolution of inhibitions.”
According to Mason Dixon, writing in The Grape, the Youngbloods
regard the youthful ‘lumpen proletariat’ as a strategic key to revolution…Lumpen is a Marxist term taken from German, meaning ‘rags’ as it refers to that impoverished group which is completely outside the economic system of production. It is neither workers nor capitalists, but typically welfare recipients or other marginally or sporadically employed.
By the time the Province article was published in July 1972, the Youngbloods had already disbanded. As for the Clark Park Gang, the police took care of them with a special baseball bat-wielding unit called the “Heavy Squad.”
From its violent beginnings in Vancouver, the Exile on Main Street tour went on to become the most legendary tour in the annals of rock ‘n roll. Violence erupted in several other cities, including a bomb that destroyed a van full of the band’s gear in Montreal. Meanwhile back in Vancouver, City Council voted at an in-camera meeting to deny a permit allowing Led Zeppelin to play here out of fear of more violence.