March 25, 1990 — The Happy Land nightclub in New York is torched

Happy Land nightclub had been ordered closed for building code violations during November 1988, including the lack of fire exits, alarms or sprinkler system. These faults were never remedied, and fire exits were later found to have been deliberately blocked (to prevent people entering without paying).

The evening of the fire, Julio González had argued with his former girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, a coat check girl at the club, urging her to quit. She told him to leave, and when he refused, she called the bouncer. González tried to fight back into the club but was ejected by the bouncer. He was heard to scream drunken threats in the process. Later that night, González returned to the establishment with a container of gasoline which he spread on the staircase that was the only access into the club.

In the resulting fire, 87 people lost their lives. González was convicted of 87 murders and 87 charges of arson, and sentenced to 25 years to life on every charge (a total of 4350 years), although he will be eligible for parole in March 2015 (the sentences for multiple murders are served concurrently under New York state law).

January 20, 1977 — The end of the Ford administration temporarily returns Henry Kissinger to obscurity

Henry Kissinger once received the Nobel Peace Prize for failing to negotiate a peace treaty. Which tells you close to everything you need to know about the man: he is lauded out of all proportion to his actual achievements. Realistically, his single greatest achievement is avoiding prosecution in the downfall of the Nixon administration.

I’ll back up. Kissinger was Nixon’s Secretary of State and later his National Security Advisor. As such, he was a major architect of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War (and thus, of America’s defeat in the Vietnam War). A proponent of Realpolitik (which is basically the doctrine that morality comes second to winning in politics), Kissinger was not a bloodthirsty man, but a callous and indifferent one. If other people had to die for him to get what he wanted, so be it.

He remained in office throughout the Ford administration, while he largely disappeared during the Carter years, Reagan relied on him for advice, as have almost all his successors in the Oval Office. Kissinger is still seen as an authority on US foreign relations even today – in 2016, Clinton boasted that he was one of her advisors (and Sanders boasted that Kissinger was not, and would never be, one of his advisors).

January 16, 1920 — Prohibition officially begins in the USA

One of the most expensive and counter-productive intrusions of the government into the private sphere in human history, Prohibition was enabled by the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution. It banned the sale, production and consumption of alcohol throughout the United States. Naturally, it was immensely unpopular with the kind of people who like to drink alcohol, and these people, if they could not obtain their tipple legally, would do so illegally. The new law – which was also rather more heavily enforced on the poorer classes than than the richer, often by police known to drink themselves – lead to an incredible increase in the number and wealthiness of criminals, with a corresponding increase in violent crime.

Ultimately, Prohibition failed and was written out of law with another amendment to the Constitution, but the hand of organised crime had been strengthened in a way that, nearly a century later, law enforcement has still not brought back to pre-Prohibition levels.

November 20, 1965 — “Mike D” of the Beastie Boys born

Michael Diamond was born in New York City, a member of a Jewish family. In the late Seventies, he was a founding member of the band then called The Young Aborigines, in which he was the drummer. In 1981, Adam Yauch (better known as MCA) joined the band, followed in 1983 by Adam Horovitz (better known as Ad-Rock). By this time, Diamond, now performing under the stage name Mike D, was the sole remaining original member of the band, which had renamed itself The Beastie Boys after Yauch joined.

As a member of the Beastie Boys, Diamond has enjoyed creative and commercial success. Their breakthrough hit was 1987’s “You Gotta Fight For Your Right (To Party)”, with subsequent hits “So What’cha Want”, “Sabotage” and “Intergalactic”. The band broke up in 2012 after the death of MCA, a.k.a. Adam Yauch.

November 16, 1965 — Author Alexander King dies

Alexander King was born Alexander Koenig in Vienna in 1899. A troubled man, he went through multiple marriages, bouts of addiction and eventually moved to America. Here, he became popular as a frequent quest on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show”, loved for his irascibility, his wit and his disarming honesty about his life’s ups and downs. He also became a writer, publishing several well-loved books of memoirs.

King died at the age of 66.

November 5, 1979 — Russell Hoban finishes writing “Riddley Walker”

Russell Hoban was always somewhat peripatetic in his writing interests. While he tended to return to the same themes, he was far less loyal to genres. “Riddley Walker” is one of his best known novels, and as the only major work of science fiction he wrote, is representatively unrepresentative of his oeuvre.

It concern a young man in a world (ours, about two millennia after a nuclear war) who stumbles on a plan to build a super-weapon. The novel took Hoban more than five and half years to write, and won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel in 1982, as well as an Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award in 1983. (It was also nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1982, but lost to Gene Wolfe’s “The Claw of the Conciliator”.)

June 6, 1835 — John Batman makes a treaty with the Wurundjeri people

John Batman was a Tasmanian who organised a syndicate of investors to fund him and some other settlers to build a new village on the banks of the Yarra River. Of course, this land was already occupied by the tribes of the Kulin nation, primarily the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung, each of which greatly outnumbered the small group of settlers Batman led. Thus, Batman made a deal with the chiefs of the Wurundjeri, purchasing a small stretch of land. In time, the village would become Melbourne (today a metropolis of more than four million people, very few of them members of the Wurundjeri or other Kulin peoples).

However, there are many grounds on which to dispute Batman’s treaty. It is a matter of some dispute whether the tribesmen Batman dealt with understood the deal they were making in the same way Batman did – among the Kulin people, as among most Australian Aboriginal peoples, land was not owned by individuals in the same way it was by Europeans. Legally, even by the standards of colonial empires, Batman was also on shaky ground, as he had no authority from the Crown to make such a deal. And while it does appear that, at least to start with, the colonists made efforts to deal in good faith with the various Kulin peoples, misunderstandings were inevitable between two such disparate peoples, leading to bloodshed on several occasions. Later colonists, who were not party to the original deal, treated the Kulin (and in time, the other native peoples of Victoria) much worse. Batman, like so many of the natives, was dead by then.

Batman signs treaty artist impression
As mentioned in:
Solid Rock — Goanna

1969 — The ‘Bloody Thursday’ protest march is broken up by the police

The People’s Park in Berkeley was first created in 1969. The site was formerly occupied by houses, but those began to be demolished pending redevelopment by the University of California in February 1968. However, the money ran out. Only partially demolished, the site was allowed to sit derelict for more than a year. In April 1969, the site was occupied by a mixed of group of local residents and political activists who declared it the People’s Park. The university was caught off-guard by this, but negotiated with the occupiers, eventually promising to notify and consult them before proceeding with any developments.

Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, regarded this agreement as an outrageous capitulation to people he characterised as “communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants.” On Thursday, May 15, 1969, he dispatched officers of the Califorian Highway Patrol and the Berkeley police precinct to clear the park, which they entered at 4:30 in the morning. But the occupiers resisted, and more protestors arrived to aid in the struggle. By midday, more than 3000 people had gathered in an attempt to reclaim the now fenced-off park from the 159 law enforcement personnel assigned to patrol its borders. Protestors threw rocks and bottles at police, police fired pepper gas and tear gas canisters at protestors, and the situation deteriorated.

Both sides were reinforced by new arrivals, bringing the total number of police to 791 and the total of protestors to more than 4000. Police began to fire shotguns into the crowd, causing more than 100 injuries (129 hospital admissions and an unknown number of unreported injuries). One protestor, a UC Berkeley student named James Rector, was killed in the struggle. Undeterred, Reagan sent 2700 National Guard troops to restore order that evening, declaring a curfew throughout Berkeley and arresting large numbers of students, hippies and other ‘suspicious characters’. The following April, Reagan publicly said of the incident “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” He remains a hero of the Republican Party to this day.

Referenced in:

What’s Going On — Marvin Gaye

1939 — Harvey Keitel born

One of those rare actors to not use a screen name, Harvey Keitel was a US Marine and later a court reporter before he became an actor. He first began to get attention for his roles in some of Martin Scorcese’s early films, such as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. His career took a downturn after he was replaced by Martin Sheen on the set of Apocalypse Now after only a week of filming, although Keitel remained a prolific supporting actor for years.

It was not until 1992, when he played the role of Mr White in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, that his career really took off again. Throughout the Nineties, Keitel was one of the most well-known and respected actors in Hollywood, having starred or guests in some of the highest profile films of the decade.

Referenced in:

The Chanukah Song (Part II) — Adam Sandler

1943 — Sergei Rachmaninoff dies

Born in 1873, Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest Russian composers of the Twentieth Century, and one of the last Russians to compose in the Romantic style. In addition, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest pianists in history. Ironically, his greatest fame came after he moved to the West in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution. His works – which include four concertos, three symphonies and 24 preludes – tended to emphasize the piano, the instrument he knew and loved best. As a writer for piano, he explored a wider range of its capabilities than almost any other composer.

Rachmaninoff was diagnosed with melanoma in late 1942, although only his family was told of the diagnosis – he himself was not. He died a few months later, only four days short of his seventieth birthday, and was buried in a cemetery in New York. His will had called for him to be buried on his property in Switzerland, the Villa Senar, but World War Two made that impossible.

Referenced in:

Decomposing Composers — Monty Python

March 14, 1974 — Russell Hoban begins writing “Riddley Walker”

Russell Hoban was always somewhat peripatetic in his writing interests. While he tended to return to the same themes, he was far less loyal to genres. “Riddley Walker” is one of his best known novels, and as the only major work of science fiction he wrote, is representatively unrepresentative of his oeuvre.

It concern a young man in a world (ours, about two millennia after a nuclear war) who stumbles on a plan to build a super-weapon. The novel took Hoban more than five and half years to write, and won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel in 1982, as well as an Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award in 1983. (It was also nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1982, but lost to Gene Wolfe’s “The Claw of the Conciliator”.)

1822 — Harriet Tubman born

Born a slave – although the year of her birth is uncertain, and may be as early as 1820 – Harriet Tubman would become one of the foremost activists against slavery. From her birthplace in Maryland, she escaped from her owners in 1849 while in Philadelphia, and immediately became active in the Underground Railroad, helping other slaves to escape as she had. Believing her mission to be divinely inspired, she was nicknamed ‘Moses’, since like she led escaped slaves to a promised land.

In 1858, she assisted John Brown in his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry – Brown found her so invaluable, he nicknamed her ‘General Tubman’. In her later years, Tubman was also a prominent Suffragette in her later years, and assisted the Union Army as a scout during the American Civil War. She died in 1913, in her nineties.

Referenced in:

Ah Yeah — Krs-One

1985 – “Material Girl” by Madonna enters the US charts

Material Girl was the second single from Madonna’s second album, and her seventh overall. It was a hit for her at the time, although unlike Like A Virgin or Crazy For You, the songs either side of it that reached #1, it wouldn’t top the charts. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #43, and eventually peaked at #2. The clip was a homage (or ripoff, if you prefer) to Marilyn Monroe’s iconic Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend performance, right down to Madonna wearing a dress of the same style and colour.

To this day, Madonna is often referred to as ‘the Material Girl’ in the media, a phenomenon she is convinced will still be happening when she’s ninety. She’s probably right, too.

Referenced in:
Lucy Can’t Dance — David Bowie