Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Eternal Thompson Gunner

Look—A Thompson submachine gun really could be carried around in a violin case!

How often does Hollywood myth have a basis in anything like real facts?

“Pictures of cloaked figures in trench coats and fedoras, and policemen raiding speakeasies, breaking up beer barrels, and smashing stills, tend only to reflect how the gangs behaved when they were out of the shadows, and how the policemen looked when they were aware of the presence of cameras. A collection of these images alone might fail to reveal anything but the theater the public was meant to see.”

John Russick

I strongly suspect that a great deal of what pop culture accepts as “history” is merely, “the theater the public was meant to see.”

The accepted pop culture understanding of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is that Prohibition caused a rising trend of violence in Chicago and that trend culminated in the cold-blooded murder of seven men in a north side garage on February 14, 1929.

Pop culture reinforces this view constantly however facts seem to contradict it.

People who enjoy philosophy love contradictions. Contradictions are like giant neon arrows pointing to the precise spot of some kind of misunderstanding or manipulation. Even philosophers who sigh at the mention of Ayn Rand typically endorse her view of contradictions:

A contradiction cannot exist. An atom is itself, and so is the universe; neither can contradict its own identity; nor can a part contradict the whole. No concept man forms is valid unless he integrates it without contradiction into the total sum of his knowledge. To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality.

Contradictionfrom the Ayn Rand Lexicon

(The business of contradictions is interesting. When I read Paris Hilton’s very entertaining book, “Confessions Of An Heiress,” written with Merle Ginsberg, I noticed quite a few contradictions, not just from chapter to chapter, but often from paragraph to paragraph. That’s odd. Once you start looking for contradictions, the search gets to be polarizing. Most people and most media are fairly straightforward with no contradictions at all. But every now and then you meet a specific person or a specific media outlet that turns out to be rich in almost endless contradictions. It’s very strange.)


Tomorrow and Thursday I’m going to look at specific examples of some contradictions surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and I’m going to speculate a bit about what I think the contradictions might mean.

Today I’m going to talk a bit about the technology of Thompson submachine guns. I’m going to close today’s post with my own little indirect and silly-ass connection to tommy guns.

Pop wisdom—if not reality—is that tommy guns were as iconic to the Prohibition era as cell phones are to the present world. Historians, however, usually use careful language that hints at a different reality. For instance, John Russick simply says, “Violent explosions and gunfire in Chicago were not so common during the gangster era as some might imagine.” However, that caption occurs under a photo of a dry goods store that has been gutted by bombs. That’s a bit of foreshadowing of one of the simple contradictions surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Historians know the era was not defined by violence. Yet they allow the truth to co-exist with “exciting” visuals because the excitement, to put it bluntly, sells. Consumerism. And if anyone makes even a cursory effort to look beneath the surface the truth is there, so, why not allow the buzz to be pumped up?

Check out this:

In this undated photograph, a man points to bullet holes in a car belonging to gangster Spike O’Donnell. This attack from the south side of Chicago is believed to be the first recorded use of a Thompson submachine gun by a gangster.

Go, Chicago!

The Thompson submachine gun was designed by a military man to be used in trench warfare during World War One. However, the war ended just as the first working guns were being manufactured. The company looked for other markets—consumerism—and soon began selling the weapons to the post office to protect mail from hijack attempts. The gun worked so well that police departments began buying them. Then, of course, the era’s entrepreneurs—the gangsters—began putting submachine guns to use.

And the rest is history! Or, at least, pop culture history.


My own indirect, silly-assed connection to tommy guns involves—of course—a song.

When I dropped out of Ball State University, I had to hang out around campus for a few days until my Dad could drive down to Indiana and bring me back to Chicago. I spent most of my time in the school’s library. They had a great collection of old magazines and I looked up and read every short story J. D. Salinger ever published. I also spent a lot of time in my dorm’s student lounge listening to cool songs on the juke box. I remember there were only four, two good Grace Slick songs and two good Warren Zevon songs. One of the Warren Zevon songs was, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.” Not only is this a great song, but it must have meant a lot to Zevon because when he was dying and Letterman had him on for a farewell performance, Zevon’s final public performance was “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.”

I suspect the final verses are a more interesting commentary on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre than the commonly accepted pop culture wisdom about that event.

Roland was a warrior
From the land of the midnight sun
With a Thompson gun for hire
Fighting to be done

The deal was made in Denmark
On a dark and stormy day
So he set out for Biafra
To join the bloody fray

Through Sixty-six and 'Seven
They fought the Congo war
With their fingers on their triggers
Knee-deep in gore

For days and nights they battled
The Bantu to their knees
They killed to earn their living
And to help out the Congolese

Roland the Thompson gunner
Roland the Thompson gunner

His comrades fought beside him
Van Owen and the rest
But of all the Thompson gunners
Roland was the best

So the CIA decided
They wanted Roland dead
That son-of-a-bitch Van Owen
Blew off Roland's head

Roland the headless Thompson gunner
Time, time, time, for another week of war
Norway's bravest son
Time stands still for Roland till he evens up the score

They can still see his headless body
Stalking through the night
In the muzzle flash of Roland's Thompson gun
In the muzzle flash of Roland's Thompson gun

Roland searched the continent
For the man who'd done him in
He found him in Mombassa
In a barroom drinking gin

Roland aimed his Thompson gun
He didn't say a word
But he blew Van Owen's body
From there to Johannesburg

Roland the headless Thompson gunner
Roland the headless Thompson gunner

The eternal Thompson gunner
Still wandering through the night
Now it's ten years later
But he still keeps up the fight

In Ireland, in Lebanon
In Palestine and Berkeley
Patty Hearst heard the burst
Of Roland's Thompson gun and bought it

1 comment:

catstone said...

The reason that was Warren Zevon's final song was that Letterman begged him to sing it, as Dave said on the show. Zevon had wanted to end with "Mutineer," a song he had written some years before for his fans or customers, as he preferred to call them. (BTW, its also one of the several Zevon songs that Bob Dylan covered regularly on his tour the summer Zevon was dying. As someone once pointed out, everyone covers Dylan, but Dylan covers very few.) But yes, "Roland" is definitely a great song -- as indeed were the vast majority of Zevon's songs throughout his career. Few songwriters are as good 20 or 30 years on as thy were when they got started -- Zevon was. He is missed.