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How America's Working Class Died on the Disco Dance Floor

A new book describes how working-class America hit the rocks during the turbulent '70s.

Editor's Note: An epic account of how working-class America hit the rocks in the political and economic upheavals of the ’70s, Jefferson Cowie's Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class presents the decade in a new light. Part political intrigue, part labor history, with large doses of American music, film and TV lore, Cowie's book makes new sense of the ’70s as a crucial and poorly understood transition from the optimism of New Deal America to the widening economic inequalities and dampened expectations of the present. From the factory floors of Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit to the Washington of Nixon, Ford and Carter, Cowie connects politics to culture, showing how the big screen and the jukebox can help us understand how America turned away from the radicalism of the ’60s and toward the patriotic promise of Ronald Reagan.

The following is excerpted from Jefferson Cowie's Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class(The New Press, 2010):

In 1975, rock journalist Nik Cohn embarked on an underground tour of the working-class disco scene in Brooklyn with a black dancer named Tu Sweet. "Some of those guys," explained Tu Sweet, "they have no lives. Dancing is all they got." That idea sunk into Cohn, whose British roots gave a class edge to his understanding of pop music. "I'd always thought of teen style in terms of class," Cohn reported; "Rock, at least the kind that mattered to me, attains its greatest power when havenots went on the rampage, taking no prisoners. 'Dancing's all they got.' It sounded to me like a rallying cry."

His adventures at a club named 2001 Odyssey ended with a stellar piece of reportage for New York magazine about living to dance and dancing to escape called "The Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night." The theme of the piece was that only a select few were capable of rising above the "vast faceless blob" of humanity that does most of the nation's working and dying. Only a select few "faces" knew "how to dress and how to move, how to float, how to fly. Sharpness, grace, a certain distinction in every gesture." As Vincent, king of the 2001 Odyssey explained, "The way I feel, it's like we've been chosen." The New York article became the foundation for the most popular movie of the decade, Saturday Night Fever (1977).

There was only one problem: Cohn fabricated the entire story -- from the characters to their performances, from their looks to their dreams. His editors did not know of his deceit. Concerned that the public might not buy the veracity of Cohn's tales of the disco underground, the editors went so far as to include an inset, claiming "everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly." But Cohn's journalism was just one more part of the '70s hustle. He did show up at the club to do his research with Tu Sweet after wandering lost in the "dead land" of Brooklyn, but when he stepped out of his gypsy cab, there was a brawl taking place in the parking lot, and then someone spun around and threw up on his pants. Figuring nothing could be worth such a price, he immediately headed back to Manhattan. After other failed attempts to penetrate the scene, he gave up and decided to make up his tale from thin air and a few fragments that were burned into his mind from his unsuccessful excursion over the class divide.

One particular image provided the inspiration for the fiction of "Tribal Rights." Before retreating to his cab, Cohn recalled "a figure in flared crimson pants and a black body shirt standing in the back doorway, directly under the neon light, and calmly watching the action. There was a certain style about him -- an inner force, a hunger and a sense of his own specialness. He looked, in short, like a star." This random encounter with '70s street-cool would be transformed into the quintessential icon of the decade, Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manero (Vincent in the article). Although Cohn later failed in his efforts to transfer his myth-making into a screenplay (Norman Wexler, who had done two other '70s blue-collar scripts, Joe and Serpico, had to be brought in to do the job), his brief moment in a Brooklyn parking lot was the spark that made pop culture history.

Tony Manero, as played by John Travolta in the screen adaptation of Cohn's story, became not simply the definitive '70s icon but also one of the most revealing and popular working-class heroes of the decade. Two critics described the white-suited disco king as a "high-powered fusion of sexuality, street jive, and the frustrated hope of a boy-man who can't articulate his sense of oppression." The film, they suggest, gives "the impression that it knows more about the working class psyche and ethos than it is willing to risk showing us." The classic cinematic theme of imprisonment or escape is pitch perfect, and the disco setting makes it emblematic of the seventies. The urgency and desperation of its themes make the movie more than a dance flick: Saturday Night Fever is both symptom and exploration of the most important breaking points in the nation's white, male, working-class identity.

The film begins with one of the great opening scenes in American cinema, featuring Travolta strutting confidently through Bay Ridge to the beat of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." He then works the customers at a hardware store with the same grace and ego that he later reveals on the dance floor of the renamed Club 2001. All of his spark and charm contrast markedly with the world of fixed values and social limits that constantly contain his expressive individuality. His slick salesmanship and confidence are interrupted only by the horrific realization that he could be stuck peddling paint for the rest of his life like his broken-down coworkers. Begging his boss for an advance so he can buy a new shirt for his true passion, the weekend festivities in the disco, Tony gets a lecture from his boss about not frittering away his money. "Fuck the future!" Tony angrily retorts. The boss fires back that no, "The future fucks you." It was a refrain heard often in the shrinking '70s, not the least significant of which was the chorus of the Sex Pistols' riot anthem of the same year, "God Save the Queen:" "No future, no future, no future for you."

The workplace is only a minor set in Fever's blue-collar teen drama, as the plot centers on Tony's attempt to conquer the discotheque, win over an upwardly mobile dancer, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), deal with his gang of futureless buddies, and, most importantly, find some sense of himself. Stephanie, the object of his affections, continually rebuffs him, explaining, "You're a cliche. You're nowhere on your way to no place." Tony's attempt at impromptu self-improvement quickens as he tries to fake his way through a conversation with someone who is, herself, trying to fake her way rather sadly across the river to upwardly mobile Manhattan. Before heading to the disco, Tony carefully prepares his look surrounded by posters of Bruce Lee, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Sylvester Stallone, inserting himself into the galaxy of stars by imagining himself as the Pacino of Bay Ridge. As Cohn originally wrote, "Whenever he gazed into the mirror, it was always Pacino who gazed back. A killer, and a star." Th e twinkling allure of fame is his hope. He and his friends, explained one critic, stuck with unemployed fathers, an economy in the dump, and a vacuum in national leadership, "are part of the post-Watergate working-class generation with no heroes except in TV-showbiz land; they have a historical span of twenty-three weeks, with repeats at Christmas."

Once Tony is finished preening (looking "as sharp as I can look without turning into a nigger"), the true action of the film happens on the dance floor. He bursts with the creativity and sense of self that he cannot find anywhere else in his life. Bathed in the immediacy of the backlit floor, Tony gets the attention and adulation missing in both his job and his home life as the crowd parts in celebration of his prowess. "The bodies, the drugs, the heat, the sense of nowness," explained one writer on the disco experience, "a sense that nothing existed outside of that room. No past, no future, no promises, no regrets, just right now and those strings from 'Love's Theme' cascading all over you and prickling your skin." Tony is no longer pretending to be Pacino; the working-class hero has become king.

The film turns as Tony's claustrophobia begins to build as the walls of ethnic and sexual violence close in on him. Enraged when the first-place trophy in the dance contest is given to him (like the judges, a fellow Italian) rather than the obviously better Puerto Rican couple, he turns over the trophy to the reviled ethnic newcomers and storms out of the club. With this act of betrayal -- choosing merit over ethnic loyalty -- he has begun a path toward individualism, mobility and independence, an escape from his shrinking and intolerant working-class world toward an expansive, even open-minded, new life. As he storms out of the dance contest, Tony harangues his partner Stephanie with a furious, primitive, Marxist sociology that explains gender, race and class in a few easy pieces: "My Pa goes to work, he gets dumped on. So he come home and dumps on my mother, right? Of course, right. And the spics gotta dump on us, so we gotta dump on the spics, right? Even the humpin' is dumpin' most of the time."