9 November, 1965
It wasn’t long after 5pm that early November evening. New York WABC radio DJ Dan Ingram was playing Jonathan King’s Everyone’s Gone To The Moon, but the recording was playing far below normal speed.
“That was in the key of R,” quipped Ingram. The ads sounded weird too, and an attempt to play the Si Zentner hit Up A Lazy River as a follow-up resulted in total seize-up. “I don’t know what’s going on in the studio,” said Ingram, noticing that the studio lights were dimming. Moments later the building was in complete darkness.
Up in Canada, at the Sir Adam Beck power station on the Ontario side of Niagara Falls, a 230-volt power line had been tripped. So began The Great Blackout, a power failure that would plunge the whole of New York State, several neighbouring states and parts of eastern Canada into darkness.
“It was the biggest pop happening of the ‘60s really.”
Rush hour had just got underway and millions of commuters were making their way home. Many were trapped in office buildings, elevators and trains, airplanes circled the skies unable to land.
One major record store, Record Hunter, usually stayed open until midnight but the chief buyer recalled: “We asked customers to leave when the lights went out. It was disastrous economically. Many of the employees stayed in the store all night.”
New York’s major R&B radio station WWRL went to auxiliary power and taped music, with general manager Frank Ward reporting: “We spent the night trying to keep people calm and cool.”
The Rolling Stones were in town, one week into their fourth US tour. They’d booked into the Sheraton City Squire Hotel, where female fans caused chaos in their efforts to get within clutching distance of the band. The management politely suggested that the Stones should move elsewhere. They relocated to the Sheraton Lincoln Square, where, at the height of the blackout, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and other members of his band paid Brian Jones a visit.
Dylan and The Stones smoke, drink and jam by candlelight...
Arriving at the Stone’s suite, Dylan declared, “It’s an invasion from Mars, let’s turn on, what better time? The little green men have landed.” And turn on they did, smoking, drinking and jamming by candlelight until someone knocked a candle on its side, setting fire to the nearest bed. According to Greil Marcus “the story goes that the song, Visions Of Johanna, was written during the Great East Coast Blackout.” It certainly emerged during this period, and Dylan would first record it with The Hawks at CBS’s New York studio on November 30.
Another Dylan admirer was in town that night: Andy Warhol star Edie Sedgwick, who had a considerable crush on the singer. As the blackout took hold, Sedgwick and Warhol were heading back from Philadelphia.
“There was a power cut and we were missing it,” Warhol recalled in his book, Popism. “All the way back to New York we were hoping that the power cut would be going on when we got there. When we got to the bridge, we couldn’t see any lights on the whole Manhattan skyline, just car headlights. The moon was full and it was like a big party somehow. We drove through the Village and everyone was dancing around, lighting candles.”
The blackout affected 30 million people and remained the biggest disaster of its kind until the Northeast Blackout of August 2003 hit 50 million. Even so, the 1965 event was hailed as a time for togetherness. There was little looting and the crime figures for that night hit an all-time low. Tom Paxton wrote a song about the event titled Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?, in which one answer ran “Down at Con Edison all through the night, where they kept on saying things would be all right.”
Con Edison, the power company responsible for the outage, did get it right eventually and power returned to the various areas by morning.
Three years later Hollywood made a film about the biggest blackout New York had ever seen. Like Paxton’s song, it was titled Where Were You When The Lights Went Out? and starred Doris Day. Others preferred to remember it as Warhol described it: “the biggest pop happening of the ’60s really – it involved everybody.