In chapter 1 of Murder of a City, Tacoma, our mysterious pal Fred L. Crisman introduced us to the cast of characters that will play important roles later in our book. Chapter 2 is where the story really begins.
Chapter 2 of Murder of a City has Crisman riding around Tacoma with Marshall Riconosciuto, head of Riconosciuto Advertising Agency. The drive is uneventful, but it gives Crisman the chance to tell us about his hometown of Tacoma as he saw it…or, at least, as he wants us to think he saw it.
The writing feels very sincere, I will say. Crisman seems to be earnestly troubled by the state of corruption and ruin his hometown has fallen into. He blames the state of the city unambiguously on the City Management form of governance.
One interesting side note that may interested Tacomans is that Crisman discusses the now-(in)famous Hilltop neighborhood as being a new thing. He says it was once called the K-Street neighborhood and was only changed to the Hilltop in the years he’d been away.
We also meet a new character in the form of Burt McMurtie, “radio genius.” He was a local media personality known his “It Seems to Me…” and “Breakfast with McMurtrie” radio programs. I’ll be digging up what I can on Mr. McMurtie, as he sounds like an interesting character and an important part of Tacoma history.
McMurtrie agrees with Crisman’s opinion that Tacoma has gone to hell because of corrupt governance.
The chapter ends with Crisman trying to speak with David Rowlands, City Manager. He can’t get an audience with the man, and he finishes the chapter saying:
“I was sincerely sorry he would not speak with me. Maybe it is of no consequence. Again maybe the history of Tacoma would have been on a different note and even changed, if Rowlands had had a few minutes so spare a seeking man!”
If that sounds vaguely like a threat, it’s because it basically is. From here, one of the nastiest political wars in Washington state history will begin.
(Coverage of Murder of a City, Tacoma starts here.)
Murder of a City, Tacoma: Chapter 1
“After an extended absence during which I traveled about the nation, I returned to Tacoma for what I supposed was to be a short visit of a few weeks.”
—Fred L. Crisman, Murder of a City, Tacoma, p. 1
Chapter 1 of Murder of a City, Tacoma has Fred L. Crisman explaining how he found himself embroiled in one of the hottest political wars in Washington state history. It is, of course, his own account of what happened, and I’ve become increasingly suspicious of Crisman’s history the more I’ve researched it. However, in the spirit initiated in my starting coverage of this book, I will keep editorial comments to a minimum and let this book’s story speak for itself.
As one quick aside, however, I can’t allow the quote at the start of this post go without mentioning one very interesting bit I uncovered regarding this story. It was passed on to me by a fellow who only wants to be identified as Kirk K.
Kirk K. has been instrumental in my uncovering the full breadth of Crisman’s fascinating, bizarre history—a history that interconnects with many other fascinating, bizarre stories.
One thing Kirk uncovered was that Crisman was fired from a teaching position in Cascade High School for (get ready for it…) starting a secret society among students.
I shit you not, folks. As with much of Crisman’s life, this factoid is unbelievable-but-true. If it wasn’t for the newspaper clipping, I wouldn’t believe it myself, and I wouldn’t expect you to, either.
This occurred in 1966, which would have been just before the events of Murder of a City. I suspect Crisman was “travelling around the country” because he’d just been fired, though as of yet I cannot confirm that.
Enter Fred L. Crisman
In recounting what brought him back to Tacoma, Crisman says he’d come home to Tacoma to help care for his sick mother. He doesn’t identify her exact ailment, but says it required extensive surgery. After his mother regained health, Crisman elected to stay in the city.
Crisman explains that he had been a Special Investigator in Washington with the State Department of Veteran’s Affairs in 1946–47. This was how he made many contacts that would later show up again in the events recounted in Murder of a City.
His job, he says, was to investigate people who were ripping off veterans. In discussing this work, he also mentions that he was released from the military as a fighter pilot just before taking the assignment.
Here, Crisman begins introducing us to the characters that will play important roles in our story.
Enter Walt West
The first character we meet is Walt West, head of the Tacoma Better Business Bureau.
Crisman vaguely explains that he encountered West after being assigned to investigate him, but says that West had tried to flip the script and told everyone that it was actually he that was investigating Crisman.
Crisman doesn’t explain what either supposed investigation was for.
“What in the world has happened to this town?”
—Fred L. Crisman, Murder of a City, Tacoma
As he begins launching into these details of people involved, Crisman also bewails the state of Tacoma. Not just its physical condition (which was at that time in history a practical ruin by all accounts), but also the depth of corruption.
Enter Julio Grassi
One of the heroes we meet is Julio Grassi, car-dealership owner and a man Crisman calls his friend. Grassi is being sued by the State of Washington for “high-crimes.”
Crisman’s claim is that all the charges against Grassi were bunk and could have been leveled against any car salesman if the state chose to target them. They were routine occurrences that Grassi was being harassed for because he’d publicly supported a political opponent of the sitting establishment.
It was all a political hit job, more or less.
The main villain representing the State of Washington in this concern was attorney general John J. O’Connell, a man Crisman promises us will show up again throughout the book.
At the end of the trial, the state can’t get Grassi on anything except for not having the letters “O.A.C.” on his car dealership sign. These letters were an acronym for “On Approval of Credit.” The city required that they be included to clarify the “No Money Down” part of Grassi’s sign.
It’s a legal and moral victory for Grassi.
In every other way, though, it will prove to be a loss.
Enter the Tacoma News-Tribune
“There would come a time when I would believe that the men that operate the Tacoma News-Tribune were and are capable of any crime against their fellow man that can be thought of and acted upon.”
Though Grassi escaped the courts, he was brought down by a vicious slander campaign by the Tacoma News-Tribune (remember this is just Crisman’s account and has not verified).
Grassi’s reputation is so ruined that his business begins to suffer dramatically. He begs Crisman to take it over legally so as to deflect the bad publicity. Crisman initially refuses, but after reading yet another slandering article and becoming fed up with the injustice, he agrees.
Crisman then leaves town for a bit to write a story in California. He’s quite vague about this topic and doesn’t say much beyond, “and it was [a story] that I was to hear of, and still do hear of, from the lips of some of the real ‘kook’ fringe that live in and about the ‘Far right’ in Tacoma.”
Crisman returns to Tacoma to find that he’s now being slandered as a Mafia rat in league with Grassi, who himself has long been identified as a Mafia rat (totally unjustifiably so, in Crisman’s account…just another part of the slander campaign).
Enter Marshall Riconosciuto
This is where we meet the person of Marshall Riconosciuto, who Crisman calls “an odd guy” and “the perfect version of the ‘hustler’ in business.'”
Riconosciuto runs Riconosciuto Advertising Agency. He’s an old friend of Crisman’s from “right after” World War II. His advertising agency specializes in political campaigns.
Riconosciuto, according to Crisman, also expanded into “wholesale drug supplies and he operated a small lab where certain common drugs were bottled under a variety of house names.” It’s an exceedingly odd “side business” to have, but everything about this story is exceedingly odd.
Enter Slim Rasmussen
Rounding out our cast of characters is A.L. Slim Rasmussen, “one of the most honest people I have ever met,” as Crisman describes him. “He was soon to be Mayor of Tacoma and the real wars of the City Management would begin.”
After introducing us to Rasmussen, Crisman places us in scene with Riconosciuto.
“What in hell has happened to Tacoma?” Crisman asks.
“City Management,” Riconosciuto answers in rather dramatic fashion.
Crisman wants more answers, so Riconosciuto offers to drive him around Tacoma and explain.
With that, Crisman gets into Riconosciuto’s car, and we head into Chapter 2.
Walking around Olympia’s Capitol Lake, blissfully unaware that less than half-a-mile away police were launching canisters of tear gas at protesters, I found myself watching a file of ducks standing on a fallen tree. As I studied them, heads tucked slightly under their wings to shelter from the wind, it occurred to me what utterly odd animals they are.
They look like footballs with heads. Their only defense is their rounded little beaks. Their stubby legs are comically insufficient. In the air, they’re nowhere near as fast or agile as hawks, eagles, or owls. Their swimming is woefully sub-par compared to seals, otters, and, of course, fish.
Yet, somehow, some way, ducks are a fantastically successful species. They’re everywhere, and in large numbers. That’s when it occurred to me that ducks are nature’s great generalists. They aren’t great anywhere, but they’re pretty good everywhere.
Ducks can swim pretty good. They can fly pretty good. They can handle the land pretty good. The only thing they’re really great at is being ducks. This is their real super-power: they’re pretty good everywhere.
As a fan of generalization, and as a man who isn’t fond of the hyper-specialization that is favored in modern society, my respect for the duck elevated tremendously as I realized the true wonder of their success.
If you were to line up every animal species in the world and show them to a blind panel of judges who had never encountered Earth life before, no one would pick the duck to thrive the way it has.
The only reason we don’t realize how ridiculous ducks look is because they’re so dang successful that they are ubiquitous. We’ve been seeing them consistently since we were kids. They’re just part of the background noise at this point.
But, seriously, look at them…really sit down and look at them. They’re absurd, like one of creation’s inside jokes.
That’s part of the reason they’re so lovable, I believe, and why they amuse us so much when we take the time to observe them. They’re strange accidents of the animal world. They’re also wildly successful despite their supposed absurdity.
I texted this observation to my brother, who got a laugh out of it. So, I figured maybe it’d be an entertaining thought to share with you all, as well. That’s all.
Any second-rate hack can mash a group of facts together into a book. Fortunately, Peter Blecha is no such hack, and Sonic Boom is no such book.
Blecha’s Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from “Louis Louie” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit daisy-chains the stories together into one cohesive narrative. From Richard Berry to grunge, Blecha shows how each artist and each artist’s era flowed into the next, borrowed from the past, and built something brand new.
I read music history books on the regular. Glancing over to my bookshelf right now I see Waging Heavy Peace (Neil Young), Songs in the Key of Z, Bruce (Springsteen), and Testimony (Robbie Robertson)…among others.
As someone with such an absurd number of music books, I can say that Blecha’s Sonic Boom is one of my very favorites, and not just because I live in the Northwest, nor because I came of age in the grunge era. It’s just a damn good book.
After reading Sonic Boom, I realized that Nirvana and grunge didn’t erupt out of a vacuum. The Northwest music scene has always been categorized by a gritty individualism. It’s got a garage-rock heart, and it’s always had a garage-rock heart.
Now, when I listen to Louie Louie, I hear its premonitions of Smells Like Teen Spirit, and when I listen to Smells Like Teen Spirit, I hear the ghost-strings of Louie Louie. As a lover of history, that is the thing that I most appreciate about Blecha’s work.
In examining the Northwest musical currents, Blecha reveals the heart of the whole region. It’s this glowering, laughing thing in wet overalls covered in wood chips. It’s got a brilliant smile full of missing teeth. It’s carved out of granite and fog and sewn together with train rails.
You can’t get what the book’s got to give simply by looking up the individual parts on Wikipedia. I sound like a car salesman but I don’t know Blecha and this isn’t content marketing. It’s just how I feel.
Blecha’s a real writer in an age of hacks (this includes me). Read his book. It’s a good one.
On March 19, 1988, Nirvana played under the name Nirvana for the very first time. This historic moment didn’t happen in Seattle, nor even in Aberdeen—it went down at the Community World Theater in Tacoma.
Before going by their new name, Nirvana went by Ted Ed Fred, Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew, and Bliss (which is intriguingly similar to the term “nirvana”). You can see all these names listed on the poster promoting the event.
Thankfully, the Community World Theater event was recorded—a feat that wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous in 1988 as it is today. You can hear the whole show on the Youtube video below.
For a whopping five dollars, people were given the privilege of participating in music history—even if they didn’t realize it at the time. Who could have known that grunge was about to explode out of the then-remote Pacific Northwest?
The Community World Theater recording has the best “Big Cheese” version I’ve ever heard—EVER. In these pre-Grohl days, the band sounded fantastic. It may be my imagination, but in some ways they sound tighter in this early show than they did after they went Big Time.
The band they opened for was named Lush (if anyone out there has more info on this band, I would LOVE to hear it). There were also other “special guests to be announced.”
The Community World Theater was located at 5441 South “M” Street, from 1987 to 1988. I’m working on finding people who were there. If any of you happen upon this blog, please do contact me.
I’m a freelance music journalist, and I would be sincerely grateful and interested to talk to anyone who was at this particular show or even just the Community World Theater in general. So, if you, dear reader, happen to be such a person, please do let me know.