Punk in 1970s New York

city-on-fireI’ve recently read or watched two items that involve the punk scene (or should I say punk-rock scene?  I’m not sure.) in New York City in the mid-1970s:  The book City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and Spike Lee’s movie Summer Of Sam.

City On Fire is a long book, almost 1000 dense pages.  The nexus of the plot is the murder of a young woman in a New York park on New Year’s Eve 1977.  The book describes in great detail the lives and relationships of the people who were involved in one way or another with the murdered woman.  It jumps back and forth in time from the early sixties to the start of the 21st Century while also jumping back and forth between characters.  Many of the characters are punks participating in the New York City scene that apparently started in the mid-1970s.  I cannot speak from experience about any aspect of punk.  During that time period I was moving in the opposite direction; exploring bluegrass, country, and mountain music.  So while the punks in this novel were moving away from the musical (pop) mainstream and finding punk, I was moving away from the mainstream and finding bluegrass.  Given what I learned from the book and movie, I’m glad I moved in that direction.

City On Fire also covers the massive and  complete blackout in New York City in the summer of 1977.  Some of the book’s climactic events happen during the night of the blackout.

summer-of-samThe movie Summer of Sam uses the background of the Son Of Sam serial killings to depict life in New York when David Berkowitz was on his killing spree.  It focuses on the punk scene and on life in the city’s Italian neighborhoods.  City On Fire presents more of a political and artistic picture of punk as a search for a sort of anarchistic freedom.  Summer Of Sam, in contrast, focuses a lot on the sexual goings-on within the punk and club scenes.

I’m not sure I would recommend watching the movie or reading the book.  I was often irritated at the book’s author for jumping around so much.  I kept wanting him to stick to the plot line in which I was engrossed.   Eventually, I just wanted him to wrap things up and tell me what happened to all the characters whom except, I think, for one, were strung out on drugs or alcohol.  They were all drinking excessively, strung out, shooting heroin, dropping pills, sometimes doing it all in one day.  I did not think it was possible for a person to use as many drugs and as much alcohol as some of the characters.

Watching the movie left me feeling like I had besmirched my soul.




About the Warren Commission

A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy AssassinationA Cruel and Shocking Act:  The Secret History Of the Kennedy Assassination, by Philip Shenon, is not per se a history of the assassination.  It is a history of the investigation and reporting of the Warren Commission.  The main points I took from the book are:

  •  The mendacity of the FBI and CIA who lied to the Commission and withheld evidence primarily to hide any mistakes they made before the assassination.
  • The Commission hired a staff of – with one exception – lawyers, many from Ivy League schools.  The exception was a historian brought on to help with the writing of the final report.  It was a surprise to me that no one with a background in criminal investigation was hired; for example an FBI investigator or a homicide detective from a big-city police department.
  • Some of the decisions made by Earl Warren were questionable.  He did not allow anyone on the Commission or its staff to see autopsy photos.  He considered them too gruesome  He would not allow the staff to interview Jackie Kennedy or Robert Kennedy because he was overly solicitous of the feelings of the family.  In no other homicide would a spouse of the victim not be interviewed.
  • There is no evidence of a conspiracy and there is no way to discount the existence of a conspiracy.
  • Ballistic, fingerprint, and other evidence show that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin.
  • One of the objectives of the Commission was to forestall talk of conspiracies by producing a definitive account.  They failed.  Conspiracy theories continue to be discussed.
  • Gerald Ford, one of the Commissioners, was a FBI mole on the Commission.  He was not asked to be the FBI’s spy; he volunteered.  He also broke the rules of the Commission by sharing classified documents with a small group of friends and advisers.
  • Most of the Commissions work was done by the staff lawyers.  Some of the Commissioners were not very involved but still had a vote on whether or not to accept the final report.
  • Warren pressed for a unanimous vote to accept the final report but came close to not getting one.  Senator Richard Russell especially was critical of the report because it was too conclusive in ruling out a conspiracy.  To get his approval, language was changed to be less conclusive and to state that a conspiracy could not be ruled out.

This was an enjoyable, readable, and convincing book.  The author did his research thoroughly, and presented it well.  His objective was not to find answers about the assassination but to examine the work of the Commission.  In the Author’s Notes that end the book, Shenon writes

What is clear to me is that over the last fifty years – actually more than fifty years, since parts of this narrative are set well before November 22, 1963 – senior officials of the United States government, most especially at the CIA, have lied about the assassination and the events that led up to it.

He goes on to list “Several former officials [who] bear special responsibility for the conspiracy theories that are likely to plague us forever.”

  • Richard Helms of the CIA
  • James Angleton, also of the CIA, who controlled what information was turned over to the Commission.
  • J. Edgar Hoover
  • Chief Justice Earl Warren “for denying key evidence and witnesses to the commission’s staff.  Those monumental errors included his refusal to allow the commission to review the president’s autopsy photos and X-rays – a decision that all but guaranteed the medical evidence would remain hopelessly muddled today – and his even more baffling order that blocked the staff from interviewing Silvia Duran”, a Mexican who was thought to have important information about Oswald’s activities during his trip to Mexico City not long before the assassination.
  • Robert Kennedy who as long as he lived publicly supported the Warren Commission’s conclusion but privately told “family and friends that he was convinced that the commission had it wrong.”



The Coming of the Third ReichDemocracies that are under the threat of destruction face the impossible dilemma of either yielding to that threat by preserving the democratic niceties, or violating their own principles by curtailing democratic rights.

The Atlantic Monthly posed this question to its readers and posted some of the answers in  the March issue:  “What was the worst year in history.” One of the answers – ” 2001, the worst year in U.S. History; we lost our Constitution.”

The destruction of the two towers in New York in 2001 was certainly a catastrophe.  Our nation was not “under threat of destruction” from terrorism and is not today, but our Constitution was and is.  We have violated our constitutional principles, and since it appears that we are in an unending and undeclared war against terrorism we may never get them back.  Take, for example, Amendment IV:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons,houses, papers, and effects , against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be Violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Can anyone read the Fourth Amendment and not come to the firm conclusion, regardless of what the courts and the executive branch say, that NSA surveillance is unconstitutional?   Does NSA surveillance particularly describe the persons, places, or things to be searched?  No.

The quote at the beginning of this post is by Richard J. Evans in The Coming Of the Third Reich, the first in a three-volume history of Nazi Germany.  At the end of the book, he sums up the factors that paved the way for the coming of the Nazis.  (Interestingly, Evans describes the twelve-year Nazi reign as a “permanent state of emergency that was more fictive than real”; not much different from our seemingly permanent war on terror.)

The death of democracy in Germany was part of a much broader European pattern in the interwar years; but it also had very specific roots in German history and drew on ideas that were part of a very specific German tradition.  German nationalism, the Pan-German vision of the completion through conquest in war of Bismarck’s unfinished work of bringing all Germans together in a single state, the conviction of the superiority of the Aryan race and the threat posed to it by the Jews, the belief in eugenic planning and racial hygiene, the military ideal of a society clad in uniform, regimented, obedient, and ready for battle – all this and much more that came to fruition in 1933 drew on ideas that had  been circulating in Germany since the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  Some of these ideas, in turn, had their roots in other countries or were shared by significant thinkers within them . . .  they came together in Germany in a uniquely poisonous mixture, rendered all the more potent by Germany’s preeminent position as the most advanced and most powerful state on the European Continent.


Iron Curtain

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956At the end of World War II, the Red Army occupied Eastern Europe.  Iron Curtain describes in great detail how the Soviet Union and Eastern European communists imposed Soviet-style totalitarianism in the countries of Eastern Europe.  I found the first half of the book interesting but bleak.  The second half of the book is more uplifting and left me thinking highly of the book and giving it five stars on Goodreads.com.  Much of the second half describes how people resisted the constant and pervasive indoctrination and propaganda.  No one except the true, die-hard ideologues were deceived.  People recognized the obvious – that the public rhetoric was far from reality and that Eastern Europe was falling rapidly behind the West.

I was surprised to read that very soon after the war, the communists held relatively free elections.  Not because the wanted to give the people a voice, but because the truly believed that they would win.  When, to their embarrassment, the did not win, they started clamping down.  The result – during the period called High Stalinism that lasted until Stalin’s death in 1953 – was a harsh totalitarianism in which nothing existed independently of the party or the government.

A lesson that is relevant for us today is the extent to which fundamentalist ideologues can ignore facts and reality in order to cling to their beliefs, not in an cynical way, but because they are true believers.  Think of American conservatives who twist and turn mightily to avoid evolution and global warming,  Think of neo-Nazis and certain Iranian presidents not believing that the Holocaust ever happened.

Well, I’m rambling a bit.  If you are at all interested in this period of history or in the nature of totalitarianism, check this book out.  You will enjoy it.

Mistakes Repeated

Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's VietnamThe Embers of War, by Fredrik Logevall is about the Franco-Vietnamese conflict from 1945  to 1954 and the subsequent American takeover of the anti-communist crusade in Southeast Asia.  My takeaways from the book:  1.  the United States repeated all or many of the same mistakes that the French had made that led to their failure.  The U.S., I guess, assumed that they could simply do things better than the French.  2.)  Much of the U.S. decision making was driven by McCarthyism and the fear of being labeled as “soft on communism” and perhaps of “losing Vietnam” in the same way that the Democrats were accused of losing China.  3.)  The U.S. consistently failed to recognize or acknowledge the nationalistic aspect of the struggle of Ho Chi Minh’s forces that were, at least at first, stronger than the communistic aspects.  U.S. leaders saw only monolithic communism with Moscow calling all the shots.  Even with the example of Yugoslavia, they couldn’t accept the possibility of a nationalistic, communist movement.  Ho Chi Minh had repeatedly over decades sought assistance from the western democracies.  He only turned to the Soviet Union and China after being rebuffed by the West.  After that, both the Soviet Union and China had better things to worry about than a small country in Southeast Asia.  The U.S.’s monolithic Communist bogeyman did not exist.

What would have happened if the U.S. had extended a helping hand to Ho Chi Minh?

The Greatest Battle

The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War IIThe Greatest Battle is different from most military histories.  I’m not sure if it makes sense to classify it as strictly military history.  It is about the largest land battle of World War II, but it devotes more pages to the context in which the battle was fought than the fighting itself.  The are chapters on the terror practices by both Stalin and Hitler; their utter lack of concern for their soldiers and citizens; their paranoia and lack of trust in their highest military officers; their shortcomings as military leaders.  Both dictators thought they could make better strategic, operational, and even tactical decisions that could their generals and field marshals.  Both made serious and glaring mistakes that led to German defeat and the near defeat of the Soviet Union and the useless sacrifice of Soviet soldiers.

Extremism or totalitarianism – whether on the far left or far right – brings tragedy on a massive scale.  The author points out the striking similarities between the two dictators; maybe that’s why they hated each other so much.  Neither dictator ever accepted responsibilities for their own bad decisions.  They blamed someone else or something else:  the weather, the Jews, their stupid generals, spies, agitators.  Nothing introspective about those two.  Seemingly every decision made by Hitler was a poor one.  In contract, Stalin took decisions that helped the Soviet Union to victory.

One of Stalin’s decision was based on the work of a spy and was very important in turning the tide of the battle of Moscow.  Richard Sorge, a Russian spy working at the German embassy in Tokyo, was able to inform the Soviets that Japan would not intervene by attacking in Siberia.  Once Stalin accepted this information he decided to move hundreds of thousands of trained, well equipped troops from eastern Siberia and insert them into the fight against Germany.  Most of these troops were fed immediately into the fight around Moscow, enabling Marshal Zhukov to counterattack.  Thus the Germans got within 40 miles of Moscow but no further.

Stalin also made two decisions that according to the author were instrumental in boosting the morale of the Russian people.  First he decided to stay in Moscow even though the rest of the Soviet government had evacuated to Kuibyshev.  Then he insisted – in spite of the opposition of all his political and military advisors – to hold the military parade that was held each December in Red Square.  The troops participating in the parade left the front lines, marched in the parade, and then went directly from the parade back to the front lines.

This is an excellent book that would interest anyone interested in the eastern front during World Was II.  Highly recommended.

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