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LitMonkey – July 2014

July 7, 2014

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the twentieth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Read:

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

  • “Kitty Genovese”

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June was a month for two things: Murder and early-‘80s (mostly British) music. The 33-1/3 book by Alex Niven fits in because although Oasis is a ‘90s band, they effectively murdered Britpop. For my review of Niven’s book, click here.

If you’ve read LitMonkey over the past year and a half, you’ve probably noticed that I read almost no history books and almost no true crime. So both Kitty Genovese and Helter Skelter are outside my typical wheelhouse. However, each book had something that intrigued me. The Genovese story is famous because of the outrageousness of the generally-accepted fact that 38 people witnessed the murder of the young woman over the course of a half hour’s worth of stabbing, and yet not one acted, even just to call the police. At the time it was considered to be evidence of the decline of morals in society, especially in New York City (Genovese was killed in Queens). Later on, it spurred psychological research into what became known as the “bystander effect,” a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. It’s an amazing story and an even more amazing phenomenon. The fascinating thing about Kevin Cook’s Kitty Genovese is his demonstration that most of the story is myth. The bystander effect is very real and has been proven, and so the Genovese example has survived and been cited in everything from introductory psychology courses to Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, The Tipping Point. But the truth is that the story, first told by the New York Times, the story which everyone agrees would be a textbook example of this phenomenon, which in fact led to its discovery, was mostly fabricated by the newspaper and perpetuated by an angry populace and later by the psychological community. This got me thinking – if most people believe that the Genovese murder happened this way, and it could have happened this way, and the fact that it was reported to have happened this way led to a social psychological breakthrough, does the truth even matter? Cook’s book is an eye-opening tale of how the media can control a story, even in 1964, but I wonder whether 50 years later the story is all that matters.

Then there is Helter Skelter, Charles Manson, and the murders that not only killed innocent people but also are commonly said to have killed the ‘60s. Helter Skelter is a long book that had been sitting on my shelf for a long time, as I’d been waiting for the right time to commit to the detailed account written by prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi. I could not wait any longer. The more I read about the ‘70s, punk music, and pretty much everything that came after the hippie era, the more I saw that Manson was a blind spot that I needed to address.[1] That’s because before the Manson murders, hippie culture was all about drugs, peace, free love, etc. For most of my life I thought that’s all the ‘60s were about, and it was hard to see why it ever ended. Then, as I read about the punk movement and youth culture in the late ‘70s, I learned that everyone was rebelling against hippie culture, albeit years later. Why would a counterculture movement rebel against their hippie predecessors? Because they saw where it all ended up. Manson, and “the Family”, had turned something that was pure into pure evil. You might think that the Beatles are pretty vanilla when compared to, say, the Sex Pistols, but it was the music of the Fab Four that led to what is likely the most bizarre mass-murder case in American history. It was time for me to understand the inexplicable, by reading Helter Skelter.

Helter Skelter isn’t a book for the faint of heart (or queasy stomach). Bugliosi goes into gory detail about what the Family did, in particular over the two nights of the Tate and LaBianca murders, and what they did was incredibly gory. I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say that this wasn’t simply murder – it was a bloodbath, a slaughter. Moreover, the degree of control that Manson had over his followers, willing to do anything for him, willing to take the death penalty for him, is chilling. Then there is the motive, the idea of “Helter Skelter”, and Manson’s horrific notion (which even some of his detractors couldn’t easily dismiss) that he was Christ. Originally I wondered how so much could have been written about one mass-murder case; eventually, at one point during my reading, I began to realize that there is so much story to tell that 670 pages probably isn’t even enough. Bugliosi does a great job of telling it and is probably the only man who could have done so. As the prosecutor in the case, he had the motivation to dig into a level of detail that not even the world’s best journalist would. And Manson’s reach was so wide and so complete that a substantial number of people could speak to one aspect or another of his personality, his motives, or his relationships. This case is one that shook the nation at the time and is one that is still relevant today – just a few weeks ago one website made news with a hoax article claiming that Manson was released on parole. Kitty Genovese and Helter Skelter are both true crime books, but to my mind they have both entered the realm of popular culture, even if not for the stories themselves but for how they shaped society after. The pop culture enthusiast should not miss either, and especially not Helter Skelter.

Speaking of filling in gaps, in June I wrote a special edition of LitMonkey focused on punk books[2], which I read in part to fill a hole in my knowledge base. I wrote that, “I would classify myself as an ‘80s/’90s indie/alternative music listener. … but I finally started listening to – and learning about – ‘70s punk rock around the start of the current decade. Over the last few years I’ve become a huge fan and a little more educated, but I was still looking for that one text that would be my punk bible, similar to how I feel about Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad’s fantastic account of the 1980’s ‘American Indie Underground.’” Fortunately, I found that punk bible in the form of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. That book began with 1967 (the Velvet Underground and MC5) and ends with 1978, the death of punk.

From there, it only made sense to next read Simon Reynolds’ Rip it Up and Start Again. The subtitle alone – Post Punk 1978-1984 – almost makes it seem like a sequel to Please Kill Me. Meanwhile, Abrams books released a brand new book that I’ve mentioned on the blog a few times before and which I was lucky enough to get a free copy of from the publisher – Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s. I expected Mad World to, for the most part, cover bands I was already all-too-familiar with: Depeche Mode, New Order, and the like. As it turns out, the book is almost exclusively about the period from 1980-1983 (i.e., before new wave could have possibly hit me) and so much of the content of Mad World was brand new to me as well. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rip it Up and Start Again is not the first book I’ve ready by Simon Reynolds. That would be Retromania, which I wrote about here. In reading Retromania I discovered that when Reynolds decides to write a book he develops an encyclopedic knowledge base for the topic of that book and then bestows every last bit of that knowledge to his reader. Rip it Up is more focused than Retromania, which is a good thing because it forces Reynolds to stick to the topic rather than meander into a chapter on hauntology. That said, assuming you – like me – read the longer, UK version of Rip it Up,[3] which comes in at 752 pages in the hardcover version, you will undoubtedly be struck by the volume of information contained in this book, a book about a relatively small slice of music history when all is said and done. Words used by Goodreads reviewers like “thorough” and “exhaustive” really don’t do it justice; Reynolds writes thoughtfully, intelligently, passionately (but not too passionately) and critically about literally hundreds of bands – including many I’ve never heard of – strictly from two genres/eras: 1978-1981 post-punk and 1980-1984 new pop and new rock. Essentially, Reynolds takes the extreme opposite approach than Azerrad in his Our Band Could Be Your Life. Whereas Azerrad depicted an entire decade’s worth of underground music by focusing on 13 carefully selected bands, Reynolds makes sure that that there is nothing left to be said about post-punk and new wave (and if you think there is, you probably weren’t reading closely enough). At 752 pages, is it compelling reading at every turn? Of course not. But if you want to learn about these genres in depth, beyond PiL, Joy Division, Talking Heads and the various other big names featured on the back cover, this is the book to read.

Though I loved it, I understand that not everyone, not even the most ardent post-punk or new wave fans, wants to read a book that could double as an encyclopedia. Enter Mad World, the bathroom book version of Rip it Up. Reynolds’ book is 100% substance; Mad World, by contrast, is all style. It is very stylish though. The photographs are nice, the font and design is eye-catching and pops in an ‘80s sort of way – the book just jumps out at you like the opening theme to Saved by the Bell. The subtitle of this book is almost laughable. Mad World is not anywhere near a definitive oral history of new wave. There is probably more (in terms of content) about this era just in chapter 21 of Rip it Up (“New Gold Dreams 81-82-83-84: The Peak and Fall of New Pop”). Each chapter in Mad World is about one song and one song only; there is sometimes a little detail about other music from the artist, but not always. There is no continuity from chapter to chapter, no overall story told and often only one “speaker” per chapter. In each chapter the speakers are exclusively the band members – no other people from the scene are represented. And if a band missed the book’s cut they get no mention at all, which is especially odd when some obvious new wave bands (e.g., Squeeze) missed the cut while other non-new wave bands (e.g. Joy Division, in a chapter separate from one on New Order) are represented.

Fortunately, there’s room in the world (and on my shelf, and on the book table at Rough Trade NYC) for both kinds of books. Plain and simple, Mad World is fun. If you are a fan of early ‘80s new wave music you will enjoy it. (If not, don’t bother.) Take a stroll down memory lane and hear the thoughts of Simon Le Bon, Phil Oakey, Kim Wilde and countless others of your childhood idols. It’s the guilty pleasure of listening to “Come On Eileen” 30 years later (and yes, there is a chapter on Dexy’s Midnight Runners which claims that they are not one-hit wonders), but in book form. I think even someone as devoted to serious and thorough intellectual analysis as Simon Reynolds would agree.

Next month … I try to avoid reading anything about murder or English music. It’s summer after all!

 

 

[1] Another motivation: Mad Men. The constant comparisons of Megan Draper to Sharon Tate. If there’s any reference on Mad Men that I don’t get, I immediately set out to get it.

[2] One of those books: Sid Vicious: No One is Innocent by Alan Parker, an in-depth account of the life and death of the “face of punk music.” Maybe I have become a little murder-obsessed.

[3] The U.S. version is still long, but substantially shorter than the UK version. The differences are described here, with the key ones being: three chapters are cut and two chapters are compressed into one for reasons of space, the timeline is absent for reason of space, and there are no illustrations in the US edition. Frankly, if you’re bothering to read a book like this, I’m not sure why you’d bother with the shorter one. It’s a long book; bite the bullet or move on.

 

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