CHICAGO — It was 15 years ago this week that a bus driver for the Dave Matthews Band toggled a switch that opened a tank and sent a torrent of the kind of human waste generated during a rock-and-roll tour onto the open grating of the Kinzie Street Bridge.
What happened beneath the bridge over the North Branch of the Chicago River has been well documented. People enjoying one of the city's top tourist attractions, the high-minded river cruise of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, took a direct hit from almost 800 lbs. of Earth-toned slurry flecked with bits of toilet paper, a mixture ranker than a porta potty on a rock festival's third straight 90-degree day. They never got to finish the architecture tour that day, but they did learn a thing or two about -- forgive this -- flying buttresses.
There was "stunned silence initially," a boat passenger told the Tribune at the time. "Then sort of this horrible realization."
What happened in the culture was swift, also visceral and surprisingly long lasting. The Matthews band lost a little bit of its environmental luster. This group whose Ben & Jerry's flavor donated proceeds to combat climate change -- in the early 2000s -- was now also and seemingly forever an Internet punchline about attempted river pollution gone awry. It also had to admit that it toured in five separate buses, and the culprit vehicle was the one used by band violinist Boyd Tinsley. (Side note: A sign you've made it as a rock band is when you not only have a full-time violinist, but that violinist has his own tour bus.)
The web went a little wacky with wry fecal references ("I assume he was aiming for the poop deck") and creative new ways to put down Matthews' music ("Still the best DMB release of ALL TIME"). It hasn't been able to resist dredging up the story since: Last year, some news outlets even published 14-year-anniversary stories, as if marking a year not divisible by 5 is a thing.
But for this year's actual commemorable anniversary, we have new information. What hasn't been widely shared before now is that also in the vicinity of the bus, up on the Kinzie Street level, was another DMB victim.
In the early afternoon of Aug. 8, 2004, Lynn LaPlante Allaway was pregnant and driving out of the city with her husband and young son. Allaway, who now has four kids, lives in west suburban Glen Ellyn with her family and last year came very close to defeating incumbent Dan Cronin for DuPage County board chairman.
Back then, she said, she was a perpetually nauseous expectant mother, which meant two things: She was driving with the windows open, and any upset to the senses could send her stomach into tumbling runs worthy of Simone Biles.
"I always had to drive when I was pregnant because, um, the slightest bit of motion and, you know, the barfing would start," said Allaway, who's now 46 and works as a musician and freelance writer. "I mean, this is just such a gross story, right?"
But there was one good thing -- beyond the result, of course -- about her unsettled pregnancies, Allaway said: The hormones seemed to go straight to her hair.
"My husband was in the passenger seat, and then our little toddler, who's now 17, was sleeping in the back," she said. "It was just one of those beautiful days with the windows down. And I just remember feeling like, 'Oh, wow, my hair just looks amazing, you know, long and curly.'
"I was just full of self admiration in the rear-view mirror and bragging to my husband about my hair, and then I know there's a big bus, and then it was, like, instant horror."
Here is where we pause for a) a content warning, because the next section gets rough; and b) a physics lesson: Apparently when you dump viscous liquid from a 100-gallon holding tank onto a grated surface, it doesn't all filter instantly to the deck of the tour boat below. Enough of it stays behind to, say, cause a scene that would not be out of place in a Farrelly Brothers film.
"There was no mistaking what we rolled through, and it was all over our car," Allaway said. "We had a Mercedes SUV, and it just got covered, and the smell hit. It was like a physical punch to the face is what that smell was like. It wasn't even, 'Oh, I'm going to be sick.' I just started immediately vomiting.
"So I'm trying to lean my head out the window so I'm not throwing up all over the car while I'm driving. It was the most absurd thing. And of course the wind just blew it all right back into me. And my husband is yelling, 'Pull over! Exit! Exit!'"
Eventually, she did. But the bus waste-tank smell remained with them on the sides of the car. Allaway was crying and still retching as she and her husband switched seats. He drove to a car wash to clean the vehicle, and Allaway did what she could for herself with paper towels.
It was a double shame because Allaway was dressed nicely, on her way to perform at a wedding. Here's where the story takes an ironic turn. Like Tinsley, Allaway is a professional violinist. She plays violin and viola with Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and is the group's principal violist.
"It was a violinist dumping on another violinist," she said.
You have free articles remaining.
Allaway said it all happened so quickly that she didn't notice any markings on the bus or catch a license plate, which would have been useful in the court proceedings that were soon brought against the band.
But when her friend Colleen called her the next day to laugh over the story in the newspaper about the tour boat getting waste dumped on it under the Kinzie Street Bridge, there was no doubt that Allaway was collateral damage in the soon-to-be-notorious DMB poop-dump incident.
Videotape evidence from the nearby East Bank Club, a swanky gym, showed only one big bus crossing the Kinzie Street Bridge during the time when the dumping happened. And that fact and a license-plate check were enough for investigators to pin the crime on the Tinsley bus, occupied only by driver Stefan Wohl at the time, apparently on his way to pick up Tinsley from a Michigan Avenue hotel for a band concert at Alpine Valley in southern Wisconsin.
At the Aug. 25 press conference to reveal the videotape, Mayor Richard Daley called the dumping "absolutely unacceptable," but also noted that he considered Matthews' "a very good band."
Wohl at first denied the dumping, and the band stood behind him while offering, in a statement posted on the band's website, to provide investigators DNA evidence. But in October, the band donated $50,000 each to the Chicago Park District and to Friends of the Chicago River "to begin the healing process," it said.
In March 2005, Wohl, of Texas, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of reckless conduct and water pollution (although it is unclear if any waste actually made it to the water). He was sentenced to 18 months probation, 150 hours of community service and a $10,000 fine, to be donated to the Friends river advocacy group. And he stopped driving for the band.
The following month, DMB settled a civil lawsuit that the State of Illinois had brought, paying $200,000 to be used toward environmental education. In exchange, the band did not have to admit guilt in court.
That settlement came during the same season that Ben & Jerry's released its newest DMB flavor. Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel pointed out that the flavor, Dave Matthews Band Magic Brownies, bore perhaps an overly evocative name, especially to Chicagoans.
On the other hand, he said, its combination of vanilla ice cream, fudge brownie chunks and raspberry swirl arguably "represents progress" on the unpleasant-association meter over the DMB flavor it replaced, coffee ice cream mixed with mocha swirls and fudge chunks.
And that might have been the end of that, except there's something so resonant about the story. The schadenfreude of an environmental activist band caught dumping waste into a river. That group happening to be the Dave Matthews Band, the jammy outfit that's as passionately disliked by many as they are beloved by many more. The horrific bad luck of a tour boat passing under a bridge at the absolute worst moment.
On radio, it became a go-to topic for wacky morning zoo crews. For them, it's a story that has everything: Flying poop meets fame meets innocent bystanders. "The Free Beer and Hot Wings Show," a nationally syndicated program out of Grand Rapids, Mich., even had a man they said was Wohl on the air for the 10-year anniversary. (I was unable to reach him for this piece.)
In a too-brief interview, Wohl seemed to suggest he was just the fall guy, and he floated a second black bus theory. The show hosts weren't having it, though. The segment ended with one saying, "He's the guy who dumped all that crap on people. Maybe by next year he'll admit it."
For Allaway, it became kind of a funny family story and a memory to recall when her local Glen Ellyn side project band (named Side Project) would suggest they play a DMB tune because "it has a great violin part."
"Eh," she said she has responded, "I don't know about that."
A few years back, motivated by the confluence of seeing that Matthews would be playing Alpine Valley again and an incident where airplane waste landed on a Sweet 16 party, she laid out the whole story in her blog. "The Day I Was Smote By God and the Dave Matthews Band," she headed it, the smiting referring to her vanity.
Matthews continues to tour, of course. The band even held its own summer festival in Chicago on a lakefront site in 2011, but it ended after just the one year. Dave Matthews and lead guitarist Tim Reynolds will play Alpine Valley again in September, as part of the sold-out Farm Aid show.
There is no longer a Dave Matthews Band Ben & Jerry's flavor. And the Chicago Architecture Foundation river cruise continues as one of the city's most popular tourist attractions.
But while Chicago may forgive, it does not forget. Indeed, in 2015, some dedicated historian went to the Kinzie Street Bridge and erected a homemade memorial. Beside a candle in glass, the posterboard sign said, "In August 2004, at this very location, a DMB tour bus dumped 800 pounds of poo on some people."
The coup de grace was in the hashtags: "#NEVERFORGET #ALWAYSREMEMBER."