Arts & Culture » Book Review

Disco Demolition Night according to its ringmaster, Steve Dahl

A new book is a patchy, occasionally biased portrayal of the infamous promotional stunt.

by

15 comments

On July 12, 1979, a crateful of disco records was blown up in the middle of Comiskey Park, fans victoriously stormed the field, and the world was forever changed. Disco, an inescapable pop-music phenomenon, was finally quashed. Teenagers took back the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll they cherished so dearly. And it was all thanks to the greatest promotional stunt in the history of FM radio.

Or maybe that's not what happened. Maybe Steve Dahl, the then-ascendant and influential disc jockey who created and hosted the stunt, was embarrassed, and his career never recovered. The public viewed the event—organized with the help of Mike Veeck, son of Sox owner Bill Veeck—as an uncontrolled riot that signaled youth culture had once again turned anarchic. Worst of all, it was racist and homophobic, since disco was a genre primarily created by and for blacks, Latinos, and gays. Rock music, once seen as open-minded, had been co-opted by bigots. Even the game was declared a forfeit to the Detroit Tigers.

These are the competing narratives of the false binary that is Disco Demolition Night. I've often thought that the intentions of Dahl and those who attended Disco Demolition are in the eye of the beholder: most of the participants, in retrospect, view the event as mere horseplay; those who saw it from the outside, or were disco fans, tend to interpret it as a frightening and dumb display of prejudicial anger. Dave Hoekstra, local author and radio host, occasional Reader contributor, and a Sun-Times writer for three decades, understands the prevalence and pitfalls of both these story lines, and his new book, Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died, is an attempt to provide a more balanced account.

Though Hoekstra wrote and compiled Disco Demolition, it's credited to "Steve Dahl with Dave Hoekstra and Paul Natkin" (the latter of whom contributed the photographs), and the last chapter begins with this bizarre caveat: "Steve Dahl was a willing and honest participant in this book because he wanted to set the record straight." Unfortunately, Dahl seems to be the one who primarily sets the record in Disco Demolition. The book errs on his side of the story, from Naperville-born comedian Bob Odenkirk's block-headed and mostly unfunny foreword to Dahl's dismissive introduction to the narrative's overreliance on the anecdotes of Dahl sympathizers.

When he gets the chance, Hoekstra does try to make Disco Demolition a more rounded, less one-sided account. The main issue of Disco Demolition Night, he states early on, wasn't one of race or sexual preference or gender—it was class. Many of the attendees—including photographer Diane Alexander White, whose exhibition of shots from the event was the subject of a Reader story in 2009—have pointed out that the crowd mostly consisted of blue-collar teens from the south side. They viewed disco as music that was played in fancy clubs that required expensive outfits in order to gain entrance; worse, they saw formerly hard-rocking idols such as Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones putting out disco songs that catered to a more elite, glamorous audience.

Disco Demolition is at its most interesting toward the end, when Hoekstra talks to people whose perspectives on Disco Demolition Night haven't really been documented: Nancy Faust, the longtime Comiskey Park organist who happens to be a disco fan; vendors at the ballpark who were working during the mayhem; groundskeeper Roger Bossard, who had to repair the field in time for the next day's game, right after it had been horribly defaced. The penultimate chapter documents how house music proliferated in Chicago shortly after Disco Demolition took place.

But other interviews and subjects feel unnecessary and out of place. The most egregious example is a whole chapter dedicated to an exchange with Styx lead singer Dennis DeYoung, a south-side native who had little to do with Disco Demolition. Other people included in the book, from Duck Inn chef Kevin Hickey to comedian Richard Lewis, don't add to any greater understanding of the event. At times, the background information of the interview subjects is simply excessive padding for brief quotes about Disco Demolition. It feels like the people being interviewed are those Dahl and Hoekstra wanted to include rather than those who might have provided more dimension and depth to the story.

The perspective of Disco Demolition, much like the event itself, is overly white and male. The inclusion of more people who were affected by the event—particularly minorities and LGBTQ individuals who may have felt that Disco Demolition was an indirect attack on their race and sexuality—would've undoubtedly created a tension that the book lacks. But reading Dahl's reflections makes it abundantly clear why those viewpoints aren't included. "Any of us could go to a club now and take molly," he says, as if all people are being arrested for drug offenses at an equal rate. "I wouldn't have known how to go to a club and wear a suit. There was a lot of intimidation and disenfranchisement, especially if you were a male." Because it must've been so hard to be a straight white man in 1979?

Though the press release from publisher Curbside Splendor bills Disco Demolition as the book where Dahl finally expresses how he feels about that fateful night, it's obvious that he would never be a part of a project where at any point he might come off as looking like the bad guy. I was surprised to discover that the night Disco Demolition happened Dahl was only 24 years old. He easily could've chalked up some of his lapses to youthful ignorance, but instead he seems to celebrate the time, and the book reads as overt hagiography. "I'm worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe for fronting Disco Demolition," Dahl proclaims early on. That's understandable: it's easier, if more exhausting, to talk than it is to listen.  v

Comments (15)

Showing 1-15 of 15

Add a comment
 

Add a comment