Saturday, July 18, 2009

Go Bang

(or: White Riot, continued.)

I was reminded of those officers and their obstinate refusal to feel ashamed of braining protesters with billy clubs by a recent flurry of media attention for the thirtieth anniversary of Disco Demolition Night. Notorious within the mostly non-overlapping worlds of sports fans and disco historians, Disco Demolition Night was a promotional stunt that took place at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox, on July 12, 1979. Attendees were allowed in for only 98 cents provided they brought a disco record to add to a large pile of them set to be detonated between the two games of the night’s double-header. As people in the stands flung records at the players on the field, the crowd’s mood turned ugly. After the records were blown up, chaos erupted and eventually riot police on horseback shut the thing down (there are many more details in the linked articles below).

Articles in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Reader all retell the event in warmly nostalgic terms, positioning it mostly as a wacky story from sports history or an amusing time capsule from the outrageously unfashionable late ’70s. These articles are all written from a perspective where the idea that “disco sucks” and therefore deserved to die—and indeed, as everyone notes, DDN proved to be a turning point in the genre's fortunes; this public execution actually worked—doesn’t warrant a second thought. Despite DDN’s similarity to Christians burning Beatles records after John Lennon’s infamous “bigger than Jesus” comment—an event I assume most rock fans don’t sit around chuckling over—no one in these articles seems the slightest bit disturbed by the event’s original purpose.

Which is odd, since thinking about the various tensions that made the event so explosive is much more interesting than simply reminiscing over it or engaging in a mild bit of revisionist history—as in the Reader piece’s subheadline “the kids were alright.” That headline attributes this supposedly new take on DDN to Diane Alexander White whose recently displayed photographs from the night serve as the impetus for the article. Her perspective on DDN is much more thoughtful than any of the journalists’:

What her shots end up capturing is a moment in time—the south-side rock ’n’ roll youth culture of 1979 on the verge of pandemonium. “This was a backlash,” she says today, looking over her pictures. “[Disco] was so stylized, with pressed pants, white suits, collars outside of jackets, gold chains. The girls are blow-drying their hair to death. A lot of these kids identified it as very shallow, in the dress, in the repetitive beats in the music, crystallized in Saturday Night Fever.”

“To me, it wasn’t about the disco records being blown up,” White says. “It was everything leading up to it, which is what a lot of these pictures are.” It’s the kids themselves, “blue collar kids, kids whose parents were Sox fans. We were still churning out products in this town. You could still get a job at the steel mill.”

While she’s referring specifically to disco, White’s use of the word “backlash” is telling. The cultural backlash against the increased social freedoms (or moral failings, depending on your perspective) brought about by the revolutions of the late ’60s was about to help elect Ronald Reagan. And throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the Right would master the art of using irrelevant, but charged signifiers—e.g. that blow-dried hair; accusations of shallowness and vanity have been thrown against every Democratic candidate for president in my lifetime—to distract people from the real reasons steel mills were closing. White’s statement hints at that misdirected anger and also points up the sloppiness of backlash logic: whatever you think about Saturday Night Fever, you can’t pretend John Travolta’s character isn’t young, poor, and from Brooklyn—not a world away from Bridgeport, the neighborhood outside of Comiskey.

So what were these kids lashing back at? Class resentment was certainly justifiable; the Studio 54 version of disco culture was glamorous, coked-up, and sexy—totally out of reach for most people in 1979. One also can’t understate the sheer ubiquity of disco at its peak. Peter Shapiro’s history of the music, Turn the Beat Around, catalogs the way disco acted as a virus in American culture in 1979, infecting breakfast cereals, Sesame Street, and a long list of musicians, including Kiss, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and even Frank Sinatra. Okay, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is vile, granted, but why would disco kids wearing “white suits” or “gold chains” bother your average Van Halen* fan?

*1979 is a fascinating year for music, a genuine watershed, but I'm guessing that the kids at DDN weren’t listening to “Rapper’s Delight” or the Raincoats.

There aren’t a lot of photos accompanying that Reader piece, but in all of the samples, the subjects are overwhelmingly white and male. Disco is the opposite: gay, black, Latino, female. As Shapiro puts it:
Even when it was purveyed by chancers and formulaic followers of fashion, disco was a remarkable moment in American cultural history, a time when female voices (even if they were singing the words of mostly male songwriters and producers) temporarily drowned out the beefy bluster that usually characterizes America’s discourse. Not since Noel Coward’s reinvention of Tin Pan Alley had articulations of gay pleasure and style been so popular.
Disco’s status as supremely lame cultural punching bag hasn’t improved much since 1979. Meanwhile rock maintains its role as the bastion of authenticity in music, despite that notion being thoroughly, repeatedly debunked by music critics. Nonetheless, I take comfort in knowing that while disco was mortally wounded on July 13, 1979, it beat out rock for cultural influence. Rock over the last thirty years isn’t a complete wasteland, but disco’s children (rap and house, especially) took over, giving birth to constantly evolving forms of electronic music and decisively shaping the glossy, digital sound of pop music over three decades. Those forms and sounds made in disco’s wake have defined the new in music, while rock has mostly offered variations on the old.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Following up on the end of that last post, it occurs to me that some of my out-of-state readers may not be familiar with Illinois’s disgraceful history of police brutality, prosecutorial misconduct, and wrongful imprisonment. Here is the relatively happy ending to the sadly typical story of Ronald Kitchen, recently freed from jail after spending twenty-one years there (he is 43), including thirteen on death row. To summarize: Chicago police detectives tortured Kitchen until he confessed, and then Illinois prosecutors used that confession and other, remarkably flimsy evidence to convict him.

Two genuinely heroic groups at Northwestern University work to oppose these kinds of injustices: the Medill Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions. From the Center’s website: “Of 314 men and women sentenced to death under the current Illinois death penalty law, which was enacted in 1977, 20 have now been exonerated and released—an error rate of more than six percent.” Former Governor George Ryan (currently in prison for corruption) famously declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 and commuted the sentences of all current death row inmates (including Ronald Kitchen) to life imprisonment on his way out of office in 2003.

That moratorium is still in place—with good reason, obviously—but the death penalty has not been abolished and the state still seeks it in certain cases. I’m at a loss to explain what argument you could make in favor of keeping it or lifting the moratorium in the face of that +6% error rate, much less when you factor in its inevitable rise due to the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, which assists public defenders in mounting a proper defense in death penalty cases, being bankrupt.

Friday, July 10, 2009

White Riot: Prologue

This is going to be another two-parter—hooray!

One of the pleasures of being a Chicago resident is living in the midst of a long* and fascinating history. On my daily commute I walk by a building that used to be Essanay studios; I wait for the bus across the street from the Chicago Theatre; and the building I work in was built on the property that once housed the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s practice space. I haven’t yet seen Public Enemies, but I’d like to—in addition to the history, I’m kind of a sucker for films shot locally (ultimately that was about the only thing I liked about The Dark Knight), and it would be thrilling to see Johnny Depp strolling around the Aragon Ballroom, a venue built in 1926 where I saw my first concert.

*You know, for an American city at least.

Of course not all Chicago history is Charlie Chaplin, gangsters, and free jazz. My friend Stephen sent me this New York Times article about a reunion of police officers who were in the 1968 Democratic convention riots with a simple “really?” The Chicago Police Department has a lengthy history of abuse and an equally lengthy history of getting away with it, so I wasn’t that surprised. In fact, I was almost more dismayed by the protesters—what could they possibly hope to achieve by picketing a bunch of retired police officers eating pizza? Protesting an historical event; it sounds like a sad postmodern performance piece. Besides, at least in terms of the CPD’s behavior during the 1960s, I believe there’s a consensus that they were out of control. Partisans can argue over what happened during the riots, but I can’t see anyone claiming they “feel fine about” murdering Fred Hampton.

More to come.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


“Gomorrah is a nursery rhyme
You won’t find it in a book
It’s written on your city’s face
Just stop and take a look”
—Sixto Diaz Rodriguez

Summer is often a bleak time for me. I tend to blame the decades of conditioning that made summer’s vast free time feel like a right promised by natural law. Whiling away those same lengthy hours in a windowless office with my eyes on a screen all day tends to darken my thinking. Perhaps spending six summers in Georgia added to the effect; the heat of summer there tended to have an undercurrent of madness to it.

Or maybe it’s just my current reading material: Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. I’m also rereading Calvin and Hobbes again, and both have a lot to say about the pointless drudgery of adult life. This morning I was reading the Marcus on the bus as we took an alternate route to avoid the traffic snarls caused by the annual tourist bacchanal, Taste of Chicago, an event that lives in my memory chiefly for the time my younger sister was burned on the cheek by an asshole smoking a cigarette in a thick crowd of people.

Anyway, the new route took us through the South Loop, once a commercial dead zone and now newly built or rehabbed into a weird sort of Alphaville of a neighborhood (impressively sycophantic piece from the Chicago Tribune here). I lost count of how many high-end dental salons we passed, and I’d conservatively estimate that there are forty million condos for sale there.

Romantically, superpowers/empires/civilizations are thought to end precipitously—they fall with hordes of barbarians at the gates. Or they’re stricken by environmental catastrophes or diseases so swift and lethal they verge on the allegorical. Hubris and moral decadence—orgies literal and figurative—bring down that old divine wrath. The Bush years felt like the middle stage of just such a spectacular flameout. A country with a national death wish, led by the political equivalent of Columbine’s trench coat mafia: armed to the teeth and pissed off at the world for reasons that never really added up but could apparently be solved with mass murder. But the eschatological nightmares of liberals (and their flipside: the end-times fantasies of evangelicals) have more or less faded with Obama’s election, and now a putrefying kind of stagnation—political, economic, and cultural—seems more likely to me.

Allow me to maintain my habit of making sweeping political statements and then sidestepping the issue by talking about music. I’m too lazy to come up with a list of linkable support for this statement, but I believe there’s nearly a critical consensus that this decade has been one of the worst ever for music. And this morning I was struck by the horrifyingly cyclical implications of this passage from Lipstick Traces. Here’s Marcus writing about the mid-70s in 1989:

“Rock ‘n’ roll became an ordinary social fact, like a commute or a highway construction project. It became a habit, a structure, an invisible oppression. . . . There was no need for change; ‘change’ began to seem like an old-fashioned, sixties word. The chaos in society at large called for a music of permanence and reassurance; in the pop world, time stood still. For years that seemed like decades, you could turn on the radio with the assurance that you would hear James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain,’ Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ the Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May.’ It was all right; they were good songs.”

A few pages before that, Marcus quotes a list of slogans from the May 1968 uprisings in Paris, including:

Under the paving stones, the beach!

A good motto for summer.