Music scene in Kent has rolled with the punches

Theresa Montgomery

Alcohol hasn’t always been the driving force behind bar hopping in downtown Kent. For those immersed locally in the hippie culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was all about the live bands.

“We weren’t big drinkers, for the most part, as much as we were there for the music,” said Gary Lockwood, founder and artistic director for Standing Rock Cultural Arts. “When I came to Kent in 1969, it had a booming music scene. There was a little bit of everything.”

Politics and music were tightly woven together at the time, and the way people looked often determined how they were treated, he said.

“If you had long hair, you were not the good guy,” Lockwood said. “They were all one mass group, no matter what you thought. And really, most of them were artists and musicians, nonviolent by nature.”

Culture clash

Lockwood had returned to his Northeast Ohio roots as a Kent State student a few years after serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. He noticed a social divide between those in the hippie culture and those who perceived them as a threat.

“What’s really amazing is that the music was so powerful that it made America afraid of us because of our words, not our actions,” Lockwood said. “We weren’t armed revolutionaries: We were armed with guitars.”

That divide grew into a chasm after the shootings of four Kent State students on May 4, 1970, during a student protest against the Vietnam War. The music scene in Kent, inseparably linked in public perception at the time to the anti-war movement that had brought notoriety to the city, was dramatically affected, he said.

Guy Pernetti, musician and former director of the Kent Historical Society, arrived in Kent on that pivotal day after having served in the Navy.

“So, that’s my perspective,” said Pernetti after viewing the scene. “I wanted to be a student here, but I just couldn’t go right away. It was too harrowing after four years in the Navy.”

The fallout from the overlap of politics and music left a legacy from which the local music scene has, in some ways, never fully rebounded.

In 1971, Lockwood counted more than 52 bars in Kent, 25 of which had live music, he said.

Now, Pernetti said, there are five downtown venues for live music.

From active to ashes

On any given night in the early 1970s, there were as many as 4,000 people on the streets of downtown Kent, Pernetti estimated.

“There wasn’t as much to do on campus, because the Student Center was smaller then,” Pernetti said. “So, students would come downtown for recreation. Also, people came from the surrounding areas because that was part of the cultural milieu of the time.”

Lockwood and Pernetti said the music scene in Kent received an additional blow in the mid-1970s when two separate fires on North Water Street destroyed several of the city’s most popular hot spots for live music.

Prior to the fire, the area of North Water Street had been considered to be “the bad end of town,” because it had been a favorite stomping ground for hippies, Lockwood said.

The fires were “the death knell” for the previously vibrant live music venues of earlier years, he said.

“Through all the hard times, though, music is alive and well,” Lockwood said.

Rekindling the creative spark

Today, community leaders and residents are pooling their efforts to bring that vibrancy back to the downtown area. Through a resurgence of cultural events, such as the D.I.C.E program and the annual Battle of the Bands, Lockwood and others are hoping to renew interest in their city through the arts.

“We’re trying to get them out, away from their computer and TV, and appreciate what’s in their community,” Lockwood said.

There are a number of talented musicians who just need more venues for public performances, Pernetti said.

“When I go around to a lot of these towns, and see what live performance is like, they don’t hold a candle to what you can get here,” Pernetti said. “We’ve got musicians here you’ve never heard of that are incredible players.”

This year’s Battle of the Bands, a competition sponsored by Standing Rock Cultural Arts in conjunction with The Robin Hood, Club Khameleon and Woodsy’s School of Rock, will begin Feb. 26. More information can be found at

Contact features correspondent Theresa Montgomery at [email protected].