That '70s Book
Rolling Stone: The '70's is a beautiful book: A silvery cover with '70s-style block type adorns the outside; striking, vivid photos fill its pages. But get around to reading some of the essays, and you'll find that in a way, this book is like the decade it defines: shimmery and vacant outside but turbulent and conflicted within.
Rolling Stone editors have compiled more than 50 essays, divided by year, that define the 1970s, and their vision of that decade is less "That '70s Show" than "Boogie Nights." They have eschewed pop-culture fluff nostalgia -- no "Charlie's Angels" or the Hustle here -- in favor of a more in-depth analysis of the times. Of course, there are essays here about television and music, but they are about shows and bands with broad cultural impact that somehow changed what came afterward ("All in the Family," Led Zeppelin).
While reading these essays, one forgets the frills of the decade -- lava lamps, bell-bottoms, and oversize Afros -- and remembers the overriding feeling of disillusionment that pervaded those years. If the '60s were the decade of idealism, the '70s were the last crying gasp of a culture falling into cynicism (the '80s) and irony (the '90s). And if the cynicism of the '80s was brought on by the crushing events of the decade before, these essays will remind you why.
There is George McGovern crying over a tape of a Vietnam vet. There is Karen Ann Quinlan, hooked up to life support, curled into a fetal position she will never get out of. There is Karen Silkwood, poisoned by radiation and off to a clandestine meeting with a New York Times reporter in her tiny, vulnerable Honda Civic. There are the last diplomats and journalists filing onto rooftops in Saigon and helicoptering out before the fall. There are the dead at Jonestown. There is young Patty Hearst hoisting her machine gun. These are all brought to life for us by vivid, precise writing, often by reporters and writers who were there. (There are a small scattering of first-person accounts written by celebrities -- Chrissie Hynde on the Kent State shootings, Jerry Springer on the Who stampede in Cincinnati -- but not so many as to detract from the overall quality of the book.) It is chilling to read the account, by journalist Laura Palmer, of the exodus from Vietnam -- how she piled up hotel-room furniture when she went to bed at night, in case there was gunfire through the walls as she waited for Saigon to be taken by the North Vietnamese and for the final, urgent call to leave. But so many of these pieces have that same immediacy simply by virtue of their writers having been there: Journalist Tim Cahill writes of the shock, arriving in Jonestown, Guyana, of seeing all the bodies -- hundreds of them laid out before him -- of the horrible stench, and of the lost look of the few survivors walking between them. Nik Cohn writes about the first time he went to 2001 Odyssey, a disco in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and saw the figure who would later become Tony Manero in the New York magazine articles that inspired "Saturday Night Fever." Mikal Gilmore writes of his brother Gary's execution in Utah.
The visual images here are stunning as well. There are the familiar (the picture of Karen Ann Quinlan that came to represent so much: lost youth and innocence, the drug culture gone awry, the battle for dignity in death) and the less familiar (the photo of a perfectly coiffed, made-up woman with a sad expression picketing on the street with a sign that says, "Women and Typewriters Are Not Inseparable"), but they all illustrate their stories well, adding to the shock or the pathos (look at that Loud family all lined up, not knowing what was to come). Unfortunately, although there is a list of contributing photographers, the photos go uncredited.
There is also a timeline running along the margin of the left-hand pages that tells the reader, day-by-day and month-by-month, what was going on during these years ("October 16, 1973, Legendary drummer Gene Krupa dies"; "May 12 1975, Fans at a free Jefferson Starship concert cause $14,000 worth of damage to New York City's Central Park"). These fill in nicely the space between the larger headlines.
There is a sense in our cultural life today that we will never again experience the mix of hope and despair that we did during the decade of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War. In reading these essays, one gets the feeling that everything that started in the '60s came to fruition in the '70s, and that there wasn't always a happy ending. But for every disillusionment there was a freedom gained: The women's movement, the gay-rights movement, and the right to legal abortions were all advanced during the '70s. This is not your father's coffee-table book, glossy and vapid. Reading it will sober and thrill at the same time.
Gail Jaitin is a writer living in New Jersey.