Playing Our Song

With Merriweather's future up in the air, readers look back on 37 years of outdoor musical bliss.

October 11, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

This is not an obituary for the Merriweather Post Pavilion. Columbia's woodsy amphitheater - host to every major act (well, not Springsteen or the Stones) - ends its season today with an Incubus concert.

We refuse to allow Merriweather to end on that note.

The Rouse Co. wants to sell the 37-year-old venue to Howard County as an enclosed theater. Merriweather's management wants the pavilion to remain an open-air venue, and has a contract allowing it to book acts for one more season. But after that, the pavilion's future is up in the air.

Its past, however, is rock solid. When we asked readers to send us stories about Merriweather, their memories read like love letters to a place - and the people both on and off stage.

They wrote about seeing everyone from Jimi Hendrix (pink bell-bottoms), Janis Joplin, The Doors, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra (Chivas Regal in hand), Metallica, Madonna, Pearl Jam and Stevie Nicks. And Willie Nelson. And Barry Manilow. And Rick Springfield. And the classic Jackson Browne concert. And, and, and ... The point is: The Beatles might have played the Baltimore Civic Center in 1964, but everybody else after them played Merriweather.

Encoded in our otherwise dim and static memories, music places us in a specific time and location with specific people - often not our current spouses. All those nights tiptoeing between the lawn blankets, inhaling pockets of pot smoke and braving heat and rain. Just the whiff of a possible closing has stoked memories of the aging, funky, blue-seated pavilion - for sheer bookings and lore, a sort of mid-Atlantic Fillmore East.

Where else were tent sections installed in the early 1970s to, as the sign says, "guarantee the booking of superstar Tom Jones?" Do other venues have signs that read, "Motown 515 Miles," and this perfect concert directive: "Have Fun." There are "People Watching Stations" and sushi and barbecue and Amstel Light and Inglenook wine for sale. Inglenook? Why, when we were younger, we drank Boones Farm at Merriweather. Why, when we were younger, lawn seats were $3.

Merriweather's location has always been neighborly. If the wind is blowing your way, you can sit on your deck and hear Jimmy Buffett's Parrotheads wasting away again in Margaritaville. Or a drum solo by Iron Butterfly. Or have Elton John's Lion King music lull your 3-year-old to sleep.

But nothing beat those holy pilgrimages into the park, onto the lawn, into the music. At Merriweather, it's always been about the bands:

"Too, too many," writes Roger Sweren of Houston. "Jim Croce opens for Loggins and Messina just weeks before he dies tragically in a plane crash. The Band, in their heyday, plays `The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down' but the ultimate for me ... a relatively new British blues/rock band called Led Zeppelin opening for The Who."

Sweren and others remember The Who - and this is hard to believe - apparently inciting destruction of property! Golf carts reportedly were burned. Fences downed. A near riot in Columbia! During an unscheduled performance of Tommy, Pete Townsend screamed at the crowd, "Shaddup, will ya? This is a bleeding OPERA," recalls Kevin Kelehan of Baltimore.

The dead zone

Jenn Leonard of Federal Hill remembers being a 10-year-old Columbia kid when the Grateful Dead descended on Jim Rouse's planned community. "I remember seeing Deadheads in the fountains at the Columbia Mall," she says. "But the biggest surprise was when my family woke up the next morning and found two Deadheads passed out in the back yard."

So shoot me

Jimmy Buffett - like Chicago, Elton John, the Beach Boys and James Taylor - has been among Merriweather's regulars. At one of Buffett's 42 shows here, the singer took pictures of the audience and threw the photos into the crowd. "Well, I caught one and immediately a guy comes up to me and offers me money for the picture," says Mike Gimbel of Timonium, a four-decade Merriweather veteran. The man believed his date would be so impressed that certain post-concert activities might occur. "Being the supportive guy that I am, I gave it to him for free."

The cheap seats

Others clearly remember Harry Chapin sitting on the edge of the stage asking people on the lawn how they were doing.

Losing a foothold

Things could get ugly at Merriweather. Katie Mullen Cole was at a Moody Blues concert with her boyfriend Bob. He hoisted Katie, then 17, onto his sturdy shoulders, so she could better see the stage. He kicked off his shoes for balance. "The world's ugliest feet were revealed, and I never could look at Bob quite the same way," she says. "Those feet! They haunt me to this day!"

Wet and wild

During a steamy July 4, a fan remembers Neil Diamond telling the crowd: "I'm sweating in places I didn't know I had sweat glands." And despite Hendrix's having played here nearly four decades ago, many readers vividly remember that stormy night. "The Star-Spangled Banner" never sounded more electric.

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