Every now and then, I write something and forget to post it. What lies below is an example of that. I only thought of this while reading a book this week that revolved around the same subject. I’m glad I found it.
I finally caught VH1’s documentary <a href=”http://www.vh1.com/shows/dyn/vh1_rock_docs/122259/episode.jhtml”>NY 77: The Coolest Year in Hell</a> this week. If you’re a fan of music, pop culture, or just American history, you owe it yourself to track it down. It’s an amazing piece of work documenting on of the most fascinating years ever, when three different kinds of new music were emerging just a few blocks from each other.
Other than Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in 1776, I don’t know that I’d rather travel back in time to live through a single year anyplace other than New York in 1977. It was a time when all the promise of the 1960s was coming completely unhinged as the city sunk into bancruptcy, crime was taking over the city, sex and drugs were losing their value because they were so easily obtained, and the city was generally becoming a cesspool. I think there are a lot of people my age who have never really cared to visit New York because we remember all the stories about how bad it was when we were kids. I remember seeing footage of the blackout while watching The Price is Right, hearing my parents and their friends talking about all the crime in New York, and generally equating New York with evil things (This was before I knew about the Yankees, no less!).
Perhaps fueled by the state of the city, or perhaps just through dumb luck and coincidence, the future of music was being forged in three spots in the city in 1977. On the lower west side, disco was developing first in a few homes and small clubs, and eventually spreading to larger clubs like Studio 54. On the lower east side, punk rock and new wave were gaining an audience at CBGB’s. And in the south Bronx, hip hop and rap were developing independently but soon joined forces. Disco was like a supernova, taking over the charts (thanks largely to <i>Saturday Night Fever</i>), and quickly burning away (although to be honest, disco never really died. It just became dance music and never really went away but changed with the times). Punk and new wave created the dominant pop sounds of the early and mid-80s and laid the seeds for the alt-rock revolution of the 1990s. And hip-hop obviously has become the dominant force in music.
What an amazing moment in time! I can’t imagine I would have fit in, but I would have loved to go back and see what Studio 54 was really like. Did it seem outrageous at the time, or was that just what New Yorkers saw as their reality? Did people understand that the music they heard at CBGB’s or Disco Fever (where hip-hop went public) was revolutionary or did they just like it because it was new and fun and helped them to forget about all the problems they faced during the day? What was it like to walk the streets back then, knowing the Son of Sam was prowling around, pretty much everyone was a target for muggers, and the few cops who were around were generally powerless to stop those who wanted to do you harm? It’s easy to overgeneralize when analyzing history, but 1977 seems like a pivital point in our nation’s history, when things really began to change and we started moving towards the more afluent, consumer-oriented, homogenous culture we live in today.
Columnist Jimmy Breslin has a great line at the end of the show, when asked about what New York has become. He says that it is Indianapolis, all the fun and danger have been sucked out and what is left is a city created by Madison Avenue to be family friendly. “I want to see whores on 47th street!” he says. The woman next to him (his wife?) says, “You wouldn’t know a whore if you saw one!” Two crusty, old New Yorkers who remember what it used to be like. The perfect summation.