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Fifty years ago, a Vancouver benefit concert launched Greenpeace Print-ready version

Four hour show was headlined by Joni Mitchell and helped create world-ranging environmental organization

by John Mackie
Vancouver Sun
October 16, 2020

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There have been countless benefit concerts over the years. But few have had the lasting worldwide impact of a show at the Pacific Coliseum on Oct, 16, 1970.

The Greenpeace Benefit Concert was staged to raise funds to send a protest ship to a nuclear test on Amchitka Island in Alaska.

Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Chilliwack and Phil Ochs volunteered and 10,000 people showed up at the Coliseum, paying $3 a ticket. The net profit was $17,164, which basically launched Greenpeace, the world's foremost environmental organization.

The concert was dreamed up by Irving Stowe, a 55-year-old lawyer who had become a full-time peace and environmental activist.

"Brothers and sisters in green peace," he announced at the show. "Green peace is beautiful! And you are beautiful, because you are here tonight! You came here because you are not on a death trip! You believe in life, you believe in peace, and you want them now!"

Stowe and his wife Dorothy were American Quakers who had moved to Vancouver in 1966. After meeting fellow expats, Jim and Marie Bohlen, at a peace rally, the quartet founded the Don't Make a Wave Committee to protest the nuclear testing at Amchitka.

Sitting at the kitchen table at the Stowes' Pt. Grey house, Marie Bohlen suggested sending a protest ship up the coast, as Quaker pacifists had done in the 1950s to protest nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

A Vancouver Sun reporter phoned out of the blue, looking for a story. So Jim Bohlen said they were planning to send a boat to Amchitka.

"Something must be done to stop the Americans from their insane ecological vandalism," Bohlen said in the Feb. 9, 1970 Sun.

Bohlen was quoted as the education officer of the Sierra Club of B.C., which the two families were involved in. But the Sierra Club was leery of the protest, so the Stowes, the Bohlens and fellow travellers like Bill Darnell formed a new organization.

"Nobody came up with a name that anyone agreed upon, and then as Bill Darnell was leaving (a meeting), my dad flashed him the peace sign," said Irving Stowe's son Bob. "Bill said 'Let's make it a green peace.'"

Bingo. Marie Bohlen and her son Paul Noonan then designed a button with a circular ecological logo on top, "Green Peace" in the middle and the peace symbol at the bottom.

"It actually was two words," said Bob Stowe. "It became one word (Greenpeace) because there wasn't enough space to put a space on the button, without making the typeface really small."

"Dad and Jim fronted the Don't Make a Wave committee the money to buy 100 buttons at once, which cost $10," said Barbara Stowe, Bob's sister.

"They couldn't afford more than that. We sold them for 25 cents and got 10 cents for the cause out of that. At Georgia and Granville, right outside Birks, every Saturday morning. The Hare Krishnas were across the street, choking on their incense, the Vietnam Vigil on another corner. What a scene."

Jim Bohlen had talked fisherman John Cormack into renting his boat to sail up the coast, but selling buttons for 25 cents and T-shirts for $3 wasn't coming up with enough cash. So Irving Stowe came up with the idea of a concert.

"Everybody said 'You're crazy!" said Bob Stowe. "You're a lawyer, you're not a promoter, none of us are."

Irving Stowe initially approached Joan Baez to headline, but she was unable to do it. But she donated a $1,000 cheque and suggested Joni Mitchell, who agreed.

James Taylor was a last-minute addition. The Stowes were sitting around eating dinner one night when Mitchell phoned and told Irving she wanted to bring him.

"Dad puts his hand over the receiver and says 'Who's James Taylor?,'" recalls Barbara Stowe, who was 14 at the time.

"My brother and mother shrugged and I thought 'Oh they're such idiots, they're so uncool.' I said 'He's a Black blues singer!' I was thinking of James Brown, who I'd never even heard.

"When dad hung up he said 'Don't tell anyone. We don't know who this James Taylor is, if he's no good it could ruin the concert!'"

As it turned out, James Taylor's signature song, Fire and Rain, was rocketing up the charts. Taylor was added too late for posters or ads, but they got the word out on radio, and the concert was a sellout.

There was a last minute hitch, though - in response to the FLQ crisis in Quebec, prime minister Pierre Trudeau brought in the War Measures Act the morning of the show.

"We got up and (dad) said 'Canada's under martial law, they'll cancel the concert,'" said Barbara Stowe.

"We were like 'Oh my God.' So all day we waited for the call that didn't come - we went about our business as if the concert was happening."

The left-leaning Phil Ochs arrived at the Stowe home "in a rage" about the War Measures Act.

"He'd come up from the States, which he saw as the epitome of evil, the Vietnam War and so on, and he comes to peaceable Canada and it's under martial law,' said Barbara Stowe.

"Mom had made vegetarian lasagna, so she fed him and his acolytes and we all went off to the Coliseum."

Ochs gave a riveting performance.

"His anger really came through," said Barbara Stowe.

"It was very tense. (Writer) Alan Twigg remembers that someone tried to put an FLQ poster up on the stage, and someone else tore it down.

"But then Chilliwack came on and they just chilled everything out. They were amazing, people started to get up and started to dance."

"I remember people clapping at one point and he went 'shut up,' but kind of nicely," said Barbara Stowe. "And everyone laughed, he was just really chill. And then Joni came on. At one point they sang a duet of Mr. Tambourine Man, that was my highlight."

The gig ended with Irving Stowe and MC Terry Mulligan joining Mitchell and Taylor onstage for her classic The Circle Game. Local sound wiz Dave Zeffertt had surreptitiously recorded the concert, and in 2009 Greenpeace issued a CD of the show as a fundraiser. But the sound cuts out during Circle Game, because the tape ran out.

This article has been viewed 510 times since being added on October 16, 2020.

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