of the Seventies
The rise and fall of a cultural challenge
By Victor Bockris
Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2001
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
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
—David Frum, How We Got Here: The
70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For
Better or Worse)
To Be America
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.
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.
'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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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,"
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
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
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
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."
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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Frum, How We Got Here