Everyone who’s been to a party and talked to a charismatic stranger full of crazy stories has experienced it: the exact moment when it dawns on you that you may be getting fed a bill of goods. Bullshitted. Falling prey to a fascinating stretcher-of-truths. This realization leaves one with the choice to carry on listening in the interests of hearing a good yarn, or feigning someplace else to be, annoyed at the amount of time wasted listening to what may be tall tales. Certain moments in pop cultural history attract a disproportionate number of these kinds of storytellers. At last count, Woodstock’s confines were unlikely to contain the millions of hippies who claimed to have been there, and Andy Warhol’s Factory would have had to take up the entire square footage of Manhattan below 40th Street in order to accommodate the hordes of alleged participants. Sorting out the truth of whether or not a certain tale-teller was in a specific place can be nearly impossible. The bounty of writing and photography that accompanies these events means it’s easy to construct convincing narratives that place one in the pivotal moment of one’s choosing. Sometimes, even being in an exciting place and time isn’t enough—there’s a very human tendency towards embellishment. If the truth is merely interesting, why not weave a fantastic semi-truth?
Disco’s Out… Murder’s In! is the product of numerous years’ worth of interviews conducted by authors Heath Mattioli and David Spacone with Frank the Shank, a participant in a Los Angeles area youth gang known as La Mirada Punks (LMP). The gang’s nihilistic obsession with violence sheds light on the period discussed in the book: Certain corners of youth culture were infected by the continuing ripples of the economic depression of the 1970s and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. The immediacy of the book’s first-person writing style is sledgehammer brutal, and the episodes of extreme violence are, in the truest meaning of the word, senseless. LMP’s teenage members have homes to return to, they’re not involved in the drug trade, and there’s no attempt made to give motive to their behavior as being the result of abuse. A years-long string of stabbings, beatings, and murders takes place against the backdrop of L.A.’s hardcore scene, perpetrated by bored boys defending “turf” for no reason other than their funhouse-mirror, hormone-poisoned vision of honor. Like so many horrifying historical narratives, it’s difficult to pull oneself away from this world where wandering into the pit at a punk show for a bit of aggro fun could result in death.
Back to that conversational crossroads mentioned above: If you’re listening to a compelling story, told by someone magnetic enough to carry the narrative, do you continue to give it your attention even though there’s a point where you suspect it might not be true? That’s the position one finds oneself in after the first unsupported account of murder in Disco’s Out… Murder’s In! Our protagonist, at this point a high school freshman LMP recruit, has just witnessed the savage stabbing of a man unwise enough to sport the wrong style of counterculture clothing. He’s struck by the man’s death at the hands of his friends, which goes far beyond the brawling and casual sex he’d participated in. It quickly becomes apparent that there will be no consequences for this act. As outrage piles upon outrage and Frank’s claims of underworld alliances escalate, the lack of supporting evidence in the form of newspaper clippings, police records, or much of anything past personal photos for the majority of events begins to make the cautious reader a bit hesitant to believe the story to its fullest.
It’s worth mentioning that authors Mattioli and Spacone were participants in the same social scene that LMP terrorized. There’s no doubt that hardcore punk gangs existed and that they were responsible for much of the mayhem surrounding that scene in the 1980s and beyond. In the book, Frank’s narrative is shifted towards the early 1980s, and in interviews, the authors have mentioned they first met him around 1986. This means that many of the crimes recounted in Disco’s Out… Murder’s In! would have passed into scene legend by the time the authors first encountered Frank and his gang brothers. When asked about the due diligence performed by the duo during the creation of the book, both authors are quick to point out that the violence of LMP was the stuff of street gossip when they were young. When does street gossip pass into urban legend, though? In the telling and retelling, stories tend to distill and shape-shift into their most compelling form. The factuality of the book’s climactic murder is substantiated with news clippings, but there’s a possibility that this crime played a role in retroactive myth-making on the part of LMP members. If a gang killed once, could it have killed before, and repeatedly? It’s easy to turn an already savage story of assault into a “dead men tell no tales” story of murder. There’s a steady emphasis on the secrecy surrounding the gangs that plagued the hardcore scene, but secrets become hard to keep if one’s son, brother, or classmate simply vanishes. Given the fact that murder has no statute of limitations, it gives the reader pause to think of why anyone would resurrect these events in print, particularly when the book makes it clear that Frank was never put on trial for his participation in these crimes.
There is a significant amount of value in Disco’s Out… Murder’s In! for its unflinching portrayal of a specific time in counterculture history. There’s a wealth of evidence that puts Frank the Shank at the epicenter of the hardcore punk scene, and it’s clear that LMP’s activities contributed to the violent atmosphere surrounding these shows. What’s less clear is how much of the book’s narrative aligns with the truth of events as they occurred in reality. For adventurous readers who approach the material with less concern for strict fact-checking, there’s the sociological value of the urban legend even to the wildest tales in the book. Certainly there’s a gutter glamor to the notion of bloodthirsty teenage boys with a tenuous grasp on consequences acting out their most primal instincts in the city streets. If one looks at these stories through a similar lens used to view tales of hitchhiking ghosts, costumed railroad killers, and monstrous portents of doom, it reveals a bizarre, ecstatic truth. Does it matter if a given victim of LMP’s violence died at their hands to prove that they were a menace? Does lowering the body count in the book change the essence of the lawless, amplified Lord of the Flies lifestyle portrayed in its pages? For this reader, the answer is a resounding “no!” This book remains a fist-in-the-face narrative of a powder keg moment in underground culture.
Article by: Tenebrous Kate
Author: Heath Mattioli / David Spacone
Publisher: Feral House (United States)
Publication Date: November 10, 2015
File Under: Music/Culture/True Crime