Books

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 andSerpico, 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."

Tony proceeds to prove his point about oppression rolling downhill, when, in a rage of frustration, he attempts to rape Stephanie. By the time an insane night of gang-banging and suicidal behavior is over, the drama concludes with a tightly wrapped, if largely improbable, plot resolution. Unable to contend with either dwindling economic opportunity or the dead-end racial, ethnic and gender hatreds around him, Tony chooses to sever all ties to his working-class community and create himself anew. "They're all assholes," he declares as he escapes the limits of Brooklyn after riding the subway all night, emerging in Manhattan in the early morning light.

When Tony resurfaces from his subterranean ride, bruised and battered from his inter-ethnic street warfare, he is all but reborn with a new day dawning in the upper-class world of Manhattan. Stephanie's apartment (borrowed from an older boss whom she seems to be sleeping with in the exchange) is a place where a Matisse print hangs on the wall, and jazz is in the air. The nation as a whole was asked to make a similar journey by the dawn of the 1980s, and like Tony and his new friend Stephanie, they had to fake it. The characters are sitting in a borrowed apartment -- literally inhabiting somebody else's world. In this new place, their identity as members of a class -- such a salient aspect of their lives just an endless train ride ago -- is on its sweat, the sunrises, and the throb of the music all conspired to create a heated way to being denied or covered up. Their old blue-collar community is relegated to some forgotten past to which neither they nor the viewer will return.

Tony and Stephanie are in the midst of a fantasy that they can remake themselves by changing their surroundings and abandoning their past. Even the violence of their sexual encounter melts into a new platonic relationship. Class is neither community nor culture nor occupation nor power but a mere affect that the select few, the chosen ones, can drop. A Matisse print, a borrowed apartment, and the ability to do the hustle are all that is needed.

The theme of relegating class to some distant geographic or temporal past is driven home by the Bee Gees' disco anthem "Stayin' Alive" from the film's immensely successful soundtrack. The song thumps through the opening scene of Tony strutting down the street, seemingly in control of his tiny world. "Music loud and women warm / I've been kicked around / Since I was born," they declare in their famous helium falsetto. "Life goin' nowhere. Somebody help me," they plea in the lower ranges with just a splash of social-realist pain.

But then comes the twist; rather than a call to act, the Bee Gees, like the film itself, offer permission to forget: "And now it's all right. It's OK. And you may look the other way" as Tony, Stephanie, and the audience turn their back on the unseemly race-class stew of Brooklyn, pointing their faces toward a future purged of the working class. Not to worry, this is a pain I can carry myself, the narrator of "Stayin' Alive" mutters beneath the pulse and the chorus. The megahit of 1977 allowed the nation to begin to move toward the 1980s celebration of working-class heroes who managed to get out, while casting those who could not into cinematic (and political) darkness.

Just as the song offered permission to cover up, to deny, and to forget -- and then rolled it all up in polyester and cast it under swirling lights -- so the discotheques themselves inhabited the former physical settings of the old industrial working class by inhabiting the buildings of a once mighty occupational past. "Despite its veneer of elegance and sophistication, disco was born, maggot-like, from the rotten remains of the Big Apple," explains the genre's otherwise sympathetic historian Peter Shapiro. As New York's manufacturing base evaporated into empty factories and bolted ware houses of New York City, discotheques moved into those abandoned locations, "recolonizing the dead industrial space, replacing the production of goods with the production of illusions. The economy was in tatters and people wanted to do what they did during the Great Depression -- dance."

The Depression analogy, alive through much of '70s pop, obfuscates important differences in the meaning of dance, cinema and politics in the '30s and the stagflation era. Like so many of the constant echoes and reverberations of the '30s and '40s in '70s popular culture, Tony's love affair with the Verrazano Narrows bridge, the frequency of trains in the film, the grit and violence, and the urban skyline that precedes Tony's famous Bay Ridge strut are suggestive of the social-realist motifs and iconography of a previous generation. In many ways, however, Fever's runaway individualism is the opposite of the notorious dance marathon contests of the '30s, as depicted most famously in Horace McCoy's novel They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1935). McCoy explored the collective dehumanization and degradation of the unemployed who dance for days and weeks for the entertainment of others -- a far cry from dancing as a showcase for individual stardom. Like the ever down-and-out but suave Fred Astaire, perhaps Tony's best Depression-era analogue, the '30s dancer, served a different function.

Astaire possessed a tuxedoed panache with a huckster's edge -- always demonstrating control of his social environment like Tony. Unlike Tony Manero, Astaire's characters were not "cliches going nowhere" but guides for common people to the world of the affluent. "One function of the song-and-dance man in the 1930s films," explains Joel Dinerstein, "was to resolve and mediate class differences in his role as well-dressed entertainer." As much as Astaire's performances served to keep society together, Manero functions as the opposite. He is neither a go-between nor a class interpreter; he is an escape artist.

As much as curmudgeonly Archie Bunker was the definitive character of the first half of the '70s, doomed to be on the losing side of history, Tony Manero served that role for the second half by battling his way toward the winning side of history. He showed that, for the able, "working-class" may be something that could simply be rejected like any other style choice in the world of self-constructed identities, and that the cost was merely severing all connections to the past. And not only could it be rejected but, if possible, it should. "These are not nice people for the most part," admitted a perceptive film critic about the characters of Bay Ridge, "but they are alive and striving -- it is a mistake to ignore them or, maybe worse, pretend that their lives have no meaning."

As Tom Wolfe proclaimed, the decade belonged to those who did pretend, those willing to ignore, and those who found meaning in "remaking, remodeling, elevating and polishing one's very self." For those with the resources or the talents, the malleability of the '70s self might have been liberating. For others, however, the Maneroesque fantasy was simply mean. And, we might recall, a deception from the very start.

Copyright © 2010 by Jefferson Cowie.  This excerpt originally appeared in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Jefferson Cowie is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, and 'Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor' (The New Press), which received the Philip Taft Prize for the Best Book in Labor History for 2000.
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