The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

DISCO REDUX: The New York Public Library, one of our country’s great cultural and intellectual institutions, and a place I wouldn’t mind working at if they paid the librarians decent money, but they don’t so I don’t, is currently mounting an exhibition dedicated to the history and culture, if you can call it that; I think it’s a bit of a stretch myself; of the disco era. Why the library should want to mount an exhibition examining this particular epoch and not, for example, the era of good feelings during the Monroe Administration, or the role of literature in the intellectual life of the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, or why aren’t more pieces of living room furniture named for defunct Islamic political entities remains unclear at this juncture, but disco is what the New York Public Library wanted and so that is what they’ve got.

Now those of us born in the waning days of Ike’s second term can have the musical and fashion faux pas of our youths, if you regard the leisure suit and platform shoes as mere faux pas and not the mind-boggling catastrophes they really were, hurled back in our faces (and rightfully so, if you ask me. I mean, platform shoes?! What the hell were we thinking?). Having actually lived through this period, I think I can say with some degree of confidence that the disco era bit the metaphorical big one.

The disco generation was my generation, the generation of the late boomers, those baby boomers born after 1955, the boomers too young for civil rights marches, anti-war protests, and Vietnam, the generation for whom Elvis and the Beatles were just names. We came of age during the Watergate years, when the United States government seemed absolutely bent on proving our darkest fantasies about the psychic corruption prevalent at the highest levels of power, except for that one about the feds having a high energy mind control laser beam buried in a mountain near Camp David that could turn us all into a mob of hunchbacked feculent ritually cannibalistic Presbyterian zombies; that one didn’t pan out, although I haven’t given up hope—the truth is out there, you know. Our music had lost the freshness of the rock and roll pioneers and the British invasion, becoming, by the early disco years, a vast and putrid swamp of harmonic corporate pabulum utterly unfit for human consumption, but that went well with the terrible haircuts all of us had then.

Yes, we waited through the long years while our champion, the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, fought his way through the lawsuit that silenced him for years while the pestilence of disco gathered strength and virulence, spreading swiftly from one end of our poor, suffering country to the other with the speed of a case of chickenpox going through a kindergarten class in the middle of winter.

And so disco was upon us when we least expected such a phenomenon, laying hold of our radios and our record stores and the dance floors of the nation, glorying in the triumph of polyester in all the colors of a garish but otherwise nonexistent rainbow brought to you courtesy of America’s chemical industry and leaving us to wonder if that’s really the way we like it, uh huh, uh huh, or whether we were just kidding ourselves. For KC and the Sunshine Band posed a question then that no one has answered to my satisfaction. Did we actually like this musical goop, or did we go along with disco because there was nothing else was available? Certainly, there were other forms of music available, even if they did not receive the financial backing and radio airtime that disco got. I remember seeing one musician of the time who could play all of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos by putting one hand in his armpit and flapping his arm up and down; sometimes you couldn’t catch all of Bach’s contrapuntal subtleties when he played his armpit, to be sure, but the music was definitely recognizable as Bach. In addition to this gentleman, there were the animal bands. One of the most popular of these bands was a mixed band of wolves and coyotes that howled in a variety of genres; their rendition of Cole Porter’s Night and Day was especially good, I thought. Yet another unjustly forgotten trumpeter of the day could play a bebop version of Melancholy Baby after eating several plates of refried beans; the arrests for indecent exposure did not help his career and he quickly faded from the scene; getting the smell out of the furniture took a little longer, however. Still, why should the New York Public Library give disco, which most people simply tolerated, if my memory is anything to go by, a place of honor when these and other musicians active at that time are ignored and sometimes written out of the musical record entirely?

No one can answer that and, for some strange reason, the period has never lacked for admirers, though I can’t say why this should be so. The whole period was stuck in a mire of materialistic malaise, and I know that because the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, went on nationwide television and told us so, and that I can say that Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States at the time tells you almost everything you need to know about the era; an era that elects a peanut farmer to the highest office in the land will not shrink from any enormity, including wearing bright fire engine red platform shoes with a lemon yellow leisure suit to a wedding. He didn’t actually use the word malaise in his speech, but the press figured out that Jimmy was telling us that we were in a collective funk for some reason and that it was all our fault, too. Anyway, however we came to be hip deep in a malaise, we were in it, and disco was the soundtrack of us trying to pull our feet out of the muck without losing our galoshes.

Then, of course, there’s the embarrassment factor. Coming of age in the disco era means having to explain away stupidity in a way few other generations have had to do. Even our elder boomer confreres can explain away their more egregious nonsense by saying that they were protesting the war in Vietnam. For the disco generation, no such explanation is possible. Stupidity and synthetic fibers reigned supreme because we wanted them to, which is a discouraging thing to say in a country that bases its political stability on the universal franchise. Nothing makes you want to restrict the right to vote to people over thirty more than looking at your haircut, or the lack of a haircut, in your high school yearbook and remembering that you actually had the right to vote while thinking that hair looked good on you. I doubt that picture is something that you want to explain to your kids any time soon.


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