Wednesday, January 27, 2016

TMFW 125 - Real-Life Horror, #1 on the Pop Charts

Brenda Ann Spencer was 16 years old in 1979, living in challenging circumstances with her father at 6356 Lake Atlin Avenue in San Diego.  Her house, which was across the street from Grover Cleveland Elementary School, was strewn with empty alcohol bottles.  She slept on a mattress laid on the living room floor. 

By all accounts, Spencer had an unhappy life.  After her parents divorced when she was 9 or 10 years old, she became withdrawn.  She was frequently truant at school, and spent time in a special facility for problem kids.  At 16, she was already abusing alcohol and using drugs. Though there is some doubt, later in her life she would claim that she was both physically and sexually abused by her father.

In the summer of 1978, Spencer was arrested for burglary and (maybe) for shoplifting, and separately for breaking some windows at the elementary school by shooting them with a BB gun.  By December, things had gotten worse.  Staff at her school told Spencer's dad that she was suicidal, and after a psychiatric evaluation a doctor recommended admission to a mental hospital due to depression.  But Spencer's dad refused to give permission.  Instead, for Christmas 1978, he bought Spencer a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle with a telescopic sight and several hundred rounds of ammunition.  Shortly after that, Spencer started to boast to her classmates that she was going to "do something big to get on TV."

Against that background, it is perhaps not surprising what happened next.  At around 8:30 a.m. on Monday morning, January 29, 1979 - 36 years ago this week - Spencer opened a window in the front of her house and, using her new Christmas present, started shooting.  When some children went down after being hit, the school principal Burton Wragg and custodian Mike Suchar went outside to help.  Spencer shot and killed both of them.  When a police officer arrived on the scene, Spencer shot him in the neck.  Finally, after about 30 rounds and 20 minutes, another responding officer "borrowed" a garbage truck and parked it between the school and Spencer's window.  Having no more targets, Spencer barricaded herself inside her house.

In the midst of the standoff, Spencer took a call from a reporter at The San Diego Tribune, who had looked up the telephone number for the address listed by police as the shooter's and made a cold call.  The reporter asked Spencer if she knew where the shots were coming from, and Spencer gave the address.  When the reporter answered that the address was her own house, Spencer retorted "yeah, who do you think is doing the shooting?"  

After some discussion, the reporter asked Spencer why she had shot at the children and their teachers. Spencer replied: "I just did it for the fun of it. I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day."  Then she cut the call short with "I have to go now.  I shot a pig, I think, and I want to shoot more.  I'm having too much fun."

After several hours, Spencer surrendered to police.  All told, she had killed two school employees, critically injured a police officer, and had shot and injured eight children.  It was not the first mass shooting at a school - not even close - but the bizarre circumstances and Spencer's cavalier conversation with the reporter made it an almost immediate national story.

Later that afternoon, all the way across the country in Georgia, Bob Geldof and Johnnie Fingers of the Irish band The Boomtown Rats were doing a radio interview at WRAS, the famous college station for Georgia State University in Atlanta.  During the interview, a telex machine spit out the day's news, including the story of Ms. Spencer's shooting spree.  Geldof was struck by Spencer's nonchalant reasoning and turned her quote into the song "I Don't Like Mondays."

Featuring lyrics that describe the shooting pretty directly, the song was released less than six months later in July 1979.  It was a worldwide hit, reaching #1 in the UK and Australia (and allegedly 30 other countries as well), and making top-5 in Canada and New Zealand.  But in the US, there was understandable sensitivity to the song and it reached only #73.  (That it was such a worldwide hit is remarkable - one can only imagine the modern reaction if a pop band were to write a song almost nakedly celebrating a school shooting.)

Geldof, who in the face of criticism of the song insisted that "it wasn't an attempt to exploit tragedy," explained and defended his inspiration to Smash Hits magazine in 1979: "I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta [] and there was a telex machine beside me. I read it as it came out...Not liking Mondays for a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel, and I just said 'silicone chip inside her head had switched to overload' and wrote that down...It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it."

So there's your TMFW for today: The Boomtown Rats' biggest single was inspired by (and pretty directly describes) a mass shooting that killed two people and wounded 9 others. It sounds a bit different with that backstory, doesn't it?


BONUS FACT:  Brenda Spencer was tried as an adult, and she pled guilty to two counts of murder.  She has been in jail since, and has been denied parole four times.  Her next opportunity will be in 2019.  Remarkably, Spencer's father still lives in the house where the shooting took place.

BONUS FACT 2:  These days, Bob Geldof is most famous for being a founding organizer of the Live Aid series of concerts, which have raised over £150 million for aid in Africa and earned Geldof an honorary knighthood.  (I have a future TMFW in mind about Live Aid so let's just leave it there.)

BONUS FACT 2.5:  At the 2006 NME Awards (a British music awards show similar in tenor to the MTV Video Music Awards), the presenter was the British comedian Russell Brand.  Brand was characteristically brash in his hosting duties, which included him announcing Geldof as the winner of Best DVD for Live 8 as "Sir Bobby Gandalf."  Geldof was not amused, and started his speech with "Russell Brand, what a cunt."  When it was his turn at the mic, Brand retorted "really it's no surprise he's such an expert on famine, he has after all been dining out on 'I Don't Like Mondays' for 30 years." 

BONUS FACT 3:  One of the newspaper articles linked above (here it is again) is a contemporary account of the shooting that was written up in the January 30, 1979 edition of The Milwaukee Journal.  Look at the bottom right of that page; it's a Delta Airlines ad that touts their nonstop service to Florida, featuring champagne on all flights (even in tourist! even at Super Saver Fares!) and a dinner of "charcoal broiled" filet mignon, "a crisp, fresh salad," fresh vegetable, baked potato and a roll, and a dessert of "tempting pastries."  Times were different then.

BONUS FACT 3.5:  Before I started this entry a few weeks ago, I had never heard of coach or economy class being called "tourist."  Then just this week, the actress Andie MacDowell had a mini-meltdown on Twitter when she was downgraded from first class to "tourist" on a flight because they wouldn't let her dog sit with her in a bulkhead seat.  That was a fun coincidence.

BONUS FACT 4:  As the WRAS link above notes, the Georgia State radio station (which broadcasts at 88.5 FM) also in
spired Paul Westerberg to write the Replacements song "Left of the Dial."

BONUS FACT 4.5:  I was a onetime college DJ for the "voice of the Fighting Irish," 640 AM WVFI in South Bend, Indiana. But I never got to interview a famous band or anything like that.  In fact, during one of our shows, my co-DJ and I had a CD to give away and we announced that the tenth caller would get it.  After no calls came in for a few minutes, we revised the contest to the first caller.  By the time we signed off, the prize was still on offer.  I called my roommate and had him call back to "win," and I just took the CD home with me. I liked being a DJ but it was a pretty depressing reality check that literally nobody was listening to us.

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