Jesus fishing Christ! This is one of those books that you read with your mouth hanging open and your heart racing and then sleep with it locked in some other room. It’s both too gruesomely detailed to be false and yet horrifically unbelievable; I was actually lent the book by a friend who said “you’re not going to believe this! I read it in one night.” I took two nights for me to read it and I have told plenty of music fan friends the same thing he told me. I’m not sure if it’s meant as a recommendation or a warning.
Punk rock memoirs tend to follow a fairly predictable redemption arc: oddball kid is picked on at school and at home, discovers punk rock music, and finds their tribe and their identity. “Punk rock saved my life”. What isn’t spoken about as often (outside of Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders stories) are the damaged souls who found loud, fast music that spoke to them and remained seriously damaged nonetheless. This book is the true story of a young man from an angry and abusive home who discovered L.A. punk rock and became even angrier and more violent. By age 18, “Frank the Shank” is in jail and tied to various murders.
What Heath Mattioli and David Spacone have done is to illuminate a very ugly side of the L.A. hardcore punk scene that has been hinted at elsewhere but never discussed in such depth: namely the ultraviolent gangs that sprung up in the early 80s united by the music instead of by particular criminal enterprises. By 1983, Frank’s gang, La Mirada Punks (LMP), is known as much for its wild parties and petty thefts as for stabbing people to death. As the story progresses, the fights and killings become increasingly brutal and disconnected from any feasible motivations. By the time LMP are stabbing a “ska boy” to death in an alley for being a “braggart”, most readers will have lost any sympathy they might have had for Frank or his brothers, but that doesn’t seem to have been the point to the book. The writers said they wanted to tell Frank’s story to “force readers to tie off and stick it in.” It is one of the ugliest books I’ve ever read and totally compellingly honest; neither aspect really counts as a flaw.
There is also an entertaining rogue’s gallery of dead end kids as supporting cast members, from the mentally unbalanced Magnum to the gargantuan Mongo to Donna the Dead and the Satan-possessed car from The Car (1977). Since this story takes place near Hollywood, Eddie Munster, Lucille Ball and Rick James (naturally) also make appearances. As does Go-Go Belinda Carlisle, who spurns an LMP member over his stomach distress, which he responds to by trying to burn down the offending fast food restaurant!
Some of the stories- for example the group compulsively watching Footloose when a gun-toting hippie bursts in (to Errol Flynn’s house, naturally) and attempts to exterminate them with a shotgun- read either like gonzo noir fiction or the craziest mobster movie never made and, frankly, it’s hard to imagine that Martin Scorsese hasn’t been given a copy of this book yet. The two main challenges I see for anyone who attempted to turn “Disco’s Out… Murder’s In!” into a film would be that the main characters are thoroughly unlikable in just about every way, something Scorsese has handled before; and secondly, you could see one of the punks depicted in the book finding the filmmakers and killing them! As is, it’s not clear how many cold cases could be reopened by this book. Even if it’s 50% true, numerous figures depicted got away with murder. Maybe the book was Frank’s attempt at atonement. He was certainly willing to come across as a monster in print.
And the book makes some attempt to provide context, if not sympathy, for the monster’s actions. His father was as mean and hateful as one could imagine and had already told Frank about his own murder when the son was just a boy. Many of the elders in the vicinity were involved in gangster activities in an area thick with gangs and gang violence. And then there was the music: “Every single band wound us up like A Clockwork Orange, yelling something violent and negative on every single record. Was there one happy punk record? I don’t think so” Frank gripes. And yet, the vast majority of us angry kids who listened to punk somehow refrained from stabbing anyone. Hell, most of us noticed how many of the songs were against the sort of stupid thuggish violence that ultimately destroyed the scene. When the book name-checks Dead Kennedys or MDC, you wonder if these punks ever read the lyrics.
Of course, young men have forever found reasons to affirm their own existence by snuffing out that of a stranger. And the book nevertheless does a good job of evoking how angry and uptight the 80s actually were, with Reagan rattling the sabers against Russia and Iran, hippies and straights alike beating up any “punker” they came across, and the L.A.P.D. rampaging over kids, the homeless, minorities, and everyone else that white conservatives wouldn’t really want to wake up next to on “morning in America”. And yet, the futility and brutality with which these punks lashed out against each other doesn’t seem far removed from the sort of “cowboy” vigilantism that characterized right wing politics under Reagan. Where are they now? Some died, some wound up in jail, Frank the Shank digs graves, “Degenerate… got a badge, got a gun, and became a cop” and finally “Youngblood joined the biggest gang there is, the U.S. Army, and today guards political prisoners of the War on Terror.”