The death of a teenybopper

By Dave Thompson

6Bernadette Whelan died last night.

It was 42 years ago, but the memory remains.

On May 30, 1974, four days after her comatose body was placed on life support, the fourteen-year-old schoolgirl passed away in west London’s Hammersmith Hospital. Official cause of death: traumatic asphyxiation. Actual cause of death, in the coroner’s own words, “a victim of contrived hysteria.”

David Cassidy was huge in 1974, as huge as he’d been in 1971, 1972, 1973.  But tired, too.  For four years, he had lived life within that uniquely demented goldfish bowl that only a true teenybop idol could inhabit… today, even the vaguest, most talent-free nonentity can be raised to tabloid mega-godhood by a celebrity-crazed media. Back then, however, you really needed to have something to set the papers’ pulses racing, and Cassidy had it in abundance.

His live set spoke of his musical ambition — the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” was, perhaps, his ironic tribute to the only group who had experienced the same heights of mania as he; and maybe Elvis’ “C.C. Rider” was in there for much the same reason.  Elsewhere, however, Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and a medley of old rock ’n’ rollers were eased in around the expected hits, to prove that whatever you thought of the pop, the boy could rock with the best of ‘em.

Forget the fact that anyone over eighteen, and probably the majority of males of all ages, found him an insufferable pretty boy churning out formulaic pap. Listen back to the records he was making at the time, and there beats a heart of pure pop brilliance, and a genuine love of music as well. That, for Cassidy, was the greatest frustration of all — the knowledge that he was making good records… no, strike that; he was making great records… and there was barely a self-respecting rock fan who’d even glance at them.

So he quit. One last burst of live shows, and that would be the end. “I feel burnt up inside,” he told Britain’s Daily Mail. “I’m 24, a big star … in a position that millions dream of, but the truth is I just can’t enjoy it.” Years later, looking back for the same newspaper, he elaborated further.

“I was definitely the most isolated I’ve ever been. I’d be working seven days a week for most of the year and it never let up. When I got home, I isolated myself, just so I could rest. And because I couldn’t go to the bank or shop like normal people, I had a housekeeper who took care of everything.

“That creates a certain immaturity and even though I was 24… I was about 19 emotionally. I hadn’t lived; I’d devoted myself to the business of David Cassidy, rather than the person.”

Now it was time to reverse the process.  He announced he was quitting, and the hysteria ramped up accordingly.

David Cassidy greets his London fans... from a safe height

David Cassidy greets his London fans… from a safe height.

Of course the gigs were sold out weeks in advance, but still White City — a vast 35,000-capacity sports arena built in 1908 to house the London Olympics — was under a state of siege from early afternoon, as ticketless hopefuls and the inevitable touts merged with the lucky ticket holders, and every policeman in London, or so it felt at the time, converged to bring order to the chaos. Many of the fans, Bernadette included, were later said to have been on their feet for 12 hours, both outside and inside the stadium, so desperate were they to get a good view.

By the time showtime dawned, with a set from the newly-emergent Showaddywaddy, the old stadium was wall-to-wall screaming, a sea of satin scarves, raised-high posters, dedications of love, adoration, devotion.

It was Beatle-Osmond-T.Rexstacy-mania all balled up into one, and backstage, the recording engineers could barely hear themselves think as they tried to find their levels — Bell Records, Cassidy’s label at the time, was recording the show; the golden goose might not want to be seen to lay any more golden eggs, but that was no reason why people shouldn’t be able to hear it when it did. A souvenir album, Cassidy Live, would be along before the seats were even dry.

Bernadette was one of the lucky ticket holders, and her bedroom at her home in Stockwell Park, south London, spoke of her dedication to the star. A nearly life-sized poster of a gorgeous, glowering Cassidy dominated the wall above her headboard, and maybe the albums and pictures that lay on her bed were posed by the newsmen who flocked to her house in the days after the show, or maybe that was how she left the room when she set out for the show.

But the newspaper pictures made her fandom clear. Cassidy and his Partridge pals were scattered over the neatly-made bedspread, Magazine and Cherish, Notebook and Up to Date… okay, there were a couple of K-Tel style hits collections there as well, and the Osmonds’ Crazy Horses, too. But there seemed little doubt where Bernadette’s heart lay.

Signing autographs before the show

Signing autographs before the show

Cassidy hit the stage, and the screaming hit a whole new pitch, a frenzied, keening, ear-piercing din, amplified music versus teenaged lung power, and no-one knew who’d win the day.

With sound came motion. The crowd was pushing, seething, every body in the place straining to get as close to the stage as possible, a mass of writhing, pushing, pressing bodies all with but one objective in mind. To see, perchance to touch, the idol.

Then, somebody tripped, or stumbled, or fell, and anything up to 1,000 fellow concert-goers fell with them.

And the tapes kept rolling.

It wasn’t the falling that hurt, of course. It was the crushing. It was the weight first of one, then of ten, then a hundred, and then a thousand (newspaper reports varied… some said it was as few… few!!!… as 650) bodies falling onto one another, a teenaged sea that was suddenly transformed into a human log jam.

Listen back to the tapes. The show was about 20 minutes in when it first became apparent that something had gone wrong; that sudden, awful moment when an unyielding barrage of impassioned screaming became a horrified explosion of terror.

From the stage, unaware of what precisely had happened, but knowing that something was wrong, Cassidy struggled, ineffectively, to restore order. While security and St John’s Ambulance volunteers tried to push through the melee, he halted the music and shouted to the crowd.  “Get back, get back. They’re going to stop the show, they’re going to pull the plug on me. Cool it!”

But like Mick Jagger at Altamont five years earlier, his words had no effect. Cassidy left the stage and the PA kicked into whatever lightweight pop was to hand in a futile attempt to calm the crowd. And now the tape becomes surreal. Against a backdrop of “The Wombling Song,” the debut hit by a bunch of litter-collecting rodents, crushed and battered fans were calling, begging, screaming for help. One of the St John’s men later compared the scene to the Blitz.

Slowly, those people who could picked themselves up. The vast majority, though they’d be registered as injured, would make it home unaided that night. Thirty, however, were rushed to local hospitals, and one, Bernadette, had stopped breathing altogether. Frantic and dedicated, emergency workers were able to restart her heart, but the girl was still unconscious as she was stretchered into one of the waiting ambulances.

She never regained consciousness.

Incredibly, the show went on. The wounded were removed, the audience calmed, and Cassidy took the stage again. He had no idea of the magnitude of what was still being described as an incident; no notion, until the show was over, that so many of his fans had been injured.

When he did find out, his first instinct was to cancel the next concert, in Manchester two days later. Calmer (or, perhaps, more financially prudent) heads prevailed upon him to reconsider, and the gig did ultimately go ahead. But an already muted affair was further diminished when it became clear how many of the 20,000 ticket-holders were staying away. The venue was less than half full as anxious parents, horrified by the previous morning’s newspaper headlines, returned their children’s tickets. And still half a dozen fans were hospitalized.

Two days later, Bernadette died.

The blame game had already started before that, of course, and it would become even more circus-like afterwards. From promoter Mel Bush’s office came the claim that the majority of supposedly injured fans were faking it; that they assumed the stretcher-bearers would take them backstage where they might catch a glimpse of their hero, and recovered the moment they realized they were going in the opposite way.

Even more cruelly, it was suggested that Bernadette was suffering from a congenital heart defect and could have died anywhere. The fact that her heart decided to give out when she was lying on the floor, crushed beneath several hundred other girls, was pure coincidence.

The coroner swiftly put paid to that line of thought. Unequivocally her cause of death was “traumatic asphyxiation” — she was literally crushed to the point where she could no longer breathe.

But his report went further, to investigate not only the cause of Bernadette’s death, but also the factors that led up to it. He noted the “trendy, high platform shoes” that many of the injured fans had been wearing, and suggested that many of those who fell were literally toppled off their heels. And taking a well-aimed pot shot at the entire teenybop phenomenon, he described Bernadette as a “victim of contrived hysteria.”

Bernadette Whelan

Bernadette Whelan

For obvious reasons, Cassidy did not attend Bernadette’s funeral. He was in touch with her family by mail, though, and he sent flowers, too. “We don’t blame David,” her parents Peter and Bridget told the media. “Bernadette would not have liked us to blame him.”

No, she probably wouldn’t. But somebody, or something had to be found culpable… and preferably something with a little more substance than a pair of absurdly-heeled boots. And, by the same token, a lot of people had to make it clear that they had no part in the catastrophe whatsoever.

The promoter, for example. A tersely worded statement from the Bush organization assured readers, “We wish to make it clear that in our opinion, and even with the benefit of hindsight, we took every precaution for the orderly running of the concert and the safety of those attending.” And besides, “the vast majority of girls treated were treated on the spot for matters resultant from emotional stress and a very small number required hospital treatment.”

So, that’s alright then. You’re off the hook.

So were White City’s security arrangements. The venue had contracted a security firm to provide them with 200 bouncers, and that company was adamant that the disaster didn’t even fall under their purview. “Their responsibilities included stopping children getting onto the stage, which was done successfully.” Billboard magazine also pointed out that whereas regulations demanded one bouncer per every 250 audience members, if you add in the venue’s own regular security, White City had one per every 100. So, clearly, they weren’t at fault.

How about the authorities? No, they were clean, as well. The Greater London Council, the body responsible for licensing all public events, suggested that the promoter had been negligent in informing them who was performing (presumably because nobody in the office had either opened a newspaper or looked at a television since Cassidy’s arrival was first announced).

However, it did acknowledge that “the age of the audience is a factor that in the future we should perhaps take more into account,” and here was a scapegoat that a lot of people could get behind. The youth and temperament of the audience. Bloody teenyboppers.

According to Michael Alfandary, one of the promoters who had bid, unsuccessfully, for the right to stage the Cassidy shows, “open air venues are unsuitable for large numbers of young hysterical fans,” he declared. “I think an artist who makes a living out of hysterical devotion should play more shows at smaller halls, so the audience aren’t at risk.”

Bell Records head Dick Leahy continued in a similar vein, declaring that “the heart of the problem is the lack of suitable venues for big American acts” — although neither Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young nor the Grateful Dead ever had this problem. Perhaps they weren’t big enough.

So, who?  Well, according to the tabloid press, it was Cassidy of course; and, by extension, all the other weenybait that was flooding the charts at the time. Damned American pop stars coming over here, enflaming our impressionable young girls with their good looks and hunky demeanors. All those Osmonds and Jacksons and Marlons and Merrills, horny hormone hunters from Hell, the lot of them. Naturally, there would be no mention of those self-same tabloids’ own role in arousing those hormones in the first place, because hey, who’s on trial here? No mention of their part in hamming up the hysteria that the coroner so clearly considered a contributory factor in Bernadette’s death.

A handful of dissenting voices would arise from amid the rabble, of course; a scant smattering who suggested that rather than blame the monkeys, perhaps attention should be focused upon the organ grinders. That maybe it was time to address the host of institutionalized failings that allowed Bernadette to go to her death in the first place — failings that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents had been campaigning against since 66 people died at a Glasgow soccer match in 1971, but which would continue to beleaguer public events in the U.K. for the next fifteen years.

It took 96 fatalities at the Hillsborough soccer stadium disaster in 1989 to finally convince the authorities to stop treating crowds like cattle, and to even begin to acknowledge the lessons they could have learned so many years beforehand. Until then, the guilt-go-round just kept on spinning, because that’s the other thing about a nice, juicy scandal. If you don’t want people to ask the right questions, you just make them look in the wrong direction.

Michael Des Barres and friend, 1974

Michael Des Barres and friend, 1974

The day after the Cassidy show, singers Michael Des Barres and Nick Lowe were at the Speakeasy nightclub with music journalist Nick Kent. Des Barres recalls, “we were talking about the David Cassidy thing, (which) I found… unbelievably relevant and incredibly important to pop culture, so I said let’s write a song called ‘Teenybopper Death (He Loves You, Bernadette)’.”

Lowe and Kent laughed, and they flung a few potential lyrics around — “crushed at the front, it was no publicity stunt,” is the one that Des Barres remembers, although he doubts whether it would have made the final cut, had he and Lowe taken the idea any further.

“Bernadette’s death upset me a great deal,” he recalls. “I expect somebody to be killed at Altamont, at a Stones gig or a Silverhead gig, but I don’t expect them to be killed at a light entertainment concert. I figured it was sociologically interesting. It was a very interesting story; it didn’t make sense and I wanted to make sense of it.”

But then Nick Kent mentioned it in the following week’s New Musical Express, “and the shit hit the fan. We hadn’t even written the song, but he put it in the NME. (Bernadette’s) father went bonkers, the national press had pictures of me with skulls and pound signs all around my picture, and I was a pariah.”

Des Barres tried to explain, but of course his reasonings fell on deaf ears. What he wanted to do was “point out the absolute awfulness of this pop star having to deal with this poor young girl’s death. But it was seen in another light. Even the degenerates who I was getting coke from; even the coke dealers turned their backs on me,” he recalls, “because I was this awful exploiter of this poor girl’s memory.”

Yes. Didn’t you realize that was the papers’ job?

The furor faded and, with it, both the memories and the cast of this drama. White City was never again employed for a major concert, and was demolished in the mid-1980s — around the same time, coincidentally, as David Cassidy made his return to the live scene, after more than a decade in virtual retirement.

True to his word, but with shock and grief compounding his disillusion, the idol retreated from fame, and fame retreated from him. His first post-retirement album, the superlative The Higher They Climb, The Harder They Fall, coasted on the last gentle waves of old-time’s-sake fandom, and at least spun off a couple of hit singles. But from thereon in, he barely bothered the chart, and when he did return to the stage, he was effectively already a nostalgia act, playing to the housewives that his original fans had become, and turning out the hits that they demanded to hear.

Bernadette never had the chance to become one of those housewives, or anything else for that matter. Her death did not change things, did not lead to sweeping reforms, did not offer society anything beyond the lasting grief of her family and friends, and the passing panic of parents and press.

But that does not mean she has been forgotten… which, in turn, doesn’t mean you can Google her, and read the same sentence or two on a few dozen websites, and a peculiar piece of fannish fiction on one of the Cassidy websites.

Bernadette lives on in every gig we go to, in every record we play. Not because of how she died, or where or whatever; she was neither a martyr nor a sacrifice, nor any of the other absurd tags that mythology likes to attach to its tragedies.

She was simply the fan that we all once were, just as we are the fans that she should have grown up to become… the Not-unknown Soldier of ’70s rock and pop.

Remember her, please.

 

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