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And the Band Played On: Politics, People,…

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987)

by Randy Shilts

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1,725404,104 (4.4)54
  1. 20
    The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS by Helen Epstein (espertus)
    espertus: Two interesting books on the spread of AIDS in two very different locations and times. "And the Band Played On" is about the emergence of AIDS, with a focus on the San Francisco gay community in the 1980s, which the author was a part of, and the (non-)response by the American government. "The Invisible Cure" is about governments' and NGOs' responses to AIDS in African countries in the 1990s and early 2000s, with varying degrees of success based on different levels of understanding of the problem and effectiveness in directing resources.… (more)
  2. 10
    The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (Sandydog1)
    Sandydog1: Another epidemiological thriller, even faster-paced.
  3. 21
    World War Z by Max Brooks (timspalding)
    timspalding: Some may take offense at the suggestion, but I think don't think World War Z could have been written without And the Band Played On, an oral history of the all-too-real AIDS epidemic. Shilts' is by far the better book, even if it weren't true and important.… (more)

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» See also 54 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
This is nothing less than a compulsively readable tour-de-force in modern medical journalism. It's the history of a disease, a people, and an era all in one.

I always knew I'd read this book eventually, but as with any long non-fiction tome there comes a risk that at some point your attention span might have to bow out. Not here: this book holds your interest on nearly every page (I skipped one or two of the more dense courtroom testimony pages, but often later went back to read them anyway). Randy Shilts does not ask for your time lightly - every chapter here is earned.

It seems almost an omniscient narrative voice in involved, and with over 900 interviews and his own previous years of investigative work on AIDS, there's a reason for that.

Before reading, I had foolishly assumed the word politics had been added to the title to sex it up a bit. Nope. The story of the various responses people, communities, and entire governments had to AIDS was all about politics. So often reading this book did I get the impression you could actually hear the bullet whiz past your ear. If you were born around or before 1980 in a first world country and ever had a blood transplant, this could have been your story too. While Mr. Shilts avoids sensationalism, the story is sensational enough in its barest facts for that point to be clear.

I immediately looked up the author to learn more about what he had written only to discover he too died from AIDS in the 1990's. His book, already a tribute to a lost generation, is now an example of all the substantive contributions those men and women could've made if politics could have been shoved aside sooner.

This book is a rare thing: it is both a great, historic work and a damn good read. Would that Randy Shilts had lived long enough to give us many more of its calibre. ( )
  willoughby | Jun 30, 2014 |
A scathing expose on the inaction of the establishment (medical and governmental) as hundreds then thousands died in the early to mid-1980s. Shilts' book explores of the social and political forces at work during the early years of the AIDS pandemic. ( )
  gkonopas | Apr 19, 2013 |
I am furious with the way the Reagan administration FAILED to handle a public health crisis. I hope we, as a nation, have learned our lesson about ignoring problems simply because we have the belief that it only effects "others". AIDS is a human issue. ( )
  melissarochelle | Apr 12, 2013 |
This book brought back the early 80s in hallucinatory detail. I remember when we first heard about Gay Cancer, and how hard it was to get any decent information. I remember when the world got wobbly and my friends were dying and it seemed like nobody cared. I was quite certain that, given my penchant for fey boys, I wouldn't be around to see the turn of the century. I vividly remember making up file folders for 1989 for my job and thinking that the ones for 1990 would be in someone else's handwriting. It was a scary time that was made electric for me by Shilts and Larry Kramer. I bought this book the week it came out, and it changed my view of everything. Absolutely everything.

Reading it again some 20-odd years later brought back the anger and the sadness and that helpless, blistering rage. This is the book that made me understand viscerally that me and mine mattered nothing to the government. It's also where I learned that the best intentions can get snarled in the weeds- that people passionately devoted to an idea will serve that idea beyond all reason, that profit comes before people, and that it always takes a movie star to catch the public's imagination.

All the mistakes, all the missteps are herein laid out in letters of fire. The Cassandras, dismissed, reviled and hushed at the time, are sadly proven right. Reagan is illuminated in the harsh light of retrospect and found wanting.

A whole generation vanished because the health officials didn't want to talk about anal sex, the blood banks didn't want to admit they should have tested the blood, the gay rights organizations couldn't conceive of closing the baths, the government couldn't fund the scientists, the scientists couldn't let go of their need to be the first, the medical journals couldn't suspend business-as-usual, the FDA couldn't understand that double blind studies were inappropriate in the face of an epidemic of this magnitude, and on and on and on. A monumental comedy of errors that could so easily have been prevented.

This book should be required reading for anyone entering any sort of health care profession or who might be a health care consumer some day. Infuriating, well-written, and tragically still timely. It could happen again.

This book changed my life. I wish it hadn't had to. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
And the Band Played On opens with a vivid, spectacular scene: the country's Bicentennial celebration on July 4, 1976 with the Tall Ships from fifty-five nations gathered New York City's harbor. It was an incredibly festive occasion, a symbolic display and a coming together of people and nations.

Unbeknownst to us, something else was commencing that day - something that would forever change and darken the country that was so joyfully celebrating its 200th birthday.

"New York City had hosted the greatest party ever known, everybody agreed later. The guests had come from all over the world. This was the part the epidemiologists would later note, when they stayed up late at night and the conversation drifted toward where it had started and when. They would remember that glorious night in New York Harbor, all those sailors, and recall: From all over the world they came to New York." (pg. 3)

From there, And the Band Played On meticulously takes the reader through the very beginnings of what would become the AIDS epidemic. Journalist Randy Shilts traces the earliest victims in Africa, in San Francisco and New York as they begin to come down with mysterious, unexplained, and nameless conditions.

Shilts presents a literal, month-by-month, sometimes day-by-day chronology of events. The chapters are broken into years and the subheading are the actual dates. This becomes, then, akin to a 600 page diary of AIDS from 1979 until 1985. (The tipping point of AIDS, ushered in upon Rock Hudson's diagnosis, is discussed in a brief epilogue.)

The calendar, diary-like format of And the Band Played On is downright chilling and foreboding:

"...in the United States fifty-five young men had been diagnosed with some infection linked to the new virus by the end of 1980. [my note: the same number of the Tall Ships that visited just four years earlier.] Ten others had been diagnosed in Europe, while many more were ailing among the uncounted sick of primitive Africa. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, the killer was awakening." (pg. 49)

It's more than a bit disconcerting reading And the Band Played On thirty years hence. It's like going back to the future. It's like reading a mystery novel where you know the clues - and you just want to reach into the pages and stop people and time in their very tracks, to shake them, to warn them about what's ahead. Because we know - the good and the bad. Things are so different now and we know so much now that we didn't know then, especially in the very early days, which are really, really tough to read about.

Shilts pulls no punches, leaves no stone unturned. There are aspects of this epidemic that you know or have perhaps heard about - the stalled funding and inaction from the NIH (the "joke was that the agency's initials stood for "Not Interested in Homosexuals") and the CDC, and the lack of media attention - but until you actually read about it in the amount of detail described here, and see the impact it had on so many lives ... it is beyond sobering.

Reading about the response to the Tylenol crisis as compared to the AIDS epidemic - both of which were happening in October 1982 - put this in an enlightened perspective.

"The New York Times wrote a story on the Tylenol scare every day for the entire month of October and produced twenty-three more pieces in the two months after that. Four of the stories appeared on the front page. The poisoning received comparable coverage in media across the country, inspiring an immense government effort ....The Food and Drug Administration had more than 1,100 employees testing 1.5 million similar capsules for evidence of poisoning, and chasing down every faint possibility of a victim of the new terror .... Tylenol's parent company, Johnson and Johnson, estimated spending $100 million in the effort ....

In the end, the millions of dollars for CDC Tylenol investigations yielded little beyond the probability that some lone crackpot had tampered with a few boxes of the pain reliever. No more cases of poisoning occurred beyond the first handful reported in early October. Yet the crisis showed how the government could spring into action, issue warnings ...."

The subtitle of And the Band Played On is Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. Journalist Randy Shilts excels at covering the politics and the people behind the epidemic. (Shilts covered the AIDS epidemic as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle beginning in 1982. The Chronicle was the only newspaper to have a dedicated reporter on this story.)

Let us take the politics first - and there is quite a bit of it here, too much to get into with this review, more than I ever realized (and I'm far from an expert). What was (and is) maddening is the reading about the politics behind the stalled funding in Washington. One comment I read - somewhere, maybe on Goodreads - said that you never realized what an asshole Reagan was until you read this book, and in my opinion, that is rather true. The promise of grant funding that never materialized, the miniscule amount dedicated to fighting AIDS, the indifference by so many people, including the President of the United States himself. Reagan didn't say anything publicly about a disease that, for years, was ravaging hundreds and then thousands of Americans people. He first uttered the word AIDS after 20,000 people in America had died. I find that absolutely unconscionable.

It is also fascinating to read about the political and cultural difference between New York and San Francisco, as concerns the epidemic.

"The vastly different political mechanics of San Francisco and New York ensured that few eastern gay leaders would launch any attacks on the officialdom. On the West Coast, gay political power was a grass-roots movement with mainstream politicians aware that their positions rested in part with their ability to please gay voters. In New York, gay power tended toward a top-down paradigm. Little evidence of a grass-roots movement existed, and gay political leaders thrived more on the favors of public officials." (pg. 340)

Throughout And the Band Played On, a common message repeats: with the exception of a handful of activists pushing for awareness and funding, the epidemic thrived on the apathy of those in the government and those in the general public. For years, nobody simply cared because this was a disease that happened to people who were expendable, who brought this upon themselves because of their lifestyle. Even three years into this epidemic, AIDS was still a non-issue.

"In the last weeks of 1983, newspapers were filled with year-in-review pieces. The Associated Press editors released their annual compilation of the year's top ten news stories. The terrorist bombing of the Marine headquarters in Beirut, in which 240 servicemen were killed, was voted the top story, followed by the downing of a South Korean airliner by Soviet jets, and the American invasion of Grenada. The year's top movies were Silkwood and The Big Chill, and nobody could talk enough about Michael Jackson's Moonwalking and Thriller, his huge comeback album. Although AIDS reporting had been the vogue earlier in the year, attention had now fully waned and nobody included the epidemic in a noteworthy benchmark for the year.

Hidden away on back pages, therefore, was the story from Atlanta, reporting that as of December 19, 1983, the CDC reported 3,000 Americans now stricken with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome; of these, 1,283 were dead." (pg. 400-401)

The politics and the people were intertwined, as was evidenced in subcommittee hearings in August 1983.

"It was the people with AIDS who lent the first day of hearings the most poignant and sometimes humorous moments. Pneumocystis victim Roger Lyon from San Francisco pleaded, "I came here today with the hope that this administration would do everything possible, make every resource available - there is no reason this disease cannot be conquered. We do not need infighting. This is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue. And I do not intend to be defeated by it. I came here today in the hop that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape." (pg. 360)

And the Band Played On is very much about the people and the lives behind the ever-increasing cases and death counts. Shilts gives you their life stories, their backgrounds, takes you to their bedsides. You're with them and their partners as they take their last breath, utter their dying words. You meet the 71 year old grandmother who acquired AIDS from a blood transfusion received during a hip operation. You watch AIDS patient Morgan MacDonald being literally dumped in a hallway, after a nationally-renowned hospital chartered a plane for $14,000 to do exactly that.

"October 4, 1983 - San Francisco AIDS Foundation
The ambulance stopped on 10th Street, double-parked, and quickly bundled a young man onto a gurney. The ambulance driver and a second man carried the stretcher to the second-floor offices of the AIDS Foundation and set the stretcher on the floor. A nurse walking with them hurriedly put down a few plastic bags containing all the young man's possessions. Then, they turned and walked out, leaving the gaunt man lying on the floor.

Confused staffers at the foundation pieced together his story. Since July, Morgan MacDonald had been treated at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida for severe cryptosporidiosis, stemming from AIDS. When his state Medicaid benefits ran out, Shands, a private hospital, ordered MacDonald to leave by October 7. However, there was no place for the twenty-seven year old to go .... Shands Hospital doctors called San Francisco General Hospital to see whether that facility would accept MacDonald. The hospital said it did not accept acutely ill transfer patients and suggested he stay in Florida. Then the AIDS Foundation started getting calls from Florida, inquiring how a man with AIDS, who wanted to move to San Francisco, could get on the outpatient treatment program.

Early Tuesday morning, Shands Hospital officials loaded MacDonald in a private Learjet air ambulance with a doctor and nurse. Although the plane cost $14,000 to charter, it was a cheaper alternative to the $100,000 in hospital bills an AIDS patient typically accumulated. The hospital also took $300 from money raised in the gay community to help AIDS patients and put it in the stricken man's pocket for spending money." (pg. 374)

And the Band Played On is not an easy book to read. It's graphic and emotionally draining, and if you know someone who died of AIDS (especially during these early years, but really, during any year), this is particularly tough, brings back memories, and will sear your heart.

But it's a book that I feel is important for everyone to read because I believe that this is a critical part of our history that should never, ever be forgotten. Because it could so easily happen again.

Randy Shilts is an example of the type of journalist that we don't often see anymore. His work in And the Band Played On reflects an extraordinary degree of reporting quality, depth, ethics, and integrity that today's media desperately lacks. It should be required reading for anyone in any journalism program. We owe Randy Shilts an incredible debt of gratitude for his work.

Unfortunately, he's not alive to receive it. Randy Shilts died of AIDS in 1994, at the age of 42.

Today (August 8) would have been his 61st birthday.
( )
  bettyandboo | Apr 2, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
Although I’ve not read the book, I do have this on VHS. I remember watching the movie and I though it didn’t get enough attention, because people’s fears and attitudes really haven’t changed much, even after all these decades.

In 1986, my Mom was reluctant to tell people that she had cancer because some uninformed people actually thought they could catch cancer from someone else. The same fears abound with Aids.
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I came here today with the hope that this administration would do everything possible, make every resource available -- there is no reason this disease cannot be conquered. We do not need infighting. This is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue. And I do not intend to be defeated by it. I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312241356, Paperback)

In the first major book on AIDS, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts examines the making of an epidemic. Shilts researched and reported the book exhaustively, chronicling almost day-by-day the first five years of AIDS. His work is critical of the medical and scientific communities' initial response and particularly harsh on the Reagan Administration, who he claims cut funding, ignored calls for action and deliberately misled Congress. Shilts doesn't stop there, wondering why more people in the gay community, the mass media and the country at large didn't stand up in anger more quickly. The AIDS pandemic is one of the most striking developments of the late 20th century and this is the definitive story of its beginnings.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:29 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

An examination of the AIDS crisis critiques the federal government for its inaction, health authorities for their greed, and scientists for their desire for prestige in the face of the AIDS pandemic, in a twentieth anniversary edition of the acclaimed expose.… (more)

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