Goodbye Dick Nixon, Hello Disco
By Henry Allen
It's like ... what ... like soggy, like a sinus condition, the kind that makes your head so heavy it droops like a peony.
Lotta drugs, lotta sex, lotta therapy, hugging and polyester clothing with a stiff, sticky feeling ... the big Frye boots with rings on the ankles, the hatch-cover coffee tables, the ponderous melancholy of lite and heavy rock Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath the vans with the neo-Frank Frazetta paintings on the sides showing saber-toothed tigers being ridden by chicks with proto-exploding breasts ... "Saturday Night Fever" with the disco soundtrack that becomes a kind of motto: Stayin' alive, stayin' alive ...
Plenty of stuff happens in the '70s ... Watergate, the helicopters lifting refugees from the roof of our embassy in Saigon, the Iran hostage crisis, the Chevette rolling off the line to become celebrated as America's least-stolen car ... but it feels like every locomotive in America is rusted to the rails, like the karmic ice cream spoon is stuck to the bottom of the cosmic bowl, like the '60s were the irresistible force and now the '70s are the immovable object.
It's like a TV show you've never seen before but it feels like a rerun, something wrong with the laugh track.
It's like being stuck in a 3 a.m. bus station with nothing to read but the answer page to a lost magazine quiz. The answers are:
Near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, Comet Kohoutek, gas shortage, the former Republic of South Vietnam, oil spills, 2 million Cambodians, depletion of the ozone layer, Elvis Presley (in his bathroom), Muslim fundamentalists, endangered Furbish lousewort, Legionnaires' disease in air-conditioning systems, serial murder, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, blaxploitation movies, a million PCB-contaminated eggs, failed hostage rescue, wage and price controls, hundreds with cyanide in Jonestown.
The speed of the '60s steams down to the matter of the '70s. Do becomes is. The chicken fat of American culture coagulates in the refrigerator darkness.
It's 10:43 Saturday night in the casino, and somebody's hair is on fire.
"You smell something burning?" says a girl in platform shoes and hair curled back on the sides in Farrah Fawcett wings.
"I can't smell anything," her boyfriend says, without taking the cigar out of his mouth. He wears a Qiana shirt with chest hair erupting like an ascot, hair like the stuff in furnace filters.
They're waiting for the lounge singer to come back and sing "Feelings" again.
They talk without looking at each other. They look out instead at the dawnless acres of a casino, 6,000 people working away at slot machines and craps tables as if this were a factory, but a factory where they don't pay you to work, you pay them. Stayin' alive, stayin' alive ... A sense of dark, futile momentum, along with paranoia, as if you're being watched every minute, which you are through those one-way hemispheres in the ceiling. This is the feeling of the '70s the feeling of being watched, the mild ache of self-consciousness like being high on marijuana, the feeling of the liberated, therapy-grouped you looking in the mirror and seeing a yellow happy-face sticker that says "Have a Nice Day."
"Like nothing," he says. "After all that nose candy upstairs, how can you smell anything?"
"That stuff doesn't do anything for me," she says.
"So I noticed."
"What, I'm supposed to get all undressed so we can make love with runny noses?"
"You want the swingers to have all the fun?" he asks. "You should hear the guys at the store talk, what goes on. They got orgies going on, is what. They got a place in New York, Plato's Retreat, and one called Sandstone in California. Pretty soon it'll be everywhere, like miniature golf."
"They got orgies, the rest of us are lining up for gas," says the girlfriend. "The president of the United States is a crook, the Viet Cong are running the American Embassy, my sister is going out with a married guy, my brother is going out with a married guy."
"Hey, if it feels good, do it," the boyfriend says.
"I smell it."
"Maybe it's your bra on fire, all this women's lib you talk."
"That never happened, that bra burning," she says. "That's a male chauvinist myth."
"First they get rid of their bras," he says, "then they find out men love this no-bra look, so they get back in bras. Or a couple years ago, a man could get lynched for saying a woman's mood might change once a month or so. Then this woman kills somebody and she says it's because she has the curse, and all the women's lib groups back her up."
"We don't say 'the curse' anymore."
"Everything changes names now. The Indians are all Native Americans now, and the disadvantaged turned into the handicapped or vice versa, I can't keep up."
"Great," she says. "I go away for the weekend and I end up on 'All in the Family.' A date with Archie Bunker. Next thing you'll be talking about the Hebes and the spades."
"You wanted 'The Brady Bunch'? 'Mary Tyler Moore'?" he asks. "You want to bounce around with big smiles, be my guest."
"I went out with this jerk, he tried to take me to see 'Deep Throat.' "
"I'd already seen it. He wants me to see it again, like I didn't get the idea the first time. I made him take me see 'Star Wars' instead. Now there's a movie. All the other movies nowadays take everything apart. Like 'Jaws' or 'The Godfather' show you how rotten things are. Disaster movies. 'Star Wars' puts everything together. I can't explain. But like, I want to be Princess Leia."
"You want to know my life's ambition?" he asks. "I never told anybody this. I want one shot on 'The Tonight Show,' just one. It's crazy, but I think about it. I come out, sit down, Johnny Carson says, 'So how do you get into the major-appliance business?' And I say, 'You start out in minor appliances.' That's my joke, right. Because, like, there's no such thing as a minor "
"I'm laughing, I'm dying," she says. "Why don't you try out for 'Dean Martin's Celebrity Roast'?"
"I smell it now," the boyfriend says.
"Your cigar," she says.
"What I paid for this cigar, it better not smell like hair burning."
"No," she says. "It's sparks falling on your chest."
"Hey, a forest fire," he says, swatting at the smoldering triangle.
"What a man," she says.
"At least I didn't put any holes in the shirt I got it from the same guy did Travolta's costumes in 'Saturday Night Fever.' "
They stare out at the casino, the great factory where the raw material is human folly and the end product is a thrill or two but mostly disappointment.
"What it is, you used to expect to win in this country," the girl says.
"And now," he says, "you just try to lose slow enough that you can stay in the casino."
Stayin' alive ...
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company