The front page of the July 13, 1979, issue of the Chicago Sun-Times featured a photo of Sox fans storming the field. In the background, the scoreboard reads “please return to your seats.” The accompanying caption did not – could not – describe why thousands of fans stormed the field, tore it up and set fire to it. Nor did it say why the police rode in on horseback to control the crowd.
The 50,000 White Sox fans at Comiskey Park were there for Disco Demolition Night, when WDAI talk show host and shock jock Steve Dahl blew up disco records on the field. One of those fans was Dave Hoekstra, a journalist at a suburban newspaper. A few years after that night he joined the Sun-Times and stayed there for almost 30 years. His latest book Disco Demolition Night (Curbside Splendor, 2016) revisits that night and the events surrounding it.
Hoekstra briefly tells his own story, but focuses his work on the central characters of that night. The obvious center is Dahl, who is portrayed as a shy, subversive guy battling inner demons and greedy radio executives with alcohol, something which strained his relationship with sidekick Garry Meier and executive producer Roman Sawczak. Dahl introduces the book and says Disco Demolition Night was a pushback against disco by rock ‘n roll kids.
Some of those rock ‘n roll kids led rock bands that came out of Chicago in the ’80s, like Jim Peterik of Survivor, who said “[the disco scene] is something for Studio 54 in New York. That wasn’t the heartland of the Midwest.”
Hoekstra devotes a chapter to Bridgeport, the neighborhood surrounding Comiskey Field and its blue-collar roots. White Sox fans were generally working class – many worked in the Stockyards. Many were also regulars of Schaller’s Pump, the oldest bar in Chicago, where Hoekstra sat down with former White Sox and Cubs pitcher Steve Trout and Jack Schaller (who died a few weeks ago at the age of 92). Schaller said “I was behind the bar on Disco Demolition. We had a good crowd but I didn’t like it.”
The accusations of racism and homophobia that underlay Disco Demolition Night are mentioned in the book, but not fully addressed. This accusation has been leveled at Dahl many times, and Dahl brings it up in the preface (saying he’s tired of defending himself from that charge), but nobody quoted in the book holds that view, nor is it ever addressed head on. It’s also worth pointing out that Lumpen’s “Field Guide to Chicago Jagoffs,” published in Bridgeport last year, leads off with a piece about Dahl.
The book is filled with photos – some are photos of the event itself (most of those are of Dahl in his army helmet about to blow up records), others are recent photos of people close to the event. The book is an exploration of the people at the center of Disco Demolition Night and the issues that led to it.
Plenty of contributors end in writing disco sucks, but plenty of others (mainly musicians) are willing to admit that disco wasn’t all bad. For rock and roll history buffs and Chicago music enthusiasts interested in the scene’s blue color origins, Disco Demolition Night is worth picking up.
Disco Demolition Night by Dave Hoekstra with Steve Dahl is published by Curbside Splendor and available for purchase for 34.95.