And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

Subtitle: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

1987. St. Martin’s Press. Paperback. 630 pages.

From: the public library

Recommended by: Jenny of Jenny’s Books within a review of Dave Cullen’s Columbine.

In a nutshell:

Journalist Randy Shilts describes, in detail, the course of the AIDS epidemic in America from 1980 to 1985.


I’ve been living with And the Band Played On for the last three weeks, carting it around on metro rides, opening it up for a few pages’ worth before going to bed.  I have been compulsively telling my friends the exasperating details of how the AIDS epidemic was mishandled by so many.

And the Band Played On is a long book, no doubt about it.  It’s helpfully written in short, energetic chunks:  Shilts dashes around from East Coast to West Coast, jumping from the developments of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, to the different political and public health atmospheres of New York City and San Francisco, to the scientific research being conducted in Maryland and Paris.

This is a long book where the length itself serves a purpose.  It may seem repetitious to read about yet another funds request denied by the government, or yet another Gay Men’s Health Crisis committee meeting that ended in tension and frustration.  To me, however, reading such a detailed account about AIDS had the effect of making me vicariously feel the frustration those in trenches must have felt, as they suffered through years of the illness being dismissed or ignored, even while more and more people died.  True, I could have learned the outline of events and problems through a shorter book, but the impact emotionally would not have been the same.

And The Band Played On is a highly passionate book.  Shilts indicts many for their prioritizing of political capital, prestige and other pursuits over the lives of those at great risk for AIDS.  Among his targets are: The Reagan administration, the National Institute of Health, certain gay political leaders in San Francisco and New York City, journalists, and the blood bank industry (including the Red Cross).  At a congressional hearing, a man with AIDS says he hopes that his epitaph “would not read that I died of red tape.”  Bureaucracy is a wall against which urgent need knocks and knocks again.

Shilts’ passion also is displayed in his passages that detail the lives and deaths of the people with AIDS.  I was especially moved by the story of Gary Walsh.

I picked up this book because fellow blogger Jenny said: “If you are ever going to read a book about a national tragedy, it should be And the Band Played On.”  I am so glad I took up her recommendation, because this is truly an unforgettable book.  Not only did I learn so much about what happened with the AIDS epidemic at the start, but it made me think about what role I would have played if I had been in the thick of it.  Would I have too easily succumbed to the bureaucracy or would I have taken risks to do what was right?


Don Francis pounded the table with his fist. The other officials from the Centers for Disease Control exchanged vaguely embarrassed glances. The blood bankers were becoming visibly angry.

“How many people have to die?” shouted Francis, his fist hitting the table again. “How many deaths do you need? Give us the threshold of death that you need in order to believe that this is happening, and we’ll meet at that time and we can start doing something.” p. 220


September 22 [1983] – Matt Krieger’s Journal

Despair is what I hear in Gary’s voice tonight . . . He has just reason for despair. He fell down three times today when his legs simply gave out on him. He had an infection in one eye and now the same infection in the other eye . . .

I wonder how he can sustain this relentless series of devastating and painful illnesses. Horribly, I recognize that dark corner in my mind that wishes it were all over and I could talk about Gary and his illnesses in the past tense.

My mind plays that game. Sometimes I think it is all over. Gary is dead. Back in the eighties, I had a best friend and former lover, a wonderful man whom I loved very deeply, and he suffered and he died in that terrible epidemic that hit the gay community nationally, the disease we hardly remember now. It was called AIDS.” p. 373

What others have said:

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “And the Band Played On is an intense piece of journalism that explores the AIDS epidemic in social, political and personal level. It is a lucid and stunning indictment of public policy toward the vicious disease that has coalesced into an extremely serious serious health threat in a matter of months.”

Open Mind, Insert Book – “It’s horrifying, gritty and intense, and it will stay with you. Please don’t let the size intimidate you- the subject is important, and Shilts’s style is beautiful.”

Reggie’s Reviews – Accounts of historical events and publicly verifiable facts are mixed with imaginative reconstructions of meetings and conversations that Shilts was not privy to . . . Shilts should have decided whether he wanted to write a novel or a non-fiction account, and then stuck with it.  All the same, the book is a monumental achievement, well deserving of its acclaim.


Filed under Non-Fiction

13 responses to “And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

  1. Oh, I’m so pleased you loved this! Isn’t it wonderful? Randy Shilts was mistaken about a few things — in particular he played up the significance of Gaetan Dugas to the epidemic in general — but he seems to have had all the integrity in the world. He wouldn’t get tested for HIV until he had finished the book, because he thought the results might prejudice his reporting. True story.

    (Also, later on he said that AIDS had made him a better person but he’d rather have a little less character and a few more T-cells. I love him, I wish he had lived longer.)

    It’s hard to recommend this book because it sounds so unrelentingly miserable when you describe it, and it is in a way, but it’s just so gripping! How can a book about a disease be so unputdownable?

    • Yeah, during my internet searches post-finishing the book, I heard about how Shilts was off the mark with Gaetan Dugas. I did not know that about his waiting to test for HIV. I did read that awesome quote about the T-cells, but had thought someone else related to the story had said it. The book is compulsively readable. I think Byatt’s book might have suffered a bit because I was reading Shilts’ book at the same time, and I found myself wanting to read more about the AIDS crisis than her modern day fairy tale.

  2. I loved the movie and the book is on my tbr list. Great review.

  3. Great review! This is such a fantastic book … pretty high on my list of all-time favorite non-fiction.

  4. Jenny also has me dying to read this! And your review also helps, of course. I know I’ve seen it at my local library so I need to get it next time.

  5. Great review, and sounds like a great book. I love nonfiction that makes me want to tell everyone I know the fact that are in it. I think that annoys my boyfriend, but he’s learned to deal 🙂

  6. Linda – I have mixed feelings about seeing the movie, but it might help me be more solidified on the people involved. I sometimes couldn’t keep track of all the researchers and public health officials, despite Shilts’ Dramatis Personae list at the beginning of the book. I hope you do get around to picking up the book!

    JoAnn – Thanks! I have a feeling the book will stand tall when I look back on it at the end of this year.

    Nymeth – It’s hilarious that Jenny did such good PR work on this book in a review about a different book (which I also want to read.)

    Kim – yeah, my roommate is the recipient of my non-fiction ramblings and random passage read-alouds. So far, her attentiveness has seemed genuine.

  7. I STILL tell people facts from this book (like how Reagan didn’t mention the word AIDS until 1987) and I read this book nearly 10 years ago. It is so powerful and amazing and frustrating and heartbreaking and fantastic and wonderful and everyone should read it!

  8. It was interesting to read this review. It brings back the frightening days of my coming of age in 1980s and thinking that the mere fact that I was gay would mean that I would get AIDS. (Facts about transmission were slow to trickle down to health classes in publich high schools in 1984.) I haven’t read the book but I did enjoy the movie.

  9. Carin S. – Wow, that is such a great testament to the book.

    Thomas – Thanks for sharing your comment – it’s maddening that misinformation about AIDS created such confusion and fear when an earlier uncovering and distribution of facts would have brought some needed clarity. When I was a teenager in the 90’s, they were sadly still having to stress that AIDS could not be transmitted through ‘household contact’.

  10. Susan

    I am also reading this book right now as research for my dissertation. It is an incredible read that is at the same time, frustrating and angering. I also find myself telling the people around me about its details. I was in high school in 1983 and I remember first hearing of AIDS in about 1984. Now with hindsight being what it is, I find myself yelling at the people in the book out of frustration. If only we’d had the internet so that doctors could have been in touch. If only we knew how it would really spread, and all of the valuable lives that would be lost, both gay and straight. If only people had given a damn. I refer to it as “the depressing book” to my friends and on my Facebook status. “Time to read the depressing book.”

    And as I read, I am reminded of a student of mine from 3 semesters ago who while reading an article on queer theory that commented on AIDS literature as being queer, that he’d never thought of AIDS as being a gay disease. How far we have come since 1980 when this horrible disease began to ravage a community, and nobody cared.

    • Susan – It is indeed incredible how differently AIDS is viewed now than it was then. How you’ve described your reactions sounds pretty close to how I felt while reading the book. There were definitely times where I was shouting or muttering at the people in the book. I also was wondering how the AIDS epidemic might have been handled differently if the internet had been around. I like that you refer to it as “the depressing book.” It’s a book that several times put me in a “I’m mad at the world” mood. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts!

  11. So very glad you enjoyed this book! It’s one of my very favorite. Such an important book; I think I cried through half of it and spent the other half wanting to punch someone. How could it have taken so long for so many people to open their eyes?

    It hurts me to think of everything Randy Shilts could have written, but didn’t. If only…

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