Dave Cullen – Columbine

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You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5

Throbbing Gristle – DOA: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle

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Is there a more obnoxious fanbase than Throbbing Gristle’s? Industrial is an exciting genre. It encompasses so many musical elements. Some bands opt for noise. Others for danceable rhythms. Many found ways to incorporate melody and beauty. It even spawned a genre of Pop music that sadly never saw mainstream success. So while we’re discussing really cool bands like Coil or Nine Inch Nails or VNV Nation or Skinny Puppy, along comes that dude. He informs us how uncool we are, how we’re not listening to ‘real Industrial’ and how we should listen to some Throbbing Gristle. Sometimes they’ll go as far as tell you SPK and Coil aren’t part of the genre.

That’s hippy-dippy bollocks, of course. Their reasoning is that Gristle are Industrial because their record label is called ‘Industrial’. I guess that means Skylar Grey’s first album should also be classified as Industrial since it was released in a label called Machine Shop. That’s quite an Industrial name for a record label. Someone should’ve told them that in art, what it is means more than what people say it is. When an author says a character is ‘smart’, it doesn’t matter unless the character acts smart. So it doesn’t matter if Throbbing Gristle were on a record label called ‘Industrial’ but it matters what it sounds like.

I also don’t buy the ‘historically important’ angle. Sure, some of it sounds like demo tapes made by Coil when they were 14 and less intelligent. This record came a little before Einsturzende, SPK and Coil released their debuts. Perhaps they all heard “Hit By a Rock” and a few of Gristle’s previous dicking about and decided to make a record of their own. If it’s true, then the genre grew a lot in a year. SPK demolished the Noise genre with the fantastic Information Overload Unit. Einsturzende’s debut album was primitive, but in the long atmospheric title-track they already showed more sense of purpose than anything here.

I doubt Gristle were that much of an inspiration. What defines the genre isn’t mere noise of experimentation. Industrial music is one of the few genres where an overall aesthetic, not specific musical elements define it. It’s a genre obsessed with humanity’s doom, with hostile machinery, evil sexuality and violence. That’s why even if SPK had no melodies in their early work, their music could be tied directly to Nine Inch Nails. They had an atmosphere to aim for. This aesthetic is also why the genre can contain the Glam Rock of Marilyn Manson and the Synthpop of VNV Nation. It’s also why Depeche Mode would sound comfortably in a compilation.

This sense of purpose is exactly what Gristle lacks here. They’re not untalented. For an album full of avant-garde dicking about, it’s impressive. They can conjure up interesting sounds and create pieces that resemble songs. “Hit By a Rock”, “AB7A” and “Dead on Arrival” are all distinctive in their own way. They also end the song right before it exhausts its ideas. That’s why the short “I.B.M.” is a lot of fun. It’s two and a half minute of computer noise, but for a change it’s silly without the need to shock. More Noise music should be this playful.

The rest, however, is a collection of Coil demos in search of a purpose. Gristle are more concerned with seeming ‘experimental’, so anything that can make it pleasant or catchy is thrown out the window. Some tracks contain vocals, but it’s mindless screaming you can’t follow. The bonus track “We Hate You” sums it up perfectly. You can’t join the anger because the noise buries the vocals. The noise isn’t prominent, too. It doesn’t roar at you but is just stuck there while P-Orridge’s voice are barely audible. The atmosphere isn’t menacing since there’s nothing but a little static.

It’s not minimalist because too many noises exist for the sake of having weird noises. The title-track has nice, actually Industrial-sounding percussion but there are funny noises every second which don’t add anything. They don’t sound bizarre but the sort of thing a person trying hard not to be Pop would come up with. The proof the band was considered with image is “Blood on the Floor”. The melody is okay and there’s something distressing about P-Orridge’s performance. It’s not ‘proper’ singing, but he rescues a melody and sound convincing enough. Even the static noise overlay is a good decision, yet it sounds so low budget. It begs to have a proper ending, not just fade out. The static noise should be louder, more layered and more punishing. I hear about ‘noise terrorism’ and ‘scary’ when it comes to this band, but they never come up with something truly unsettling. The band is satisfied with stopping with ‘make it noisy’. What a shame when “E-Coli” and “Walls of Sound” sound like an inferior but still great SPK..

Perhaps you should’ve been there when it started. It is impressive this was released only in 1978. This was right around the time the first Hip-Hop records were released. Gristle ‘created’ Industrial music before Grandmaster Flash’s first record. Still, all it did was inspire the pioneers. There’s some noise, there’s some machinery but it doesn’t have the artistry of Coil or the menace of SPK. Every other Industrial artists, in a way, borrows from them (or from Skinny Puppy). Throbbing Gristle laid the roots of Industrial, but didn’t actually establish it. Still, it’s worth a spin or two just to see what ideas people come up with but that’s it. Invest the rest of your time in Information Overload Unit.

2 gristle that are throbbing out of 5