Visions of the Seventies
The rise and fall of a cultural challenge
By Victor Bockris

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2001


The 1970s were America's low tide. Not since the Depression had the country been so wracked with woe. Never—not even during the Depression—had America's pride and self-confidence plunged deeper. But the decade was also, paradoxically, in some ways America's finest hour.....

For a short time Americans behaved foolishly, and on one or two occasions even disgracefully. Then they recouped. They rethought. They reinvented. They rediscovered in their own past the governing principles of their future. Out of the failure and trauma of the 1970s they emerged stronger, richer, and—if it is not overdramatic to say so—greater than ever.
—David Frum, How We Got Here: The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)
Introduction: To Be America
Nobody would argue that America, in the second half of the 20th Century, went through a social revolution equal to the industrial revolution in its effect on how people lived. There is, however, mounting disagreement as to when this transformation took place. The majority says it was the 1960s; a pushy new minority is arguing it was the 1970s. Of course, they are both wrong because history doesn't happen in decades. I would say that 1965-82 was the period in which we saw the unified playing out of a set of cultural ideas. Focusing in on them, one might say that 1975-80 was the period in which we really let it rip! Whatever one believes, the '70s is a much maligned and grossly ignored decade. And until we cut it out, identify it and give it a chance to speak for itself, the argument has no base.

As far as I'm concerned, the only history worth reading is about people. What I look for is how the images of men and women changed, along with the way they relate to one another. The following is an introduction to the '70s, in terms of how the artists who played the strongest roles in shaping those changes played out their hands, linking themselves to each other in the unique collaboration that was the '70s signature.

The '70s are widely and mistakenly seen as an embarrassment; portrayed in films, magazines, books and television shows as an empty-minded, tasteless decade characterized by bellbottoms, barbiturates, disco music and bad hair. Yet the figures who defined the period, such as John Lennon, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith and Jean-Michel Basquiat, are more widely respected now than then. Despite the conservative view of what President Nixon called "The Silent Majority," the political upheaval that had forced President Johnson out of office in 1968 became in the '70s a social upheaval in habits, beliefs and morals, affecting not just the avant-garde but the entire country. Many of the most radical ideas of the '60s took root and became facts in the '70s and continue to influence the way we view and live life today. If we don't see this, we are walking around in a world we cannot understand.

The thrust of the '70s was an attempt to, in Muhammad Ali's poignant words, "make America be America," a land of freedom of expression with room for experiments in different ways of living not tied to the nuclear family or the jobs and economics of big business.

The early '70s (1970-72) was a period of pause. Having expended an enormous amount of energy in the '60s with questionable results, we didn't want to blunder on blindly. As John Lennon pointed out in a 1971 interview, the same bastards were still running the show. We had to re-examine everything. The '70s began to find a voice they could call their own in 1974—with the ousting of the corrupt and reactionary Nixon administration as a result of the Watergate scandal; with Muhammad Ali's return to his throne as the heavyweight champion of the world, a title that had been stripped from him when he refused to be inducted into the army to fight in Vietnam in 1967; with Andy Warhol's move out of the Factory at 33 Union Square where he had been shot and almost killed in 1968 into a grander space that heralded a new period of growth and success; with William Burroughs' return from 25 years of self-imposed exile from the United States to live in New York, where he too would experience a period of great success; with the recognition that Lou Reed was, in the words of David Bowie, "the most important person in rock 'n' roll"; with Patti Smith's first single, "Piss Factory"; and with Television, the Ramones, the Talking Heads and Blondie performing in a tiny Bowery bar called CBGB. These people were all outsiders who would, in the short, magic interlude between 1975-80, suddenly all find themselves in the right places at the right times.

The 1976-80 period, in which the Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter occupied the White House, was the most permissive period in the history of the United States. Never before had so many people taken so many drugs; never before had so many people had so much sex with so many different kinds of people in so many ways. Never before had so many great works from so many different fields found themselves fueled by a unique artistic cross pollination. And nowhere were these experiments more extensively practiced than in the New York Underground.

New values and new tastes in art and entertainment historically emerge from the Bohemian Underground of the major cities. As I see it, NYC played the key role in shaping the social changes of the '70s. Its thriving downtown salons, lofts, art galleries and clubs became the seedbed of much that would turn out to be the best and much that would turn out to be the worst in American culture.

The remnants of the '60s counterculture gathered there and were joined by aspirant avant-garde dissidents from all over the country and abroad. These were attractive dynamic people who led vibrant, exciting lives. They interacted ferociously, delving into each other's minds and bodies. There was an intensity to all their connections, which made them impossible to ignore. They weren't just tired and going through the motions. They were living real life to its breaking points.

Some of them were established figures making a comeback, such as Ali, Burroughs, Warhol and Reed. Others achieved fame for the first time as part of the '70s culture, such as Debbie Harry, David Byrne, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Carroll, Richard Hell, Keith Haring, Stephen Sprouse, Jean-Michel Basquiat and many others. These artists shared the goal of subverting the mores of the society they were living in, and in the mid- to late '70s they came tantalizingly close to succeeding in making America be America.

In the end, however, the forces of creativity fell because they were susceptible to emotions, to unrealistic romanticism. The forces of darkness returned, epitomized by the materialistic Reagan administration, which came to power at the beginning of the 1980s and had no such illusions.

Sex, drugs and money were three of the major catalysts, although in my opinion there was something more to the revolt of the '70s. Something happened all over New York during these years, which was the product of a collective dream that opened people's minds to other, perhaps greater ways of being. At the very least, we tried, as Burroughs put it, to "blow a hole in time." At the very least, we asked the right questions.

Lennon, the Stones and Warhol: Stepping Into the Breach, 1970-74
The stage was set at the end of the '60s. By 1969, the FBI's infiltration and smear campaigns against the leading figures of left-wing cultural and political movements—from the Beats to the Black Panthers—had decimated the upper echelons of the counterculture. Without leaders, the "movement" of the '60s, which had gone underground in the form of the Weathermen or soldiered on in the form of the Yippies, floundered. The New Left, which was more of a humanitarian issue-specific protest against the Vietnam War than a genuine left-wing movement, shifted toward the issue- specific radicalism of the women's liberation, gay liberation and ecology movements.  The image of the heterosexual male was reeling from the Manson murders and the violence at the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont. No one knew what to think or how to behave.

In my opinion, three artists—John Lennon, the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol—stepped into the breach. With their bold work and equally bold personalities, they gave people some sense of shape and definition they would not have been able to find anywhere else. Above all, they offered new images of men and women in the first period of the decade, 1970-72, when we were most unsure of ourselves.

In 1970, Lennon left the Beatles and began issuing records more as bulletins than as songs: his blistering singles "Cold Turkey," "Instant Karma" and "Give Peace a Chance" and his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. In this first, and best of his five solo albums, he informed his audience that the dream of the '60s was over and introduced himself as an individual painfully seeking his way in uncharted territory. He began spending time in New York ("I could see that the '70s were going to be all America's," he said).

In 1971, Lennon's myth-destroying interview, "Lennon Remembers," was published in Rolling Stone and was later issued as a mass paperback. That same year, he made his life-changing move to New York and in 1972 released a double album (the first with wife Yoko Ono), Sometime in New York City. It dealt with the political questions of the new decade in songs celebrating, among others, the jailed black revolutionary Angela Davis and the rock 'n' roll White Panther John Sinclair, who had been sentenced to ten years in jail for the possession of two joints. And "Attica State" chronicled the 1971 prison rebellion, which resulted in the killing of 38 inmates.

In 1970, the Rolling Stones released their 1969 concert film, Gimme Shelter. Filmed for the Stones by the Maysles brothers, it was a superbly shot and beautifully edited work. As the band moved across the country from the East to the West, the film cut back and forth between the building of the scaffold-like stage at Altamont to the deserted raceway in the desert outside San Francisco where the band would give a free concert at the end of the tour. Some of the Stones' best performances were captured on the film, which closed with the brutal murder of a black man 20 feet from the front of the stage. The band played on, forcing us to question our deification of rock stars as role models. Nicolas Roeg's Performance, starring Mick Jagger, came out two weeks later, after a two-year censorship delay.

These films had a strong impact on men's styles of the early '70s. In 1971, the band left England, relocated in France and released the drug drenched Sticky Fingers, with a cover by Andy Warhol. An interview with the Stones' Keith Richards—of the same scope and length as Lennon's—appeared in Rolling Stone. In it, Richards emerged as the leader of the band and a major trendsetter of the decade.

In 1972, the Stones reached their apotheosis with the double album Exile on Main Street, with a sleeve by Beat photographer Robert Frank. They toured the States that summer, ending up in New York. The film of this tour, shot by Robert Frank and titled Cocksucker Blues, was never released. Like Lennon's work, the Stones' songs of the early '70s were short stories full of torn and frayed characters personifying the wrecked, but still standing, population of the underground. Rock songs, pictures of the times as they happened, became a strong unifying force in a time of political and social confusion.

The period was equally defined by Andy Warhol's films Trash (1970) and Heat (1972), as well as by his gossipy Interview magazine. The characters in Warhol's films and magazine, which was much more radical in the early '70s than it later became, were similar to the characters in the Stones' music—desperate but still insisting on their rights to live in the world of Nixon's "Silent Majority." Warhol made one of his sharpest, most overt political statements with his return to painting in the majestic portraits of Chairman Mao. Warhol painted a companion portrait of Nixon, who had just returned from his historic visit to Mao in China. When the Democrats asked Warhol for a contribution to George McGovern's 1972 campaign against Nixon for the Presidency, Warhol simply scrawled "VOTE MCGOVERN" across the bottom of the Nixon portrait, in which the green-faced figure looked like the personification of evil, and gave them permission to use it as their campaign poster. It was a typical Warhol gesture—hard, deft and far more powerful than the standard poster. It also earned him a prominent place on Nixon's hit list.

The above works would make a good retrospective of the period. It was the combination of each work and its creator's life, however, which became in the early '70s equal to and part of the work and that played the strongest role in reshaping the counterculture's lifestyles, habits and attitudes at the crucial beginning of the decade.

There's no point in discussing the '70s without taking into account the role that drugs played. In the early '70s, people drank a lot, as alcohol made a rapid comeback after being considered gross in the second half of the '60s. Unfortunately, people also took ferocious downers—in the form of elephant tranquilizers, Quaaludes, Tuenols ("reds") and Placidyl, among others. "Wasted" became a popular word among males in the early '70s: "Oh, man, I was really wasted, man."

"Pain" was the watchword of the young. Men who had bedded women using the hippie-guru look in the '60s now came on to them looking like outpatients from a mental hospital. To be in such great pain that you had to take powerful drugs just to get through the day was to be cool in the early '70s. It was as if the younger generation was saying to the silent majority: "Your war, your racial prejudices and your conformity make me feel so ill that I have to take drugs to numb myself."

The 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village heralded the appearance of a large gay population for the first time in America. These men differed from their precursors by proudly flaunting their sexuality in the provocative way they dressed and spoke. Their attitudes were epitomized by Lance Loud, the star of the groundbreaking documentary, An American Family (1973). He had run away from a wealthy family in California and moved to the hipster's paradise, the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where his ambition was to meet Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.

Just as Jack Kerouac wrote the rucksack generation of the '60s onto the road, so Lou Reed in the persona of the rock 'n' roll animal now wrote into existence the young gay generation with his solo albums: Transformer, Berlin, Rock n Roll Animal, Sally Can't Dance, The Velvet Underground Live '69, Metal Machine Music and Lou Reed Live. His hit single "Walk on the Wild Side," which documented the lives of the Warhol Superstar Drag Queens, was a clarion call to tens of thousands of young men who wanted to move to New York and turn themselves into women, as depicted in Warhol's 1973 film, Women in Revolt. At the same time, his live work began the resurrection and long rise to the top of his '60s band, the Velvet Underground. Reed's motto was, "My week beats your year."

Warhol's works, from his monthly magazine Andy Warhol's Interview, which set the tones and standards for the-up-and-coming and famous, to his 1974 movies, Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, were peopled by actors with characters as horrifying to the silent majority of middle Americans as Reed's. To a New York sensibility, they were hilarious.

Warhol and Reed's searing visions of New York caught the popular atmosphere so accurately in part because the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, grinding to a halt. Mounds of uncollected garbage piled up, gas shortages created ugly lines of panting cars at gas stations and violent crimes, such as the gay Truck Stop Murders on the Hudson River docks, were on the rise.

Many long-time inhabitants fled. A new generation of students and young adults poured into Manhattan, taking advantage of relatively cheap rents, a low cost of living and the shared camaraderie of being in what felt like a besieged city, America's Berlin. When the city applied to the federal government for help in its crisis, President Ford famously replied, "Drop Dead!"

New York then broke away from the rest of the country, developed its own state of mind and became the cultural capital of the world. In art, music and fashion, New York tastes were dominant. In entertainment, from clubs and restaurants to sexual performances and services, the city could not be beat. Walking the streets was like being on a movie set. Mafia executions, bank holdups and grisly murders were carried out in front of our eyes. At night, Manhattan glittered like a great ocean liner, heading into the unknown on the voyage of the damned.

On the drug front, 1974-78 was an up period, characterized by the spread of cocaine, marijuana and hallucinogenics such as peyote, LSD and its various hybrids like M.D.A.—hallucinogens laced with speed, drugs for workaholics for whom there was no line between working and playing. I vividly recall seeing Bianca Jagger ride onto the dance floor of Studio 54 on a white stallion—as fake snow, symbolizing cocaine, fell from the ceiling in big fat flakes. In the rock world, cocaine became part of business—"No blow, no show" being the password—and on film sets, if you didn't have a coke budget up front, forget it.

There was an explosion of first-rate work on all fronts. From the Factory came Warhol's show of his chilling "Mao" portraits, some of them 18 feet high, and the scintillating "Hammer and Sickle" series. From rock, we got "The Diamond Dogs' Tour" by David Bowie and, among several other masterpieces, Blood on the Tracks from Bob Dylan. In literature, Allen Ginsberg won the National Book Award for The Fall of America, and Norman Mailer gave us The Executioners Son. In fashion, Halston became our St. Laurent. And in opera, Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass' Einstein on the Beach astonished us. We were constantly being stimulated, sometimes exhilarated, by the inventiveness and drive of our artists.

The decade had found itself in New York, and people were having a very good time. Life became an endless party for workaholics. We had plugged into our power as a unified group with a new philosophy: "In America, all we do is work."

The Outing of the Gay Counterculture: A New Way of Being, 1974-78
The American male went through a radical transformation in the mid-'70s. Previously, he had worn the same suit that all men wore. Conversation was not a word in his vocabulary. If you had put him at a European dinner table, he would've had no idea what was going on. But in the '70s, he would turn into a clotheshorse who wore designer suits. He had his hair cut in a salon, used lotions on his skin and dined in French restaurants, ordering wine from a list he understood. He even wore cologne.

This about-face was almost completely engineered by gay men. The Beat generation's leading figures were gay, and the leading figures in the Warhol world were gay. Lou Reed was gay. Halston was gay. The attitude toward gay men in the heterosexual community went through a 180-degree turn. In 1973, I could not invite a gay man to dinner with heterosexual friends without them being embarrassed into making fun of him. By 1975, I couldn't have a dinner without my gay friends; they had become so popular.

As far as heterosexual men were concerned, Norman Mailer was everywhere in the '70s, debating against the women's liberation movement and writing about graffiti art, Vietnam, Marilyn Monroe and crime. John Lennon pointed the way for men who were trying to live on an equal footing with women in "Woman is the Nigger of the World" and made it the subject of many interviews.

But the strongest hetero statements and images, albeit not often in favor of the women's movement, came from punk rock, the most sexual art movement of the '70s. The way I—and a number of my friends—saw it, sexually the '70s was the healthiest of times. We were getting rid of many blocks and taboos. We were meeting girls who were as strong as we were. In fact, many of them took more risks than their boyfriends, often leading the way. As the singer Deerfrance put it, " If you had one room with no heat, you would not be alone at night. The juices were flowing, and it made the bands and everyone want to go out and meet each other. It was real life."

The '70s was the first decade in which American men were encouraged to have emotions. "Trust your feelings, Luke," says Obi-Wan Kenobi at the peak of Star Wars (1977). There was also a desire for collaboration on all fronts, as witnessed by the proliferation of group psychology movements and cults. People wanted to be told what to do; they desperately needed leaders. From where I sat, the culture heroes around whom people gathered in New York were the best because, rather than constantly answering people's questions with a lot of mumbo jumbo, they focused on pointing the way to asking the right questions. When they did give advice, it was carefully thought out, such as: "People need to be aware of having to learn how to live," Andy Warhol said. "Because life happens so fast, and sometimes it goes away too quickly."

There were two climaxes in the '70s: 1975 and 1978. The first one came in 1975, the year America finally withdrew all its forces from Vietnam. Several major figures had landmark successes in April of that year, when the Beat Generation made a significant comeback at a Columbia University group reading by Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. From 1975 onward, Burroughs and Ginsberg grew steadily more famous among the young, as they constantly toured colleges and clubs, reading their works and giving interviews to the underground and local press.

In July and August, the Rolling Stones toured the United States, capturing the imaginations primarily of young men who copied the way they walked, spoke and looked—utterly stoned. Keith Richards was arrested in Arkansas but eluded a court appearance due to the influence of ex-FBI agents working as his personal security. This above-the-law status the Stones flaunted was very much a part of the times. It allowed all of us to feel beyond the old controls, despite reality.

In the spring, Bob Dylan returned to the streets of Greenwich Village, which he had haunted ten years earlier as a folk singer. He gathered together performers from the Beat Generation and the folk rock, glam rock and punk rock generations and wove them into the Rolling Thunder Review, which became the most inventive and inspirational rock tours of the decade. Rolling Thunder reached its first climax in December at Madison Square Garden in New York. The concert was a benefit for the wrongfully jailed boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the subject of Dylan's hot new single, "Hurricane." Muhammad Ali made an appearance, phoning Carter in prison from the stage. For a moment, the counterculture felt united and proud again.

In September, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol was published. It was well received and widely reviewed, with The New York Times calling Warhol "the bellwether of America." Although it sold poorly at the time, it has stayed in print for the last 25 years.

I would argue that it is a key text of the decade. Read today, it captures the tone and attitude that made Warhol so attractive to young people across the country in the '70s. Serious in intent, it delivers its points on love, sex, money, friendship, work, success and death with humor. Besides, who else could have published a book called "The Philosophy Of" before his name? Around the time of its publication, Warhol managed to infiltrate the Ford White House and turn his visit into an extraordinarily successful international publicity campaign for the book. And with the success of this work, Warhol began to reach a level of intensity and influence in the mainstream that he had never before known.

The most successful TV comedy show of the decade, Saturday Night Live!, commenced its long, highly successful run from New York City. In the ominous times of the Ford administration, the show built a bridge between "underground" and mainstream humor. Two of its stars, John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, opened a bar in downtown Manhattan where they celebrated every Saturday night. The show, and particularly Belushi, became a rallying point. SNL flourished in the New York Underground, where it became the seminal show for a second generation of TV viewers.

From July 16-August 3, 1975, CBGB mounted a rock festival in which more than 40 bands performed. This summer festival was a turning point in the history of New York Underground rock. Not only was it the first rock festival to cater to unrecorded punk bands, it also inspired new bands, attracted wider audiences and subsequently the national press. Punk was getting into a position to become a force in the second half of the decade.

Watergate had given the counterculture an enormous shot in the arm that—along with Ali's surprise 1974 victory over George Foreman and his even greater defeat of Joe Frazier in the 1975 Thrilla in Manilla, combined with the above works and events—created the illusion that "we" could win, that something was happening here that only we understood. In short, there still was a counterculture, something that had definitely been in doubt in the painful days of the early '70s. This feeling was strengthened in the Underground by the assault of punk rock, which began in earnest that November when Patti Smith released her first breakout album, Horses. The New York Times Sunday Magazine's December profile of her was the first sign, as far as the public was concerned, that a new Beat generation, named Punk, was upon us. Blondie closed out the year, playing a New Year's Eve concert in Central Park that made the midnight news.

Suddenly a new social network that cross-pollinated the art, beat, punk, Warhol factory and New York School poetry worlds was transforming New York from a broken-down city full of potholes into a gay, sparkling city full of exhilarating people and astonishing new places, out of which a new way of being would grow.

The Godfathers Recognize Their Children: A Pocket of Light, 1975-80
In the mid-'70s, gay men became an important economic force. They ran the best clubs, restaurants, bookshops, clothes shops, gyms, limousine services and private airlines. And they gave the best parties. Gay people were the wittiest, the most up-to-date and the most image-conscious. They also had the best drugs, and they were generous with them. The success of disco was largely due to the gay influence, creating the impression that gay men lived more pleasurable lives and—so it seemed at the time—had the most pleasurable future ahead of them. Two male salaries combined, with none of the financial responsibilities of bringing up children, made them the envy of many heterosexuals who were putting off getting married and settling down well into their 30s, sometimes their 40s.

This was a heady period. For the first time, gay choices were considered the wave of the future. They were on the cutting edge. At the same time, everybody in that world knew they were careening toward an abyss, which made it even more exciting in and of itself. According to one writer, "There was a mystic wildness about the partying, the music, the drugs, the clothes, the free sexuality—the interchange of partners, the constant fucking of boys, girls—it was so shocking and exhilarating." Homosexuality had been an unspeakable vice in the '60s. In the '70s, their assertion of the right to lead an entirely new way of life brought the gay rights movement to a level with the civil rights and women's movements in the minds of liberal Americans.

When Punk magazine's premiere issue hit the stands in January 1976 with Lou Reed on its cover, one sensed that something else unique was shaking itself into existence. There were several useful publications of the period (N.Y. Rocker, The Soho Weekly News), but Punk was the most creative and intelligent. It made the scene by treating the musicians, who were unknown outside the Lower East Side, like stars, but with an irreverent sense of humor. It also defined the punk community in embracing not only Reed, but also mentors from an even earlier generation such as Warhol and Burroughs, something unique to the era.

As I see it, in the 1975-80 pocket of light, we experienced a three-generational artistic collaboration that has never been, and probably never will be, equaled. Ali and Burroughs were as important to Patti Smith as her colleagues in the punk band Television were. To Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol and Lou Reed were as relevant as her friends in the Ramones. For the first time, the new generation did not have to kill its fathers. We just promoted them to Godfathers! And the Godfathers recognized their children and welcomed the fresh energy they brought with them.

In 1976, the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Dead Boys and Blondie all made their first albums and began attracting international attention. Although punk continued the tradition of the boys club, it was also open to gay people. There were a number of strong creative women in the punk scene, including Debbie Harry and Patti Smith. As managers of groups, record executives, fashion designers, poets, playwrights, actresses, magazine editors, film directors, photographers like Marcia Resnick, performance artists like Laurie Anderson, writers like Susan Sontag and underground painters like Susan Williams and Sarah Charlesworth, they all made an impact. The groundbreaking punk girls such as Anya Phillips, Marcia Resnick and Tina l'Hotsky, who were important muse figures at the clubs and among the many bands, also had a beneficial influence.

Sex was exceptionally free of consequences in the '70s. Pornography became much more widespread in magazines, and this was the first time sexually-explicit films could be shown, such as Deep Throat (1973), Behind the Green Door (1973) and The Devil and Miss Jones (1974). Their stars, Marilyn Chambers and Linda Lovelace, became household names. Not only was this a time before AIDS, but in Manhattan the nuclear family was set aside in exchange for sex and success. Children did not feature (except in horror films like The Exorcist (1974) and The Omen (1975) and Andy Warhol's Bad (1977), in which a baby was tossed out the window of a high-rise apartment building).

The disco scene reached its zenith with the opening of Studio 54 in April 1977. Studio 54 revolutionized the concept of the club by introducing the velvet rope across its door. Nobody could enter unless chosen by the doorman. Although 54 was associated prominently with disco, ironically in the end it did more to kill rather than support it by taking what was essentially a lower-class urban music and turning it into a "limited to only the best people" style.

At first, however, the competition between punk and disco created a healthy tension that gave both scenes shape and definition. It was a time in which the demarcation between the street philosophy of the Beats and the chic philosophy of the Warhol Factory met. Warhol's paintings that year would have been perfect covers for Burroughs' books. It was the first time that Warhol, who had been betrayed by Reed in 1966, finally praised Reed's work in public and Reed spoke openly of his debt to Warhol.

Burroughs interviewed Patti Smith for High Times. Warhol painted Debbie Harry's portrait. It was a moment in which the forces linked. It was the climax in which the underground surfaced and the mainstream applauded. In the mid- to late '70s, the rest of the country took several big steps toward catching up with New York. This was due in part to the relentless traveling and proselytizing of our subjects.

Although disco was always far more popular than punk on the radio, in clubs and record sales, the punk bands built a national constituency by touring constantly, bringing their style to impressionable teenagers and young adults across the land. Ginsberg and Burroughs gave readings throughout the country, mostly at universities and punk rock clubs. Andy Warhol traveled as relentlessly as any rock star, publicizing his work. In the spring of 1976, the opening of his Hammer and Sickle paintings was mobbed by ecstatic punks. And what could have been more punk than the Piss paintings and the Sex Parts series he started turning out in 1977. His film Bad, about a gang of girl punks who will do anything, including murder, for hire, was something of a financial disaster, but today it is a cult classic.

The fact that 1976 was the USA's Bicentennial and 1977 saw the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in the UK made this the perfect time for twin attacks on authority and tradition. The artistic relationship between London and New York had always been strong, starting with the British Invasion of 1964-69, but during punk it became more of a two-way street. The success of Blondie and the Ramones in London was equaled by the impact of the Clash and the Sex Pistols in New York, even though the Pistols were temporarily unable to get USA visas. On hearing their savage rendition of "God Save the Queen," William Burroughs wrote them a letter of support.

The Second Climax: The Annus Mirabilis, 1978-79
1978 was the second climax of the decade and its annus mirabilis—the climax of everything that had packed itself into this powerful post-war period. Everybody had a good year. Everyone rose to the challenge, as one brilliant work followed hard on the heels of another. It started with the Sex Pistols' January/February American tour. Although they pointedly ignored the big cities and toured the South and West, the tour was intensively covered by Punk magazine, and a High Times magazine film crew made a documentary film of the tour, Dead On Arrival. After the band broke up at the end of the tour in San Francisco, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious stopped in New York on their way back to England. Vicious moved to New York later in the year and became the most famous punk rock star when he killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in the Chelsea Hotel.

The Rolling Stones, who had sunk into a torpor from which session musicians could not rescue them during the 1973-76 seasons, snapped back into focus with Some Girls, their best album since Exile on Main Street, as Keith Richards finally kicked heroin in the teeth. Some Girls was a series of love songs recorded in Paris and presented to America via Saturday Night Live.

Lou Reed, who had stepped back from the front lines in '76 and '77, returned to the front in top form with Street Hassle, in which he once again relied upon a Warhol superstar for his shoreline (Eric Emerson, who had appeared in a number of Warhol's films). Reed also came out with the magnificent double live album Take No Prisoners, in which he emerged as the Lenny Bruce of rock 'n' roll with his monologues and asides to the audience. He had finally become himself; he had finally learned how to live.

Warhol himself exploded onto the canvas with a series of beautiful, if sometimes brutal, works in the Skull and awesome Shadows series. Blondie released Parallel Lines, which contained their first American #1 single "Heart of Glass," cracking the carapace of punk to appear as a disco band. Studio 54 became the most important club in the world, mesmerizing and astonishing roomfuls of people. A giant neon Man in the Moon loomed over the dance floor, lifting his glittering coke spoon to his nose. Beneath his benevolent gaze, the most beautiful girls and boys in the world danced with abandon. Hedonistic, elitist, often racist, it was the most decadent place in the world. Andy Warhol dropped by every night, often just standing like a slab of stone-silent oracle, the essence of emptiness. Celebrities appeared like shimmering apparitions. But then Studio 54 was raided by the police, its owners were arrested and thrown in jail and everyone went downtown to the Mudd Club.

The Mudd Club, which opened in October 1978, was the polar opposite of Studio 54. Representing punk, it consisted of two bare rectangular rooms and two very active bathrooms, in which the gender line had finally been completely erased. It shared with Studio 54 a sense of spectacle, putting on events such as the Dead Rock Stars party, which consisted of a series of shrines to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison. We were very aware of our dead that year.

The Mudd instantly became the greatest club in the world, branching out into the nightclub as a performance space and having art exhibitions and literary readings, as well as rock 'n' roll shows. Mickey Ruskin, whose Max's Kansas City had been the gathering place of the downtown crowd from 1966 to 1973, opened two additional bars and restaurants, The Ocean Club, 1976-77 and Chinese Chance, 1978-83. Both became key meeting places for the downtown rock art fashion avant-garde scene.

William Burroughs now inherited the throne of this new society as King of the Underground. His new book about collaboration, The Third Mind (1978, with Brion Gysin), was another key text of the decade. The Nova Convention at the Entermedia Theatre on the Lower East Side that December was a celebration of his life and work by beat, punk, pop, art and rock figures. (Jean-Michel Basquiat, hardly known outside the graffiti art world, was in the audience, and another young unknown painter, Keith Haring, wrote in his journal of the complete awakening the Nova Convention brought him.)

"One has the feeling of being in the middle of something here," Burroughs wrote Paul Bowles in Tangier. He was at the center of the climax of the most creative cultural period in the history of New York. Never before had so many different artists and their audiences been connected by a landscape. Furthermore, the highly successful movies of Woody Allen (Annie Hall and Manhattan) and Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets and Taxi Driver) and other films like Saturday Night Fever and Dog Day Afternoon painted the city in beautiful, if sometimes violent, imagery.

Television went through many revolutions in the '70s, mirroring the social changes, particularly in women's roles. Two of the best programs, Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (starring Allen's first wife, Louise Lasser), about a housewife whose obsessions are the waxy yellow buildup on her kitchen floor and her husband's impotence and Saturday Night Live (on which Burroughs read to an audience of 100,000,000 in 1981), were proud of being from New York. The shows and their actors became as much a part of the fabric as the artists, writers and musicians.

By the end of 1978, the mass consumption of these films and TV shows, the popularity of the new music and the national press stories about the activities in the clubs had familiarized the rest of the country with present-day New York, creating a two-way street of communication that made people like Ali, Burroughs and Warhol, who had previously been impossibly distanced by their heavy metal images, less frightening, even intriguing.

It did not hurt, of course, that both Warhol and Ali infiltrated the White House several times during the '70s, that Burroughs was accepted into the Academy of Arts and Letters before he left New York or that Allen Ginsberg won the Gold Medal in Literature from the National Arts Club in 1979. Also to coincide with the publication of his book of photographs of the '70s, Exposures (1979), and the simultaneous opening of his Portraits of the Seventies at the Whitney Museum in New York, a major TV station profiled Andy Warhol on the popular 20/20 show, which had an audience of 80 million.

As the lifestyles of the New York Underground figures rose from the surface of their work to become accepted by a significant part of the mainstream, New York—which had seemed like a forbidden city in the first two-thirds of the decade—ended it by becoming more a part of the tapestry of America than before.

Heroin: The Sucker Punch, 1979-83
In 1979, a terrific new creative energy exploded all over New York in the form of graffiti art on the walls and subways and in break-dancing, hip-hop and rap music in the streets. This was also the year when the initially all-white MTV was launched. The predominantly black artists in graffiti and rap were so numerous, so talented and so confident and young that, regardless how many were shot by the police, some got through.

The top three graffiti men were the extraordinary Jean-Michel Basquiat, known as the Radiant Child, and the two white boys, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. In 1980-81, Glenn O'Brien shot a movie, Downtown 81, about Basquiat and the downtown music scene starring James Chance and Kid Creole and the Coconuts. This new energy took the style of the late '70s into the early '80s. Everything was moving so fast that whole movements began and ended in a year.

By late 1981, Basquiat had a one-man show in a Soho gallery, and his work on canvas was called Neo-Expressionist. His next move would be collaboration with Andy Warhol. Haring also got a lot of publicity, and they both became stars and started to make a lot of money.

The New York/No Wave bands Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch, the Contortions and James White and the Blacks were like graffiti musicians. S&M became the latest sexual fashion. The world of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories continued to find a home in this setting. Lou Reed's mojo was still working. Blondie reached number one repeatedly from 1979 to '81, particularly with the reggae crossover "The Tide is High" and the rap crossover, "Rapture." In 1979, Warhol painted Blondie lead-singer Debbie Harry's portrait in one of the perfect pop marriages of artist subject and form.

However, in the spring of 1979, a dark and horribly destructive element entered the picture. As a result of the Mafia losing control of its distribution after the French Connection bust in 1971 and the Ayatollah Khomeini kicking the CIA-backed Shah out of Iran, the Persian heroin trade the Shah had been sitting on was opened up. A tsunami of strong heroin hit downtown New York, bringing the decade to a tragic end in a chemical blizzard.

Heroin had never been sold in a white neighborhood to white middle-class people before; you would have had to go up to Harlem to purchase it. Now, heroin supermarkets proliferated on the Lower East Side. Ironically, one of the most famous was right across the street from where William Burroughs lived in his famous "Bunker" at 222 Bowery. For a while, its hottest bag was Dr. Nova, named after Burroughs' novel Nova Express. No group seemed immune to its influence. It permeated the rock world, the art world and the literary world with a devastating effect upon this very special time and its cast of characters.

For me, the shock troops of the '70s were heroes because of the risks they took. They carried the brunt of the revolution to the streets via their work and entertained very real danger, as the casualty reports testify. In 1979, William Burroughs, Patti Smith, half of Blondie, Dede Ramone and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among many others at all levels of the counterculture, became junkies. After stabbing Nancy Spungen to death in the Chelsea Hotel, Sid Vicious, the bass player in the Sex Pistols, became the poster child of the junkies. In October 1979, he overdosed and died. This gave the media the opportunity to cut punk rock down to a stupid movement propagated by madmen and killers.

New York had always been looked upon by the rest of America as a mad, bad, dangerous place to live; here was further confirmation. In late 1978, the publisher and editor-in-chief of High Times, Tom Forcade, committed suicide. In 1979, the drug smuggler who starred in a movie Forcade had been producing, Cocaine Cowboys, also killed himself. The casualty reports would increase year by year.

Another exodus now began. In February 1980, Lou Reed got married, turned his back on the scene, went into Alcoholics Anonymous and bought a house in the country.  In March, Patti Smith broke up her band, got married and moved to Detroit. In October, Muhammad Ali, who had fought valiantly but at great cost throughout 1976-78, shuffled off-stage after a dismal loss in 1980 to deal with what would soon become severe physical problems.

But nothing sounded the death knell of the decade as much as the murder of John Lennon outside his apartment building, the Dakota, in December 1980. It was the negation of just about everything that we could hold onto in the counterculture; it deflated an entire culture. In 1981, by which time people were dropping like flies, John Belushi, the most popular star of Saturday Night Live, which had been a strong proponent of the '70s lifestyle, had died of a heroin overdose.

In February 1981, the first novel in Burroughs' new trilogy, Cities of the Red Night, was published to international acclaim. Burroughs, now on the methadone program, left the Bunker in 1981 and moved to Kansas, where he would spend the rest of his life. Two months later, Allen Ginsberg, who had lived on the Lower East Side since the 1940s, also left New York, relocating in Boulder, Colorado.

Blondie had pretty much disappeared from the scene, spending all their time on the road or in the studio. In 1982, after two albums that were disastrous failures, the band broke up. Its songwriter and co-leader, Chris Stein, almost died of a rare skin disease

The inauguration of Ronald Reagan as President in January 1981 confirmed the end of the permissive '70s. And that December, Andy Warhol put Nancy Reagan on the cover of his magazine. Warhol reached the nadir of his career in 1982 with his Dollar Bill paintings. For the first time in his career, he failed to sell a single canvas when the show opened at the Castelli Gallery in New York.

In 1983, the heterosexual community in New York woke up to the threat of AIDS. The gays circled their wagons. As a heterosexual who had spent a lot of time deep inside the gay community, I felt a definite chill. Simultaneously, when I signed a contract to write Andy Warhol's biography, I was expelled from the Factory. That year, Andy moved to a new Factory, slamming the door on those still trapped in the mindset of the old one.

The owner of the Mudd Club was arrested on drug and tax evasion charges. In May 1983, seminal club owner Mickey Ruskin died. His packed funeral on the Lower East Side was the surest sign that the counterculture and its underground no longer existed. Now all the rooms in which the stars of the '70s scenes had worked, made love, glittered and danced were empty and silent.

The courage to move forward comes from the courage to look back. "1975-1980 was a time in which people insisted on doing what they weren't supposed to do," wrote Debbie Harry in her memoir, Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie. In the magic of civil disobedience comes obedience. What do we look for in the past? Through a glass darkly, I can see the faces of the allies who befriended us, the heroes who painted, wrote, played, the hands that extended hope, asked not what we could do for ourselves but for each other. So I saw the '70s rise and fall. Great were the men and women at the wall.

Unless the people of the present day correctly understand the social convulsion of the 1970s, they will stumble into fatal errors of judgment about their own times and their own lives.
—David Frum, How We Got Here