They keep coming – novels, short stories, memoirs, journals, oral histories, documentaries and feature films that feed off the decade that goes by many names. Tom Wolfe called it the “Me Decade.” Martin Amis called it the “Joke Decade.” Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris called it a “Kidney Stone of a Decade.” I call it the “Cockroach Decade”; the 1970s have become an unkillable source of inspiration for writers and filmmakers, the scummy well that refuses to run dry. What is the secret of its durable appeal? The answer, I think, comes in three flavors.
1. Primary Sources
These are first-person, boots-on-the-ground accounts of how lives were lived in the ’70s or, in some cases, how those lives are remembered from a distance of many years, after the fog of booze and ’ludes has drifted out to sea. There’s a scabrous new entry to this sub-genre called 20th-Century Boy: Notebooks on the Seventies, an eyewitness account by Duncan Hannah, an aspiring painter who arrived in New York from Minneapolis (by way of prep school and Bard College) in the early 1970s and proceeded to take a swan dive into the bubbling downtown scene of art and punk rock experimentation. He drank and drugged heroically, hit every club and party, fucked anything that walked upright (well, in Hannah’s case, anything female that walked upright, since he claims he was 100 percent hetero, to the chagrin of many of the guys.)
Hannah had the good sense to write everything down “as it happened,” which gives the book its pungent, sometimes sick immediacy. Here, for instance, are Hannah’s thoughts after accompanying an acidophilic girlfriend to an abortion clinic: “After the fifty acid trips this girl had taken from eighth grade on, what would she have given birth to…a fish? Stan Laurel?”
Students of history and fans of Balzac will learn valuable things about how life was lived – and how much things cost – in New York City in the 1970s. It took just $60 to hire somebody to kill somebody. A loft rented for $350 a month. A double feature of foreign films at the Carnegie Hill Cinema cost $1.50. The World Trade Center loomed in the distance “like twin phosphorescent robots.” Fifty-third Street and Third Avenue was the gay hustlers’ corner. The twin lodestars of downtown nightlife were CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where Hannah was a fixture, and farther uptown it was Studio 54, “the elegant playground for the international jet set,” where Bianca Jagger famously rode a white horse onto the dance floor and where Hannah once spotted Truman Capote, pickled on booze and prescription drugs and looking like “a waxwork from Madame Tussauds. A zombie.”
After a while you begin to realize that this was a small world, virtually a club, and Hannah was able to join it and live the dissolute boho life partly because he was pretty, partly because he had artistic dreams, and partly because he got regular checks from home. The name-dropping gets tiresome eventually, and Hannah comes across, more than once, as a rich-boy dilettante, a trust-fund punk. The club is so hermetically insulated from the outside world that the era’s searing traumas, Vietnam and Watergate, get glancing mention. And here is Hannah’s insight into his struggle to become a painter: “It’s hard.” Such remarks give new depth to the meaning of the word shallow.
Despite all this, 20th-Century Boy will stand as valuable source material for anyone hoping to understand the 1970s. If it did nothing else, the book confirmed two of my long-held beliefs: that Iggy Pop is a genius, and Lou Reed was a five-star asshole. And it ends almost sweetly, with Hannah’s stubbornly conventional paintings winning him a solo gallery show, where he arrives sober, gets treated like a prince, and actually sells a bunch of pictures. Hannah has come to realize that the coolest thing of all is the courage to do what’s uncool. It’s a grace note of an ending to a long grubby harrowing wallow. Somehow, it feels perfect.
Hannah, it turns out, is quoted frequently in another primary source from the era, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, first published in 1996, two decades after the facts. Absolutely everybody who was anybody is here, yakking away about the bands, the booze, the backbiting, the brawls, the record deals, the nihilism, the hard drugs, the sex, the joy of making it up as you went along, with no expectations, no limits, no rules. The punk movement, which was never a true movement, took all of five years to eat itself alive. But reading about the cannibalistic banquet is the equivalent of passing a ghastly car crash: you cannot look away.
A far more expansive primary source is Will Hermes’s superb Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. Using a wider lens than McNeil and McCain, Hermes examines the hot house scenes in the mid-’70s that produced not only punk but also hip-hop, salsa, loft jazz, minimalist operas, superstar DJs. In a review of the book, David Gates echoes one of the lessons from 20th-Century Boy. “Of course we get the headline-news boilerplate: Son of Sam, the 1977 blackout, the opening of the World Trade Center,” Gates writes. “But more important, Hermes gives us a sense of what a small town New York used to be.”
2. Embellished Experience
Then there are writers and artists who journey back in time, ransack their memories of the ’70s, and embellish them to create a sort of time-lapse portrait. Michael Zadoorian’s fourth book, the terrific Beautiful Music, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that is usually the stuff of first novels. A nerdy white teenager named Danny Yzemski is living with his unhinged widow mom in northwest Detroit in aftermath of the 1967 riot (or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion). It’s 1974 and Detroit has just elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, and racism and the related tensions on the city streets and in the hallways of Redford High School are prompting many white families to pack up and get out of town. Danny’s salvation is his discovery of rock ’n’ roll, which helps him survive tough times in a tough town.
I called Zadoorian at his home in Detroit and asked him why he revisited the ’70s four decades after his 1975 graduation from Redford High. “I don’t know what drew me to write a coming-of-age story when I was in my late fifties,” he replied. “Maybe it’s a matter of trying to understand your path, this place, the way life was back then, including the toxic things like racism, anger, fear, white people moving out. There’s something fascinating about the ’70s, especially to people who weren’t alive then. Things were so outrageous and ugly that there was an audacity and a beauty to it. It was a time of ferment when the world went kind of crazy. It’s interesting to find those moments in time when things shift.”
For Zadoorian, one of the most seductive shifts in the ’70s was the music. “I wanted to be unashamed about the music I loved then, including stuff that would be considered crap now – like Foghat,” he said. “Punk rock was a reaction to bloated stadium rock and all the excess.” Joey Ramone addressed this split in Please Kill Me when he compared the making of the first Ramones album with the working method of Fleetwood Mac, the richest band on the planet:
We did the album in a week and we only spent sixty-four hundred dollars making it – everybody was amazed. At that time, people did not have that much regard for money. There was a lotta money around. Money circulating around for absurd things. Money wasn’t tight yet – some albums were costing half a million dollars to make and taking two or three years to record, like Fleetwood Mac and stuff.
Another talking head in Please Kill Me is Patti Smith, the poet rocker whose 2010 memoir of the era, Just Kids, won the National Book Award. The book spins around her relationship with a fellow aspiring artist, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, as the two become soul mates, lovers, and each other’s muses. The book stops when they reach the crest of fame – a wave she’s still riding, one that snuffed him out in 1989 when he died of AIDS at 42.
Spike Lee’s 1999 movie, Summer of Sam, is set in the incendiary summer of 1977, the poster-boy season of the decade, when New York City was bedeviled by a serial killer, arson fires, a blackout, riots, near bankruptcy, the discordant rise of punk and disco – a citywide fever that seemed like it would never break. Here’s how a young woman identified as Keelin remembered that summer for the New York Times:
What with the heat, the fire hydrants fanning out big sprays across the streets full of sweaty people, the looting, no subways, little work, no elevators, no refrigerators, Son of Sam roaming around, boyfriend sick, and punk rock as sound track in my head, Blackout ’77 was a surreal, fun, scary holiday in New York City during its glorious nadir.
While Lee’s movie is supposedly about the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, the thing about the movie that sticks with me is its evocation of the era – winking disco balls, easy sex and plentiful drugs, bad fashions, the racist clannishness in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, with Ben Gazzara perfectly cast as the white neighborhood’s Mob boss patriarch. The movie is both a snapshot of a moment in time and an indictment of a timeless American urge: the need to find a scapegoat, to pin blame on someone outside the clan.
Full disclosure: I, too, got bitten by the Cockroach Decade. Last year I published a nonfiction book called American Berserk: A Cub Reporter, a Small-Town Daily, the Schizo ’70s, which chronicled my time working at a Gannett newspaper in a central Pennsylvania tank town during the Summer of Sam. When I started writing the book, I saw the decade as pure cheese, a grim jumble of water beds, Ford Pintos, shag carpets and shag haircuts, leisure suits made of petroleum-based fabrics, Peter Frampton’s talking guitar, disco, the Captain and Tenille. By the time I finished writing the book, however, my memories and research had helped me realize something Will Hermes and Michael Zadoorian understood from the start. The ’70s was a time of ferment and pushback, the era that gave us Earth Day and the Alaska pipeline, gay rights and women’s rights and Nixon’s call for “law and order,” the grime of CBGB and the glitz of Studio 54, a brief burst of brilliant auteur-driven movies, people scrambling to get on the last helicopter leaving Saigon while others drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown. “Amid the cheese and the kidney stones,” I concluded, “there was a staticy vibe, a disconnect, a dissonance that has proven strangely alluring. The times were anything but homogeneous; they were cracked, crazed, schizo. For some writers – myself included, as it turns out – bad times can be the best times.”
3. Fruits of Research and Imagination
And then there are those artists who missed the party but are drawn to its irresistible afterglow. One of the most stunning recent examples was 2015’s City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions who was not yet born when many of the depicted events took place. This sprawling, 911-page novel is packed with detail about New York City in the ’70s, including squatters, punk bands, DIY zines, heroin, sexual experimentation, real-estate exploitation, trust-funders in the Duncan Hannah mold, all of it bubbling toward the cataclysmic night of the July 13, 1977, when the lights went out and New York burned. The novel is a stunner, a testament to the power of research fueled by a rich imagination. Reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote, “New York felt empty…and out of control. But, in part because of the collapse, the city also felt open, liberated, available. Anything seemed possible.” Including this magisterial novel, so many years later.
Rachel Kushner, who was born in 1968, pulled off a similar feat with her 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers. A woman motorcycle racer from Nevada named Reno – “the fastest woman in the world” – lands in the downtown New York art scene of the ’70s and proceeds to paint a fly-on-the-wall portrait of all the hustlers, poseurs, talkers, minimalists, frauds and geniuses. Kushner takes the reader on side trips to World War I battlefields, South American rubber plantations, the gilded enclave of Lake Como, and the violent streets of Rome. There’s a rare fearlessness at work here. As I noted when the book was first published: “Kushner doesn’t just write what she knows; she writes what she knows and what she is able to learn and what she is able to imagine truthfully from all of it.”
In his 2009 National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, Irish-born, New York-based Colum McCann used Philip Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 as his narrative glue. Around that magical moment McCann spins stories of the interlinked lives of an Irish monk, a Guatemalan nurse, socialites, artists, judges, hookers, the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Vietnam. We travel from the burnt-out Bronx to Park Avenue to downtown and, yes, to Max’s and Studio 54. We’re a long way from Duncan Hannah country; we’re in a time and place that has failed utterly to insulate itself against bankruptcy, crime, grime, racism, abandonment, grief – or the quivering possibility of redemption. The Irish monk might be the perfect emblem of why the ’70s continue to draw us back: “he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.”
Bringing us right up to date, there were three 1970s-infused premiers at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Mapplethorpe, directed and co-written by Ondi Timoner, is an intriguing new biopic that flips the equation of Just Kids by pushing Patti Smith into the background and making the case that what actually killed Robert Mapplethorpe was his insatiable hunger for fame. The documentary Studio 54, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, attempts to bottle the exuberance and decadence of the famous disco, which led to the downfall of its two creators, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. (In his 2009 book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, Anthony Haden-Guest noted that the guests on the club’s frenzied opening night, April 26, 1977, included Donald Trump and his new wife, Ivana.) And Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, a concert documentary filmed in Los Angeles in 2016, draws its title from Smith’s 1975 album. The iconic photograph of svelte, mop-haired Smith on the album’s cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe.
So the Cockroach Decade is still alive and very much with us. It was a time when everything was sucky and broken and therefore anything was possible. The stakes were so low that the potential was unlimited – and people were ready to get on and ride. As Ian Schrager said of those pre-AIDS days and nights: “We rode it for all it was worth.” It was this wide-open, anything-goes, more-more-more ethos that makes the ’70s simultaneously so appalling and so appealing. Nothing succeeds like excess; nothing fails like excess. That’s what the decade keeps telling us, and that’s why artists will keep going back for more, more, more.
Image credit: Wikimedia
Out this week: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid; South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion; All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; Ill Will by Dan Chaon; The Accusation by Bandi; The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge; and American Berserk by our own Bill Morris. For more on these and other new titles, go read our most recent book preview.