I snapped the picture above a little after 10:00 p.m. on Saturday night. A light rain was falling on Brown’s Island and Toots & The Maytals were a few minutes from performing their rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads,” having already made their way through “Pressure Drop,” “Reggae Got Soul” and a handful of other classics. About 15 minutes later, when “Country Roads” was winding down, someone in the audience threw an empty liquor bottle at the stage, striking frontman Frederick “Toots” Hibbert in the forehead. He was immediately taken to the hospital, and guitarist Carl Harvey announced that the show was over. A few paralyzed minutes later, Mrs. YHT and I started a long and quiet walk back to our car.
There were so many things that I wanted to say then, and there are so many things I want to say now.
Articulating them was and is difficult because a diverse and potent mix of emotions rushed in with the concern that arose from seeing that bottle fly above the crowd and hit Toots. When we were almost home, Mrs. YHT and I traded a few of those emotions. She said that seeing it made her feel vulnerable, like something like that could happen to anyone, anytime. I told her that it frustrated me, because I try extremely hard to be an optimistic person, and seeing it was like starting back at zero after making progress on something.
The strangest emotion that came after Toot’s injury was guilt. I didn’t throw that bottle, but I still felt awful. Knowing that the crowd worked with police to apprehend the thrower helped, but a sense of collective culpability still hung in the air. This happened here. In our city. It was the focus of the night’s social media conversation, and it factored prominently into Carl Harvey’s announcement. He said that he’d be doing this for 30 years and talked about the places they’d played, mentioning Eastern Bloc countries specifically. In doing so, he connected what happened to this place, and a thick sense of shame settled in for those of us who hadn’t yet tucked our tails between our legs and turned to leave.
It felt fair and unfair at the same time. It reminds me of a story my mom likes to tell me, often in the presence of other people, and its flattery is counterbalanced nicely by embarrassment. She says that I came home from elementary school crying one day, not because someone had been cruel to me but because I’d seen one classmate be cruel to another. I just couldn’t process what I’d witnessed. I felt that age again on Saturday, and I imagined Toots asking himself why this had happened, and why it had happened here.
Look at it from his perspective. He travels all over the world, a 70-year-old legend from Kingston, Jamaica who distributes a pure and soul-replenishing brand of music. He only has an hour or two to get to know audiences, yet he tells each one that, by being in attendance, they are now his friends. Seriously. I saw him at Bonnaroo in 2005 and he said the same thing. It left such a strong impression that, before Mrs. YHT and I left for the show, we talked about whether he’d offer the same hand of friendship here, and I was so happy when he did. It’s not a recycled crowd-mollification tactic. It’s a philosophy, and it’s a warm and good one. How would you feel if that warmth was thrown back into your face in the form of an empty vodka bottle? What kind of friend would do that?
When Toots & The Maytals cover “Country Roads,” they substitute “West Jamaica” for “West Virginia,” bringing into focus how universal the song’s message is. Your hometown is your sanctuary, and being away from it is hard. Bands who perform here, whether they hail from Kingston or Oregon Hill, should be able to take the stage, play their hearts out and feel safe while they’re doing it. Richmond is a friendly town. People say thank you to each other every day for the tiniest acts of kindness. This shouldn’t be the place where touring bands go to dodge projectiles. It was especially incongruous coming off Friday’s No BS! Brass Band record release show at Balliceaux. That performance was a euphoric celebration of the best a city has to offer. Their new album is called RVA All Day, and the title track communicates the energy and positivity of the Richmond music community as accurately as anything I’ve heard. That song, the band in general and so many other groups who call Richmond home make me feel proud to live here.
I love Richmond, and I’ve been part of audiences that have contributed to magical nights of live music. But when something like this happens, despite the fact that it’s just one person doing one stupid thing, it’s no less a call for collective introspection. We can’t undo what happened, but we can try to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again. We can ask questions, reassess how alcohol is sold and take corrective actions. We can resolve to keep an eye on friends who are drinking too much. Bad people will always do bad things, but we have to do what we can. That’s what being part of a community means. Working together to be better.
I was happy to read that Toots had been treated and released from the hospital, and like many other Richmonders, I hope his wounds, seen and unseen, heal as quickly and completely as possible. I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to listen to Toots & The Maytals’ studio version of “Country Roads,” but I’m posting it below anyway. I don’t think I’ll ever hear that song the same way again. I’ll try, though, because no one person gets to ruin something so beautiful, and its message doesn’t deserve to die on Brown’s Island, for Toots or for anyone else.