The beginning of the AIDS Epidemic: Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On

Randy Shilts' account of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic is a jarring and haunting read.

Randy Shilts' account of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic is a jarring and haunting read.

Reading some books is like feeling a cool breeze wash over you on a sun-dappled beach as waves gently lap nearby.

The whole effect is soothing, restorative, healing.

But then there are other books which grab you with an urgency the way your mother’s voice called you by your full name when you were in trouble.  Forcing you to read them, these books and their unsettling contents stay with you far after the reading ends, churning and knocking you off-balance.

The late Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On is an example of the latter type.

Shilts’ account of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan administration’s callous indifference to the deaths of gay men, the medical community’s internecine competition, and the gay community’s failure to grasp the magnitude of what was happening and alter their sexual behavior accordingly alternately chills, haunts and inspires.

It’s been more than 20 years since the book was first published, and, unfortunately, the disease has spread beyond what then seemed almost unimaginable proportions.

Shilts breaks the work into quick chapters into he weaves a near dizzying array of characters through the 600-page work.

Some of the book’s more memorable people include Gaetan Dugas, a handsome and extremely promiscuous French-Canadian flight attendant who for years was considered by some researchers to be “Patient Zero” of the epidemic, the cantankerous and combative Larry Kramer, noble congressional aide and AIDS activist Bill Kraus, and Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, whose personal understanding of the disease’s possible impact is not matched by a forceful push for funding.

The book veers from Africa, when a Danish researcher appears to catch and die from the virus, to the United States to France, where a frenzied quest to discover the virus is wage, and back.  At times, And The Band Played On reads like a series of dispatches issued from all over the globe and linked by all being tied to the ever growing epidemic. 

The constantly growing number of people infected with, and dieing from, the virus is a metronome-like presence in the book that can leave the reader numb at the rapidly increasing and spreading toll.

While Shilts focuses directly on governmental inaction, the book is not an anti-government screed.  Rather he discusses directly the bathhouse scene in San Francisco in which emotional connection was absent amid intense physical intimacy.   San Francisco Public Health Director Mervyn Silverman’s halting decision to shut the houses and the visceral reaction it elicited point to a community that did not fully accept or deal with the implications of what was happening. 

Medical researchers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean seem more concerned with personal glory than with collaborating to stop the disease, while keepers of the nation’s donated blood supply do not bathe themselves in honor, either.  The mainstream press fares poorly, too. 

In short, a host of people and institutions failed the gay community and the people in it, and the disease has spread rapidly from being considered a gay white man’s disease to in fact being more common among people of color, many of whom are women.

Shilts quotes liberally  at the beginning of sections from Albert Camus’ The Plague, which was conceived and written in part in the small French Huguenot mountain village of Le Chambon Sur Lignon

More than two decades after And The Band Played On, it is unclear whether Camus’ assessment that plagues are not eradicated, but merely subdued, is correct.    But it is abundantly clear that Shilts’ book is a powerful marker in the sand, reminding us of the  ruinous consequences of policy paths not taken.


8 responses to “The beginning of the AIDS Epidemic: Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On

  1. I envy your ability to read so many books in a year. I used to read quite a lot and could even go through five books in a month.
    Not any more, I battle to read one book in a month. Your blog and its concentration on books has awaked my desire to read as much as I used to.
    Thanks for rekindling the fire.

  2. jeffkellylowenstein3

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Brave Heart. I know how much reading means to me and am glad that you are considering getting back to your previous reading rate.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with this, and I would definitely suggest reading Evelyn Wood’s book about speed reading. I have found it particularly useful for non-fiction. The method has helped me read and get something out of as many books as I have.

    Just to be clear, I have read some of the books about which I write in previous years.

    In any case, thanks again for your note, and let me know if there is any way I can be of assistance.

    Hamba kahle.

  3. You don`t cease to suprise me. First you write so intelligently about Steve Biko and his ideas – this notwithstanding the distance that separates England and South Africa. Add to that the fact that Mr Biko has been dead for 32 years.
    Then you use one of the popular South African phrases, hamba kahle! Aren`t you a South African by any chance.
    Lastly, thanks for rekindly my love for reading. I started reading yesterday and there is no stopping me any more. Yesterday I found that I have many books that I bought but never came around to reading.
    I want to be a writer and think that if I can read widely my writing will improve tremendously.
    Thanks a million Jeff.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Siyabonga ka kulu, Brave Heart, for your kind words. I support your desire to be a writer and agree with you entirely that reading widely will improve your writing. What kind of writing do you want to do?

      I am not South African, rather an American, but I did live in your beautiful country while teaching at the Uthongathi School in Tongaat during the 1995-1996 school year. It was a fantastic experience which remains with me until this day. The friends of my exchange partner, Vukani Cele, took me in like a brother and showed me the soccer games, braais, wedding and all kinds of other adventures. I had first become interested in South Africa during my college years in the 80s and participated in the divestment movement. Spending a year in your country was literally a dream come true.

      Congratulations on getting back to reading. I look forward to hearing about your selections. Who are you starting with, mfowethu? Please keep me posted.

  4. I have started with Fine Lines from the Box by Prof Njabulo Ndebele. It is a collection of critical essays on various aspects of South Africa society.
    As for writing I am into poetry, short stories and novels.

  5. jeffkellylowenstein3

    Thanks, Brave Heart. I remember vividly teaching Revolution of the Aged to my students at Uthongathi and look forward to reading Fine Lines from the Box.

    Feel free to share your writing, if you would like to do so.


  6. Hello Jeff Kelly,
    I am a graduate Journalism student at DePaul University and I am making a report about how Randy Shilts and his reporting has influenced and changed American democracy. I am making a research of that topic and that is how I found your blog.
    So I thought that since this book has impressed you so much may be you could be of help to my report. I have left my e-mail in the section above so please contact me if you think that you can contribute to my report with opinion on the topic!

    Thank you very much, in advance!
    Marin Kolev

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